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Bhutan Vacation - Facts and Myths

June 05, 2011

bhutan vacation dragon kingdom


Travel to Bhutan, The Dragon Kingdom of the Himalayas with it's unspoiled traditional Tibetan-style culture, breathtaking architecture, rich history, outrageous trekking and pristine forests with outstanding flora and fauna... is like no other place on earth.

travel to Bhutan for awesome landscapes


Based on questions that I have been receiving there seems to be many myths about taking a vacation to Bhutan, which makes sense because few people have been there. So let me clear them up with what we learned on our recent visit.

Bhutan culture -locals celebrating at a Buddhist monastery



MYTH - Travel to Bhutan is expensive

FACT - It really depends on how you look at it.

It is true there is no backpacker-style independent travel because once you arrive in  Bhutan you see instantly that would certainly destroy this beautiful, unpopulated and rare country, the last Shangri-La,  in very short order. The King and the Tourism Council of Bhutan are much smarter than many countries and plan tourism to honor their Gross National Happiness goals. We think that is a win/win for all, tourists as well as locals.

There is a government mandated minimum $US200 per day fee that makes many people react with surprise. BUT look again, that includes all costs including lodging, driver, transportaion, guides and porters, entrance fees to cultural sites and programs, all food and you can arrange your own itinerary, plus you do not have to travel with a group.

So if you are a backpacker use to ten dollar a night super low budget lodging in Asia and living on street food, Bhutan is going to be too expensive, but for most working folks on a two week vacation, Bhutan can be a pretty good deal and less expensive than a typical vacation in Paris or Tokyo plus it's a much more incomparable experience. There is a reason why Bhutan has become the trendiest and exclusive destination. We've been all over the world and found Bhutan to be one-of-a kind.

"Tourism is a like a fire, you can cook your dinner on it, or it can burn your house down.” Asian proverb

Bhutan Monastery- young Buddhist monk


MYTH - It is difficult to get a visa to Bhutan

FACT - We were told by Bhutan's Tourism Board that It is actually very easy to get a visa to Bhutan for most folks and they put no limits on how many visas they issue.

Tiger's nest and Mozart


MYTH - You can not get into the Tiger's Nest, it is only open to Buddhist monks

FACT - Our guide said that anyone can go into Tiger's Nest today. It's true you can not take photos inside the Tiger's Nest, the iconic Taktshang Monastery, as it is one of the most sacred places in Bhutan,  but you can visit it and take all the photos you want of the spectacular outside. Our ten year old daughter easily did the strenuous, steep trek, but it's not for the mobility challenged like me.

Bhutan travel means prayer flags and green mountain views


We were sponsored guests of the Tourism Council of Bhutan who invited us via email ( out of the blue) and we were very honored to be the first travel bloggers invited to visit this stunning country. It was on our long term big bucket list, but we were not thinking about doing it just now, yet we're so grateful we got to experience this exqusite country and loving people at this juncture in time and hope to visit again. Like my recent post about Jordan, we also think Bhutan is one of the smartest tourism boards and it is not just because they both invited us.

Bhutan young monks at a monastery



Travel has become our life, so we pay attention to who is doing it well and we have a special place in our heart for responsible travel and sustainable, eco- friendly living because we want Mozart's generation and her kids and grand kids etc. to enjoy travel and this planet like we have.

Before accepting, we looked at the history of Bhutan tourism and the unique, honorable way the country is run which is really impressive in today's world. Unlike nearby Nepal with it's famous Hippie Trail and Freak Street in Kathmandu where western flower children smoked pot and lived on two dollars a day in the sixties, Bhutan only opened it's doors to tourism in the late seventies and had a total of 250 tourist visa's in 1979.

Bhutan smiling man

Tourism is the second largest industry today in Bhutan, but the tourist count is miniscule compared to a place like Thailand and it is very rewarding to be in such splendor, usually with very few or no other tourists around. We admire Bhutan's high-value, low-impact tourism goals that will prevent it from the kind of damage and profoundly altering impact that large amounts of backpackers and very low budget travelers have done to places like Nepal and Thailand.

While many other countries around the world have allowed tourism to compromise and destroy their traditional cultures, Bhutan was smart to realize that protecting it's unique culture and pristine environment, which makes this country so special, was key for its survival.

