Bhutan tour: A complete travel guide to Thimphu district
Bhutan is divided into 20 districts and Thimphu being the capital district. Located at an elevation of 7656 feet above sea level, it is world’s third highest capital city next to La Paz of Bolivia and Quito of Ecuador. Out of Bhutan’s roughly seven hundred thousand populations, more than hundred thousand resides in Thimphu city alone.
Annually more than 90% of Bhutan’s total tourist’s population land up visiting only to three western districts of Bhutan, – Thimphu, Paro and Punakha.
When to go?
Though Bhutan has off and peak seasons to visit but Thimphu can be visited all year round. Spring (March-May) and autumn (September – November) is considered peak tourists season due to favorable weather and climatic condition and also some of the most iconic festivals such as Thimphu Tshechu and Rhododendron festival falls on autumn and spring respectively.
During summer season (June – August), southern region of the country receives heavy monsoon rains and during winter season (December – February), northern and western region receives light to heavy snowfalls but Thimphu is a place to be visited all year round as its restricted neither by rain nor the snow. Though it receives light to medium rainfall during summer and light snowfalls during winter, it’s manageable and moreover skies in Thimphu remains clear during winter months and the famous Druk Wangyal festival is celebrated on 13th of December every year at the picturesque Dochula pass about half an hour drive from Thimphu city.
However, trekking routes around Thimphu such as Dagala Thousand lake trek and Jomolhari trek remains closed during peak winter and summer seasons.
How to get there?
Bhutan’s only international airport, the Paro International Airport (PBH) is located at Paro district and Thimphu doesn’t have any airports be it international or domestic. However, Thimphu city is only an hour drive from Paro International Airport (65 km). More than 93% of international tourists (nationalities other than Indian, Bangladeshis and Maldivian are referred to as international tourists) and around 38% of regional tourists (nationalities from India, Bangladesh and Maldives are referred to as regional tourists) entered Bhutan via Paro International Airport in the year 2018.
Thimphu to the south is connected by Chhukha district and the most popular border town with India, known as Phuntsholing. Distance between Phuntsholing and Thimphu is 161 km, around 5 – 6 hours drive.
Around 5% of international tourists and 58% of regional tourists entered Bhutan via Phuntsholing in the year 2018.
1. Memorial Chorten (stupa)
5 minutes walk from city center is the Memorial Chorten (stupa) just next to Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital (JDWNRH), Bhutan’s largest hospital. This memorial stupa was built in the year 1974 under the patronage of late Azhi Phuntsho Choden (1911-2003) in the memory of her son the late 3rd King of Bhutan, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1928-1972).
Today it serves as spiritual nerve center for the whole Thimphu valley and is the right place to spot elderly peoples reciting prayers, whirling the prayer wheels, circumambulating the stupa, prostrating and seeking refuge in dharma.
While you are in Bhutan and visiting any temples or stupa, always remember to circumambulate in clockwise direction and also if you wish to whirl the prayer wheels, remember the clockwise direction.
2. Buddha statue
The gigantic statue of Buddha Shakyamuni sitting atop on Kuenselphodrang, overlooking Thimphu valley has lately become a tourist’s hotspot and a spiritual center for people of Bhutan. It was built to celebrate the 60th anniversary of 4th king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck and to bring peace and prosperity to the world. This 54 meter bronze statue of sitting Buddha is one of the worlds largest and it took total of 9 years to complete the construction; started in the year 2006 and completed on 25th of September 2015.
It was built on the sponsorship of people from all around the world. Statue houses one hundred thousand of smaller Buddha statues, the exact replica of the outer Buddha statue.
3. Changangkha Lhakhang
Overlooking memorial Chorten and Thimphu city, sitting on a hilltop is a 12th century old Changangkha Lhakhang (monastery). Main deity of this temple is called Tamdrin and all the newborns under Thimphu valley are believed to be protected by this deity. Parents bring their newborns to the monastery to get blessed and pay their offerings.
4. Zilukha Nunnery
Located north of Thimphu city at Zilukha is a Buddhist nunnery built in the year 1976 by Drubthob Rikey Jadrel. It serves as home to around 50 nuns. From here one will have a great view of Tashichhoe Dzong, the capital fortress of Bhutan.
