No longer a forbidden kingdom

Landlocked Bhutan is welcoming tourists again to enjoy its untouched nature and culture in comfort and style

The lush green Paro valley.

Pristine nature has long been a key feature of the Kingdom of Bhutan since it began welcoming guests in 1974.

The small mountainous nation, located in a biodiverse hotspot on the edge of the eastern Himalayas, is the world's first carbon-negative country with approximately 70% of its land covered by forest. More than a third of its forest is under ecological protection and conservation programmes.

Such an untouched setting has made Bhutan a bucket list destination for hikers and outdoor explorers. Recently it hosted Snowman Race, an ultra-marathon through the Himalayan wilderness to raise awareness of climate change. The five-day event was partaken by elite trekkers from all over the world -- some of them have conquered Mount Everest.

But what if you are not the intrepid type nor physically fit for high-altitude adventure? Is there any other leisure activity in this small landlocked kingdom worth spending time (and money) on?

Of course, there are plenty of alternatives.

Despite the media's insistence on climbing the iconic cliffside Tiger's Nest Monastery in Paro as a must-do, exploring Bhutan is not all about challenging physical endurance.

Six Senses Thimphu's breathtaking lobby pavilion.

On top of the breathtaking scenery, there's a rich cultural heritage, unique culinary features and the warm hospitality of the Bhutanese. All of it can be enjoyed if you are a well-heeled traveller.

After more than two years of Covid, Bhutan reopened its border last month to international visitors.

At the same time, it unveiled a new national strategy titled "Believe". The strategy reflects Bhutan's distinct character and is underpinned by the elevation of guest experiences and infrastructure upgrades while enhancing the country's sustainable development endeavours.

One of the key changes, tourism-wise, is the lifting of the minimum daily package rate (MDPR).

For several decades, foreign travellers visiting Bhutan were required to book through licensed tour operators who would arrange a predetermined itinerary for the whole trip. The package required a minimum spend of US$250 (9,450 baht) per person per day to cover accommodation, meals and a mandatory tour guide to limit the number of international visitors and control where they went.

A one-bedroom suite at Six Senses Thimphu.

The rebranded policy gives holidaymakers more freedom as they no longer need to be on a package tour. This gives visitors the flexibility to engage service providers directly, whether it be hotels, restaurants, spa resorts or travel guides.

However, a new tariff of US$200, called the sustainable development fee (SDF), is now required. The amount, which goes directly to the government, does not cover the visa cost, accommodation, transportation, meals, tours and other travel expenses which are to be paid separately. Such a stipulation not just strengthens Bhutan's "high value, low volume" tourism principle, but also ensures exclusivity for upscale visitors.

The new fee comes with the government's approach towards luxury tourism.

Gone are the days when Bhutan's roads and trails were dangerously rutted, public bathrooms scrubby, hotels mediocre and food bland.

Glamping accommodation at Tiger's Nest Camp.

Tourism logistics as well as standards for hospitality service providers have been upgraded and refined. Employees across the tourism industry, from chefs to chauffeurs, were required to participate in upskilling programmes with a focus on service quality.

"We know that our new SDF brings with it a certain expectation among visitors to Bhutan," said Bhutan Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr Tandi Dorji.

"So we are committed to enhancing the guest experience whether through the quality of services, cleanliness and accessibility of our infrastructure.

"And by limiting the number of cars on our roads and the number of people visiting our sacred sites, we assure authentic experiences for guests."

When it comes to accommodation, visitors to Bhutan nowadays are spoiled with an impressive selection of high-end global hotel brands including Six Senses, Aman, Como and Le Meridien.

A sunset cocktail at Nimnub Point in Thimphu.

Six Senses Bhutan, which I stayed at, encompasses five resorts intimately located across biologically-rich valleys of Thimphu, Punakha, Paro, Gangtey and Bumthang. The lodging facilities are thoughtfully designed to immerse guests in local nature and culture.

The Thimphu location, which has the most number of suites and villas in the Six Senses Bhutan collection, is perched amidst apple orchards and pine forests on a cloud-kissed hill looking over the kingdom's capital, and hence has the nickname "Palace In The Sky". Every room in the 25-key resort is blessed with a majestic view of the Great Buddha Dordenma statue. The resort also boasts an awe-inspiring wellness facility that includes a spa, a hot stone bath, a state-of-the-art fitness centre, a yoga studio and a gigantic heated indoor swimming pool.