Bhutan vacation - meeting new friends at small market



It's a country of many surprises that is bridging the gap between the past and the future perhaps better than anyone, putting people's happiness and protecting the environment and culture first.  Visiting Bhutan is worth it on so many levels, thus I hope you get the opportunity yourself to visit this magical and mysterious place and sort out your own myths and facts.

Please feel free to add anymore questions in the comments!

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John

Informative post.
I take it the $200 per day fee is per person. Is it cheaper for children? Which way would you suggest getting there without flying?

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Hey John! Glad you liked it! Yes it is 200 per person and I am not sure about children, but I think it applies to each person..no matter the age. I will have to ask their Tourism people.

Hmm, getting there without flying would be interesting. You can actually drive in from India. Few would want to drive on their own in Bhutan as the infrastructure takes extreme skill.

I suppose you could walk in from India as well and sail from Europe to India if your intention was not to fly, but I would not recommend that unless you have a LOT of time.

Bhutan is between China and India in the Himalayas so an EXTREMELY mountainous country...big part of the reason for it's isolation.

Bhutan's airlines only has 2 airplanes and very few flights, but coming into Bhutan is spectacular as one goes over Mt Everest. Arrival is a thrill.

There are no trains in Bhutan and the terrain is EXTREMELY mountainous. There is basically one road in the country, so the infrastructure outside the big cities is very limited.

I think they have only had roads since the 1960's. The purity from the isolation is part of the charm, but the high altitude landscapes are beautiful but challenging.Sometimes hard to breathe even in car, so I can't imagine walking, but it is a trekkers paradise and walking is always the best way to see a country.

Going to the east there are extremely high mountain passes and the roads are one lane ...often dirt ..and almost always on the edge of a cliff. Driving or walking is the only way to go and once past the two main cities ...is an adventure in itself.

We ran into rain, sleet in May, boulders completely blogging one part and saw one truck that had fallen off the road ( about 9000 ft drop).

Traveling this kind of terrain means going slow and cautiously...but the views are breathtaking every where you look.

You can go just one way from Paro ...all the way east and out again through India. We only went half way to Bumthang in the center ( loong drive) and then backtracked back to Paro.

Becca

I have so many questions! But I think what is standing out most in my mind is that the country almost looks "staged". Does that make any sense? Everyone looks happy and everyone matches in their beautiful clothing and colors. I almost get the impression that you are getting a tour of Disneyland, And I don't mean that in a negative way because I love Disneyland but does the country feel "real" to you? Are the people really happy or are they not allowed to show how they really feel? I hope they are genuinely happy. This looks like an amazing country and I really hope to visit it one day!
Now that you are back in Europe, how do you decide where you are going to travel? Do you use guide books, travel blogs, word of mouth, etc.?
Happy travels! I love reading about your adventures!

John

Jeanne, Thank you for such a comprehensive reply, another post in itself. I am fortunate in that I have the time so would not worry about how long it would take to get there. Overland and ship to India, train then bus to Bhutan sounds good to me. It would be great to explore on foot, once I was acclimatised to the heat and altitude.
Thank you again.

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Becca - No it doesn't seem staged at all and is the total opposite of Disneyland.

Bhutan feels VERY real, but it is so unique that it does sometimes feel a bit surreal like one has gone back in time.

But it is bridging the old world with the current one. I wish I could have gotten a photo of a lady dressed in traditional clothes carrying a basket on her back in the middle of no where, walking on the edge of a high mountain road like something from a different century...and she was talking on a cell phone!!

This is the contrast & challenge of Bhutan today as they try to move forward into the 21st century while keeping their traditions and culture intact.

No the people do not smile constantly, but the culture is a happy one and the life is simple. Note my photo with the lady with the baby on her back that I posted for Mother's Day.

I am mostly picking smiling photos because they tend to be more pleasing and they also capture the sweetness of the people.

As I explained in my Bhutan Buddhism Bliss post, I think their religion and love of their king help to make them content. Happiness is a lot about attitude. Many actually have quite a hard life, but for the most part ...out side of the major cities ( which are small) I think the simplicity and traditions supports their happiness. It is also a matriarch society so perhaps that helps...land is pass down to females etc.

The clothes and architecture seem unusual to us, but after a few days there ..and certainly to the people who live there...it seems very normal and fits with the setting for sure.

We mainly just follow our bliss with travel...as we are curious about most places and we have time.

Thanks so much for your sweet words and comment!

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Thanks John, I know, I do get carried away with comments some times, but you asked a complex question. ;)

It was not hot in Bhutan in May..we mostly wore our warmest clothes...usually needed a sweater..one would need more trekking the mountains. It was mostly sunny while we were there, but they do have a monsoon season, so time your travel.

