Travel Weekly Editor in Chief Arnie Weissmann recently traveled to the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. His third dispatch follows. Click to read his first and second dispatches.
THIMPU, Bhutan — “Thimpu is not Bhutan.”
I was told this by several people, most of whom live in Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan.
I hoped they were right. Like many visitors, I came to Bhutan knowing it had lived in relative isolation for centuries, and steadfastly kept outside influences at bay.
But Thimpu had the feel of a boomtown in its early stages. (View a slideshow from Arnie's visit to Bhutan by clicking here or on the photos.)
Before arriving in Thimpu, I had only been to one other Bhutanese city, Paro, where international visitors arrive by air. It was lovely. Yes, there was a fair number of handicraft shops catering to tourists, but all quite low key, with a dramatic setting in a valley surrounded by hills and high mountains.
The drive from Paro to Thimpu is gorgeous, along a beautiful mountain road. Farmers had set up stalls along the road and, despite some truck traffic, it was the visual equivalent of a pastoral poem.
I was not prepared for even the early-stage urbanity of Thimpu. My hotel was located next to the city’s first shopping mall, which was scheduled to open a week later.
The mall’s façade was like nothing else I had seen in the country: A wall of reflective glass, broken by an LED crawl promising shopping and entertainment, and a simple row of Bhutanese-style windows. (The last touch satisfied regulations requiring that traditional design be incorporated into every building.)
Due to concern about earthquakes, no building may be higher than six stories, and the only ones I saw that tall were in Thimpu.
My family was put in two rooms across a hall from one another at one end of the Migmar Hotel, so our windows showed views out the front, one side and the back of the hotel.
And in each of these directions, we had a view of an active construction site in the foreground. (Had we had a room at the other end of the hotel, the same would also have also been true.)
I remember reading once that during its boom, Dubai had more cranes in operation than anywhere else in the world. Newbuilds in Bhutan, like much of Asia, rise not with cranes but within a framework of bamboo scaffolding.
I got the distinct impression that, in a scenario parallel to Dubai, Thimpu is currently utilizing more bamboo than anywhere else in the world.
I should put Thimpu’s building spree in perspective. As regards Asian capitals, Thimpu is the least developed by far.
For instance, it has no traffic lights (though it has developed a 15- to 30-minute “rush hour” on its main arteries at day’s end).
Even after all its current construction has ended, it would still be considered only modestly developed, “modern” only in comparison to the rest of the country and, perhaps, to visitors who arrive in Thimpu expecting to walk the streets of Shangri-La.