17 March 2024

Elevation 7590

Be still my heart! There are pedestrian crossings and Bhutan’s drivers stop for me! I hear no honking. No cows stroll the streets. A dog passes, held firmly on a leash. Not a traffic light is seen. Kids play soccer in the square and apologize when the kicked ball narrowly misses a passerby. The architecture represents traditional Tibetan/Bhutanese building all accented with colorful windows, doors and eaves. Green tin roofs dominate; government buildings designed with red roofs. The King’s picture is everywhere. I’ve entered another world.

Thimphu, like all of Bhutan once away from the chaotic Indian border, is like a study of contrasts. My expectations for Bhutan were high, even astronomic after leaving India. I believe hopes may have been met.

National Memorial Chorten

The National Memorial Chorten, built in 1974, memorializes the third King of Bhutan who died in 1972. His ashes are in the main stupa. The stupa’s patron was his mother Ashi Phuntsho Choedron who also sponsored the building of the Kharbandi Monastery in Phuntsholing.

The king’s stupa represents a classic Tibetan style with a pyramidal pillar crowned by golden spires, a crescent moon and sun and large images of the deities. Looking closely at the sculptures inside, I detect the deities and their female consorts engaging in some rather questionable sexual poses.

An adjacent building houses scores of flaming butter lamps. As with all stupas, one walks clockwise with the opportunity to spin the prayer wheels. Scores of people come every day to walk 108 times around the stupa while working their prayer beads.

The Royal House of Bhutan

Bhutanese love their kings. Here, he is thought of as a god. The current king is Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. His father, the 4th king began his reign in 1972 at age of 16 after the death of his father, King #3. He abdicated in 2006 in favor of his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, of whom he told his people, “He is ready to be king.”

A public coronation ceremony occurred on 6 November 2008, a year that marked 100 years of monarchy in Bhutan? King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck married his Queen (a commoner!) in 2011. They married in 2011 at the fabulous Punakha Dzong which we visited in Wangdu. Both royals are extremely popular. His father is also still living, as is his four spouses.

Kings 4 and 5

Since 2007, there has been an introduction of democracy, adoption of a constitution and the election of a Parliament, President and Prime Minister. Relations with China tend to be iffy, but a much closer friendship exists with India. Sandwiched between these two giants, Bhutanese goals of ecology, prosperity and happiness as an independent nation require a lot of finesse.

Takins and Yaks

The Ecological Park/Royal Takin Preserve features raised walks for viewing of its inhabitants. Their star is the takin. The takin is Bhutan’s national animal and considered something of a goat-antelope. However, it looks like a smaller, calmer version of a water buffalo and its closest relative is the musk ox. Legend tells that Bhutan’s mad sage Lama Jukakula created takin from the bones of sheep and cows.

The park affords a pleasant walk among trees, rocks and small streams where one can view the takin, deer and yak. There are also a few birds, like the Himalayan Monal which is much like a North American pheasant. I was happy to see these animals as from the road, there isn’t much beyond trees and cows.

National Institute for Zorig Chusum

The School of Arts and Crafts, or National Institute for Zorig Chusum, is one of several such national institutes across Bhutan.  Its purpose is to offer 4-6-year courses in Bhutan’s 13 traditional arts and crafts. Initiated by the government in 1971, students learn the traditional meaning and spiritual values enshrined in Buddhist art in efforts to keep the national heritage alive. The 13 arts and crafts include painting, carpentry, carving, sculpture, casting, blacksmithing, bamboo work, gold and silversmithing, weaving, embroidery, masonry, leather work, and paper making. We watched a few students practice their drawing and painting and of course there is a handicraft shops.

Giant Buddha

Sitting high atop a hill overlooking Thimphu is a giant, golden Great Buddha Dordenma. At 177 feet, Buddha can be seen for miles. This “awakened” Buddha celebrates the 60th anniversary of fourth king Jigme Singye Wangchuck. The statue houses over one hundred thousand 8-inch and 25,000 12-inch-tall Buddha statues, each of which, like the Great Buddha Dordenma itself, are made of bronze and gilded with gold. The kings throne is also part of the beautiful interior.

