Guides of Bhutan yoga & walking holiday review | adventurous healthy holiday, Bhutan
Luxurious yoga, trekking & spa treatments in a magical kingdom
The quick read: Guides of Bhutan runs a 7 night yoga and walking holiday that can be tailor-made to your needs and timings in Bhutan, a tiny Buddhist kingdom landlocked between India to the south and Tibet to the north. We stayed at the stylish 5 star Uma Paro Hotel, which nestles in a pine forest above Paro town in the Eastern part of Bhutan, and half way through did a three day trek up to Bumdra wilderness camp (The Temple of 100,000 Fairies), overnighting in tents. Our trip included two and a half hours of yoga every morning, daily guided treks through ancient forests and sightseeing at spectacular cliff top temples and monasteries (dzongs). A full range of excellent spa treatments are also available at the hotel.
Who it’s best for: This is a trip for adventurous types who want to reconnect with nature and spirituality in a place which is still somewhat ‘off map’ – high prices mean that tourism is limited plus the population is tiny – officially 700,00 people. We went with four girlfriends but this would also be a fantastic place to come for an energetic break as a couple. We say leave the kids at home, they’d only complain on the mountain hikes!
What you can do: The holiday is a mix of trekking, yoga and relaxing. The scrumptious food – with an accent on healthy eating – is also a big part of the experience.
Our daily tailored yoga classes with the excellent and inspiring Christina Curry – which took place in the yoga room-with-a-view at the COMO Shambhala Retreat – were a tonic for weary minds. Christina has been teaching yoga for 15 years and originally trained in Chakra Yoga under David Goulet and Marina Hallerman in Thailand in 2004. Her practice is totally tailored to the individual and inspired by dynamic Vinyasa, Anusura, Iyengar, Forrest, Restorative yoga, pranayama and meditation. Our group were at very different levels, and fairly exhausted, so Christina concentrated on restorative yoga, guided meditation and chakra healing to help release stress and work through blockages, with remarkable success.
The substantial spa at the Como hotel has four treatment rooms and also boasts a Jacuzzi, an indoor pool with outdoor sundeck, gym and a separate 90 sq-metre hot stone bath house, which includes a private massage room for couples nestled in the pine forest. The resident yoga teacher Dr Nikhil S Pawar offers a complimentary one hour evening yoga session for hotel guests, and you can also book in for meditation and pranayama sessions. We tried Yoga Nidra, a lying-down guided meditation that uses pranayama breathing, concentration and visualisation techniques to deeply relax, balance and de-stress the mind and body.
The spa menu concentrates on Asian inspired therapies, and the most popular are unsurprisingly those that relieve tired muscles after trekking. The signature Bhutanese Traditional Hot Stone Bath and Massage is a must after a long hike. Inspired by local bathing methods, it uses large, red hot river stones to heat a wooden tub filled with water and laced with wormwood leaves (a natural antiseptic which is also excellent for muscle aches), Himalayan salts and decorative flowers. After a restorative soak, you can relax further with the COMO Shambala massage, a gentle-pressure ‘stroking’ massage which uses aromatherapy oil containing marjoram, bergamot, lavender and geranium to relieve anxiety and restore body and mind.
The hikes are awesome. 61 per cent of the country is still covered in pristine ancient forests, largely unchanged since the time when Tibetan Buddhist Lama Shabdrung Nawang Namgyal first united the country in the early 17th century. Bhutan is the only country in the world with 51 per cent of its land under protected status. The topography is dramatically varied, featuring pine-clad valleys, rhododendron forests, terraced hills and towering, snow-tipped mountain ranges with impenetrable heights.
Where you stay: Luxury hilltop hotel, Uma Paro, is built around the former traditional home of a Bhutanese nobleman. It’s nestled in a pine forest with spectacular views over Paro valley with it’s patchwork of rice paddies, temples and town dwellings, as well as the mountains beyond. Situated in the West of Bhutan, the hotel is also a refreshingly short 15 minute drive from the airport.
The hotel feels very intimate with just 20 rooms and nine villas (including one two-bedroom villa) artfully hidden in the pine forest on the 38 acre plot. As with all of hotel owner Christina Ong’s properties, there’s an understated elegance, style and understanding of the local environment which made us feel thoroughly spoilt but also thoroughly at home (albeit a fantasy idea of what home should be like). The place was crafted by architect Cheong Yew Kwan, working with traditionally-trained Bhutanese artisans and using local stone, wood and tiles. Interiors were designed by Kathryn Kng, a combination of clean-lined modernism with local detailing – we loved the artisanal hand-stitched bed linen and furniture made from Shesham as well as hand-knotted rugs sourced from nearby Nepal.
We stayed in one of the villa’s which comes complete with private spa treatment room and personal butler as well as a palatial bathroom, bedroom and living room with a traditional ‘bukhari’ wood burning stove. The design maximises views – of forest, mountains and the Paro valley. For more on the wilderness camp, see ‘how was it for us’ below.
