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Thimphu (ཐིམ་ཕུག།) is the capital of the Kingdom of Bhutan, and with a population of around 100,000 is the nation's largest city.
Although the Thimphu Valley has supported small settlements for many centuries and a dzong has existed there since 1216, the city didn't really develop until the king declared Thimphu the new capital in 1961. Vehicles first appeared on the streets a year later, and slowly the city began to adapt to its role as the nation's capital. The town is undergoing massive development. New tree-lined streets are being laid and the clock tower area in the center of the city has been transformed into a park-cum-open air theater where live cultural performances take place. In 2008, the national stadium and a new river-side park were completed. The area around the dzong and government buildings is a particularly green and an attractive district.
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Norzin Lam is the city's main thoroughfare and is lined with small hotels and shopping complexes.
The winter season in Thimphu is very cold but dry, while the summers are wet and humid. The best times to visit are from mid September to the end of October and from March to May.
Nearly all visitors arrive via plane from 1 Paro Airport (PBH IATA) in Paro. It is the country's sole international airport and a 45-minute to 1-hour drive from the capital. There are four domestic airports and two domestic carriers.
Some travelers prefer to fly to Bagdogra Airport in Siliguri and travel overland to Bhutan. The journey from Siliguri to Thimphu takes 9-10 hours. There is no direct bus, and passengers will need to change buses in Phuentsholing. Indian taxis will travel as far as the border town of Jaigaon and will not enter Bhutan.
All inter-district buses arrive and depart from the city's bus station across the river from the city centre. It is a 5-6 hour drive (mostly through Chukha (district) from the border town of Phuentsholing.
Various private operators like Dhug, Meto and Sernya run Toyota Coaster bus services from Phuentsholing to Thimphu. These buses can seat 22 and are very comfortable. Advance reservation can be made at Phuentsholing bus station.
Once in Thimphu you can find various buses plying to other parts of the country.
The city center is small enough to negotiate on foot.
The city operates an efficient, albeit infrequent, public bus service connecting the downtown with outer suburbs. The station for local buses is located just east of the stadium on Changlam.
There is a set rate for taxis plying city routes — within the core area the rate is around Nu 80 (Bhutanese ngultrum), while it costs around Nu 100 to nearby suburbs. There are taxi ranks on Norzin Lam (near the cinema hall and Punjab Bank). Taxis also cruise and can be hailed at any point.
Although lacking the charm and culture associated with ancient capitals, Thimphu has several attractions of note.
Monasteries are referred to by their Dzongkha title of lhakhang or gompa.
- 1 Changangkha Lhakhang. Constructed in the 15th century, this is one of the oldest temples in the Thimphu Valley, and is dedicated to Avalokiteshvara, the Buddhist emanation of compassion. The temple affords wonderful views over the entire valley. Go to see the prayer ritual inside the monastery and talk with the students here.
- 2 Statue of Sakyamuni Buddha. Sitting on top of Kuensel Phodrang hill is a 51.5-m bronze statue of the founder of Buddhism. The site also offers unobstructed views over the Thimphu Valley - especially stunning at sunset.
- 3 The National Memorial Chorten (Off Jangchhub Lam). A good place to visit in the evening when the locals are doing their evening prayers. The stupa was built in 1974 in memory of the third king. Nu 300 for regional tourists (those who are granted visa free entry to the country).
- 4 Zangthoperi Lhakhang, Dungkhor Lam (lower Thimphu — follow the path down from below the GPO). The present structure was built in 1960s and although lacking the charm of many of the older temples, Zangdopelri still possesses some impressive murals and art treasures and is worthy of a visit. The site of the temple was a former battle ground, and the temple was constructed there in order to pacify energies.
- 5 National Folk Heritage Museum (Behind the National Library). M-F 10:30 to 16:30, Sa 10:30 to 13:00, Su 11:30 to 15:30. A traditional house that showcases rural life. Exhibits and cultural shows are held in the museum compound. Nu 150.
