TRAVELING TO BHUTAN HAS NEVER BEEN EASIER — OR MORE LUXURIOUS

Hidden deep within the highest mountain range on earth, few countries excite the imagination like Bhutan. Cut off for centuries before opening its borders to tourists 50 years ago, the final remaining Vajrayana (Tantric) Buddhist kingdom — sometimes referred to as the Last Shangri-La — nevertheless remains enigmatic. The only country without a single traffic light, Bhutan resists the globalization people have come to expect in an increasingly connected world. Oh, and don’t expect to see a single McDonald’s, Apple Store, or H&M, either. TV only arrived in 1999, after all.

What you will find in the Land of the Thunder Dragon: Five ultra-luxe Aman lodges along Bhutan’s main tourism circuit of lush valleys — the original of which, Amankora Paro, became the country’s first international hotel back in 2004 and was quickly followed by other aspirational brands, including COMO, Six Senses, and &Beyond. Today, the tiny nation — which is roughly the size of West Virginia with an estimated population of less than 800,000 people — offers a choice of more than 20 top resorts.

Bhutan’s influx of five-star-plus properties isn’t about a blind obsession with luxury or sheets that boast a thread count higher than the Himalayas. Rather, it’s part of a strategic “high value, low volume” tourism policy that’s been in place since welcoming travelers in 1974. One of the world’s few carbon negative countries, Bhutan carefully monitors visitor numbers and implements other thoughtful policies to protect its culture, infrastructure, and precious natural resources, while ensuring that travelers enjoy an authentic experience. Because of this, Bhutan has earned a reputation as an exclusive bucket list destination that promises gourmet farm-to-table cooking, meditative temples, and world-class hiking. And yes, a lot of Amans.

While Bhutan holds true to its sustainable values, it just became easier to travel there. Americans no longer have to prebook entire itineraries with a minimum daily spend in order to get a visa (although traveling with a guide is highly recommended), and the mandatory tourism tax (which offsets visitors’ carbon footprint and contributes to Bhutan's Sustainable Development Fund) was slashed by 50% to $100 per person per night until 2027.

Planning a trip to Bhutan? These are our favorite places to stay, eat, and explore, from the iconic Tiger's Nest Monastery (Paro Taktsang) to the enchanting Gangtey Valley.

Where To Stay

Bhutan has five main stops across its central and western valleys where people tend to travel: Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, Gangtey, and Bumthang. Mix and match your hotels, or stick with a brand like Amankora, which has a resort in each destination. Much like an African safari, Bhutan’s luxury lodges are the heartbeat of any journey through this remote Buddhist kingdom. They help arrange many of your activities, from river rafting to meditation sessions, cook up some of the best food in the country, and are where you’ll inevitably book lots of massages after a day of hiking. (Bhutan ranks as the world’s most mountainous country with peaks towering over 98.8% of its terrain). Here are three of the best.

COMO Uma Paro: Located in the former home of a Bhutanese nobleman, it makes sense that COMO Uma Paro’s award-winning restaurant, Bukhari, would be a favorite of the glamorous Royal Family. Dine on local and international dishes made with farm-fresh produce like honeycomb butter, Bumthang gouda cheese, and hand-ground buckwheat. Splurge on one of the spacious, free-standing villas that come with butler service and a panoramic view of Paro. COMO’s Shambala wellness program lives up to its stellar reputation here, with complimentary archery (Bhutan’s national sport) and group yoga, an indoor pool, and mind-meltingly good massages.

Gangtey Lodge: Spend a week in Bhutan and you’ll quickly realize that there’s nothing more satisfying than a classic Bhutanese hot stone bath. Gangtey Lodge, perched over the pristine nature reserve of Phobjikha valley, offers one of the most opulent in the country, set up in a private bathhouse with foraged herbs and boulders collected from a nearby river. Ancient wisdom dictates that the herbs, heat from the water, and the minerals released from the rocks provide an array of medicinal benefits. The lodge’s cozy suites, inspired by a Bhutanese farmhouse, are equally relaxing, with heated stone floors, fireplaces, and sweeping views of the valley below.