How was it for us: When a girlfriend asked me to come on this trip I was working in a stressful job and also fully employed with two pre-teen boys. The thought of peaceful mountain hikes, daily yoga and no-one asking me anything was an opium too strong to resist. The fact that Bhutan is still fairly remote, has limited tourism and is on every National Geographic photographers ‘best places to photograph’ list was another big pull for me. I paid my deposit and started saving.
Trekking through fairytale forests of ancient blue pine, juniper and mountain oak bedecked with Old Man’s Beard and moss (a sure sign that the air is unpolluted) was a bewitching experience. It was fantastic to share it all with a group of girlfriends – all of whom had (slightly guiltily) escaped jobs and families to be on the trip. For me, walking is a meditation; to have the time to connect with friends, think with clarity and take in the scenery is a rare tonic that has a long term effect.
A high point was our three day trek, overnighting at the tented Bumdra Wilderness Camp high in the mountains, for two nights. There was a real sense of achievement when we arrived at the camp after a six hour trek uphill through pine and oak forest. It was incredibly cold – and snowed overnight – but the semi-permanent tents all had beds and duvets, we were served hearty, warming local food and an open fire was set outside in the evenings. Waking up on the first morning to a blanket of snow and yak populated views over the camp and Himalayas made me giggle with happiness – no wonder this country measures its success with a happiness index rather than measuring GDP. On the way back we visited The Tiger’s Nest monastery, reportedly where Guru Rimpoche spent months meditating. Perched precariously on the edge of a cliff, it is breathtaking; an absolute must for any visit to Bhutan.
What we took home: There’s not yet a huge amount to buy in Bhutan (most things are imported from nearby India and Nepal), plus prices are surprisingly high. Expect more earthy prizes; reconnecting with nature in such a spectacular way brought peace, space and mental clarity; spending time with the gentle Buddhist Bhutanese people, engenders a desire to be more generous and mindful.
Would we go back: Yes – coffers allowing. Next time we’d like to go in the spring to see the mountains bedecked with rhododendron forests and wildflowers.
People watch: Christina Curry is the the former yoga director at Uma Paro who now lives and teaches yoga in Milan as well as running bespoke yoga holidays with the Como Hotel group. Her carefully thought out yoga practice took account of different levels of competence and made allowances for sore muscles after 3-5 hour hikes every day. She incorporated wise teachings as well as challenging physical moves and left us feeling renewed, energised and relaxed.
Food watch: Expect delicious, organic food, sourced from local farmers with an emphasis on local specialities and Indian dishes from chef Jillene Slui, a New Zealand cook previously with Parrot Cay in the Turks & Caicos, also owned by COMO Hotels and Resorts. The restaurant, called ‘Bukhari’, is housed in a circular pavilion set among tall pine trees with floor-to-ceiling windows and a ‘bukhari’ fireplace at its centre. Guests can also dine at Uma’s central courtyard or at the lobby bar and at the COMO Shambhala spa. in-room dining is until 10pm. Specialities include ‘sicum paa’ or dried local pork with Bhutanese chilli, and ‘bathup,’ a hearty soup based on handmade noodles.
What’s queenly: The staff – both our guides Jigme and Passang, provided by Guides of Bhutan, and the employees at Uma Paro – made this journey extra special. Gentle, kind, endlessly patient, the hotel staff went beyond the call of duty trying to repatriate my luggage which had been lost by British Airways (and didn’t turn up until two days before the end of the trip). The team at Guides of Bhutan even sent extra warm clothes up to our camp.
What’s lowly: While utterly charming, the mountain camp was unseasonably cold and snowy when we went in early November. While the tents had proper beds and thick duvets, most of our party got extremely cold at night. Remember to pack plenty of warm clothes and thermals. It’s worth noting that there are no proper washing facilities too. The grazing yaks (with accompanying cow bells) can be very noisy at night!
Insider tip: If you’re transiting through Delhi and need to pick up luggage between flights (ie your airline can’t check it all the way through), then you MUST have an Indian visa or you won’t be able to travel onward to Bhutan. You can’t get a temporary visa at the airport. Leave yourself plenty of time (a few weeks) to apply, especially if you don’t hold a British passport.
Price with a companion: $8,300 (£5498) for two people sharing one room for the 7 night trip, including full board accommodation (except drinks), the services of an experienced English-speaking guide, 10% sales tax & hotel service charges, all Bhutanese Government Taxes, Visa Fees and Royalties (& Free Independent Traveller Surcharge), private transport throughout including airport transfers, fully guided tours and activities as per the itinerary, donations to monasteries & charitable causes, entry permits and fees to all temples, museums & monasteries and a Buddhist blessing in a temple.
Price alone: $6,900 (£4570) per person as above.
Value for money: Tourists visiting Bhutan must pay $200 – $250 per person per day (which covers accommodation, transport in Bhutan, guide, food and entry fees), so this is certainly not a budget holiday, but the limited tourism and low population count means that you can be walking for hours without encountering a single soul. The initial price is expensive but we ate excellent food and had incredible personal service from our guides, butler and the hotel staff throughout. Drinks (aside from mineral water) weren’t included but after all that hiking and yoga we weren’t up to drinking that much alcohol. Laundry bills can rack up so bring plenty of changes of clothes.
Reviewed by Anabel Cutler
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