On a recent trip to Bhutan I stayed at Amankora, Aman’s ultra-luxury resort series nestled in Bhutan’s six major valleys. John Reed, Amankora GM, built these properties when no other luxury hotels existed in Bhutan. He shared with me stories from his fascinating journey:
How It All Began
MZ: I know the Amankora brought you to Bhutan, but why did you decide to take this project?
JR: I was so intrigued with Bhutan during my first visit in September 2001, the trip I made with my wife to decide if we wanted to give up our idyllic life in Bali (I was at that time the GM of Amandari) to move to Bhutan. I was taken with the warm, benevolent people, their kindness and confidence, the natural, pristine richness of the landscape, the religion and history.
By chance, we were on that trip over 9/11. On the day of the 11th we were traveling between Bumthang and Thimphu, and by the time we reached Thimphu late in the evening, the rest of the world was falling apart. We did not have a TV where we were staying and were being updated by phone by one of our local partners.
The following morning we made it to a local hotel and stayed glued to CNN, until I received a call from an American woman whom I had met on my flight into Bhutan. She told us the King was hosting a special ceremony for any Americans who were in country that day. My wife and I made our way to the dzong in our best travel clothes and joined a small group of 12 Americans.
We were led to the central prayer hall of the dzong and up a set of stairs, and as we entered the prayer hall, the voice of the Chief of Protocol quietly announced, ‘Your Majesty, Mr and Mrs Reed of Aman Resorts’ to which His Majesty the King extended his hand and offered condolences for the tragedy in NYC and Washington DC.
We proceeded into the room to find Their Majesties the Queen Mothers, other members of the royal family, and the cabinet of ministers, along with about 30 monks. The monks began to chant and pray, and we were asked to approach a bank of 1000 butter lamps and light them. There we stood, side by side with the King and Queen Mothers and other dignitaries, lighting the lamps, a symbol of guiding light for the souls that had been lost.
We then returned to our seats, the monks finished their prayers and then the King and Queen Mothers came to us individually, embraced us, as tears streamed down their cheeks. They asked if we had lost any loved ones and had we been in touch with our families. There I was, in such a foreign land, being embraced with such love and care, while I had no idea how my family was faring back in the US, no news of friends in NYC or elsewhere. I was beyond touched and moved.
My wife and I had agreed on our flight into Bhutan that we would not discuss or make a decision on moving there until we were on our flight back. But as we left the altar room in the dzong and descended the stairs, my wife paused for a moment and looked back at me, and I just said, ‘Yes. We will be moving here.’
Daily Life in Bhutan
MZ: How do you spend your time in Bhutan?
JR: The lodges do keep me quite busy. I also do lots of hiking with my dogs (I have 3 with a new batch of 6 mastiff puppies) and go mountain biking. Beyond that, socializing with my close group of Bhutanese friends.
MZ: Do you speak Bhutanese?
JR: No. Actually, there’s no real need as English is so widely spoken and is generally the working language in most offices, government agencies, and banks and is also the language of education in schools.
MZ: After moving to Bhutan, do you ever feel isolated from the rest of the world?
JR: At times, yes, but I have to say, the Bhutanese are quite worldly in their thinking. Many having been educated overseas, with higher education in Europe, North America or Australia. And you find that many Bhutanese in the cities stay on top of world events.
Building And Managing The Amankora
MZ: It must not have been easy building a luxury property in Bhutan, particularly when you are the pioneer in this field. How did you choose the site? And what was the concept behind it all?
JR: Our architects and development team looked for sites that were private, yet offered great views, ambience or some sort of historical significance. The idea was to create small clusters of accommodations, similar to that in a village hamlet, with one building to serve as the main public area.
MZ: What sort of construction material did you have to import, and what to use locally?
JR: The teak used for framing and doors was imported, and cement and wiring at that time had to be brought in as well. Most of the stone and wood was sourced locally. Rammed earth walls is a local building method used across the Kingdom that we wanted to incorporate, but we borrowed the technology from Australia, adding in a small amount of cement for durability, and reinforced bars for stability.
MZ: Besides construction, you also use many local elements in your services and experiences. How do you find these and how do you train your staff to find and design them?
JR: There are plenty of resources at our fingertips. It’s just a matter of seeing it and getting creative. For decorations, we often use the natural environment around us, or small items found in the local market. For example, fresh or dried chilies, rice and wheat stalks, fresh cuts of apple, plum or peach blossoms, odd shaped stones from the rivers, balls of silk and yarn from the local weaving shops. Experiences are gathered from the communities
As for training our staff, we have led by example over the years, whether myself or other members of our expatriate team. Our teams slowly picked up on our creativity and now generally manage on their own with only a small tweak here or there
It’s the same when it comes to the experiences we facilitate. It’s a major challenge as many of these experiences are just part of day-to-day life for the Bhutanese. I always use the experience of milking a cow, making cheese and butter with a farmer’s family as an example. It’s all so part of the norm for the Bhutanese, but it’s such an enriching and unique experience for many of our guests who have never even been close to a cow or understand how butter is made. It is usually the eye of our expatriate team pointing out these experiences, and then refining them for guests. Over time though our local managers have picked up on this and are now great at seeing into their day-to-day Bhutanese customs and coming up with some really amazing excursions and outings.
MZ: What is most satisfying to you about working with Bhutanese staff?
JR: Seeing them so proud to be serving guests. And I mean true, selfless pride – able to share their Kingdom, their lives with guests of the country. Also working with them to develop the small experiences, like milking a cow. They see, once it’s put into place, how much the guests cherish these wholesome experiences.
MZ:Now, a difficult question. Some people love the Aman, some don’t. Some clients complain that Aman artificially cocoons its guests in a bubble. What would you say to that?
JR: I would say nonsense. And I believe many of those comments come from individuals who have not stayed with us. In most of our properties the management teams strive to put together experiences for guests to truly get out and discover, getting under and into the social fabric of the destination, spending time with locals, cooking, laughing and toasting with them. We do have to remember that some destinations are not necessarily conducive to plenty of local experiences. In a case like Amanpuri for example, it is very much a destination in itself, even though it offers many great experiences outside of the resort. Sometimes guests prefer to enjoy the facilities of the resort itself. But the options are there to do so much more!
Can you give me a quick sketch of your favorite activity at each of your Amankora Bhutan properties?
Paro – Hiking to Tigers Nest and if time allows, then taking a full night to camp up at Bumdra, above Tigers Nest – waking to incredible views of the Himalayas, and then descending down through Tigers Nest itself.
Thimphu – I enjoy hiking up to Choekortse Lhakhang on a ridge line above our lodge, with my dogs (and yes, guests do join me regularly for this hike). Choekortse is about 300 yrs old and has such a beautiful alter room and character about it.
Punakha – Spending time soaking up the energy and serenity of the main altar room of the Punakha Dzong, such an amazing, spiritually rich experience. Hard to explain, but it moves the soul.
Gangtey – The Longtey Hike, which takes you from a small village up dwarf bamboo covered hills into forests made up of huge rhododendrons and then conifers draped with moss, like an enchanted forest out of Lord of the Rings. When the rhododendrons are in bloom in March to May, it’s all the more beautiful!
Bumthang – Milking the Cow of course, then making butter and cheese, drinking a mug of just boiled milk that you took from the cow 5 minutes before, and then eating buckwheat pancakes with chili cheese and butter with your host family.