Bhutan’s largest city Thimphu homes only 100,000 residents. The visionary third king Druk Gyalpo Jigme Dorji Wangchuck moved the capital here as part of his campaign to establish Bhutan as a legitimate nation state, recognized by the UN. It’s a pretty place, the 3rd highest capital in the world at 7,400’, almost exactly the elevation of our Tahoe home so we feel right at home. As the seat of government Thimphu houses most of the important political buildings in Bhutan, including the National Assembly and the magnificent Dechencholing Palace.
This Tuesday Nov 15 Finn led us on a tour of Thimpu’s sites, starting with a hike to and around the must-see Buddha Dordenma – the largest sitting Buddha in the world; the Motithang Takin Preserve, which houses Bhutan’s own Jackalope, a goat-headed cow; lunch at “Simply Bhutan” – a living cultural museum; a tour of the Zorig Chusum artisan school; and visit to the very interesting Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory – a small factory that presses traditional Bhutanese paper from the bark of the daphne bush. By then we were pretty whacked (and I’m fighting a nasty chest cold) so we passed on visiting the majestic Trashi Chho Dzong in favor of some downtime back at our inn… you see one magnificent and culturally pure 500-year old Shangri La Dzong, you’ve seen them all.
Bhutan’s struggle to modernize while maintaining it’s traditions and culture is well documented. Their clash of centuries is evident everywhere – there’s an official behavior and dress code (the Driglam Namzha) so most men wear traditional gho robes, but the cars and cellphones are modern (we don’t see a lot of motorcycles… perhaps because it’s a bit awkward to bike in a robe). Buildings must maintain traditional facades. Traditional arts and crafts are encouraged, and while western buildings seem to lack the craft of even a century ago, modern Bhutanese structures are every bit as beguiling as those built a half a millennium ago.
Then there’s the dogs. Buddhists don’t like to kill things, so stray dogs are plentiful; barking and dogfights rule the night. There’s an active program to spay and neuter strays… they are easily identified by notched ears. But dogs are everywhere, and they are not to be trusted.
After a brief rest we went out to downtown Thimphu to stroll past a long row of artisan stands and see the downtown… it’s a pleasant place with good sidewalks and a large plaza for public concerts and events. Just below the main drag is the National Stadium, famous because it is the site of the decisive battle in 1885 which established the rule of the Wangchuk family, which still holds the monarchy today. Pictures of the young and much loved 5th king and his queen are posted in just about every building in the country.
Finn took us up the hill to a local restaurant that served a traditional, high quality Bhutanese dinner of red rice, boiled chicken, stewed beef, chili cheese, string beans, stir fried mushrooms and nooldes… it was really quite good with one of the local Bhutanese brews – Druk supreme, I think. Then home to bed and dogfights.