Our first topic is our bikes. Dasho Sangay is a self-confessed fanatic. Which makes two of us.
“In Bhutan, we have such beautiful scenery. It’s like nowhere else in the world. As a child, driving with my parents, I couldn’t wait to see what was around the next corner. The landscape is so dramatic, with each twist and turn in the road revealing new flora or fauna. As soon as I was old enough to have a motorbike, I started exploring our country on two wheels.”
We’re seated in an airy living area in Dasho Sangay’s humble but magnificent palace, just outside of Paro. The beautiful traditional building looks out onto the Eastern Himalayas, framed by floor-to-ceiling windows. “I’ve explored every peak you see here on my 300 2-Stroke Husky. For exploring further afield, I prefer my BMW GS1200. Now that’s an adventure bike. I like the anonymity being on a motorbike gives me. Because I’m wearing a helmet, I’m just another person. I have a sense of freedom when I’m out riding.”
Dasho Sangay is married to Princess Ashi Chimi Yangzom Wangchuck, daughter of the fourth King of Bhutan Jigme Singye Wangchuck. So it’s no surprise that his face is well-known in Bhutan. With this title comes a huge responsibility to uphold the country’s traditions.
“As a teenager in the 70s, when Bhutan was first opening up to tourism, my father-in-law met with many planners from around the world, to look at how Bhutan could develop in the modern world. All the talk was of how to improve Gross National Product. Every opinion he was given clashed with the traditions that made Bhutan a beautiful, happy place to live.
It was then he decided to prioritise the sustainability and spirituality of our country. That’s how our policy of Gross National Happiness came about. As the youngest Head of State in the world at the time, it was as bold decision to make. One that makes me incredibly proud to be his son-in-law.”
Dasho Sangay’s passion for his country’s ethics is palpable. Every story and anecdote is marked with a sense of enormous pride. This is clearly not marketing speak. I’m intrigued about how the monarchy plan to uphold their commitment to keeping Bhutan green and serene.
“It’s written into the Constitution that 60% of Bhutan will forever remain untouched,” he reveals. “Currently, forest coverage is actually 74% (an increase from 72% 30-years ago). We earmark swathes of land as wildlife habitats and Natural Parks. We also say no to a lot of developers and corporations who want to set-up here. For example, many furniture makers have asked to build factories here to make furniture from our trees. But that wouldn’t work for us. It’s not compatible with our vision for the country’s future.”
Which is why, when it came to creating a series of luxury hotels in Bhutan, it was imperative that Dasho Sangay made the right choice. The journey that culminated in Six Senses Group running five properties in this tiny Himalayan country started in the mind of Dasho Sangay himself, with a vision of Emotional Hospitality. “I wanted all guests be immersed in the local culture. To feel liberated. To have new feelings awakened in them.” Therein lies the properties incredible success. All five connect visitors with the people and landscape of the local area.
“Let’s take Paro as an example. The property is on the site of a ruined 14th-century monastery. The designers and I camped out in the grounds of this once magnificent fortress. We walked through the old crumbling walls, trying to imagine how we could make the property different, better than any other. Then we had the inspiration to use the hand-chiseled stone from the monastery walls in the new structure. You’ll find these pieces in every room, linking you back to the past.”
Once Dasho Sangay had completed the design and build of each site, his next task was to find the right luxury hotel group to inhabit them. He sees many synergies between Bhutan and Six Senses. Not least because of their mutual commitment to sustainability. Six Senses is renowned for its light-touch on the environment. And for working with its communities to provide education and investment. “Six Senses stood out from all the other luxury hotel groups who were interested in coming to Bhutan,” Dasho Sangay tells us when explaining his decision. “They have an ethos of wellness and spirituality. Spiritual practice is what keeps us in check. We’re the last predominantly Buddhist kingdom in the world. This plays an important role in our daily lives and impacts the way we act towards each other and the environment. Six Senses are in total alignment. They prioritise local produce and work with farmers to improve agriculture. Young people are also educated and employed in each of the five hotels.”
My final thought is to ask him what he believes separates Bhutan from its neighbours. The answer is simple: everything. From its isolated geographical to its history of independence (its never been colonised) to the benevolence of the monarchy. Bhutan truly is unique.