There’s a COMO in Bhutan? No – there are two in the landlocked, mysterious Himalayan Buddhist kingdom whose name means “land of the thunder dragon”. One is COMO Uma Paro, close to Bhutan’s airport and its most famous monastery, the Tiger’s Nest; the other is COMO Uma Punakha, three hours’ drive away, in a valley on the bend of a sacred river.
Ah. Surely most hotels want to avoid being near a flight path?
True, but this is a very special flight path. Planes bank sharply in the distance, with the beautiful verdant valley and snow-capped mountains behind them. It’s quite the vista. There are only 12 pilots in the world registered to land in Paro, the country’s sole international airport. It’s a manual landing and occasionally a bit of a hair-raiser for passengers. There are also only 10 flights a day, so it’s hardly going to affect your sleep.
I see. What else makes these places so special, then? Apart from the breathtaking locations, decor, food, service, amenities, staff and, in Punakha, a gorgeous in-house retriever called Freddy, not much. Oh, except for the new helicopter adventure, a six-night itinerary staying in both properties that takes you to places rarely – if ever – visited by foreign travellers.
Crikey. Yup. There are only two helicopters and two pilots in the country, both coincidentally from Yorkshire, in northern England (the pilots that is, not the choppers). The journey is truly other-worldly – the Laya Valley is known as a “hidden paradise” for good reason. Encountering Layap people, who are clearly unused to seeing foreigners, is nothing short of extraordinary. Another privately guided helicopter flight takes guests to Labatama Valley, home of the dramatic, almost inaccessible Turquoise Lake, where they might glimpse a rare species of “blue” sheep. All told, you can guarantee some new Instagram followers.
What about more terrestrial pursuits ? At Uma Paro, guests can turn their hand to archery, the national sport. All Bhutanese love taking part and watching it – apart from the monks, who aren’t allowed to. Tournaments can take days, there’s considerable trash talking between teams and rumours persist of illegal stimulants. So it’s a lot like cricket. Both properties offer Bhutanese hot-stone baths in their spas, and there are worse ways to end an energetic day of hiking, bike riding, white-water rafting or monastery visiting.
How else do you get around? Travelling by road is much slower than by chopper, obviously, but it also offers a great window on the country. Local authorities have a way with words when it comes to road safety signs: “After drinking whiskey, driving is risky” and “This is a highway – not a runway” are two pearls. There are also no traffic lights in the country – the capital, Thimphu, however, does feature a dancing traffic policeman.
Is the food up to much? Absolutely. COMO prides itself on its cuisine, served in balanced, intelligent portions. Yak momos (dumplings) are far better than they sound while chillies are not just an ingredient but frequently the main vegetable served. Thankfully, heat levels can be moderated. Excellent renditions of Western and Indian cuisine are available, as are other great Bhutanese dishes.
What’s the deal with Punakha? Surprisingly, for those who thought the Bhutan climate meant freezing temperatures, it’s a gorgeous tropical valley, with rice paddies and ancient temples, rhododendrons, jacaranda trees, cherry blossom and more. The drive there passes through vast tunnels of poinsettia, which grow year-round. It’s like Christmas every day. Breakfast on the lodge’s terrace is worth the trip alone for the views over the misty valley.
What’s not to like? Er, there’s not much in the way of shopping in the Punakha valley. But that’s not really a bad thing. Television reached Bhutan only in 1998, followed by telephones, in 2003. But that’s arguably a good thing, too. Sorry, I’m stumped.
What’s the bottom line? Six nights full board in low season, with the helicopter tour, all excursions and transfers, starts from US$27,397 per room, based on two people sharing. As they say in Paro, Laso la (“You’re welcome”).