Many visitors to Bhutan are eager to get a glimpse not only of the scenery but the day-to-day life of its people.
As I disembarked the plane at Bhutan’s only airport, nothing could have prepared me for the culture shock.
The country has shielded itself from mass globalisation. This has allowed the small nation to keep age-old traditions at the fore of Bhutanese life.
Naturally, some of these might appear curious to first-time visitors. Regardless, here are five Bhutanese cultural traditions you should respect.
1. Phalluses Paraphernalia
Yes, it is a shock to see giant penises sprouting out of the ground in different colours. But their presence goes back hundreds of years. Drukpa Kunley was a 15th-century monk, who used eccentric practices to bring Buddhism to the masses. He created the link between the phallus as a metaphorical weapon to ward off evil spirits. Today, find them painted on many houses and sacred buildings.
2. Traditional Dress is Compulsory in Certain Environments
Back home, fast fashion is commonplace. It is a way for people to express individual identity. In Bhutan on the other hand, the government place importance on collective cultural identity. Citizens must wear traditional Bhutanese dress in school, government offices and on formal occasions. Men wear gho, which is a long robe held in place by a woven belt. Women wear a floor-length dress called kira, with a silk blouse (wonju) underneath a light jacket, toego. Footwear isn’t as strictly mandated so don’t be surprised to see these garments worn with trekking shoes or trainers.
3. Dress Respectfully as a Visitor
While the traditional dress is compulsory for the Bhutanese, as a tourist you need to dress respectfully when visiting sacred sites such as temples and Dzongs. A full-length skirt or pair of trousers and a longer-sleeve top that doesn’t expose too much is ideal. Leave your hat in your bag and shoes at the door.
4. Prayer Flags
Prayer flags are an iconic part of Bhutan. The colours flutter in the wind in the mountains, at temples and people’s homes. The flapping sound is unexpectedly calming. Buddhists believe that when the wind blows the flags, they release spiritual vibrations. Any prayers made will be carried in this wind. Any person or place then touched by the wind will be happier and at peace.
5. Smoking is Not Encouraged
In Bhutan, it is illegal to buy and sell tobacco products, as is smoking in public places. If you are a smoker, you can bring in cigarettes for personal use, providing you declare them. Ask your guide for a place you can legally light up. Some hotels have areas where you can smoke if you wish. Ultimately, when you visit a new country, there will always be cultural differences.