Although most visitors to Bhutan must travel with a guide, that doesn’t mean you can’t find some time to do a bit of exploring by yourself, or encourage your guide to take you to certain places. There’s a lot to see and do in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, despite first impressions. The largest town in Bhutan, Thimphu offers everything from museums to craft demonstrations, markets and temples. Here are 14 fun things to do in Thimphu.
Get Some Personalized Stamps
On the ground floor of the Thimphu Post Office you’ll find a wonderful shop selling one of the most unique souvenirs available: personalized stamps. All you need is a phone, a photo and about $8. Scrolling through your device, you can select an image–whether of yourself or a landscape–and choose either to AirDrop or email it to their computers. Within minutes, you’ll have a sheet of stamps featuring your custom photo. They only work when mailing from Bhutan, so be sure to pick up a postcard or two as well.
Location: Thimphu Post Office, Thimphu 11001
Hours: Monday – Friday, 9am-4pm, Saturday 9am-1pm
Visit the National Memorial Chorten
Built in honor of the third king, the National Memorial Chorten is one of Thimphu’s most prominent landmarks. Join others in circumambulating the stupa or spinning the prayer wheels. You’ll see Bhutanese people of all ages, some of whom spend much of their day here, sitting in the shade, praying, or catching up with friends. The grounds and structures are certainly photo worthy, and it provides a great window into the importance of Buddhism in Bhutan. You might be asked to show your visa documentation, so be sure to bring that along.
Location: Chhoten Lam
Hours: 9am – 5pm every day
Entrance Fee: Adults – Nu. 300, Students – Nu. 150
See the Clock Tower Square
As the name suggests, this square features a four-faced clock built in the traditional Bhutanese style. Colorful carvings adorn each side, including four dragons, which symbolize the independence of Bhutan, the dragon kingdom. A set of prayer wheels are nearby, and various restaurants and shops line the square. If you’re lucky, you might stumble upon a show or an event, as the square is often used for public gatherings.
Location: Norzin Lam
Hours: all day, every day
Check Out the Traffic Circle
Just up from the Clock Tower, where Norzin Lam and Chhoten Lam intersect, is Thimphu’s main roundabout. While this might sound boring, here you can witness a peculiarity that makes Bhutan so special. Right in the middle of this traffic circle, under a decorative gazebo, stands a policeman wearing military garb. Rather than directing cars in the typical fashion, he moves his arms in a choreographed dance, gesturing like a ballerina. It takes only a few minutes to have a look, but because of Bhutan’s dislike of traffic lights, this act is likely to be there for the foreseeable future.
Location: Intersection of Chhoten Lam and Norzin Lam
Hours: All day, every day
Shop at an Authentic Bhutanese Crafts Bazaar
Just across from the Taj Tashi Hotel, running along a median between two streets, you’ll find a stretch of around 80 handicraft stalls. While there are countless souvenir shops throughout Thimphu, these vendors offer lower prices and a more interesting variety of wares, all made locally. From bows and arrows to oven mitts, you can find everything and anything you’d want to take home to help you remember your time in Bhutan. What’s more, you can shop knowing each purchase directly supports local artisans.
Location: Across from the Taj Tashi Hotel, opposite from Nehru Wangchuk Cultural Center
Learn about Takins at the Motithang Takin Preserve
Since Buddhists don’t believe in keeping animals captive, the Motithang Takin Preserve is the closest thing to a zoo in Bhutan. While home to a variety of species, including the muntjac (or barking deer) and Himalayan monal, the most notable inhabitant of the preserve is the takin. Bhutan’s national animal, it looks part buffalo, part cow, and part something entirely different. For the best chance of photographs, visit early in the day, as the creatures congregate near the fence to feed. You can wander around the edges of the enclosure to find the best vantage point.
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday 9am-4pm
Entrance Fee: Nu. 300
Watch the National Sport at the Changlimithang Archery Ground
Archery is the national sport of Bhutan so it’s absolutely essential to make time to witness a match or tournament. This is very different from the activity you might have played at summer camp. Here, highly skilled men take aim at wooden targets sitting 145 meters away. Weekend mornings are the best time to watch, so grab a cup of coffee and a seat. Unfortunately, at Changlimithang you can’t participate in the action, but you can take a lesson at the grounds in Paro.
