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Thimphu is the capital of Bhutan.  With a population of about 105,000 people, it contains roughly 1 in 7 of Bhutan’s entire population.  Nonetheless the city could not in any way be considered crowded or bustling, although we did see some traffic congestion this morning in the form of a line of about 20 cars waiting to cross an intersection.  Interestingly, Thimphu is one of the very few capital cities without traffic lights; they were tried briefly several years ago but removed soon afterwards after widespread public complaints that they were “too impersonal”.

We had a comparatively leisurely start this morning, with breakfast at about 8:00 am and a departure just after 9:00 am.  Our first stop was at the top of a hill called Kuenselphodrang, or Buddha Point as it is more commonly known.  The summit was home to Bhutan’s largest statue of Buddha.  With a height of 51.5 metres, the statue overlooks the city of Thimphu.  It is still under construction, being financed by overseas Buddhists, mainly ethnic Chinese from Singapore and Taiwan.

The main Buddha image is encircled by a huge flat paved area that is used for ceremonies and meetings, which is in turn adorned by a plethora of golden statues of fairies that are represented as bringing offerings to Buddha.  The three-storey high base of the image is a temple, the interior of which is still being painted in the traditional Bhutanese style of wall mural and a growing collection of some 125,000 small Buddha images.  In this way, people who look at the exterior of the large Buddha image are said to be not looking at one Buddha image, but 125,000 of them.  Moreover, it allows local people to claim correctly that there are more Buddha images than people in Thimphu.

The central image within the temple is a Wisdom Buddha, which has five faces and is said to contain five Buddhas, symbolising the ability to withstand and survive the five poisons, surrounded by adoring bodhisattvas.  It was here that I learnt that a bodhisattva is any creature that has generated ‘Bodhicitta’, which is a spontaneous wish and compassionate mind to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.  Apparently bodhisattvas can be human or non-human, and Bhutan’s current king is regarded as a bodhisattva because of his concern for the spiritual well-being of the Bhutanese people.

Like every Buddhist temple in Bhutan, no photos were permitted inside.

After our walk around the Buddha image in beautiful sunshine under bright blue skies, we left Kuenselphodrang and proceeded downhill into Thimphu for the first of several visits within the city.  Our first city visit was Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre, located in an obscure workshop within the Changzamtok Industrial Estate.  Although small in scale, the intricate weaving work being done by the women on their wooden looms was mesmerising, and they were just a few of the contributors to the weaving centre as much of the work is also done by women in their own homes.

The women were weaving colourful silk and cotton textiles for a variety of purposes, including shawls, scarves, traditional Bhutanese dresses, and other items of attire.  It was easy to understand why these hand-woven masterpieces command such high prices when it is seen how much labour and skill goes into the weaving process.

Our next stop was a short five minute drive to the eastern side of the river and up the escarpment to the Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory, which was established in November 1990 as a government undertaking.  Making paper by hand using the bark of daphne plants is an age-old tradition that dates back to the 8th century, and is therefore seen as an important way of preserving Bhutanese cultural and national identity.

During our visit, we were given a wonderfully free hand to explore the factory and observe all the stages of the laborious process of making the paper, from soaking the bark in order to create a paste, forming sheets in a bath of water, pressuring the sheets under wooden presses, and attaching the sheets to vertical metal sheets that are heated to dry the paper.  It was an impressive example of labour-intensive, high-value-added manufacturing that was also certified as being environmentally sustainable, as evidenced by the proud display of a poster certifying membership of SEID (the Sustainable and Efficient Industrial Development Project in Nepal and Bhutan).

Our final stop before lunch was the recently launched Bhutan Postal Museum.  The museum was surprisingly interesting, portraying the story of Bhutan’s progress and development through the evolution of its postal and communications systems.  The history began with the earliest mail runners who carried letters over the mountains on foot through to Bhutan’s fascinating modern postage stamps that include 3D images, textured surfaces, stamps made of silk, and even circular stamps.

A particularly interesting modern Bhutanese innovation is the personalised postage stamp.  Anyone can bring their favourite photo on a USB thumb-drive or their mobile phone and obtain a miniature sheet of 12 stamps that feature the photo – totally valid for use in posting letters, and costing no more than the face value of the stamps.  With that background, I can proudly announce that Bhutan issued postage stamps in three denominations today featuring a portrait of Di and me at Tiger’s Nest Monastery, and mail will be sent using these stamps tomorrow.  I wonder if this momentous event will be featured next time they renovate the Bhutan Postal Museum.

During our buffet lunch at the Bhutan Orchid Restaurant, the morning’s sunshine disappeared and we had intermittent light showers and overcast skies for most of the afternoon.  It didn’t matter much as our itinerary involved indoor destinations.

The first stop was the National Traditional Medicine Hospital.  The hospital compounds medicinal herbs and dispenses them, treats various ailments with traditional herbs, and trains medical practitioners in traditional treatments.  The hospital has a small museum which we visited containing small bowls of various seeds, roots, fungi and leaves that are used in traditional healing, together with wall charts showing ways of treating ailments traditionally.  No photos were allowed inside the museum.

Our second stop was an abbreviated visit to the School of Traditional Painting of Arts and Crafts.  Students at this school undertake a six-year course in the 13 traditional arts and crafts of Bhutan, but today they had a very different focus – preparing for an imminent visit by the King of Bhutan that afternoon.  The only things happening at the time of our visit were students listening to instructions on how to behave during the Royal Visit, while other students were nervously going to the toilet in preparation for the King’s visit.  We will try to visit the school again tomorrow when things are hopefully calmer.

Our third afternoon visit was to the National Textile Museum, a huge complex that is sponsored by the youngest (i.e. fourth) wife of the fourth King of Bhutan to preserve Bhutan’s traditional weaving skills.  Like the Traditional Medicine Museum, no photographs were permitted inside the museum.  The exhibits covered three storeys.  On the ground floor, a video explained the various techniques used to weave Bhutan’s colourful patterned materials.  The middle level showed clothes with unique designs made for royalty, including clothes worn by Bhutan’s fourth king and his four wives.  The top floor display showed different weaving techniques, styles of local dress, and the types of patterns on textiles made in different parts of the country.

A separate building in the National Textile Museum featured some women demonstrating weaving techniques, while others worked on intricate embroidery that was to become a large thangkha in a monastery when completed.  The quality and precision of the intricate artistry involved had to be seen to be believed.

Our final visit was a quick one – a walk past about 80 stalls that comprise Thimphu’s craft bazaar that are arranged in a single file, somewhat strangely, down the middle of one of the city’s main thoroughfares, Nordzin Lam.  Although this was our final organised visit for the day, it wasn’t our final activity.  One of our former students who attended Li Po Chun United World College (LPCUWC) while I was Head there, Sonam Lhaki, was now living in Thimphu.  As the first Bhutanese student to attend LPCUWC, of course we had to catch up with her, and we did so over coffee after returning to our hotel at about 4:30pm.  Almost two hours later, we were still chatting furiously – a perfect end to an enjoyable day in Thimphu.

Day 6 - Thimphu

Tuesday 3 April 2018