Punakha, Bhutan

Photo: Dhensa Boutique Resort

Why haven’t you traveled to Bhutan yet? The Himalayan country has been languishing on your bucket list for years. You’re always tempted by photographs of snow-capped mountains hovering over green valleys. The promise of gross national happiness doesn’t hurt either. But you inevitably select another destination once the planning begins. It’s time to stop putting off what seems like a magical land.

After landing at the Paro Airport, which everyone does since it’s the country’s sole international airport, you spent a few days adjusting to the high altitude and waiting for the clouds to disperse around the Tiger’s Nest (the hillside monastery is truly stunning) in the Paro Valley. Thimphu was next. The old and the new collided in Bhutan’s small capital. Now you’re continuing east, through rice fields and citrus gardens, to reach Punakha.

Punakha was the capital of Bhutan, until it was moved 45 miles away to Thimphu in 1955. The pretty town—it can’t even be described as a city—sits at the confluence of the Pho Chhu (Father River) and the Mo Chhu (Mother River). It’s known for Punakha Dzong, one of the country’s most beautiful fortresses, and its surprisingly warm weather. Visitors are now staying longer thanks to a boutique hotel.

Photo: Dhensa Boutique Resort

Dhensa Boutique Resort opened a few years ago on a hillside overlooking Punakha with the goal of returning to an innocent way of life. It certainly feels like it followed through with its promise. The resort looks like a private den. Its striking main building has floor-to-ceiling windows and a tongue-and-groove roof. Six cottages stand nearby. Each is home to four large suites. They’re understated with minimal decor, platform beds, and white linens. There are soaking tubs in the bathrooms. While you see pine forests, listen to singing birds, and feel the fresh air out on the balconies.

The resort feels like a sanctuary. The spa, located in its own cottage, offers a steam room, a sauna, and hand-blended essential oils. You make a beeline for the wood-fired bathtub outside. Clean lines and simple wooden tables fill the restaurant. You prefer to try local dishes out on the terrace. There’s a quiet library down the hall and metal fire pits outside, as well.

Plus the land around the resort looks like a playground. A trail up the mountain behind it leads to a ridge where you find the Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup (a nunnery) and one of the largest bronze statues of Avalokiteśvara in the country. Another trek brings you to Chimi Lhakhang, a monastery where childless couples seek blessings for fertility. A bike ride through the countryside passes the Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten (a temple built by the queen mother), the gorgeous countryside, and, if you’re lucky, critically endangered white-bellied herons en route to Sonagasa Village. White-water rapids, which originated from high glaciers, offer an adrenaline rush and views of the still-snow-capped mountains. You can also participate in local traditions, including dart games and prayer flag hoisting, closer to the resort.

All of this makes you very happy. This is the Bhutan you waited years to see.


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