Thimphu is the capital of one of the world’s most fascinating destinations, Bhutan. Bhutan is considerably new to tourism and only began to open up to the world in 1974. Today, tourism is one of the key industries in the country where travellers from all over the world look to discover the untouched nature of this intriguing Buddhist country. Bhutan is also the only country that measures its Gross National Happiness (GNH), and not the Gross National Product (GNP) like the rest of the world. Apart from being known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon, which is a direct translation of Druk Yul, meaning Bhutan, it is also known as one of the happiest countries in the world.
However, travelling to Bhutan remains strict, thus all travellers, with the exception of Indian, Bangladeshi and Maldivian passport holders, require a visa and to book their tour through a local operator or from one of its international partners. There is also a daily tariff ranging from 200 USD to 250 USD mandated by the tourism council, so do speak to your tour operator for more information.
A major stupa in the city center: Thimphu Chorten
Located near the Thimphu city center, less than a 15 minutes drive, lies one of the city’s major attractions, the memorial chorten, more commonly known as stupa. Stupas are hemispherical structures containing Buddhist relics.
At this central stupa, you will see many elderly locals sitting around chanting, chatting with one another or walking around the stupa. Despite the crowd, it can be very peaceful while you enjoy the colourful architecture around the white stupa. There are also 6 giant prayer wheels and photography is allowed so you could snap great pictures. In Buddhism, you have to walk around the stupa, temples or turn the prayer wheels all in a clockwise direction so do take note of this important practice in Buddhist countries.
The memorial chorten is open daily from 8 am to 6 pm and entry fees to all attractions in Bhutan are covered under your daily tariff so you do not need to pay for them.
Get close to one of the largest Buddha statues in the world
Take a pleasant 15 minute drive to Kuenselphodrang Nature Park, also commonly known as the Buddha Point, where you will be blown away by the impressive Buddha Dordenma Statue.
The Buddha Dordenma Statue is 51.5 meters (168 feet) tall, making it one of the largest statues of Buddha in the world. This majestic bronze statue, covered in thin layer of gold, contains 125,000 smaller Buddha statues in it.
As with most temples in Bhutan, photography is not allowed, so visitors ought to be respectful to the rule. Also, you need to remove your shoes before entering the temple; having a pair of socks will be helpful as the floor may be cold. Opening hours are between 9 am – 5 pm daily.
Visit one of the most important Dzongs in Bhutan
Tashichho Dzong, which means “The Fortress of the Glorious Religion”, is an important site in Bhutan. It houses the throne room, the king’s offices, ministry offices, as well as a monastery. Due to tight security, visitors entering the monastery will need to be scanned first. The Dzong is open from 8 am – 6 pm daily except during the winter where it will be closed at 5.30 pm. There is a strict time allowance given to each tour group so you need to check with your guide on your allocated timing.
Upon arrival, you will be impressed by the majestic and traditional architecture of the Tashichho Dzong with its whitewashed exterior capped by red and gold roofs. There is a spacious courtyard that is used during festivals, and is otherwise a great photography spot to capture the entire area.
Nearing evening, you may also get an opportunity to observe the formal flag lowering ceremony that takes place every evening at around 6 pm. A team of royal police dressed in their official uniforms and monk will march out from the Dzong and lower the flag for the day.
Meet Bhutan’s national animal
For animal lovers, exploring a local zoo can be exciting! The Bhutan Takin Preserve Mothithang is not a major tourist attraction but you can arrange for your guide to take you to see the national animal. In 1985, the takin was declared the national animal of Bhutan. Takins belong to the antelope family but it is also uniquely known as the animal with the face of a goat and body of an ox. It is found in the Himalayas and western China. The takin has been declared a protected species so it is special to catch a glimpse of Bhutan’s national animal, even if it is in an enclosure.
Discover Thimphu city center like a local
The city center is not a major tourist attraction but it is interesting to walk around the area to experience the daily lifestyle of the locals.
Bhutan’s government believes strongly in preserving its traditional culture, so take the chance to savour the local cuisines and coffee while in Thimphu. Bhutanese people love spicy food and one of the national dishes available at each meal is ema datshi, a chili cheese stew. If you are a fan of spicy dishes, ema datshi is not be missed.
Small restaurants can be found within the city center but most do not come with a menu so it may be challenging to place order. Your daily tariff includes 3 meals, which are usually local dishes, so there is no lack of opportunity to try them out.
Tuesday has been declared as a “dry” day in Bhutan, where no alcoholic drinks can be purchased.
Smokers may also want to know that sales of cigarettes are banned in Bhutan but tourists can bring up to 200 cigarettes as per the guideline. Crime rates are generally low but be careful of stray dogs when walking at night.
Admire the magnificent Himalayas at the Dochula Pass overlook
The Dochula Pass is on the way from Thimphu to Punakha, which is another key tourist spot. This is one of the best photography spots since you have an excellent view of the snow-capped Himalayas. There are 108 medium-sized memorial chortens (stupas) along the Dochula Pass. These chortens were built by the queen to commemorate soldiers who lost their lives during the fight against insurgents from a neighbouring country in December 2003.
There is a restaurant at this viewpoint where you could rest for complimentary coffee, tea and some biscuits, which should be covered under your tour, unless you order additional beverages. Restrooms are also available inside the restaurant and you are encouraged to visit since there is no restrooms on the way from Thimphu to Punakha, which is an approximately 3 hour drive.
Discover a different perspective to happiness
It takes 1 hour and 30 minutes to reach Thimpu from Paro International Airport by car. The roads in Bhutan are not completely paved so it might be wise to bring motion-sickness medicine since most journeys can be bumpy and follow curved mountain roads. Though a small capital, there are several interesting attractions that should not be missed.
Bhutan is one of those countries that we may visit only once in our lifetime. Living up to its title as the Land of Happiness, Bhutan is an amazingly beautiful place surrounded by untouched nature, lovely people and interesting culture.
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