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Blog of the Week: How to visit Bhutan without offending anyone

Hello Bhutan was set up by our featured blogger, Ilka Staschen, to shed light on this fascinating country

Bhutanese Monks

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. While 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.

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 (eg eggs, apples or potatoes). Presents are also those departing home to study overseas or embark on a long trip.

I would also 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. 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 discussed 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.

IlkaHello Bhutan | Ilka Staschen

"Bhutan should be on the list of every traveller who is seeking a rich and rewarding cultural and spiritual experience. I want Hello Bhutan to become THE portal site for the last kingdom in the Himalayas."

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