Sightseeing in Thimpu
Despite the fact Thimpu is relatively small, there are a number of sightseeing options. If you’d like to read about why and how I got to Bhutan in the first place please click here. I also took on the ‘Tigers Nest Trek’ which you can find here. All of my cultural learning whilst there was part of a learning journey with Insightful Learning Journeys. which Founder Khatiza Van Savage facilitates. In this particular journey, I was included in a self funded volunteering and cultural immersion learning for Google Employees.
I travelled independently of the group but we met for breakfast and dinner most days. I also took part in my own mindful volunteering that you can read about here. As I was part of a larger group I was lucky to have a pick of wonderful guides – Dorji and his team of Bhakta, Thinley and Sonam are seasoned guides and drivers who have supported Khatiza Van Savage in her learning journeys for many years. They are proud and gracious Bhutanese nationals, well versed in their culture and eager to ensure that your journey is memorable on many levels.
It was clear before we got anywhere near the Buddha that we had chosen possibly the worst – but also the best day – to visit. It was the final day of ‘Prayers for world peace’ and it seemed that many local people were converging, possibly for the 8th time in as many days (as many people visit every day) on Buddha Point. The traffic snaked around the mountain for a good 2k or so. Still we persevered as it seemed that if this many people were going there, it would be worth the journey. And it was.
As the car park was shut we were dropped off at the foot of the steps to the Buddha – and thank goodness. I would urge anyone going to make the climb from the bottom of the steps rather than driving up to the car park. It looks quite daunting but it is well worth it, especially as you can stop as many times as you like, turn around and be rewarded with breathtaking views across Thimpu.
As we were climbing the stairs dozens of people passed us, some carrying tiny babies in their arms, many walking with whole families, lots of young children laughing as they bounded up without effort. I even saw an elderly lady who was hunched over and barely able to stand being helped step by slow step. It was clear she was going to make it no matter what and her cheerful companion was going to encourage her the whole way.
Once we were at the top it was evident what all the fuss was about. Over the loud-speaker the chant of prayers was being played to the hundreds of people sat in front of the Buddha. All there to give thanks and prayer, all there of their own will, all there to celebrate. Rows and rows of people of all ages, sitting sedately on the ground, in front of them, rows and row of monks sat under a large marquee that had been erected especially for the occasion. In front of the monks was another more auspicious bright yellow silk ‘tent’ where apparently the Abbott himself was reciting the prayers that could be heard (we couldn’t spot him from where we were). This is the equivalent of the pope being in attendance apparently and there was certainly a reverential, and joyous, atmosphere around.
We walked around the structure of the Buddha – and around the fenced off area where the people were gathered sitting in prayer. Although we couldn’t go up the steps that led to the foot of the structure we could still get a feel of the majesty of it and why it is regarded as a must see whilst here. All around, outside of the fenced off area children were playing happily, families gathered together, people shared food and monks and security guards alike passed by.
We went to give offerings to the monks and found we had a choice of worthy causes to give to. As we walked the steps back down I took in the amazing views once again and for the first time since arriving felt the true beauty of Bhutan and its people. The happiness was palpable and I felt honoured to have shared a part of this special day.
As the name suggests, this simply is Bhutan – a living museum that has been set up to show Bhutan as it was, before development kicked in. A very small museum that actually has a lot to offer. The initially shy guide – although I think her shyness was possibly more about our charismatic guide ribbing her than anything else – took us around each display explaining them to us. The first room she gave us the opportunity to try some traditional local wine.
If I were to say it was like firewater that would be an understatement! A small sip was all I could manage. Luckily Dorji was kind enough to finish it for me so I didn’t appear rude 😉
Other displays included a phallic garden (yes, with phallus of every shape, size and colour), the inside of a traditional Bhutanese house, festival masks, local craftwork, archery and a wishing bowl to try. Some women also performed a local dance whilst constructing a house!
One particular display that is well worth making the visit for is a local craftsman called Pema (http://www.simplybhutan.bt/tshering.php.) He creates the most intricate wood carvings, carving and painting them all himself. Pema has cerebral palsy and does all the work with his feet. With his beaming smile and willingness to share his craft he won us over completely. His story of being ‘found’ in a small mountain village and then being given a place at arts college is inspiring and heart warming.
There are any number of temples/monasteries to see in Bhutan, and in Thimpu. I chose Changangkha after reading about the resident astrologer who can provide your very own prayer flags according to your date of birth. I was intrigued. Not the most worthy of reasons I grant you, but hey, a little frivolity here and there doesn’t hurt right?
The monastery is perched high on a ridge above central Thimpu and dates back to the 12th century. Climb the steps and walk around the pilgrim path where you can sit and rest on the benches there to admire the spectacular views offered of Thimpu.
Guru Rinpoche, (link to Tigers Nest) the Tibetan who introduced Buddhism to Bhutan, settled in this area and so the monastery was built here and is regarded as one of the holiest temples in Thimpu. Parents bring their children here to be named by the protector deity Tamdrin. Whilst we were there one mum was holding her swaddled baby waiting for his or her name. A slip of paper was passed to her and she left – all very quick and without ceremony. Very unlike the naming ceremonies and christenings I am used to My guide, Sonam explained that he was named at this monastery. Apparently names are unisex and there are only a small number – so there are many Sonams around!
