Kingdom of the Divine
has everything except sublime luxury. A high-end travel company
plans to change that—but is its arrival a blessing or a curse?
RAFIQUI—SIPA PRESS FOR TIME
THE STAGE IS SET: Aman's
arrival in Bhutan introduces pampered travelers to
the country's lush beauty
Isn't Bhutan wonderful?" Asks Adrian Zecha as he finishes a
breakfast glass of fresh orange juice. Sitting in an exquisitely
appointed dining room of Amankora, the newest addition to his empire
of ultraexclusive, stratospherically expensive resorts, Zecha
gestures to the window. Outside, on a nearby bluff, are the mighty
ruins of Drukgyel Dzong, a monastery and fortress built in 1649 to
celebrate one of this Himalayan nation's greatest military victories
over nearby Tibet. And beyond that is the snowy, granite face of
Jhomolhari, the country's most revered peak, visible intermittently
between ribbons of clouds. It is a majestic sight, the kind that
inspires contemplation about life, permanence and the existence of
things great and holy.
Zecha readies a Juan Lopez Cuban cigar for the lighting and asks,
"Do you mind if I smoke?" Reading the
"Isn't-it-a-little-early?" look on his guest's face, Zecha
says, "The first cigar of the day is the best one. It is my
last vice left. I tell my wife, 'I don't chase beautiful women
anymore, I just chase beautiful sites.'"
"There is no doubt that our mere presence has a
significant social impact.
ZECHA, Aman's founder
Bhutan is indeed beautiful—spectacularly so. But in most other
ways, deciding to build here is a departure for Zecha. His Aman
resorts are best known as tropical havens of lotus-eating luxury,
pleasure domes of extreme relaxation. In Bhutan, with its remote,
landlocked setting, rugged terrain and harsh climate, the living is
rarely easy, the infrastructure is minimal, and basic goods and
services can be difficult to find.
But that didn't deter Zecha from lobbying for 13 years for Aman
to set up shop in the Land of the Thunder Dragon, and now it's the
first foreign hotel company to do so. "This is one of the least
globalized countries in the world," he says. "Something
like 75% of the land is still covered in forest. And its traditional
culture is intact; it is a truly unique destination."
In this way, Bhutan is an embodiment of a completely different,
though no less potent, vision of Eden than, say, Bali, Phuket and
Bora Bora, where Amans are more typically found. A mysterious and
still mystical realm—where long-ago legends of monk-wizards,
flying tigers and demons straddling entire mountain ranges are
accepted as historical fact—Bhutan is among the world's last
untouched corners. Fantastical Buddhist temples and medieval castles
cleave to its misty valleys, and the people—attired in the
country's unique, brightly colored native dress or the burgundy
robes of monkhood—appear as if they have stepped out of another
age. By building a series of high-end resorts at some of the most
beautiful or culturally significant sites throughout the country,
Zecha is, in effect, attempting to bring a bit of Bali Hai to
Bhutan. With only one of Zecha's six planned Bhutan properties open
so far, however, no one is sure how this radical experiment in
travel fantasy will turn out. But one thing is certain: paradise
will never be the same.
THE AMAN MYSTIQUE
Wearing a simple white dress shirt open at the neck and lightweight
gray trousers, the 71-year-old Zecha, scion of an Indonesian
tea-and-rubber family, carries himself with a dashing, carefully
composed informality that seems second nature to international
arbiters of style. A former journalist, publishing mogul and ski
bum, he took a circuitous route to the hotel business. In 1988, at
the age of 54, he opened his first Aman, Amapuri in Phuket, and
single-handedly created a new category of travel. The concept—a
superexclusive boutique resort that eschews ostentation in favor of
intimate luxury and discreet elegance—seems obvious in retrospect,
but it was, at the time, a revelation. Now an empire of 15 resorts
(all but one of them with fewer than 40 rooms), Amans have become a
kind of religion among veteran travelers who value privacy and style
above value: rooms typically run $600 to $800 a night but can easily
top $2,000 for villas with their own pools. Though each Aman is
unique, with a wide variety of settings and radically different
architecture, the atmosphere, the "Aman-ness" of every
property, is always unmistakable.