- 6 The Royal Textile Museum (Textile Museum) (Norzin Lam). M-Sa 09:00-16:00. A display of exquisite Bhutanese textiles from the 1600s to the present day. Nu 150.
- 7 Simtokha Dzong (5 km south of Thimphu). Built in 1629 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, Simtokha was the first dzong to be built in a unified Bhutan. It houses the country's main Dzongkha language learning institute.
- 8 Tashichho Dzong (Tashi Chhoe Dzong). Built in the 18th century by Shabdrung Rinpoche to house government officials. Later it was enlarged to accommodate both the monastic and civil bodies. Three times suffering severe damage from fire and once from an earthquake in 1897, much of the historic building dates from the rebuilding in 1902. To accommodate the national government and the central monastic body, the dzong was totally refurbished and enlarged in 1962, a year after Thimphu was designated the nation's capital. The main structure of the whitewashed building is two-storeyed with three-storeyed towers at each of the four corners topped by triple-tiered golden roofs. There is also a large central tower or utse. The towers and roof are beautifully lit at night.
Parks and preserves
- 9 Botanical Gardens (Serbithang). On lush hillside about 10 km from the city, the gardens offer a peaceful and relaxing environment to spend a few hours. Botanists will find the wide selection of indigenous trees and plants of interest.
- 10 Centenary Park (Coronation Park). On the banks of the river (near the city stadium), this 5.6 acres of parkland offer a pleasant and relaxing environment to stroll or to sit and watch the river flow by.
- 11 Takin Preserve (Motithang). The Takin is the national animal of Bhutan, and looks like a cross between a cow and a goat. Legend has it that the animal was created by the great Buddhist yogi, Drupa Kunley, and it can be found only in Bhutan and nearby areas. Taxonomists place the animal in a category of its own as it is not similar enough to any other animal to fit established categories.
- 12 Zorig Chusum School of Traditional Arts (Near National Library). Zorig Chusum was established in 1971 to preserve the 13 traditional arts of Bhutan, and visitors are able to observe students honing their skills. There is also a small gift shop selling work created at the school. The thirteen arts are paintings, carpentry, wood carving, sculpture, casting, metal work, bamboo carving, gold & silver work, weaving, embroidery, masonry, leather work and paper making.
- 1 Jigme Dorji Wangchuk Public Library (Top end Norzin Lam — left side). This small library has a good selection of English books, but appreciates donations of popular titles, especially those on Buddhism and Bhutan.
- 2 The National Institute of Traditional Medicine, ☏ . M-F 09:00-15:00, Sa 09:00-13:00. Serzhong Lam. A place to have any chronic ailments diagnosed and treated using herbal compounds. Ensure to retain the prescription.
- 3 The National Library, ☏ . M-F 09:30 - 13:00 & 14:00 - 17:00. Pedzoe Lam. It houses a rare collection of Buddhist texts on the second floor, and there is a small selection of English books on Buddhism (mostly donated by Taiwan) and on Bhutan on the first floor.
- Mountain Echoes Literary Festival. Late August.
- Thimphu Drupchen (religious ceremony). Mid-September.
- Thimphu Tshechu (religious festival). Late September.
Bhutan's small population means demand for new and innovative goods is limited. Thimphu has three kinds of stores: clothing, handicraft and hardware. Between these, there is a small assortment of stationery-come-bookshops and supermarkets. Almost all shops stock the same goods, so if you cannot find the required items in the first couple of stores it is generally useless to persist.
Haggling at tourist-oriented shops is expected, but the margin for discount is small (unless you make a bulk purchase). However, shop owners are generally honest and there is little possibility to be cheated or offered an inflated price.
Most handicrafts sold in Thimphu are made in Nepal or other Himalayan areas. Exceptions are cloth items, some thankas and goods made of lemon grass oil.
