The Taj Tashi Thimphu hotel by P49 Deesign brings cosmopolitan flair to reclusive Bhutan
Maria Shollenbarger -- Interior Design, 4/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
High in the mountains, sandwiched between India's Assam province and Himalayan China, Bhutan is one of the least developed places in the world. With pristine, unconquered summits reaching 23,000 feet, a thriving Vajrayana Buddhist culture largely unchanged since the 18th century, and a diversity of flora and fauna to make a botanist sigh with longing, the country goes to great lengths to limit the influx of tourists, rising interest from the West notwithstanding.
It was no small feat for Taj Hotels, Resorts, and Palaces and the Tashi Group of Companies—a leading Bhutanese industrial conglomerate that put up roughly $125 million—to secure government approval to develop and manage a 66-room, five-star hotel in Bhutan's capital, Thimphu (population: 98,000). Specs for the future Taj Tashi Thimphu called for strict adherence to local styles on the facade. Inside, mod cons from air-conditioning to world-class dining would abound—amenities the average Bhutanese has never experienced, much less demanded.
Taj brought in the architecture firm KTGY Inter-Associates and hospitality interiors specialist P49 Deesign, which have a long history of working in tandem. (Yes, that spelling of Deesign is intentional. Dee means good in Thai.) Partner Carl Almeida has a wealth of experience in interpreting local vernaculars for luxury environments. His is the firm behind the spa at the Oriental, Bangkok, and the wildly stylish Hotel Sofitel Metropole in Hanoi, Vietnam. But the Taj Tashi Thimphu posed a challenge even for a seasoned pro. "This project lasted for over four years," he begins. That's a lifetime for a hotel this size. "But then, so many elements that are rote for a luxury hotel anywhere else in the world, for example under-floor heating, were firsts here." Add to that the hassles with deliveries of materials difficult to source locally—inevitable given the narrowness of the 30-mile road between the hotel and the airport and the delays in overland shipping from India. "Taj was incredibly generous," he adds. "We had very few of the kinds of limitations that stymie projects like this in other countries."
With a towering mountain summit to the north and the vast Wang Chu river valley to the south, the hotel—all seven stories and 96,000 square feet of it—is built in the Dzong style of the neighboring houses. The facade's burnt yellow and charcoal gray are punctuated by deep-orange and blue detailing. "Because the exterior adheres so strictly to traditional colors and forms, public spaces had to feel like a contemporary pared-down version of them," Almeida says. For many of the spacious lounges and restaurants, he devised a palette that's warm and light, so the rooms feel airy rather than empty. That typical yellow is represented by creamy white, and charcoal accents are limited to a strategic few. The deep orange manifests itself in floor-length silk curtains.
In the spectacular mezzanine tearoom, with its massive window facing the mountains, the walls are covered by carvings of the elaborate Dorji motif, painted white to play down the splendor. Many of the upholstery fabrics here and throughout are produced in Bhutan, Thailand, or India. "As much as possible, even in the more contemporary spaces, we sourced materials from local producers and craftsmen," Almeida says.
A modern moodiness reigns in the main restaurant, which is dark, theatrical, and layered with opulence. In the guest rooms and suites, Almeida reverted to the pure warmth of Bhutanese tradition. Yellow again covers the walls, framed by dark molding. Sculpted silver table lamps are topped by tall, tapering shades of white silk. Almeida commissioned cloud paintings to hang above every headboard, and clouds occasionally show up on fabrics and throw pillows. In the bathrooms—where Picky WesternTraveler usually does his or her most meticulous reviewing—Almeida wisely reverted to the tried and true. Freestanding soaking tubs, nickel-finished fittings, and heated travertine floors signal luxury. The travertine and the walls' yellow marble were sourced from northern India.
"The process of scouting and sourcing the local materials was an adventure and a learning experience," Almeida says. "I've been to Bhutan at least seven times since the project started. It's the most amazing country." And buzz about the hotel is already strong, so apply for your visa now. Bhutan allows only 14,000 tourists a year.