Amankora Thimphu: Built in the style of a dzong fortress, Amankora Thimphu lies within easy reach of the capital’s shops and sights, yet feels a world away in its blissful Himalayan perch. Its list of available activities — from a private lecture with a Buddhist monk to a professional performance of Bhutan’s most beloved festival dances to a reading at the monastic astrology school — is just as exclusive. Dinner, which includes an option of a gourmet Bhutanese tasting menu, is served to soothing traditional live music. Rooms, equipped with wood-burning stoves and banquette window-seats for gazing out at the forest, are authentic, while staying true to Aman’s famously minimalist aesthetic.

What To Do

Bhutan maintains over 71% of its land under forest cover, making this mountainous region paradise for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. Trek along the Trans Bhutan Trail, used by pilgrims, messengers, armies, and traders for hundreds of years, and explore the country’s many stunning, UNESCO-listed national parks, including Jigme Dorji, Royal Manas, and Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary. Within these pristine reserves, Bhutan has set aside a critical shelter for red pandas, musk deer, snow leopards, and more. While it’s rare to see one of these shy species, Bhutan is quickly becoming one of Asia’s top birding destinations thanks to its incredible biodiversity. Himalayan Foothills Travel, a local agency, can equip you with an expert guide and birder.

Your reward at the end of many hikes: Bhutan’s beautiful — and meaningful — Buddhist monasteries. The country’s most famous, Tiger’s Nest, sits precariously 3,000 meters above the Paro valley. Fortunately for those who are less vertically inclined, Bhutan offers plenty of other soulful retreats. Don’t miss Cheri Monastery, established in 1620 by the founder of the Bhutanese state. Kyichu Lhakhang, a temple supposedly built to halt an ogre from preventing the spread of Buddhism across Tibet, is even older, dating back to the 7th century. Spin a prayer wheel, listen to the monks’ soothing chants, and connect with a deeper part of yourself.

If you’d like to immerse yourself more in Buddhism, consider arranging a cleansing, lecture, or meditation session. As a neighbor of Gangtey Shedra (Buddhist College), Gangtey Lodge caters especially well to its guests who are interested in spiritual experiences.

Be sure to leave plenty of time to explore the other elements of Bhutanese culture during your trip. Catch an archery competition at Changlimithang Stadium in Thimphu. Visit The Royal Textile Academy of Bhutan to admire intricate dyeing methods and the fabric’s rich color. And if the timing’s right, attend one of Bhutan’s 163 beloved festivals, known for their vibrant dress, music, and joyful dancing.

Where To Eat & Drink

Because luxury lodges are typically all-inclusive, you’re likely to eat most meals at your hotel. These menus generally include Bhutanese cuisine, as well as a selection of international dishes. Hot tip: If you get tired of all the spice — Bhutanese food is very hot — go for Indian, which is very popular thanks to Bhutan’s Indian population and tourists. Here are a few of the best restaurants to try when you’re out on the town.

Phangu: For a taste of authentic Bhutan, head to Phangu in the capital of Thimphu. After a cocktail at the chic bar upfront, take a seat in one of the beautifully designed dining rooms, themed according to the Bhutanese traditions of masks, prayer flags, and murals. Fill up on favorites like dried pork ribs, ema datshi (chili peppers and cheese), and fragrant red rice.

Momo Corner: A local secret, this quaint momo (dumpling) restaurant lies off the main tourist path in Paro. Go nuts here and fill up on some of Bhutan’s best beef, cheese, and potato momo. You can order them fried, steamed, or best of all, in jhol — a mildly spicy broth.

Your Cafe: Bhutanese food is meat-heavy, so this farm-to-table vegetarian cafe, which helps fund the Neyphug Monastery in Paro, offers something a little different. The menu is full of playful takes on Bhutanese, Indian, and Asian fusion dishes, like aloo paratha pizza, Bhutanese fried rice, and ema datshi dumplings.

2024-06-05T12:47:19Z dg43tfdfdgfd