Thimphu is Bhutan’s capital and most densely populated city with roughly 91,000 citizens residing there. It is the base for the country’s government and houses the palace of the current king and queen. When you arrive you will get your first chance to see the traditional design of Bhutanese homes, all of which must follow a certain theme as set by royal decree. Sights here include the impressive Tashichhoe Dzong and the Buddha Dordenma statue which offers some glorious bird’s-eye views of the capital nestled in the valleys below.
Having departed the airport at Paro we were whisked towards Thimphu, Bhutan’s miniscule capital. The relatively short drive of about 30km took us over an hour owing to the winding nature of Bhutan’s roads. The journey, despite being slow, was not uneventful as even the first few minutes on the road provided some utterly jaw-dropping views as we snaked our way through the country’s perpetually undulating landscape.
Along the roadsides in Bhutan you will see any number of humorously memorable road signs warning of the dangers of drink driving and speeding. Instead of plastering them with severe warnings like here in the UK, the Bhutanese road organisation DANTAK have instead reverted to using imaginative rhymes that worm their way into your sub-conscious as an alternative method of driving home road safety. Some of the more memorable ones include: ‘If you are married, divorce speed’, ‘Speed thrills but kills’ and my personal favourite ‘After drinking whiskey driving is risky’.
We made a brief stop at a small dzong (whose name was never revealed to us) that our guide explained held an evil amulet of some sort which had previously been harming the nearby residents and making them ill. A famous monk, having identified the cause of these illnesses, removed the item and imprisoned it inside a small structure that blocks most of the harmful rays that it emits. Some, however, still manage to escape through the walls as evidenced by an adjacent pine tree which is ominously bare towards its upper reaches.
Eventually we hit the outskirts of the city and were treated to our first taste of everyday Bhutanese life. As already mentioned, houses in Bhutan have to be built in a specific way and decorated in traditional style with frescoes relevant to the country’s heritage. Some of them, as you’ll see later, are… rather unusual, shall we say? There are no skyscrapers here and advertising billboards are conspicuous in their absence. All shops and businesses within Bhutan identify themselves with blue signs above their doors explaining the building’s purpose and often some locations will double up in the services they offer with hilarious consequences owing to some unfortunate use of the English language.
One thing you will notice as you press on deeper into the capital is the number of dogs that wander the streets. Owing to their religion, Bhutanese people do not condone killing animals (they import all of the meat they eat from India) so stray populations have inevitably blossomed into huge numbers. These strays are placid enough as the people feel obliged to look after them, but although they are unlikely to attack you, their sheer numbers do cause certain problems. More on that later…
By this point we were starving so Jimmy took us for our first taste of Bhutanese cuisine at the Folk Heritage Museum. The waitresses brought out a huge spread for us, explaining timidly what each dish comprised of. We tried some of Bhutan’s national dishes at this restaurant including ema datshi which consists of sliced chillies smothered in a cheesy sauce; suja which is a butter flavoured tea which can have small crisped rice fragments added to it (making it hard to consume, in my opinion – do you sup it or chew it?); lashings of plump red rice; and kewa datshi which is much like ema datshi bar substituting the chillies for potatoes. Much of Bhutan’s food is spicy (which can cause problems for people like Shayne, my travel companion, who cannot tolerate even the weakest chilli!) and what remains can be classified as quite bland so it would be foolish to plan a trip to Bhutan and expect world class haute cuisine. I actually grew to adore ema datshi, however, to the point of trying to make it myself when I got home (the result was less than satisfactory, unfortunately)! I have to be honest and say the quality of the food at the Folk Heritage Museum was pretty poor overall. We were somewhat worried about upcoming meals as a result but, thankfully, the fare improved with each restaurant we visited, leaving our first feast as the worst of the lot.
We made a quick stop at Hotel Galingkha, our accommodation for the night, to drop our bags and freshen up a bit. Galingkha is situated right in the heart of central Thimphu only a few metres walk away from the capital’s famous human traffic light booth. I made sure to run and grab a quick snap before we hopped back in the car to head towards our first tourist hotspot, the Buddha Dordenma statue.
