Hotel Review: AndBeyond Punakha River Lodge, Punakha In Bhutan
Shoba Narayan seeks Buddhist balance at this luxury lodge in the mountainous Kingdom of Bhutan.
IMAGE CREDIT: ANDBEYOND.COM
Words by Shoba Narayan
Nestled in a spectacular landscape that includes verdant paddy fields, the sparkling Mo Chu river, and framed by the mountains of the Jigme Dorji National Park, luxury safari operator andBeyond’s first outpost in Bhutan captivates in ways big and small.
It’s conservation agenda is hard to ignore. Out of 50 acres of property, only five have been used for the lodge. The built area includes a central living-dining room, just six tented suites and two family villas, and the remaining land has either been left wild or returned to the community, which farms paddy on it.
The food, a mixture of local and global cuisines is arguably the best in Bhutan amongst luxury lodges. Lots of brands talk about ‘customer delight’, but andBeyond walks, runs, feeds and launders the talk by setting up a series of surprises for guests.
Guests are welcomed in the ‘living room,’ which is made to look like a local home, where the décor is cosy and antiques have been sourced from throughout the kingdom. Bamboo rice baskets hang on the wall and the side-tables are repurposed wooden containers traditionally used for storing buckwheat and other grains in Bhutan, while a selection of books about local culture are available to borrow.
The dining room is adjacent, but as hotel manager, Rishi Sarma said: “Our goal is to not have the guests eat in the dining room”. Instead, the staff go to great lengths to set up meals at different spots across the sprawling property. One of our lunches, for instance, was by the river, while another was particularly delightful. We went with our guide on a hike up the mountain to a monastery and temple. After we finished visiting the temple, we walked out of the exit to be confronted with a fully set up breakfast table and three staff on hand to serve us. To sit on top of a mountain with a view of the Buddhist monastery and munch on a croissant was pure delight.
Service, they say, makes a hotel and, in this regard, andBeyond pleases. Staff leave you handwritten notes when they return your neatly pressed laundry. It’s worth noting that the laundry, along with all food and drink, is included in the price, which is true of most of the luxury lodges in Bhutan.
A nice extra in this property is that the mini-bar is included in the price, as are some of the guided walks. Why do hotels nickel-and-dime guests with the mini-bar? This simple measure of taking the thought out of reaching for a beer or Diet Coke from the fridge in the room elevates the guest experience.
Each guest is assigned a butler who takes care of all their needs and is the main contact person. The housekeeping staff is excellent – you go to breakfast and come back to see a well-made bed, clean bathroom and restocked bar. I came in after dinner one night to find a hot bath sprinkled with locally-used healing artemisia leaves and bath salts. I slept very well that night after my hike, sundowner, dinner and hot bath.
There are just six tented suites, each of them spacious with a balcony all around. Besides the Wi-Fi connection, laptop chargers, safe, coffee and tea maker, there are biscuits and chili chocolates on offer throughout the stay and there are umbrellas and torches for you to use as you walk back after dinner. The well stocked mini-bar has generous-sized bottles of gin, rum, vodka, four types of Bhutanese beer, and soft drinks.
Wake up calls include early morning coffee and cookies delivered to a ‘butler’s hatch’ so that you don’t intersect with staff the minute your eyes are open. The same applies to your afternoon tea – you can specify that it be served at a certain time and it is left there with no disturbance to your siesta and, believe me, that afternoon siesta comes easily in Punakha’s heat.
The design takes its cues from the countryside; the furnishings, for instance, are woven by Renew, a textile NGO with a mission to empower women. There are indoor and outdoor showers where the water pressure is strong and two towels – one the Turkish kind preferred by Westerners and the other thinner version that Asians prefer – are available. Thankfully there are a surfeit of hooks for you to hang wet swimwear and used towels.
A bathtub in the middle of the bathroom is a welcome addition after a hard day of hiking or rafting and there you’ll find fragrant toiletries, which are organic and made in Bhutan.
The one gripe is the number of curios in the room, particularly the washbasin area, as they leave you little space to keep your things. You don’t have to have the minimalism of an Aman but a little breathing space in all counter spaces of the room will help.
The verandah that runs around the room has comfortable chairs and tables where guests can read or snooze during the afternoons. In the evening, the birds come out – there are laughing-thrushes, hoopoes and warblers that fly around. You can make yourself a rum, gin, or vodka cocktail and enjoy the chirping.
Food and drink
Rudolf van der Westhuizen, the executive chef is supremely talented and served us some of the most memorable meals of our trip. His style reminded me of chef Marcus Samuelsson who ran Aquavit in New York when I lived there in the early 2000s, in that he plays with local ingredients in a global way. The Bhutanese sous chefs are quiet but also very talented, serving variations of local cuisine in a way that suits the spice levels and diet preferences of guests. Depending on guest activities, breakfast is served in situ or not. If you are on a hike, you get breakfast packed in local tiffin-carriers, including everything from fresh orange juice to boiled eggs.
Lunch is served whenever the guest wants it. We asked for a late lunch after a rafting trip, for instance, and discovered, to our delight, that an array of delicious tapas-like dishes were served to us by the river, complete with chilled Bhutanese beer, wine and other drinks. Dinner, too, is often al fresco at different spots around the property and the menu is made up every day after the chef talks to the guests. The bar and coffee station in the main lobby are available when you need. An interactive kitchen with a Burmese style wood-stove opens up in the evening, where the Burmese chef makes you live appetisers as you sip your drink. The drink selection includes Australian wine, Bhutanese beer and global spirits.
A small pamphlet that is left in the room tells you everything you need to know about Bhutan. There is the map, tips about etiquette, talking points about the culture and cuisine. Best of all, there is a list of usable phrases in Dzongkha, for example the translation for, “May I take your photo please?” (very usable given how good looking and generously accommodating the people are), along with simple phrases for please and thank you. Again, why didn’t the other luxury brands in Bhutan think of this? I carried this pamphlet everywhere during my trip.
andBeyond is big in Africa where it operates luxury safaris, so activities are its speciality. The lodge offers 11 activities that include free guided walks, river rafting, hiking, bicycling, archery, and visits to the local monastery, nunnery and fortress (called dzong).
The spa and yoga pavilion offer massages and yoga classes for sore nerves. Interesting experiences include a hot stone bath and massage.
In a nutshell
This is the first Asian outlet from andBeyond and, while more Asian properties are in the works, Punakha River Lodge has set a high benchmark. The brand markets Bhutan as a place where time stands still and that may be relative to the rest of the world, but change is coming to Bhutan at a pace that discomfits the locals. For those of us who want to experience authentic and old Bhutan, the time to visit is now. andBeyond’s lodge offers a safe and luxurious landing in this interesting and inspiring mountain kingdom.
Stays at the Punakha River Lodge by andBeyond start from £910 in the off-season and rise to £1,100 in high season. The lodge manager mentioned that they were consciously pricing themselves between Uma Como and Aman.
Shoba Narayan is an author, journalist and columnist. Besides writing, she is interested in nature, wine, gadgets and Sanskrit. Her lifelong mission is to get fit without exercising and lose weight without dieting.