Bhutan is perhaps one of the countries in South Asia of which the least is known. This is due in part to their visitor and tourist system having been extremely stringent in the recent past, including lottery-based admission so as to help retain their culture and limit outside influences. Bhutan is headed by a King, also known as the Dragon King, who famously adopted the concept of Gross National Happiness, versus Gross Domestic Product as a way of measuring his country’s success and growth.
A majority Buddhist country, Bhutan is nestled in the high hills and mountains that make up the Tibet Autonomous Region of China as well as the Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Bengal states of northeastern India. While it’s still classed as a developing country, its vast developments in things such as hydroelectricity as well as relaxing their tourism rules is helping to drive development and they expect to be out of ‘developing status’ by the early 2020s.
With all that being said, traveling to Bhutan on one of Explorient’s amazing Bhutan tours will have you in awe at every turn as you experience this unique country for yourself. While it’s still opening up to travelers, you might be wondering a bit about the different customs and etiquette that you can expect to experience on your visit to this region. That’s why we’ve put together this useful guide to the customs, etiquette, and traditions of Bhutan, so you can hit the ground running and get a feel for this amazing region before you get there.
Bhutan – A Jewel of South Asia
Bhutanese wildlife is renowned for being diverse and well respected in the country. With lush tropical plains in the south of the country and enormous Himalayan mountains to the north, there’s a whole variety of different types of natural areas for visitors to explore as well as where many of the country’s native animals live. Just some of the animals that make this region their home include tigers, snow leopards, bears, marmots, wild pigs, barking deer, and many other different types. Should you be fortunate enough to go on a nature walk of some kind, be prepared to look for some of these amazing animals.
But what about the etiquette and customs? Read ahead to learn more about this beautiful jewel of South Asia and how you can be prepared for your visit on Explorient’s Splendid Bhutan tour.
Bhutan is primarily a mix of Buddhist and Hindu religious views, and as a result, special beliefs are held with regard to parts of the body. Not only this, but the Bhutanese are also very dignified and conservative, so nudity of any kind is not allowed. Not only this, but the crown of the head is considered the most sacred place on the body and so you should take special care not to touch anyone on or around their head. Feet are especially dirty, so be sure to sit with legs crossed or kneeling with feet behind you so as not to offensively point them at anyone – even by accident. If you’re staying in a room where there is a statue or picture of some religious importance, ensure your feet point away from the imagery.
As Bhutan is a fairly conservative nation and in general nudity is frowned upon, this should be considered when choosing the clothes to bring with you on your Bhutanese adventure with Explorient on their Paro and Thimpu tour. Care should be taken to wear longer sleeves – at least covering your shoulders when walking around cities, towns and especially in temples or places of worship. The locals absolutely love when foreigners wear their traditional clothing and will often be thrilled to help you choose and tie a kira (dress) for women or gho (the type of knee-length robe) for men.
Greetings and Speaking in General
It’s not common in Bhutan for people to shake hands, although this is becoming more common in larger towns and cities. Otherwise, a formal Bhutanese greeting would be to bow slightly with your arms outstretched and palms facing up. Normally the Bhutanese will add the word “la” to the end of sentences to show politeness and interest, even when conversing with foreigners in English.
When dining with a group it’s customary to wait until everyone has been provided their meal to begin eating. If you have been invited by someone, the custom will be to ask you as the guest to begin eating before everyone else does. Likewise, as a guest, you will typically dictate when people begin to leave as it’s customary for the guest to depart first.
In Bhutan, it’s customary to refuse a gift initially before accepting. The Bhutanese, however, will reject a gift three times before accepting it. The gift will never be opened in front of the giver, and will usually be presented in a type of container or box which is usually expected to be returned with a small token of gratitude such as biscuits, candies or the like.
When visiting a temple or dzong it’s important to follow specific rules – remove your shoes before entering. A good judge of when to do so is to follow the lead of others. Wherever you see a pile of shoes it’s a good indicator of where to leave your own. When it comes to photography, you’ll be able to take photos on the grounds of temples but not in the temple itself. When inside the temple, you should try to move in a clockwise direction as it’s considered good luck and more appropriate. Try to speak quietly and not make any loud noises to respect for monks who maybe meditating. It’s customary to leave an offering of money in temples, and if you do you may have a monk pour holy water on your hands which you should sip (or pretend to) before spreading the water on the top of your head from the forehead back. You’ll want to keep temple etiquette in mind on any of Explorient’s tours you enjoy in case you wish to visit temples across Asia as the etiquette is similar for many.
With Bhutan becoming more open and welcoming to visitors, it’s a great time to venture to this unique and beautiful mountainous country. With the tours provided by Explorient you can do so in style. Hopefully, this guide to Bhutanese etiquette will help you hit the ground running so you can enjoy every moment you have in this wondrous country full of tradition and beauty.