Exploring Bhutan Two Cities at a Time: Thimphu

There are mountains and there are the mighty mountains. Do I need even say that the Himalayas are the mightiest of the mighty? As is probably obvious, I am not immune to the romance of the Himalayas, woven through the ages by people on their quest for Shangri La or Shambhala. I’d be lying if I repeated the cliché of finding my Shangri La in Bhutan, but I don’t blame people if they do.

My earliest memories of Bhutan are like a dream sequence – my current self looking at my 4-year-old self accepting the saffron-camphor water  poured from a Bumpa by a solemn looking monk. The edges are blurred as though looking at a heavily vignetted photo, but the wall against which I stand is a dull red. It is peacefully quiet inside, and it smells of incense and butter.

I don’t know if the details in my memory are imagined and transplanted from my subsequent visits to several Buddhist monasteries in Darjeeling and Sikkim, but the contented feeling in that memory did make me want to visit more of Bhutan, and not just the border  town of Phuentsholing. I decided to visit Bhutan in 2013, and committed myself to a plan by declaring my decision to friends, acquaintances and even strangers. Of course, I had my dad do a lot of planning for me, but the point is that I did go to Bhutan in 2013!

Whatever one’s political views on Bhutan, and I am not condoning Bhutan’s government action against the ethnic Nepalese, there is agreement that Bhutan is one of those rare countries that can still be “authentic” in some aspects – in fact, TV was introduced only in 1999.

My mother, sister and I did a road trip from West Bengal – with a stop at Phuentsholing to get our paperwork done. Even though Indians don’t need a visa for Bhutan, or spend the stipulated minimum amount per person per day (somewhere around US$300), we still need papers stating the places we are going to visit – Thimphu and Paro in our case.

Expecting a drastic change as we headed out of Phuentsholing to Thimphu, I had to quell a tiny disappointment at finding everything mostly like India.  However, the feelings soon faded on seeing the unique architecture that features lots of colours and religious motifs. The following photos capture only some of the beauty of Bhutan and its people. I keep telling people that Bhutan is a cleaner, less crowded, and friendlier version of India.

A few tips to plan your trip:

1. I went to Bhutan in the dead of winter – January. It worked out well for me because even though the nights were freezing, the sky was clear during the day and sun was very warm – a sweater and a puffer vest were enough. However, if it’s overcast, it could well turn out to be miserable. Hotels are also much cheaper, and the tourist sites are not overrun – though I find it hard to imagine any place in Bhutan as overrun by tourists.

2. Renting a car at Jaigaon (the border city on the Indian side) was much cheaper than renting a car in Bhutan. We rented a car for Rs. 2000/day. Of course, if it’s an Indian car, it needs the necessary permits. A family from Ladakh that we ran into during the hike to Tiger’s Nest monastery in Paro told us that they hired a car in Bhutan for Rs. 5000/day.

3. Thimphu has plenty of good restaurants for both Bhutanese and Indian dishes.  However, if you just want to read head to Ambient café, a western style café with fast, free wi-fi and great coffee. They even serve cold and hot cereal at breakfast even though it’s not on the menu.

4. The Rupee is at par with the Ngultrum, and you can pay everywhere in rupees. There is no need to convert your currency. Credit cards are not accepted at a lot of places, so bring cash. However, do not bring Rs.500 or Rs.1000 notes as they are “not officially accepted”.

The Dochula pass offers a stunning view of the Himalayan range with the 108 chortens in the foreground. These chortens were commissioned by Queen Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk. A permit is required to visit this pass. Because we didn’t have one, the guard at the checkpost gave us fifteen minutes at the pass. A very limited time for such a beautiful place, which was a shame.

Built in 1974 by Queen Phuntsho Choden Wangchuk in memorial for the third king and her son, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, the National Memorial Chorten is a place for daily worship for the Bhutanese.

The room full of giant prayer wheels is right by the entrance and seems to be the place for old timers saying their prayer beads beside the prayer wheels.

I loved the juxtaposition of the old  and the new at the Chorten - the older religious people praying and the young girls  looking at their tablet.

I loved the juxtaposition of the old and the new at the Chorten – the older religious people praying and the young girls looking at their tablet.

This giant bronze statue, the largest and tallest of Buddha in the world, overlooks Thimphu. Still under construction, it will house 100,000 eight-inch Buddha statues, and 25,000 twelve-inch statues. These smaller statues will be made of copper and gilded in gold.

The Trashi Chhoe Dzong is the seat of the King and houses the secretariat, the ministries of home affairs and finance, the Gross National Happiness Commission, as well as the monastic quarter. The current structure although built in the traditional style, was built only recently in 1962 by King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, the third King. The original Thimphu dzong (or fortress) was built in 1216, and suffered some fires and earthquake in the 18th and 19th century, before the current structure was finally built.

The farmer’s market is open only on weekends and is sectioned into areas – fruit and vegetables, meat and dairy, fish etc. The Bhutanese eat chillies as their main dish (ema datshi), and not just as a seasoning – it keeps the body warm, and they buy chillies in bulk.

Traffic policeman direct traffic at this intersection. Our hotel was very close to this post, and we must have crossed it several times. We were pleasantly surprised when cars stopped to let pedestrians pass – something so unheard of in South Asia.

You’ll see photos of the current king and queen in every commercial establishment very much like in Nepal when it had constitutional monarchy. Here a Maruti car showroom displays the portrait of the royal couple.

In the center of the city, it is a great place to sit on the steps in the warmer months, and read or watch local kids bike.