Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital city since 1962 and the only world capital with no traffic lights, is just over an hour’s drive from Paro. Located in a wooded valley, it is home to Government offices, foreign missions, development projects and businesses. Modern development has led to a well established infrastructure and good services, but Thimphu continues to display a strong national identity which is very much in evidence, for example in its traditional architecture.
Tashichho Dzong, or the ‘fortress of the glorious religion’, was first erected in 1641 and attained its present form in 1965. It housed the original National Assembly and is now home to the secretariat, the throne room and offices of the King and the Ministries of Finance and Home and Cultural Affairs. Unlike other dzongs, it has two main entrances, one leading to the administrative section and the other to the monastic quarter. The dances of the annual Thimphu Tsechus in autumn are performed in the monastic quarter. Bhutan’s spiritual leader, Je Khenpo, and the monks of Thimphu and Punakha reside here during the summer.
Simtokha Dzong is located on a high ridge about four miles from Thimphu. It was the first of a chain of fortresses built around the country by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel in the 17th century. Built in 1629, today it is the home of the Institute for Language and Culture Studies where monks and lay people come to study. The site of the dzong was chosen to guard over a demon that had vanished into a nearby rock. Its position protected the Thimphu valley and the route to central and eastern Bhutan.
The National Memorial Chorten is a large Tibetan-style structure built in 1974 to honour the memory of the third King of Bhutan, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, today remembered as the father of modern Bhutan. Containing numerous religious paintings and complex tantric statues of Buddhist deities, it is a revered religious site and an important focus for daily prayers and worship.
Bhutan’s National Library was established in 1967 and houses many ancient books in both Tibetan and Dzongkha (the national language of Bhutan), English language books, a small collection of modern academic texts which mainly deal with Buddhism and Himalayan history, travel works and a number of books on Bhutan. People perform circumambulations of the building because of the holy books and scriptures stored inside.
The School of Painting or the National Institute of Zorig Chusum offers a six-year course teaching traditional arts and crafts to students from all over Bhutan. Subjects taught include drawing, painting, woodcarving, embroidery and statue making, and the School is an excellent place to buy gifts and souvenirs.
Changangkha temple was built in the 12th century on a site chosen by Lama Phajo Drukgom Shigpo who hailed from Tibet. Perched on a hilltop above the city, the temple is a popular spot for pilgrims who flock here throughout the day to circumambulate and turn the prayer wheels. The temple also contains beautiful wall paintings and hundreds of religious scriptures written in gold. Parents traditionally come here to get auspicious names for their children from Tamdrin, the protector deity.
The Folk Heritage Museum is housed in a three storey mud-and-timber farmhouse dating from the 9th century. It illustrates aspects of traditional Bhutanese life from centuries ago, elements of which survive today in rural areas.
The National Institute of Traditional Medicine was established in 1988. Here traditional herbal and other medicines made from plants, minerals, animals, precious metals and gems are prepared and checked for quality in its impressive laboratory. At its day-care centre and clinic doctors diagnose patients and prescribe appropriate medicines or treatments. The institute also conducts research into the use of medicinal herbs and plants.
The National Textile Museum, situated north of the main street in Thimphu, provides an introduction to Bhutan’s national art of weaving, displaying colourful, intricate hand-woven archaic and modern textiles. Changing exhibitions introduce major weaving techniques, styles of local dresses and textiles.
You shouldn’t miss the weekend market in Thimphu. People from nearby valleys arrive on Thursday afternoon and stay to sell their goods – vegetables, other foodstuffs and handicrafts – until Sunday evening. At the northern end of the market stalls display handmade products including religious objects, baskets, fabrics and clothing.
Other places worth visiting in the Thimphu area include the Big Buddha statue, the Telecom Tower at Sangay Gang, the Handicrafts Emporium, a mini zoo (where you can see takins, the national animal and unheard of outside Bhutan), Dechen Phodrang, Zilukha nunnery and the paper factory.