Our armchair travels take us from India to Bhutan a Buddhist kingdom on the eastern edge of the Himalayas. It is a country known for its monasteries, fortresses or dzongs and dramatic landscapes. We are going to take a look at the capital Thimphu which lies in a valley in the country’s western interior. The city is the seat of government and known for its Buddhist sites.
Trashi Chhoe Dzong is an impressive fortress that sits on the west bank of the Wang Chhu. This was the site of the formal coronation of the fifth king in 2008 and it hosts the city’s biggest annual annual celebration, the colorful tsechu festivities. The name of this dzong means Fortress of the Glorious Religion. It was once home to the National Assembly and now is home to the Secretariat, the Throne Room and offices of the King and the Ministries of Home Affairs and Finance. The whitewashed two-story outer structure has three-story towers at all four corners that project out over the walls. On the eastern side there are two main entrances. The southern entrance leads to the administrative section and is off-limits to visitors. The northern entrance leads to the monastic quarter, the summer residence of the dratshang or central monk body.
Entering from the northeast visitors are greeted by the four guardian kings and the step are flanked by the images of Drukpa Kunley, Thangtong Gyelpo and Togden Pajo (the founder of nearby Phajoding Monastery). You’ll be impressed by the architecture in the courtyard. A large utse separates the northern monastic courtyard and its Lhakhang Sarpa from the southern administrative courtyard. In the northern assembly hall is a large statue of Sakyamuni the historical Buddha and the thrones of the current king, past king and Je Khenpo. There is a painted mandala on the ceiling. The large open-air courtyard on the north side of the dzong hosts the dances of the annual tsechu festival in September.
For a colorful adventure head for Thimphu’s Weekend Market which is located on the west bank of the Wang Chhu. Vendors arrive on Thursday and stay until Sunday night. You’ll find a large variety of items like souvenirs, clothing, incense, spices and different kinds of food.
Changangkha Lhakhang is a popular fortress-like temple that sits on a ridge above central Thimphu. The temple was established in the 12th century on a site that was chosen by Lama Phajp Drukgom Shigpo. It is traditional for parents to come here to get auspicious names for their newborns or to get blessings for their young children from the protector deity Tamdrin. Children are blessed by a phurba or ritual dagger and given a sacred thread. Inside are impressive murals. If you give the resident astrologer your birth date he will consult divination charts to decide which kind of protective prayer flags will benefit you. Take the time to see the shrine to the tshomen or mermaid in the central courtyard and see the great views from the back kora or pilgrim path with its beautiful black and gold prayer wheels.
National Memorial Chorten is a large Tibetan-style chorten or stupa (a mound-like or hemispherical structure that contains relics). This is one of the most visible religious structures in Thimphu and for many Bhutanese the focus of their daily worship. This whitewashed chorten is decorated with richly painted annexes that face the cardinal directions and feature elaborate mandalas, statues and a shrine dedicated to the popular king.
The National Institute for Zorig Chusum is commonly known as “the painting school” and offers four-to-six-year courses which give instruction in Bhutan’s 13 traditional arts. Students specialize in painting, woodcarving, embroidery or statue-making. The showroom sells good-value pieces made by students.
The National Textile Museum is the city’s best museum and is part of the Royal Textile Academy. This is the place to get to know about Bhutan’s living national art of thagzo or weaving. The ground floor displays royal ghos including the wedding clothes worn by the fourth king and his four wives. On the upper floor you can learn about major weaving techniques, styles of local dress and types of textiles made by women and men. In the museum shop are some interesting books and fine textiles. No photos. Across the courtyard is the Royal Textile Academy conservation center, where visitors can observe a small group of weavers working on their looms.
Simtokha Dzong was built in 1629 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. It is said that this site guards a demon that had vanished into the rock nearby. That is why it was given the name Simtokha from simmo (demoness) and do (stone). This site was also placed in a strategic location to protect the Thimphu Valley and the entryway to the Dochu La and estern Bhutan.
Officially it is known as Sangak Zabdhon Phodran or Palace of the Profound Meaning of Secret Mantras was the first dzong built in Bhutan. Dzongs date back to 1153 but this was the first one built by the Zhabdrung and was the first structure to incorporate both monastic and administrative facilities. It is the oldest dzong to have survived as a complete structure. Above the dzong is the Institute for Language and Culture Studies.
The utse is three-stories high and behind the prayer wheels around the outside there’s a line of more than 300 fine slate carvings that depict saints and philosophers. The large central figure in the central Ihakhang is of Sakyamuni and is flanked by the eight bodhisattvas. The dark murals inside the Ihakhang are some of the oldest and most lovely in Bhutan. In the western chapel you’ll find the statues of Chenresig, green and white Taras and an early painting of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. In the eastern goenkhang tiger tails and guns hang from the pillars. The protector chapel is dedicated to the protectors of Bhutan – Yeshe Goenpo (Mahakala) and Pelden Lhamo.
Tango Goemba was built by Lama Drukpa Kunley in the 15th century. Today it serves as a university for Buddhist studies and is the residence of Gyalse Rinpoche, an important trulku (reincarnated lama), who is recognised as the seventh reincarnation of the fourth desi (secular ruler) Gyalse Terizin Rabgye (the founder of Taktshang Goemba. This is a popular place to visit during the memorial of the death of Zhabdrung Jigme Chhogyel in April or May and is known as the Zhabdrung Kuchoe.
From the parking lot you’ll follow a trail that goes up 280m and as you head up this spiritual path you’ll be able to read Buddhist quotes to inspire you. When you get closer to the monastery first visit the meditation cave where log ladders lead into a little chapel that features a large crystal, carried here from Tibet. It is used in visualization meditations. Here is also a statue of the Zhabdrung as well as the local protector Bayup, riding a horse. Tango translates as “horse head” gotten from the natural shape of this rock outcrop.