After our visit we head back down the steps to visit the astrologer – a portly round-faced man whose teeth and mouth were stained with the beetle nut he obviously chews on a regular basis. He reminded me of a cartoon monk with his large belly and cheery demeanour. After requesting my date of birth he told me – through my guides – that this year was in fact a bad year for me in business and up until the 2nd December I should avoid any business decisions. He gave me four sets of prayer flags (well, sold me!) and told me to hoist them any time from the next day to nine days time. Of course, the higher and holier the place the better.
Lucky for me I just happened to be trekking to Taktsang temple (link to Tigers Nest) the following day – possibly the best place for flags there is.
THE NATIONAL LIBRARY
As a lover of books I am always up for a quick look around a library. Bhutan’s national library is slightly different to your usual one. For a start there is no one in there! Maybe it was the time of day? Also, it didn’t look like you could actually borrow the books, although I didn’t check this out.
The books there seemed to be mostly reference and historical books. I’m guessing this library is used more for research than finding the latest JK Rowling.
However, the building itself is beautiful inside and out a worth a quick look if you are in the area.
CHOKI TRADITIONAL ARTS & CRAFTS SCHOOL
Bhutan has 13 traditional crafts and these crafts are plain to see all over Bhutan and you cannot turn a corner without seeing some beautiful painting on the side of a house or traditional wood carving on a pillar. The Choki Traditional Art School in Thimpu is one of two in the country set up to teach young people the traditional skills of their ancestors.
Open to the public, the school is a place to see the crafts being learnt from the ground up as it were – and it’s fascinating to see the painstaking detail and intricate way in which each craft is taught.
From ‘Rimo’ (drawing), Patra (carving), Tshem-Zo (embroidery) and Thanka (scroll painting) the young people who qualify at the school then have a skill they can use throughout their lives and ensure that these age-old techniques do not die out.
JUNGSHI PAPER FACTORY
Having wandered around the local market stalls I’d already noticed the beautiful paper and paper products on sale. The intricate flower pressed gift wrap, the delicately bound notebooks and the robust looking sheets of paper caught my eye. So when the guide suggested we go visit where it is made I was keen – after all, it could feed my notebook fetish if nothing else.
At the factory, visitors can watch paper being made from start to finish and it’s a fascinating journey. The paper is made from the bark of just two tree species – the Daphne tree and Dhekap tree. Using traditional age-old methods, the bark is soaked, pulped, squeezed, wrung out, placed on racks, dried on a wall then laid out. I make it sound so easy – it clearly is a finely honed skill. As we watch the man smooth out thin sheets of soaking wet paper on to a hot wall that dries it in minutes ,and then peel it off (before it dries out too much; a matter of seconds) and place the sheet in a pile before starting the process again, it’s clear that this is something he’s being doing for a long time.
Whilst you are not going to spend hours at this little factory it is well worth a visit. Of course, I bought a notebook!
TASHICCHO DZONG THIMPU
There are Dzongs on every hill in Bhutan it seems. Dzong actually means fortress and were built not only to protect the Bhutanese but also as administrative centres, houses for the clergy and somewhere people got together during festivities.
This particular Dzong is one of the most important and was restored after a fire in 1698 (originally built in 1641). It houses the secretariat, throne room and offices of the King of Bhutan. It was also where the fifth kings coronation was held in 2008. The northern part – which is not open to the public – is the summer home of the Je Khenpo (most Chief Abbot of the Central Monastic Body)
An interesting and photogenic place to wander around, be aware you cannot take photos inside some areas so check with your guide first.
Now I’m no prude when it comes to stamp collecting – there is a history of stamp collecting in the family – the prospect of visiting a post office during my trip seemed slightly weird to me. My guide though was keen, and as he said, at least I could post my few postcards whilst there.
Housing a small museum that gives a brief, but thorough history of post in Bhutan is worth a visit if you’ve got half an hour to spare. Considering Bhutan still doesn’t have consistent street names and no postcodes it’s tricky enough now to consider posting something. Back when you were reliant on the strong legs and resolve of the mail runners – who literally, as their name suggests – ran around the hills with mail, it must have been quite hit and miss.
But for me, the piece de resistance of the visit to the post office was being able to buy stamps with my own mug on! Oh yes, I stood in front of a really obviously fake ‘background’ of The Tigers Nest lead to much excitement when I wrote out a few postcards and was able to slap my personalised stamp in to the top right corner. Can’t wait to hear people’s reactions when they get their postcard!
Looking back I still can’t believe the numbers of dogs I saw on the streets of Thimpu – and I understand this is true throughout most of Bhutan. Not only that, the noise those dogs make at night isn’t something that I remember fondly. Having said that, there are lots of things I do.
The warm people, the stunning views, the clean air, the sky that goes on forever and the fabulous guides. Also knowing that there are people there that need a helping hand. Here are just some of the pictures I took of the wonderful Bhutanese people.
LIKE TO TAKE YOUR OWN JOURNEY TO BHUTAN?
If you are interested in joining a journey in the future I am currently working with ILJ to organise a writers retreat, yoga journey and a volunteer journey to work with the Ability Bhutan Society. Please do get in touch if you are at all interested here and put Insightful Learning Journeys in the title bar.
Please do click through to the links to read about the rest of my time in Bhutan.
Here for how it all began
Here for my volunteering experiences
Here for the Tigers Nest Trek
I’d love to hear your comments and feedback…