Perhaps the only city that I am very familiar with, besides the place where I live, is Thmphu. And it is not because I have spent a lot of time there, but because it is a place small enough that in a few days, you can discover the city end-to-end. Here is your quick guide to spending two days in Thimphu.
Thimphu at its busiest.
Thimphu is a small place and it doesn’t take longer than thirty minutes of walking to get from one corner to the other. If you are fit enough, you can spend the whole weekend exercising your legs and keep away from using automobiles. It is a city that encourages a visitor walking – there are wide enough foot-paths, the air is clean and there is very little traffic. If you can’t really conceive long walks for two days, you may rent a cab for the entire day, or hail a taxi as and when you need it.
Day 1 – Morning
National Memorial Chorten. This is quiet and peaceful place where pious Bhutanese come to circumambulate and pray. Join the small crowd of people who are quietly going around the stupa. If you exercise regularly in the mornings, today’s work-out can be completed by making 108 circles around the structure. If you are not a morning person, you may skip this and decide to come in the evening instead.
Breakfast. You will be surprised to know how late does everything open in Thimphu. There are very few places, if at all, that would be open to serve you breakfast even at 8.30am. It is best to order breakfast at the place where you are staying and not to go out looking for more options. But if you have to eat out, the restaurant at Hotel Dragon Roots, close to clock tower is likely to be open by 7.30am. Service here is slow even by Bhutanese standard and may test your patience.
National Institute of Zorig Chusum. After breakfast, head towards this place, more popularly called ‘painting school’. This is an institution created to propagate traditional Bhutanese crafts, where students learn thangka paining, making mud statues, wood carving and several other crafts. To facilitate undisturbed learning for students, the school is open to visitors only for a short duration in the morning and evening. Find out the timings in advance before you plan your visit.
Weekend Market. The big market, located across Wang Chu River is very colourful and has a huge section dedicated to traditional Bhutanese artifacts. This is where you can find your souvenirs to take home, such as a small prayer wheel, meditation bowl, paintings, roasaries,.. Even locals come here to shop, while the shops in the main street usually see only tourists dropping in. And you don’t have to come shopping to visit the market; the colours here are simply overwhelming.
Day 1 – Afternoon
Lunch. Care for some traditional Bhutanese food, made palatable for tourists without loosing much authenticity? Try the Bhutan Kitchen. The entrance has a mock setup of a traditional Bhutanese Kitchen fueled by wood-fire, but the insides are more modern. The restaurant only serves a set meal and doesn’t offer a menu. A part of the meal may change everyday, but always expect to see red rice, chilli-cheese (ema-datshi) and potato-cheese (kewa-datse).
Motithang Takin Prserve. Up in the hills overlooking Thimphu is this spacious enclosure where you can see the national animal of Bhutan – Takin. An endemic animal, Takin has a body similar to that of a cow and a face similar to that of a sheep. A sign in front of the zoo reads:
“Due to its uniqueness, the Takin continues to befuddle taxonomists. Unable to relate it to any other animal, they have put it in a category by itself, budorcas taxicolor.
If you are planning to come here on foot, keep in mind that it is about 2km uphill walk to the preserve from the town. If you are on a taxi, you can continue to telecom tower from here, which offers you a bird’s eye view of Thimphu Valley. Walking to the telecom tower is possible (perhaps a kilometer of steep uphill climb from Takin preserve), but may take much time and effort.
Day 1 – Evening
Tashichho Dzong. The central administrative building of Thimphu is huge. The monastic part of the dzong is open to public after working hours at 5pm. Get there a little early see the flag lowering ceremony. Much of the dzong is restricted to visitors, so you may not be able to see a lot here. But it is worthwhile visiting in to see the huge scale of this beautiful structure. The dzong closes for visitors after sunset. If you have followed this itinerary so far and are coming here after a visit Motithang Takin Preserve, you may be on a tight schedule in case you have made it to the preserve and back on foot.
Traffic Square and Art Cafe. Come back to the center of the town to see one of the most amusing tourist attractions in the city – traffic police directing the vehicles at a junction that is simply called ‘traffic’. Bhutan’s busiest square is simply not busy enough to have traffic lights installed. Instead, you will see two policemen standing at the center of the square, directing the traffic. The hand movements are interesting to watch.
The government had once attempted to install lights at the square. It was the only one in the entire country, but was removed soon as people did not take well to it.
You do not want to miss seeing this square, and the amusing hand movements of policemen directing the traffic. Once you are done, it is perhaps time for some coffee. Head out to nearby Art Cafe for some pastries, savouries and coffee.
National Memorial Chorten. If you haven’t made it here in the morning, it is a good time to visit, along with a large number of residents of the town who come after sunset to circumambulate the huge chorten. Don’t miss peeking into the room filled with lights adjacent to the main structure. It would be worthwhile coming here even if you had made it in the morning, as the stupa is lit and there are many people circling it in the evening.
Dinner at Seasons. Ever thought of eating Pizza in Thimphu? There are a few pizza places around but Seasons Pizzeria near HongKong market is simply the best. Close your eyes and order a Greek Style Pizza. Don’t forget to keep some space for their awesomely awesome desserts.
Day 2- Morning
Take the morning easy, like everyone else does in Thimphu. Have your breakfast at the hotel or guesthouse where you are staying, as you are unlikely to find too many options.
Clock Tower. Post breakfast, get to the center of the town to clock tower area. This is a pleasant open space in the heart of the town. The few trees in the square will be in full bloom if you are here in summer. The square is a great place for people-watching in the center of the town. Lookout for pious men and women slowly turning the prayer wheels, children on their skates and scooters and people just walking past on work, while a disciplined traffic moves slowly along the nearby Norzin Lam. The benches at the square are great for sunning in the crisp Thimphu weather with a book in hand.
Shopping. If you aren’t done shopping at the market on the previous day, you can go on an extended session today. Norzin Lam has many shops all along that cater to tourists. There is another made-for-tourists shopping lane in front of Taj Tashi that has a series of shops that sell traditional stuff from all parts of Bhutan.
Day 2- Afternoon & Evening
Lunch. If you are ready for another round of tasting Bhutanese food, try one of the numerous restaurants that serve Bhutanese as well as Indian foods near the main traffic. Some choices include Plum Cafe next to traffic square and Mid Point Restaurant. If you are looking for something other than Indian and Bhutanese, it would be best to stick to Seasons Pizzeria.
Archery at Changlimithang Stadium. People of Bhutan are crazy about archery. You will most likely find a bunch of traditionally dressed men at the archery ground at Changlimithang Stadium on Sunday afternoons, aiming at their targets or jeering at the opposition team. You can sit in the gallery and watch the arrows flying towards the insanely faraway target on the other end.
Zangto Pelri Lhakhang. It is time to visit a Buddhist Temple. Walk or drive to Zangto Pelri Lhakhang, which is not very far from Changlimithang Stadium. See the chapel and spend time sitting in the Lhakhang, experiencing the silence of the place.
Zone/Ambeint Cafe. Back from the stadium, head to one of these places for your dose of evening coffee and snacks. You can stay on for dinner as well at Zone.