The Amankora near the town of Paro, Zecha's first completed
property in Bhutan, is a perfect embodiment of this Aman essence.
The first thing you notice upon arriving is that there is no
registration desk. Instead, you are met in a courtyard at the end of
a winding walkway strewn with pine needles by a receiving line of
staff who welcome you with what feels like delighted sincerity.
While your bags are quietly spirited to your room, someone runs to
fetch your drink of choice and someone else leads you to a comfy
chair in a living room with a spectacular view. As you chat about
the weather, your plane ride and the things that you'd like to do in
Bhutan (information that will be used by the staff to craft eerily
on-target suggestions for outings and activities for the remainder
of your trip—"Hiking? Archery? Fishing?"), you are
discreetly handed a small registration sheet, already filled out,
which will be the last thing you sign until you leave.
"Yes, yes," Zecha nods. "Those things are not
accidents." Guests should feel, he says, as if they are
entering a friend's home or their own vacation home.
Much of what makes Amans distinctive is how studiously they avoid
most of the signifiers the rest of the hospitality industry employs
to trumpet their properties as "high class." The guest
rooms at most Amans have no television, let alone on-demand movies
or high-speed Internet access. There is almost no signage directing
guests to the pool, the restaurant or the spa. The gift shops carry
no logo-branded T shirts or beach towels. There are virtually no
logos anywhere, except on matchbook covers and stationary. And there
are certainly no single-serving plastic bottles of soap, shampoo and
hair conditioner in the shower. Zecha literally shudders at the
thought. "So tacky," he declares. At Amans, there are
full-sized bars of soap, and bath gel, conditioner and moisturizer
are put into refillable ceramic or glass vessels.
As with any property, space is the ultimate luxury, so Aman guest
rooms are almost obscenely large—50 square meters is the
minimum—with plenty of sunlight and unobstructed views. The beds
are oversized, and the pillows and sheets are of the highest
quality, but almost nothing is a name brand. Building materials are
muted, natural and tend to be locally sourced. Here in Bhutan,
Australia-born, Singapore-based architect Kerry Hill used
compacted-earth walls and corrugated-tin roofs in his designs.
"Gold taps and marble floors just don't make much sense for
us," he says.
Although the guest rooms are large, the Aman public spaces and
dining rooms tend to be far smaller, aiming for a cozy and intimate
feel, with fireplaces, armchairs, libraries, board games and
communal tables. Service also emphasizes the feeling that you are
staying at someone's home (admittedly, someone who is very, very
rich). The staff is almost entirely local, and typically outnumbers
guests 4 to 1. They are professional without being stiff, ever
present without being overbearing and so friendly it's almost
suspicious. They will happily chat with you about their own
families, their jobs, places they have traveled themselves.
This formula has made Aman a word that can bring a hushed
awe to cocktail parties, and the company placed No. 1 in the 2004
Zagat Survey of Top International Hotels, Resorts and Spas, beating
out such giants as the Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental and
Ritz-Carlton. "We have more than 100,000 repeat
customers," says Zecha. "Now, this is a company with less
than 540 rooms—total. Many chains have more rooms in a single
hotel. We call the repeat customers Amanjunkies." After a
pause, he adds: "I should say that the customers call
themselves this as well. It's an honorable word."
Despite Aman's genius at tapping into—and apparently
brainwashing—a previously unfulfilled market, the company has been
cursed, to a degree, by its own success. After Zecha's first
properties opened in tropical getaway havens like Phuket and Bali,
it didn't take long for a host of competitors to move in. High-end,
stand-alone cottages—complete, of course, with en-suite infinity
pools that overlook the ocean—are now de rigueur throughout
Southeast Asia. "There are a lot of Amanwannabes," says
To stay one step ahead of the voracious demands of travelers,
Aman has in recent years been shifting its offerings. New resorts
tend to offer not just the guarantee of sumptuous relaxation but the
promise of experiences that can't be reproduced. "Bali, Phuket,
Bora Bora—these are places of ultimate pleasure," says Zecha.
