An Epic Journey Through Bhutan
By Nick Walton
The light drains from the valley below as if someone has pulled the plug, the dormant, honey-hued rice paddies turning to ash and then indigo, the flanks of the mountains that wreath Paro closing in as the stars above begin to slip from cover.
Bhutan, The Land of the Thunder Dragon, remains high on many an intrepid traveller’s bucket list, and for good reason. This mountainous kingdom is blissfully nestled in a time warp, where traditional garb is the national norm, where roads are at best creases on the map, where the monarchy has not only been retained by is revered, and where many communities remain isolated from the rest of the world. Until now.
A rise in experiential travel
Bhutan doesn’t immediately jump to mind for luxury travellers. The kingdom’s remoteness; the hair-raising approach at Paro, regarded as one of the most challenging airports in the world and for which only 12 pilots are certified; and the country’s often-misunderstood minimum daily tariff of US$250 per person have portrayed Bhutan as a utopian Shangri-La reserved for intrepid adventurers and wide-eyed gap-year backpackers toting their parents’ credit cards.
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When Bhutan opened itself up for tourism in 1974, 287 tourists visited. But the rise in experiential travel, bolstered by a few high-profile celebrity weddings in the country, including those of Tony Leung and Carina Lau in 2008, and Bhutan’s progressive king Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Jetsun Prema in 2011, have helped bolster the mountain kingdom’s tourism fortunes.
Despite a few remaining restrictions, including the daily tariff, which is used to cover accommodation, transport, meals, taxes and mandatory guides in an effort to encourage high-value, low-impact tourism, almost 55,000 tourists visited last year, with many looking for a Himalayan mountain experience with plenty of creature comforts.
Pioneering Bhutan's luxury scene
Como Hotels and Resorts was a pioneer of the Bhutan luxury scene, opening the first of its two lodges, the intimate 29-room retreat Como Uma Paro, in 2008. The Como Shambhala Retreat is home to indulgent Bhutanese-inspired massages and an indoor pool; and Bukhari is a glorious, timber-clad restaurant that serves hand-ground buckwheat noodles, yak dumplings and Como’s signature juice blends.
Como Uma Paro is also the first stop on the group’s ground-breaking new six-night Scenic Heli-Adventure, a unique collaboration with the Royal Bhutan Helicopter Service, the kingdom’s fledging air ambulance fleet, that offers well-heeled travellers unprecedented access to some of the kingdom’s most remote corners.
Combining two captivating helicopter flights with scenic drives, guided tours and stays at the group’s luxe lodges in Paro and Punakha, this epic journey brings to life one of the world’s most isolated and enchanting destinations.
The morning after my arrival, I explore Thimphu, Bhutan’s pint-sized capital, from where Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness, a UN-adopted philosophical policy that measures and maintains the collective happiness of the kingdom’s 74,000 citizens, is administered.
The tranquillity of the city, with its traditional timber-facade shopfronts, revered clock tower and immaculately clad traffic officer, who directs the town’s few vehicles from his brightly painted hut, is interrupted only by cries from the Dzongkha field, where the national sport of archery is the biggest ticket in town.
It’s a curious tournament; opposing teams, strictly adorned in national dress, crowd before a tiny bullseye, while archers sight their shot some 150 metres down the field. The teams bellow challenges and taunts to each other in an artful tradition of distraction called kha shed.
When the arrow is finally loosed, all eyes turn to the sky, the bolt streaking through the sunshine and stabbing into the earth mere steps from the leaping opponents.
A missed shot is met with more boisterous but surprisingly polite taunts, but a successful strike is rewarded with a traditional dance that blesses the target and acknowledges the talent of the archer.
Throughout the day-long tournament there are smiles, singing and dancing as skills are praised, arrows bestowed and friendly rivalries stoked with local ara rice wine.