- 1 DSB Books Enterprises, PO Box 435 (Jojo Building near Druk Hotel), ☏ , , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. A wide selection of books in English — novels and children's books are a specialty.
- 2 Junction, PO Box 435 (just below the Norzin Lam Traffic Circle), ☏ , . A wide selection of books in English — novels and children's books are a specialty.
The weekend market in Chubachhu (across the river from the main area) has over 100 stalls selling hand woven cloth and other handicrafts.
- 3 Dhe Khang, Norzin Lam (Opposite and a little above the RICB Building.). One of Thimphu's original handicraft shops. Located in a traditional house. Unique products at compatible prices.
- 4 Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre (Changzamtog). A weaving centre employing around 20 professional weavers. Showroom on top floor.
- 5 Handicrafts Emporium (top end of Norzin Lam — right side). A government-run craft shop with a wide range of goods at set prices. Selection of books on Buddhism and local subjects on the second floor.
- 6 Lungta (Opposite the post office). One of the largest handicraft shops in the city centre. Good selection of hand made goods from all over the Himalayan region.
- 7 Norzin Lam Handicraft Market (In front of Hotel Taj Tashi). A line of handicraft stalls. All items are from Bhutan.
- 8 Tarayana Foundation (Top end of Norzin Lam — next to the town library). Tarayana trains and supports the vulnerable and disadvantaged to make traditional handicrafts. Displays are uninteresting and the selection of goods is limited but the quality of the handicrafts is excellent and they offer a more rustic and genuine feel that those on sale at the commercial handicraft shops.
- 9 Yarkay Central. This shopping centre across from Hotel Norling on Norzin Lam has four good quality craft shops:
- Kelzang Handicrafts, ☏ . Most commercial and sells a range of goods, including t-shirts.
- Druk Handicraft, ☏ .
- Kurtue Handicrafts, ☏ . Specializes in woven goods.
- Karchung, ☏ . Sells a small, but good quality range of art work and wood carvings.
- 10 Thimphu Central Post Office. The post office has a large selection of stamps for sale. The special feature of the post office is that you can get a postage stamp made with your own photo printed on it, and these stamps can be used for postage purposes. The cost is nominal.
Most restaurants (including those in 2- or 3-star hotels) in Thimphu stop serving food between 20:30 and 21:30. For information about restaurants in hotels, please go to the sleep section of this article, where hotels are listed.
- 1 Rythm Dining (on the way to the National Library from the folk heritage museum). Nice place to sit, hangout and rest yourself over a bowl of very good kuka. US$2.
- 2 Zombala restaurant. One of the best Momos in town. Kuka and Pakoras are really good, Thupka is a bit bland though.
- 3 Bhutan Kitchen, 2F, Gatoen Lam (located above the Benez restaurant), ☏ . A restaurant that tries to give you a real authentic and traditional Bhutanese food experience, with traditional music and Bhutanese food, with chilis on the side so it's only as spicy as you want. Beautiful views and traditional kitchen display. A little expensive but worth it. Nu 350 (dinner).
- 4 Big Bakery, Kawajangsa (in front of the Ministry of Health). A little Japanese bakery run by physically or intellectually challenged Bhutanese. Prices are high but the quality is excellent. Nu 45 (sandwich), Nu 100 (loaf of bread).
- 5 Cafe Italia, Dewa Khangzang, Drentoen Lam (Opposite the main post office). Closed Mondays. Good pizzas and selection of freshly brewed coffee. Relaxing atmosphere with great views from panoramic windows.
- 6 Chopsticks, ☏ . 2nd floor, Centre Mall, Norzin Lam. A small restaurant specializing in Chinese dishes.
- 7 Druk Pizza (behind Bhutan Observer Building (also known as KMT Building) at the top end of Norzin Lam), ☏ , . Tu-Su. Good quality pizzas on Italian style base with Bhutanese toppings plus a small selection of milk shakes and hot beverages. Free coke and a free pizza after your 10th is a bonus.