"But Aman-I-Khas is a tented camp in the middle of the
Ranthambhore Forest in India. The only reason for going there is if
you love wild animals."
In other words, Aman started out selling destinations but is
increasingly selling journeys. And, in that vein, expansion into
Bhutan, one of the world's most isolated countries, is Aman's
boldest gambit yet in the contest to provide the ultrarich with
extreme exoticism—without ever sacrificing luxury.
THE BHUTAN CHALLENGE
From government ministers to rice farmers, every Bhutanese you speak
with will declare that his country is in constant, imminent peril.
And considering that Bhutan's neighbors China and India have
absorbed the once sovereign states of Tibet and Sikkim over the past
half century to leave Bhutan as the world's sole remaining Himalayan
Buddhist kingdom, such fears may not be paranoid. After taking the
throne in 1974, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck instituted a number of
policies designed to preserve the country's political independence
and cultural identity. While making education a priority, he
restricted corrupting influences like television (which was
introduced only in 1999) and required citizens to wear the nation's
traditional kimono-like garb.
Looking with horror at the many negative social, cultural and
environmental effects that virtually unrestricted tourism was having
on nearby Nepal and other developing countries, the government
instituted a "low-volume, high-value" tourist policy in
the 1970s that continues to this day. The only way to visit Bhutan
is on a package deal that includes hotels, food, guide and driver.
The packages cost a minimum of $200 a day. Although this is arguably
not bad value, considering everything that comes with it, the policy
succeeds in keeping the backpacking hordes confined to places like
India, Nepal and Thailand; only 7,000 tourists fly into Bhutan's one
airport—which is serviced by just two planes—every year.
Bhutan is thus a place where travel still feels like an
adventure, where the illusion of true exploration is occasionally
still believable. Go to Bhutan, and you may well find yourself
driving for hours along terrifying, winding mountain passes and then
climbing to a monastery perched on a cliff that seems to defy all
laws of physics. If you are lucky, you may be granted permission to
enter the primary temple in the center of the courtyard. Stepping
over the high threshold and into the inner sanctuary, you can barely
see, because the room is dark and the air is thick with a mixture of
butter-lamp smoke and cypress incense. But slowly, brilliant murals
reveal themselves, and an elaborate altar backed by a pantheon of
finely detailed gold and bronze buddhas, bodhisattvas and saints
seems almost to glow. The air is humming with the sound of monks
reciting their sutras. There is no one else here but you and them,
and for a split second, it is possible to feel that you are the
first non-Bhutanese who has ever seen such a sight.
That feeling, of course, is solid travel-industry gold. And Aman
is set to capitalize on the fact that until now, even at $200 a day,
no accommodations in Bhutan could be considered international
quality. At the country's very best hotels, the showers will
probably be hot, the toilets will probably flush and the electricity
will probably work. But go one notch down, and even those bets are
off. And no matter where you stay, the linens may feel better suited
to carrying potatoes than to sleeping. "We have been hearing
from a lot of people, future customers, who have been telling us,
'We have been waiting for someone like you to come to Bhutan before
we visit,'" says John Reed, Amankora's general manager.
But few in the Aman organization realized how difficult bringing
luxury accommodations to the country was going to be. Aman began
building in early 2002, yet only one of the six properties is
functional. Zecha says he is hopeful that the others will all be
ready by next spring, but he also says that every time he draws up a
new building schedule, it proves to be fiction within a month.
"This is the most difficult Aman project I've worked on,"
says architect Hill, who has designed three of them.
Virtually everything but the timber, stone and sand has to be
imported, usually by truck. Monsoons in the summer and snows in the
winter frequently shut down the nation's sole highway. "It's a
daily occurrence that shipments come in incomplete, damaged or just
incorrectly filled," says Hill. "Every lightbulb is a
challenge." Lumber is scarce, not just because the industry is
strictly regulated but also because there are only two
lumber-seasoning kilns in the entire country. At one Aman site, in
the breathtaking Phobjikha Valley, there is no electricity, no phone
lines and no cell-phone coverage. Every time he needs advice from
the head office, site manager Ziwan Chetri has to drive an hour to
the nearest phone.
