We have been reading many posts on the Internet from travellers (mostly Indian) who state that they have backpacked across Bhutan. We beg to differ. You can undertake a ‘budget’ trip but you cannot be a backpacker in Bhutan. Here’s Why…

  1. A trip to Bhutan must begin with 100% planning: Visitors are required to plan well in advance and plan their itineraries so as not to waste time in the country.

To those who travel with planned itineraries, this statement may sound quite incongruous and even nonsensical. But coming from someone like us, who make travel arrangements, reach our destination and ONLY then decide a course of action, our sojourn in Bhutan was too well planned for our liking. We had not only had to decide where we wanted to go, but make a couple of “necessary” hotel bookings as well. Isn’t this what “backpackers” don’t do?

  1. Everyvisitor needs to get a “permit” to visit the country: this permit is akin to a Visa. Europeans and Americans or and several other nationalities have to pay a fee of 250 USD per day, per person to Bhutanese tour operators to visit the nation. This cost includes stay, food, transportation and local sight seeing. They also have to pay an additional 40 USD one time Visa fee as well surcharges for solo or two travellers.

By its very essence then, after you’ve paid a fee of 250 USD you are in a sense bound by the itinerary fixed by your travel guide or tour operator with minimal or no last minute changes. For example, if you want to go visit the most pristine district that has just been opened to visitors called Haa, your operator may not be able to make necessary last-minute arrangements since your entry permits may not be valid for the said district. In addition, your operator will have to make travel and/or stay arrangements just for you, which may not be economically viable for him too.

Permits are also granted to certain districts and based on your nationality you may be denied permission to visit a certain district. When a tour guide/operator plans your Bhutan vacation for you, he will ensure that all necessary permits have been taken. For example, Indians are denied permission to visit the districts of Gasa and Laya as they border Tibet (which is currently under Chinese occupation).

On the other handif you are from India, Bangladesh and Maldives then you do not need to pay 250 USD but have to get your permits either upon arrival or an ePermit only through an authorised travel agent in Bhutan.

PS: Indian nationals can get permits with a passport/Voter’s ID card.

Now the problem for backpackers lies here.

As a backpacker you’d probably want to land up in the country, mingle with the locals/natives, and then figure out what you would like to do. However, with permits to the districts in the country being granted for a strict period of time and for select regions only, you get constrained by it.

  1. Longer Treks become a distant dream: Without a tour operator and “planning” it is also impossible to undertake any one of the famous treks in the country. For example, the 5 day Druk Path trek (easy to moderate) from Paro to Thimphu would cost in the region of 7000 INR per day per person and cannot be undertaken without a proper trek staff and guide. Only authorised travel agents can supply you the same.
  1. Transportation – One of the problems for backpackers who travel on limited budgets is the lack of public transportation within Bhutan. You can’t just go to a bus stand (like the (in)famous bus stands in India) and take the next available bus to your destination. Buses between districts ply as per a pre-determined timetable and do not exceed a frequency of a bus every day. Getting a seat on one of these is virtually impossible since the vehicles are 30 seaters and are generally booked well in advance by Bhutanese to traverse within the country. Bhutan doesn’t have a railway system.

If you go in peak season you will likely spend a few extra days hanging around trying to book a seat on one of these buses. The only alternate for travellers is to hire cabs, which may cost upwards of 2600 INR (equivalent to 2600 Nu) per day depending upon the vehicle hired.

Bhutan is a Himalayan Nation and average travelling time from one district to another is about 25-30 kms per hour. So while you spend a lot of money in internal travels, you also spend a lot of time for the same. (Makes you recall the efficiency of the public transport system in India – for all its pitfalls, you will find a state transport bus that will connect you to an extremely remote part of the country – say, from Bhuj to Ropar, which is the closest bus stand to reach the Harappan site Dholavira in the Rann of Kutch, Gujarat).

To save time, money and avoid going around in circles, it is imperative to “plan” your Bhutan trip in advance.

According to the Lonely Planet, Bhutan is one of the most expensive tourist destinations in the world. Not withstanding the 250 USD charges that foreigners have to pay, Indians also end up spending a major chunk of their budget on internal travel.

The reason for the steep 250 USD charge we were made to understand is to keep all sorts of tourists at bay and make Bhutan an exclusive destination. The government has studied the disasters caused by its neighbour, Nepal’s uncontrolled tourism and has vowed to learn lessons from it – a cause we appreciate and support – for when you travel within the country you do realise the value of “controlled” tourism (no jostling, shoving, standing in queues etc.).

Saving Grace

 

We cannot sign off this post without our “saving grace” paragraph, which in Bhutan could include a lot of things – like its beauty, its history and culture and its people, but since we’re talking budgets here, we’ll talk about the hotels.

Hotels are the saving grace in an otherwise expensive-to-tour country. There are many good 3 star hotels that are at par with the 4 stars in India, providing better facilities to guests.

I’ve stayed in these hotels for many years now and the facilities include free wi-fi, hot water, toilet paper, TV in the room, heater and blankets (clean, mite-free), laundry service, room service and a smiling face that greets us every time we walk in weary from a hike!

Bhutan has its fair share of resorts and world-class high budget hotels, but living in one of these family-owned hotels also proffered us the opportunity to interact with the locals in an almost informal atmosphere.

The crux of this post is to discourage Indians from assuming that Bhutan is for backpackers and to encourage everyone to understand why!