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Next stop: Punakha Valley
After cresting the 3,100-metre Dochula Pass, with its brilliant Himalayan vistas punctuated by Bhutan’s highest peak, Gangkar Puensum, we descend through dense forest into the lush, sub-tropical Punakha Valley, winding through tiny farming hamlets and past recently harvested rice terraces before arriving at beautiful Como Uma Punakha just before dusk, which, thanks to Bhutan’s rows upon rows of jagged peaks, comes early and lingers late.
Designed by Singapore-born, Bali-based architect Cheong Yew Kuan (who also designed Como Shambhala Estate in Bali), the lodge opened in 2012. It’s in the heart of the serpentine valley a 3.5-hour drive from Paro.
My room overlooks the Mo Chu River, which waltzes its way down from the imposing peaks, and boasts elegant sheesham-wood furniture, a wood-burning stove and a deep-soak tub, perfect for Punakha’s frosty nights.
After a hot toddy on the lodge’s expansive slate terrace under a mesmerising canopy of stars, I join a clutch of guests for a Bhutanese feast served in the cosy dining room (a favourite with passing Bhutanese royalty), laced with organic ingredients sourced from across the valley. The experience is nothing short of magical.
To the Dzong-styled fortress
The next day, under a blazing afternoon sun, we trace the winding mountain road south to explore Pungtang Dechen Photrang Dzong, Punakha’s fortress, which dates from 1637.
Its name means “The Palace of Great Happiness,” and the traditional Dzong-styled fortress, with its towering white-washed walls of thick stone, houses sacred Buddhist relics.
The cheerful monks that call it home, many toting smartphones and Bluetooth earpieces, leave us to roam its serene sun-kissed courtyards unhindered.
From this ancient scene, I leap to the future, making for the river where a new Airbus helicopter is waiting.
Como’s Scenic Heli-Adventure includes two flights—from Paro to Punakha via the rarely visited Laya Valley, and from Punakha to Paro via the Turquoise Lakes of the Labatama Valley (although I’ve managed to hitch a ride in the opposite direction, visiting Laya on the way back to Paro’s international airport).
With a roar that reverberates off the mountainsides, British-Kiwi captain Nik Suddards pilots the helicopter up the Punakha Valley, offering a bird’s-eye view of Nalanda Monastery and the sacred peaks of Jigme Dorji National Park, home to snow and clouded leopards, Himalayan black bear, red pandas and ancient glaciers. After 40 minutes in the air we circle tiny Laya, at 4,100m the kingdom’s highest settlement.
Located in one of the most remote and least developed parts of the country, Laya is home to the semi-nomadic Layap people, a relatively affluent community that harvests cordyceps, a rare fungus used in Chinese and Tibetan traditional medicine.
Their “bey-yul,” or hidden paradise, is framed by some of Bhutan’s highest mountains, including 7,207-metre Tongshanjiabu. Foreigners are extremely rare, as are helicopters, and we’re greeted by curious locals, including two young sisters. I’m the first foreigner they’ve ever met, and they can’t stop staring.
Back to Paro
On the flight to Paro we skirt frozen alpine pools, the jagged tips of lower peaks seemingly within reach as we descend into the valley, a mesmerising patchwork of greens and yellows, pausing for a photo opp at Paro Taktsang, the iconic Tiger’s Nest monastery, which guests, by now acclimatised, explore on their final day.
The climb to the lofty lamasery, a prominent Himalayan Buddhist site perched high on a dramatic cliff face, is no easy task, and I return aching but satisfied to Como Uma Paro in time for a soothing signature massage and mugs of mulled wine served beside a courtyard brazier.
After such an adventure, I can’t shift the smile from my face; I don’t know much about national contentment, but Bhutan will certainly linger in my happiest memories for many years to come.
Como Hotel’s six-night Scenic Heli-Adventure is priced from US$27,280 per room, twin share, inclusive of airport transfers, flights, scenic drives, meals and spa treatments.
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This article first appeared on hk.asiatatler.com.