by Katherine Paul and Nancy Becker
The Bhutanese are extremely cautious in their approach to preserving their culture and their religious traditions. For this reason, the official position is that tourists are not allowed to visit religious buildings. In reality, visitors are taken on a case by case basis depending on a variety of issues, such as the size of the visiting group, whether someone is available to show people about, and whether the temple is being used for important ceremonies. Monasteries and their courtyards are open to everyone during the time of festivals but temples are of-limits. According to the Lonely Planet guide, Bhutan, by Stan Armington, if you are a practicing Buddhist, you may apply in advance to visit specific religious institutions. This is done by your tour operator through the Special Commission for Cultural Affairs. It is helpful to have a letter from your Buddhist organization in your home country.
Official worship in Bhutan and the daily agricultural work done by monks always takes precedence over the desires of tourists wishing to visit religious buildings; for this reason, visitors should never depend on entrance to temples. Tourists should consider it an honor and a privilege, rather than a right to enter any religious structure.
When visiting a temple it is important to be respectful and follow a few guidelines. Most temples require footwear to be removed before entering — if you see a pile of shoes outside the door, follow suit. There are no pictures inside temples; you might also leave your camera outside. Stan Armington recommends not embarrassing your guide by even asking about taking photos. Photography is usually permitted at festivals, but please be courteous and not block dancers or spectators.
It is also important to observe correct circumambulation in a clockwise manner. When approaching the central altar it is customary to leave a small offering of money on the altar. You can expect a monk to pour holy water into your hand. You should make a gesture of taking a sip of the water and then put the rest of the water on your head. Please do not point with a finger at religious objects; use an open hand, palm up.
By following these simple guidelines, observing your guides, and, when appropriate, asking questions, you can show proper respect for the religious customs of the Bhutanese.