Stylist’s Contributing Travel Editor Anna Hart travels to the remote Himalayan kingdom, in search of temples, mountain treks and a break from the 21st century
I set off on every single trip with great expectations: I want it to change me. Whether it’s a 10-day jungle trek in Borneo or a weekend of debauchery at Glastonbury, I fully expect to return with some travel experiences under my belt that make me a better, wiser or more interesting person. (NB In the case of Glastonbury, I also expect to return a more hungover person.) Although I’m rarely disappointed, I’ve never quite been anywhere that delivers life-changing getaways with such ease and panache as Bhutan. From the moment we land at Paro Airport, 1.5 miles above sea level (an approach so tricksy that only five pilots with Druk Air, the national carrier, are permitted to fly in) and surrounded by soaring 18,000-high peaks, I’m in a whole new world.
A world where progress is measured in ‘Gross National Happiness’ rather than our comparatively crass Western system of materialistic bean-counting. The GNH index was coined by the 17-year-old reformist, British-educated King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in 1972, as a declaration of his commitment to Bhutanese culture and Buddhist values. This was no mere soundbite; four decades later, no-littering signs in national parks read, ‘Nature makes us happy. Please make nature happy.’ Garishly-painted lorries are emblazoned with cheery warnings: ‘Stay back! Be safe and happy!’. The H-word word is EVERYWHERE in Bhutan.
It’s also a world untouched by mass tourism. The very first tourists only arrived here in the late 1970s, and the Bhutanese government strictly adheres to a ‘high value, low impact’ tourism policy, which requires every visitor to commit (via tour operators) to a minimum daily spend of £160 (£130 in low season). The government line is: “This policy is aimed at attracting discerning tourists that will respect the unique culture and values of the Bhutanese people while also providing the visitors with an unforgettable one of a kind experience.” I’m a backpacker at heart so feel a pang that this puts Bhutan beyond the reach of many travellers, but have to admit that this cautious expansion of the tourism industry has paid off with a merciful lack of tourist tat and tack. And a benefit that thrills me even more: it’s preserved the purity of relations between locals and travellers. We’ve all been to destinations where we feel that tourism hasn’t entirely been a positive force, where we can’t blame the locals for resenting the visiting hoards who privatised their beaches and turned their favourite noodleshop into a Starbucks. In Bhutan travellers are nothing more than a mild novelty, and there is no hard sell, no hassle or unwelcome stares. Everyone from the cowherds I pass on narrow mountain pathways to the Fitbit-wearing fellow female joggers I greet running through the paddy fields treats me like a guest, not a tourist.
Bhutan is a world that exists in a visitor’s imagination long before you actually get here, fired by films such as this year’s action flick Arrows of the Thunder Dragon, or Tim Walker and Karen Elson's epic photoshoot in July’s issue of Vogue. And the reality is no less cinematic: misty mountaintops, cliff-hugging Buddhist temples, prayer-flag-strewn wooden bridges in lush valleys. The entire country resembles a film set.
The unspoiled Himalayan scenery has not gone unnoticed by the luxury spa industry, and Bhutan is surprisingly well-served by Le Meridiens, Aman resorts and Amankoras. But I’m here to make the most of the outdoors as well as luxurious interiors, and Uma Paro, by the international design hotel portfolio COMO, offers stylish digs in a prime spot for trekking, temples and taking in the scenery. With soaring whitewashed wall exteriors, Oriental-style flared roofs and gilt-painted frescoes, Uma Paro resembles the fortress-like-temples (dzongs) that are a regular feature of the Bhutanese landscape. Inside, COMO’s trademark minimalist, contemporary decor finds a natural home within this monastic mountain setting, where whitewashed walls and sleek modern wooden furniture put the mountain views centre stage. Along with the twenty suites, nine private villas are dotted among the pines, offering a more homely, traditional Bhutanese aesthetic with colourful woven rugs and hand-carved wooden artefacts.
With staff clad in national dress (our brilliant guide, Karma, wears his kimono-style gho with pride) this 11-year-old property preserves an unmistakably Bhutanese flavour, whilst offering the trademark Shambhala spa flourishes: holistic Ayurvedic-influenced treatments, an Wholefoods-meets-the-Himalays Shambhala menu of flaxseed crackers and beetroot dip plus honeyed Masala tea or almond and kale smoothies, plus an enticing roster of international yoga teachers and visiting Quigong masters.
If happiness feels like an inevitability in Bhutan, so does health: the Himalayan scenery flirts with you, just begging to be explored on foot, mountainbike or motorbike. No visitor should be allowed to visit Paro without making the moderately strenuous and monumentally satisfying half-day hike to Tigers Nest (Taktsang Palphug) monastery, a prominent Himalayan Buddhist sacred site and temple complex hugging a dramatic rock face in the upper Paro valley. I figure if Karen Elson and a cluster of stylists made it, so can I.
Afterwards, I take the precious memories acquired on the climb to Uma Paro’s Shambala spa’s hot stone bathouse, to soak the Bhutanese way, amongst hot river stones that crack and steam to release muscle-soothing minerals. This taste of the trekking that Bhutan has to offer makes me long for a lengthier stay, and Uma Paro can arrange overnight stays in rustic mountain huts for intrepid trekkers who want to get a little more off-grid and marinate more fully in the Himalayan scenery, the friendliness of the Bhutanese people and the fascinating cultural heritage. I gave Bhutan just a few days of my life, and it has left me feeling transformed. Just imagine what a longer stay could do?
Into The Valley Of The Spas
Bhutan is a country that richly rewards travellers who are happy to venture beyond Paro and get into the wilds. A five-hour drive from Uma Paro brings us to its ten-room little sister property, Uma
Punakha. I immediately understand why Aman and Amankora have luxury resorts here, with a Taj and a Six Senses spa are on the cards for 2016. Nestled in a sacred verdant valley where the Mo Chu river snakes through rice paddy fields, and fruit orchards, the contrast to Paro is remarkable; our surroundings are lush green valley rather than craggy mountains, and the hotel exudes a palpable air of isolation and intimacy. I thought Paro was remote until I arrived in Punakha; now I realise just how tranquil Bhutan can be. The dramatic open-air stone terrace is one of the most magical spaces I’ve ever come across, and just the place to relax after an afternoon flinging myself around the valley on one of Uma Paro’s high-spec Cannondale mountainbikes. Whether you travel to Bhutan for an adrenalin hit or a dopamine boost, the Punakha valley deserves to be on your itinerary.
Doubles at Uma Punakha start at £320 per night, including breakfast, dinner and government charges.
COMO Hotels offers five-night Himalayan Explorer packages, combining bed and breakfast at both Uma Paro and Uma Punakha, from £3,867 per person, including activities and a private guide and driver; excluding flights.