Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital, occupies a valley in the country’s western interior. It is home to approximately 100,000 inhabitants including the Royal family. This bustling little city is the main centre of commerce, religion and government in the country. The juxtaposition of ancient tradition and modernity make Thimphu the ideal location for visitors to break away from their tour itinerary to immerse themselves in the contemporary Bhutanese lifestyle. It is the most modern city in Bhutan with an abundance of restaurants, internet cafes, nightclubs and shopping centres. However, it still retains its’ cultural identity and values amidst the signs of modernization. Thimphu is one of the few towns in Bhutan that have been equipped with ATM banking facilities and is a good place to stock up on some currency.
There are several attractions in Thimphu such as the National Post Office, the Clock Tower Square, the Motithang Takin Preserve, Tango and Chari Monasteries, Buddha Dordenma, National Memorial Chorten, Centenary Farmer's Market, Semtokha Dzong to name a few. These form the most important tourist attractions in the capital city.
The culture of Bhutan is fully reflected in Thimphu in respect of religion, customs, national dress code, the monastic practices of the monasteries, music, dance, literature and the media. Tshechu is an important festival where mask dances, popularly known as Chams, are performed in the courtyards of the Tashichho Dzong in Thimphu. It is a four-day festival held every year during autumn (September/October), on dates corresponding to the Bhutanese calendar. One of the most curious features of Thimphu is that it is the only capital city in the world that does not use traffic lights. Instead, a few major intersections have policemen standing in elaborately decorated booths (small pavilions), directing traffic with exaggerated hand motions.
The National Memorial Chorten was built in memory of Third Druk Gyalpo and is dedicated to World Peace. The chorten is a large white structure crowned with a golden spire. It is located close to the center of Thimphu city and is one of its most iconic monuments. Visitors will find elderly Bhutanese people circumambulating the Chorten throughout the day. Chorten literally means ‘Seat of Faith’ and Buddhists often call such monuments, the ‘Mind of Buddha’. The Chorten is an extraordinary example of Buddhist architecture and artwork with its gorgeous paintings and intricate sculptures.
The Buddha Dordenma is located atop a hill in Kuenselphodrang Nature Park and overlooks the Southern entrance to Thimphu Valley. The statue fulfils an ancient prophecy dating back to the 8th century A.D that was discovered by Terton Pema Lingpa (Religious Treasure Discoverer) and is said to emanate an aura of peace and happiness to the entire world. This massive statue of Shakyamuni measures in at a height of 51.5 m, making it one of the largest statues of Buddha in the world. The statue is made of bronze and is gilded in gold. 125,000 smaller Buddha statues have been placed within the Buddha Dordenma statue; 100,000 statues of which are 8-inches-tall and 25,000 statues of which are 12 inches tall. Each of these thousands of Buddhas have also been cast in bronze and gilded. The throne that the Buddha Dordenma sits upon is a large meditation hall.
Tashichho Dzong has been the seat of the government since 1952 and presently houses the throne room and offices of the king, the secretariat and the ministries of home affairs and finance. It was first constructed in 1216 A.D. by Lama Gyalwa Lhanangpa where Dechen Phodrang now stands above Thimphu. In 1641, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal acquired it but finding it too small, he built another one, known as the lower Dzong. The original dzong was destroyed by fire in 1771 and everything was moved to the lower dzong. The new building was later expanded several times over the years. It was damaged during an earthquake in 1897 and rebuilt in 1902. King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck had it completely renovated and enlarged over five years after he moved the capital to Thimphu in 1952 in traditional style using neither nails nor written plans. The dzong is located close to Thimphu town, next to the banks of the Wang Chhu River.
The name Semtokha literally means “Atop a Demon” and the legend associated with the dzong’s construction tells us that it was built in order to subdue an evil spirit that was harassing travelers in the region. The dzong was modeled after the Gyal Gyad Tshel Institute of Ralung (Tibet) and is quite distinctive as its Utse or central tower has 12 sides.
A large statue of Yeshay Gonpo (Mahakala), the chief protective deity of Bhutan, is housed inside the Utse. Another interesting aspect of the dzong is that it contains the bed chambers of both Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel and Jigme Namgyel, two of the most important figures in Bhutanese history. Zhabdrung was the leader that first united Bhutan as a nation and Jigme Namgyel was the father of the first King of Bhutan Ugyen Wangchuck.
The Jungshi handmade paper factory uses traditional methods to produce the authentic Bhutanese paper known as Deh-sho. The Jungshi paper factory continues to preserve and promote this age-old Bhutanese tradition. It also produces various other products, such as stationery and greeting cards. It is located approximately 1 km from Thimphu City. The factory uses the bark of two tree species, the Daphne tree and Dhekap tree in the manufacture of traditional paper. Visitors can observe the entire process of producing handmade paper using ancient traditional methods that have been practiced for generations. You can even try your hand at this ancient craft and make some paper of your very own as a souvenir. Deh-sho paper was originally used by monasteries for woodblock and manuscript books and also for writing prayer books.
Dochula pass is located on the way to Punakha from Thimphu. The pass is a popular location among tourists as it offers a stunning 360 degree panoramic view of the Himalayan mountain range. The view is especially scenic on clear, winter days with snowcapped mountains forming a majestic backdrop to the tranquility of the 108 chortens gracing the mountain pass.
Bhutanese families enjoy visiting the pass during holidays and weekends to picnic and simply enjoy the scenery. It is common to see families and groups of friends seated amongst the chortens, enjoying a packed lunch and hot tea. For tourists this is an ideal location to capture beautiful pictures of the Himalayan mountain range during clear, warm days.
A short distance up the road to the BBS tower viewpoint is a trail leading to a large fenced enclosure that was originally established as a zoo. Motithang Takin Preserve, located in the Motithang district of Thimphu, Bhutan is a wildlife reserve area for takin (Budorcas taxicolor), the national animal of Bhutan. The reason for declaring takin as the national animal of Bhutan is attributed to a legend of the animal’s creation in Bhutan in the 15th century by Lama Drukpa Kunley, popularly known as the Divine Mad Man. It's worthwhile taking the time to see these oddball mammals. The best time to see them is early morning, when they gather near the fence to feed.
Located in the capital city of Thimphu, this museum was established in 2001 and provides visitors and tourists with fascinating insights into the Bhutanese material culture and way of life. The Folk Heritage Museum is set inside a three storied, 19th century traditional house. The museum gives you a glimpse of the traditional Bhutanese lifestyle, in addition to artefacts from rural households; it also displays an impressive collection of typical household objects, tools and equipment. The museum also organizes regular demonstrations of rural traditions, skills, habits and customs as well as hosting educational programs for children.
The Bhutan Textile Museum or the National Textile Museum is a national textiles museum in Thimphu, Bhutan, located near the National Library of Bhutan. It is operated by the National Commission for Cultural Affairs. Since its establishment in 2001, the museum has generated national and international attention and has garnered a substantial collection of antique textile artifacts, exclusive to Bhutan. The objective of setting up the museum is to promote Bhutan's achievements in the field of textile arts and to sustain and promote interest of the weavers to continue the traditional textile patterns. The museum also envisions to become the centre for textile studies and research. The purpose is also to promote the history and culture of Bhutan.