A trip to Bhutan must begin with 100% planning.
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.
This information is going to very relevant for those who thought backpacking through the Himalayan Nation was as possible as it is through India.
Unfortunately, it is not so. Let us spell out the reasons why:
~ Every visitor needs to get a “permit” to visit the country. This permit is akin to a Visa. Europeans and Americans or non-SAARC members 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. It also includes costs towards treks etc. What we DO know is that it doesn’t include entry fees to the National Museum in Paro etc.
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 newest 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. Individual travellers especially from non-SAARC nations may have to face some trouble there.
Invalid, expired or unkempt permits will create trouble for travellers at exit immigration check posts in every district. So please handle them with care.
On the other hand, if you are a SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation) member citizen (which includes eight countries – India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Maldives and Bhutan) then you do not need to pay 250 USD but have to get your permits upon arrival. Indian nationals can get permits with a passport but it has to be upon arrival.
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.
~ 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. In a group as the cost of porters, cooks and gear gets distributed, a week-long trek can easily fit into a strict budget. But as an individual traveller, the 5 day Druk Path trek (easy to moderate) from Paro to Thimpu was quoted at an exorbitant 4000 INR per day per person by the cheapest tour operator! Needless to say, we gave it a miss 😦
~ Transportation – The Third biggest problem 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.
Bhutan is a Himalayan Nation and average travelling time from one district to another is close to 5-6 hours by road. The only alternate for travellers not entering the country with a tour operator is to hire cabs, which may cost upwards of 2600 INR (equivalent to 2600 Nu) per day depending upon the vehicles hired.
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. After spending two days trying to figure out backpacking means, we gave up and hired John for our travels. Yes. We did pay an arm and a leg for it!
It is our observation based on our personal experience that an extensive travel in Bhutan would be nearly impossible without a cab or travel/tour guide/operator.
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).
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. In Thimpu we found a small but very comfortable (and recommended by Lonely Planet) accommodation at just 1000 INR per night (in 2013) located on the main road in the capital, a short walk away from the immigration office, Ambient Café, book shops, taxi stand etc.
The facilities included free wi-fi, hot water, toilet paper, TV in the room, heater and blankets (clean, mite-free), laundry service, room service from its in-house restaurant and a smiling face that greeted us every time we walked in weary from a hike! Try to get THAT in the capital city of “any” country!!! (And we’re not just referring to the facilities but the ‘service’ we got!)
We found hotels in Wangdi and Paro a tad expensive at 1500 INR per night, but the facilities offered were extremely comfortable …with the smiling faces thrown in for good measure!
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.
So while undertaking a low budget, backpacking trip is virtually impossible in Bhutan, it is according to us, a must-see destination for its pristine beauty, its culture and its affectionate people.
We leave you with some glimpses of Bhutan, shot through our lens…