The Bhutan Odyssey - Places to visit in Thimphu
Bhutan! We are always short of words to describe this paradise. The kingdom has an authentic charm. It is traditional, ethnic and spiritual all at the same time. It's full of monumental buildings, temples, monasteries, fortresses, valleys, rivers, hills, mountains, and loving people. Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan is one such valley surrounded by hills on all sides. It is a charming small city, modern while preserving its heritage, culture and traditional way of living. In this 3rd article of the series 'The Bhutan Odyssey', we will take you through the city of Thimphu with recommendations on places to visit and things to do.
This blog is the third blog in the series 'The Bhutan Odyssey'. Our previous two blogs - 'Introduction to Bhutan and why you should visit it' and 'Plan your own trip to Bhutan' will help you understand the climate, geography, main sightseeing attractions, people and culture of Bhutan. Our subsequent articles will help you traverse various other interesting towns and villages to visit in Bhutan.
3. Places to visit in Thimphu (This article)
Places to Visit in Thimphu:
1. Buddha Dordenma Statue, Thimphu
As we entered and roamed around Thimphu, we saw a big golden statue of Buddha sitting atop a hill from almost any part of the city. It is also probably one the most iconic image from Bhutan apart from Tiger's Nest at Paro that is widely published through the world. This statue of Shakyamuni Buddha is the largest sitting Buddha statue in the world.
Nestled in the 100-acre forested Kuenselphodrang Park, the Buddha Dordenma statue is the most amazing attraction of Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan. The short drive to Buddha Dordenma statue will take you 300 feet above the city of Thimphu on a hilltop. The statue is about 169 feet tall and sits on a lotus above a meditation hall. It is made of bronze and is gold-coated which symbolises indestructibility. The right hand of Buddha in the statue rests on his right knee and there's an offering bowl in his left hand. It will seem that the Buddha is looking right at you with a calm and composed look. His smile radiates compassion.
The meditation hall beneath the statue has an entrance from the right side. Inside this, there are yet another 1,25,000 smaller Buddha statues also made of bronze and gold-coated. Out of these, 1,00,000 statues are 8-inch tall and 25,000 are 12-inch tall. Each of these statues is filled with sacred relics and mantras. The life story of Lord Buddha and his 12 main life events, from birth to enlightenment to death, is painted on the inside walls of the meditation hall. Huge thangkas (Tibetan Buddhist paintings) and mandalas (symbolic circular diagram) are painted on the ceiling. The meditation hall also contains a statue of four-faced Vairochana Buddha. Photography is prohibited inside the meditation hall. The huge statue is surrounded by various beautiful statues of 'Dakinis', female messengers of Buddhism.
It took 10 years to completely build the statue of Buddha Dordenma and some parts of it are still under construction. It is said that Yogi Sonam Zangpo predicted long ago that such a statue will be built in this area of Bhutan to bestow peace, happiness, and blessings to the whole world. Even Guru Padmasambhava, who is referred to as the second Buddha, also forecasted the erection of such a statue.
Indeed, Buddha Dordenma can be counted as the most instagrammable place to visit in Thimphu. The site is best visited early in the morning or in the evening. However note that in the evening, the sun would go behind the statue making it challenging to get good clear pictures. You can spot it even during the night from Thimphu city as its face is illuminated during the night time. The site offers a wonderful panoramic view of Thimphu and is a place where we could spend hours admiring the beautiful landscapes with moving clouds.
2. Bhutan Postal Museum, Thimphu
A visit to Bhutan Postal Museum in Thimphu city should be a part of everyone's Bhutan itinerary. Why? Because here you can get your own photo printed on the Bhutanese stamps and send a postcard with those personalised stamps to your loved ones. You can send them your favourite picture or get one clicked right there and then to get it printed on the stamp. The site also sells souvenirs and various colourful and beautiful postcards with pictures of Bhutan and its cultural heritage that you can buy and send them to your family and friends back home. You get to write messages on the postcards in the old letter-writing style and put your postcard in the red coloured letterbox. Exciting, isn't it?
In the same compound is a museum that showcases the postal history of Bhutan and its evolution. The museum is operated by the Bhutan Postal department.
Charge for the personalised stamp - Nu 500 for 12 stamps (you cannot get less than 12 stamps). We got 12 stamps of one of our group photo printed, distributed amongst ourselves and wrote a postcard to each of our friends and family. So remember to jot down the address of all your loved ones before visiting the Bhutan Postal Museum.
Charge for the postcard - Nu 20 per postcard
Museum entry charge - Nu 150 per person for international visitors, Nu 100 per person for SAARC country visitors and Nu 50 per person for local Bhutanese visitors.
Visiting hours: 9 AM to 5 PM in the summer season, 9 AM to 4 PM in the winter season and 9 AM to 1 PM on Saturdays. The postal office and museum are closed during Sundays and public holidays. However, the good thing is it is open at the time of Thimphu tsechu.
