Luxury adventures in Bhutan

Can adventure and luxury co-exist? And if they do, can it really be called adventure at all? Australian Geographic Adventure travels to Bhutan to put this emerging concept to the test.
By Chris Ord October 14, 2014 Reading Time: 10 Minutes

THE KINGDOM of Bhutan has ruined my sense of adventure.

The Land of the Thunder Dragon’s overly-lauded policy of Gross National Happiness has seeped beyond its national consciousness and into my hardened adventurer soul, softening it like the masseuse is now softening my knotted trapezius after a day on the trails.

Masseuse, you not unfairly query the ‘adventure writer’?

Yes, I admit that I’m not tapping this tale out in my head huddled freezing in a tent on the side of a Himalayan mountain. Rather, I’m lying wrapped in a fluffy white towel in a room freshly steamed from the traditional Bhutanese hot stone bath I’ve just spent half an hour relaxing in.

Piped music wafts through the room, accompanying the rich smell of aromatherapy oils heating off candle lamps. The room is dimly lit – I feel like I should be proposing to someone – and looks out high over Paro Valley.

Distant village lights and a visage of one of Bhutan’s most majestic Dzongs (monasteries) flicker at me through steamed glass. The hot ginger tea I supped in the bath remains warm in my stomach as the masseuse starts working down my back.

This is adventure luxe-style. I like to think that I’m on an avant garde mission to explore its potential. And what better place to develop a theory – that you can entwine hardcore adventure missions with luxury – than in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, a small landlocked nation known for monasteries and mountains – and its much-vaunted governmental propensity for measuring the value of happiness.

Adventure and pampering? Can it get much happier? Or are the two exclusive entities? Your intrepid correspondent is risking life, massaged limb and reputation to find out on your behalf. It’s dangerous work forging into the unknown, I know.

Bhutanese culture

Since opening its borders to the travelling world in 1974, after centuries of isolationism, the Kingdom has steadily walked a fine line between maintaining cultural traditions and heritage deeply steeped in Buddhism, while also embracing the western world’s love for fashion, television and i-everything.

Witness every Bhutanese youngster toting iPads and smartphones with gelled-up hairstyles and jeans at half-bum mast. The middle class blossomed in Bhutan long ago.

The Bhutanese struggle with the tug-o-war between spiritual philosophies of the ‘Middle Way’ – rejecting attachment and materialism and focusing on the moment as a path to enlightenment – and a growing love for all things material (and thus inherently the pursuit of individual gratification).

And I, too, am torn between the notion of adventure necessitating deprivation, hardship and pain to seek a higher truth in the wilderness, and the selfish pleasures of indulging in five-star accommodation, gourmet cuisine, yoga and wellness treatments amid my adventure journey. Oh the guilt, the guilt.

A bit lower on the left, if you will, masseur. No, that’s not too hard, you found the spot, pass the ginger tea, please.  

Riding into Paro city

Admittedly, I didn’t indulge in my guilt complex for too long. Justification harks to the sweeping singletrack across the valley, and the pounding my mountain bike and I copped on a superb descent. The day began with a two-hour 4WD journey to Gorina village and its 17th Century monastery, 3000 metres above sea level, looking over Paro Valley.

With most resident monks on annual home visits, we were shown around by the elderly caretaker monk. A veteran of skirmishes with Indian militants, he shows us an old AK47 hanging incongruously on the wall.

“Protection,” he smiles wide. The path of least resistance sometimes, it seems, transgresses into active resistance.

Of course there’s little danger today from bandits. Rather, it’s a very different form of protection I’ll need to hurtle down the 5km trail, which drops 800 metres and would be a potentially sublime short and fast flow trail if it had the lightest of touches from a nuanced trail builder.

As it is, after fuelling up on a gourmet lunch ice-boxed in by my guide, I careen down the rocky trail, dodging ruts and the occasional stone wall, weaving around small temples balanced delicately on the mountainside.

Below is Paro ‘city’ and its eponymous river. It’s precarious riding; raw, like my hide will be if I drop the bike on one of the steep, rutted sections.

It’s an adrenaline experience punctuated by stops to admire the view. Any fears of coming a cropper were salved by the thought that the trail pops back out into the grounds of Paro hospital. As it happened, the monk’s pre-ride blessing worked a charm, keeping me and the MTB in one piece.

Adventure retreats in Bhutan

The downhill experience set a precedent for my time in Bhutan: perfected and uber-plush hospitality paired to unpolished adventures that drip with potential to make Bhutan an adventurer traveller’s playground.

I split my time here between two of the fabulously luxurious Como Adventure Resorts. The Como Group is synonymous with urban dreamscape hotels and island hideaways that pamper the rich and famous. Its Metropolitan hotels in London and Bangkok are particularly well have been rated in the world’s top 50.

Alongside this suite of offerings, the Group has made a foray into what it dubs ‘Adventure Retreats’, two of which are in the Kingdom of Bhutan (the other two are in Bali, Indonesia).

