Bhutan. The name alone is likely to conjure up mental images of a rugged, off-the-beaten-path, little-spoilt country with a tranquil atmosphere, colourful culture and friendly people – a sort of Switzerland of the Himalayas.
The reality, landscape-wise, is not too far from that. The tiny, remote Buddhist kingdom, renowned for its pursuit of Gross National Happiness, is awash with picturesque, lush pine tree-covered mountains and valleys, and fast-flowing, rock-strewn rivers.
But the sparse, scattered towns and villages – with their rice and vegetable terraces or fruit orchards, narrow and unpaved mountain roads, and generally rundown look of buildings and houses – remind you that this is still a largely agricultural, developing nation. Bhutanese hill farmers make up 90 per cent of the population of 750,000.
Lest a visitor feel guilty about staying at a luxury resort that contrasts starkly with the gritty lives of the locals, know that tourism is Bhutan’s second-biggest earner – the first is hydroelectric power, sold almost exclusively to neighbour India.
The newest resort opened in March in the Punakha valley, the country’s lowest (and warmest) at 1,250m above sea level. Dhensa Punakha is the first resort in Asia by Dhensa Boutique Resorts, operated by Rykadan Hospitality Management, a Singapore-based lifestyle destination developer with a portfolio of hotel, resort, food and beverage and other related businesses.
Reaching Dhensa is quite a trek. The flight from Singapore to Paro – where the country’s sole airport is – is just over four hours, including a stopover in Kolkata. Then, it’s a four- to five-hour drive to Punakha, depending on the weather.
The highway from Paro to the capital Thimphu is paved and smooth. But from there, you are shaken, rattled and rolled – literally – as the minibus slip-slides over rough, twisting roads barely two Singapore road lanes wide, and up and down mountains as high as 3,300m.
Once there, you find a pretty, multi-level resort on the mountain slopes built mainly of local wood and granite, designed in a modern, minimal take on the traditional Bhutanese house. Flanked by pine forests, it overlooks the Punakha river and hundreds of padi fields and fruit orchards that stair-step down to the valley floor.
The main reception building is surrounded by a restaurant, spa and six cottages housing 24 suites – 15 with twin beds and nine with king-size beds. Each 45 sq m suite has its own private balcony, en-suite bathroom (with bathtub overlooking the valley and rain shower), flat-screen satellite TV and free Wi-Fi.
The mainly Bhutanese staff in their traditional everyday dress – gho, a knee-length kimono-type wrap for men, and kira, a long-sleeved tunic and long skirt for women – are unfailingly polite, friendly and ever eager to please.
Warning: Give yourself six to 12 hours to acclimatise to the thinner air – just walking up the steep stairways to your cottage will leave you panting. And, if you’re a smoker, know that smoking in public is illegal – but you can on your balcony at the resort.
Start your stay by exploring some of the walking and hiking trails around Dhensa. Just a five-minute trek up the hill, for example, is the magnificent Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Lhakhang Nunnery, which houses one of the biggest bronze statues of Chenrezig (or Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva) in the country.
Besides temple and monastery visits, the resort can also arrange or tailor experiences, depending on the season – such as a bespoke picnic prepared by Dhensa’s chefs amid the pine forests; a visit to farms to try your hand at rice threshing; a campout complete with campfires, sleeping bags and ara (the traditional Bhutanese booze); or a session to learn about Bhutanese weaving, an art passed down from mother to daughter through generations.
Two things you must do, however. First, chat with general manager Baljit Singh, who has more than two decades of experience in the food and beverage industry. Garrulous and affable, the Penang-born 40-something will regale you with nuggets of insider information about Bhutan, its people and culture.
Second, visit daily or weekend markets with executive chef Andri Jamil, who can explain the seasonal organic produce that is uniquely Bhutanese or Himalayan. He may even agree to whip up a native snack on the spot or cook up a special meal. In any case, most menus he plans use the freshest ingredients available each day.
Work is currently being done to widen and pave the mountain roads to Punakha – and, judging from the tranquil pace of life in Bhutan, that could take time. If retreat from the stresses of civilisation is your reason to get away, this rustic route might just get you there.