Cultures & Customs customs tradition culture Bhutan

5 Quirky Customs in Bhutan That Will Make You Fall In Love

5 Quirky Customs in Bhutan That Will Make You Fall In Love
Johanna
Johanna
Published Feb 26, 2017

While Bhutan is considered a small country in terms of land mass, its sealed, purified world has clearly proven that it can stand by itself in terms of identity and culture. The internet has piqued modern interest of many Bhutanese; however, the four pillars that the government has set up to gauge Gross National Happiness aligns them to strive for collective cultural preservation. This said, so many of Bhutan’s centuries-old customs have survived and thrived even in this modern age, earning it its moniker “The Last Shangrila.” Here are just some of the more endearing qualities of this harmonious society.

1. A strong aversion to artificial and packaged food

So much of Bhutan’s lifestyle is defined by the words of their king, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. He said that he would rather gauge his people’s progress by their gross national happiness instead of just the gross national product. This is a complicated concept to understand for outsiders, but perhaps the manifestations of gross national happiness, can shed some light. Let’s take one of the pillars of gross national happiness, environmental conservation. Since environmental conservation is written into their constitution, it manifests itself quite clearly in the typical Bhutanese lifestyle. Many Bhutanese do not rely much on packaged food. They make it a point to go to the market almost every day to buy fresh produce as ingredients for their meals. Most rural households also tend their own garden and subsistence farming is very strong. 90% of the population rely on agriculture as their main source of income. Other than this, a lot of organic cottage industries that rely on non-technological skills, like weaving, are still very much alive, so it’s no wonder that the use of plastics and artificial food are still uncommon.

Folk Heritage Museum Restaurant

Address: Pedzoe Lam, Kawang Jangsa, Thimphu, Bhutan

Contact: +975-1-7600736

Website: Folk Heritage Museum Restaurant

See our full list of recommended Hotels in Bhutan and also compare the prices with airbnbs in Bhutan

2. Active discouragement of travellers to Bhutan

Unlike the rest of the world, the Bhutanese tourism industry does not actively look for tourists. They have quite a nonchalant attitude towards attracting tourism. However once tourists are actually in the kingdom, tourists in general are carefully regulated by the government to ensure that negative effects from tourism such as trash, cultural impact, and degradation of Bhutanese architecture, are kept to a minimum. You cannot be a DIY traveler in Bhutan. You’ll have to pass through a certified Bhutanese tour operator. Also, spending in Bhutan is regulated. Tourists must spend 200 USD in the low season to 250 USD in the high season, which includes guide, transportation, hotel, and food. 65 USD out of the 200 USD goes to their free healthcare, free education, and poverty alleviation programs. That is such a swoon-inducing statement, and it only goes to show how serious they are about inclusive and responsible tourism.

Tourism Council of Bhutan

Address: Post Box 126 Thimphu, Bhutan

Price: 40 USD for Visa Processing

Duration: around 72 hours after payment

Contact: +975-2-323251

Website: Tourism Council of Bhutan

See our full list of recommended Hotels in Bhutan and also compare the prices with airbnbs in Bhutan

3. Touching a person’s head is a faux pas

Personal space is very important for the Bhutanese. Touching the crown of a person’s head is especially a no-no. Why? The head is considered the most important and sacred part of the body. To touch this would be to pollute the thoughts of the person with your own energy. So, be careful to not make the mistake of touching a child’s head whether by accident or on purpose. While we are on the subject of body parts, pointing your feet at someone is also a no-no. Make sure that when you are sitting, your feet are pointed behind you. Even when you are resting or lying down, your feet should not be pointing to another person, or worse, to an altar or sacred statue.

Know More About Bhutan's Customs and Traditions

Contact: +975-2-323251

Website: Tourism Council of Bhutan

See our full list of recommended Hotels in Bhutan and also compare the prices with airbnbs in Bhutan

4. Decline the first invitation to a meal

There are courtesies that have to be followed when you’re eating with your hosts. This even goes for modern settings like in hotels and restaurants. You must wait for everyone to finish being served. Once everyone is done being served, you must wait for the host to signal that it’s okay to start eating. As per accepting the invitation to dine in private homes,it is always customary to decline the offer of your hosts first. The host will not take this too seriously, and will continue to prod you to accept the invitation. During the second or third invitation, you must accept the offering whether it is a drink or a meal. It is considered rude to decline altogether. Take small portions as more food is bound to be offered later. On the second or third offering, you can cover your mouth without actually touching your fingers to your mouth, and say meshu meshu. Lastly, leave a bit of food on your plate so that the hosts will know that they have provided you with more than enough to eat.

Bhutan Homestay

Address: Bhutan Homestay PO Box: 1224 Paro Bhutan

Contact: +975 77404144 or [email protected]

Website: Bhutan Homestay

See our full list of recommended Hotels in Bhutan and also compare the prices with airbnbs in Bhutan

5. Adding ‘la’ at the end as a sign of respect

Dzongkha is the official language of Bhutan although, there are thousands of other dialects and variations. Dzongkha is used by over a quarter of the population in Bhutan. English is not really a widely-spoken language (remember they were sealed off from the rest of the world before the internet came along); however, you need not worry as your tour guides will be there most of the time. Still, it shows your appreciation of the culture if you learn a few simple words. As a sign of respect, always use ‘la’ at the end of your sentences, even when you are speaking in English. You can also use it to show interest or to be polite to the person you’re talking to. A senior citizen is shown the ultimate sign of respect. When an elderly person enters, make sure that you stand to pay respect. Lastly, shaking hands is not really widely accepted as a greeting or farewell. Instead, bow with your hands facing up and arms stretched out in front of you.

Accredited Tour Guides of Bhutan

Address: Post Box 126 Thimphu, Bhutan

Contact: +975-2-323251 or [email protected]

Website: Tourism Council of Bhutan

See our full list of recommended Hotels in Bhutan and also compare the prices with airbnbs in Bhutan

Preservation of Bhutanese culture

While Bhutan continues to face challenges with the dilution of their culture, the government is closely regulating any possible threats to identity by finding all means possible to let Bhutanese citizens appreciate their past and their future. With this said, it is only fitting that foreigners respect the hard work that many Bhutanese put into preserving their culture by being very conscious of their actions when they are in the wonderful Kingdom of Bhutan.

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Johanna Michelle Lim is a brand strategist, creative director, and travel writer based in Cebu City, Philippines. She swims in jellyfish-infested oceans, treks through mountains, rides rickety...Read more

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