Museums and Markets – Thimphu

After breakfast we caught the school assembly from our balcony as it is held outside. School children regardless of age all wear traditional dress and lessons are given in English, as is school assembly. Today’s speeches were on dealing with change and working with others.

IMG_7678We left Haa and followed the river north, the road clinging to and weaving around the valley. On the way we went to Lhakahang Karpo (a temple) where the monks were practicing for the coming festival. They formed a large circle in the courtyard at the front of the temple and accompanied by the cymbal were turning and ducking in what looks like it will be an energetic mask dance. Two temporary tents were also set up out the front. One reminded us of a ger with it’s circular shape, conical top and inner lining. Pensoc found the caretaker monk and we went inside the temple.

As the place that houses both the monastic body of the district and the local deity it is well frequented and caretaking is a big job considering the temple roof seems to be a significant bird nesting site and the outside construction work layers everything with dust. We accepted a graciously given blessing thread to give us long life saying we would take anything we could get in that regard, exchanged it with a suitable donation then skirted around the dancing circle as we left.

We took the Chinzom Road to Thimpu and got another taste of village life as against the steep densely forested mountains are some plots of commercial veggie gardens. They do not terrace the land here – we are guessing it’s because it is so steep and they are growing cabbages and cauliflowers so narrow strips of land would be less effective. They are optimists and just trust that the land won’t end up down the hill.

IMG_7716The farms give a bright green, brown and yellow patchwork against the deep green trees. We managed a walk on our own through one small settlement. We’d stopped for a break and told the guys we wanted to walk for a few minutes and to pick us up on the way. Pensoc told us to be careful of the traffic (seriously…one vehicle passed us in 10 minutes, or maybe he meant the 2 cows or bunch of donkeys we passed) and not to go to far. We made it to the next settlement before they caught up.

As we approached Thimpu we saw the 17th Century fortress called Semtokha Dzong. Once a prison and now a temple it perches on a hill before the final drop to the junction to Thimpu. We spotted a group of langurs there and Sangay mimed throwing rocks at them – they weren’t bothered and just sat there looking at us looking at them before getting bored and clearing off.

It took about 3 hours to get to Thimpu which is set within a large valley. It is a combination of traditional buildings and a large and increasing number of concrete, brick and plaster covered imitations painted to look similar. There is a heap of construction work going on which is undertaken by Indian immigrant workers using Indian style construction techniques, which, with much grilling of Pensoc, are deemed earthquake safe – but they are certainly not. We’re not sure if they are uneducated, inexperienced or naive about earthquakes.

IMG_7753The city is certainly more humming than anywhere else, with much more traffic and many more shops including some advertisements (although small) and Bhutan’s only shopping mall – which is aptly glass fronted and stands out as the ugly thing it is. With only 100,000 people it is the largest city in Bhutan and the seat of government. We had some lunch in the centre before heading to do some sightseeing.

The city is overlooked by a giant golden seated Buddha shining on the hilltop but with improvements being made to it we were unable to get close. Bhutan is so small that usually these work activities are required to ‘give notice’ to tour agents. Pensoc seemed a bit confused that this was ‘work without notice’ but we just enjoyed the view whilst his negotiation with the workman at the gate came to nothing.

Other sights we took in were the Folk Museum, which shows the layout of a traditional house as we had seen in the villages. They have a replica house there that you can explore each floor, which was really interesting as we got more insight into the function of the different levels and the altar room was a real surprise as it takes up significant space in the house. We learnt lots about the attic space all the way down to the animal stables on the ground floor.

We visited Mermorial Chorten built in 1974 in memory of the 3rd King – lovingly known as the King of Modern Bhutan. There were a group of prayer wheels housed undercover to the left of the entrance and amongst them sitting on the floor were lots of elderly people who sat gossiping and slowly assisting the spin of the prayer wheels. This is like daycare for them, they get dropped off in the morning when their children head to work and checked on and delivered a packed lunch at lunchtime and collected at home time. They socialise and sit quietly inbetween smiles to those who pass by. Pensoc reassured us that they are not homeless and would be collected when their children finished work.

IMG_7739The chorten is well maintained and sits in a fenced garden – what is most striking about it is the throngs of people circumambulating it with bodi beads, prayer wheels in hand. There are heaps of people and a number of them prostrate – many of them up to 108 times. We’re not sure if it is the royal connection, city centre location or what that makes this place so popular. We joined them and even talked to one man who was confident enough to ask where we were from and told us he was learning English. We enjoyed chatting to him as we have had little opportunity to be ‘free range’ and meet people and interact. Pensoc kept a watchful eye on us during the whole thing of course.

