City in the Sky

Many travelers to Bhutan, in the rush to tour the country and to try and see all that this spectacular country has to offer, hurry through Thimphu. As towns go, it is on the small side, so many assume that it can be “done in a day” and then off to the next. But Thimphu is an interesting town and it rewards the traveler who lingers.

A few facts about Thimphu: It is the home of the Parliament of the youngest democracy in the world. The Fourth King of Bhutan transformed the nation into a constitutional monarchy, handing over the reins of power to the citizens of Bhutan. The Parliament of Bhutan is housed in a modern complex constructed in the traditional Bhutanese style. It sits across the river from the famous Tashichho dzong.

Thimphu is the third highest (in elevation) world capital at an altitude of approx. 2,300 m. Thimphu is dwarfed only by the two Andean capitals, La Paz and Quito. Thimphu is also famously the only world capital without a traffic light. There is a traffic roundabout on the main street into town, where a uniformed police officer directs traffic in an almost balletic display. 

Thimphu for the active traveler

Many visitors come to Bhutan to take one of the most scenic (and challenging) treks in the world: the Snowman, Jomolhari or the Druk Path. But many remarkably scenic hikes can be enjoyed without venturing far from Thimphu. Two lovely monasteries (“goemba” in Dzongkha) are nearby and can be reached by short, non-strenuous hikes (short and non-strenuous are, of course, relative terms. These are still Himalayan hikes, after all). The walk to Tango, home of a monastery and the Tango University of Buddhist Studies, takes visitors through a rhododendron forest, especially stunning during the spring, when the flowers are in bloom and the trail is enveloped by riotous color. A longer, steeper hike will take visitors to Cheri Goemba, founded in 1620 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, who unified the regions of Bhutan into a single nation-state.

Phajoding Goemba can be reached by a longer hike, often undertaken as an overnight journey.   The Phajoding complex consists of a variety of temples (“lakhangs”), monastic residences and meditation centres, most of which were constructed in the 18th century. In 2009, Phajoding was identified by the World Monument Fund as one of the most endangered cultural landmarks in the world and reconstruction efforts will help to save its art and architecture.

Golfing enthusiasts may want play a round at the Royal Thimphu Golf Club and earn bragging rights from having played at the highest golf course in world. The nine-hole golf course, the only public course in Bhutan, overlooks the Tashichho dzong and offers spectacular Himalayan views from every direction. 

Thimphu for the photographic traveler

A massive golden Buddha sits on a high hill overlooking the Thimphu valley, watching over the growing landscape of Thimphu town. The throne on which the Buddha sits will contain over one hundred thousand smaller Buddha statues. Construction on the Golden Buddha is not yet completed but visitors can still scale the hill (or take a vehicle to the top, if the walk up is not appealing) and enjoy the fantastic view of the Thimphu valley.

Taschichho dzong is the administrative centre of the capital, housing civic and government offices as well as the offices of the King. It is also a particularly photogenic site. The tall white walls are bordered by flower gardens and by rustling trees that flank the Wang Chu. A dzong has sat on this spot on the river bank for hundreds of years. The current dzong is of modern construction, replacing its predecessors that were damaged or destroyed by fire.

The Taschichho Dzong is open to visitors between 5 PM and 6 PM, at the close of the work day for the officials who work there. If you time your visit right, you can see the ceremonial lowering of the enormous national flag that flies over the dzong during the day.

Semtokha dzong, also founded by Zhabdrung Namgyel Ngawang, is one of the oldest dzongs in Bhutan, completed in 1631. Much smaller than the Taschichho dzong, Semtokha dzong sits at the southern edge of Thimphu and has a unique twelve-sided utse (“tower”). 

Thimphu for the cultural traveler

Handicraft shops all over Thimphu sell lovely examples of the native arts and crafts of Bhutan: woven textiles, hand-painted thangkas, bamboo baskets, carved wooden masks. These artistic traditions are kept alive by the National Institute for Zorig Chusum, the school for students of the thirteen traditional Bhutanese arts and crafts (“chusum” means “thirteen” in Dzongkha). The school welcomes visitors who can observe students learning and practicing their craft. The gift shop sells a variety of handicrafts made on the premises by the students. 

Travelers interested in the decorative arts can tour the Royal Textile Academy. The mission of the Royal Textile Academy is to preserve and promote the tradition of weaving and to conserve traditional examples of woven textiles. The museum restores and displays important textiles within its brand-new, modern building.

The Folk Heritage Museum tries to replicate traditional and rural life in Bhutan right in the middle of Thimphu. A restored farmhouse on beautiful grounds displays artifacts of traditional life. The museum also conducts demonstrations of traditional skills and customs. These demonstrations change with the seasons, replicating the natural flow of rural life. The restaurant on the grounds serves authentic Bhutanese food for both lunch and dinner. 

If you want to check out the art scene in Thimphu, pay a visit to VAST (Voluntary Artists’ Studio, Thimphu), an NGO established to help Bhutanese youth to explore and practice visual arts.  VAST offers classes to young people after school and on weekends where they can learn to draw, paint and sculpt. VAST has a small riverside gallery that exhibits and sells the work of local artists.   

Thimphu may be small in size but not in opportunities for the dedicated traveler. So don’t rush through it. Sit in the sun in Clocktower Square and watch people walk by: locals in colorful traditional dress; tourists gazing amazed at the scenery, the architecture and the spectacle. You will fit right in.

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