How to visit Bhutan without offending anyone

Beliefs

Some tourism promoters describe Bhutan as a magical country and indeed there are several aspects which contribute to this point of view. Thus, let us delve into the fascinating array of etiquette and other unique characteristics of daily life. I start with beliefs. As I noted in the Facts section, Buddhism is not only integral to Bhutan’s culture but its precepts are ensconced in the nation’s landscape via prayer flags, white and red chortens and images of Buddhist saints. Consistent with Bhutan’s rich tradition, core Buddhist precepts are inscribed on religious images as any visitor will see in the form of bright mandalas, wrathful deities and the Wheel of Life decorating temple porches.  When visiting a Dzong or Temple, visitors should show respect by removing their shoes, walking only in a clockwise direction and speaking softly.

Followers of Himalayan Buddhism prostrate themselves three times before the primary altar and occasionally before secondary shrines dedicated to important saints. Visitors are allowed to approach the central altar, and in any Goemba you will surely find a cup containing three dice.  When Bhutanese roll those dice, attendant monks interpret the auspiciousness of their result.  It is customary to deposit a small offering of money on the altar. When making an offering, you should fold the money lengthwise, press it against your forehead and then place it on the altar.  As the offering is made the monk accompanying you will place a small amount of holy water, poured from a sacred vessel called Bumpaonto your hand. You should moisten your lips with the holy water (or merely pretend to do so as a gesture) and spread the remainder on your head from front-to-back. While male visitors who first seek permission are granted access to a Goenkhang (shrine dedicated to protector deities), it remains off limits to women.  Do not walk behind an altar set before the Goenkhang.  If you are invited into the altar room of a house in which you are a guest, it is acceptable (and customary) to ask your host if it would be okay to make a small offering.  Then, proceed as you would in a temple.  Always remember to walk around a Chorten, prayer wheel or temple in a clockwise direction.

Although Bhutan is tolerant of all religions, and its Constitution upholds the right to freedom of belief, we already learned it stresses the importance of its Buddhist heritage to its overall cultural identity. The underlying belief of Buddhism is, of course, Karma: the law of moral causation in so far as inequality exists in mankind.  According to Buddhism such inequality is due not only to heredity, environment, “nature and nurture”, but also to Karma.  In other words, it is a by-product of one’s past and present behaviour. It follows then that it is only natural that death is considered an important event, especially in regard to the stages of the afterlife (bardos).  As soon as one’s body dies, the spirit goes into a state of trance and the decedent does not sense his or her death. During this period –  known as the First Bardo – lamas recite special verses, which are believed to reach the decedent.

Towards the end of this phase the decedent will see a brilliant light. If this does not terrify him or her, then that person will not be reborn. Most flee from this light and as such the Second Bardo begins. At this point the person revisits all of his/her past actions and thoughts. While viewing all that, he/she feels a heightened sense of emotions as it was having a body but upon realising this is not the case, he/she longs to possess one again. Ergo, the Third Bardo or the state of seeking another birth commences.

Other aspects of Bhutanese beliefs involve superstitions which actually predate Buddhism.  Bon (an animistic religion based on the five elemental processes  of earth,  water, fire, air and space) is still practiced throughout Bhutan side by side with  rich folk tradiitonsBhutanese beliefs are primarily concerned with a range of spirits or local deities which are said to be custodians of certain valleys, rocks, trees, rivers or lakes. There are  earth spirits as well as air spirits which attend to illness and death. Visits to astrologers and interpretations of dreams are important, especially when making critical decisions.

Lastly, when relaying beliefs and folklore pertaining to Bhutan, one must not forget to note the Yeti, also known as the Abominable Snowman. The Yeti is an ape-like creature said to live in the Himalayas, especially in the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary located in Bhutan’s eastern region.  It is believed that Yeti possess amazing powers and strength.  From as early as the 19th century sightings of large footprints and shadows of an unusual creature have been reported in the West. However, scientific evidence is not conclusive.