Located on a steep mountainside high above the city, the Buddha Dordenma statue was built to celebrate the 60th birthday of the country’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. It is one of the largest Buddha statues ever built and, according to our guide Jimmy, is the tallest in the world dedicated to the specific version of Buddhism preached in Bhutan. The benevolent statue is said to look over the residents of Thimphu and bless them with peaceful and happy lives as well as protect them from any nefarious demons that should seek to harm them. The statue is impressive in and of itself but the surrounding nature park is still undergoing heavy building work which can detract somewhat from the ambience of the place. We were not allowed to enter the interior of the statue but instead were taken to the edge of the partially finished stairway that will eventually serve as entryway to the statue and were treated to some spectacular views of distant Thimphu, nestled safely at the foot of the deep valley it is set within.
We set off again, heading down the mountainside towards Motithang Takin Preserve, home to a number of takin, Bhutan’s national animal. This strange creature is said to have been created by Lama Drukpa Kunley (also known as the Divine Madman) who transplanted a goat’s skull onto the skeleton of a cow and resurrected the remains into a new, living animal. Although the idea of containing animals in a zoo might sound like it flies in the face of Bhuddist belief, the animals housed within have all been rescued from certain death, either from floods that threatened to wash them away or after being attacked by predators. The takin is certainly an unusual beast and I have seen no other animal like it. There are also a few sizeable deer called sambar waltzing around with their takin brethren.
As we were leaving we were nearly speared by a flying object as we meandered down the steep pathway back to our vehicle. This was our first experience of khuru, a traditional Bhutanese sport in which a huge dart is thrown across a 20 metre distance towards a tiny wooden target. Once all participants have taken their turn, the teams walk to retrieve their darts and then proceed to throw them at a target located in their previous throwing zone. The aim of the young men participating was exceptional. Almost every shot either hit home or came within inches of the target, even taking into account the great distance between the thrower and their goal and the seemingly unwieldy nature of their projectile.
One thing irked me about our visit to the zoo and that was having to pay for our entry. When we booked our trip to Bhutan we were told that our prerequisite daily payment of $250 would cover our accommodation, food and entry into all attractions. It was disappointing to be charged 100 ngultrum each for passes, especially considering how fleeting our visit here was.
By now it was late enough to visit Tashichhoe Dzong, the main dzong (or temple) in Thimphu where the king holds office. Tourists are only allowed to enter after 5:30pm once the king leaves for the day, hence our late arrival at around 6pm or so. Commoners such as ourselves are taken to the entrance via a long road that veers off to the left, the much shorter and more fancifully decorated right-hand road is reserved solely for the king and his cohorts. As we walked towards the entrance of the dzong proper, Jimmy pointed out the royal palace which is home to the king, queen and their new born prince. The roof was barely visible through a covering of trees but Jimmy still warned us about letting our gaze linger for too long – apparently this can be misconstrued and cause problems for visitors.
After having our visa letters properly scrutinised we were finally allowed entry to the courtyard of the dzong where we were greeted by walls decorated with hundreds of ornate prayer wheels and painstakingly drawn frescoes rich with Buddhist religious importance. Jimmy spent a good long while explaining the six realms of the wheel of life in which souls can find themselves moving towards enlightenment, stagnating in an eternal loop within the human realm or, more gruesomely, sinking towards hungry ghost status and beyond that eternal torture in hell. One serene room just off the courtyard housed a large gold Buddha with a beautiful, intricately painted interior. Unfortunately we were not allowed to photograph this hallowed area so no pictures I’m afraid!
Our first glimpse of a Bhutanese dzong was, quite simply, spectacular. The thick white walls towering above us had an air of brutal impenetrability about them while the paintings and decorations that adorned the inner sanctums leaned paradoxically towards spirituality and enlightenment. Because of strict rules enforced by the royal family, every dzong must be decorated in more or less the exact same fashion. Hence, you might, like my companion and I did, find yourself ‘dzonged out’ by the time you leave Bhutan.
Here are two important pieces of advice if you choose to visit Bhutan: 1) You are required to dress respectfully and wear long trousers and collared shirt at all religious sites so make sure to pack suitable clothing. 2) Try and bring some lace-free shoes that slip off and on easily as you will be removing them very frequently indeed throughout your trip!
