I woke up and went for a run around 7 a.m. this morning. Thimpu
reminded me more of a small mountain town than a capital city. As it is Sunday, the streets were almost entirely devoid of vehicles and pedestrians. There are no traffic lights in Thimpu
- or anywhere else in Bhutan
, for that matter. When authorities installed a traffic light in Thimpu
several years ago, residents complained of its “impersonal” nature and the light was promptly removed. There are no tall buildings, and as all buildings are constructed in accordance with strict building codes mandating conformity with the national style of architecture, there is a high degree of architectural conformity wherever you look.
Our first stop on our tour of Thimpu
was the National Memorial Chorten. Constructed in the 1970s in honor of Bhutan
’s then-recently deceased third monarch, scores of people - many of whom were senior citizens - walked clockwise around the structure engaged in worship. Thereafter - since we had arrived in Thimpu
on a weekend -we visited Thimpu
’s weekend market. The market, where sellers of produce come in from the countryside to sell their fruits, vegetables and legumes, was laid out in a very orderly fashion. While not nearly as interesting or photogenic as many of the markets I have seen in India over the last several months, it was worth a quick peek.
After visiting the weekend market, en route to Trashi Chhoe Dzong, the dzong
- sort of a monastery, fortress and administrative center all rolled into one - housing the most important of Bhutan
’s central government offices, we pulled off the road at the sight of a group of Bhutanese men having archery practice. Bhutan
’s national sport is archery. The sight of a group of Bhutanese men wearing the traditional robes making target practice with their traditional bows in the middle of a field in the capital was one we had to stop and observe. Observing these spontaneous types of events are among my favorite aspects of overseas travel.
Thereafter we continued on to Trashi Chhoe Dzong, the enormous fortress and grounds housing many of the main offices of Bhutan
’s central government and of the country’s Buddhist religious leaders. This was our first visit to a dzong
, and I found it amazing how the government managed to adapt a 17th century fortress to the needs of the central government today while leaving the original outside design entirely intact. Bhutan
is a country which few people know about, so I had little idea about what to expect. Therefore, seeing this type of architectural wonder makes the experience all the more positive. Bhutan
is quite strict regarding the wearing of the national dress by its citizens, and only Bhutanese wearing the traditional clothes - as well as a sash which denotes their status (e.g., as a commoner, nobility or government official) are permitted to enter this or any dzong. Before we went into the dzong, Sanom wrapped a sash onto his gho
in order that he would be allowed to enter the dzong
. Tourists are required to wear long pants, and female tourists are required to cover their arms as well.
After our visit to the Trashi Chhoe Dzong, we went to the Folk Heritage Museum, a converted farmhouse which provides a look as to how rural Bhutanese once lived and as to how some may still live. According to our guide, some 80% of Bhutanese are subsistence farmers, but I suspect this old way of life is fading as modernization creeps into Bhutan.
In the afternoon we drove to a scenic overlook offering great views of the entire Thimpu Valley, and from here we walked to the Motithang Takin Preserve. The fenced-in wildlife preserve is home to the takin
’s national animal. I had never seen nor heard of a takin
before coming to Bhutan, and having seen one now, I can confirm this is indeed one bizarre looking creature. To me it resembled a mixture of a cow, goat and deer. Today the takin are found only in Bhutan
as well as in certain regions of Tibet and Myanmar.
Our city tour ended in the late afternoon. As we were already tiring of the fairly simple hybrid Chinese food we had been served at the restaurants designed for tourists thus far, we insisted to our guide that we wanted Bhutanese food for dinner. Sonam obliged, taking us to a local upscale restaurant for a buffet-style dinner consisting of Bhutanese local dishes.
I had never had Bhutanese food before, which is quite distinct from the cuisine of its Indian and Tibetan neighbors. We had our meal with red rice, the local favorite over red rice, and wheat noodles, known as puta
. Several dishes were especially memorable. Bhutan is known for its spicy red and green chilies, prepared as a separate vegetable dish and served in a cheese sauce. I mistook the green chili dish, known as ema datse
, for asparagus in a sauce, and quickly paid the price. This was by far the spiciest thing I had ever eaten on my travels - EVER - , and my system felt like it was going into shock within a few seconds of finishing a large bite. The restaurant staff watched in amusement as I quickly sucked down multiple glasses of water. According to the restaurant’s owner, many foreigners have made the same mistake or simply underestimated the potency of Bhutan
’s chilis. Hours later, I still felt the aftershocks from my first and last sampling of ema datse
. Another interesting dish was pork fat. Bhutanese like to eat the fat primarily, and each cut therefore includes a large chunk of fat with a thin slice of actual meat. I think they essentially view the meaty part as something that one merely gets lumped along with the piece of fat. Quite a different way to view things, but that is I suppose why we are in Bhutan
and why we travel generally: to experience a different way of life and of thinking generally.
We wrapped up our first day in Bhutan with drinks at our hotel with Sonam and Ugden. All in all, a very packed first day in Bhutan