- 8 Lemon Grass, Jangchhub Lam (across from Le Meridien Hotel), ☏ . Traditional Thai food in pleasant setting.
- 9 Hayate Ramen (https://www.facebook.com/BhutanRamen/), 2F Peljorlhendrubling Building, Changlam (opposite the central police station), ☏ , . Owned by a Japanese lady and her Bhutanese husband. Hayate offers authentic ramen and sushi. Japanese-style decor.
- 10 Tashi Rabten Restaurant (above the Chubachu roundabout, towards Motithang), ☏ . Cooks only on advance reservation, ideally at least 1 day in advance.
- 11 Siena Pizzeria (1F, Jattu Commercial Complex, Changlam — 1F of City Hotel). Daily 10:00-22:00. Offers over 40 varieties of freshly prepared pizza in a cool and chic environment. Filter coffee and a number of fresh cold drinks available.
- 12 Sinchula Restaurant, Phendey Lam, Hong Kong Market (upper Hong Kong Market (below Sangay Enterprise)), ☏ . Daily 09:00-22:00. Great food in a calm, relaxing environment.
- 13 The Seasons Restaurant Pizzeria, Namsay Shopping Complex, Phenday Lam, ☏ . W-M. One of the few places in town that serves authentic pizza and Italian salads. Pizzeria also offers a good selection of filter coffees and has an outdoor patio.
Upscale hotels (see the Splurge section in Sleep below) have restaurants.
There are a handful of cafes that serve quality coffee, which are listed below. Only Ambient (which roasts their own beans), Central, Coffee Culture and Karma's have professional espresso machines; other places either sell only filter coffee or use an automatic coffee machine. Outside of these cafes, coffee in Bhutan is mostly the instant variety, particularly Nescafe.
- 1 Ambient Cafe, 1F R. Penjor Lodge, Norzin Lam (between the Traffic Circle and Clock Tower, west side of main street, opposite Punjab National Bank), ☏ . F-W 08:00-21:00. An elegant and relaxing cafe in a central location. Ambient has a professional Turkish coffee roaster and so the coffee is always fresh. In addition to the usual espresso-based coffees (cappuccino, latte, etc.), they also offer cold brew and sell freshly roasted beans (ground or whole). The cafe has a wide selection of delicious cakes, a large range of teas, fresh juice, homemade ice-cream and innovative snacks and meals. Ambient also provides an excellent selection of music and offers panoramic views over the city streets and mountains beyond. Free Wi-Fi. Nu 80–100 (coffee), Nu 60–70 (cakes).
- 2 Cafe Luna, Kawajangsa (above the Folk Heritage Museum), ☏ . A very small, cozy cafe. Good selection of books. Excellent coffee and teas. Simple and wholesome meals.
- 3 Central Cafe, Central Building, Norzin Lam (on the main street, a few blocks up from the main traffic circle, opposite the movie theatre)). Tu-Su. A small and cozy cafe, famous for their fancy cakes and baked items.
- 4 Coffee Culture, Chang Lam Square (near the Lower Market). Tu-Su. A pleasant cafe, with an excellent selection of cakes and desserts. Has some outdoor seating.
- 5 Karma's Coffee, 1F, Tashi Rabten Building, Phendey Lam (above Zangthopelri Complex, near north end of Phendey Lam, about 10-minute walk north from Traffic Circle), ☏ , . Daily 10:00-21:00. A chic cafe, with good coffee and great views of the mountains. Karma's is one of the most professional coffee shops in Thimphu, offering a wide range of espresso drinks and coffee blends. Snacks and light meals available, also shows music videos on flat screen TV. Free wi-fi. Nu 80–120 (coffee).
- 6 The Art Cafe (a block west from the Traffic Circle, just below the Swiss Bakery), ☏ . Tu-Su. A bright, airy and elegant cafe with a courtyard, serving delicious cakes, pies, and excellent filter coffee. Also serves simple and wholesome meals.
