Insider's Guide to Bhutan

Kovalam, India
Kovalam, India // Photo by lena_serditova/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images


Views of Paro Valley and Paro Dzong
Views of Paro Valley and Paro Dzong are dazzling from Uma Paro.


Robin Fox, a luxury travel advisor with Pisa Brothers, just returned from Bhutan and reports on her unique journey there.

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A stay at Uma Paro
A stay at Uma Paro brings visitors up close with the Buddhist culture of Bhutan.

There’s a reason that Bhutan tops the destination lists of every travel magazine as well as the wish list of travel professionals.

I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit this magical country in February. The moment our Druk Air flight from Kathmandu touched down in Paro, I could see that there was something very special about this country of 700,000 people. Bhutan is not an easy place to get to. Scheduled flights are available from Bangkok, Delhi and Kathmandu but only eight pilots are qualified to fly in and out of this airport. Flights are operational only during daylight hours and pilots fly visually—and you will be mesmerized by the sights of snow-capped mountains as your flight readies to land.

You first notice that the airport terminal is built in the traditional Bhutanese style of architecture, but soon you see that every building in the country, old or new, is constructed in this charming and distinctive style. Everything is so very civilized and charming here. Men dress in the traditional Kao (robe) and women in the Kira. The sense of country pride is prevalent. Lapel pins depicting the beautiful, young royal couple are worn by many Bhutanese and happy faces are worn by all. The country motto is “GNH”—Gross National Happiness and that feeling is contagious.

Television first came to Bhutan in 1999. The currency, the Bhutanese rupee, and roads  arrived in the 1960s. Interesting Facts: There are no fast food restaurants, no billboards, no newsstands and no traffic lights. Marijuana is given to the pigs making them fat by giving them the “munchies” (they are very happy as well). Babies are named in temples where parents dip their hands into a bowl, picking one of the several approved names—and yes, more than one child in a family can have the same name. Archery is the national sport, where when the target is hit the entire audience stops to do a little dance. Colorful prayer flags are on display everywhere.

Uma Punakha’s COMO Villa Living Room
Uma Punakha’s COMO Villa Living Room provides utmost privacy and soul-stirring views.

Bhutan is home to some of the most beautiful old temples, monasteries and Dzongs (fort/government building/monastery). The most famous monastery is the Taktsang Lhakhang (Tiger’s Nest). It is perched on the side of a cliff which is reachable by an uphill hike of several hours depending on your fitness and ability. The rice paddies, snow-capped mountains, local villages and natural beauty make this country one of the most visually striking places to visit. Any time of year is a good time to visit Bhutan. If you are lucky enough to be there during a festival this will only enhance the experience of your visit.

I had the good fortune to stay at the two Uma properties. The Uma Paro was luxurious and very much in the style of the traditional Bhutanese design. The spa, indoor pool, gym and outstanding international cuisine made our stay here a delight. If possible, book a one bedroom suite. The large living room area and gracious bathroom were lovely. The Uma Punakha is a small contemporary hotel in the valley. The serene décor blends perfectly with the gorgeous views. Open your windows and you will hear the crisp bubbling sound of the Mo Chu River in the distance. Facilities are limited, but the chef is talented and dinner is a great activity for the evening. The rooms closest to the main building are spacious and very comfortable. Suites are located a little further away, so check the location before booking. My special thanks to the General Manager Norman Luxemburg. He made our stay at the Uma properties outstanding.

Uma Punakha’s Valley View
Uma Punakha’s Valley View rooms have sprawling outdoor terrace that are surrounded by scenic hills and forest.

The capital city of Thimpu has two great hotel choices: Amankora and the Taj Tashi. The Taj Tashi is a larger hotel located in the heart of the city. It is very easy to walk into town to visit the National Textile Museum and shops. Amankora is a sophisticated Zen-like property located in a residential area.

Independent travel in Bhutan is discouraged by the government. Travel arrangements must be made in advance through the services of a tour operator or directly with hotels.

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