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Thursday, August 18, 2022

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In a changing world, Bhutan remains the same

Bhutanese Bhuddist prayer flags are seen on a foot-bridge. Picture: AP

Bhutanese Bhuddist prayer flags are seen on a foot-bridge. Picture: AP

Published Jul 18, 2022

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In a changing world, visitors to Bhutan will discover that much remains unchanged.

On September 23, 2022, the sole remaining Himalayan Buddhist Kingdom will reopen its borders to international travel.

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The same cobalt skies, vibrant smiles, and timeless sense of tranquillity can be found here, where everyday life is defined by the pursuit of peace, and nature is as revered as happiness.

Bhutan has been retreating into the mists of its Himalayan eyrie for over two years to ensure the well-being of its people.

The Kingdom is now ready to emerge, like a gilded peak after the storm clouds have passed, with an ever rarer and more awe-inspiring cultural safari, allowing Amankora to once again offer unparalleled journeys of discovery through this mystical land in its five lodge.

Amankora's gateway lodges, each of which is a distinct expression of its surroundings, is as warm as ever.

It has been honoured to be Bhutan's first and most trusted international travel partner since the Kingdom's opening to the outside world and has participated in every effort to uplift and rebuild during this unprecedented time, waiting for the day when each lodge can once again offer travellers a meaningful personal 'kora' - a circular journey - across the country's spectacular central and western valleys.

Amankora, Bhutan

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Aman was privileged to mark its entry into the Kingdom with the opening of AmankoraParo in 2004, giving it nearly two decades of unparalleled insight and knowledge of Bhutan. As the Kingdom reopens, there is no one more soulfully connected to the Land of the Thunder Dragon to ensure a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage.

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Amankora's lodges in the valleys of Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, Gangtey, and Bumthang will welcome their first guests since March 2020.

The Kingdom chose this auspicious day with the same thought that it has invested in renewing its focus on sustainability. It marks the end of the monsoon season and is a celebration of the rain, which is regarded as sanctifying and holy, that has cleansed the earth and humanity.

This day will also mark a new dawn for Bhutan's vision of a better future, with symbolism resonating far beyond the borders of this mountain kingdom.

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International visitors to Bhutan will now pay a daily Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) of $200 (about R3 400) to the Kingdom's fund, which was established in 1991 at a cost of $65, to help finance Bhutan's Low Volume, High-Value tourism concept.

The new rate, the first increase in 30 years, reflects the Kingdom's determination to preserve its pristine natural beauty and wildlife, as well as its carbon-negative status and rich culture.

Bhutan is home to hundreds of ancient sites, centuries-old monasteries, historic fortresses, and entire communities untouched by modernity, and the revised SDF will ensure their preservation.

The increase will also benefit two pillars of the Kingdom's illustrious Gross National Happiness index: universal free healthcare (for citizens and visitors alike) and accessible, high-quality education.

The seven- to 13-day Amankora Journey, distilled over nearly 20 years, now offers guests the most comprehensive and soul-stirring experience of the Kingdom. It allows you to visit all five of Amankora's lodges, revealing not only Bhutan's most beautiful and iconic sights but also the spirit of its people and culture.

It is a bespoke adventure tailored to personal interests and preferences, drawing heavily on Aman's intuitive understanding of the country and providing the only way to seamlessly experience three to five different valleys in seven or more nights.

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The seven-day Amankora Journey includes transfers, daily excursions with a private car, driver, and guide, all monument passes and road permits, and a 60-minute holistic massage per person, in addition to all meals, picnics, and in-house beverages.

Those staying for 10 nights or more can also enjoy a traditional herb-infused hot stone bath from the comfort of a candle-lit potato shed with dramatic views of the Phobjikha Valley at Amankora Gangtey.

Large river stones are heated by fire and placed in the wooden bathtub, releasing minerals before guests immerse themselves in the healing water. The Ultimate Amankora Journey crams a lifetime of experiences into 13 days and includes one free night in addition to the domestic flight from Bumthang to Paro.

Even though Bhutan may appear remote, it is possible to visit this Himalayan paradise when time is limited. The three-night Tiger's Odyssey journey from Amankora is the ideal introduction to Bhutan, providing a satisfying, all-around experience of its cultural and natural attractions.

Guests staying at Amankora Paro can bike through the verdant rice paddies and idyllic farmhouses of Paro Valley, explore the dramatic ruins of the 17th-century Drukyel Dzong and one of the Kingdom's oldest temples, Kyichu Lhakhang, stroll through quaint Paro town sampling momos (local dumplings) and freshly brewed beer, and marvel at the historic treasures of the National Museum.

The days begin with open-air yoga in the fresh pine-scented air, followed by picnics and a farmhouse lunch prepared by a former royal family cook.

No trip to Bhutan is complete without a visit to the famous Tiger's Nest, which is the name of this journey. The temple complex, perched on a cliffside with breathtaking views, was first built in 1692 around the Taktsang SengeSamdup cave, where a revered Guru is said to have meditated in the 8th century.

Guests can follow the hike and personalised tour with a barbecue lunch and a well-deserved spa treatment on the final day.

The spa at the lodge has a glass-walled sauna, serene treatment rooms with hot stone baths, and a peaceful yoga and meditation room that overlooks the forest and herb garden.

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