Etiquette in Bhutan

Author: Shivani Subba
Date: 2019-12-11

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Health and Happiness

Bhutan is a country where the health of its people is taken very seriously - instead of worrying about Gross National Product like most other nations, Bhutan and it’s government worry about the Gross National Happiness of the Bhutanese population.

The government of Bhutan believes that this can be achieved through four main pillars:

Equitable and equal socio-economic development

Preservation and promotion of cultural and spiritual heritage

Conservation of environment

Good governance which are interwoven, complementary and consistent

Despite Bhutan being one of the most isolated countries in the world, Bhutan must be onto something as other countries around the globe and the United Nations as well are adopting this concept of well-being.

Bhutan was also the last country in the world to welcome “the idiot box”- commonly known as the television. Internet and television were de-criminalized in Bhutan as late as in 1999. The capital city of Bhutan, Thimphu, is the only capital in the world that still does not have traffic lights.


Thimphu Gate


Visas

All foreigners planning a holiday to Bhutan require a visa to enter the country except travelers from India, Maldives and Bangladesh. Visas for Bhutan must be applied for in advance via your tour operator who will also process the paperwork and the fee for you. Remember to ensure that your passport has at least 6 months validity starting from the day you depart from Bhutan.

Once the visa has been approved, your tour operator will receive the confirmation number and you'll receive the visa when you arrive in Bhutan.

Bhutanese airlines, Bhutan Air and Druk Air also are not allowed to issue tickets to passengers unless they receive the visa confirmation number. Things in Bhutan are pretty tightly regulated from the get go.

After the holiday is done with, travelers will have to pay US $20 departure tax upon leaving Bhutan. Foreigners (apart from Indian nationals) can only enter or exit the country through certain towns by roads such as Phuentsholing, Samdrup Jongkhar and Gelephu; or by air through Paro International Airport.

Even after gaining access to Bhutan, certain areas in the country can only be visited with a special permit that can be obtained via your tour operator. These areas are generally most areas that are outside the vicinity of Paro and Thimphu Valleys.  Prior authority, (also obtained by your tour operator) is required to visit some of the religious and administrative buildings (dzongs).

Even though Bhutan's strict policies, especially on visitors, might seem taxing, they are in place to make sure that the travelers get to have a truly unique experience in one of the last places on earth that has been touched by the modern world.


Punakha 

Local Laws in Bhutan

Traveling Within Bhutan

It's difficult for a visitor to travel independently through Bhutan (unless you have certain visas), so the best thing you can do is to book all your travel activities via a Bhutanese Government licensed tour operator. The government prohibits backpacking through Bhutan but most tour operators offer some degree of flexibility with the option of private tours as opposed to group tours.

The Government of Bhutan has imposed a strict minimum spend on visitors to the kingdom – it currently stands anywhere between US $200 to $250 per day, which is also dependent on the season or the time of the year. This fee is inclusive of several items such as local ground travel, guide services, trekking equipment, meals, accommodation, local taxes and fees.

Don't Diss the Royals

Even though Bhutan switched from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in 2008, the Royal family of Bhutan is still highly revered and loved by their people as they are seen as being closest to the gods.

It is also good etiquette to avoid talking about politics due to current tensions given the country's position between China and India.

Respecting Nature

Nature is an integral part of Bhutan’s culture and religion as they believe that everything is alive in some way or the other. The people of Bhutan also believe it's essential to live in harmony with nature. These concepts are taught from an early age, not only at home but also at schools. It is this respect and discipline that has helped Bhutan become famous for its pristine wilderness and conserved areas.

Good etiquette while you are in Bhutan also includes avoiding taking natural things like stones as souvenirs or skipping stones into lakes as the people of Bhutan believe that they are the home of the spiritual deities. 

Photography & Electronics in Bhutan

If you do decide to go for your holiday to Bhutan, you should have all personal computers, cellular telephones, cameras, and any other electronic devices registered with Bhutanese customs upon arrival in Bhutan.

These items will also be checked upon departure, so it is important that you hang onto the declaration slip they give you upon arrival.

Bhutan is a photographer's paradise, but there are some religious and government buildings where getting your holiday pictures taken is not allowed, including the famous Tiger's Nest Monastery. It is good etiquette (not only in Bhutan but everywhere) to always ask for permission before taking photos of people.

Importing-Exporting Goods

You may want to take back with you a particular carving or statue that would look great in your home. However, exporting any type of antiques is forbidden and monitored by the authorities. It is good measure to ask your guide before purchasing who can arrange a check with the government.

Tobacco in Bhutan

You cannot buy or sell tobacco in Bhutan due to a ban in 2010, so smokers will need to bring their own supply (up to 200 cigarettes) for personal use and you also need to declare it on arrival where it will be subject to a sales and customs tax. 

Because of the ban, tobacco use has inherently increased in Bhutan due to the black market trade and smuggling, with Bhutan now having one of the highest rates of smoking in southern Asia as compared to before the ban. Smoking is also banned in public places, restaurants and offices. It might just be easier (and better for you) to inhale in that fresh mountain air instead.

Etiquette in Bhutan

Dress Modestly

While you are wandering around the beautiful temples and other spiritually significant places in Bhutan it is good etiquette to dress respectfully. While temperatures in the summer can nudge 90°F (32°C), it's best not to wander around town as if you were heading for the beach. Many places In Bhutan require long-sleeved clothing in order to enter, for example, the Tiger's Nest Monastery.

Prayer Wheels

If you are visiting a monastery, temple or stupa, remember to always walk around the prayer wheels in a clockwise direction. This shows good etiquette and respect for the religion. It is believed to bring blessings to those who do it.

Tipping in Bhutan

Tipping is largely a voluntary act when in Bhutan. However it's always a nice gesture to give something as a matter of thanks to those who have helped make your holiday easier such as your driver, guide, trekking staff etc. Also, if you are heading to the more rural places within Bhutan, it is good etiquette to tip the locals who offer homestay experiences as they earn very little. Place it in an envelope and hand it to them on the last night of your stay. 

Hotels and restaurants in Bhutan have service charges in place so tipping is generally not required. However, you could give the hotel porter a little something if they go out of their way to help.

Giving Gifts

Like many places around the world, it's generally advised not to bring or give gifts as it can encourage a culture of begging. However if you are visiting a school where demand is continuous, a gift of useful items like pencils, books or other stationeries may be welcomed. Ask your tour company to find out what the best options are.

Learn the Local Lingo

The Bhutanese locals will love it if you try speaking the national language of Bhutan, Dzongkha. It's also good etiquette to observe the local ways of society and greetings so that you can use it in return. Always ask your guide if you are unsure.



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