Exploring Bhutan’s ancient temples and sumptuous traditional spas, we discover why the land of the thunder dragon holds such magical appeal.
I’m up to my ears in near-scalding hot water, the steam tickling my nostrils and clearing my sinuses. Floating on the water’s surface, fresh khempa leaves throw dappled shadows across my naked body. An icy wet towel rests on my glistening forehead inducing that heady sensation that comes with total relaxation.
A hot stone bath treatment, known as a dotsho, is not the only form of utopia here in Bhutan, a landlocked Himalayan country with a staunchly Buddhist population. In its chortens (stupas) and dzongs (fortresses), thousands of monks count beads and spin prayer wheels in anticipation of a heavenly Buddhist nirvana in the afterlife. The people of Bhutan not only revere a king who has eased them seamlessly into the 21st century, they ooze the kind of placid contentment that makes travelling here feel like a visit to a spiritual home.
But back to the treatment. The dotsho is Bhutan’s age-old answer to fending off the Himalayan cold. Whether set up local-style in the open air or in a candle-lit resort spa like the one I’m in, the ritual is the same. A wooden bath is filled with cool water. Rugby ball-sized white stones, hauled from the nearest river, are heated in an outdoor wood fire then tipped red hot through a wooden chute into the bath. As they sizzle, bubble and steam, the water heats up. When they crack, therapeutic sulphuric minerals are released into the bath, permeating the water with the antidote to tired muscles and fatigued minds. The khempa leaves, which are grown in local fields and also used in herbal tea, moisturise the skin and release a natural aroma, like a forest after rain. If not utopia, this is certainly my kind of heaven.
Ensuring activity and luxury in equal measure, I sign up for the Himalayan Explorer cultural tour, a five-night itinerary that takes in the major sights of Western Bhutan including the major pit stops of Paro, Thimphu and Punakha.
Paro is a small town set in a scenic valley dotted with traditional whitewashed timber houses that sport rice terraces for gardens. It is surrounded by dramatic 5000m-high snow peaks, terrain that makes landing at the international airport here rather tricky.
My accommodation enjoys the best of this scenery; the peaked roof Uma Paro resort sits on a hillside striped with pine and cypress trees. Though it is not snowing when I arrive, it feels like it should be. Wood-fired stoves, known as bukhari, burn in the main rooms, oversized rugs line the floors and slippered staff members sneak around unnoticed. With an herbal welcome tea in hand, I’m introduced to Tshewang, the knowledgeable and intelligent man who will be my guide. Such is the closed nature of tourism here, where visitors must pay a fairly steep daily visa fee and travel with a guide.
There are a handful of ancient architectural marvels in Paro. Bhutan’s oldest temple, Kyichu Lhakhang, was built in AD659 to protect the valley from invading Tibetans. In the centre of town, men and women still don the traditional dress – heavy woollen robes with a woven cloth belt for men (gho) and patterned ankle length skirts for women (kira).
With a population of just 80,000 and not a single traffic light, Thimphu looks more like a regional town than a capital city. There was once a set of traffic lights, Tshewang tells me, but the people found them impersonal and largely ignored them. Today a traffic cop directs the flow of cars from a podium in the middle of the street, attracting as much attention from tourists as drivers.
At a local restaurant we feast on a tapas-style spread of dishes, all of which contain the local food staple, chilli, in one form or another. For dinner, we stop in at the beautiful Taj Tashi hotel’s Chig-ja-gye restaurant, named after the 108 principal temptations in Buddhism, for traditional Bhutanese cuisine. The ema datshi, an addictive local dish of green beans and long green chilli with cream cheese is a specialty.
Continuing our journey east towards the former capital of Punakha, we stop at the Dochu La pass, which at 3050m is the highest point between Thimphu and our destination. Protruding from the hilltop are 108 little stupas, but the real point of stopping is for the view. In the distance, the Himalayas rise above the clouds like something out of a Tolkien novel.
The road down to Punakha is switchbacked and dusty with construction trucks churning up dirt, but this pretty little fertile valley with rice terraces clinging to the hillside makes the winding drive worthwhile. At the confluence of two rivers the remarkable Punakha Dzong, the second to be built in Bhutan, greets us as we round a bend.
Uma Punakha, a nine-room, two-villa resort, which opened in September last year is more a (very) rich uncle’s retreat than a resort. From the patio, guests have a sweeping view of rice terraces, smoking farmhouse chimneys, the misty hills rising from the banks of the Mo Chhu river and the sunlight kissing the sloping gold-tiered roof of Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten on a hilltop across the valley.
This four-storey temple was reportedly built and decorated according to holy scriptures rather than any particular engineering design. The journey through a pine-lined dirt trail and back takes about 90 minutes, but Tshewang deems me fit enough for an extended trip through the lower-lying rural allotments where we see farmers planting winter crops, children playing in trickling water channels and women with swaddled babies herding domestic cattle. The chain footbridge at the end of our walk is also the entry to Amankora Punakha, one of five Aman resorts in Bhutan, and once the summer residence of Bhutan’s Queen Mother.
Another walk takes us across wheat fields to the temple of the “divine madman”. It requires the kind of faith the Bhutanese have in bucket loads to worship a man whose unorthodox approach to Buddhism included sleeping with 5000 women and drinking lots of beer.
Bhutan’s biggest drawcard by far is back in the Paro Valley. Taktsang Goemba, or Tiger’s Nest Monastery, is one of the country’s most sacred Buddhist temple complexes and its most photographed attraction. The 5km hike to the monastery, shared with donkeys, pilgrims and fellow tourists, reveals magical views of the Himalayan peaks. The monastery’s red and gold roofed temples cling miraculously to a sheer cliff face that juts out 900m above the Paro Valley. Inside, outlandishly colourful shrines explode with paintings and statues of mythical creatures and historical figures that tell a strangely ethereal version of Bhutan’s Buddhist history. After a sweaty five-hour journey, that hot stone bath really proves its worth.
When to go
Bhutan has something to offer most of the year, be it the Himalayan views in October or the rhododendron blooms from March to April. Avoid the monsoon season from June to August.
How to go
Uma by Como’s Himalayan Explorer itinerary costs US$5,760 per person for three nights double occupancy at Uma Paro and two nights at Uma Punakha (or US$4,430 for single occupancy). The price is on a full-board basis, which excludes beverages, but includes all meals and picnics; excursions with English-speaking Bhutanese guide; transfers and transport in Bhutan; government visa fees, royalties and taxes; museum and visitor centre entry fees; one massage per person and daily yoga classes at Uma Paro.
Where to stay
There is no shortage of luxury accommodation in Bhutan, including Como’s Uma Paro and Punakha resorts (www.comohotels.com), the Amankora (www.amanresorts.com) and Taj Tashi (www.tajhotels.com).
How to get there
Bhutan’s only international airport is in Paro, where national carrier Drukair operates direct flights daily from Bangkok and twice-weekly flights from Singapore.