Gender and Attire

One (of many)  reason I like  Bhutan is that unlike many other Asian countries there is little evidence of gender discrimination  in terms of key issues such as legal, educational, inheritance etc. School attendance is virtually the same for both genders.  With respect to domestic relationships, the 1970s  brought about changes from the customary practice (arranged marriage) to love matches.  Minimum age for marriage is 16 for females and 21 for males.  In rural areas it is quite common for a husband to move into his wife’s household and, if they divorce, he is more likely to return to his family’s home.

Whilst divorce rates are rising like anywhere in the world, there are no stigmas associated with divorce or women having children out-of-wedlock.  In fact, a large number of Bhutanese couples co-habitate without being formally married.  Common domestic responsibilities, such as those involving child care and cooking, tend to be shared by each partner and in light of gender equality prevalent at educational institutions, increasing numbers of well educated women are assuming active roles in business and public life.  Polyandry, the practice of taking more than one husband (known amongst the Brokpa of Sakten and Merak ), and polygyny, taking more than one wife, still exist in certain parts of Bhutan although polygamy overall is restricted. Women of this world, shall we all move to Bhutan? Gender equality, sharing domestic duties, even the possibility of polyandry – sounds good?

Let’s move on to clothing! It is compulsory for people to wear traditional Bhutanese garb in schools, government offices and on formal occasions, creating distinct sights typified by unique patterns and bright colours.  Males wear ghos and women are fitted in kiras.  A gho is a long robe that is similar to a Tibetan chuba.  Bhutanese men wear the gho to knee length with a belt (kera) placed beneath a pouch that carries money and other necessities. A kira is a rectangular piece of brightly coloured cloth that is wrapped around the woman’s body over a Tibetan- style silk blouse called a wonjuThe kira is secured at the shoulders with elaborate silver hooks called koma and at the waist with a cloth belt called a kera. Bhutanese women also wear a short, open jacket-like garment called a toego.

Another important feature of traditional attire involves the donning of ceremonial scarfs worn by Bhutanese men when visiting a dzong or with senior officials or even the Royal Family, as well as when attending religious festivals.  The scarf’s colour indicates rank; e.g., white is the colour of the masses, blue denotes Royal Advisors, orange is worn by Ministers, saffron yellow is reserved for the King.

Nomenclature and other Practices

Nomenclature practices differ between Bhutanese living in the northern and southern sections of the country.  In the north, with the exception of the Royal Family, there are no family names.  Typically within two weeks after birth, children are assigned two names by monks, each of which is a traditional name of Tibetan origin chosen for their auspicious influence or religious meaning.  It is often difficult to determine the gender of a Bhutanese person based on their name.  Some names are given just to boys and others are assigned only to girls but most are applied to either gender.

In the southern Hindu-influenced region the custom of retaining family names is practiced. Brahmans and Newars retain their caste name, such as Sharma or Pradhan, and others retain the name of their ethnic group, such as Rai or Gurung.  Addressing members of the community is an art form since titles are important in Bhutan.  As an example, Royal Family members are addressed as “Dasho” if they are male and “Ashi” if they are female. Ministers carry the title “Lyonpo” and monks are addressed as “Gelong” or “Lopen”. Reincarnated lamas are addressed as “Rinpoche” and nuns as “Anim”.

Men are addressed as “Aap” and boys as “Busu” while women are addressed as “Aum” and girls as “Bum”.  When Bhutanese speak with (or about) a foreigner whose name is unknown, they use the word “Chilip” or, in eastern Bhutan, “Pilingpa”. In most cases, these terms of address are followed either by the first or entire name of the person, but never directly by the last name.  However, many in Bhutan carry only one name. Often foreigners are formally addressed by their first name, such as Mr. (first name) instead of Mr. (surname).

