Thimphu is the capital city of the Kingdom of Bhutan, a small, isolated country in the Himalayas, sandwiched between India and China. My friends Matt & Emily are living & working in Thimphu for a year as part of Matt’s PhD research. The idea of visiting friends in an obscure, out-of-the-way place was way too tempting to pass up, so after months of planning and a couple intermediary stops (in Hong Kong and Bangkok), I arrived in Thimphu (pronounced “TIM-poo”).
Bhutan, the Land of the Thunder Dragon, likes to market itself as something of a Shangri-La: an undeveloped Buddhist utopia hidden away up in the mountains; a place that’s rich in culture and history, where a traditional lifestyle still thrives and where happiness, not economic growth, is the government’s overriding goal. The travel media is happy to perpetuate that image, and Bhutan has featured in plenty of magazines, newspapers, and books as a unique, off-the-beaten-path destination.
With about 80,000 people, Thimphu is the only place in the country that could really be called a “city”; everything else is just towns and villages. Like pretty much everywhere else in Bhutan, the scenery in Thimphu is beautiful: it’s situated at about 7600 ft in a dramatic V-shaped valley. Nearby snow-capped mountains reach 15,000 ft; small by Himalayan standards but higher than anything in the Lower 48.
Most of Bhutan’s people live as subsistence farmers & herders in similarly mountainous rural areas; Thimphu is the major exception to that rule. Bhutan is remote and traditional, but not isolated or backwards; there are cell phones, TVs, and the internet, along with government warnings about not to misusing those technologies.
As a city, Thimphu has only existed since about 1960, and most of Bhutan’s historical sites lie elsewhere. There’s still a lot to see, though, especially in the surrounding hills, and Thimphu hosts the majority of the Western amenities available in the entire country: restaurants, coffee shops, grocery stores (not many, of course; you could visit every restaurant in a week).
There are only a few roads (“highway” is way too generous of a word) to connect the disparate valleys of Bhutan, and there’s famously not a single stop light in the entire country. Thimphu has the closest thing, at the main intersection of the city, where there’s an earnest white-gloved traffic cop in a little kiosk-style building.
As you’d expect from the country’s largest town, Thimphu features a large weekend market for food and handicrafts. There was a ton of interesting stuff to see..
The mountains surrounding Thimphu have a lot of interesting sights as well. Most prominent is the giant statue of Buddha that’s under construction on a ridge overlooking the city, named Buddha Dordenma. When finished, more than 100,000 smaller Buddha statues will be placed in galleries inside the main statue, and other monuments will be built in the surrounding area. The whole thing seems destined to become Bhutan’s national monument and one of its most iconic places. It’s quite impressive now, even though it’s still very much a construction site.
Bhutan’s national animal (since there aren’t any real dragons around to serve the purpose) is the takin. Legend says that takins were created by the most colorful character in Bhutanese history, Drukpa Kunley, the “Divine Madman,” who is famous for helping women exorcise their inner demonesses (I suggest the wikipedia article if you want more info on how he did that). Drukpa Kunley apparently performed a miracle by attaching the head of a goat to the body of a cow, thereby creating the takin. Nowadays, the animals are considered a “goat antelope,” which doesn’t seem quite right either. Takins are usually found high up in the mountains, but we visited a takin reserve just outside Thimphu.
Like most places in Bhutan, the mountainsides around Thimphu are rich with Buddhist religious sites: monasteries, temples, prayer wheels, chortens, and collections of prayer flags. We went on several hikes to different locations, all of which had spectacular scenery.
During our time in Thimphu we were able to stay at the guest house at Royal Thimphu College (RTC), which is where my friends Matt & Emily live & teach. The college opened in 2009 as Bhutan’s second university, and it’s built in a beautiful location in the mountains above Thimphu.
Thimphu was very interesting; it’s probably one of the more unique capital cities in the entire world. While some of the creature comforts we’re used to in the West are missing (drinkable tap water, adequate heating & insulation, certain standards of cleanliness), Thimphu also has almost no crime, no obvious poverty, and no “chain” anything. I’d happily go back again to do some more hiking in & around the city, although I’m not sure I’ll get the chance to: unless you’re the invited guest of a resident of Bhutan, there’s a $250 per day tourist fee. It’s designed to keep tourism small, sustainable, and, frankly, limited to wealthy foreigners. My friends are moving back to the States in a few months, so realistically this was a once-in-a-lifetime visit. We wanted to see more than just Thimphu, and we did – which I’ll write more about here in the future.
A few more general Thimphu pics: