Lessons from another culture

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Bhutan is generally perceived as an enigma among Malaysians. Situated in the Eastern Himalayas between China and India, not much is known about the small landlocked country, except for its intricate monasteries, Gross National Happiness (GNH) index, and expensive tourist tariff, which can be as high as USD250 per day.

Dechen Pelzom first arrived in KL from Bhutan in 2015. She enrolled in ICAD’s BA (Hons) Interior Design program, franchised from Sheffield Hallam University, with a scholarship from her country. Having completed her studies in 2019, we spoke to her about her experience of being the only international student from Bhutan at ICAD, living and working in Malaysia, and her perspective towards design as a Bhutanese.


First of all, how did you choose to study interior design? Is ID a popular field in Bhutan?

Coming from a country like Bhutan, Interior Design is not a very popular career. In fact, I have never really heard of any interior designer in Bhutan; even I wasn’t aware of this field.

When I was first given the opportunity to take interior design as a career option, I was clueless as to what exactly this field was. It was not my first choice, but surprisingly I got a scholarship to study interior design in Malaysia thanks to my final grades in high school. That’s how I was introduced to ID.

Do you still remember your first impression of Malaysia upon arriving for the first time?

I was pretty nervous about coming to Malaysia. Actually, I am not sure if I was nervous or excited; it was a mixed feeling. Being away from home for the first time was challenging for someone like me who has always depended on my family for everything.

Well, to be honest, the first thing I saw when I reached Malaysia was my college. It was right next to a very busy street, which was appalling for me because colleges in Bhutan are as far as possible from the hustle and bustle of city life. Well, nevertheless I slowly adapted to it and kind of enjoyed the location because of the mouth-watering food stalls nearby.

I was also amazed by how well done the roads in Malaysia were; even the roads in the corner streets were amazing. Back here in Bhutan, one thing we always complain about is the quality of the road. It has potholes everywhere, maybe because we are located in the mountains.


The course that you took at ICAD, BA (Hons) Interior Design, is a franchise course from Sheffield Hallam University, UK. Coming off the Bhutanese education system, how did you find this British curriculum?

In Bhutan, our education system is all based on textbooks. We have more exams and tests, which is good, but in a way, I don’t think it has taught me anything more than what’s written in books. The British curriculum for me is a more approachable way of learning things, like having activities such as site visitation or going to exhibitions through which we gain experience and learn rather than memorizing everything from a book and writing an answer on a piece of paper at the end of the day; and then for that paper to define our future.  So, I feel like the experience is more important than just book knowledge.

Since there isn’t a large number of fellow students from Bhutan, how does it feel to be an international student here at ICAD?

Well, I didn’t mind being the only international student from Bhutan. Studying in a Bhutanese school for 13 years, I definitely didn’t mind being surrounded by foreigners for the first time. However, the only challenge that I face is that there are many languages being spoken in daily conversations here, such as Malay and Mandarin. Had I known earlier, I would’ve tried to learn Mandarin before coming to Malaysia. Apart from the language barrier, INTI ICAD society has been an eye-opening journey for me. It taught me so many things through certain experiences, things I would have never learned back here in Bhutan.

For your final year project, you designed a hotel that allows guests to experience Bhutanese culture and hospitality.  What was going through your mind as you were working on that project?

Well, being born and raised in Bhutan, I love my country very much. One thing I experienced when I was in Malaysia was, everyone I met was so busy with work and over there time flies, it sure does. While in Bhutan, everything runs slow (I don’t know If that’s a good thing or not). Bhutan has also topped the charts for being one of the most peaceful and happy countries. So, that’s why I designed a mini version of Bhutan for my final year project. I wanted people to experience the state of tranquillity while not having to worry about anything else, and I was happy with my project outcome.

You had the opportunity to do your internship here before returning home. Can you describe that experience?

Interning in Malaysia was another challenge that life has thrown at me. It was like starting college all over again. I had to make new friends; I had to adapt to the fact that my colleagues preferred speaking their own language; I had to explain where ‘Bhutan’ is. But all in all, I have learned so much during my internship, things I couldn’t learn in college.

I was mostly assigned to work on 3D and drawings. It took me a while to learn how to render and design like my other professional seniors. Of course, I am still not a professional, but I have improved so much more than my time in college, thanks to my patient colleagues who have always guided me.

Our company worked on both commercial and residential projects, and the best thing about our company was, it was a design and build company. This helped me to understand a lot about detailed drawings, furniture dimensions, going to the sites and taking measurements, and talking to various people we meet during our client meetings or site visitation.


It is hard to escape from a conversation about Malaysia without mentioning the food. How did you find the food here compared to the ones back home? Were you able to
find or recreate certain recipes while living here?

Honestly, everyone I met in Malaysia has asked me, “Are you able to adapt to the spicy food in Malaysia?” Well, coming from Bhutan, a country whose national dish is Ema Datshi (Spicy chilli and cheese), I had no problem at all. I love spicy food! I enjoyed Malaysia’s multi-ethnic cuisine – a little bit of Indian, a little bit of Chinese, and a little bit of Malay.

