Terrific Thimphu – Our Days Spent in the Capital of Bhutan

Thimphu, Bhutan
Thimphu, Bhutan

Bhutan was one of our dream destinations and we wanted to visit there for quite some time. We first attempted to visit Bhutan in October 2018, but finally made it there in October 2019 after over one and half year’s planning. Read about our itinerary and entire experience of planning the Bhutan trip in the blog - Our Quest for Happiness: Planning Our First Trip to Bhutan. We traveled across Bhutan between October 2 and 8, 2019, spending the first two days in Thimphu – the capital of the mountain kingdom. In this blog we capture our first impressions of Bhutan’s hospitality, cuisine and culture, and the places that are a must visit when one is in Thimphu.

Catching a Glimpse of Mount Everest

On October 2, 2019, we took a morning flight from Kolkata to Paro. At the immigration of Kolkata airport, they just asked us where we were flying to and stamped our passport. Easy and simple. We grabbed a quick bite at the lounge before heading out to the boarding gate. We flew with Bhutan Airlines. It was not only a comfortable flight, but a memorable one.

Just a few minutes after take-off, the pilot announced that we were flying over River Teesta. Such flight announcements were a surprise to us because till now, we had never heard the pilot being so interactive with the passengers. However, here comes the highlight of the flight. Before boarding the flight, we were aware that if the weather is good, we can see the Himalayan ranges from the flight. Hence, we had researched and booked seats on the left of plane as that’s the side from where you can see the Himalayas. So, we were eagerly waiting for that moment. When the moment finally arrived, the pilot announced that on our left we could see the Himalayan ranges and most importantly, since the weather was sunny and clear, we got to experience the most beautiful view ever from a flight – Kanchenjunga and…Mt. Everest! For a few minutes, we were completely awe-struck!

Bhutan Airlines also did a commendable job with the in-flight snacks, considering the flight time from Kolkata to Paro is just 50 mins. We have flown a lot of short-haul flights, both within and outside the country, but just a couple of them have impressed us with their in-light menu. Bhutan Airlines was one of them, with their hygienic packaging, take-away bags and fresh juices. While the juices kept us hydrated during the flight, the snacks came in handy during the long drive that followed from Paro to Thimphu.

Landing in the Most Picturesque Airport

We were also very excited to land into Paro airport as it is considered one of the most dangerous airports in the world. The airport sits 7,000ft above sea level and is surrounded by sharp peaks of up to 18,000ft tall. Also, this is one of the airports whose runway is shorter than their elevation making it one of the most dangerous airports to fly in and out of. It clearly showed how skilful and experienced the pilots were. The experience was thrilling.

The airport is also a very picturesque one surrounded by mountains all around. Once we landed, we thought that it would be amazing to capture some photos from the tarmac, but we have mostly seen that the airline officials  don’t allow that so once we got down from the aircraft, we started walking towards the gate to enter the airport. But, when we looked around, everyone was standing in the tarmac and taking photographs. The officials also did not say anything and were allowing it, so we took out our camera and started to click. This was a beautiful experience.

Upon entering the airport, we saw two queues at immigration – one was for passengers arriving from SAARC countries and the other was for passengers from other countries. So, we stood at the queue for passengers from SAARC countries. The immigration was prompt. The officer just asked us our departure date from Bhutan, the name of the place that we were staying at in Thimphu and that’s it…passport stamped! Baggage claim was also quick and just before exiting the airport, we bought a local SIM card for calls and data.

Meeting the Rinchen Ghakhil Adventures Family

Upon exiting the airport, we were greeted by Thukten, our guide, and then he took us to the car where we met Tashi, our driver. The drive from Paro to Thimphu was around two hours, but time passed quickly admiring the scenic beauty and chatting with our guide. Thukten started teaching me a few words in Dzongkha, the first word that he taught me was “Kuzuzongpo la” which means “Hello”. Thukten talked about a lot of things from Bollywood movies to architecture in Bhutan. The drive was a pleasant one.

We were staying at Jambayang Resort in Thimphu. The resort is beautifully located on top of a hillock overlooking the surrounding mountains and the entire Thimphu city. Before entering the resort, Thukten mentioned to us that Ngawang, the owner of Rinchen Ghakhil Adventures, was waiting for us in the restaurant of the resort. So, we went straight to the restaurant to meet him. After talking to him for almost a year on Instagram, we were excited to see him in person. Ngawang had also brought his brother with him, Jamyang, who is a lawyer by profession. I greeted them with “Kuzuzongpo la.”  They treated us to some delicious cookies from the resort’s bakery and some hot tea. We chatted for a while about our previous travels, our itinerary in Bhutan, politics, etc.

