Travel Tuesday With Quilt: A 36-Hour Virtual Visit to Thimphu
A capital city with zero traffic lights. More stray dogs than cars. Home to the highest unclimbed peak in the world. Happiness over GDP. Goat-antelope for the national animal. Archery as the national sport. All of this — in the only carbon-negative country in the world! What’s not to love?
This week we transport you to ‘Druk Yul’ or the Land of Dragons, Bhutan. Marked by scenic landscapes and rich culture, Bhutan’s capital city, Thimphu, has numerous Buddhist sites and monasteries worth visiting. It is a quaint yet bustling town with traditional Bhutanese architecture and plenty of things to do and see.
We deployed our Culture AI tools to analyze what travelers like about Thimphu. Travelers’ Instagram posts revealed the following six dominant themes: 1) festivals and community gatherings, 2) statues of the Buddha, 3) Buddhist monasteries, 4) scenic mountain and valley views, 5) solo photos of travelers, and 6) prayer flags and street views.
Our Culture AI detected Solitude, Happiness, and Affiliation as the top emotions, while the top colors were hues of green and grey, reflecting the lush greenery, cloudy skies, and natural beauty of Thimphu.
There has been 800% growth in search interest for queries like ‘is bhutan open for tourists’, 300% growth for ‘bhutan travel insurance’, and 200% growth for queries about ‘bhutan tour packages’ over the last year, indicating travelers’ interest in making a trip to Bhutan.
Drawing from travel blogs, YouTube videos, and Instagram posts, here’s how we recommend spending 36 hours in Thimphu (itinerary format inspired by the New York Times):
36 Hours in Thimphu
10 AM: Visit the Monastery Fortress
Trashi Chhoe Dzong (a monastery fortress) is the place of coronation of the reigning king and the seat of the Druk Desi, the head of Bhutan’s civil government. Located in the north of the city on the banks of the Wang Chhu and surrounded by beautiful gardens, it was first constructed in 1216 A.D. by Lama Gyalwa Lhanangpa. Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal acquired it In 1641 and built the lower Dzong as he found the original one to be too small. The original dzong was eventually destroyed by fire in 1771. The new dzong underwent renovation after being damaged during an earthquake in 1897, but it was completely redone by King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck after he moved the capital to Thimphu in 1952. Several festivals are celebrated here.
12 PM: Authentic Bhutanese food
Head to Zombala restaurant to have authentic Bhutanese food in Thimphu. Located near the Thimphu clock tower, they serve delicious momos and have rave reviews from customers on TripAdvisor.
1 PM: Spot Takins at Motithang Takin Preserve
Takin (goat-antelope hybrid) is Bhutan’s national animal and can be spotted at the Motithang Takin Preserve. They are only found in Bhutan, Northeast India, Northwest Myanmar, and the Chinese section of the Himalayas. The Preserve was created to shelter takins that are regarded very highly in Bhutan.
3.30 PM: Visit the Thimphu Memorial Chorten
The Thimphu Memorial Chorten (or Stupa) was built in memory of the Third Druk Gyalpo. It is an important religious structure in Bhutan and is dedicated to World Peace. Chorten means ‘Seat of Faith’ and Buddhists consider such monuments as the ‘Mind of the Buddha’. Constructed in the traditional Tibetan Buddhist style of architecture, it features intricate sculptures and colorful paintings.
5 PM Afternoon at the Folk Heritage Museum
Conveniently located in the heart of the city, the Folk Heritage Museum makes for a nice post-lunch visit to immerse yourself in Bhutanese folk culture. It’s within walking distance from the National Library of Bhutan which houses the world’s largest published book!
7 PM: Majestic Bhutanese spread
Devour a wide spread of over 15 Bhutanese dishes for dinner at the Folk Heritage Museum restaurant. Try butter tea, pork feet, momos, yak and cow cheese, and puffed rice among other things.
6 AM: Hike up to the Phajoding Monastery
The Phajoding monastery is one of the richest and most decorated monasteries in Bhutan. Embark on a 3-hour uphill trek to this peaceful site dating back to the 13th century. It is home to 30 Buddhist monks and offers stunning panoramic views of the mountains and valley below. Definitely a must-visit while in Thimphu!
1 PM: Simply Bhutan and the Garden of Phallus
Simply Bhutan is a living museum that gives a peek into the life and culture of the Bhutanese people through the ages. From traditional cooking wares to old houses and window frames, it is a fascinating place to spend the afternoon.
Within the same campus is the Garden of Phallus. Phallus symbols are believed to bring good luck, fertility, and ward off evil spirits. Therefore, houses and buildings are decorated with phalluses and this practice goes back to the 15th century. The Garden of Phalluses features large phallus statues and planters, making for an interesting visit.
You can also grab a quick lunch at the Simply Bhutan restaurant while you’re here.
2.30 PM: Visit the Royal Textile Academy of Bhutan
The Royal Textile Academy is Bhutan’s first initiative dedicated to the conservation of traditional Bhutanese textiles. It was established at the behest of the royal family in 2005. It is located near the National Library of Bhutan and houses an exquisite collection of antique textile artifacts.
4 PM: Pay homage to the world’s largest sitting Buddha
Standing tall at over 50 meters high atop a hill overlooking Thimphu, the Great Buddha Dordenma statue is the world’s largest sitting Buddha. It’s particularly beautiful to visit during sunset when the giant golden statue literally glitters under the sun’s rays. What’s even more fascinating is that the mighty bronze statue has 125,000 miniature Buddhas hidden inside it! It was constructed in 2015 for the occasion of the 60th birthday of the fourth king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck.
5 PM: Mingle with the locals at the Weekend Market
Local markets are always a great site to mingle with locals and get a glimpse of everyday life in a new place. Visit the Centenary Farmer’s Market to explore local delicacies, vegetables, and ingredients — including red rice, dried yak’s cheese, and chilies. The weekend markets are also great for picking up souvenirs.
7 PM: Babesa Village Restaurant
Enjoy your final meal at Babesa Village restaurant located inside a heritage house in Thimphu. Get their set meal to taste a bit of everything — from kewa datshi (potatoes in cheese gravy) to pork/beef curry with rice.
Two days is too less to experience everything Thimphu has to offer, let alone Bhutan. If you have the time, we suggest taking out at least two weeks to explore and enjoy Bhutan in all its glory!
How to get there
Bhutan’s only international airport is in Paro, which is two hours from Thimphu. Drukair- Royal Bhutan Airlines runs flights from several destinations. Thimphu, being the capital city, is well-connected with most parts of Bhutan.
Places to stay
Le Meridien is the best stay option in the luxury segment, followed by Druk Hotel and Terma Linca Hotel. Dorji Elements and Damchoe’s homestay are some options for budget travelers. All of these come with rave reviews from past guests.
When to go
September to November, the autumn months, are the best time to visit Thimphu. However, June to August marks the summer months when the tourist footfall is low and you can catch close glimpses of the Himalayan mountains and green paddy fields. Bhutan is also lovely in the spring months of March to May when the flowers are in full bloom.