My favourite dish from Malaysia is Chili Panmee. My god, how much I miss Chili Panmee. Back here in Bhutan, I always try to make Chili Panmee by myself, but it’s so hard to get that accurate recipe.

Did you manage to pick up any local languages or dialects during your time here?

All I have learned in Malaysia was, “makan” and “teh-tarik.” Two of my most favourite!

How has living in Malaysia these few years shaped your perspective and worldview?

Living in Malaysia for four years has shown me how different the world is outside my country. The level of development in Malaysia is the first thing that caught my eye as soon as I landed in KLIA international airport.  Establishments like the train shuttle between terminals and the application of e-visa services were all first time experiences for me. Secondly, I was amazed to see the diverse rich cultures and traditions of Malaysia sharing a symbiotic relationship in representing what the country is truly about. Being in Malaysia has really opened up my personal perspective of how the world has gone forward in terms of advancements in technology and development of socio-economic welfare. As I have lived my whole life in Bhutan, I believe these positive changes/growth of this nation can be made into an example for my country to look upon for the future.



You are currently working for a newly established interior design firm in Thimphu, which is a collaboration between Japanese and Bhutanese architects. How has it been going so far, and what projects are you currently working on?

The working style is a bit different over here compared to Malaysia. Bhutan is rich in culture and tradition and no matter how far in future we go, we will always try to maintain our culture and traditions. Similarly, when I’m designing here in Bhutan, I have to bear in mind to always incorporate some of the Bhutanese aesthetic in my design no matter how modern the client wants their design to be.

We are currently working on a big project for a very well-known company in Bhutan and aside from that, we have many residential and 3-star hotel projects on the line.

Generally, what does the design industry look like in Bhutan? What would you say are the opportunities and challenges?

As I have said earlier, it’s very important to maintain our culture and traditions here in Bhutan, especially architectural-wise. Everything needs to feel like ‘Bhutan’ while designing. When I first joined this company in Bhutan, all my design styles were like the westerns and very much “Pinterest” influenced. Back there in Malaysia, designs needed to be as imaginative as possible while here in Bhutan, due to limited resources, there are restrictions on designs.

Nevertheless, we don’t see many interior design firms in Bhutan, so this field can be a huge necessity in the future when people are slowly exposed to such.

How has growing up in Bhutan influenced your mindset and approach as a designer?

Life in Bhutan is very simple. We maintain our culture and tradition very seriously. In fact, preserving and promoting our cultural values is one of the four pillars of Gross National Happiness (GNH).

Back in Malaysia, things were different. Although we had to follow certain building laws, most architectural design for buildings didn’t really hold any cultural values to it. So, whatever projects I worked on during the course of my internship or college, I didn’t really have to focus on maintaining Malaysia’s culture.

Throughout my whole life, I have seen many buildings, five-star hotels and big offices come up in Bhutan, but all of them had one thing in common – implementation of Bhutanese architectural design. Therefore, whatever I design here, whether it is interior works or an outdoor park, I try to incorporate Bhutanese elements into it. It just doesn’t feel right to not have any Bhutanese element in designs here in Bhutan.

What advice would you give to young Bhutanese aspiring to enter the field of design?

I didn’t come from a design background; in fact, I studied business during my high school. I love math, accounting, and calculations. I never really thought I would end up as a designer. So, when I first joined my course in Malaysia, it was very difficult for me to study art. I remember someone asking me if I knew how to draw. Of course, I sucked at drawing so I was always wondering to myself if I had made the wrong choice in life. However, let me say something through my personal experience. You don’t need to be able to draw at all to be a designer. Just let your ideas flow. It can be a rough sketch or taking notes of your ideas. People don’t need to understand your sketches or thoughts as long as you understand it. ID is a course where you can be as creative or imaginative as possible. Taking interior design has really helped me shape myself as a person. It has helped my brain to explore and work rather than study textbooks and appear for exams. For me I really feel like ID has given me so much exposure to the world. Even designing a small simple thing takes time, and the hard work behind every design is unimaginable. So, never take any artist for granted, and don’t let anybody ask for free art!

[Bonus Question]

Can you recommend an experience for people who will be visiting Bhutan for the first time?
Bhutan is a small and not a very famous country in the world map. But it sure is the most beautiful land on earth (at least for us Bhutanese).

There are so many things you can explore in Bhutan, but the most fascinating experience would be trekking and camping to spots like Jumolhari (Mountain of the Goddess). If you want to trek, April, May, September, and October are the best months with optimum weather.

Visiting during winter is also a good time to catch the endangered black-necked crane in their winter home, Phobjikha Valley. Phobjikha Valley is a beautiful place for camping and exploring the hidden beauty of Bhutan.

Summer in Bhutan is a wonderful time for mushroom picking. There’s even a Matsutake mushroom festival.