Awakened Buddha is touching the earth with one hand and holds a “begging bowl” with the other. At his feet is the traditional thunderbolt for destroying demons. Apsara making offerings to Buddha surround the statue. In Buddhist traditions, apsaras are heavenly beings. These particular Apsaras represent females and atypically designed as free standing sculptures.

The dedication is to “Bring peace and d prosperity to the world.” When completed, I am told that one will be able to ascend into the head to gaze through Buddha’s eyes. Today, that view would be hazy over the surrounding hills and valley and the abundance of yellow banners and flags wishing “long life for the king.”


We made a brief stop at the local “boys club.” Men were practthejr skills of bow and arrow. These were long bows, sharp arrows, and targets that looked to be over 200′ distant. I could hardly see the target let alone put an arrow in it. Most of the men weren’t having much success. However, they definitely were having fun.

The Fortress of Auspicious Doctrine

The Tashichö Dzong (dzong is a fortified monastery), was built in 1641. It translates as “the fortress of auspicious doctrine” or “fortress of the glorious religion.” The Dzong houses the office and the Throne Room of his Majesty the King and various government ministries. It also is home to the Central Monastic Body and serves as the summer residence of the monk body and the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot of Bhutan). 

While the original Dzong was built in 1216 on a ridge above the present site, fire destroyed it in 1772. Subsequently, a new dzong was erected at its present site. This Dzong faced destruction by fire three more times and also suffered damage in an earthquake. However, it was rebuilt each time. Then, in 1962, after the capital was relocated from Punakha to Thimphu, the present Dzong was reconstructed by the third king as the seat of Government. Only the central Utse tower, the new temple, and main Gönkhang (protector temple) remain from the earlier Dzong.

The large complex of buildings features an ornate central structure surrounded by taller whitewashed and wood “towers” on each corner, each topped with tiered golden roofs. There is a large central tower, Utse, in the inner plaza. These towers are actually large square buildings housing the government offices.  Each buildings windows and eaves represent expertly carved teak. There are thirty temples, chapels and shrines within Tashichö Dzong.

The interior is stunning with its dimensional carvings and expert murals. Entering a temple or monastery in Bhutan is a sensory overload not just of incense, but of colors, images, altars, Buddhas, and gold gilt everything. Most temples forbid photography but fortunately it was allowed here. Without photos, it is hard to describe the beauty and love which goes into the construction and adornment of these temples.

While the popular Queen Mother Ashi Phuntsho Choden lived here in the Dechencholing Palace as a Bhuddist nun, the present royal family resides in the Samteling Palace nearer the Royal Takin Preserve.

Get Thee to a Nunnery

The Thangthong Dewachen Nunnery is a Buddhist monastery very near Tashichö Dzong. Built in 1876, the small nunnery is home to about 50 nuns and a couple cats. There were nuns of all ages, each with shaved heads and just as dedicated to Buddha as fellow monks. This was a nice location to hang my latest white welcoming scarf in tribute to their dedication.

Post Office Stamps

One of our last stops in Thimphu is at the Post Office which shares a building with the Bhutan National Bank. Here, I could Airdrop a photo to the desk and within minutes receive a beautiful set of commemorative post card stamps. Having not mailed a post card since the invention of iPhones, I chose a photo for framing. To print a stamp, I or others must either be in the photo as they do observe copyright laws. The process takes minutes and cost 500 rupees, about $6.

Happiness Goal

I seems Bhutan is on the right track to their goals of sustainability, social responsibility and happiness. Surrounded by the Himalayas, prayer flags, peace and a lack of connection to the evils happening around the world, one may feel a temptation to overstay one’s Visa and seek serenity. I will have to settle for a cold Bhutanese DRUK 11000 craft beer or two. 

King and Modi

And like our visits in India, we appear to be followed. Sites close, roads close (and there is only one). Life is a standstill. Once again, “Modi is coming, Modi is coming!”


Retired. Have time for the things I love: travel, my cat, reading, good food, travel, genealogy, walking, and of course travel.


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