But many of the problems are even more fundamental. Bhutan has,
effectively, no native construction industry, so bricklayers,
carpenters and electricians need to be imported, mostly from India.
Achieving the standard of craftsmanship that Amanjunkies expect,
says Hill, has proven very difficult. With long lists of
construction defects to correct, he's begun to wonder whether it's
even worth addressing them all: "If, at the end of the day, two
pieces of timber don't match, so what? Perhaps it's what you might
expect in an out-of-the-way place. We are not cutting corners, but
it is a value judgment we are currently making. Perhaps,
philosophically, we shouldn't try to make it too perfect."
Food will be a problem, too. "To prepare for shortages of
meat, which are still fairly common here, we will be making our own
sausages and curing our own hams and bacons," says Reed.
"Every once in a while, we will go down to the market and buy a
yak and butcher it ourselves." He laughs. "This is
something Amans have not typically done before."
THE CULTURE CLASH
An oversimplified interpretation of the Heisenberg uncertainty
principle holds that by observing a physical phenomenon, you have
irrevocably altered it. By the same token, we can identify the
travel corollary of the Heisenberg principle, which states: simply
by visiting a foreign land, you have unavoidably changed it. If the
country is particularly remote and unsullied, are you helping to
destroy precisely what drew you there in the first place? Such
questions comprise the subtext of many discussions about Aman's
arrival in Bhutan. Should Bhutan fear Aman? Should we fear Aman on
"There will be no bungee jumping in Bhutan. We want
people to see us as we are."
WANGCHUK, Director general of tourism
"There is no doubt that our mere presence has a significant
social impact," says Zecha. "And with that comes
tremendous responsibilities." He acknowledges that even the
conventional rationalizations—that foreign companies provide jobs,
for example—are problematic, because the high-paying jobs they
provide create communities with haves and have-nots where everyone
was once equal. Aman executives say some of the best impact the
company can have is to effect positive changes in areas such as
construction technology and hospitality standards, while keeping its
environmental footprint as small as possible—for example, by
treating their own water, generating some of their own electricity,
recycling their own waste and helping with local reforestation
Government officials, meanwhile, note that Aman's six resorts will
boast a total of only 80 rooms, so it's not like a tidal wave of
humanity will be added to the 7,000 foreigners already arriving
annually. And they see little outrage in the fact that Aman
customers are not just wealthy but paying more per night than the
$700 the average Bhutanese makes per year. "With the $200
minimum," says Lhatu Wangchuk, director general of Bhutan's
Department of Tourism, "all of the foreigners Bhutanese people
see, they already see as incredibly rich. So I don't think even a
factor of five matters too much."
But there is a smaller and admittedly more subtle objection to
the Aman way. Bhutan has so far succeeded in managing its travel
industry in a manner that balances revenue generation with the
preservation of its own culture. And it has done so proudly.
"We will not create an attraction that is not in keeping with
Bhutanese history and culture," says Wangchuk. "There will
be no bungee jumping in Bhutan, for example. That is not us. We want
people to see us as we are."
That is a noble priority. But some worry that the kind of
travelers who refused to visit the country until Aman made it
sufficiently luxurious may prove to be a new and potentially
regrettable variety of foreigner. Until now, Bhutan has appealed to
an undeniably wealthy but still up-for-anything crowd that could
adapt to a lack of minor modern conveniences and basic amenities.
But the social prejudices of someone who doesn't feel safe in a new
location until Aman clears the path could present a fresh challenge.
The superclass of travelers that will soon start showing up may be
willing to "see the Bhutanese as they are," as Wangchuk
puts it, but they are not willing, even for a night, to live like
them. It is a distinction that has given pause to Kuensel,
the nation's weekly newspaper. In an editorial, the paper wondered
if the country hadn't hit a threshold at which, for the first time,
the visitors' "personal comfort will probably be more of
interest than our culture or environment." Get ready, Bhutan,
for the Amanjunkies.