Hotel Olathang, Bhutan

Surrounded by blue pine forests in the hills overlooking a lush valley in the secluded Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is a hotel – literally – fit for a king. The Olathang, on the outskirts of the town of Paro, was built in 1974 for guests invited to the coronation of His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuk. The occasion marked the first time that Bhutan’s doors were opened to the world. As 287 foreigners arrived in a little-known land unused to visitors, several new hotels were constructed to accommodate them. The Olathang was among them. Sprawling over 45 acres of wooded land, this is Bhutan’s largest hotel and one of its best. Its white, fortress-like structure has 24 rooms and 6 suites in the main building, which also houses the reception areas, restaurant and bar. But the best accommodation is in 32 traditionally built wooden cottages dotted around the grounds. These elegant sugar-cubed cottages – rather like Swiss chalets – are beautifully decorated with various symbolic patterns including the national flower (the blue poppy) and the eight auspicious signs of Himalayan Buddhism. Their whitewashed walls contrast with dark wooden rafters, while bright murals emphasise the balance between secular and spiritual worlds that is integral to Bhutanese society. One design shows the male and female dragons that give the country its local name, Druk Yul – the thunder dragon. These clean and cosy en suite rooms have Western-style bathrooms and warm, comfortable beds ideal for uninterrupted slumber after days of hard trekking.

They also offer necessary sanctuary from the unpredictable mountain weather. But their most impressive feature is their balcony, a great place to enjoy the pure air and wispy silence of the enchanting Paro valley below. Through the pines you’ll catch a breathtaking view of  snow-capped peaks sweeping down to verdant paddy fields planted like patchwork along the fertile valley floor. Clumped farmsteads, reminiscent of Japanese temples, dot the horizon, and willow trees line the banks of the Paro River. Dominating the skyline are the mighty dzongs, sturdy fortress-monasteries built to protect the country from enemies long ago. To reinforce the feeling that Bhutan has one foot in the past and one in the future, you can wander back into the main building and see members of the hotel staff dressed in traditional Bhutanese costume. But this is not a tourist gimmick: the male gho and female kira are still worn throughout the kingdom. The Olathang will never score highly on international hotel ratings, but it’s a great place to sample this special country. It’s authentic, charming and luxurious. And in terms of setting, you’d be hard pushed to beat it. As the king who opened his country to the world once said: “I am not as much concerned by the Gross National Product, as I am about the Gross National Happiness.”

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