Uma Paro is the gateway resort high on a low shoulder of the Paro Valley. This valley is famous for being home to the Tiger Nest Monastery – or Paro Taktsang – a cliff-clinging sacred site and temple. This visage has been seen in travel articles worldwide and is perhaps the image most associated with Bhutan.

Paro’s sister lodge, Uma Punakha, is a half-day’s drive east, through the (relatively) bustling Bhutan capital of Thimpu, and on up the spectacular Punakha valley. This is the real jewel in Como’s adventure resort crown, with brilliant views up and down a postcard-perfect valley; a vista of dramatic mountains with their feet reaching into rice paddies and dotted by whitewash walled villages.

It is a rich visage of the Bhutan you always imagined while sitting at home in bed, guidebook and dreams in hand.

Punakha is the newer of the two resorts, and ups the ante in terms of luxury and ‘lifestyles of the rich and famous’ vibe. Lushing it up in the expansive villas, it’s impossible as an adventure seeker not to be overcome by waves of guilt.

The only salvation is to scan the gigantic mountain ranges that fill your bedroom window and plan how you will go and hurt yourself within them.

Tourism in Bhutan

My mission to experience the pleasures of both lodges reveals only day-trip nibbles of what Bhutan’s landscape offers. Out there, farther afield, are the higher Himalaya, where one of the world’s wildest walks resides: the 17-to-25-day Snowman Trek which, due to its brutal weather patterns and tough climbing, is often cited as one of the world’s hardest treks.

The finishing of it would indeed deserve the rewards of Uma.

Kayaking and rafting are also increasingly popular. Paddlers are discovering the many rivers in Bhutan streaming down off the Himalaya to form everything from turbulent alpine rivulets to staid wide sub-tropical rivers. Grades range from easy to expedition-style dangerous.

Mountain biking is becoming popular in Bhutan, with new routes being opened up on ancient mule tracks from village to village. Indeed, mountain biking here has as its unofficial patron the King of Bhutan himself, His Exellency King Jigme KhesarNamgyel Wangchuck, who has taken to riding around the capital Thimpu.

Scouring maps of Bhutan, I can imagine the mountain trails just waiting to be explored on foot and wheel, and the many rivers awaiting a multi-day paddle.

But for now, I look to the topography that remains within return distance of my lodgings each night: after all, I wouldn’t want my table reservation at Uma’s fine dining restaurants to go wanting.

Exploring Tigers Nest

At Uma Paro, those missions include tackling Tigers’ Nest. Now a firm fixture on the bucket lists of genteel travellers the world over, the much photographed sacred site was once just a cave sitting at the head of a mountain pathway that hosted no more than the slow patter of monk sandals. Nowadays, in high season (March-May and September-November), it becomes a dusty daisy chain of group tourism. On my shoulder season visit, however, the track is empty enough to concoct a revision of how to tame the trail to the Tiger’s Nest.

Up: trail run. Down: mountain bike.

It’s not as though it hasn’t been done before: an intrepid Australian journalist had previously enjoyed the sweeping delights of wheeling a mountain bike down from the Tiger (like me, I am sure he shoulders the guilt of knowing a porter dragged the bike up there in the first place).

There’s even an online video featuring Bhutanese downhill bikers thrashing the trail to a Bhutanese thrash rock soundtrack here.

The Monastery also acts as the finish line in ‘The Last Secret’, a 200km, six-stage multiday adventure run across Bhutan each May.

But has anyone run up and then ridden down adventure duathlon style?

I thought not. In reality, they still haven’t, as my trail run up the precipitous cliffside turns into a trot-walk-trot-trudge. Tiger’s Nest is perched at 3120 metres – 900 metres above Paro Valley – making it a thigh burning climb if attempted at any pace faster than the venerable monks seeking servitude.

Originally built in 1692 (and rebuilt/renovated twice since), the Tiger’s Nest has been noted as a site of meditation since the 8th Century when Indian Guru Padmasambahva flew from Tibet on the back of a flying tigress for the purpose and landed at the cliff, which he anointed as the place for building a monastery.

Padmasambahva is credited with establishing the Nyingmapa school of Mahayana Buddhism in Bhutan.

Where the Guru flew up, I flew down, the trail well hewn from the mountainside, complete with berms to round tight hairpin corners. The few pilgrims on trail smiled in bemusement as I swept down to the valley floor, and on past village hamlets, paddy fields and the Dzong to eventually rest the bike at the Uma Paro’s oversized wooden doors.

Slinking through the foyer (the grime of my bike kit and waft of my day’s hard work incongruent among the polished floors and intricate woodwork), I made a beeline for the same hot rock bath in which I opened up this article (and with it my preconceptions of adventure).

Day trips across Punakha Valley

In subsequent days, I journey across to Punakha Valley, en route alighting at the top of Dochula Pass, to the east of Thimpu, for a short trail run to the Longchoetse Monastery. Despite the hilltop temple being only a 7km return journey from the car park, the resident monk tells me that tourists rarely make the trek up. Domestic visitors are usually content enough to take in the view from the 3000m viewpoint below.

That same altitude is of great assistance that afternoon, as we ditch the motorised transport for mountain bikes and a continuous downhill roll of 30 minutes or so. Although mostly bitumen, being the main thoroughfare between Thimpu and Punakha, it is an exhilarating ride.