We also went to the Textile Museum and a paper factory which were really interesting – mainly for their lack of machinery and reliance on manual processes. We guess that with a small population and low demand the need for machines just hasn’t been there. There are some excellent examples of woven textiles and a really good DVD at the Museum. The fact that you can get your feet wet and hands on at the paper factory was great. The quality of the museums is very high.

A highlight of the afternoon was a visit to the National Animal Preserve which is home to the Takin. These strange animals have been there a while but the King decided that it was a bit like a zoo and was not in keeping with the environmental and religious principles of the nation so the animals were released – of course as they were used to their surroundings and didn’t cope with their natural habitat at high altitude very well and they came wandering back causing havoc looking for food in the city so they got put back in the preserve.

IMG_7776The animal has a strong association with the country’s religious history and myths. A great saint known as the Divine Madman visited in the 15th century and devotees wanted him to perform a miracle. He said that first he wanted a cow and a goat to eat – he was served it, ate it then stuck the head of the goat onto the body of the cow clicked his fingers then the Takin was made. It’s in it’s own category in terms of taxonomy and is really hard to describe. It’s got a moose like head, horns like a bison, a back like a yak, it stumbles around very un-elegantly. They are the strangest animals we have ever seen. Found here as a subspecies they are also living in parts of Tibet and Burma.

We checked into the hotel which was nice and central – we discovered a bit too central when the people left the nightclub below at 12:15am. The next day we started at the Institute of Traditional Medicine which has a museum, training facility, undertakes research and produces medicines and has a facility for outpatients. You go in, tell the receptionist what is wrong with you, they tell you which line to get in and then you wait your turn. Traditional medicine has the same status as western medicine so treatment is free although the principles of treatment means that in the first instance you will just be prescribed rest, isolation, warmth before you go back and a further diagnosis is made by the Dr ‘interrogating’ you. Some medicines are over US$20,000 a kilo (the Himalayan worm that becomes a plant), blood letting is still practiced and causes of disease are considered to be desire, anger and ignorance.

IMG_7829Just down the road is the School of Traditional Arts and Crafts which takes school drop-outs and offers them up to 8 years of training in the techniques of traditional Bhutanese arts. We were really impressed by the wood carving and the painting was exquisite. The skill of these young people and their masters reminds us how much cheap tacky crap there is out there. Watching the students was really interesting, especially to see all those teenagers working in class so quietly. The Bhutanese are not a rowdy bunch except when they are a bit pissed.

Next we visited Dechen Phodang which is home to 15 lamas and over 450 students. It is Thimpu’s original Dzong built in the 12th century, the paintings are hard to describe in words and no photos can be taken in the temples here.

After another dose of red rice, steamed veg and cabbage we headed to the market. In true Bhutanese style it is organised and labelled as per product category i.e. Rice and Cereals. It is housed in a purpose built building and the market runs for 3 days a week. The fenced area is then locked to keep people or whatever (Takin?) out and the produce is guarded by someone who scares off any nighttime animal visitors.

IMG_7893Most of the veggies and fruit are imported from India and take up the groundfloor, dried fish are also a large component. The veg looks in pretty good shape considering the journey it has although Pensoc tells us the chillies are inferior. Upstairs is reserved for the Bhutanese products – not much fruit and veg but various cheese on strings, butter and special tasting pork. No pig’s heads here though – the pork is dried out and sold to be saved or made into sausages to eat now. Another large section is made up of incense sellers – these are sackfuls of dried plants and powders, small cubes of saffron that are wrapped and look like dice. It smelt delicious. Offerings are made every morning outside the home which is usually a bunch of pine twigs burnt in a pile and there were a number of variations on this available here.

After the market it was uphill once again to visit a nunnery whose main statue is the iron bridge builder who was in Bhutan in 1385, after arriving from Tibet, and built 108 bridges. He also composed some folk songs and was a renowned treasure finder. They are renovating the nunnery at the moment by installing 108 prayer wheels around the outside of the temple which will look fantastic when it is done.

IMG_7801A final stop at the National Library and Archives gave us a look at the world’s largest published book which surprisingly is a photograph book. We also had a good look at what Bhutan reads – aside from Dharma and the stories of the lives of gurus and lamas it turns out not much at all is published. The library contains books that look like they are from the 1980’s America on ‘Working Harmoniously Together’ and the Children’s Atlas of the World.

We finally headed out of Thimpu to Dochu La Pass, the road winding it’s way slowly up. As we climbed the pass the mist got thicker and at 3140m we could see nothing in front of us. The weather had been predominantly cloudy/misty since we got here and now all hope had gone of seeing a panoramic view of the Himalayas. We spent the night in a hotel practically on the pass hoping that an early start would give us a glimpse of the mountains.


  • Bhutanese absolutely adore their king (and previous kings for that matter).

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