Festival Dress in Bhutan ©Solange Hando
Bhutan loves beautiful things. From everyday items to religious ornaments or fabulous festival dress, creating beautiful things shows appreciation for nature's gifts and respect for the people around you whose environment you brighten up.
For visitors, it means the chance to buy superb hand-crafted gifts and souvenirs, with a price tag reflecting the highest quality. Bargaining is considered in bad taste but when you realise that the embroidered scarf you're looking at took weeks to complete, you understand.
Students at the Institute of 13 Arts and Crafts ©Solange Hando
Most ordinary folks across the kingdom have an innate aptitude for fine crafts, be it carving eaves and window frames or weaving on the doorstep, but the best study at the Arts and Crafts Institutes located in Thimphu in the west and Trashiyangtse in the east. Both teach the 13 disciplines defined long ago by the venerated Shabdrung Namgyel who unified the country.
These traditional skills range from weaving, embroidery and painting to metal casting, gold and silver smithing, bamboo, leatherwork, paper making, carpentry, masonry, carving and sculpting.
Painting in Thimphu ©Solange Hando
Visitors to the institutes often linger in the painting section where artists create historical or religious scenes in pastel colours. Some canvasses are huge, requiring input from several people, but no one chats. It's all about concentration, often bordering on meditation.
Weaving in Eastern Bhutan ©Solange Hando
But the most stunning Bhutanese skill is weaving, especially in the central and eastern valleys. It's usually done on a backstrap loom, producing simple pieces of fabric which can be wrapped around and worn as the national dress or decorate a western interior.
The value of textiles depends on the material, synthetics, cotton, wool or silk, and the pattern created by extra wefts which may give the illusion of pure embroidery. Most highly prized are the rich textiles enhanced with brocade and the kira (women's dress) from Lhuentse with multi-coloured silk on a white background.
Main Square in Thimphu, Bhutan's Capital ©Solange Hando
The place to buy quality gifts in Bhutan is Thimphu, the capital, either in the government emporium or one of the smaller but reputable outlets such as Blue Poppy, in the Kawajangsa district, patronised by royalty. The market may tempt you with bargains but most items are imported.
Best Bhutanese buys include gold and silver jewellery, lacquered wooden bowls from the East, hand-made paper, carved masks, religious ornaments and paintings and of course textiles. Remember that Bhutan places gross national happiness above gross national income. Likewise with shopping, consider quality rather than cost and you'll be pleased when you get home.