Thimphu has few scintillating night clubs. Once inside any of these night clubs, it's a complete glamorous affair. The cost of the entry is quite low too (approx Nu 250 per person). Some clubs allow stag entry as well. The drinks are generally inexpensive and the staff friendly. However, the local youths can create problems on small or no issues and might enter into a scuffle with people from neighbouring countries. The sale of alcohol is prohibited on Tuesdays (locally known as dry night) and so all bars and clubs are closed on this day.
- 7 Mojo Park, Chang lam (opposite the national stadium), ☏ . W-M 17:00-00:00. Live music. The hangout place for Thimphu's aging hip crowd.
Most of Thimphu's budget hotels are on Norzin Lam (the main road through the city), especially above the Clock Tower. Anything that costs less than Nu 1,000 will offer nothing more than a worn bed, a basic toilet, and about enough space to place a bag. The main door will probably be closed by 22:00 at the latest. Negotiate the rate, especially off season.
- 1 Hotel Ghasel, Norzin Lam (opposite the clock tower), ☏ , (mobile). Rooms with attached bathroom and hot water facility, cable TV. There are also restaurant, bar and fast food facilities — for those pining that backstreet Indian vibe, the hotel's vegetarian restaurant is the place to come. Under the sound of Hindi songs blasting from a TV, Ghasel produces delicious dosa and thali and a range of other Indian and Bhutanese specialties.
- 2 Hotel Tandin (Norzin Lam, just past the first traffic circle — restaurant on the first floor). Cheap Indian and Bhutanese dishes.
- 3 City Hotel, Jattu Commercial Complex, Changlam, ☏ . A chic hotel in the heart of the city.
- 4 Hotel Jumolhari, ☏ , . Standard single Nu 2,000, standard double Nu 2,500.
- 5 Hotel Druk, ☏ , , ✉ email@example.com. A large city center hotel next to the Clock Tower. Health club with massage, sauna, steam facilities. Standard single Nu 2,000, standard double Nu 2,500.
- 6 Hotel Motithang, ☏ . A pleasant hotel on the mountain side above Thimphu. Wonderful views over the valley. A great place for people looking for peace and quiet or some inspiration.
- 7 Zhiwa Ling Ascent, Kawang Dajo, Upper Mothitang,, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. A chic and minimalist hotel among a forest.
- 8 Amankora Thimphu, ☏ . Near Kuenga Chhoeling Palace, Upper Motithang. Part of the Aman super-luxury hotel chain. A 16-room lodge offering five-star facilities. From US$1,500 per night.
- 9 Le Meridien, Chorten Lam, ☏ . Large and centrally located. Contemporary decor
- 10 Taj Tashi, Samten Lam, ☏ . Opened in 2008, a large and centrally located hotel offering full amenities. From US$275 off season, or US$350 in peak season.
The area code for Thimphu is 02. When calling from overseas dial +975 2 XXXXXX
Internet cafes in Thimphu are linked to broadband. Connections are reasonably swift — though at around Nu 60 per hour, quite expensive. Hotels may or may not have wi-fi or may even have an internet cafe: for example, Hotel Norling has on its second floor (see the hotel's listing for information about the hotel).
- 1 TeeBee's Cyber Cafe, 1F. Norzoed Plaza (Above the Clock Tower).
Getting work done in Thimphu is relatively straight forward. All offices are computerized and the staff are generally helpful. However, it is often said that Bhutan has one of the world's highest rates of meetings and workshops per working hours. This cannot be substantiated, but certainly meetings are very much part of the civil service culture here. In fact, it is often joked that the last place you should begin a search for a civil servant is at his or her desk! As a result, you should be prepared to make several visits to an office in order to get a task complete as there is a very high possibility that the person dealing with your case will be out of the office.
- ATM. Bhutan operates an international ATM service, though it is often out of order and it is advisable to bring sufficient cash to at least cover basics.
