A Local’s Guide to Bhutan

Journalist Karma Singye Dorji on how to plan a day and night out in Thimphu, the country’s capital.
Photo taken in Thimphu Bhutan

An author and journalist, Karma Singye Dorji works as the travel-programs coordinator at Bhutan Himalaya Expeditions. He has lectured on Bhutanese culture at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco; he divides his time between Bhutan and California, where he lives with his American wife and two sons. Karma received the U.N.’s Dag Hammarskjold Award for Journalism from the U.N. Correspondents Association for his reportage on Bhutan’s Five-Year Plans in the early 1990s, and he has been designing and leading Bhutanese journeys for travelers since 1999.

This interview is part of The World Made Local, a global collaboration between the seven international editions of Condé Nast Traveler in which 100 people in 100 countries tell us why their home turf should be your next destination.

What makes Bhutan unique?

In a world where culture is increasingly packaged and branded for tourism so often that sometimes only facsimiles of the true Indigenous local culture remain for the traveler to see, Bhutan is unique in that, in ways large and small, Bhutanese people live and breathe the myriad facets of culture that the visitor finds fascinating. For instance, Bhutan’s Buddhist mask dances are a huge draw for visitors and travelers, and people often take great pains to schedule their trips during one of these vibrant festivals. However, what sometimes gets lost in translation is that the festivals are not tourist spectacles but rather deeply religious events in the annual cycle of a devout Bhutanese person’s year. These are not spectacles designed as tourist attractions but are rather, like everything else in the country, the living, beating heart of Bhutanese culture.

Plan our day in Bhutan.

Head into Thimphu’s center toward the Changlam Plaza, near the Changlimithang National Stadium. Next to it, housed in one of the long, low buildings facing the parking lot, is the Chuniding Food Local and Natural Organic Store. Try their gluten-free cassava-flour vegetable momos or cassava-flour stir-fried noodles, with fresh seasonal salads dressed in the housemade apple-cider vinegar.

After lunch, drive or take a taxi up to the BBS tower for the hike to the beautifully restored Wangditse Temple, built in 1715.

After a quick change following the hike, head to the Folk Heritage Restaurant, housed inside the walled compound of a well-preserved museum of the same name—the former mansion of the Thimphu dzongpoen, or regional governor. The place is popular with the capital’s elite, knowledgeable eaters looking for a taste of the authentic as well as senior government officials entertaining foreign dignitaries.

Karma Singye Dorji

What could a night out in Thimphu look like?

Eat at the Momo Corner at the Thimphu Centenary Farmers Market, which serves fresh-from-the-steamer momos and by far the most delicious dumplings in town.

For a more contemporary twist, try Cloud 9, the stylish, modern, and upscale café run by Bhutanese owner Toby and his Australian chef-wife, Stana. There you can order contemporary dishes like gourmet burgers, wood-fired pizzas, sandwiches, seasonal salads, and desserts.

For post-dinner drinks and a touch of the local nightlife, head over to the Capital’s Watering Hole, where live bands cover the latest mainstream pop hits and, occasionally, some heavy metal.

For a more traditional end to your evening, ask your local guide or Bhutanese friend if they can arrange an evening performance with members of the Royal Academy of Performing Arts, or, if you’re lucky, catch a local performance by the country’s best traditional musicians, Ata Sonam Kheng, an Indigenous musicologist, and the peerless Jigme Drukpa, a true modern master of the dramyen, the traditional Bhutanese lute. Jigme has recently established a local institute for traditional music and is often found in non-pandemic times traveling to perform at global music venues as far apart as Hawaii or San Francisco or Oslo.

What should we buy?

To add a splash of color to your wardrobe, head over to Druk Pro, a local artists’ cooperative, and grab one of their breathtakingly colorful silk scarves featuring the vibrant Renaissance-style art of the local artists who call themselves Twinz (the artists are identical-twin brothers). Or, if it’s more your style, buy a unique handcrafted leather shoulder purse tastefully embossed with the work of traditional Bhutanese artists. Druk Pro’s cotton T-shirts for men and women, illustrated by the work of local painters, also directly support the artists.

And where are we sleeping?

If you’d like something more upmarket, choose the new dusitD2 Yarkay, part of Thailand’s high-end Dusit group. If you’d like to splurge, the Le Méridien on Chorten Lam is a great choice.

For the final word in superlative luxury, stay at Six Senses Bhutan’s palatial retreat in the mountains above the capital. The resort has a spectacular view of the capital, a gigantic sky-reflecting infinity pool, and exudes subtle decadence from every post, beam, and wall of its buildings and villas, the superb work of Habita Architects.

Follow Karma Singye Dorji on Instagram @karmadorji