How do you measure wealth? Is it zeroes in the bank? Cars in the garage? Watches on the winder? For me, other than ensuring a few bills are paid, it’s about countries. Right now, I’m on #44 and counting, trying to keep ahead of my age as I make deposits in the bank of experiences. My financial planner may disagree, but I consider myself a wealthy man. The remote mountain kingdom of Bhutan takes a similarly atypical view of wealth. That’s thanks to its previous king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who in 1972 declared “gross national happiness” (GNH) to be a more important metric than the hard black-and-white figures of gross domestic product (GDP).
Since then, the concept of GNH has influenced the country’s social and economic development — which, by the way, has seen annual GDP growth average 7.5% over the past 40 years — and guided the policy of opening its borders to high-value, low-impact tourism. When the country reopened after the pandemic, its daily “sustainable development fee” rose to US$200 per tourist, and still the well-heeled arrived in droves. And from September 2023 they’ll have another excellent reason to visit, with the opening of &Beyond Punakha River Lodge on the banks of the Mo Chhu River in the Punakha Valley, one of Bhutan’s most popular corners.
“Bhutan is a place to breathe, a place to rest, a place to connect. Spend two weeks there and it will change your perspective on many things,” says Joss Kent, executive chairperson and CEO of &Beyond. “I’m absolutely thrilled that &Beyond Punakha River Lodge, the company’s first wholly owned and managed lodge in Asia, is set to open in this magical destination.”
Situated in the west of the kingdom, the Punakha Valley is known as the rice bowl of Bhutan, and the banks of the Mo Chhu River are lined with sinuous terraces of lush green paddies. While Bhutan lies on the edge of the Himalayas, Punakha is known for its temperate climate, luxuriant vegetation, and mesmerising mountain views.
Though set away from the high-altitude trekking regions to the north, the valley offers a diversity of outdoor adventures, from mountain biking to river rafting. The new lodge also has direct access to the popular walking trail to the Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten. An icon in the valley, the four-storey pagoda-style stupa was built to ward off evil spirits and offers fantastic views over the valley. Too active? Community visits, champagne stops, and al-fresco lunches amid the rice paddies are also on the cards. In addition, the valley is home to the Punakha Dzong, one of the finest examples of the fortified monasteries found across Bhutan and Tibet.
All of &Beyond’s African safari lodges draw their inspiration from the surrounding landscape and local culture, and there’s a similar approach to this brand-new addition. Set atop a traditional timber base, six private safari-style tents look out over the Punakha Valley’s patchwork of paddies and mountain landscapes. While the views are entrancing, the décor is a colourful celebration of Bhutan’s unique culture, with elements of brass, traditional basketwork, wood, and rattan creating an organic yet opulent space.
Complementing the tented accommodation is a spacious two-bedroom villa with its own private deck and plunge pool that transforms into a hot tub in the cooler winter months. While offering all the contemporary comforts and authentic service you’d expect from &Beyond, the focus of Punakha River Lodge is on a sense of immersive luxury. The uniquely Bhutanese aesthetic — created by acclaimed South African design agency Fox Browne Creative — leans heavily on indigenous patterns and textures, with hand-woven local wool incorporated as upholstery, linen detailing and blankets, and decorative painted and gilded details in the traditional Bhutanese woodwork created by local craftsmen.
The blue poppy — the national flower of Bhutan — appears subtly as a recurring theme throughout. Stonework and hardwoods are all local and sustainably sourced, and the same goes for the treatment oils used in the wellness spa. Designed to evoke a traditional Bhutanese barn, the spa will also offer massages in a private setting on the riverbank, as well as a unique hot-stone bath experience. A dedicated yoga pavilion allows for mindful mornings soaking up the Himalayan scenery.
In both location and luxury, Punakha River Lodge promises to deliver a distinct, and unforgettable, sense of place.
• From the March edition of Wanted, 2023.