The National Institute of Traditional Medicine is a training, research, and practice center located in the Kawang Jangsa district of Thimphu, a five minute drive from downtown. Set on a gently sloping hillside, its cluster of buildings comprise the Faculty of Traditional Medicine (under the Khesar Gyalpo University of Medical Sciences), the National Traditional Medicine Hospital, Menjong Sorig Pharmaceuticals, and a hostel for trainees. Many of Bhutan's traditional medicine doctors are educated here, practice their craft on patients who come to the hospital for healing, and prescribe herbal medicines manufactured at the building next door. If you would like a tour of the grounds, let your travel agency know by adding the institute to your Wish List.
Highest on the hill is the medical sciences training center, a modern construction that houses classrooms and professors' offices; a laboratory, conference hall, and library; and a small museum that displays under glass the primary herbs, minerals, and animal parts that form the basis of Bhutanese traditional medicine. The National Traditional Medicine Hospital, built in traditional Bhutanese style and located just down the hill near the entrance to the complex, has rooms where doctors see patients and a dispensary. Blue Medicine Buddha faces outwards from the dispensary toward two large side-by-side prayer wheels, which believers spin to pray good health into their loved ones and themselves. Foreigners and Bhutanese alike can be seen by doctors and receive herbal prescriptions here, free of charge.
Herbal medicines prescribed at the National Traditional Medicine Hospital are manufactured a stone's throw away at Menjong Sorig Pharmaceuticals, part of the Ministry of Health. The 300 or so medicinal plants routinely used in Bhutan's traditional medicine are brought here and ground to make tablets, pills, powders, ointments, and teas, which are then distributed to health care units countrywide. Bhutan is so rich in these plants that Tibetans — who introduced their Sowa Rigpa medical tradition to Bhutan in the 17th century — historically referred to it as Lhojong Menjong, or Southern Land of Medicinal Herbs. A few especially rare plants are available for purchase at Menjong Sorig, including highly-prized cordyceps, a fungus found only at high altitudes and known colloquially as “Himalayan Viagra.”
Nowadays Sowa Rigpa is practiced alongside Western-style medicine, ever since the latter was introduced in the 1970s, and most district hospitals and Basic Health Units offer both options. Sowa Rigpa treats chronic diseases like rheumatism, arthritis, and nervous disorders, while patients with acute diseases such as cancer are referred to Western-style hospitals like Thimphu's Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital.