High Life in Paro, Bhutan

Luxe Beat Magazine - - Front Page - By Fredric Ham­ber

We have no stop­lights here. The cows are our traf­fic con­trol,” my guide says as we wait in the car for a mother and her calves to cross the road. They’re in no hurry.

Nei­ther am I. It has taken some do­ing to get to Paro, Bhutan, and I’m glad to have made it. To be­gin with there was the visa busi­ness. While the coun­try is open to tourism it is not open to ev­ery­one. The gov­ern­ment has made a de­ci­sion to cul­ti­vate af­flu­ent trav­el­ers by lim­it­ing visas to those who meet a min­i­mum spend re­quire­ment. “We don’t want back­pack­ers,” I was told by sev­eral sources dur­ing my visit. Trav­el­ers are ex­pected to be ac­com­pa­nied by li­censed guides.

Then there was the Air­bus 319 flight through windy Hi­malayan passes aboard the na­tional car­rier Druk Air­lines. The fi­nal de­scent into Paro was the most tur­bu­lent I’ve ever ex­pe­ri­enced, though noth­ing I hadn’t been warned about, start­ing with the thor­ough five-page pre-trip in­for­ma­tion packet COMO Re­sorts sent me. But af­ter the pi­lot came over the sys­tem with a re­minder about seat­belts a few min­utes be­fore the ex­cite­ment be­gan, I knew I was in pro­fes­sional hands, like be­ing with an ex­pert white­wa­ter guide through river rapids, and I hap­pily cast my fate to the wind. On the ground I was met by a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Uma Paro lodge and given a long white shawl, a tra­di­tional Bhutanese wel­come. The shawl was made of sheer fab­ric and would come in handy over the next few days to cover my lower face when the wind picked up dust dur­ing my hikes.

It was a ten-minute drive to the lodge (okay, fif­teen min­utes in­clud­ing the cows). Uma Paro over­looks the val­ley of the Paro

River, which flows down from Jo­mol­hari, the coun­try’s sec­ond high­est peak. Uma is run by COMO Re­sorts who also run a sec­ond Bhutanese lodge in the val­ley of Pu­nakha; most guests split their time be­tween the two ho­tels, keep­ing the same guide the en­tire week. My visit was in De­cem­ber, con­sid­ered low sea­son but a de­light­ful time to be in the moun­tains. A fire­place in­side Uma’s lobby was burn­ing the na­tive hard­wood that lo­cals call zhish­ing, its scent deeply com­fort­ing.

A short drive down the hill, “down­town” Paro vil­lage is compact and walk­a­ble. With plen­ti­ful sources of lo­cal lum­ber, houses are built large to ac­com­mo­date mul­ti­ple gen­er­a­tions of a fam­ily. Houses are gen­er­ally in­her­ited by a daugh­ter rather than a son, and a suc­cess­ful man will then move into his wife’s home.

Bunches of red pep­pers hang on strings out­side win­dows to dry in the sun against the walls of build­ings. Pep­pers are an ex­port com­mod­ity as well as an in­gre­di­ent in ema datschi, a fa­vorite na­tional dish of chili pep­pers and yak cheese. In a shop I bought sev­eral bun­dles of thick stalky in­cense con­tain­ing Hi­malayan cypress. Also for sale in many shops is the wo­ven woolen fab­ric used for the na­tional dress, the kera for women and gho for men, which looks a bit like a bathrobe.

spot where, ac­cord­ing to lo­cal be­lief, an 8th cen­tury guru brought Bud­dhism from Ti­bet to Bhutan, ar­riv­ing on the back of a fly­ing ti­gress.

We set out early for the day­long trek in or­der to re­turn be­fore the af­ter­noon winds be­came op­pres­sive. Five-col­ored prayer flags are a con­tin­ual sight along the way. The monastery is 3,000 feet above the val­ley floor. One walks along a well-trod path, but al­though the land­mark is vis­i­ble much of the way, the route is not. I was climb­ing the moun­tain while see­ing Tigers Nest on an adjacent moun­tain but it wasn’t clear un­til nearly the end of the hike how we would nav­i­gate the hor­i­zon­tal dis­tance across the ravine. It turns out there were short bridges over a wa­ter­fall that joined the gap. That cas­cade was also the only spot where I saw a few patches of snow.

The word monastery might make one as­sume Tigers Nest is home to a com­mu­nity of monks, but in fact just three care­tak­ers live there at present. The interiors are a se­ries of shrines and tem­ples. Among the para­pher­na­lia in each is the tra­di­tional offering of seven bowls of wa­ter. At one point Sonam opened up a trap door (I don’t know what else to call it) in the floor and I gazed di­rectly down at three thou­sand feet of moun­tain and air. It was my only ver­tig­i­nous mo­ment of the day.

It was upon be­gin­ning the de­scent and see­ing the hag­gard faces of sev­eral tired hik­ers still on their way up that I felt smug in a way that per­haps only a phys­i­cally fit mid­dle-aged man can feel. I felt it again back in the com­fort of the lodge when chat­ting with a twen­tysome­thing fel­low hiker who con­fessed he was ex­haust­edly look­ing for­ward to his hot stone mas­sage treat­ment at COMO’S Sham­bala spa.

I headed in­stead to a ta­ble at Uma’s Bukhari restau­rant where Ex­ec­u­tive Chef Dewa Wi­jaya nightly pre­pares In­dian, Bhutanese and Western menus. Af­ter my day’s ef­forts, char­coal-grilled Aus­tralian lamb loin with crispy po­lenta, Ital­ian rata­touille, olive tape­nade and rose­mary jus called to me, washed down with a Ja­cob’s Creek Shi­raz. Kenpo Tashi has his ideas about hap­pi­ness and I have mine.

Uma by COMO Paro Bhutan Tel: +975 8 271597

www.co­mo­ho­tels.com/uma­paro/

Paro Val­ley. Photo cour­tesy Uma Paro by COMO Re­sorts

Sham­bala Spa. Cour­tesy of Uma by COMO

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