3. National Memorial Chorten, Thimphu
National Memorial Chorten is basically a Tibetan style stupa erected in the memory of Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, the third King of Bhutan in the year 1974. The white-washed chorten with spires of gold is dedicated to World peace. It is the only stupa in Bhutan which does not embalm the remains of previous Kings or saints; it only has a photo of Jigme Dorji in a ceremonial dress. It is located in the centre of the town of Thimphu. Literally, the word chorten means 'seat of faith' and the monument is often referred to as the 'Mind of Buddha' by Buddhist locals. The stupa is surrounded by small gardens while the entrance gate is highly carved and colourful. As you enter, large prayer wheels are located towards the left. Elderly people typically dressed in traditional attire (Gho and Kira) visit the National Memorial Chorten on a daily basis to whirl the large prayer wheels and to pray at the shrine.
Dorji, our Bhutanese guide, told us that the chorten is decorated by mandalas, statues and relics on the inside. From the inside, the chorten is divided into three floors each having various shrines, pictures of third King and images of Lord Buddha. Each floor has four sanctums facing four directions. Hundreds of devotees were reciting religious prayers and circumambulating the chorten in a clockwise direction during our visit. It is believed that all your sins can be cleansed by doing so. They also lighted numerous butter lamps inside a side chapel. Certainly, the monument is revered as one with pretty high religious significance. One could feel an aura of peace and devotion in the Memorial Chorten.
Entry charges: All foreign visitors (except those with a minimum daily package of USD 200/ 250) are charged Nu 300 per person. No entrance fee for Bhutanese visitors.
Visiting hours: 9 AM to 5 PM in the summer season and 9 AM to 4 PM in the winter season.
4. Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory, Thimphu
The term 'jungshi' in the Jungshi paper factory means 'natural'. A visit to this paper factory provides insights into the art of traditional paper making. The Jungshi handmade paper factory was established by the Bhutanese government in the town of Thimphu. Long back, the paper factory was privatised by a Japanese named Norbu Tenzin. The factory continues to preserve and promote the age-old tradition of handmade papermaking. The papers made in Jungshi handmade paper factory were originally used by monasteries for writing the mantras in manuscripts and sacred books.
You can have a closer look at all the steps involved in the paper manufacturing process, from raw material to finished product at Jungshi handmade paper factory. The papers are made from the bark of a tree named Daphne papyri that grow only at higher altitudes of 3000 feet and above. The bark is first collected and soaked in water for 12 hours after which it is boiled for 4 hours. The cooked bark is then washed, sorted, cleaned of fibres and ground into a pulp. The pulp is then mixed with water and starch in a tub. Using a wooden frame and a bamboo screen, a thin layer of pulp is filtered out from the tub and piled on a paper bed. This process is repeated again and again. The paper bed is pressed to squeeze excess water and every single sheet is separated from the bed and spread out on a heated surface to dry. The dried paper is then further processed, coloured or printed to make the final product. A small gallery in the factory compound displays and sells sheets of handmade paper, handmade cards, notebooks, envelopes, calendars, scrolls, paper bags and wall arts. It is interesting to see how the people at the factory work hard day in and out to make 1500 sheets of paper a day.
5. Changangkha Lhakhang, Thimphu
Lhakhang means a 'temple' in the local Bhutanese language, Dzongkha. Changangkha Lhakhang is the oldest temple in Thimphu. It was built in the 12th century and is perched on a cliff overlooking the valley to Thimphu. The temple is famous as 'Name giving temple' as newborns are brought here by parents to get auspicious names and blessings. The resident astrologer gives names to the newborns based on their birth date, time and astrology. A deity named 'Tamdrin' is believed to protect the children.
The inner sanctum sanctorum consists of an 11-headed, 1000-armed statue of Lord of Compassion named as Avalokitesvara who is believed to take care of young children. The founder of the temple is believed to have actually dreamt of an image of 11-headed Avalokitesvara, who then went ahead to build the statue. Since then, the temple is known to be the spiritual home of the newly born children of Chang valley. Beautiful prayer wheels surround the temple and you can get a panoramic view of the Thimphu valley from the courtyard of the temple. We were rewarded by a picturesque sight of Thimphu valley. fluttering Buddhist flags, red-robed bald-headed monks and prayer wheels whirling together in sync. Photography is prohibited in the inner sanctum of the temple.
6. Tashichho Dzong, Thimphu
Dzong means a 'fortress' in the local Bhutanese language, Dzongkha. Tashichho Dzong is one of the most popular place of visit in Thimphu. It is an iconic landmark shared between government offices and monastic bodies, ie. it is both an administrative and religious centre. Tashichho Dzong is located on the banks of Wang Chhu River seamlessly blending with the surrounding well-manicured lawns and gardens. The Beard Man (refer our previous blog - Introduction to Bhutan) built this fortress in the year 1641. In 1897, the fortress was destroyed due to an earthquake and was again rebuilt in 1902. The Dzong was completely renovated and enlarged in the year 1965 by the third King of Bhutan, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, when he moved the capital city to Thimphu. The Dzong hosts Thimphu's biggest annual tsechu known as 'Thimphu tsechu' in the month of September. The present king of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, was coronated at Tashichho Dzong in 2008.