- Banks. The three main banks in Thimphu are 'Bank of Bhutan', 'Bhutan National Bank' and 'Punjab National Bank'. The former is in the My Mart Supermarket building. Bhutan National Bank is located in the same building as the post office, and The Punjab National Bank is on Norzin Lam, near the Clock Tower. All three banks provide money change service.
- Post Office. The central PO is in the lower part of town on Chang Lam. It is a large and well organized facility that includes a philatelic department. Mailing letters or packages in Bhutan is usually very safe though, like elsewhere, anything of value should be registered. The post office also offers a custom made stamp service.
- Visa extensions and route permits are available from the Immigration Office at the top end of Norzin Lam (just past the Textile Museum. Search on Google Maps for: 27.478384, 89.635529). Route permits should be applied for at least one full working day before the intended date of travel. A photocopy of passport (pages containing personal information and Bhutanese visa) is required.
- Western Union, Thimphu Post Office. This facility can receive transfer of funds from overseas, but cannot make payments from customers' personal accounts.
Embassies and consulates
- Bangladesh, ☏ .
- India, India House, Jungshina, ☏ .
- Kuwait, H. No. 5, Thorilam, Chubachu, ☏ .
Buses depart the inter-district bus station (across the river) throughout the day, though most, especially those heading to the east and Jakar/Bumthang leave between 06:30 and 07:30. As the inter-district buses are often full, it is advisable to purchase a ticket a few days in advance. Most districts are served by small Japanese Coaster Buses, which are comfortable and sturdy.
Shared taxis are a quick and comfortable means to travel to nearby places, such as Paro (Nu 150) and Punakha (Nu 200). Shared taxis depart from the inter-district bus station, and drivers approach potential customers. They depart once full.
Monastic complexes are referred to by their Bhutanese title of 'gompa', not 'monastery'.
- Cheri Gompa — It is the first Drukpa Kagyu Monastery established in Bhutan and is at the site where Shabdrong Rinpoche gained enlightenment. Consequently, Cheri is one of the most important monasteries in Bhutan. The structure is cut into the steep mountainside and has a very atmospheric stone stairway connecting its various levels. Located about an hour's drive north of Thimphu, the trek begins from a prayer flag covered bridge and takes about one hour. Tango and Cheri are about a one hour hike apart, and so are usually visited on the same trip.
- Dochula Pass — The highest point on the journey between Thimphu and Punakha, it has a very good view of a lot of Himalayan peaks, including the Gangkhar Phuensum, which is claimed to be the highest unclimbed mountain in the world. Also has a cafe which serves good coffee and decent parathas.
- Jakar — A town at the heart of a sacred and beautiful valley. The journey from Thimphu takes between 9 and 11 hours. A minimum of three days are needed to do justice to a visit.
- Phajoding Gompa — Founded in the 13th century by Togen Pajo, a yogi from Tibet, this monastic complex is a three hour hike from Thimphu (start from Motithang or BBS Tower). At a height of 3,640 m, it commands excellent views over Thimphu. There is space for camping. Otherwise, the small Thujidrag Gompa (a 40-minute walk from Phajoding) offers simple accommodation (often full at weekends) and cooking facilities - offer donation directly to monk in charge. Even if you do not plan to stay at Thujidrag, this cliff hanging monastery is still definitely worth a visit. Locally, it is famous for its sacred spring water. There are several sacred lakes in the area, though these are a full day's circular hike from Thujidrag.
- Paro — The location of the international airport and center of a sacred valley. Paro is a 45-minute to one-hour drive from the capital - an easy day trip.
- Punakha — The former capital; a 90-minute journey.
- Tango Gompa — About an hour's drive from Thimphu down town followed by a one hour hike, this is one of Bhutan's historical monasteries in the Kagyu tradition. It was founded by the grandson of the Divine Madman, Drukpa Kinley, and houses some of his relics. The monastery offers spectacular views over the Thimphu Valley.