At the main three-story goemba are several chapels that you can visit. On the 3rd floor are the zimchung or living quarters of the fourth desi where you can receive a blessing from his walking stick. At the base of Tango Hill a new Buddhist college campus was built in 2016 to replace aging goemba buildings.
The National Institute of Traditional Medicine was established in 1978. Here you can find medicinal plants collected from remote corners of the Bhutanese Himalayas, such as Lingzhi, Laya and Lunana. At the institute pills, tablets, ointments and medicinal teas are made. The small museum displays some of the 300 herbs, minerals and animal parts that Bhutanese doctors choose from. Of particular interest is yartsa goenbub (cordyceps), the high-altitude “Himalayan Viagra” which is actually a caterpillar that has been mummified by a fungus. This unusual “worm-root” sells for up to $25,000 USD per kilogram in China. If necessary and you don’t feel too well the on-site clinic can prescribe all natural medicines or treatments free of charge.
A huge 51m-tall steel statue of Buddha Dordenma stands at the entry to the Thimphu Valley. In the massive three-story base is a large chapel and inside the body itself are 125,000 smaller statues of Buddha. The massive Buddha looks at its best in the morning light and at night when it’s illuminated. This statue was made in China and reassembled in Bhutan. The paved road that leads to the site, also known as “Buddha Point” passed by a Hindu temple and is also a popular biking route. Nearby is a 3.5km mountain bike trail. This area is also called Changri Kuensel Phodrang after the former palace of the 13th Druk Desi which once stood here.
The National Library was established in 1967 to preserve ancient Dzongkha and Tibetan texts. It offers impressive architecture and you can see some great historic photos. On the top floor is a copy of a letter sent from the Druk desi or secular ruler to the British army officer and surveyor Samuel Turner in 1783. On the top floor are also traditional books and historic manuscripts and include texts from the famous Tibetan printing presses of Derge and Narthang. There are scriptures from all religious schools. Most of the books are Tibetan-style, printed or written on long strips of handmade paper stacked between pieces of wood and wrapped in silken cloth. The carved wooden blocks used for printing the books are also on display.
It takes 45 minutes to hike up to Cheri Goemba, Bhutan’s first monastery. The monastery was established in 1620 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. This is an important place for meditation retreats, with 30 monks living here for three years, three months and three days. The goenkhang (chapel dedicated to protective deities) features the two protector deities of Cheri and Tango. Then it’s a steep climb to the Demon-Subjugating Monastery, built into the cliff where the Zhabdrung overcame local demons. Keep an eye out for tame brown gora (mountain goats) grazing on the monastery grounds.
Pangri Zampa was founded in the early 16th century and is a college for traditional astrology. Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal lived here after he arrived in 1616 because this temple appeared in the vision which directed him from Tibet to Bhutan. In front of the complex are two huge cypress trees that are said to be the biggest in the country. It gets it’s name from the photogenic traditional bridge beside the complex. Drolma Zhingkham Lhakhang was built next door by the Royal Grandmother and is dedicated to the 21 images of Tara. Nearby is Dechenphu Lhakhang, home to Gyenyen, the valley’s protective deity but it’s not open to tourists.
Motithang Takin Preserve was originally established as a zoo but since the fourth king decided that a zoo wasn’t in keeping with Bhutan’s environmental and religious convictions the zoo was closed. The animals were released in the wild but the takins, Bhutan’s national animal were so tame they took to roaming the streets of Thimphu looking for food. The solution was to make a preserve for them. As you go up the trail you get to a large fence enclosure where the takins can now live in peace.
You can get fantastic views of Thimphu Valley from the Bhutan Broadcasting Service or BBS Tower which rises 2685m over the city. The area is known as Sangaygang.
Dechen Phodrang is the site of Thimphu’s original 12th century dzong. Since 1971 it has been home to the state lobra or monastic school which offers an eight-year course to over 250 students. The 12th century paintings in the goemba’s main chapel have been restored and on the upper floor you can see a large figure of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. There is also a chapel dedicated to protective deities.
Voluntary Art Studio this is a studio and art gallery that is the main center for local artists. The studio’s goal is to promote both traditional and contemporary Bhutanese artworks, provide vocational training for young artists and to be a meeting place for artists. Here you can see the latest exhibit and speak to the artists. Outside in the public park you can also see some art pieces displayed.
Visit Nado Poizokhang Incense Factory for an interesting and sweet scented excursion. Here at the traditional workshop 10,000 incense sticks are handmade per month. Visitors can watch the production process or browse for products in the nearby showroom.
The Royal Botanical Garden at Serbithang is just a few minutes drive from Thimphu. It is a wonderful place to visit during the spring and summer. There are various kinds of flowers and medicinal plants and it is a great place for a picnic. The garden is located on the side of a hill offering great views of Thimphu Valley. You can look over the Bhutan landscape and see temples, monasteries, stupas, prayer wheels and colorful prayer flags.
The Royal Botanical Park at Lampelri is also known as the Rhododendron Garden. It is the first botanic park in Bhutan and forms the backdrop of the Dochula Pass. This is a nature reserve that is rich in flora and fauna. You can feel close to nature here and listen to birds twittering and the distant barking of a Barking Deer. Among the species that make their home here are monal pheasants, blood pheasants, musk deer, tiger, leopard, red panda and the leopard cat.
The Rhododendron Garden offers 46 species of this flower. The park has various vantage points, trekking routes, a lake and a canteen.
You can also enjoy the Dochula Pass which is a mountain pass in the snow covered Himalayas within Bhutan on the road from Thimphu to Punakha. Along the way you can see 108 memorial chortens or stupas known as “Druk Wangyal Chortens”.