You cannot miss out on the splendid architecture of the Dzong. The building is fully white washed with red and gold laces. It stands in splendour in the middle of the mountains and overlooks the Wang Chhu River. Upon entering the courtyard, it's hard not to get impressed by its massive size and the architecture. A beautiful Buddhist monastery housing a big statue of Lord Buddha stands tall in the right side of the courtyard. It is impressive to know that the entire structure is made in traditional fashion without the use of nails or laid-out plans. Tashichho Dzong houses the secretariat, King's throne room, King's offices and ministries of finance and home affairs. A line of prayer wheels keeps whirling spreading good omen, peace, and calmness.
The Dzong is lit with a beautiful array of lights in the evening providing a gorgeous glow to the entire structure. It is a must visit during the evening time so that you can also get to see its grandeur once it is lit.
Visiting hours: 5 PM to 6 PM from Monday to Friday (as administrative offices work during the day time), 8 AM to 6 PM on Saturday and Sunday.
Entry charges: All foreign visitors (except those with a minimum daily package of USD 200/ 250) are charged Nu 300 per person.
Dress Code: Wearing full sleeves attire and full pants are mandatory for all the visitors. The head should remain uncovered at all times. Bhutanese locals have to mandatorily wear their national dress along with a scarf.
7. Takin Nature Preserve, Thimphu
Initially a mini-zoo, today the 'Motithang Takin Nature Preserve' is a full-fledged wildlife reserve conservation park. It was converted into a preserve when the animals refused to leave the area even after having set them free. Takin is the national animal of Bhutan. It is a mammal resembling the hybrid of a cow and a goat. Takins have brownish black fur, elongated noses, a broad forehead, and bulky tummies. They live and breed at an altitude of 3000 meters and above and graze upon forest growth and bamboo thicket. Apart from Takins, the nature preserve also holds beautiful birds, a few sambar deer, and barking deer. The Takins were grazing deep in the preserve when we visited. As we started leaving disappointingly one of them ran towards us and stood right behind the fence giving wonderful poses. It is a must-visit for kids and nature-enthusiasts.
8. Norzin Lam Market, Thimphu
It's hard not to buy souvenirs for family and friends when in Thimphu market. The Norzin Lam market in Thimphu is full of colours selling authentic handicrafts, jewellery, carpets, traditional paintings, masks, magnets, bags, postcards, religious items, brass bowls, key-chains, handmade ghos and kiras, and textile.
Even if you are not a shopaholic, the market is a worth visit for its vibrance. Local shops also sell basic household items and daily necessities. We did not come across anyone bargaining and the prices for all goods seemed to be fixed, however, you can try and bargain. The owners are friendly, informative, and willing to assist you with your purchase, and the most convenient part is everyone accepts Indian currency in the market. We went to the market in the evening and once all the lights are illuminated, it gives Thimphu a varied charm. The shops close by 8 PM Bhutan time.
The places to visit in Thimphu listed above can be visited in a day. However you should spend atleast 2 nights in Thimphu where you reach Thimphu by noon or evening and cover all above places the next day.
If you have a day or two more in hand, we highly recommend visiting the Tango and Cheri monasteries located in North Thimphu. Visiting these monasteries involves atleast a half day hike and is highly recommended if you love hiking, nature and beautiful panoramic views. A few other museums like textile museum and folk heritage museum are also worth a visit and will provide you insights into the heritage and culture of Bhutan and Bhutanese people.
Nature Tourism - Bhutan:
Our customised trip to Bhutan was organised by Nature Tourism - Bhutan who specialise in nature, adventure and cultural trips. Our Bhutanese guide, Dorji, was able to provide wonderful insights into Bhutanese culture and helped us understand the rationale behind the details of the Buddhist religion. He was very informative and often narrated wonderful stories about Lord Buddha, Guru Rinpoche, The Beard man and their way of living. We did not come across such insider stories when reading about Bhutan on the internet. We truly feel that having a tour guide along with us made a lot of difference for us to get a deep understanding of what we saw and visited. Many thanks to Mr. Karma Jamtsho, owner of Nature Tourism - Bhutan, for helping us design a perfect itinerary and suggesting us these best places to visit in Thimphu in the limited time that we had. You can book your trip to Bhutan with Nature Tourism - Bhutan through their official website.
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Have you been to Bhutan or is it in your bucket-list? What is your first impression of the capital city of Thimphu? Is there any place to visit we have missed out? We would love to know your thoughts in the comment section below.