Thimphu is the capital of Bhutan, and also the name of the valley and Dzongkhag or district. With estimated population of around 100,000, Thimphu is Bhutan's largest city. Thimphu valley is at an average elevation of 2300m. It was a wooded farming valley until 1951, when massive 17th century Fortress, Tashicho Dzong, was revamped by King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk to form Bhutan's official capital and replace the ancient capital of Punakha. Today the city sprawls across the western slopes of the Wang Chuu river valley, with several government offices located around Tashichoe dzong.
Rapid expansion following the pattern of rural exodus has resulted in considerable rebuilding in the city centre and mushrooming suburban development elsewhere. Norzin Lam, the recently upgraded main thoroughfare, is lined with shops, restaurants, retail arcades and public buildings. Elsewhere, there is a mix of apartment blocks, small family homes and family-owned stores. By regulation, all buildings are required to be designed in traditional style with Buddhist paintings and motifs. A lively weekend market (now open all days of the week) near the river supplies meat, vegetables and tourist items. Most of the city's limited light industry is located south of the main bridge. Thimphu has a growing number of commercial services and offices which provide for ever-growing local needs. Thimphu is one of national capitals that do not have traffic lights. Instead of traffic lights, traffic police directs the oncoming traffic with their dance-like movement of their arms and hands. The Memorial Chorten dominates the skyline of Thimphu. The Buddha Dordenma statue, the largest Buddha statue in the world, is on a ridge top, overlooking the city.
There were goembas and a small population in the Thimphu valley even before the time of the Shabdrung, but Thimphu didn’t really exist as a town until it became the capital of Bhutan in 1961. The first vehicles appeared in Thimphu in 1962 and the town remained very rural until the late 1970s. The population has grown dramatically since 1990, and is now estimated to be 90,000.
It is often said that Thimphu is the only world capital without traffic lights. One was installed several years ago, but the residents complained that it was impersonal and ugly and it was removed within days. Traffic continues to be directed by policemen stationed at two traffic circles, one at the north end and another near the south end of Norzin Lam, Thimphu’s wide, tree-lined main street. They keep Thimphu’s traffic flowing throughout the day using elegant, exaggerated gestures. They disappear at night and leave drivers to sort things out for themselves.
Given Thimphu’s elevation (2320m), don’t be surprised if you become short of breath or have trouble sleeping your first night or two.