The rich confluence of the past and the present in Bhutan’s vibrant capital of Thimphu is a brilliant showcase of how this remote Himalayan kingdom is cautiously stepping on to the world stage as one of the choicest holiday destinations. You must certainly give in to your instincts to linger awhile in this picturesque city, set in the Wang Chuu Valley carved out by the Raidak River, before rushing off to explore the other allurements.
The blandishments of the contemporary world’s impact are best felt in Thimphu… From karaoke nights to ritzy restaurants… from high street fashion to World Cup Football euphoria, it’s an interesting contrasting picture set in the framework of a deeply authentic Bhutanese world of tradition and heritage.
Driven by the King of Bhutan’s thinking that: “Where we live must be clean, safe, organised and beautiful, for national integrity, national pride and for our bright future. This too is nation building.”, his subjects are pursuing a mindful approach to living lives measured by the sustainable pursuits, to fiercely protect their environs, their culture and their ancient heritage.
Looking around you as you trawl the streets of Thimpu, everywhere there is rich evidence of this living heritage. Even the most hip building follows tradition in its design. Through the week, you will find workers and school kids setting off for the day in their traditional national dress–woven ghos (men) and kiras (women). Otherwise, they are free to wear whatever attire they wish. This is just a simple example of how the government has set out to instil a sense of value and pride in its people about Bhutan’s national traditions.
Government business is conducted at the massive 17th century stronghold–the gilded and red-roofed Tashichho Dzong. Located here are all the secretariat offices and that of the king. Inside, don’t miss the highly decorative gilded carvings which skirt around the huge statue of the Shakyamuni Buddha, the gorgeous wood carvings and mandalas.
The National Memorial Chorten is strangely enough quite a popular spot for locals to hangout. Feed the pigeons, turn the enormous wheels and gaze awestruck upon its gilded detailing annexes with fearsome deities and exotic mandala paintings. A memorial raised to the third king of Bhutan, its super place to just soak in the cultural and social atmospherics.
While archery tournaments are a big draw at Changlimithang National Stadium, it has also hosted several international games and even served as the venue for the king’s 34th birthday. On any day you will chance upon locals honing their archery skills. Try a few rounds yourself. You can head out from here to Clock Tower Square in Norzin Lam, a noisy get together spot for locals. You can shop for crafts, grab a bite or enjoy some local entertainment playing out on the day you are visiting.
On your wanderings around town do visit to the Choki Traditional Art School (CTAS). Founded in 1999, by veteran artist Dasho Choki Dorji, it provides an insight into Bhutan’s traditional zorig chusum or thirteen arts and crafts, amongst them weaving thanka (scroll) painting, patra (carving), thag-zo (weaving), and tshem-zo (embroidery). These represent hundreds of years of cultural practice, and it’s not unusual to find many Bhutanese seeing their identity and history reflected in these crafts. You should also visit the Voluntary Artists’ Studio (VAST), set up in the 90s by Karma Wangdi, better known as Asha Karma, the father of contemporary Bhutanese art. Several top contemporary artists of Bhutan have honed their skills at Karma’s studio.
The Textile Museum offers a window into Bhutan’s fabulous textile heritage. It’s an excellent place to discover the makings of kiras and ghos, the local attire you see the citizens on the streets dressed in. The Folk Heritage Museum is another popular city hub for cultural delights. The Folk Heritage Restaurant here is a popular city watering hole where the well-heeled and city elite can be spotted hobnobbing over leisurely meals.
Another vibrant leisure spot is Mojo Park, a playful hub for eats and drinks, live music and hanging out with your buddies, both indoors and under starry skies. The government’s initiatives to contain the overburdening impact of tourism can also be identified in the official diktat that Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays as entertainment nights; bars/ lounges are permitted until midnight. On Tuesdays, the sale of alcohol is prohibited.
Mingle with the locals amidst the hustle and bustle of the iconic Centenary Farmers Market with its over 400 stalls sprawling along the banks of the Wang Chhu River. Bargain happily for takeaways such as local cheeses, red chillies, brown rice and wild honey brought in from the countryside. In many parts of town small pop-up markets mushroom on weekends.
You can hike up to the 12th century Changangkha Lhakhang monastery, on a ridge overlooking Thimphu. You could spend hours just soaking in the views and enjoying the benedictions of the seated Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion, enshrined in the chapel.
On a weekend, join streams of locals, shouldering their picnic lunch baskets for a day out in the great outdoors. The beautiful the Kuensel Phodrang Nature Park is perfect for unwinding by clearing your head, filling your lungs with scented breezes and resting your eyes on the soothing scenery from under the shadowy cool of one of the several gazebos dotting the park. Unmissable here is the massive bronze Dordenma Buddha that rises169ft high into the skyline.
Be flexible and just go with the flow. There are many little polished gems to be discovered in Thimphu that will pique your interest to dive even deeper under the surface for a more fulsome understanding of the city and its people.