Bhutan only recently opened its borders to the rest of the world and it still only attracts a few die-hard travelers. In this post I wanted to touch on the reasons why Bhutan is a challenge to get into, travel around and in general tour. This country has many challenges affecting it but is a country worth visiting due to its unique culture, its stunning landscape and how remote it truly is.
Challenge #1 – Geography
If you’re not familiar with the geography of Bhutan, it’s what really contributes to why travel is so difficult. Completely covered in mountains, most places in this tiny kingdom are remote. There are essentially only three roads out of Bhutan, all leading to India, and only one airport that only one airline flies into. There are no crossings from China.
Just to understand how high in elevation Bhutan is, the southern parts start at 660 feet but rapidly climb to the highest point of the country, 24,840 feet. The lands are steep which makes driving by yourself in Bhutan unwise. It’s capital, Thimphu, sits at 7,656 feet and has imposing mountains all around.
About 35% of Bhutan is national parks. Travelers come here to experience hiking and sightseeing some of the purest nature found on Earth. Bhutan is pristine environmentally and the government really pushes for conservation, including maintaining 60% of its forest resources for all time. This is a dream destination for travelers who love raw and unexploited environments.
Challenge #2 – Expenses
Bhutan requires that everybody, except citizens of India, Maldives, or Bangladesh, get a visa. Also, except the countries listed, everybody must pay a ‘Tourist Tariff,’ a daily fee just being in the country. The smallest fee start at $200 for basic coverage, which does pay for food, guides, hotels, etc. This is one of the main deterrents for tourists coming to Bhutan.
Bhutan is not a backpacking type of country and you’re looking at a near $2000 just for one week including the flight in and out of the country. This fee is paid before you arrive and there is no way to get around it. The dollar is actually widely accepted in Bhutan and there are even ATMs in the big cities of Thimphu and Paro. You’ll need them if you want to splurge on personal gifts or upgrade to a nicer hotel. However the big expenses are part of the tour expenses and they do take credit cards.
Challenge #3 – Tour Guides
If you’re looking to travel around Bhutan, you’ll simply have to pay for a guide. Actually you’ll have to hire a tour guide that can process your permits to travel anywhere in the country. Given that the roads are somewhat treacherous, I feel it’s better to just have a tour guide with you. Many travelers don’t like this idea but you have experience to attempt to drive here.
Also one of the main challenges of Bhutan will be the language barrier and the extreme remoteness. If you get stuck by yourself it’s one thing and it would be much harder to find help. Having a guide to call it in, speak the language, and actually help you when you need it, is invaluable. Public transportation also tends to make a lot of stops and is quite uncomfortable.
Challenge #4 – Sickness
Bhutan has some of the highest peaks in the world and altitude sickness is a thing to worry about. Most of the cities are in valleys and shouldn’t experience too much of altitude sickness but it is possible to go for hikes and climbs on mountains. Most of Bhutan is remote, altitude sickness can turn serious quickly.
Beyond the altitude, Bhutan is still considered a third world country and waterborne diseases, malaria, dengue fever, upset stomachs, etc are common, especially in the summer during Monsoon season. Also the hospitals and clinics are not up to par with many western hospitals so its wise to bring at least some basic medicine with you.
Challenge #5 – Culture Shock
This is a challenge but mostly a good one. Understanding culture is important and it makes travelers have a richer experience. But on the flip side there are things that some travelers would not agree with but still have to respect. For me it would be Bhutan’s imprisonment for homosexual behavior. Now as a gay tourists it’s probably easy to blend in but if you’re traveling with your boyfriend/girlfriend, it’s wise to ask for separate beds. Stereotypes and cultures about homosexuality are largely negative.
Beyond that Bhutan is not a western country and only recently opened its borders to the outside world. Most citizens do not speak English well (the national language is Bhutanese or known as Dzongkha), although they teach English as a second language in school.
Bhutan also doesn’t strive being like the west, instead measuring its success with how happy the country is. It’s different and it’s something the west isn’t accustomed to but personally I think it’s kind of awesome and definitely adds something special to the country. Bhutan practices Vajrayana Buddhism and so by nature the people are peaceful. In fact it’s probably one of the safest countries in the world.
However, Bhutan is a Must
Bhutan is really a dream destination and it seems the biggest barrier are the expenses. I think Bhutan is worth visiting because of its special culture and the fact that Bhutan goes out of its way to keep it. Also not very many tourists travel to Bhutan, something that the country actually prides itself on. A tourist in Bhutan will be one of the few foreigners in the country at any given time.
Rich in landscape, it is one of the few countries actively enforcing to conserve its land. Because Bhutan is deeply Buddhist, its focus is on the well-being of its citizens, the beautiful landscape and the animals that live there. Whether good or bad, this country is real and doesn’t pretend being something it is not; like many other countries in the region. I would go just for the visual, awe-struck beauty that basically makes up the entire country.