Thimpu: 1 Day, 5 Sights

The capital of Bhutan, Thimpu, is tiny as capital cities go — at 100,000 people, it’s just under twice the size of my hometown of Hamden, Connecticut. But along with the towns of Paro and Punakha, it’s a must-do part of any Bhutanese tourist’s “golden triangle,” and it was the first stop on my week-long service trip to Bhutan with a group of twenty high schoolers from Singapore American School. These are the major sights that we visited:

1. National Memorial Chorten, a stupa built in honor of the third King of Bhutan by his mother in the early 1970s.IMG_9775

For those of you not up on your Bhutanese history, the country became a hereditary monarchy in 1907 and then turned into a constitutional monarchy in the early 2000s. The people of Bhutan continue to revere their kings deeply, so when one of them dies, it’s a major national event. In this case, it merited the building of a significant national and religious monument (it is nearly impossible to know where government stops and where religion begins here), complete with an enormous set of prayer wheels …


… incense burners …


… butter lamp offerings …


… and beautiful paintings:


Stupas — Buddhist shrines — come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. This one was built in the Tibetan style (conventional Bhutanese stupas are far more modest). Here’s our whole group out in front:


2. Buddha Dordenma, the giant golden Buddha that, while nearly brand new, has become a fixture high above the city.


Construction of the Buddha Dordenma was started in 2006 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the fourth king of Bhutan (who is otherwise known, conveniently, as “K4”). This enormous statue is one of the largest representations of Buddha in the world. The structure houses a temple and meditation hall that you can tour, but there is no photography allowed inside any Bhutanese temples — so we had to satisfy ourselves with photos of the Buddha itself …


… and the surrounding statuary. This includes angel-like deities …


… bas-relief creatures …


… and an elaborate entry gate:


But one of the most exciting parts of being up at the golden Buddha is looking out at the  the mountains that surround Thimpu:IMG_9807

3. Changlimithang Stadium & Archery Ground, where we were able to catch part of an archery match:


Archery is the national sport of Bhutan, and on this occasion it was being played with the traditional bamboo bow (some participants prefer the more modern compound bow). This match was also being broadcast on national TV:

Archery is an amazing sport: the archers are trying to hit a tiny target that’s 145 meters away!


One of the more entertaining parts of an archery competition (for a non-Bhutanese, anyway) is the dancing that a team does after one of its members makes a hit:

4. Lunch at the Folk Heritage Museum restaurant. This traditional Bhutanese meal began with an introduction to butter tea (which is exactly what it sounds like) and a sort of puffed rice …


… followed by a meal that included red rice, buckwheat pancakes, chicken curry, a pumpkin dish, potatoes in a milky cheese sauce, oddly stringy spinach, and the ever-present “chili cheese”:


The food in Bhutan doesn’t vary much from one meal to the next, but it’s all delicious! This meal was particularly excellent. The drive outside of the Folk Heritage Museum also gave me my only glimpse of a yak:IMG_9916.jpg

5. Tashichhoedzong, the ancient monastery and fortress of Thimpu:


A fortress was originally built on this land in the late 1700s, but it was destroyed by a fire. Then followed a series of building and rebuilding, as the structure fell over the years to two more fires and an earthquake. The present Tashichhoedzong was completed in 1968 and now houses national administrative offices for both the government and Bhutan’s central monastic body. So once inside, while you can see an enormous courtyard surrounded by impressive buildings …


… you can also see monks …


… and office workers going about their jobs (this man is ferrying a huge stack of file folders labeled “home secretary”):


This complex houses multiple temples — but again, they don’t allow any photography past the entryways.


But even if you can’t turn on your camera past the doorway, there’s still a lot to see:



The Tashichhoedzong offers a range of religious artwork. The whole fortress is guarded, as so many sacred places in Bhutan are, by the four directional kings. You learn to recognize them after a while — the yellow King of the North holds a jewel-vomiting mongoose (this is true) in his hand …IMG_9913

… the red King of the West grasps a serpent …


… and the white King of the North plays the lute:


Apologies, but the blue King of the South was blocked by a metal detector, so I don’t have his picture. For a different blue guardian, I found Vajrapani, the bodhisattva of power:


The main temple (or the main temple for tourists, anyway) has mandalas painted as murals on its front wall, including this representation of the six realms of existence and rebirth …


… and this mandala (whose meaning I didn’t quite catch):


There are even paintings behind the fortress’ prayer wheels:


And of course, you’ll find a representation of Bhutan’s ubiquitous four friends: the elephant, the monkey, the rabbit, and the bird:


This scene represents a fable of cooperation and harmony (you can read the full story here on Wikipedia).

All of this makes for a lot of sightseeing, but you can do it in a day if you’re pressed for time. And if Thimpu is your first stop in the country, this tour is an excellent introduction to many elements of Bhutanese culture!

3 responses to “Thimpu: 1 Day, 5 Sights

  1. Pingback: Wandering in Thimpu | Traveler Tina·

  2. Pingback: Education & A King’s Celebration | Traveler Tina·

  3. Pingback: Bhutan: 10 Things to Know Before You Go | Traveler Tina·

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