Stay the night: Taj Tashi

The arrival of a five-star hotel in Thimphu reveals it's all change in Bhutan, says Ian McCurrach

There are big changes afoot in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Though a new king was crowned last week, the system of absolute monarchy was abolished recently: the mountainous country where life has altered little since the Middle Ages has just become a democracy.

The recent opening of the Taj Tashi hotel in Thimphu is another sign of change. Tourism remains relatively in its infancy in Bhutan, strictly limited to the high-end market – only 20,000 visited in 2007 – and, so far, the handful of upmarket hotels has been restricted to the countryside. This five-star is the first to open in the capital.

And its arrival can't be ignored; the Taj Tashi dominates the low-rise skyline of this city where crimson-robed monks mingle with locals wearing the regulation national costume. Outwardly, the hotel mimics the grand design of a historic Bhutanese dzong, a monastery cum fortress that serves as administrative headquarters for each of the country's 20 districts. Inside, the decor in the grand public spaces is regal and picks out traditional themes – clouds, thunderbolts, musical horns – but is mixed with contemporary comforts.

The bedrooms

All 66 rooms and suites are smart, comfy and spacious. The corner suites have good views over both the city and the Wang Chhu river valley. Rooms have traditional handmade carpets and delicate lattice panelling made of dark blue pine. My deluxe suite had a large living room and a separate bedroom with double sliding doors opening on to a bathroom. All bathrooms are lined with brown marble and have free-standing central baths.

The food and drink

Traditional fiery Bhutanese cuisine is served in the Chig–je-gye restaurant, which is decorated with dark wood and gold-leaf paintings. One of the main specialities is ema datshi, comprising large green chillies in a cheese sauce. Wine is imported – and very expensive for what it is; the local beer, Red Panda, is refreshingly cheap. Take tea in the Rimps lounge lobby or enjoy international fare at the airy, triple-height Thongsen restaurant. Don't ask for complicated cocktails in the stylish Ara bar, decorated with local folk music instruments, stick to standards such as G&T.

The extras

The Jiva Spa has a good-sized gym with personal trainer and there are several treatment rooms decorated with hand-painted murals. Try a traditional Bhutanese hot stone bath.

The access

The public spaces are fully accessible and one room has been adapted for wheelchair users. Children are welcome; pets are not.

The bill

Doubles from £175 per night, room only. Carrier (0161-491 7630; carrier.co.uk ) offers a seven-night Bhutan package including two nights at Taj Tashi and return international flights and private transfers from £2,120 per person, based on two sharing.

The address

Taj Tashi, Post Box No 524, Samten Lam, Chubachu, Thimphu, Bhutan (00 975 233 6699; tajhotels.com ).

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