Let’s turn to some key practices involving greetings. While in many western cultures shaking hands is a favoured custom, that is not the case in Bhutan.  Instead, formal greetings call for one to bow with their outstretched hands open, palms up. Whilst Bhutanese are for the most part quite open and liberal – as well as renowned for being Asia’s least complicated people – visitors should always follow the typical Asian standards of courtesy. Here are a few examples.  It is considered polite to add “la” at the end each sentence during conversation. Also, when a senior or respected person enters a room, everyone is expected to stand until that person sits down. And when it is time to leave, everyone waits until the guest of honour stands, indicating that he or she is ready to depart. Use the right hand, or better yet, both hands to tender or receive an object. Don’t use your fingers to point, especially at deities or religious objects; use an open hand, palm up. When waving someone towards you, keep the palm of your hand pointed down. Never touch the crown of anyone’s head (e.g., that of a young child) since it is considered a special part of the body. Because most lakes are considered abodes of gods or spirits, one should never swim, wash clothes or throw stones into them. As in all Asian countries, you should never point your feet at anyone. If you are sitting on the floor, cross your legs or kneel so that your feet face the rear. If you happen to sleep in a room possessing an altar or statue, ensure that your feet are pointed in the opposite direction.

Exchanging presents is an important part of Bhutanese life. Upon receipt of a present from anyone, aside from a superior, you are expected to ultimately reciprocate with a gift of your own. If you receive a gift in container form, you are expected to ultimately return the container with a few sweets, fruit or biscuits (empty would signal a lack of prosperity). Presents should never be opened in public or in the presence of the giver. People customarily refuse a gift three times before finally accepting. Upon moving into a newly acquired home, especially in a rural area, your new neighbours may welcome you with gifts taken from their garden (e.g., eggs, apples or potatoes). Presents are also those departing home to study overseas or embark on a long trip.

When walking the streets of towns and villages  you will often see the phallus symbol on a person’s home. In Bhutan this symbol originated in the 15-16th century by the Lama Drukpa Kunley, also referred to as the “Mad Saint” or the “Divine Madman”.  The purpose of the symbol is to drive away the evil eye and malicious gossip.  Though there are some who also belief that the imagery reflects the tantric belief that carnal relations can be the gateway to enlightenment. Perhaps then it is a symbol of sexuality as well, especially since historic accounts depict  the “Mad Saint” as famous for his sexual exploits and his fondness of women and wine. Also, you will see many people chewing on something with the result of red stained teeth. What?  Many Bhutanese chew on betel nut, the seed of the fruit from a palm of the palmacae family which has euphoric and stimulating effects as well as reducing tension. Perhaps this custom is one aspect of the gross national happiness Bhutan is famous for

Last, but certainly not least, I would like to offer a tip or two regarding meal time etiquette. When I first travelled to Bhutan in 2010, I got an invite to partake in a family meal hosted by my tour operator Kinley.  Perhaps you, too, will be fortunate to receive such an opportunity. If so, please remember that when eating in a group setting, regardless of the occasion, you should wait for everyone else to be served before eating. It is also appropriate to bring a small gift, perhaps a bottle of wine or a box of sweets. Social occasions tend to start late and involve extended rounds of drinks and appetisers prior to dinner, often with several other visitors dropping by for a brief stay without dining. Once everyone is seated at the dinner table and the meal has been served, the host will politely ask everyone to start eating. You may notice that some members of the host family will refrain from eating until all of their guests finally start their meal. This is in keeping with Bhutanese customs. The evening’s festivities are usually concluded once dinner is finished.  In the event that you invite a Bhutanese out for a meal, please make sure that you likewise ask the guest to start eating before dining yourself.

I have noted several customs and traditions and, naturally, there are many more. Overall, the age-old Asian proclivity of “keeping face” is prevalent in Bhutan. Thus, make an effort to suggest something, rather than insisting.  Like most Asian people, Bhutanese hate to say “no’’.  Therefore, if you request a visit to a certain landmark or order a particular dish, and are met with some obviously lame excuse, it likely means that it would either be impossible or quite inconvenient to honour your request. With just this custom you can’t go wrong, and for all the others, well, as a tourist you are not expected to know, let alone, practise them. Finally, there is no better way to conclude this chapter but share some photos of the much-cherished festivals in Bhutan.