No matter where you are in Bhutan, there’s almost always a fine place to stay not very far away. Several outposts of international hospitality chains have flourished in its valleys and unassuming cities, promising inordinate luxury for the well-heeled, with exceedingly well-appointed rooms with panoramic views, hot-stone baths and a headlong immersion into Himalayan zen.
Not that it eschews any of these indulgences, but compared to all those illustrious cribs, The Postcard Dewa also feels like a really comfortable home with every possible convenience. Informed by aesthetics at the intersection of distinctly Indian and eastern Himalayan sensibilities, it interrupts the monotony of the quintessential Bhutanese luxury hotel. I know it from the moment my car begins snaking along the forest road hugging the hill, the hotel’s evasive visage giving itself away bit by bit at the persistent craning of my neck. Once there, I am welcomed with smiles, with endless kuzuzampolas and with warm herbal tea as I stare wide-eyed at the enormous reception desk—an ornately carved wooden counter salvaged from the Talo Monastery in Punakha—and right behind, an embroidered kira belonging to the family of the second Bhutanese king.
In the week that just went by, I hiked more than I have in my entire life. My clothes demand reparations of me, and my body has forgotten both fight and flight. The former is taken in kindly by the laundry, and the latter I cede to my sanctuary for the next few days: the Premier Suite. Numbered 201, it is as close as a real-world manifestation can come to the open-plan apartment of my dreams. It’s big (2,000 square feet) but with clearly defined spaces that blend into each other. It’s chic but with just the right number of traditional accents. It’s modern but bursting with hygge, thanks to the plush living area with no want of couches, rugs and floor cushions. I have made many friends in Bhutan, and I guess there is enough space to accommodate all of them over an intimate gathering and a backyard barbecue on the terrace. I step into the latter, taking in all of Khasadrapchu village and the turquoise belly of the river Wang Chhu. This is a view, I surmise, that might have made three of the most important people in Bhutan proud—its king, queen and Prime Minister.
No, that’s not me flattering myself. Suraj Chettri, the Food & Beverage Manager, tells me the hotel, which started just before COVID-19 struck (in December 2019), stayed functional throughout the duration of the pandemic except for the lockdown, hosting groups on business who would utilise the meeting hall that doubles up as a yoga room. Hosting domestic guests for Sunday brunches and PM Lotay Tshering for two quarantines after he returned to the country from trips abroad, Postcard Dewa also had the king Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and the queen Jetsun Pema over for an extended stay at the property. I imagine it was the location that did it: a scenic perch high up in a forest just 20 minutes away from Thimphu city centre and under an hour away from Paro airport. But I will soon learn there’s more to it.
Our conversation about the hotel’s illustrious guests in recent history among other subjects inevitably spills over into the evening cocktails, where I try out a peach wine-based sour and an uplifting cosmopolitan with sea buckthorn. I learned earlier how the coronation of the current king provided occasion for the creation of K5, the spirit on everybody’s lips, locals and otherwise. I can only imagine how much fun this potent unofficial national whisky, when muddled with mint and lime and served over ice, must get as a cocktail known as the K5 Smash, at the Postcard Dewa bar. I hop on to the barstool like a Joe Pesci understudy before Suraj, who calmly lays out his arsenal out on the counter—wheat beer, red rice lager and dark ale from the much-raved-about Namgay Artisanal Brewery from Paro, not to mention amber ale from Hongtsho, and the unmistakable Druk 11000. In the display behind, I can spot Raven Vodka and Bhutan Grain Whisky rubbing shoulders with the Scottish Drambuie. Meanwhile, Aaron from the F&B team, a contemplative young man who shares my love for Nietzschean philosophy and pop music, fills me in on the joys of the arrah, the local moonshine that locals often savour with egg. The blend can surprise even the most seasoned of us, the duo tells me.
