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Independent Minds: Khin Omar Win & Brett Melzer, Gangtey Lodge

High-flying couple Khin Omar Win and Brett Melzer, the former founders of Balloons over Bagan, fell in love with the remote beauty of Bhutan on an exploratory trip in 2003. Setting their sights on the unspoilt wilderness of Gangtey Valley, the idea to build a traditional Bhutanese farmhouse which showcased the region’s rural way of life was born.

Designed by architect Mary Lou Thomson, Gangtey Lodge not only blends with its spectacular natural surroundings, but plays an active role in the local community of this far-flung corner of the world – developing a close relationship with the local monastery, Omar and Brett invite their guests to explore their spiritual side with an array of authentic experiences, including Buddhist meditation classes, butter lamp ceremonies, and prayer flag hoisting. This all-suite Himalayan outpost is a true immersion in Bhutanese culture, encouraging travellers to break their journey, and to pause and reflect, with the belief that Bhutan is best enjoyed at a gentler pace.

What was the inspiration behind the hotel, and where do you continue to find sources of inspiration?

The inspiration came about by chance when we were exploring the Bhutanese Valleys for ballooning opportunities. Bhutan is steeped in ancient culture, mythology and nature, and both of us are extremely curious and have a weakness for adventure! Coming across Gangtey Valley, it particularly resonated with us due to its protected status, its natural beauty and authenticity. During these first journeys we spent a lot of time traversing the country in a car, staying in hotels for a night as we went from one monastery to the next. There was no time for proper immersion, and no time to really explore and understand our immediate surroundings outside of the usual sightseeing itineraries.

When we built Gangtey Lodge, we wanted to create a retreat that allowed travellers to break their itinerary, to pause and properly understand life in a traditional farming community in rural Bhutan. In choosing our site and designing the lodge we respected the architectural heritage and engaged with the local community, contributing to its welfare. Above all, we wanted to create a fine Bhutanese home, where you could spend longer, leave the car behind and just slowly immerse yourself in the culture.

Many of our experiences focus on learning and restoring mental and physical wellbeing. Our close relationship with the neighbouring Monks University and private 17th-century monastery, as well as our close proximity to ancient forest trails, allow our guests a deeper immersion in Bhutanese life that is natural and never rushed.

The Bhutanese concept of Gross National Happiness – sustainable and equitable socio-economic development, environmental conservation, preservation and promotion of culture and good governance, also spoke to our personal values of doing business, and is the inspiration for our purpose.

What do you think sets Gangtey Lodge apart from other boutique hotels?

What sets us apart is our Gangtey Lodge family – around 45 team members all from surrounding valleys, and many of whom were involved in the construction of the lodge.  It is through this sense of shared ownership that our guests first experience the valley, and it is our team who continue to shape and create our client experiences.

Our broader philosophy has always been to create authentic experiences that have a positive impact on our local communities and enable our guests to connect physically, spiritually and emotionally with the places they visit.

What does being ‘Independently Minded’ as an hotel owner mean to you?

To me, being independently minded enables our team and ourselves to be free to create, be inspired, constantly learn and try new ideas as and when they come. Most importantly, it enables us to think 100% about our guests and customise their experience ‘in the moment’ so that it becomes their own adventure, rather than having to experience Bhutan through the filter of a brand standard.

How would you describe your own perfect luxury experience?

Image credit: Ken Spence

The perfect luxury experience to us is something rare or unique, or visiting places where few have been before, that somehow elevates the senses and leaves you feeling fulfilled. For example, a 10 minute walk from the comfort of our lodge, to the 17th-century Gangtey Monastery in the early morning, followed by joining 200 monks in morning prayer and a blessing from the reincarnated Tulku.