Tourist Attractions in Bhutan’s Capital City

Thimphu is the thriving political and economic heart of Bhutan. It contains the capital city of the same name, and comprises eight gewogs, or groupings of villages. Approximately half of the district, the northern part, lies within the environmentally protected boundaries of Jigme Dorji National Park.

The city of Thimphu, being the largest in the kingdom, hosts a wide spectrum of Bhutanese languages, arts, and culture. Though recent population estimates vary, somewhere between 100,000 and 120,000 citizens reside in the city. Thimphu city contains several colleges, a large stadium that hosts sporting events and celebrations, and a variety of ancient monasteries and spiritual sites.

1. Tashichho Dzong

Standing proudly on the western bank of the Wang Chhu a few kilometers north of central Thimphu, Tashichho Dzong looks every inch the seat of government. While the National Assembly no longer convenes inside the fortress’s whitewashed walls, today the dzong still houses the throne room and the king’s offices as well as the ministries of home affairs and finance.

The dzong is a patchwork of old and new, with the impressive central utse and chapels dating from the eighteenth century surrounded by government offices constructed in the 1960s. Various other parts of the dzong have risen, phoenix-like, from the embers of three major fires and the earthquake of 1897, making it all the more impressive that its expansion and restoration has been completed without either written plans or nails. The impressive open courtyard that abuts the northern side of the dzong is the site of Thimphu’s largest festival, the annual Thimphu Tsechu.

Unless your visit coincides with the tsechu, however, you should be able to explore the dzong’s splendid interior in peace, broken only by the sound of pigeons flapping overhead.

2. Buddha Dordenma

High up in the hills overlooking Thimphu, dawn light glints off the Buddha Dordenma’s golden face as he gazes into the rising sun. Depicting Buddha at the moment of his enlightenment, sitting in bhumisparsha mudra with five fingers extended to touch the earth, the 51-metre (169-feet) tall statue is visible from across Bhutan’s capital city.

The statue was cast in bronze in China and transported by sea and road to this site once occupied by the palace of Druk Desi, a secular ruler of Bhutan in the eighteenth-century. At its completion, the statue will contain 125,000 gilded Buddha statues and a wealth of other statuary.

In addition to celebrating the centenary anniversary of the Wangchuck dynasty, the statue fulfills a twelve-hundred year-old prophesy made by Guru Rinpoche that a Buddha image would be built at this dramatic site.

3. National Memorial Chorten

On the western side of Thimphu’s Memorial Chorten, a row of wooden platforms sits in the long grass. Each has been polished smooth by the prostrations of faithful worshippers who gather here in sun, rain or snow, to pay their respects to His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1928–1972), the Third King of Bhutan.

The chorten, with its elaborate golden peak representing the crescent moon and sun, is one of Thimphu’s most striking religious landmarks. Constructed in 1974, the Tibetan-style chorten’s whitewashed exterior boasts richly decorated chapels – one facing each of the cardinal directions.

The sound of bells and murmured prayers wafts on the breeze and butter lamps flicker in a side chapel. People of all ages gather here to pray and walk in clockwise circles around the chorten. Schoolchildren stop in on their way home, and an elderly crowd of regulars sets up camp daily at dawn to while away the day spinning the huge prayer wheels that stand near the entrance.

4. Bhutan Postal Museum

Established in 2015 to commemorate the 60Th birth anniversary of the fourth Druk Gyalpo, the Bhutan postal museum offers to take us through Bhutan’s development and progress over the ages with the help of audio-visual aids, anecdotes and artifacts. The museum comprises of five galleries each with a different theme.

Gallery I pays tribute to the fourth Druk Gyalpo and the exhibits here keep changing according to the special occasions and the release of new stamps in the country. Gallery II portrays the various communication means through which the Bhutanese exchanged messages over the years.

Gallery III gives us an insight of the postal system of the country and the evolution of wireless communication and internet in the country. Gallery IV showcases the rare and unique Bhutanese stamps issued over the years and also promotes Bhutan’s rich culture and tradition. Gallery V is an interactive area designed to indulge students and visitors in interesting activities.

5. National Institute For Zorig Chusom

Zorig Chusum refers to the thirteen traditional arts of Bhutan. At the National Institute for Zorig Chusum in Thimphu, students learn these arts, which include clay sculpting, traditional painting, tailoring, wood carving, gold and silver smithing, and mask carving. Some of the other arts taught here are wood turning and lacquering, embroidery, and traditional boot making. Aspiring artists attend the courses from one to four years.

In the institute, one can visit the classrooms and watch students fine-tuning their crafts. The institute’s shop displays student work for sale.

6. Pangrizampa Monastery School of Astrology

The walled in Pangrizampa temple appeared in Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal’s vision which directed his infamous journey from Tibet to Bhutan. The temple was built by Ngawang Choegyel, the great-grandfather of the Zhabdrung and dates back to the 17th Century. Its original name, Druk Phrodang, means “The Dragon Castle”.

Situated about 8km from the capital city, Thimphu, the monastery presently functions as the Central Monastic Body’s national center of traditional astrology, home to about 100 student monks. It is the place for Bhutanese parents to get auspicious names for their newborns and to have their futures predicted through the art of astrology. Tourists also visit this lhakhang for getting auspicious names and blessings for their newborns. The important dates for the special occasions in the country like the Royal wedding and the naming ceremony of the crown prince are decided by the head astrologers at this monastery, too. The monastery also publishes an astrological calendar annually which now is also available in the form of a mobile app called the “Druk Zakar”.

