Bragging rights. Thimphu, tiny as it is by world national capital standards with a population of just 100,000, is reputedly the only such city without a single set of traffic lights. If you're visiting the Kingdom of Bhutan, of which Thimphu is the capital, and exploring the country's main points of interests, you'll almost certainly end up here for at least one night. And those traffic lights can't be too far off as Thimphu is rapidly evolving from a glorified dusty village into a fully fledged city with Bhutan's first version stretching down the capital's narrow valley setting in the form of quasi high-rise blocks of flats.
In a still relatively isolated and still developing nation whose national highway is still yet to be fully sealed, grandiose modern attractions and monuments are rare. One monumental exception is the 50-metre-tall golden Buddha that sits atop a hill overlooking the city. The Chinese-made statue looks deceptively small from a distance, dwarfed as it is by the surrounding peaks, but up close it is enormous as it gleams under the harsh high-altitude Bhutanese sun.
Thimpu, the third highest capital in the world at a base altitude of 2248 metres, is the perfect place to observe a takin, Bhutan's ungainly national animal. A sanctuary for these unlovely though intriguing creatures distinguished by their thick necks and short muscular legs, is within a tranquil forest setting high above the capital. You won't need to linger too long here but considering the fact that takins are considered rare and tend to live at altitudes of up to 4000 metres, a visit to Motithang Takin Preserve, as the sanctuary is known, is well worthwhile.
One of the pleasures of a visit to Bhutan, let alone Thimphu itself, is its distinctive architecture and a fine place to admire it is from the hills above the capital, particularly from the lookout above Tashichho Dzong, a spectacular 13th-century Buddhist monastery and fortress. It serves as the headquarters of the kingdom's civil government. Back in town, be sure to allow some time to observe the policemen who direct traffic with old-fashioned hand-signals from a traditionally designed rotunda in the nowadays often traffic-choked centre of town.
During a typical overnight stay, visitors to Thimphu are likely to eat in-house at their accommodation, especially if you are fortunate enough to be holed up at the rather flash Taj Tashi. Its restaurant options include Chig-Ja-Gye specialising in the understandably under-appreciated national Bhutanese cuisine, of which the chilli is the foundation though tamer Indian and western dishes are also available elsewhere. Tour guides – compulsory for all but Indian foreign visitors here in Bhutan – tend to have favoured western-friendly restaurants to which they take guests at lunchtimes.
The best and most centrally located hotel in town is the five-star Indian-run Taj Tashi (https://www.tajhotels.com). Guests at the 66-room hotel, sympathetically designed to blend with the surrounding traditional Bhutanese-style buildings and an easy stroll from Thimphu's modest town square, receive a blessing from a Buddhist monk in the establishment's pleasant grounds. Cultural performances are held in the early evenings.
The good news: Thimphu is nowadays full of ATMs. The bad news: you may experience difficulties finding a machine that will actually accept your cards when seeking cash. The simple answer is to bring plenty of it, preferably in US dollars, and in small denominations for inevitable gratuities and small purchases throughout Bhutan.
Anthony Dennis travelled as a guest of the Tourism Council of Bhutan tourism.gov.bt