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AFAR Ambassador Ryan Cordwell reflects on an unforgettable trip with the USTOA

As part of AFAR’s partnership with the USTOA, whose members provide unparalleled access to global travelers, I recently embarked on the Luxury Gold Magnificent Nepal & Bhutan tour. It was incontestably one of the most personally enriching journeys of my life, and an experience that anyone would find rewarding. I say this easily, having seen countless corners of the map. I recently had the privilege of experiencing in meticulous extravagance, Kathmandu and the Mountain Kingdom of Bhutan, led by my tour’s traveling concierge and Bhutanese community cornerstone, Dorji. He maintained a relentlessness in going the extra distance, from nonpareil dining at local restaurants and home-grown chili dishes, to our small group escapades into the countryside. The cultural insights I garnered on this adventure were only outweighed by the opportunity to view such a storied part of the world so uniquely and in a capacity one would otherwise not find.

I’d like to share ten of the most historically noteworthy and photographically inspiring sights of this near-two-week visit, from Nepal to the Eastern Himalayas, in hopes of encouraging you to share in and explore these extraordinary places.

1. Tiger’s Nest (Paro Taktsang), Paro, Bhutan

Near the end of the tour, Dorji led me along a must of any Bhutanese adventure, no matter what brings you to this mountain Kingdom. Paro Taktsang, more commonly referred to as “Tiger’s Nest,” is truly one of the most remarkable, and important Buddhist sites in Bhutan. At over 10,000 feet, this cliffside monastery and series of small temples overlooks the valley of Paro. This hike was something of a treasure for me, since I learnt it held an equally secured position on the Luxury Gold itinerary. The foliage and views during the climb to the top would have been enough to etch a memory into my book; but it was the history, and tranquility I found at its footing that changed my life. Vivid stories of Padmasambhava (Lotus-Born), the legendary guru who first brought Buddhism into the country of Bhutan, upon a flying tiger, was just the beginning.

There is miraculously a cafe halfway up the climb, where you should stop for a bit of tea and biscuits on the way up, or a well-earned local brew on the way down.

2. Tashichho Dzong, Thimphu, Bhutan

This fortress is a frequent office to the King, as well as members of Parliament and the Druk Desi in general. Dorji, shared with us the rich history of this Thimphu labyrinth on the Wang Chu river, as we observed monks at its monastery move swiftly through these walls without blueprints.

As with any site in Bhutan, and the country as a whole, a guide is required to enter. Fortunately, our traveling concierge made us feel like family everywhere we found ourselves.

3. Dochula Pass, Thumphu, Bhutan 

Air so fresh, you’d think you were breathing in the heavens; fresher than that of the mossy Westfjörds, or the dense camphors of Honshu.

Dochula Pass, and its Druk Wangyal Chortens, were built as a memorial to those who served in Bhutan’s only war, by the eldest queen of the fourth king. This pass, over 10,000 feet above sea level, unites Thimphu and Punakha in the easternmost edge of the Himalayas, where Mt. Masanggang can be witnessed. Each time I crossed this corridor, I surrendered to the echoing silence of Earth’s glory.

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4. Punakha Dzong, Punakha, Bhutan

This Dzong is one of the most important, and certainly one of the most beautiful in Bhutan. In the fifteenth century, Zhabdrung, the great unifier of Bhutan, tossed a replica of a sacred Buddhist relic into the surrounding Mo Chhu River, effectively ending the Tibetan invasion. The Tibetans’ efforts were subsequently rendered useless, as that which was sought was believed lost, and they vacated the land that would then become known as Bhutan.

Here, you are able to cross an extraordinary footbridge to reach the fortress, over the Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu Rivers’ convergence. This fortress is the second oldest in Bhutan, and served as house to many of the royal administration until 1955, when Punakha no longer served as Bhutan’s capital. The Punakha Dzong (Dewa chhenbi Phodrang) was one of my favorite architecture monuments in the Kingdom.

5. Great Buddha Dordenma, Thimphu, Bhutan

Housing 100,000 smaller bronze buddhas, this gold-plated, bronze structure rises 177 feet and was completed in 2015. It can be seen from every corner of Thimphu, but its magnitude cannot be understood nor appreciate until taking a trip to the top of the mountain, where it overlooks the city.

