Thimphu is the capital city of The Land of the Thunder Dragon, or as it is commonly known, Bhutan. It is a small, happy country tucked away in the Eastern Himalayas, with a rich and expressive culture. It is perhaps one of the few countries that have managed to retain their traditions and old-world charm inspite of the technological and social developments that world has undergone. Thimphu personifies all of this.
As Bhutan’s largest city, Thimphu is the economic, political and cultural nerve-centre of the country. It is home to the National Assembly and the King’s residence. Tourists can enjoy a number of quaint, little cafes littered throughout the city, shop in modern stores and have delicious Bhutanese cuisine in a number of restaurants. All this coexists with the old traditions of Bhutan, with Buddhism exerting a major influence. It is mandatory for the Bhutanese citizens to be dressed in their traditional garment, called the gho for men, and the kira for women. It is a common sight to see many, from young school-students to taxi-drivers, dressed traditionally. The Bhutanese love the Royal Family, and criticism against them is virtually unheard of.
Thimphu is delightful in its charisma, and the natural beauty surrounding it only adds to it. Lush green hills, sometimes covered by snow and mist, make one draw in deep breaths of freshness and vigour. The best way to explore this little heaven is at leisure, on foot. On one end are the Permit Office and the Handicrafts Market. The former is an extremely important government office as every single tourist needs to fill out certain forms and obtain entry-permits to visit other areas of Bhutan such as Punakha, Wangdue, Bhumathang, etc. The market, set against the backdrop of the ultra-luxurious hotel Taj Tashi, is a narrow strip of bamboo-shops selling all sorts of Bhutanese handicrafts, from shawls to lamps! It is a lively little place, always brimming with tourists. This part of the town also has the Textile Museum (worth a visit) and the Post Office (for all those picture postcards you are planning to send). Walking in a straight line, one can explore the main market of Thimphu, which is touristy and utilitarian both. The roads are full of locals, tourists, monks and swanky SUVs, and yet, the Bhutanese don’t seem to believe in traffic-jams and honking! The traffic is smooth and quiet, with all drivers exhibiting a very high degree of driving-etiquette. It is a pleasure to walk in Thimphu without worrying about getting run-over by a maniac!
Well, coming back to the local attractions, the bookstore in the main market called Junction is definitely on the list. It is modern, well-stocked and even has a cafe whose ceiling is plastered with pages from different books! The owner’s two dogs are beautiful creatures and extremely friendly. If you are a reader, this is the place for you. Books, maps, souvenirs…you name it and you will find it. Once you have satiated the reader in you, keep heading straight, and a little outside the city, you get to glimpse the huge yet beautiful statue of Lord Buddha, sitting atop a hill, popularly called Buddha Point. The drive upto it is refreshing, offering a bird’s eye view of the whole of Thimphu. Buddha Point is still under construction, but the main statue, made of gold and bronze, has been completed. A trip to Thimphu is incomplete without a visit to this place.
Two other places that should be on every traveller’s itinerary are the Thimphu Dzong (fort) and the Takin Reserve. The former is the political and legislative centre of Bhutan, and a part of the royal residence. It is open to tourists after 5 p.m., when one can see the elaborate ceremony of the flag being lowered and put away, to be hoisted back up at sunrise. The fort in itself is breathtaking, though some of its areas are off-limits to visitors. The elaborate woodwork, the Buddhist temple and the stone-floor exude the glimpses of a different era. Glimpses that have found a secure place even in the modern Bhutan. The Takin Reserve, on the other side of town, would be a wildlife-lover’s delight! Takin, which is a cross between a cow and a goat, is the national animal of Bhutan. It is a harmless-looking, gentle creature that feeds on grass and leaves. While the reserve is neither very big area-wise, nor home to a great range of species, it is still a pleasure to trek through the leafy slopes, occasionally encountering these happy little animals. And the Takin is very very cute!
It is a well-documented fact that no exploration is complete without sampling the local delicacies, and Thimphu would be no exception. The traditional Bhutanese dishes of red-rice and ima-datsi are sumptuous. Ima-datsi is a dish made of potato in gravy of cheese and white sauce, and the potato can be replaced by just about any other veggie or meat that once desires. A must-eat! Other cuisines available include Indian, Tibetan, Chinese and Continental, each with a Bhutanese flavour and very delicious. Thimphu also boasts of a number of good bakeries, though fresh items disappear off the shelves even before lunch finishes. On the outskirts of Thimphu, towards the road leading to Paro, there is the Big Bakery which is run by differently-abled people. Going there for a late cup of tea and fresh snacks is a heavenly experience, as your senses are overwhelmed by the mouth-watering aromas of freshly-baked bread, and the gentleness of the service, needing neither words, nor reproach.
If you are a traveller of foreign lands and new cultures, Bhutan and especially Thimphu should definitely be on your list. This is where you will feel the need to not have to hurry, not be paranoid and not be harsh. The city moves at its own pace, with its ever-smiling populace always ready to lend a helping hand when needed. The monasteries here and there add to the aura of bliss that seems to envelope the city, and the colourful prayer-flags fluttering in the breeze spread the message of love and peace.
Once could fall in love with Thimphu and never regret it.