Bhutan – Land of Luxury & Legends
Bhutan is one of the few remaining destinations for travellers looking for clean mountain air and slow pace in a culture that deliberately filters itself from much of the outside world. Mass-market tourism is banned. You will not see tour coaches and budget airlines lined up at the airport. Instead, a guide meets you with a driver and a sturdy, comfortable vehicle to go wherever you want.
This is a land of lush valleys and snow-draped Himalayan peaks that could also make a fortune from mountaineering. But most climbing is prohibited on the grounds that adventuring hoards, like in nearby Nepal, would wreck the nation’s carefully balanced symmetry of man, gods and nature.
Bhutan emerged from a network of ancient tribes and fiefdoms interlocking Himalayan foothills. Some became absorbed in bigger nations such as Sikkim by India in the 1970s and Tibet by China in the 1950s.
Bhutan survives as a visually-stunning independent nation of less than a million anchored by Buddhism and a hereditary monarchy set up as recently as 1907, a revered glue that binds the country together and wards off fractious tribalism.
Temples dating back to the eighth century cling to mountainsides. Fortresses and monasteries dot dramatic landscapes. The Buddha Dordemna Statue, one of the world’s largest, presides over the capital, Thimphu.
Village festivals act out stories with masks and dancing, often using sculptures of the phallus as protective symbols to ward off demons.
Close to the airport is one of Bhutan’s most famous sites, the red-roofed Tiger’s Nest monastery jutting out from a hillside more than ten thousand feet above sea level with a two-hour hike to climb there.
Bhutan aims to make up the revenue-loss from banning mass-market visitors with high-end tourism and hotels for the well-heeled traveller.
The latest is the Pemako resort designed on a riverside estate just outside of Bhutan’s historic former capital, Punakha. The Pemako Punakha is particularly unique in that the brand is not an international franchise, but Bhutanese designed and owned.
The concept is the brainchild of Dasho Wangchuk Dorji, chairman of the Tashi Group, Bhutan’s largest private conglomerate. Pemako means ‘hidden lotus land’ and comes from a legend about a hidden valley that can only be entered through a sacred waterfall.
The waterfall has been replicated in the entrance to the Pemako Punakha which you get to over a suspension bridge strung across the fast-flowing Mo Chhu River. You step into a secluded seventy acres estate with twenty-one tented villas, each with its private pool, garden, butler and the biggest luxury bed I have ever seen.
Photo credits: Humphrey Hawksley
The spa is based on a traditional form of Tibetan medicine, known as Sowa-Rigpa which translates as ‘knowledge of healing’. Sowa-Rigpa is not dissimilar to the more widely known Ayurvedic system, based on the five elements of air, water, space, earth and fire and originating from India.
There are meditation rooms, bars and restaurants, together with trekking, white-water rafting and archery, one of Bhutan’s national sports. Nearby, the majestic 17th Century Punakha Dzong, with its maroon roof and whitewashed walls, towers over the confluence of the Mo Chhu and Po Chhu rivers.
The road between Punakha and the capital, Thimpu, goes through the 3,100 metre Donchu Pass where 108 stupas act as a memorial to Bhutan’s only modern war. In 2003, its tiny army ejected Indian militants who had set up camps inside the country.
One of the Pemako Punakha’s sister hotels is in Thimpu where the brand has recently taken over from the India’s Taj conglomerate to expand the country’s home-grown luxury style. A generation from now, Pemako, may well have gone global.
Time in Bhutan is like time no-where else. A private week-long visit costs about £2,000 per person which includes all transport, accommodation and meals. Pemako brand is, of course more pricy. But, if pockets allow, well worth it.
Make sure you experience one of those many festivals where village communities with rustic musical instruments and colourful dress tell stories of historic Bhutanese legends. Many revolve around the skill of suppressing demons. Check out the Lama Drukpa Kunley and his Thunderbolt of Flaming Wisdom.
HH – February 2024
Humphrey flew to Singapore on British Airways and to Bhutan on Drukair. His itinerary was organised by Drukasia (https://bhutan.drukasia.com/) and his guide was Kinley Tshering. He stayed at Bhutan Peaceful Residency and Spa (https://visitbhutan.com/hotel-detail.php?id=170) in Thimpu; Spirit Village Lodge and Pemako Punakha in Punakha (https://www.pemakohotels.com/punakha/; and Hotel Olathang (https://www.bambootravel.co.uk/holidays-to-bhutan/hotels/hotel-olathang) in Paro from where he climbed to up to the Tiger’s Nest.