48 Hours in Thimphu, Bhutan

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iol travel june 20 bhutan

REUTERS

Buddhist flags flutter in the wind on a hill near Thimphu, capital of Bhutan.

Bhutan's capital of Thimphu may be the only world capital without a traffic light, but the largest city in this remote Himalayan kingdom does boast some 5-star hotels, an increasing range of restaurants, and several nightclubs.

Bhutan, wedged between India and China, is known as the “Land of True Happiness” after adopting a happiness index to measure its success. The landlocked country was totally isolated until it opened to foreign visitors in 1974 - and then allowed television and the Internet in 1999.

But the tiny, largely Buddhist kingdom is in transition with growing numbers of Bhutan's 700,000 people on Facebook and mobile connectivity reaching almost 100 percent of the nation, which is about the size of Switzerland.

Bhutan had been wary about foreigners damaging its unique culture and traditions, so it limited tourism from the outset. Although these fears have waned it still restricts visitor numbers by charging $250 (about R2000) a day, in advance, with this cost including meals, accommodation, a guide, and internal transport.

The government, however, is aiming to lift tourist numbers to 100,000 this year from about 65,000 and is trying to attract more foreign investment in the private sector.

A Reuters correspondent suggests ways to spend a weekend in Thimphu:

FRIDAY

5pm - Driving from the international airport at Paro, buckle up for the winding, hillside road to Thimphu that takes about an hour. Once you hit the ornately painted arch and turn left, you know that Thimphu is not far. Soon in view is the massive Trashi Chhoe Dzong, a dzong being the administrative and religious centre present in every major community. The present dzong was built in the 18th Century and at night is lit up like a ship in the tree-lined Thimphu Valley.

6pm - Check into your hotel, then walk into town and along Norzin Lam, the city's main street, which is lined with hotels, handicraft and food shops. At Clock Tower Square, enjoy a local beer, a Red Panda or a Druk 11000, overlooking the fountains and traditional Bhutanese prayer wheels.

8pm - Take your pick from any of the numerous restaurants in downtown Thimphu. The Bhutan Kitchen is a favourite for traditional food and offers a buffet with common dishes including red rice, curries with chicken, pork, dried beef, or vegetables, and red chillies. Chillies are a staple of Bhutanese dining. Most restaurant kitchens close by 9.30pm..

10pm - A few late-night spots have emerged in Thimphu. Space 34 is favoured by the younger crowd, many of whom have dropped traditional dress and instead wear jeans, hoodies, and boast tattoos. The older crowd opt for Mojo Park which is located at Shearee Square,a short taxi ride away.

SATURDAY

8am - After breakfast at your hotel head back to downtown Thimphu for some shopping. Start off at the Centenary Farmers Market by the River Dhimchu, where local farmers in traditional dress sell their produce every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The vegetable stalls are overflowing, while the fruit stalls offer a more limited choice.

11am - Pop across the bridge by the market to browse some handicraft stalls which open only at the weekend and sell wooden trinkets, elaborately woven cloth, ornamental masks that are used in festivals, and colourful wall hangings called thangkas. Thimphu is full of handicraft shops, even though many of the handicrafts are made in India or Nepal. Haggling is expected.

12 noon - The National Handicraft Emporium on the main street and the handicraft stalls lined up near the Hotel Taj, also on the main street, are worth a visit. You can pay using the Bhutanese currency, the ngultrum, or sellers are happy to accept US dollars.

1pm - Druk Pizza at Phendey Lam is a favourite with locals for pizza with a local flavour. Featuring chillis, coriander and local cheese, the pizzas have a thin base with a variety of meat or vegetarian toppings. Try your pizza with the local tea, called suja, that is mixed with butter and salt.

2.30pm - The National Memorial Chorten, located off Jangchhub Lam, is busy most of the day with locals walking clockwise around the stupa, a dome-shaped monument that is a Buddhist shrine, clutching prayer wheels and prayer beads. The stupa was built in 1974 in memory of the Bhutan's third king.

4.30pm - For a coffee break, try the Ambient cafe in Norzin Lam between the Traffic Circle manned by a white-gloved policeman and the Clock Tower and opposite the PNB Bank and catch up on your email. This cafe has a good free WiFi connection - and delicious cakes.

6pm - After freshening up, head to the Hotel Taj Tashi, the only 5-star hotel in the cente of Thimphu. There are two 5-star resorts on the edge of Thimphu - Amankora and Terma Linca - where celebrities such as Jack Nicholson, Cameron Diaz and Leonardo di Caprio are reportedly among past guests. Enjoy a cocktail at the Hotel Taj's Ara bar, named after Bhutan's traditional spirit distilled from millet or rice, and take in the cultural show that takes place every night at 7pm..

8pm - For dinner, jump in a taxi and head to the Jamyang Resort, a hotel and restaurant situated on a hillside about 2 kms out of town. The restaurant serves local dishes and has a great view over the Thimphu valley.

SUNDAY

9am - After breakfast put on some good walking shoes and join the line of walkers and cyclists heading up the winding road to the spectacular golden Buddha that is under construction on the top of Kuensel Phodrang hill overlooking Thimphu. The Sakyamuni Buddha is a 51.5 metre tall bronze statue of the founder of Buddhism and offers unobstructed views over the Thimphu Valley. It's a 1.5-hour walk up and an hour down but the views are worth it.

1pm - Lunch at The Zone on Chang Lam where locals recommend the Yak burger or the momos, which are steamed dumplings.

2.30pm - Bhutan's national animal is the Takin, a woolly creature that is a mixture of a goat and a bull and can be sen at the Motithang Takin Preserve, a 15 minute drive out of Thimphu into the forest. Takin are classified as a vulnerable species so attempts are underway to breed and preserve them.

4pm - Archery is Bhutan's national sport - and a national passion. Most weekends there will be a tournament at the National Stadium in the centre of town where competitors are encouraged to heckle each other and victories are greeted with traditional songs and a leg-kicking dance.

6pm - To end off the weekend, head to Karma's Coffee at Phendey Lam, a cafe with good coffee and comfy seats. The cafe has a selection of local magazines and newspapers giving the latest news in Bhutan which held its first democratic elections in 2008 and is heading back to the polls next year. - Reuters

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