Bhutan

Thimpu

Framed by the majestic Himalayas and cloaked in myth, Bhutan’s colourful capital is as much a feast for the senses as it is for the stomach, discovers Imogen Lepere

Travel Time 12hrs 30min

Why go?

Cradled in a pocket of the Himalayas, the last Buddhist Kingdom is shrouded in mystery. No surprise, considering it was closed to foreigners until 1974. Today, it is the only country in the world where development is measured in Gross National Happiness and more carbon is absorbed than omitted. Around 70 per cent of its territory wears a blanket of dense forest punctuated by dells of blue poppies, and yak herders eke out a living in villages high above the clouds. The Himalayas, gleaming on all sides, provide a stirring reminder that nature still has the last word here – mountaineering is illegal so as to not disturb the gods. This month sees dry weather and the King’s Birthday festival on the 11 November, when the city’s streets fill with masked dancers.

What to do

Nothing moves fast in the Land of the Thunder Dragon (the first paved road didn’t appear until 1962), so start your trip with an easy stroll to the Tashichho Dzong, on the northern edge of the city. Part monastery, part government building, it looks like a mound of giant sugar cubes and was built without the use of architects’ plans or nails. Explore its tranquil gardens before walking on to the Memorial Chorten, where you’ll find a gaggle of devout old-timers with parchment-like skin spinning prayer wheels. Most weekends Changlimithang Archery Ground echoes with taunting songs as the crowd tries to distract their least favourite competitor. Entry for spectators is free and it’s hugely impressive to see a bamboo arrow soar 140m to hit a target barely visible to the naked eye. Nearby Centenary Farmers’ Market is a jumble of giant Sikkim rhubarb, glossy persimmon and crumbly yak cheese. Hill folk often come down to restock on supplies so it’s a prime spot for people-watching, particularly as many wear traditional gho robes. The Royal Textile Academy rtabhutan.org is a trove of bewitching artefacts, such as the wedding clothes of the fourth king and his four wives. At its little school over the road, watch history appear before your eyes as modern-day students learn the ancient art of thagzo (weaving).

Where to stay

An atmospheric palace nestling in Thimphu Valley, the Taj Tashi 00 975 2 336 699, taj.tajhotels.com is the last word in local luxury. Receive a blessing from the resident monk before immersing yourself in a traditional Bhutanese bath. Just outside the city, Bhutan Suites 00 975 2 333 377, bhutansuites.com is furnished in an earthy palette and wooden furniture painted with cloud motifs. Hotel Druk 00 975 2 322 966, drukhotels.com sprawls across a prime swathe of Clock Tower Square and treads the line between historic charm and contemporary comfort to perfection. A cheerful spot owned by a local family, Hotel Norbuling 00 975 2 331 416, hotelnorbuling.com is a great budget option.

Where to eat and drink

Plump momos (dumplings) stuffed with pork and ginger, comforting cheese and chilli stew and sticky red rice: the flavours of Thimphu are as old as the mountains. Try this ancient soul food at Ama 00 975 2 335 817, a low-key spot popular with local workers for lunch. It’s known for its ema datshi (chilli and cheese stew) and pork dishes; the meat has an unusual, tangy flavour due to the pigs’ diet of wild cannabis. Lounge on silken cushions and eat from a wooden bowl as you would if you were visiting a Bhutanese home at Babesa Village Restaurant 00 975 17 163 660. Shakam paa (dried beef curry with chillies) is always a good bet. The city’s fine-dining scene is limited, but Chig- Ja-Gye restaurant in the Taj Tashi hotel taj.tajhotels.com is always filled with exotic smells. The Bhutanese set menu is a delicious introduction to local cuisine. Look out for the Karma’s Coffee 00 975 17 181 920 sign dangling from a second-floor window on Phendey Lam. This cosy space has an open hatch from which flows an endless supply of excellent coffee and cakes.

Time running out?

Hike to the Tiger’s Nest (a moderately challenging four-hour round trip), a fantastically romantic monastery that clings to a sheer cliff face high above the upper Paro Valley.

Map

Travel Information

Travel Information

Currency is the Bhutanese ngultrum (BTN). Time is 6 hours ahead of GMT. Flight time from London to Paro, the nearest airport, is 11 hours with 1 stopover. Thimphu is a 1.5-hour drive from Paro.

Getting There

Entry to Bhutan can only be arranged through a local tour operator. Book your trip through a reputable company such as Bhutan Journeys, who arrange your accommodation, meals and travel (including flights) and process your visa. bhutanjourneys.com

Resources

The Tourism Council of Bhutan provides a great online guide to getting the most out of your stay in Thimphu. tourism.gov.bt

Average daily temperatures and rainfall

JanFebMarAprMayJunJulAugSepOctNovDec
Min Temp-31471315131615105-1
Max Temp121416202324192523221815
mm11124812125100

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