Riding through the winding roads that adorn the Himalayas, Paro comes into sight as a cluster of golden lights decorating the valley of the snow capped mountains. The city is sleepy with an occasional buzz of activity that’s often exclusive to the market streets. Men and women clad in their traditional attires- the Gho and the Kira, spot the streets in groups. Buddhist monks, young and old, covered in red robes are seen occasionally. The buildings, like elsewhere in Bhutan, have held on to the cultural and architectural traits and the white and dull red painted walls, outreaching roof overhangs, ornately detailed motifs marked with wooden framed openings, all set the city into a peculiar character. The forests of long pines all around seem to engulf the city from its boundaries. Holding the only airport of Bhutan and being close to the famous tiger’s nest monastery makes Paro one of the most important cities of the kingdom. Yet it is modest in size, surrounded by fields of red rice and cottages all around. Fog often descends in the valley, leaving it blanketed in an eerie shroud of mystery.
Towards one corner of the city, nestled among the long pine trees is the oldest hotel in Bhutan, the Hotel Olathang. It is spread over 28 acres of land atop a hillock, overlooking the fields around. The hotel with all of its offices and front desk along with the dining is situated centrally, and the individual cottages are spread out onto the hillock. Wooden painted beams, textured exterior facades, green climbers and downturned warm lights prepare an alluring sight in the backdrop set by the Himalayas. The hotel follows the older architecture style of the country, while the cottages scattered around however, seem to be expressions of a slightly modern era.
For a visitor arriving at night, the hotel creates a dramatic aura around itself. The narrow paved pathways lay out like ribbons strips, rolling out from the central courtyard, connecting the cottages, and merging into the dips of the hillock. These are punctuated with warm in-ground lights, accentuating the strips for anyone enthusiastic to take a stroll through them at night. The city that has succumbed to sleep by now has cast a palpable silence unto the region. Wolves, owls and other nocturnal creatures of the area become active around this time, adding to the atmosphere. At this point, one notices how the textures, architecture and planning of the place play their parts in bringing this unique experience to the senses. The timber masts and members of the ceiling structures cast thin long shadows on the ceiling and the carved details of it. The cottages are hidden in the dark with vegetation surrounding them, only to be visible as approached.
The interiors of the hotel compliment the exterior with its bright coloured ceilings, wooden beams and painted motifs. The planning of the room layout is peculiar with long stretched out corridors, doubly loaded with rooms on both sides, occasionally opening to the central inner courtyard. Interesting wooden light fixtures are suspended centrally in each room. The intricate carvings and figurines in palette of different shades find their way into the rooms. It is interesting to notice the small details in which the Bhutanese have preserved their culture, be it in the corner of the ceiling, where the small good luck charms are added as details of the ornamentations, or the painted murals of the 4 mythical animals on the walls of every other structure here. The inner courtyard with the dark coniferous trees, pose an identical intimidating image as the landscape around. It wouldn’t take long before one starts wondering about the local folklores attached to the place that would all make sense in the quietness of that night.
By morning, Olathang would have put on another mask and taken up a completely different persona. Taking a leisure stroll through the walkways as the morning fog gently lifts, you will find yourself captivated by the exotic shades of green that is cast by the trees on the hillock. The cottages merge into the pines and bushes, their wooden balconies and sloping roof with gables along with the unique architectural nuances like the series of arched windows, all complimenting the nature around. The walkways with moss gently creeping unto the paved stones just seem to have come out of the earth organically and crept into the hotel. The farmers would have started their morning chores in the felids around and the valley that had looked lifeless the previous night would seem charming and alive. The dark blue mountain ranges and their sun kissed peaks which seem to disappear into the skies, set the far boundary for the eye.
In the hotel building, the contrasting hues that had demanded your attention before, have now been tucked away in the shade of the roof overhangs, and the sombre yellow shades of the walls set a lazy tone….perfect for a cosy morning. The wooden framed arches that open into the inner courtyard also give you a glimpse of the picturesque ranges behind the hotel. The wooden corridors are all now glistening in the morning glow, inviting you in. the green climbers in the front wall by the entry door frame the word ‘Olathang’ in capitals, etching the name into your mind.
The kingdom of a fairytale that Bhutan seems to be, hotel Olathang perfectly fits the beautiful narrative of the country. In its ever changing expression, a visitor finds the wish to keep returning, expecting to find the hill and the hotel in a completely new light the next time.
Melva Joseph is a young, passionate architecture graduate from TKM College of Engineering, Kerala. Being extremely curious and adaptable made her an extensive reader, avid traveller and a good conversationalist. She holds close the belief that the existing gap between architecture and the common man should be bridged.