In the Thrall of the Moun­tain King

It’s long been a mag­net for ad­ven­tur­ous trav­ellers in search of a Shangri-la at the end of the world, but Bhutan is so much more. Nick Walton dis­cov­ers the tiny moun­tain king­dom of­fers a right royal luxe ex­pe­ri­ence

Hong Kong Tatler - - Contents -

It’s long been a mag­net for ad­ven­tur­ous trav­ellers in search of a Shangri-la at the end of the world, but Bhutan turns on a right royal luxe ex­pe­ri­ence

The light drains from the val­ley be­low as if some­one has pulled the plug, the dor­mant, hon­ey­hued 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 (so named for the vi­o­lent thun­der­storms that can whip through its val­leys), 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 but is revered, and where many com­mu­ni­ties re­main iso­lated from the rest of the world. Un­til now.

It’s a des­ti­na­tion that 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. When Bhutan opened it­self up for tourism in 1974, just 287 tourists vis­ited. But the rise in ex­pe­ri­en­tial travel, bol­stered by a few high­pro­file celebrity wed­dings in the coun­try— in­clud­ing the nup­tials of Tony Le­ung and Ca­rina Lau in 2008, and those of Bhutan’s pro­gres­sive king, Jigme Kh­e­sar Nam­gyel Wangchuck, and Jet­sun Prema in 2011—have helped bol­ster the tourism for­tunes of the beau­ti­ful moun­tain king­dom.

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, many seek­ing a Hi­malayan moun­tain ex­pe­ri­ence with a full com­ple­ment of crea­ture com­forts.

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 ho­tel, part alpine lodge, part rus­tic-chic inn, is nes­tled among tow­er­ing pines min­utes from the air­port, mak­ing it the per­fect base for ex­plor­ing the an­cient shrines and fortresses of the ver­dant Paro Val­ley. Rooms fea­ture king-sized beds dressed in high-thread-count linen, pol­ished lo­cal tim­ber, vi­brant wall mu­rals, and stun­ning views across the val­ley. There’s the Como Shamb­hala Re­treat, home to in­dul­gent Bhutanese-in­spired mas­sages and an in­door pool; and Bukhari, a glo­ri­ous, tim­ber-clad restau­rant that serves hand­ground 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, the coun­try’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 tim­ber­fa­cade 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 the lo­cal ara rice wine.

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 row upon row 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 drive of some three hours and 30 min­utes 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. Be­low, perched above the river, the Como Sham­bala spa of­fers tra­di­tional, mus­cle-melt­ing treat­ments us­ing hot oiled river stones. I wrap up warm and en­joy a hot toddy on the lodge’s ex­pan­sive slate ter­race un­der a mes­meris­ing canopy of stars be­fore join­ing a clutch of guests for a Bhutanese feast served in the cosy din­ing room (a favourite with pass­ing Bhutanese roy­alty) and laced with or­ganic in­gre­di­ents sourced from across the val­ley. The ex­pe­ri­ence is noth­ing short of mag­i­cal.

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 “Palace of Great Hap­pi­ness,” and the tra­di­tional Dzong-style ed­i­face, with its tow­er­ing white-washed walls of thick stone, houses sa­cred Bud­dhist relics. The cheerful monks who 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 the 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 4,100 me­tres 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 “beyyul,” 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.

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 one of its sooth­ing sig­na­ture mas­sages and mugs of mulled wine 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’s six-night Scenic Heli-ad­ven­ture is priced from US$27,280, twin share, in­clu­sive of air­port trans­fers, flights, scenic drives, meals and spa treat­ments. co­mo­ho­tels.com

land of the thun­der dragon Lo­cated at the con­flu­ence of the Pho Chhu (fa­ther) and Mo Chhu (mother) rivers, Pung­tang Dechen Pho­trang Dzong is the ad­min­is­tra­tive cen­tre of the Pu­nakha re­gion. Its name means “Palace of Great Hap­pi­ness”

up In the air The Scenic Heli-ad­ven­ture of­fers un­prece­dented ac­cess to the king­dom’s most re­mote cor­ners

White-walled Palace The fortress of Pung­tang Dechen Pho­trang Dzong houses sa­cred Bud­dhist relics hid­den Par­adise The semi-no­madic Layap peo­ple in­habit the high-al­ti­tude Laya district, where tourists are rarely seen

lofty treks Life has barely changed for hun­dreds of years in Bhutan’s moun­tain­ous ter­rain Cre­ative drive Boldly dec­o­rated trucks add splashes of colour to Bhutan’s dusty roads

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