There is a tropical area in Bhutan near the Indian border in the south, but most of it is high altitude so can get cold...still snow on the Himalaya mountains all year.

BridgeToBhutan

Thank you Jeanne for the informative and timely story. Another important fact is that, 30% of the daily tariff goes to the government to provide for free health and education. There is US$30 surcharge per person/per night for group of two members and US$40 surcharge for solo travelers.
@John - Yes, it is cheaper for children. Children below 12 years are waived off the 30% welfare levy from the daily tariff. The daily rate of US$200 pp/per night for group of 3 & more members has been around for a long time. Come 2012, the daily tariff begins at US$250 pp/per night. It is all-inclusive (except the airfare).
The new domestic airport in central Bhutan will be operational sometime later this year and it will be a welcome relief for those wishing to avoid the long drives on those winding roads.
Happy Trails! Look forward to your stories. Cheers~

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Thanks so much Lotay for chiming in! I really appreciate it as we were there for just a week and you have many years of experience doing tours to Bhutan.

As a Bhutan native who was educated in the USA, you are a great bridge between countries.

I think the new airports and small flights will be a fabulous addition.

The travel is slow by car on those roads ( and scary with my vertigo, but didn't bother my husband or child) but it was also a wonderful way to experience the country in deeper ways.

We saw monkey families, Yaks and nomads, school kids and even the Indian and Nepalese workers that live in tents on the edge of the road while making them by scratch were fascinating to us.

It would have been good to then be able to take a plane back to Paro though. ;)

Becca

Thank you Jeanne for your response. I really appreciate the time you take to answer everyone's questions. I have learned so much from your blog!

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Aw, thanks Becca! I try my best. Sometimes when we are on the move I don't get to answer every post, but I do when I can. It is sometimes quite a juggle.

Margaret Sch.

I love it that this country is making sure that the people there actually benefit directly from tourism. In this way, they can joyfully share their treasures without being taken advantage of.

Mario

thank you ST3. this is actually a very informative post and I appreciate that b/c it informs how I could do this trip myself. It looks like an incredible place to be sure and the more pertinent, relevant, and practical info you provide here helps me to see myself there. Thanks and happy travels as always. Cheers!

Rob

What an insightful article! It sounds like Bhutan is a model country and learned in time from the lessons in Nepal and elsewhere. I shudder to think what it would be like if a backpacker culture took hold there or if highrise resorts were allowed. I just wish we Westerners could see the damage we have done and take steps to undo it. The theory that we bring prosperity to poor countries just doesn't hold water when held in the balance.

Calogero

Very nice photos.

Deepak Gurung

If somebody wish to Bhutan..this is last year that you will get cheaper price. It is again increasing to US$250 per night w.e.f 01st/Jan 2012.

For info, pls contact deepgurung@gmail.com

Himalayan Dragon Tours and Treks

From 2012, the tariff rate has been revised. Now it is USD250/day. From USD250/day, 35% goes directly to government where it benefits our local common people in the health and education sector. Government provides free health and education.
Thank you

Chinese Visa

I think they have only had roads since the 1960's. The purity from the isolation is part of the charm, but the high altitude landscapes are beautiful but challenging.Sometimes hard to breathe even in car, so I can't imagine walking, but it is a trekkers paradise and walking is always the best way to see a country.

Bhutan Travel Tour Trek Packages

Hi, Jeanne, Great article and now 2 years have passed since then. A small update...

• Bhutan is now 250 US$ per person per night during high season (low- 200$) with surcharges extra for below groups of 3.
• Bhutan's experiment with democracy seems to be successful and has now even had its 2nd General Elections but Bhutanese still look to the King for their ultimate guidance and benevolence.
• As someone asked above, smiles do come readily to the Bhutanese and they are genuine.
• Bhutan may not be rich but is rich in compassion, tolerance and love for her fellowman.
• Bhutan may be in Asia but is one country where women and men are equal, in fact more than equal women often inherit the family property and often it is the man who moves into the in-law's house.
• Bhutan, between the world's 2 most populous nations of India and China, has a population of just 700,000.
• Bhutan touted for the concept of Gross National Happiness may not be the happiest in terms of materialism but is materialism the answer?

Bhutan is my country and I love it. Thank you for loving it too ;)

Trashi Delek,

Keshav.

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