Design Anthology - Asia Pacific Edition
scholars and explorers have long searched for Shangri-La, a mythical utopia portrayed in James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon. While the novel is set somewhere in Tibet, they should perhaps look farther south to Bhutan, a serene Buddhist kingdom that might be its modern-day equivalent, where success is measured by happiness. It receives less than a tenth of the number of visitors to Nepal, and eschews the neon-lit developments of Tibet.
The flight to Bhutan passes ‘range upon range of snow peaks, festooned with glaciers, and floating, in appearance, upon vast levels of cloud’, as described by Hilton. On approach, your plane skirts so close to the mountainside that you can see prayer flags flapping in the wind and workers toiling in rice terraces, before touching down in a picture-perfect valley scooped out of the Himalayas.
Most travellers start and finish in the old trading town of Paro, site of the country’s only international airport. It’s also the location of Bhutan’s most iconic landmark, Paro Taktsang, or Tiger’s Nest, a 17th-century architectural marvel built into a granite cliff more than 3,100 metres above sea level. The mystical, incensefilled monastery is the high point for most travellers, who are rewarded with breathtaking views along the two-hour hike up.
Next stop will almost certainly be Thimphu, which, apart from being one of only two capital cities in the world without traffic lights, is also home to Bhutan’s royal family. You won’t be able to snoop around the royal palace, but you can visit Tashichho Dzong, a splendid fortress that doubles as a monastery, and where the king’s throne room and offices are housed.
Dzong, like temples, can be found across Bhutan, though the most impressive is in the former capital of Punakha, about three hours north-east of Thimphu. Situated at the confluence of two rivers, the 17th-century fortress is a stunning example of Bhutanese architecture, with sloping whitewashed stone walls, carved wooden windows, red upper bands and gold-tipped roofs. During winter, the central monastic body relocates from Thimphu to Punakha Dzong, where the lower elevation means warmer weather.
another major luxury operator entered the market. Then Six Senses opened four lodges in 2019, and is opening a fifth in early 2020. Like Aman, the Six Senses lodges form a circuit around western and central Bhutan, encompassing the big three of Paro, Thimphu and Punakha, as well as little-visited Gangtey and Bumthang. An aesthetic consistency runs throughout the properties, designed by Bangkok-based Habita Architects, to ensure familiarity as guests move from one to another. Each however, is themed to provide a sense of place, and mixes contemporary and local elements to great effect, using materials such as earth, stone and timber.
Thimphu, the Palace in the Sky, reflects its place in the royal capital, with a soaring main hall and restaurant that captures Imax-worthy panoramas. With 20 suites and five villas, this is the largest of the lodges, and features full spa and wellness facilities, including a yoga studio and a lovely timber and glass indoor lap pool.
Paro, the Stone Ruins, is inspired by an abandoned 12th-century dzong next to the property, with painstaking stonework the signature of this sunset-facing lodge high above the valley. Take time to explore the onsite gardens, which supply organic produce year-round, or relax in the glass-walled sauna overlooking pine trees.
Known as the Flying Farmhouse amidst the Rice Fields, Punakha’s design echoes the surrounding rice terraces, with a cantilevered lounge perched over a curved outdoor pool. At Gangtey, the Traditional Bird Watching Bridge houses the restaurant, with sweeping views of the valley where rare black-necked cranes come to roost during winter. With just eight suites and a two-bedroom villa, this intimate property has the feel of a private ski lodge. The fifth lodge, Bumthang, is the only one without wide vistas, immersing guests instead in an atmospheric ‘Forest in a Forest’ of blue pines.
Bhutan has an incredible cultural heritage, and activities abound. But whether you stay at one lodge or many, make the effort to slow down, Zen out, and find your own nirvana. It’s that kind of place.