1. Simtokha Dzong
Located south of Thimphu core city, about 10 minutes drive is Bhutan’s oldest fortress built in the year 1629 by founder of modern Bhutan, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. It is believed that a demon residing in the area was subdued and imprisoned into a rock by Zhabdrung and the dzong was built on top of it to keep the demon from escaping. Hence the name Simmo-dho-kha was derived (simmo – demon, Dho – stone, Kha – on top) – the dzong on top of stone which contains demon. As the time went on people started pronouncing as Simtokha.
This Dzong has repelled and defeated the combine force of Tibetans and the local group of Buddhist priest who did not wish to remain under the rule of Zhabdrung as they practiced the different sects of Buddhism.
2. Tashichhoe Dzong
About 3 minutes drive from Thimphu city, towards north is the majestic Tashichhoe Dzong, headquarter of Bhutan. It houses both monastic and administrative body, including the office of His majesty the King of Bhutan and Jekhenpo the chief abbot of Bhutan.
It was built under the leadership of 3rd king of Bhutan in the year 1962 when the capital of Bhutan was shifted to Thimphu from Punakha. The central tower known as utse was built in the year 1641 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal and when enlarged to today’s size it was kept as it is.
Place of Interests
1. Thimphu city
Relatively very small, Thimphu city is the only city in the world without traffic lights. Its hardworking policemen take their pride in guiding the traffic flow using hand signals. Buildings are small and governed by rule to be maximum of only up to 6 storey high and follow a unique Bhutanese traditional architectural design. Traffic near to non-existence compared to capital cities of rest of the world, footpaths lined with shops mixture of garments, Buddhist accessories, few hotels, handicrafts and mobile shops, few hundreds of people including tourists, monks dressed in red robs, office goers wearing unique dress of Bhutan called Gho for men and Kira for women are the perfect blend of modernization and traditional ways of living that one can witness while taking a stroll around Thimphu city.
2. Centenary Farmers market
Around 5 minutes leisure walk from core Thimphu city is centenary farmer’s market on the bank of river Wang (known as Wangchhu – wang is the name of river and Chhu is Bhutanese term for River)
It is basically weekend market but now it operates from Wednesday till Sunday. It is a 2 storey market with upper tier selling locally produced organic products and lower tiers selling mixture of Indian imports and local products. People from nearby districts such as Paro, Punakha, Wangdue Phodrang and Tsirang bring their produces every Wednesday to this market, the biggest available in Bhutan with just a population of 0.1 million or hundred thousand peoples residing in Thimphu. Other than vegetables and fruits, farmers also sell dairy products, eggs, dry meats, dry fishes, locally produced red and white rice and their products.
Across the road and cross the traditional cantilever bridge is a makeshift market which usually sells Buddhist accessories and antics which some are manufactured locally and some imported from India and Nepal.
Saturday is the best day to visit this market.
3. Takin zoo
Located on the way to Sangaygang is a zoo which houses mostly the Takin, Bhutan’s national animal and some species of deer. Takin are found in between altitudes of 1000 m to 4500 m and in Bhutan, it is believed to be created by Buddhist priest named Drukpa Kuenley who is also referred to as the divine madman.
The zoo was once closed and animals released by the order of fourth king of Bhutan as it contradicted the Buddhist views but animals started straying around Thimphu Street and thus the zoo was kept open once again for those animals.
Further up from takin zoo is a view point at Sangaygang from where one will have a spectacular view of Thimphu city.
5. Dochula Pass
Dochula pass is located east of Thimphu around 23 km from the city center and it’s on the way to Punakha district. Even though you are not travelling to Punakha, it is worth driving till Dochula.
It is a picturesque pass at the back drop of mighty Himalayan ranges, marked by hundred and eight small stupas. Annually on the 13th of December the famous Druk Wangyal festival is celebrated at this venue.
6. Changlingmithang stadium and archery ground
Changlingmithang stadium in Thimphu is Bhutan’s largest stadium till date. It hosts various soccer competitions both at international and national levels and some of Bhutan’s important national celebrations are also hosted in this stadium. To the right side of the stadium is the archery ground which you will spot few archery enthusiasts every single day and occasionally there are few national level competitions using either traditional or high-tech compound bows and during this matches you will witness entertaining traditional songs and victory dances performed by archers themselves and cheer leaders.
Museum, Arts and Crafts
1. National Institute for Zorig Chusum
Zorig Chusum directly translates to 13 types of traditional arts of Bhutan. The institute located north of Thimphu core city provides courses to students of these traditional arts depending on their choices and it can take between 4 to 6 years to specialize in few of the subjects. Institute has also a separate showroom where one can buy their products such as wooden crafted masks, Buddhist paintings, embroidery works and clay statues.