Thukten had completed the check-in formalities and we were informed once our room was ready. We had asked for a deluxe room, but to our surprise, we had been upgraded to a suite. The view from the suite’s balcony was the highlight of our stay at Jambayang Resort. After checking in we remembered that we had brought Bengali sweets for Ngawang, Thukten and Tashi, which we forgot to give them. Ngawang was leaving so we called them and asked them to meet us at the lobby so that we can give it to them.

First Taste of Bhutanese Cuisine

After freshening up and resting for a while, we set out to grab some lunch and do some sightseeing in Thimphu. Ngawang had suggested Tashi and Thukten to take us to Simply Bhutan for lunch. Since we are foodies, we had already researched and prepared a list of restaurants we would eat at in Bhutan. Simply Bhutan was on our list, so we agreed to go there. On reaching there, we realised that they had a change of rules, which Thukten and Tashi were unaware of. Apparently, you can’t just walk in and eat. There are fixed lunch timings and you had to place your lunch order in the morning. We were okay with the rules and almost decided to try it out the next day, but we did not like the behaviour of the staff at the counter. So Simply Bhutan was out of the list as it turned out to be too commercial.

We decided to go to the next restaurant on our list, Folk Heritage Restaurant. We thought that this place would be too commercial as well, but we were happily proven wrong. They are popular, but they know how to treat their guests well. The staff are friendly and full of smiles. Folk Heritage Restaurant only serves Bhutanese cuisine in set menus – vegetarian and non-vegetarian. Our server helped us through the menu. We chose non-vegetarian, which gave us the option to choose two meats per person. So, we could try all the four non-veg items available. The experience of dining here is fantastic. The restaurant has done a great job in preserving and bringing to the tourists, who don’t like experimenting with food, the rich culture and cuisine of the mountain kingdom. The utensils are wooden. Even though we were given cutlery, we chose to eat with our hands, respecting the culture.

The server first poured us some hot suja (butter tea) and served us a bowl of zaw (puffed rice), which felt refreshing. Then one by one she started bringing all the dishes we had ordered – red rice, khulee (buckwheat pancakes), kewa datshi (cheesy potato curry), sauteed vegetables, boiled beans, shakam (dried beef), sikam (dried pork), dried fish, chicken curry, ema datshi (chilli cheese), ezay (chilli paste) and clear soup. The whole platter looked colourful and the spread was delicious. At the start and end of the meal, we cleaned our hands with sticky rice. We had done a lot of research to know about this practice in Bhutan. As this is not done by tourists commonly, the servers were very happy and mentioned it to our friends, Tashi and Thukten.

Our Quest to Explore Thimphu

After a sumptuous lunch, we headed to our first location for sightseeing in Thimphu – The National Memorial Chorten. It is close to Folk Heritage Restaurant so you can visit it either before or after dining at the restaurant. There is an entrance fee of Nu. 300 per person for foreign nationals who are not paying the the minimum daily package rate of US$250/US$200. Both Thukten and I felt that this was a little high for this place. Upon entering, Thukten told us that to walk all around the chorten, you must walk clockwise. You are supposed to circle the chorten an odd number of times, so we decided to circle it three times.

Once we started walking around the chorten, it started drizzling and before we could complete it, it started raining. Thukten was worried and said whether he should get the umbrellas from the car. I did not want him to break the ritual of completing the three circles and stopped him from going. We saw a lot of aged people walking with us and praying without stopping so that motivated us to keep circling even in the rain. It was a good experience.

Next, we headed to our second spot, the Great Buddha Dordenma, a gigantic Buddha statue perched on the hillock overlooking the Thimphu Valley. There were no entry fees to visit this monument. An interesting fact is that it houses 125,000 Buddha statues within it. The place is also surrounded by beautiful statues of Taras. It looked magical. We also entered the temple. It felt very peaceful. No photography allowed inside, though.

The view from the compound of the Dordenma is also mesmerizing. Since it had rained just before we reached here, there were layers of cloud floating around us. After spending some time over here taking photographs, since we had the car on our disposal, we decided to head back to our resort to rest for some time before heading out for dinner.

