Thimphu can be a confusing place for the expatriate. While the locals are very friendly, generally speak good English and are always willing to help, the streets and the city planning can make it difficult to orient oneself and find some of the gems that are hidden in Thimphu’s steep streets and stepped alleyways.
For example, one hears about “Shop 7” which promises all sorts of delectables imported from India and Thailand. It used to be located at Number 7 on Nordzin Lam, but now is located in Motithang and called something else! The day we arrived, we were taken to MyMart, with its bright display of Asian and Western consumer goods, where we found toilet paper and other staples. Thereafter, its location remained a mystery for almost two months as we rode our bikes up and down every alley we could, mostly in the wrong neighborhoods.
Having been here less than a year, we have already seen many friends come and go as temporary positions and internships give successive visitors a taste of Thimphu and the real Bhutan. Several times I have drawn a map on a napkin or a scrap piece of paper to explain where something is located while dining with newcomers. Even the esteemed Lonely Planet cannot keep up with shops and restaurants opening and closing, so I was forced to do the drawing myself. Each time, the map got a bit better as I remembered more, or another friend recommended that a new restaurant or shop be added.
What follows is a beginners guide to living in Thimphu. It is by no means complete, but it allows one to buy what is needed for the kitchen and home. I will highlight the most enjoyable restaurants where I have met with friends over the past few months in a separate post. Please use the comments to let me know what has been overlooked!
Basic descriptions of shops are found below. Here is a more detailed map of the center of town:
Shopping: Thimphu is a very easy place to live, and with a bit of learning, one can find just about anything here. This is apparently quite a change from just a few years ago, when shoelaces and deodorant were just about impossible to find! Now it just takes some browsing to learn what you’ll find where. Stocks come and go, so some chilips get into the habit of hoarding when they find something rare. I am guilty of buying 6kg of peanut butter one trip! Here are some of our favorite shops, in a vague order of larger and more interesting to smaller and more specialised:
Sharyang: Located at Chang Lam Square, this is the shop for tofu, Bumthang Cheese, Apple Juice, Apple Wine and Red Panda Beer. If in stock, River Lodge Organic jams are the best anywhere, and well worth paying double the price of the Druk processed jellies. They even have a small freezer with little ice cream pots. We get our ziploc bags and paper towels here as well. Closed Mondays.
Shop 7: On the uphill side of Thori Lam in Motithang, this shop has a well stocked array of imported and local foods. We buy our yoghurt, eggs and imported Thai bread flour here. They also ususally have imported cashews and almonds (both pricey) and sometimes even peanuts without moths in them (look for dust in the bag). We also get Indian peanut butter and they sometimes have Big Bakery bagels as well. Closed Sundays.
My Mart: This relatively new shop is upstairs in the new Bank of Bhujtan building, just north west of the Centennial Market. It has a wide range of baking supplies, oils, vinegars, snacks and staples. In addition it has a large-ish home supply department with small appliances, glasses, pots and pans, paper plates and napkins. Near the checkout are fruits and vegetables in case you missed the market, and freezers with a variety of imported meats and prepared foods.
8-Eleven: This small shop located right next to The Zone has quite a few staples, including nuts and raisins. For a while it had cheap toilet paper, and they usually have ziploc bags, aluminium foil and plastic wrap as well as the elusive Red Panda beer.
Tashi Supermarket: Hidden in the southeast corner of Clocktower Square, this shop has organised aisles with a range of domestic and imported foods. We actually found brown jasmine rice here once.
Centennial Market: The indispensable weekly market is an absolute gem, in spite of its off-putting concrete superstructure. This is where you will find local farmers selling their produce (upstairs is all Bhutanese goods), as well as Indian imports (downstairs). You can stock up on your red rice from Paro or even Japanese sticky rice at the south end, and fruits at the north end. It is fun to watch the prices come down as a new crop comes into season – we first bought asparagus for NU220 a bunch, and two weeks later it was down to NU80! Prices vary only a little between stalls, but quality can vary a lot.
Hong Kong Market: In between Nordzin Lam and Hong Kong Market are two alleyways full of fruit and vegatable stalls. This is where to go when you have missed the Centennial Market. You can always find the seasonal basics, and it is the only place we have found to buy fruit outside of the Market.
Double Turning Shop: This is our closest shop in Upper Motithang, just one of many that stock a range of unrefrigerated staples such as milk, eggs, butter and processed cheese, as well as a small selection of vegetables such as chillies, potatoes, onions, carrots and radishes. You’ll find your own shop which is closest to home and get to know the owners who are there every single day!
Junction Book Store: Located just below the famous traffic circle, this charming book shop has a wide array of English language nbooks and a nice cafe upstairs in the back. The woman who runs it is very nice and knowledgeable.
Hardware Stores: There are a few hardware stores around downtown Thimphu. One is located on the corner just opposite Junction Bookstore, and there are several located uphill of Hong Kong Market. Finding what you need at any one of them is very hit or miss!
Yangphel Bike Shop: With two Kings cycling frequently, the sport has really taken off in Bhutan. There are a few bike shops around, and Yangphel is one of our favorites, run by Ugyen and his brother Rinzin. They stock bikes for sale, and a very
Druk Air Office: If you have trouble finding flights on the Druk Air website, then it is worth going into the Druk Air office to see what they have. Sometimes there are seats available that cannot be found online. There are sometimes even cheaper seats available at the ‘excursion fare’, which may be 20% lower than what is found online. In theory it is possible to pay with a credit card here, though we have only succeeded with cash!
Thanks to Google Maps for providing maps with street names (that the locals do not use), and to all my friends for showing me the way around when we first arrived!