My job is to share my happiness with you,” says Yarab, our 37-year-old Bhutanese guide upon greeting us at the Paro Airport. “My mission will be accomplished when you take home beautiful memories of my country.” Surrounded by the glorious green Himalayan Mountains, our entry into Paro was otherworldly – a step back in time to when life moved at a slower pace.
We make our way up a winding road that leads up the side of one of the mountains encircling Paro. A glimpse of daily life in this remote Himalayan kingdom reveals children dressed in uniform returning from school clutching onto their mother’s hand, young monks dressed in their red robes walking diligently to meditate and the elderly quietly overseeing herbs in the garden. Charming Bhutanese houses with their typical multi-coloured wooden frontages, small arched windows and sloping roofs dot the landscape in a vision akin to what might appear as the Asian equivalent of Switzerland. Serenity permeates the air.
We arrive at Uma Paro, a distinct Bhutanese sanctuary surrounded by 38 acres of wooded hillsides, offering impressive views of the valleys below. The main building’s white-washed exterior resembles the typical dzong architecture found in the fortress-temples and farmhouses all over Bhutan. One of the latest hotels in Christina Ong’s Como brand, Uma Paro and Uma Punakha – the latest of the two – take advantage of Bhutan’s strong Buddhist tradition as well as the country’s beautiful natural surroundings to create hotel experiences that are not only serene but also enriching and spiritual.
Valley View rooms at Uma Punakha
We are warmly greeted by the staff who came out wearing their national dress – a knee-length garment for men called a gho and a long striped skirt called a kira for women. The place feels more like a private home than a hotel. Yoshida, our personal butler during our stay at Uma Paro, welcomes us and serves us the hotel’s delicious ginger tea. The hotel could feel exclusive; it has just 29 rooms and suites, including nine Forest View Rooms (Superior Rooms); nine Valley View Rooms (Deluxe Rooms); two Como Suites and eight one-bedroom villas. Instead, a warm-hearted ambiance pervades every room, much like the Bhutanese spirit.
We sip our tea in a simple reception area while seated on low chairs. Large glass windows ﬁll the space with light and we admire the traditional stone patio outside. A singing bowl is located on every table – a reminder of the country’s innate spirituality. Mrs Ong’s dog sleeps nearby – a lovely detail that once again makes this place feel more like a home. The resort ties in the Como brand’s contemporary architecture and wellness component with strong design aspects from Bhutanese heritage. The hotel was previously the Druk Hotel and Uma Paro’s interior designer, Singaporean Kathryn Kng, worked to maintain remnants of the hotel’s original structure and details. In the main building there’s the Bukhari restaurant – named after its traditional central ﬁ replace that forms a dramatic centrepiece to the room’s circular, pavilion-style design creating an ambiance that feels much like a winter lodge. There’s a lovely bar area with rich red low level chairs and dim lights providing the ideal setting for an intimate tea after hours of trekking. The COMO Shambhala spa area is a rendition of the brand’s more extensive offerings and includes an indoor pool as well as a yoga room – Mrs Ong believes in a daily yoga practise and each room comes with a yoga mat to assist guests on their journey. There’s also a library with a variety of books for those who wish to retreat in solitude. After a long trip, take an evening swim in the pool’s 36-degree water followed by a relaxing pause outdoors to relish in the sweet and chilly air.
Uma Paro set amidst the luscious Bhutanese landscape
Yoshida guided us to our villa – a private house with stunning views of the forest and surrounding valleys. Each villa is built from handcrafted stone, tiles and wood and feels at once distinctly contemporary but still Bhutanese. Inviting wood furniture painted in intricate detail by local artisans and bed covers that have hand-stitched patterns pay homage to the country’s rich heritage. There are hand-knotted rugs from Nepal as well as other artworks from South Asia offering a space that is rich spiritually and artistically. Each villa also comes equipped with a large spa treatment room complete with massage beds so that guests can arrange to have a COMO Shambhala experience in the comfort of their own room. Wonderfully spacious bathrooms and closet space allow for ample relax time in luxurious surroundings.
For exploring, Uma Paro is the ideal base for jaunts into the city, Thimphu, the nearby museums and also trekking to the renowned Tiger’s Nest – all of which we were able to do with ease and with the help of our guide Yarab. But if you desire, as we did, to venture out to somewhere more remote, then a few nights stay at Como’s other Bhutan property, Uma Punakha, is worth the four-hour bumpy drive that it takes to get there. This intimate luxury lodge located at the far western end of the lush Punakha Valley, is ideal for the traveller who, like us, loves adventure as much as they do luxury. Off-the-beaten-path is an understatement for Uma Punakha. The hotel’s dramatic location amidst rice paddies, vibrant green hills that cascade into the Mo Chu River. Also reminiscent of a local dzong, the hotel’s main area is punctuated by grand double doors. Enter and you encounter a sleek interior boasting contemporary furnishings with ﬂoor-to-ceiling windows and elegant orange sofas and chairs that complement well the crisp wooden walls. Scattered tastefully amidst the room are Bhutanese artworks and hand-knotted Nepalese rugs. Eight spacious bedrooms spread across two ﬂoors also have large ﬂoor-to-ceiling windows so that you can enjoy the impressive views as soon as you wake up and when you go to bed. Simple cream furnishings and artistic accents endow each room with an inviting ambiance. There are also two standalone villas in secluded areas of the property. Beﬁtting the brand, there is also a small spa set just below the hotel that you must walk to by foot while admiring the stunning views. The Bhutanese hot stone bath is a must. Soak all your worries away in a wooden bath ﬁlled with fresh healing leaves and white chrysanthemum ﬂowers. There are no taps on this traditional bath, so if you want more heat then you must use the singing bowl to signify your attendant in the next room to send down more hot stones to warm the bath – a spa treatment that is sure to be one of the most exotic you’ll have.
The outdoor terrace at Uma Punakha
After dinner at the hotel’s intimate restaurant which serves a mix of Bhutanese and international cuisine (we opt for Bhutanese), we head out onto the deck with a tea in hand. A gentle mist is coming over the hillsides as the darkness of night begins to settle in. Small bright lights scattered amidst the valley begin to turn on. We marvel at how few there are in this remote place, so far from all and yet so close, ﬁnally, we are with nature. Uma Paro and Uma Punakha brilliantly merge Bhutan’s spiritual calmness with a modern design component that heals as much as it delights.
Double Rooms at Uma Punakha from approximately Dhs1,809 during low season (all meals included); Forest View Room at Uma Paro during low season Dhs2,130.
Rebecca travelled to Bhutan with Lightfoot Travel, a luxury tour operator with offices in Dubai, Hong Kong and Singapore, specialising in tailor-made family holidays, honeymoons, private villas and corporate travel to countries spanning seven continents. Visit Lightfoottravel.com or call +971 4455 8788 for more details.