Visiting Thimphu’s Most Famous Restaurant

As our resort was a little out of town, we decided to head out for an early dinner so that Tashi and Thukten can head back home after dropping us off. For dinner, we picked another restaurant from our list – Zombala 2. The restaurant is in the heart of Thimphu city, overlooking the only traffic post in Bhutan. It is a popular restaurant for locals and tourists alike, so it was busy even at 7pm. Thankfully, we got a place to sit. Just a heads up, you need to write on the notepad in front of you what you want to order from the menu. We had no clue and were just waiting for the server, then Thukten informed us what to do and we wrote down the items from the menu. We followed the recommendation of one of our favourite food vloggers on YouTube, Mark Weins, and ordered the chilli fried rice over here. Mark Weins said that it was the best fried rice he had; we could not agree more. Though it was not the best we had, it was the second best, the title still held by the spicy XO Fried Rice of Yauatcha; but, then again, Yauatcha is a Michelin Star restaurant. Along with the rice, we ordered beef paa (beef cooked with vegetables and chilli) and sikam datshi (pork with cheese). The food was delicious. For drinks, I ordered Suja and Shabbir went for a Red Panda beer.

After a sumptuous dinner, we wanted to head back to our resort, but Tashi and Thukten had a surprise for us, which Ngawang had suggested to them. They took us to a viewpoint where we could see the Tashichho Dzong all lit up at night. Since we had just come out for dinner, we didn’t carry our camera. The view was spectacular so we requested Tashi and Thukten if they could bring us back over here the next evening. They agreed and we were delighted. It was a wonderful surprise.

Mesmerising Morning Views

Whenever we are travelling, we like to wake up early and go for walks to explore the surrounding of the resort we stay at. However, this time it was different. The view from the balcony of our suite was breath-taking, so we decided not to head out and enjoy the view from there itself. The clouds were resting between the valleys. The rays of sunshine glistening over the Thimphu city. It looked like a page from a fairy tale.

Day 1 Breakfast
Day 1 Breakfast

Our breakfast was booked along with the room, so we went to the resort’s restaurant to see what they have on offer. The view from the restaurant was equally breath-taking, so we braved the cold and decided to sit in the open-air section. The breakfast consisted of simple continental cuisine with limited options. So far, no matter which country we visited, we were never been so disappointed with a breakfast menu, even if it had limited options. Not only were there no local delicacies in the breakfast menu, we also did not like the fact that they rationed the refilling of the buffet. Even though there were not more than six people in the restaurant, the food kept getting over, only to be refilled in very limited quantities.

Exploring Unexplored Thimphu

After breakfast, we set out for a full day of sightseeing. The first location was Tango Cheri Base. It is about 20 kms away from Thimphu city. The drive to the base was a scenic one with lush green meadows and valleys all around. On the way Thukten showed us the living quarters of army families, the army schools and the Royal Palace of Bhutan. Tango and Cheri are two monasteries set on two sides of the hills with Thimphu Chu flowing in the middle. The hike to the monasteries would have taken the whole day and we had less time in hand, so we did not attempt the hike. We spent some time around the base.

At the base, there is a beautiful wooden bridge built over Thimphu Chu. Tashi and Shabbir hiked a little to go to the bank of the river from where they could get some photographs of the bridge and the surrounding view.

The views from the bridge itself was mesmerizing. We spent more time that we wanted to just to keep taking photographs here. Tashi and Thukten patiently waited as we went on clicking away.

While leaving, Tashi and Thukten asked us whether we would like to get even closer to the river. We agreed and they took us inside the Jigme Dorji National Park. We were the only people at that hour and had the whole place to ourselves. It was so peaceful and beautiful. The only sound we could hear was the sound of the flowing river and birds chirping. Shabbir was so excited that he rolled up his trousers and went into the river to take some great shots. It was a stunning location and we were glad that our friends brought us over here. This place is not that popular amongst the tourists, but the locals like to picnic here.

After visiting Jigme Dorji National Park, we decided to head back towards Thimphu and have lunch before proceeding to the other places. On the drive back to Thimphu, we stopped for photography breaks and captured some beautiful photos of the village of Kabesa.

On the way we also crossed Pangri Zampa Lhakhang, which is the national center for traditional astrology and decided to stop here for a while. It is a beautiful and peaceful place. Thukten requested one of the monks to open the door of the monastery for us. Photography is prohibited inside the main temple. There is a giant cypress tree in front of the main temple which is said to be the oldest and perhaps the biggest in Bhutan.

Getting Comfortable with Bhutanese Cuisine

For lunch, we decided to go to Babesa Village Restaurant, another restaurant from our list. It a is great place for people, who don’t want to take risks, to try out some traditional taste of the mountain kingdom. What we really like about this restaurant is the decor – the restaurant is set up in a traditional Bhutanese house, which used to be someone’s home. There are multiple small rooms, which house one or two tables, with options to sit on the floor or on chairs. While you are in the heart of the city, you get transported back in time when you eat in this restaurant.

