Bhutan’s 10 Best Cultural Venues

Photo of Helen Armitage
15 August 2016

Beautiful Bhutan, or the Land of the Thunder Dragon, is a unique fusion of the old and the new. The largely untouched Buddhist kingdom boasts a culture proud of its traditions but welcoming of contemporary art practices. From modern photography exhibitions to the traditional crafts of thangka, we explore the best cultural venues of the last Shangri-La and offer a unique Special Offer promotion from one of the best galleries in Bhutan.

Pema Tshering Artworks

Water Dragon Gallery

The Water Dragon Gallery is a contemporary, bohemian space situated above the cosy café Karma’s Coffee, a popular haunt with young and old Bhutanese. Located in Thimpu’s bustling Hong Kong Market, Water Dragon Gallery is run by Bhutanese artist Pema Tshering. The informal, relaxed gallery space exhibits a range of artwork depicting Bhutanese life and culture, but also sells a number of documentaries and books produced locally about Bhutanese cultures, including owner Pema Tshering’s illustrated children’s book Membar Tsho: The Flaming Lake. Water Dragon Gallery regularly holds free tarot readings for the more spiritual among its visitors.

Special Offer: The Culture Trip readers can enjoy a 10% discount on an artwork by Water Dragon Gallery Founder Pema Tshering (see examples of his artworks above).

To claim this Special Offer email here with the subject ‘Water Dragon Special Offer’ and with your name in the body of the email and we will send a unique promotional code which can be redeemed by Pema. This offer extends until March 1st.

Water Dragon Gallery, Above Karma’s Coffee, Zangtopelri Complex, Thimpu, Bhutan +975-1-7851665

© Jean-Marie Hullot | Wikimedia Commons

Terton Gallery

Terton Gallery, which opened in 2011, is the brainchild of Bhutanese actor Kelly Dorji whose passion for art inspired him to contribute to the country’s art scene by establishing his own gallery. The 1,000 square foot gallery space specialises in contemporary Bhutanese art and photography, but also hosts exhibitions by international artists. Terton Gallery, centrally located in the heart of Thimpu, has featured the work of up-and-coming local artists including Kama Wangdi, who was awarded the prestigious 2010 National Order of Merit Gold Medal and co-founded arts organisation VAST (Voluntary Artists Studio Thimpu), as well as photojournalist Azha Kezha, whose photographs have been published in newspapers and magazines around the world, including the New York Times and Lonely Planet.

Terton Gallery, 5th Floor, Zimchu Apartments, Wongzin Iam, Thimpu, Bhutan +975-7-7889999

© Terton Gallery

Vajrayana Art Gallery

Vajrayana, located in the picturesque town of Paro in western Bhutan, is a seasonal art gallery with exhibitions twice a year, in spring and autumn, held to coincide with Bhutanese religious festivals including the Tsechu festival in October. Vajrayana Art Gallery, which hosted its first exhibition in 1996, displays the paintings of owner and local artist Chhime Dori, who is renowned both in the Bhutan art community and internationally. Chhime’s stylised abstract paintings explore Buddhist iconography, in particular the Vajrayana strand of Buddhism – the gallery’s namesake – which teaches respect for all life forms and the natural world. Much of Chhime’s work features religious objects such as the mandala, a spiritual symbol of Buddhism, and prayer flags printed with manis (religious mantras).

Vajrayana Art Gallery, Main Town, Paro, Bhutan +975-1-7601561

© Vajrayana Art Gallery

Alaya Gallery

The Alaya Gallery, in the busy Chubachu neighbourhood of Thimpu, is run by VAST (Voluntary Artists Studio Thimpu), a non-profit NGO formed in 1998 by a group of professional artists to promote Bhutan’s rich heritage and spread social awareness via art. Established in 2010, the gallery has already hosted a number of exhibitions, including Senses of Sight, a solo exhibition of 82 paintings by Bhutanese artist Dorji Wangchuk exploring Buddhist philosophy, a ceramic show by Maiyesh Tamang that commemorated the 31st birthday of Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, and a photography exhibition of by Swiss photographer Markus Wild, which explored life in the remote town of Zhemgang.