2. Royal Textile Academy / textile museum
It is a non government, non – profit organization instituted in the year 2005 under the patronage of her majesty the queen mother Sangay Choden Wangchuck. The upper floor displays traditional way of weaving and ground floor showcases some of the traditional dresses worn by royal family of Bhutan. Museum has a shop which offers some of the finest textiles in Bhutan and various books.
3. Folk Heritage Museum
This is a traditional three storey house built up of rammed earth and wood. It was previously abandoned but restored to provide a sense of traditional way of living in Bhutan. Inside the museum, it displays various age old tools and house hold items. The museum also follows the seasonal rhythm, recapturing rural setting such as paddy, wheat and millet fields. Traditional vegetable gardens and traditional water mills are also set up inside the museum. On request with earlier notification and with a nominal fee, tourists can also avail special demonstration such as brewing local wine called Ara, extracting oils, frying dried rice popularly known as Zow and can host open air meals within the museum premises.
4. Jungzhi handmade paper factory
Across the Wangchhu River about 1 km away from Thimphu city center is the traditional paper making factory, Jungzhi handmade paper factory. The name Jungzhi directly translates to natural.
At here, the famous traditional Bhutanese paper called Deshos are produced. All the Buddhist scriptures traditionally are hand written on this kind of locally produced papers which has a more durability and today people use it as special gift wrapper and to print important documents such as marriage certificates and gift cards. Raw materials used are bark from Daphane Papyri era sief- Thymalae – ceae, Edgeworthia Papyri era sief plant and some nature given flora like flowers, leaves and fern leaves to blend between the ingredients and to produce decorative designs.
Hike to Tango and Cheri monastery
While in Thimphu, Tango and Cheri monastery is a perfect excursion destination. To get there one must drive towards north from Thimphu city, for about half an hour before hiking uphill towards the monasteries. However these monasteries are located on an opposite hills; meaning you must hike to one monastery first, come back down to the road point and hike back up to the next.
Tango monastery: Round trip hike from road point to the monastery will take around hour and half or more depending on the time spent at monastery. This place was founded in 13th century by Buddhist Saint Phajo Drugom Zhigpo built into today’s form by then 4th temporal ruler of Bhutan Gyalse Tenzin Rabgye in the year 1688. Today it serves as university for Buddhist studies and residence of reincarnation of Gyalse Tenzin Rabgye.
Cheri monastery: On opposite hillside of Tango monastery is Cheri monastery built in the year 1620 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the founder of modern Bhutan. It is also an hour and half roundtrip hike from the road point. Today it serves as retreat center.
While going for an excursion to this place, it would be a great experience to pack your lunch and enjoy nearby the stream. Some people choose to hike to both the monasteries but some visit only one and drive back to Thimphu city for the lunch.
1. Dagala Thousand lakes trek
This is the only multi-day trek which starts and ends within Thimphu districts itself. This 6 day journey begins from Geynikha village (1 hour drive from Thimphu city) and ends at Chamgang (25 minutes drive from Thimphu city). This trek lately has become popular amongst the travelers; credit to moderate number of days involved, average altitude and being near to international airport (Paro). Kindly check the link if you wish to take on this journey for more detail Dagala Thousand Lake Trek
2. Jomolhari Trek
Jomolhari trek begins from Paro and ends at Thimphu. This route is amongst the busiest as it’s near to international airport and this leads to the base of Bhutan’s famous mountain, the Jomolhari. This route serves as perfect high altitude trekking trail. Check the link for details regarding this trekking journey Jomolhari Trek
3. Druk Path Trek
It starts from Paro and ends at Thimphu and is the busiest trek route in Bhutan. Owing to beautiful landscapes, crystal clear Himalayan lakes, moderate number of days required and near to international airports are some of its main attractions. Check the link for more details Druk Path Trek
1. Thimphu Tshechu
Thimphu Tshechu performed at the courtyard of Tendrelthang adjacent to glorious Tachichho Dzong attracts some of the highest numbers of tourists annually. The festival is performed for three consecutive days starting on the tenth day of eight month of Bhutanese calendar every year which falls somewhere between mid September to early November. Kindly check with festival dates if you are planning your Bhutan tour to coincide with any festivals in Bhutan.