There was a bit of a rush when we entered at peak lunch time, so we had to opt for one of the tables with chairs. Another plus of dining here is that they serve a la carte, along with some set menus. We ordered white rice, shamu datshi (mushroom with cheese), shakam (dried beef) with peas and dried fish. The server told us it would take about 40 minutes to prepare everything from scratch. So, we decided to order some Ara with egg and beef salad as starter, while we waited for the main course. The food and drinks were not the best, yet pretty good.

The Glamorous Takins

After lunch, we visited the Takin Preserve. The Takin is the national animal of Bhutan, which is only found in the mountain kingdom. When we were researching to build our Bhutan itinerary and the Takin Preserve came up, we were hesitant to visit it thinking it to be just another zoo. We do not support animal tourism which lead to animal exploitation and stay away from all forms of it. So, whenever there is a visit to see animals involved during our travels, we always do some extensive research to see if it is ethical.

Upon in-depth research we came to know the history of the Takin Preserve. The preserve was originally a mini zoo, but it was taken down and the animals were set free. However, the animals were so comfortable with their habitat that they stayed back in the forest surrounding the zoo. With the Takin gaining popularity all over the world and people trekking into the forest to see them, in 2004 the Royal Government of Bhutan and the World Wide Fund came together and set up the preserve to make it a secure place for animals to live in. The preserve now has an enclosed path for visitors to walk inside the forest without disturbing the Takins and the other animals living here.

If you are lucky, the animals come close to the fence and even show themselves off to the visitors – some enthusiastic ones going to the extent of coming to the little holes cut in the fence for photographers and interacting with the people. We were lucky to see a lot of Takins lying close to the fence where we captured some photographs.

We even got to see two aggressive Takins fighting, but they cooled off soon and none of them got hurt. Apart from Takins, there are mountain goats and deers in this preserve. Please remember – do not tease the animals or feed them. Just let them be and you will have a great time observing them being themselves. There is an entry fee of Nu. 300 for foreigners.

Driving Around Thimphu

After a wonderful time spent at the preserve, Tashi and Thukten took us to a point where you could see the entire city of Thimphu. It was a beautiful sight. Next, we headed to the crafts bazaar. It is a great place to shop for souvenirs. The items sold over here are handmade by local artisans, so it contributes to their welfare. We bought purses and wallets for gifting. Shabbir bought a tiny cup with the Bhutanese flag on it as a souvenir to keep at home and I bought a beautiful backpack. It was a good shopping experience.

Our next stop was Tashichho Dzong. On the way we stopped at the point from where you can see the entire dzong at a distance – the point where we were taken to last night. There we took some photos and marked the spot so that we can once again take the photos from the same point when return in the night. We reached Tashichho Dzong, it was getting late, so we decided to just see the Dzong from outside and did not enter it.

Coffee, Desserts and Yak Meat

We then decided to go for some coffee as we were craving it after not getting a decent one at our resort. We decided to go to Coffee Culture, a quaint café at the heart of Thimphu city; another one from our must visit list. I went for a Caramel Macchiato and Shabbir opted for an Irish Coffee. We were also craving some desserts as they are not common in Bhutan and you don’t get it at all restaurants. So, we ordered a blueberry cheesecake and fruit tart with our coffees. The coffees and the desserts were delicious. We strongly recommend this café if you want some good coffee and desserts here in Bhutan.

We decided to walk around in the city for some time instead of heading to our resort. It was already 6pm, so we planned on have an early dinner and then retiring for the night. We enjoyed Bhutanese cuisine, but after a long hectic day, we were craving some comfort food. So, we decided to hit The Zone Restaurant, Café and Bar. The ambiance was amazing with great music. The most interesting item that struck us in the menu was the yak meat burger, something that put this restaurant on our list in the first place. It is a specialty of this restaurant and this is the only joint in Thimphu that serves it. We decided to order couple of yak meat burgers and some beef momos. The yak burger was delicious and is a must have over here. The beef momos tasted good. Shabbir also tried some K5 – the only whiskey that is distilled in Bhutan.

Bidding Adieu to Thimphu

After that delicious dinner, we headed towards the viewpoint from where we could see the lit up Tashichho Dzong. We ensured we take photographs from the same position as the photograph that we shot earlier that day. It was spectacular and we were so happy to capture it for our memories. We returned to the resort, thanked Tashi and Thukten for the wonderful day that we had and retired for the night.

The next morning, we once again woke up to some breath-taking views, like the day before. As we were checking out this day, we decided to spend some quality time in our suite and soak in the views as much as we could.

Day 2 Breakfast
Day 2 Breakfast

After breakfast, which had the same menu as the day before, thus our disappointment as pointed out earlier, we checked out of our resort and embarked on our journey to Punakha with Tashi and Thukten, which will be covered in the next blog.

What was your experience of traveling in Thimphu?
Do let us know in the comments.

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