Just 25 minutes' drive from Bhutan's main national airport and 45 minutes from the kingdom's most-revered Tiger's Nest Monastery, is Six Senses Paro. The lodge is embraced by forested mountain peaks over a colourful prayer-flag-strung valley and within walking distance from several ancient stone ruins, monasteries and fortresses.

Dubbed "Flying Farmhouse", Six Senses Punakha takes cues from its magnificent paddy field surroundings. The spectacular lodge impressively blends rustic rural charm with first-class hospitality.

A gourmet vegetarian dish showcasing fresh seasonal mushrooms.

Six Senses Gangtey, located in central Bhutan, is strategically positioned above the black-necked crane conservation centre. Its expansive 180-degree views of the U-shaped Phobjikha Valley, where the cranes from the Tibetan Plateau roost during the winter season, make the eight-suite resort a very intimate and luxurious birdwatching spot.

Nestled among a pine forest in Bhutan's most peaceful region is Six Senses Bumthang. The eco-conscious resort, dubbed "Forest Within A Forest", enclaves a courtyard with a tree planted in the centre and is ideal for a spiritual hideaway.

Bhutan also has several glamping sites for smaller-budget visitors looking for a glamorous camping experience. They include the Tiger's Nest Camp and the Tenzinling Luxury Villa Tents, both located in Paro.

When it comes to gastronomy in Bhutan, tourists in the past found choice limited and unpalatable. That was until a couple of years ago.

Today, I, a veteran food writer, find this small Buddhist country to have some of the simplest yet tastiest cuisine on offer.

Bhutan's longest suspension bridge in Punakha.

Although dishes are usually prepared without meat as the majority of Bhutanese people are vegetarian, they always exhibit a naturally flavoursome quality of fresh seasonal vegetables, chillies and cheese. Yes, the Bhutanese love cheese and dairy products!

The two most common dishes in Bhutan are ema datsi and momo. The first literally means "chilli and cheese", and features a delicious concoction of long chilli peppers, garlic and salt cooked in oil before soft cow's milk cheese is gradually added in to make a creamy sauce. The dish can easily be found anywhere from 5-star hotel restaurants to street-side eateries.

The latter, a popular local street food, features steamed or fried dumplings filled with cheese or vegetables. The thick-skinned dumplings are eaten with chilli sauce, and with or without soup.

Western-styled gastronomy is more common now in Bhutan. You can find modern cafes offering superb pizza, pasta, and burger as well as a wide variety of bakery goods and fresh-brewed coffee in almost every town.

Most young Bhutanese chefs today are trained by European instructors and the quality of food offered by 5-star hotels throughout the country is worthy of world-class accolades.

A modern cafe in downtown Paro.

Bhutan is also listed among countries covered by the prestigious Asia's 50 Best Restaurants Award.

Foraging is another ideal activity while in the Himalayan country. A guided mushroom foraging expedition followed by a cooking class is offered by Six Senses hotels from July to September.

Other activities include archery lessons, horseback riding, shopping for handmade objets d'art at local markets, visiting wildlife sanctuaries and museums, and attending seasonal festivals.

But should you wish for a do-nothing getaway, Bhutan is also an absolute romantic paradise.

To make your holiday in Bhutan smooth is the fact that Bhutanese speak English very well.

English, which is generally taught in school, is regarded as the country's second language and is used for administration, education, media and business.

Although opening up to modernity and civilisation, Bhutan has remained committed to its high-value essence, merit and religious nationalism that has defined the country for generations.

The riverside Punakha Dzong fortress and monastery.

The Gross National Happiness Index, a measurement of the collective happiness and well-being of the population, is still guiding the Bhutanese government. The nation is not just the happiest country but also one of the most nonviolent places on Earth with a mandatory ban on animal slaughtering.

Bhutan is bordered to the north by Tibet and to the south, east and west by India. It can be accessed via flights from Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Singapore and Thailand.

Druk Air, the kingdom's national airline, and Bhutan Airlines offer several direct flights between Bangkok and Bhutan weekly.

For more information about visiting Bhutan and tourism regulations, visit bhutan.travel or tourism.gov.bt



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