2. Thimphu Dromchoe
Thimphu Dromchoe is performed at the courtyard of Tashichhoe Dzong, four days prior to Thimphu Tshechu on the sixth day of eight month of Bhutanese calendar annually. It is performed throughout the day and night with a special appearance of Jekhenpo, the chief abbot of Bhutan performing the mask dance. Dromchoe is attended throughout the night by localities.
3. Druk Wangyal Festival
Commissioned by queen mother Azhi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck in the year 2011, to commemorate the victory of royal Bhutan army under the leadership of 4th King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck over the Indian militants in 2003, this festival is celebrated every year on 13th of December at the courtyard of Druk Wangyal Lhakhang at the picturesque Dochula Pass. Contrary to other festivals in which mask dances are performed usually by monks, lay monks and localities, at Druk Wangyal Tshechu, it is the Royal Bhutan Army who performs the mask dances. Masks and festival here are of unique compared to rest of the festivals celebrated across the country. Festival here demonstrates the action of Royal Bhutan Army during the operation against the insurgents whereas rest of the Tshechus and festival demonstrates mask dances related to Buddhism, tradition and life after death.
4. Rhododendron festival
To celebrate the blooming season of Rhododendrons, this is a community based festival organized by localities at Royal Botanical Park at Lamperi, located below Dochula pass; around 50 minutes drive from Thimphu city. Total of 48 species discovered in Bhutan, Royal Botanical Park has 31 species of Rhododendrons and the festival is celebrated coinciding with 90% of it blooming during the month of April. Kindly check with festival dates to plan your Bhutan holiday coinciding with the festival.
1. Off road mountain biking
Though adventure sports are in its early stages in Bhutan but credit to its beautiful natural landscapes, it could be the destination for mountain bikers in near future. While in Bhutan and having some extra time around Thimphu, it is a perfect getaway from urban lifestyle to enjoy off road mountain biking. There are few mountain bike shops around Thimphu, from where you can hire your bike on daily basis or your tour operator can arrange one for you.
There are few off road biking trails located around Thimphu as follows:
1. Changangkha – Buddha point
2. Motithang – Buddha Point
3. Pangrizampa – Hontsho
4. Pangrizampa – Taba
2. On road biking
Thimphu is a small place, perfect to be explored around by riding a bike. If you are a keen and perfect rider, Bhutan do organize biking race called Tour of the Dragon. Though this race does not falls under any international racing category but is one of the toughest single day mountain bike race which starts from Bumthang, one of Bhutan’s northern central district and ends at Thimphu covering 268 km crossing over 4 high mountain passes and altitude ranging from 1200 m to as high as 3340 m above sea level. The race is organized every year on the first Saturday of September month. Minimal fee is required to participate in the race and winner takes home cash prizes of Nu. 150000 along with accolades.
For those who wish to compete but for less challenging has another race organized on same day called Dragon’s Fury which starts from Messina and ends at Thimphu covering a total of 60 km.
There are few entertainment centers in Thimphu city including some nightclubs, live music bars and dancing clubs. Night clubs (disco clubs) are open only during weekends and Wednesday from 10 PM to 2 AM but singing and dancing clubs locally known as Drayangs remain open for the whole week during evening hours. There are also some movie theaters but all the movies will be in local languages, which are better to be avoided.
Occasionally there will be some live functions such as live singing competitions and fairs organized at Clock tower arena at the heart of Thimphu city center which are worth attending.
Amongst all the districts in Bhutan, Thimphu has the highest number of hotels. Accommodations for the tourists are prearranged by respective tour operators with whom they have booked their tour and need not worry about accommodations. There are more than 60 hotels starting from budget, 3 stars, 4 stars, 5 stars and home stays in Thimphu at present.
Two of the biggest events that you can coincide with your visit to Thimphu will be the celebration of national day on 17th of December and birth anniversary of his majesty the King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck on 21st of February.
Thimphu city closes for the day during this events and people from all walks of the life residing around Thimphu valley gathers at Changlingmithang national stadium for the celebration. Parades by military units and students, mask and folk dances and strongmen competitions are held during these days.
Bhutan is never a shopping destination but for an authentic Bhutanese souvenir to take back home its worth visiting some of the handicraft shops around located at Thimphu city in front to Taj Hotel. There are few other shops which sell Buddhist equipments but mostly are imported from neighboring India and Nepal.
While in Thimphu is worth visiting Bhutan post where you can customize a stamp with your own photo and send postcards to friends and family back at home.
There are numbers of cloth and footwear shops around Thimphu but products are mostly imported from India, Nepal, Thailand and Bangladesh.