After our early flight and our arduous day we were just about ready to call it a day and relax the rest of the evening away. Jimmy, however, had other ideas, offering to take us out (apparently we were the first tourist group he had ever done this for which we found quite touching!) so we could experience a Friday night out in Bhutan! An offer we couldn’t refuse!
Our first stop was S Teez, a local dive bar run by one of Jimmy’s closest friends. Although the place was a bit dark and grimy, it was still a pleasant experience owing to the friendly nature of the customers within, most of whom were Jimmy’s pals. The majority of them had very high English speaking skills and were very well educated which provided some interesting conversational topics ranging from work, Buddhism and even Tudor era Britain! This, for me, was easily the most open and friendly any of the Bhutanese people we met were with us and we had a great time as a result. One other thing, everybody here was smoking despite the country’s supposed tobacco ban!
We made one final stop at a bar called Mojo Park which was a bit more upper class, with live music and far more comfortable surroundings. We indulged in a few Red Panda beers which are like a lower class Bhutanese version of Hoegaarden. We even ended up rubbing shoulders with royalty here as the king’s younger brother rocked up for a few bevvies! Jimmy quickly dragged us out just on the off chance the uncouth foreigners caused any offence to such an important person! I must admit to briefly doubting Jimmy in regards to who the man actually was but, sure enough, there was his car outside replete with the orange number plate reserved for royalty or dignitaries in Bhutan.
Our exhaustion was at critical point by this time so we headed back to our hotel anticipating a restful sleep before our 9am start the following morning. That, however, was not to be! Remember those dogs I mentioned earlier? Well, they shattered our chance of a long, unbroken sleep! As strays cannot be put down in Bhutan they congregate in huge numbers at night and this often results in cacophonous packs of what sounded like hundreds of dogs barking throughout the wee hours. At 4am I was awoken by an enthusiastic chorus of barks almost apocalyptic in volume! We dubbed these noisy instances Bhutanese bird song in honour of these lively canine’s unmelodic sunrise wakeup calls!
Where I stayed
If you visit Bhutan as a tourist your hotels are selected for you by your tour group as part of your daily payment. As such, you don’t have a great deal of control over where you end up staying unless you ask for a place before you set off. We didn’t know we could request specific hotels and, as such, were at the mercy of our tour provider, Bhutan Travelers. Our first hotel was Hotel Galingkha, a centrally placed location only a few metres walk from the famous human traffic light that Thimphu is famed for.
The double room we were allocated was spacious and had a large window offering a decent view of the surrounding capital. The decor of the room was somewhat basic but adequate. Beds were comfortable and amenities were sufficient. We were provided with a small table, two chairs, plenty of storage, a TV (with a surprisingly good selection of channels, actually) and – strangely considering the country’s supposed tobacco ban – an ashtray! The bathroom was a good size and the shower had continuous hot water which was a blessing after some of the cold washes we were forced to endure during visits to other countries earlier in our trip!
After a pretty poor meal at the Folk Heritage Museum earlier in the day we were apprehensive about the quality of food we were to be served throughout the rest of our Bhutan trip. Thankfully, the food at Hotel Galingkha was a vast improvement over our earlier fare. The Bhutanese offerings were of far superior quality (the ema dashi was particularly nice here) and there were even a few dishes with an Indian bent which sat particularly well with me. The naan breads provided for us were absolutely delicious so ask for second helpings if you can!
One obvious negative for this hotel is its proximity to the capital’s huge roving dog population. Nightly hundreds of stray dogs will kick up a noisy chorus of barks which can easily disrupt your sleep. Luckily, I brought earplugs to block out some of the racket but residual noise still managed to make its way to my ears, such was the cacophonous volume! Although this issue is beyond the hotel’s control, these dog packs can still pose a real nuisance and should be considered if you plan to stay here, especially if you are a light sleeper.
Overall, I was quite pleased with my stay at Hotel Galingkha. The room was comfortable enough and the food was a pleasant surprise. It’s just a shame that Bhutan’s stray dog problem might make your stay here a noisy and unrestful one.