Ideally located in the middle of a meadow, on the banks of the Wangchu river, the monastery is a 20-minute drive from Thimphu city on the way to Tango and Cheri Monasteries, right across the road from another walled in enclosure that houses the Royal Body Guards.

During a visit to Pangrizampa Monastery, you can learn more about astrology and also have your personal reading done or just take pictures with the two huge cypress trees in front of the complex which are said to be the biggest in the country.

7. Royal Textile Academy

Intricately patterned wild silk kiras from Lhuentse hang alongside rough nettle fiber cloth from Zhemgang in Bhutan’s excellent Royal Textile Academy. The museum, housed in an impressive modern building, celebrates the country’s vibrant and varied tradition of hand weaving.

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From the towering applique thangka that overlooks the entrance hall and the sumptuous garments on display in the Royal Gallery to mannequins dressed in simple herders’ clothing from Laya, the museum offers an unparalleled chance to learn about and appreciate this unique aspect of Bhutanese culture.

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To see the fascinating and complex work that goes into making one of these pieces, visit the adjacent weaving center, where you can watch as the weaver’s fingers fly to and fro, recreating beautiful patterns from memory. A wide range of fabrics are available to purchase in the museum shop, with many of the items on sale produced in the academy itself.

6. Pangrizampa Monastery School of Astrology

The walled in Pangrizampa temple appeared in Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal’s vision which directed his infamous journey from Tibet to Bhutan. The temple was built by Ngawang Choegyel, the great-grandfather of the Zhabdrung and dates back to the 17th Century. Its original name, Druk Phrodang, means “The Dragon Castle”.

Situated about 8km from the capital city, Thimphu, the monastery presently functions as the Central Monastic Body’s national center of traditional astrology, home to about 100 student monks. It is the place for Bhutanese parents to get auspicious names for their newborns and to have their futures predicted through the art of astrology. Tourists also visit this lhakhang for getting auspicious names and blessings for their newborns. The important dates for the special occasions in the country like the Royal wedding and the naming ceremony of the crown prince are decided by the head astrologers at this monastery, too. The monastery also publishes an astrological calendar annually which now is also available in the form of a mobile app called the “Druk Zakar”.

Ideally located in the middle of a meadow, on the banks of the Wangchu river, the monastery is a 20-minute drive from Thimphu city on the way to Tango and Cheri Monasteries, right across the road from another walled in enclosure that houses the Royal Body Guards.

During a visit to Pangrizampa Monastery, you can learn more about astrology and also have your personal reading done or just take pictures with the two huge cypress trees in front of the complex which are said to be the biggest in the country.

8. Takin Preserve

Hidden in a fold of the forest-draped hills high above Thimphu, a herd of takin make their home in the Mothithang Takin Preserve. Formerly a small zoo, the king decreed that the animals should be freed rather than kept in captivity. However, instead of wandering deeper into the hills, the tame takin took to the streets of Thimphu, where they became a traffic hazard as they foraged for food. Eventually the animals were returned to this tree-filled park, where they live alongside a small collection of other Himalayan herbivores: muntjac deer, sambar and serow.

The takin owes its special place in Bhutanese culture to the eccentric tantric saint, Drukpa Kunley, who lived in Bhutan five centuries ago. When the Bhutanese people begged Drukpa Kunley to perform a miracle for them, he agreed on the condition that he first be fed a whole cow and a whole goat for lunch. When nothing but a pile of bones remained, Drukpa Kunley reassembled the skeletons, placing the goat’s head on the body of the cow. With a click of his fingers, life was breathed into this bizarre combination, and the takin has walked Bhutan’s hillsides ever since.

9. National Folk Heritage Museum

The Folk Heritage Museum, located on the outskirts of Thimphu, recreates a traditional Bhutanese family home inside a beautiful 19th century rammed earth and timber building. Set among terraces planted with wheat and millet, surrounded by fruit trees, the museum offers a fascinating insight into how rural Bhutanese families have lived for hundreds of years.

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Steep staircases creak as one climbs up through the house, from dimly lit lower floors that would have sheltered newborn calves and goats, through storerooms stacked high with winter provisions, to the airy living quarters above. Here, the family’s prized possessions are on display: shiny wooden bowls line the kitchen shelves, richly patterned fabrics hang alongside aged leopard fur bags in the room next door, and gold glints from thangkas hung in the family’s altar room.

Also on the property is the Folk Heritage Restaurant, which offers delicious traditional meals to nourish curious museumgoers with the true tastes of Bhutan. Combining a visit to the museum with a trip to this lovely eatery makes for a pleasant, relaxing afternoon.

10. Central Traffic Circle

Thimphu’s main traffic circle, where Norzin Lam intersects Chhoten Lam near Clock Tower Square, offers a fun, only-in-Bhutan peculiarity that takes only a moment to see.

Standing next to the circle’s traditionally designed wood framed gazebo is a traffic policeman with a twist. Donned in military cap, navy blue topcoat, and matching white gloves and shin coverings, he directs automobile traffic from dawn to dusk with sweeping choreographed gestures, all solemnly and precisely executed.

“Directs” does not entirely capture it, though. More often than not, his movements seem to have little discernible effect on how traffic would flow without him. But that’s just part of the charm. As are the dogs lying on the part of the circle leading to the National Memorial Chorten, sleeping the day away as cars whiz past.

Bhutan by decree has no traffic lights, so this policeman won’t be replaced by technology anytime soon. But there may be less need for him when the south section of central Norzin Lam is converted to a pedestrian-only walkway. See him now while you can.

By the way, it’s probably best not to ask for pictures with him — he does have a job to do, after all — but pictures and smiles from any distance are welcome.