Location: Chang Lam
Hours: Sunday – Saturday 7:30 am-11
Entrance Fee: Free
Shop at the Weekend Market
Every weekend, Thimphu puts on the country’s largest market, which sells both food and handicrafts. Farmers from around the region arrive Friday afternoon and remain until Sunday evening, offering visitors anything from pineapples to a leg of yak, depending on the season. The northern end of the market is where you’ll find the more artistic items, including baskets and various religious objects. Between the people and the products, it is certainly worth a wander.
Location: North of Changlimitang Stadium, along the western bank of the Wang Chu River
Browse the National Library
Built in the form of a traditional Bhutanese temple, the structure itself is reason enough to stop at the National Library. Inside are kept 100-year-old manuscripts, scrolls, books, and a plethora of Buddhist scriptures. The presence of the scriptures meant the library needed to be built to look like a monastery. It also contains the world’s largest book, weighing over 80 kilograms and standing around two meters tall. When its on display, the librarians turn the page every month, presenting new images to visitors.
Location: Pedzoe Lam
Hours: Monday-Friday 9am-5pm (summer), 9am-4pm (winter)
Entrance Fee: Free
Tour Tashichho Dzong
While each of Bhutan’s 20 districts has a dzong, Tashichho Dzong is one of the most notable, as it is the headquarters of the government. The king himself works here. The structure is absolutely massive, housing both the civic and monastic arms of the law, and filled with ornately carved temples and dormitories. You can also catch a glimpse of the king’s residence and the parliament building, just across the river. Unfortunately, neither of these are open to visitors. You will need your guide to enter the dzong.
Location: Chhagchhen Lam
Hours: Weekdays 5:30-6:30pm (closed during government business hours) and weekends 8am-6pm (5:30 in winter)
Entrance Fee: Nu 300
Marvel at Buddha Dordenma
One of the largest Buddha statues in the world sits 14 km outside downtown Thimphu, on a piece of land known as Buddha Point. Buddha Dordenma rises over 50 meters into the air, and there are hundreds of thousands of additional Buddha statues, 100,000 of which are only 20 centimetres tall. Consider visiting at sunrise or sunset, when the light reflects perfectly off the Buddha’s gold facade.
Location: Kuenselphodrand National Park
Hours: Sunday-Saturday 9am-5pm
Entrance Fee: Free
Learn More About Bhutan at a Museum
There are two main museums in Thimphu, both of which provide visitors with invaluable information about Bhutan. The Folk Heritage Museum highlights traditional life in the country through exhibits, demonstrations, and programming. Its impressive collection of rural artifacts, including household objects and equipment, is displayed in context, giving additional meaning to each. The National Textile Museum strives to promote the weaving industry for which Bhutan is world renowned. The tour guides explain each item on display, along with the country’s rich history of textiles.
Folk Heritage Location: Pedzoe Lam
Hours: Weekdays April-October 9:15am-5pm, weekdays November-March 9:15am-4pm, Saturdays 10am-4pm
Entrance Fee: Nu 200
National Textile Location: corner of Desi Lam and Nordzin Lam
Hours: Monday-Saturday 9am-5pm, Sunday 10am-3pm
Entrance Fee: Nu 250
Watch a Craft Demonstration
Buying a souvenir is one thing, but learning the process is entirely different. At Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory you can watch and try your hand at making Bhutanese paper using ancient methods. Originally used by monasteries to make manuscripts and prayer books, this deh-sho paper is also sold as stationary at the factory’s shop. The National Institute for Zorig Chusum, also known as the “painting school” teaches all of Bhutan’s 13 traditional crafts. Visitors can sit in on workshops, watching painting, carving, and sculpting among other crafys.
Jungshi Location: Dechhen Lam
Hours: Monday-Saturday 8:30am-5pm
Entrance Fee: free
National Institute Location: Pedzoe Lam
Hours: Weekdays 10am-3:30 (preferred 10am-12pm), Saturdays 10am-12pm
Entrance Fee: Nu 100
Circumambulate Changangkha Lhakhang
On a hill overlooking town, this temple offers visitors a great view of Thimphu, as well as an introduction to the temples of Bhutan. Built in the 13th century, it is considered the spiritual home of children born in the Chang Valley. As such, infants are often brought here to receive his or her name. Take time to walk clockwise around the temple and through the prayer flags dotting the mountainside just below. Following the stairs will lead you back toward town.
Location: Just off Thegchhen Lam
Hours: Sunday-Saturday all day, the inner temple until 5pm
Entrance Fee: Free but consider a donation
Article by Alison Spencer
Top image by Göran Höglund (Kartläsarn)/ Flickr