Bhutan's First-ever Wellness Retreat Includes Pottery Classes, Monastery Hikes, and Your Own Personal Guide
The indoor pool at Bhutan Spirit Sanctuary was never intended to be a place for meditation. But I couldn't help being lulled into a contemplative state as I sat on its edge, pondering the way the floor-to-ceiling windows perfectly framed the emerald Neyphu Valley and the bright blue skies beyond.
My reverie was interrupted by the soft ringing of a gong. I turned to find my dedicated well-being guide, Dr. Thinley Om, standing at the door. I followed her down a long hall lined with laboratory-like jars of herbs and into an austere treatment room that smelled faintly of sage. She instructed me to hang up my robe and lie facedown. The scent became stronger as she lit small sticks of wild mugwort and placed them inside the tiny bamboo boxes along my back. This traditional Chinese medicine treatment, known as moxibustion, uses herbs and heat to help the body's chi, or life force, flow freely. Mine, according to Dr. Om, was very congested.
Few people make the journey to Bhutan just so they can unblock their chi. In fact, I partly blamed the nearly 16-hour flight from New York for jamming mine up in the first place. But the hotel's Dutch owner, Louk Lennaerts, who has spent much of his career in Vietnam developing such health-focused all-inclusives as Fusion Maia Da Nang, believes this Himalayan kingdom is primed to become the next wellness mecca. Not only does Bhutan—whose ancient name, Mejong, means Land of Medicinal Plants—have that rare combination of intense natural beauty and rich cultural heritage that draws spiritual seekers from all over the world; its branding is also perfectly aligned with the current mania for self-improvement.
Bhutan's Gross National Happiness Index—conceived by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in 1998 as an alternative to GDP—has created a global perception of Bhutan as a mystical, trouble-free paradise in a world beset by cynicism, anxiety, and the 24-hour news cycle. And unlike in Bali and Thailand, the government of Bhutan embraced a low-volume tourism model when the country opened to the outside world in 1974—decades before the sustainable-travel movement gained mainstream appeal.
In Bhutan, well-heeled travelers have their pick of five-star lodges from wellness-travel leaders like Aman, COMO, and, since late last year, Six Senses. All three of these brands encourage guests to visit multiple high-end lodges over the course of one trip as part of the experience. Bhutan Spirit Sanctuary takes a different approach, however, asking guests to stay put. The recommended minimum stay is five nights: enough time for visitors to learn about the local culture and get immersed in their surroundings. One day, you might hike to a monastery to join student monks for a morning meditation. Another, you might trek to the nearby hills to forage ingredients for treatments at the spa.
"You can see a country from a car, but you don't connect with it," Lennaerts told me over a pot of ginger tea on the terrace overlooking the rolling valley. "To personally connect with a place, you need to also have an inward journey." He hopes a holistic experience that includes yoga, meditation, and spa treatments, as well as meals and activities, will give guests everything they could desire.
From the moment I arrived at Bhutan Spirit Sanctuary's large red gates, I could tell that it was different. Many lodges incorporate a design element or two from traditional Bhutanese architecture—flared roofs, intricately carved window frames—but Bhutan Spirit Sanctuary takes all of its inspiration from the dzongs (fortresses) found throughout the kingdom. Lennaerts personally greeted me in a courtyard ringed by wood-beamed porticoes and traditional prayer wheels. I followed him around a meditation maze, then across a small wooden bridge where welcoming staff stood dressed in the traditional robelike gho or kira. Doors opened to what Lennaerts called the Transformation Room. "Enter and leave your stress," he ordered as he handed me a match to light a butter lamp set on a small altar in front of a mural of the Buddhist Wheel of Life.
At check-in, I selected local bath products (sandalwood soap, a bergamot bath bomb) before being escorted to my white-walled quarters. Even the smallest of the 24 rooms spans 580 square feet, and that doesn't include their generous private outdoor spaces with monastery views. The décor was simple: a few glazed vases that had been thrown in the on-site pottery studio; an obligatory photo of Bhutan's beloved king and queen; and a copy of The Restful Mind, a Buddhist guide to quieting your thoughts, which Dr. Om instructed me to dip into each night before bed.
I could have spent the entire time in the spa, which offers daily yoga and meditation sessions, as well as therapies that include not only moxibustion but also kunye, or Tibetan massage, and numtsu, or hot-oil compression. But there is also a broader itinerary of activities, like hiking excursions to the iconic Tiger's Nest and Drakarpo Kora, a hilly Buddhist site in Paro that pilgrims trek around 108 times (I barely completed two circuits). Guests can also try pottery classes led by Sanctuary's resident art teacher, Lhatso, and experience archery with activities guide Dechen Dorji.
At Dr. Om's recommendation, I swapped my nightly glass of red wine for Terminalia chebula, a regional tea that is said to remedy defective energies. Everything I ate was selected by Parash Chhetri, the Bhutanese head chef, who customized nightly menus that featured dishes like risotto with green peas and mint and pumpkin soup scented with Chinese five-spice.
By the end of my stay Dr. Om had stopped asking about my condition. I could attribute my reflowing chi to the daily massages or restful sleep, but I think staying in a place where I was so thoroughly looked after, by a team that felt like a family, is what really allowed me to relax.