On foot in Thimphu

On foot in Thimphu

Walking on the streets of Thimphu in Bhutan, a country that is high on Gross National Happiness, Kavita Kannan Chandra experiences the warmth of the locals and the rich art and culture of the landlocked nation.

With no vehicular traffic in sight at Norzin Lam, the main street of Bhutan’s capital city Thimphu swarmed with locals walking in abandon and kids running around, as if the roads were their playground. 

I wondered if a religious procession was about to pass, and at once felt a little awkward as our taxi zipped past the walkers, looking like a rude intruder. 

At the crossroads, we were stopped by a well-fed traffic policeman with chubby cheeks, who exchanged some words in Bhutanese with our driver, and then smiled at us. 

The jolly good fellow wished us a happy tour of his nation. 

His smile lit his face and ours and this was the beginning of several smiles I exchanged with the disarmingly friendly locals that convinced me that Bhutan is indeed a country with a high Gross National Happiness.

My guide Yeshey told me the reason for no vehicles plying that day was that the first Sunday of each month was celebrated as Pedestrian Day in Bhutan’s big cities. 

Except for taxis, public buses, bicycles and emergency vehicles, the main roads of Thimphu were closed for vehicles from 8 am to 5 pm. 

It was the first Sunday of the month and after spending our day at Paro, we entered Thimphu in the evening.

The chilly weather at once prompted us to take out our woollens, but the fashionably-dressed chirpy teenage girls with hot pants and skirts with receding hemlines had other ideas. 

The main road was more like a modelling ramp, with boys making a style statement as well with their gelled hair and fashionable jackets. 

Even the traditionally attired locals, comprising men in gho and women in attractively patterned kira, looked fabulous.

Gho and kira are national dresses, and the government of Bhutan expects all citizens to wear them in all government organisations and at schools. 

This gives the Bhutanese a distinct identity, and the kira makes their women look exceptionally pretty.

Simple pleasures

Wishing to join them soon, we headed to our hotel. With a high ceiling highlighted by a grand chandelier, attractively coloured pinewood pillars and surrounding rows of three floors of rooms, the hotel appeared grand. 

We freshened up and rushed to join the pedestrians at Norzin Lam. It was obvious that a vehicle-free day was observed to safeguard the environment, reduce traffic congestion, avoid more fuel import and encourage healthy living. 

However, for a city slicker like me, being in Thimphu on this day was pure bliss. 

The pleasant weather, soothing light drizzle and fresh mountain air with no carbon particles was a rare delight. 

But then we have often heard that the best way to discover a city is on foot — that day I made the most of this opportunity without having the fear of being hit by a car. 

Discovering a cosy little bookstore at the street corner and leafing through The Raven, an interesting current affairs magazine, and having a delightful cheese sandwich with a cup of hot chocolate, made my day. 

As the light faded outside and the pedestrian revelry ceased past the 5 pm deadline, a sudden spurt in vehicles changed the scene outside. 

The broad roads suddenly appeared narrow, what with cars parked along half the width of the road. With traffic on the road, I realised that there were no traffic lights. 

Much to my surprise, the vehicles would stop by themselves if anyone was crossing the road at zebra crossings. 

Yeshey told me that Thimphu was the only capital in the world that had no traffic lights as the drivers were self-disciplined and followed basic traffic rules. It was really amazing.

The morning after we were all set for a sight-seeing trip across the city. The buffet breakfast at the hotel, catering to mostly foreigners, was a dampener. 

I could not eat the ham and sausages; the rice porridge and bland cabbage was simply unpalatable. Thankfully, toast and baked beans came to my rescue. 

I had developed a taste for Bhutan’s baked beans, sold under the brand name Druk, when I was in Northeast India, so it became my staple breakfast favourite. 

Another of my favourite in Bhutanese cuisine was ema datshi, recognised as the national dish of Bhutan, that went well with their red rice. 

Ema datshi is a lip smacking fiery preparation of chillies and cheese. Bhutanese cuisine is considered the spiciest in the world, as chillies are used much like vegetables in practically every dish. 

For those not attuned to hot chilli peppers, kewa datshi (potato with cheese) is a good option. Indian food is found in almost every restaurant.

Our first stop was the National Library, which housed rows of rare books on Buddhism. 

The cynosure of all the tourists was a huge book on Bhutan measuring 5 feet by 7 feet, comprising 112 pages. 

Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Kingdom was declared the world’s largest published book by the Guinness Book of World Records.

Art scene

The National Institute for Zorig Chusum is an art school. It is a great place to interact with students, understand their work and buy some art. 

One could walk into any classroom, as the students remain unperturbed by the hovering tourists as they go about painting, stitching or sculpting with immense concentration. 

Every work of art is related to traditional Buddhist anecdotes and myths. 

A student, Kinga Tshering was making a figurine on a pine wood tablet whilst explaining its religious significance.

The folk art museum was a nice place to see an actual rural house. We had fun going up the floors using a narrow wooden staircase. 

Apart from these must visits, the Motithang Takin Preserve was a place to see Bhutan’s national animal, takin — a curious mix of goat and cow. 

We then visited the ornate Changlimithang Stadium that hosts the national games of archery and soccer, Royal Golf Course, the Thimphu Memorial Chorten and the Tashichho Dzong. 

The Chorten Memorial has an air of serenity and is frequented by locals who meditate there. The Tashichho Dzong is the summer residence of Bhutan’s head monk, and roaming in its courtyard is a pleasurable experience.

Shopping

Yak wool jackets were something that I really fell in love at the handicraft market. Amidst sundry knick-knacks comprising various masks, bamboo items, hand-woven bags, copper utensils and semi-precious stones, a multi coloured jacket stood out. 

However, to my utter disappointment, I could not compete with the slim Bhutanese women, and the jacket refused to fit me. 

Regardless, I left Thimphu happy for all the wonderful sights, the unique cultural experience, the smiling people and the determination to burn my fat so that the next time around, that jacket would cling to me like a glove.

 

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