The year 2022 marks exactly four centuries of the completion of the fascinating Chari monastery, situated a 45-minute drive away from the hotel. Constructed by Bhutan’s founding father, the fabled Tibetan lama Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, the 8,500-foot-high monastery is accessible via a 45-minute hike uphill. I have visited enough dzongs and monasteries to know the etiquette: hands off your cameras and mobile phones, and shoes off your feet. My guide Kencho takes us through the premise—dank prayer halls redolent with the scent of butter and painted in Buddhist frescoes and mandalas, and shrines festooned with tormas (ritual cakes) done in the brightest colours, and glaring guardian-keepers. Another five-minute climb later, we discover Zhabdrung’s lair where the revered lama is said to have meditated as a 26-year-old—the Tango monastery, which affords an even more spectacular view from above.
For this excursion to the two monasteries, I am joined by Aditya Chandra, Postcard’s Head of Operations in their Goan outposts. Along with Kencho, we hurry down the trail to the lunch venue—where the team has set up camp at the bank of the fast-flowing stream in the middle of the forest. Picnics are a beloved tradition in Bhutan, a fact that children and youngsters passing by on their bicycles or settling at a distance with a picnic mat keep confirming. Serendipitously, the weather, which has now taken a chilly turn after a dry spell all of last week, finds a capable foil in a confident menu—fragrant mutton biryani out of a tiffin, with a playful tomato salan, and gulab jamun for dessert. I remember having told Suraj about my constant search for good pan-Indian flavours abroad and turning down steak for dinner later tonight. I realise that this lunch in many ways symbolises what I will return to Postcard Dewa for: the will to be no-frills, the will to be local without being too overbearingly so, and the will to listen. Later, when we’re back at the warm innards of the hotel, as if having read my mind, he makes me the generous offer of masala chai—delivered to my room after I’m done with my evening soak.
Dinner is out at the restaurant terrace. I’m not big on steak as I said, so the kitchen brings out the next best thing: a superlative barbecue spread for me to chow down with some splendid wine. Over my three days at the property, the capabilities of the Postcard Dewa kitchen come to the fore, from a smashing Bhutanese spread for breakfast, the star of which is a red rice porridge soaking in hearty local butter that nearly makes me sob like Anton Ego eating ratatouille, to an Indian lunch so good that you’ll almost excuse yourself for committing the grave sin of not eating local. My final dinner at the restaurant is a pan-Asian spread that kicks off with an odd bunch of starters—dates with an ema datshi stuffing and pita and hummus on the side. Needless to say, it all works.
That most things Suraj and the staff aim for at Postcard Dewa hit bullseye isn’t random. The national sport of Bhutan is archery. It’s probably the only acceptable initiation into manhood for most of its gho-wearing population. The first song Ken plays in the car after my request for music, and then many times over, is an evocative strain about archery. One sunny morning, I march out into the grassy lawn to see Aaron plonking a rudimentary target some distance away. Once done, he sprints towards a throwing crease, handing me a set of traditional darts to try and aim about 20 yards away at the target. This, I am told, is khuru, second-in-command to archery, and quite an engaging sport even for the athletically disinclined. I show promise but fail to convert the start and at the end of it, I go down 2-0 in a somewhat closely fought contest.
Water babies shouldn’t miss the temperature-controlled pool, which affords equally calming views. It’s on the way to the spa and sauna rooms, where I receive the head, neck and shoulder massage with a foot rub thrown in, followed by a sauna. Despite what wellness experts and authorities on spa etiquette might say, dozing off and experiencing sensory loss of time and space is a good enough indication of how good a massage was. I have an early start and a long day of travel ahead of me the following day, but that cannot stop me from answering the door for a special request. It’s Aaron, and he has my arrah.
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Overlooking Khasadrapchu village in the northern outskirts of Thimphu, Postcard Dewa has 15 rooms (including two suites) with private sit-outs, a spa offering signature massages along with hot stone baths, a pool and gymnasium, and a conference hall. www.postcardresorts.com/book
Prannay Pathak dreams about living out of a suitcase and retiring to the island of Hamneskär to watch films in solitary confinement. He is Assistant Editor (Digital) at National Geographic Traveller India.