Happy Travelling!

17 Comments

  • Vividhunter says:

    I am hoping to finish my teaching degree and work as a teacher in Bhutan so that I can enjoy the country for a little bit longer. Love your photos!

  • Deepja says:

    Very informative

  • I’ve been toying with the idea of solo backpacking in Bhutan for a while now. This post is quite a dampener. I wonder if having friends there makes things easier though…

    • Wanderers says:

      Hey Surya! Sorry for the late reply as we were on another trip – this time to Lahaul Spiti.

      Bhutan is not for backpackers and spending a great deal of your money on internal travel is inevitable. However, since boarding and food are quite cheap (expensive options are also available) you could cover up the cost there. Having friends won’t help much unless they’re willing to share the travel cost with you. The option of waiting to get a seat on the weekly buses is also an option but one that will cause a lot of time to be wasted.

      Having said that we would also like to highlight (especially in the light of out recent adventure in Lahaul Spiti) that the roads in Bhutan are much better than the Indian roads on similar terrains. So while travelling from one district to another is a bit tiring, it is nothing compared to the backbreaking drive we undertook in HP!

      Inspite of the money you’d spend travelling you can still have an excellent all expense included 10 day trip for under ₹70,000. The cost can be split if you have a partner travelling with you.

      We are in love with Bhutan and would recommend it to you despite the fact that you can’t backpack per se. But you can enjoy a low budget holiday to one of the most pristine environments in this part of the world!

      We are also creating itineraries for Bhutan travel based on our experiences. If you ever decide to go to Bhutan (backpacking or not) we would be delighted to create one for you.

      All the best and we do hope you decide to explore Bhutan soon!

  • Thanks a lot! That was a lot of comprehensive info 🙂 I intend to travel by myself, though, so I guess it is going to get a little expensive, but I think that’s a small price to pay for the freedom I’ll have.

  • Romil says:

    Its really disheartening reading this post. I am all done with my preparations for Backpacking to Bhutan. I thought it won’t be a costly trip but as you say, its surely gonna burn my pockets.
    My main motive is to go for trekking(which trek, not yet decided). Do you have some suggestions what would be the best idea to lower down my costs while keeping the fun.
    Also, is it really necessary to have a tour operator while trekking? Can I not go on my own? Is there some restriction from Bhutanese Govt or what?

  • vamosromil says:

    Its really disheartening reading this post. I am all done with my preparations for Backpacking to Bhutan. I thought it won’t be a costly trip but as you say, its surely gonna burn my pockets.
    My main motive is to go for trekking(which trek, not yet decided). Do you have some suggestions what would be the best idea to lower down my costs while keeping the fun.
    Also, is it really necessary to have a tour operator while trekking? Can I not go on my own? Is there some restriction from Bhutanese Govt or what?

    • Wanderers says:

      Hey Romil! We are so sorry that most of our readers are quite shocked by this post and respond despondently to it 🙁 Makes us sad too, but as we wrote on our post, it is not without reason that Bhutan has been named one of the most expensive tourist destinations in the world by Lonely Planet.

      Now, the answer to your questions:

      1. Live in budget accommodations, There are plenty in Bhutan. If you’d like recommendations, we could send those to you by email as well as the contact information. All you’d have to do is tell us where you intend going. The only other way to save money is to eat local food and avoid the ‘touristy’ restaurants that will offer you a local meal for more than 10 times the cost. Nondescript places will serve authentic food and won’t burn a hole in your pocket.

      The only other way to cut cost is to share it. Travel with someone 🙂

      2. If you’re not a citizen of a SAARC nation, then you would have to go through a tour operator and you would be paying the premium of 250USD upon arrival. If you’re a SAARC nation citizen you can travel on your own, choose your hotels, create your own itinerary and travel on your own.

      As insight: Travelling with a tour operator will help cut down your cost on treks which, if travelling alone, will be expensive given the high cost of logistics. So if you intend trekking, you may want to go through a tour operator …

  • vamosromil says:

    Thanks for replying so fast. I am planning to go for trekking prominently. My biggest concern is the eatables that I will be needing during my multi day trek.
    I will be carrying my personal camping tents and sleeping bags etc. But I cant carry everything with me. So, is there any provision that I can get meals on the way?

    • Wanderers says:

      Meals on the way might be a very tough call. On the longer treks, you will go through largely uninhabited terrain. If you cross a village at any point, you can be assured of a meal and alcohol (the Bhutanese love their liquor) as even the tiniest village will have a Bar cum Restaurant.

      Our suggestion? You can buy eatables in Thimpu and Paro for the trek, but would have to decide on the trek you will undertake to know if you will need to carry the provisions or not.

      As we wrote on our post, a trip to Bhutan must begin with a lot of planning… That is the bottom line, really!

  • Nicola says:

    Hey.
    A couple of girlfriends and u are planning on visiting Bhutan in May. You mentioned about accommodation for 1000 inr a day.
    Would you be able to give me more details about this place?

  • G says:

    Wow, so disheartening that non SAARC passports have to go with a tour operator. I’m a NRI living in the West. I wonder if I planned a trip with an indian tourist(s) and requested special permission from the Bhutan tourism board to be exempt from the tour operator method, as my travelling partners will be separated from me, if that would work? I would definitely appreciate the freedom to make my own plans. Excellent review by the way.

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