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Alpine Bhutan Travel
Post Box 1382
Thimphu Bhutan

tel. +975 1761 2210
fax. +975 2 334911
alpinebhutan@yahoo.com
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The Kingdom of the Divine


Bhutan has everything except sublime luxury. A high-end travel company plans to change that—but is its arrival a blessing or a curse?

 

ASIM 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. "

—ADRIAN 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 Zecha.

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 Bhutan's behalf?

"There will be no bungee jumping in Bhutan. We want people to see us as we are."

—LHATU 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 efforts.

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.

 

 

 

   

 

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