Built to honor the sixtieth anniversary of the current king’s father, (the fourth king of Bhutan), the structure houses four floors. Entering it was one of the more surreal and rewarding sights of our adventure from Thimphu to Punakha. It is surrounded by dozens of Bodhisattva statues, forming a perimeter of the elevated plaza, where tens of thousands have gathered for months in silence to practice their diligence and faith.

6. Bhaktapur Durbar Square, Bhaktapur, Nepal

Known as Malla Kingdom, this city, now a member of the greater Kathmandu Valley metropolitan area, served as capital of Nepal up to halfway through the 15th-century. It is filled with temples, statues and carvings honoring an array of Hindu gods and goddesses.

Nyatapola Temple is one of the most popular in the Square, and among the tallest in the country. Sitting in the midst of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, this temple is frequented by locals coming to worship the goddess Siddhi Lakshmi, (a manifestation of Hindu goddess Durga, goddess of property and protector of the Malla Kings). This five-story, five-tiered temple was impressively constructed in the early 18th-century and is one of the few structures that miraculously survived the country’s recent earthquake.

This temple, and the square within which it sits, are exceptional examples of pagoda architecture, which was developed in Nepal, despite many misconceptions of a Chinese origin.

7. Patan Durbar Square, Lalitpur, Nepal

Centered in Nepal’s third largest city, known for its history of influential arts and festival culture, Patan [Durbar Square] houses an abundance of temples and towers, crafted by the Newa people, many of which are still undergoing restoration following the tragic 2015 earthquake.

Visiting this Durbar Square (one of three) allows for the opportunity to see an incredibly cherished and vibrant UNESCO World Heritage Site, in the heart of Kathmandu Valley. Dotted with statues of lions, and archway bells surrounding the Mul Chok central courtyard, this is one of my favorite areas for observing city life in this remarkable country.

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8. Swayambhunath Stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal

Nepal’s most significant Buddhist site is home to thousands of prayer flags and hundreds of curious macaques, earning it’s nickname, “Monkey Temple.”

This stupa can be admired from many points in Kathmandu Valley, as it is the largest. I had spent days enjoying its place on the city horizon, before trekking its steps to realize the most stunning view of this structure was from its peak, overlooking virtually every point in Kathmandu. I highly recommend the walk to the top, as you’re able to view Dewa Dharma Monastery, where a gorgeous bronze Buddha sits, and the gold Vajra (thunderbolt)— as well as gain an irrevocable sensation of your place in the world.

9. The Dwarika’s Hotel, Kathmandu, Nepal

Nestled within Kathmandu but tucked away from the bustle of the city sits one of the most spectacular properties I encountered during my time in this region. The family who own and operate this hotel shared with me their unrelenting efforts to provide one of the most authentic and relaxing experiences in Nepal. The family honors the founder’s philanthropic and arts initiatives through charity; and the hotel displays one of one of the world’s largest woodwork collections.

Beyond the resort’s spectacular rooms, you can find everything from an authentic Nepali meal, to a traditional Japanese meal (the best I’ve had outside of Japan) at Mako’s, to a bit of poolside sipping at Fusion, sit aesthetically and welcomingly at The Dwarika’s Hotel.

10. The Himalayas, Asia 

It may seem an obvious candidate for a must-see list of this region of Asia, but it’s one to take seriously. The Himalayan mountain range sits up there for me, figuratively and geographically, as one of the most significant sights I’ve had the privilege to set my eyes on. Encompassing a plethora of Earth’s highest peaks, the range includes Everest, K2, and Manaslu, and spans an unfathomable fifteen hundred miles between Pakistan, China, Nepal, India and Bhutan. They are responsible for some of the most remarkable tales of mankind’s ability to overcome challenges, as well as the world’s most breathtaking views.

While we did not ascend Everest, or any fragment of this wondrous sight, we were gifted the opportunity to view the range as we flew parallel to the mountains, twice between Nepal and Bhutan. Our traveling concierge, Dorji, happened to be related to someone in the airline industry, and made certain our seats were at any given moment, a product of having gone the extra mile. Of all there is to experience on this life-changing journey with Luxury Gold, these little mountains made their mark.

To learn more about Ryan's trip, visit the USTOA blog.