Alaya Gallery, VAST Bhutan, Tarayana Centre, Chubachu, Thimpu, Bhutan +975-1-76305441

© Alaya Gallery

National Folk Heritage Museum

Founded in 2001, the National Folk Heritage Museum resides in a three-storey 19th century house, built using wood and rammed earth in the traditional style of Bhutanese farmhouses. The museum provides visitors with a fascinating peek into the traditional Bhutanese way of life and features a collection of tools and objects from rural households, a traditional hot stone bath, and a watermill built with millstones dating back over 150 years. Particularly engrossing are the demonstrations of historic household activities such as markhu tsene (extracting oil), tham dhunghi (rice pounding), and the process of brewing ara kayne, a Bhutanese alcoholic drink. Visitors can enjoy an open-air buffet at the museum, featuring a variety of local dishes, with advance bookings.

© Shoestring | Wikimedia Commons

The Textile Museum

The newly inaugurated Textile Museum, established in June 2013 at the Royal Textile Academy gives visitors a chance to experience the products of Bhutan’s traditional national art of weaving. The museum has six separate areas dedicated textile art specific to Bhutan, such as religious textiles, or textiles made from fibres indigenous to the country. The collection features pieces dating from the 17th century up until the 21st century. Among the artefacts on display are exquisitely weaved textiles worn by Bhutanese royals, including an early version of the Raven Crown, worn by kings of Bhutan, brocade uzhams (crowns), a robe from the Tsamdrak Goenpa monastery and the bedding of Buddhist lama Shabdrung Jigme Dorji. An older museum building, known as the National Textile Museum, holds a collection of contemporary Bhutanese textiles.

The Textile Museum, Norzin Lam, Thimpu, Bhutan +975-2-335117

© The Textile Museum

National Museum of Bhutan

Set in the watchtower of the Paro Rinpung Dzong monastery and fortress, the premises in which the National Museum of Bhutan resides originally served as a defence system to protect the building from attacks from below. The museum acts as a preserver and promoter of Bhutanese culture and exhibits artefacts from around 4000 BC to the modern day, chronicling Bhutan’s journey from the Stone Age to a modern Buddhist kingdom. The six-floor watchtower, which opened to the public in 1968, displays a wealth of artefacts, including thangkas (Buddhist imagery painted on cloth), Bhutanese clothing and jewellery, as well as ritual objects, like thunderbolts and headdresses used in Buddhist ceremonies. The Textile Museum is located on the edge of the quiet Dop Shari Valley and provides views of the surrounding hills and the nearby Ugyen Pelri Palace.

© National Museum of Bhutan

National Institute for Zorig Chusum

Zorig chusum, of the ‘thirteen crafts’ as it translates from Bhutan’s native language Dzongkha, are traditional arts and crafts techniques practised in Bhutan for centuries. Among these thirteen crafts are the arts of wood-carving, painting, embroidery and sculpture. The National Institute for Zorig Chusum has taught these crafts for over forty years, selecting talented students from across Bhutan to train on four- to six-year long courses and preserve Bhutanese traditions. The institute has reintroduced the dying arts of boot-making and slate-carving into its curriculum; visitors to the institute can book tours of its classrooms to witness the young students practising and perfecting these important cultural traditions.

© rapidtravelchai | Flickr

Simply Bhutan Museum

Simply Bhutan is a ‘living museum’ with a difference. A project of the Bhutanese Youth Development Fund, the museum is run entirely by Bhutanese youths and young job seekers, providing them with business management skills. The youngsters involved in Simply Bhutan act out cultural roles within the museum, such as the pazab, a sacred warrior, and atsara, a religious masked clown who appears in the Bhutanese festival Tsechu, and greet visitors at the museum entrance. The young staff also participate in demonstrations of traditional activities like roasting zao, a popular snack in Bhutan, and making suja – a traditional Bhutanese salted butter tea. Visitors to Simply Bhutan can dress up in native Bhutanese costumes as they tour the museum, and can watch traditional games like archery and khuru, a dart-throwing game, in the museum’s courtyard.

© Simply Bhutan Museum

The Jungshi Paper Factory

The Jungshi Paper Factory, situated on the outskirts of Thimpu past the Raidak River, produces a type of paper known as deh-sho, a traditional Bhutanese craft passed down from generation to generation. Deh-sho paper is produced from the bark of two tree species – the daphne and dhekap trees – and was originally used by religious figures for woodblock printing and writing prayer books. Nowadays, the Jungshi Paper Factory uses these age-old methods to produce modern items such as watermarked paper, lampshades, stationery and greeting cards. Visitors to the paper factory can watch workers produce deh-sho and can even try making some deh-sho of their very own to keep as a souvenir.

© mattdork | Flickr

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