Daily Life and Social Customs In Bhutan
The best travel experiences involve exploring a different culture, meeting the locals, and having unique stories to tell. We like to ‘get up close’.
But as travellers, we must also recognize a simple fact, that we are guests and, as such, we must show sensitivity and willingness to learn and accept the customs of the place we have chosen to visit.
Much of this sensitivity comes from displaying the ‘good manners’ we expect from guests in our own cultures.
For example, when invited to a Bhutanese house, we should not go ‘empty handed’. As a Buddhist country, gift exchange is important in Bhutanese society. A thoughtful gift creates a relationship, a bond of mutual regard.
Gift-giving is familiar to us all, but there are other ways of being a good guest that you may not be aware of.
Here is our easy guide to Bhutanese social etiquette and customs.
Visiting a Dzong or Temple
- Take off your shoes before entering
- Always step over doorsteps, not on them, when entering temples or Dzongs
- You may take photos in the courtyard, but not inside the temple
- Walk around it clockwise, to show respect and to bring yourself blessings
- Don’t speak loudly. Bhutanese are very quiet and respectful people. Temples are holy places because they contain ancient religious relics
- You should leave a small offering of money. Fold the note lengthwise, press it to your forehead and then place it on the altar
- When a monk pours some holy water into your hand. you should drink it and spread the rest on your head from front to back
- When dinning in a group, wait for everyone to be served
- If you are the host you need to ask the guest to start eating, then once they start you may eat
- Doma or betel nut is often offered at the end of a meal
- Guests will often leave as soon as the meal is finished
- Refrain from passing negative comments on religion, the royal family of Bhutan and chief abbot
Greetings and Farewells
- Shaking hands is not Bhutanese custom, but is becoming more widely excepted is larger towns
- A formal greeting would be to bow with our hands stretched out in front on you open with your palms facing up
- Bhutanese add “la” to the end of sentences during a conversation why trying to be polite or show interest
- When a senior person walks into the room everyone is expected to stand, and when it is time to leave no one gets up until the guest of honor stands to indicate they are about to leave
- Never touch the crown of the head, for example a young child’s; this is considered a special part of the body
- Never point your feet at someone. If you are sitting on the floor, cross your legs or kneel so that your feet are pointed behind you. If you happen to sleep in a room where there is an altar or statue, ensure that your feet do not point toward it
- The Bhutanese dislike being put in a situation where they may be forced to contradict someone. It is considered to be more polite to suggest something rather than to make a direct statement
- It is considered unacceptable for anyone, Bhutanese or foreigner, to publicly show strong emotion
- Avoid reveling clothing. Dress modestly. No short shorts, halter tops, tank tops
- Bhutanese love to see foreigners wearing traditional clothing, and would be glad to help you with your gho or kira
- In Bhutanese culture, stones (even small ones) are special because they were once part of mountains which are sacred. Stones are inhabited by local spirits. If you pick one up to admire it, return it to where you found it – you do not want an angry deity in your luggage
- And do not throw stones, sticks, or anything else into lakes: they, too, are the abodes of deities and are due consideration, like everything in the natural environment
- Use your palm to show rather than finger, when pointing
- Don’t wash or swim into lakes
Now you can see just how important etiquette is in Bhutan – keep these handy hints in mind when joining a tour to Bhutan!