November 13, 2023
In Punakha there’s a very nice hotel amongst the rice terraces, built from rammed earth, enjoying stunning views of the Punakha Dzong. In the mornings a heavy mist rolls off the river, and slowly reveals the presence of the dzong. When it first opened there were just 8 rooms, offering a small scale experience with a touch of luxury. At least that’s what the owner was aiming for.
It is a lovely place to stay, but not without it’s quirks. The rooms are enormous, to the point of cavernous. In the absence of proportionate furniture you are presented with enough empty space to run a yoga class. In one corner a small TV is foxed to the wall, and a small table holds the tea making facilities. The power cable for the kettle is too short to reach the outlet however. The bathroom is spacious enough to be a hotel room itself, and the hot water is fast and abundant. The shower recess alone could double as a car wash. Regrettably the drain hole for the shower is placed at the wrong end of the gradient, so water pools up instead draining away. In the years to come I fear this hotel will not age well, and instead of fixing the existing issues the owners are focused on adding a new wing of rooms to expand their offering.
Nearly every hotel in Bhutan is not quite right. If you begin with that expectation you won’t be too disappointed. In my decade and a half of travelling the Himalayas I’ve seen a lot of amazing places to stay, where they’ve worked incredibly hard to make it special while simultaneously overlooking some very basic elements. When designing tours it can be a constant headache, trying to choose between which kind of “not quite right” will be most comfortable for a particular group or itinerary.
The vtot majority of hotels in Bhutan are officially of a “3-star” standard. They are required to meet certain criteria as set by the government to attain and retain this rating. In fact many 3-star hotels are full of character and charm and more enjoyable than a 4-star. Some are technically meeting the 3-star criteria but delivering a highly compromised experience however. When there’s a construction zone right outside your bedroom for example, or they haven’t paid any attention of dirt and stains on the floor rug since they first opened a decade ago. Not every hotel owner takes pride in the experience of their guests.
Some hotels in Bhutan are simply exceptional. The 5-star resorts typically cost around USD$2000 a night and typically offer a finely tuned blend between Bhutanese style and international service. We reviewed a handful of these across Bhutan before the covid pandemic, and have a little work ahead of us to keep up with the recent openings by Sixth Sense, Amankora and Como. There are a few other well known brands operating in Bhutan now, but unlike the aforementioned many of them have transplanted their identity fully into their new hotels with very little of the local character. The rooms and menus could be anywhere in the world, and what’s the point in that? There are a few 5-star properties that are wholly local and very unique. We like to use those wherever possible too.
Unless you’re booking a customised itinerary with the 5-star options, most of our travellers are not staying at Amankora though. It’s a big gap between the official 3-star standard and the most exclusive resorts in Bhutan. And that’s where the quirky things are most likely to happen.
Some our favourite places are hidden away in valleys with cottages nestled into the forest. Some are like safari camps with “tented rooms” complete with underfloor heating and private en-suites. Some have views of Tiger’s Nest, while some have views of grazing cows. Others are surrounded by the call of migratory cranes honking and hooting through the night. Some are embraced by apple orchids and make their own apple cider on location. Some have wood fired burkas that put out so much heat they turn your room into a sauna when you throw one log too many on the fire. Some have the worst food I’ve ever eaten in Bhutan yet possibly the best view I’ve ever imagined. Some make an excellent chicken curry for dinner, and delicious fried rice for breakfast.
It’s the character of a place that I look for when considering a hotel. On paper most hotels looks very much the same, and it’s only once you stay there for a few nights that the charms of a place, or it’s annoyances, become most apparent. There are many ways to make a hotel good. It certainly helps if the kettle cord can reach the outlet.
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