We fly by traditional architecture, a few buildings adorned with colourful penises causing us to slam the brakes. Such intricate phallic artwork is seen on houses all over Bhutan, a lasting artistic and spiritual impression of the Divine Madman, wisdom master Lam Drukpa Kuenley.

Often misrepresented as simply a rebel teacher of ribald philosophies, Drukpa’s teaching focused on freeing people from their attachment to the illusionary nature of routine life. He did so in many ways, one of which was through outrageous sexual exploits, but his lessons go well beyond the salacious.

As Wes Nisker wrote in The Essential Crazy Wisdom, his message was that “Life is not a puzzle to be solved but a mystery to be lived.” I like to think this man who welcomed pleasure and sought adventure through risk taking, would have approved of my mission to meld pleasure with the seeking of meaning that is inherent in all adventure exploits.

Another of his teachings was to act on whim. Which is why, after a long half day walk up yop Seoo Gomba, a monastery to the northwest of the resort, I start to run down the trail on the return leg. Gravity and a sense of challenge pulled me along, and I could feel the Madman willing me faster still, all the way to the bottom of the valley and our finishline back at the Mo Chhu (river).

The fact there was a gourmet hot meal and a fine bottle of red wine waiting back at Uma may have also acted as encouragement.

A last paradise

That night, sitting at the dinner table, I regard the country I am in, a country many refer to as the Last Shangri-La, a reference to a final paradise. I’m still not sold on the whole Gross National Happiness idea – not everyone’s happy in Bhutan, and government ministers agree that it is an aspirational concept, rather than tangible reality for all. But I can confirm the existence of Gross Adventure Happiness.

It’s found on a stretch of singletrack bombing down from a Buddhist temple that westerner’s call Tiger’s Nest or, indeed, found on any number of wild journeys waiting to be undertaken across this relatively undeveloped nation.

Such gross happiness reaches new levels of satisfaction as I sink into the scalding waters of a hot-stone bath sipping ginger tea and musing: what joyful pain will I put myself through tomorrow to justify such exquisite pleasures of the flesh?

And I know the Divine Madman would approve of such whimsy. I am sure of it.

Top 5 Bhutan adventures

1: Snowman trek
25 day+ walk on mostly high altitude (>4000m) trail.
www.worldexpeditions.com/au/index.php?id=41

2: rafting or kayaking
Mo Chhu or Pho Chhu in Punakha Valley, Grades 1-4.
www.bhutan.com.au/rafting-in-bhutan/ or www.tourism.gov.bt/activities/kayaking-and-rafting-routes

3: Mountain biking
From 3-20 day MTB tours, village to village, off road, downhill.
www.bhutan.com.au or
www.bhutanmountainbike.com

4: Trail running
200km, six stages between Punakha and Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Paro Valley. www.global-limits.com/the-last-secret.html

5: Paragliding
12 day flying adventure in the Jakar and Ura Valleys
www.journeytobhutantravels.com/Paragliding.html

The essentials

Getting there: Druk Air flights to Paro via Delhi, Kathmandu or Bangkok (drukair.com.bt) are usually organised for you but are an added cost on top of your package price.

Independant travel: Independent travel to Bhutan is difficult: tourists must book through a tour operator and a minimum price for packages is set by the Bhutanese government. That said, it’s an adventurous country, the package prices aren’t – comparitively – that steep, and there are plenty of operators who specialise in adventure activities.

You can design your own itinerary; it just has to be organised through a local operator or your accommodation provider (in our case, Como’s Uma Adventure Resorts).

The minimum daily package covers:
• Min 3 star accommodation (4 & 5 star may require an additional premium).
• All meals
• A licensed Bhutanese tour guide for the extent of your stay
• All internal transport (excluding internal flights)
• Camping equipment and haulage for trekking tours
• All internal taxes and charges
• A sustainable tourism Royalty of $65. This Royalty goes towards free education, free healthcare, poverty alleviation, along with the building of infrastructure.

The minimum daily package for tourists travelling in a group of 3 persons or more:
USD $200 per person per night for the months of January, February, June, July, August, and December.
USD $250 per person per night for the months of March, April, May, September, October, and November.

Visa: All other tourists must obtain a visa clearance prior to travel to Bhutan. Visas are processed through an online system by your licensed Bhutanese tour operator. See more at: www.tourism.gov.bt

Accommodation: You have not really lived until you have stayed at Uma Paro and Uma Punahka. The perfect balance of refined luxury with chic styling and hospitality delivered with aplomb by attentive staff.

If Como has got one thing nailed to perfection, it’s the rooms and service. Add to that the best food not only in Bhutan, but potentially anywhere in the world.

You can arrange your entire stay (including visas and external activities) through Uma.

www.comohotels.com/umaparo
www.comohotels.com/umapunakha

For Australian/New Zealand travellers, a great stopover to ease you into the Uma-style of luxury is at sister hotel, Como’s Metropolitan, Bangkok.
www.comohotels.com/metropolitanbangkok