There’s nothing more rewarding than exploring some of the most authentic aspects of new communities and cultures in the destinations that we visit. While tourism global tourism will definitely leave behind some inspirational influences amongst the local populace, there’s no denying that people and places will always remain rooted in their ancestral traditions, customs and lifestyle pursuits.
One of the world’s most exciting cultural hubs, Bhutan, offers a wealth of immersive experiences against the glorious settings of its Himalayan enclaves. It is ranked amongst the 36 global hotspots for its rich floral and faunal diversity. You will discover first-hand how this remote land, which values compassion and living in harmony with nature, has made such a conscious decision to protect its natural heritage and cultural richness. Bhutan, the greenest country in the world, which has consciously favoured Gross National Happiness (GNH) over the GDP of economics, has beamed out a crystal clear message to the world about what matters most to it, despite the invasive elements of change brought in from the world beyond its doors.
The protection of its ecology and its people is embedded deeply in the Constitution and its trickle-down effect of this legacy of ancestral respect and reverence that links people with nature is evident in the places and people that you visit in the different regions of the kingdom. Wandering around Thimphu, the state capital, you will find people going to work, children off to school, are all accoutred in the national dress. Bhutanese men wear a 'Gho' and women wear the 'Kira'.
The tenets of the country’s Buddhist faith, defined by compassion, non-violence and time-honoured rituals, will follow you everywhere on your travels, be it in the urban spaces or the villages and farmland in the mountains. Buddhism is the quintessential component of everyday life in Bhutan. The ubiquitous phallus symbol, plastered everywhere, on residential walls, market places and shrines is a lasting reminder of this form of worship, from ancient times, to keep away the evil eye, is unique to Bhutan. In Punakha, visit the Chimi Lhakang, the ancient fertility temple, with its enshrined phallus, dedicated to the mad monk, who drove out an evil demon from a possessed girl. Interfacing with monks, spinning the wheel, lighting the butter lamps or hoisting a prayer flag for the Buddha’s blessing at a shrine are intrinsic components of Buddhist rituals. Even while enjoying a bath in the hot springs, as the locals are wont, its healing qualities are considered being the blessings of the Buddha. Join pilgrims and tourists on the high road to the iconic Tiger's Nest monastery overlooking Paro Valley.
Browsing through the bazaars to pick up souvenirs and gifts introduces you to another important aspect of Bhutan’s traditions is the preservation of its crafts. In Bhumthang, for example, do buy the unique handwoven, very thick woollen textile known as yathra, which is also popular around the country. A visit to the Choki Traditional Art School (CTAS), near Thimphu is highly recommended to watch students learning the ropes of making the 13 Traditional Arts and Crafts (Zorig Chusum). Introduced in the 15th century by Pema Lingpa, these are an integral part of Bhutanese culture. You should also try to visit the Trashiyangtse Institute of Zorig Chusum.
The simple everyday culinary vocabulary of the Bhutanese kitchen is symbolised by Ema Datshi, the national dish of Bhutan. It is eaten almost daily in almost every meal, throughout the country and it is made with spicy chillies and cheese. Traditional music and dance performances, generally inspired by religious themes are an integral component of Bhutan’s festivals. The most evocative performances are those of the mask dances. You also get to see some of the more exotic and elaborate costumes worn on these festive occasions.
There are endless occasions when you will find many lesser known aspects of Bhutan’s living traditions. In fact, you will make many new discoveries which will enrich your understanding of this nation, which opened its doors to tourism with great caution.