The first question you’ll undoubtedly ask yourself before taking the plunge and booking your trip to Bhutan is, “Will this trip really be worth the $250 per night?”
I asked myself this very question for months leading up to the moment I actually booked the trip. Because I went during low season (December-February and June-August) I only had to pay $200 per night as opposed to $250; however, because I was a solo traveler I also had to pay $40 extra per night (groups of two will have to pay an extra $30 per day) + $40 for my Bhutan visa. Not only that, but my flights to and from Bhutan via Bangkok were $860 total. And that doesn’t include the $650 I paid for my round trip flights between NYC and Bangkok (a great deal I found on Air China, which is why I went during low season).
Bhutan Tourism’s policy is also that you have to pay for your trip via bank transfer into their account. Because visitors are mandated to have a local guide and stay at government-approved hotels, they want to regulate the money is being used as it should.
So in total, not including souvenirs, extra personal expenses and expenses in Thailand (where I spent a few days before heading to Bhutan to make my layover worthwhile), I paid $3,710 for a 9-night/10-day trip to Bhutan… about the equivalent of what it would cost to backpack around Latin America for an entire summer.You'll ask before booking your trip to #Bhutan: Will this trip really be worth the $250 per night? Click To Tweet
Yes, it’s a lot, but let’s look at this more closely.
One misconception some travelers have, or at least I did, is what all this money goes toward. Instead of thinking of the $250 as a “fee,” think of it as all-inclusive admission. This includes all your hotels, three enormous meals per day, a private guide, private transportation and attraction admissions. Moreover, 35% of what you pay goes to the government to fund efforts like free education, free healthcare (visitors get free medical in Bhutan, too), conservation efforts and infrastructure. So, not only are you paying for your inclusive travel experience; you’re supporting the local people and traveling responsibly.
But, that still doesn’t answer the question whether or not Bhutan is worth the $250 per night. I know you’re going to hate me for saying this, but the answer is: it depends.
Let me explain.
If you’re the type of traveler who needs 5-star luxury and will be expecting gourmet meals for that price, then Bhutan isn’t for you. You can definitely get more luxurious accommodations, but you’ll paying $1,400+ per night. If you want polished cities and hipster hoods, or if driving for long hours around curving pot holed mountain roads sounds painful, Bhutan isn’t for you.
That being said, if you’re fascinated by cultures — especially those largely untouched by Western influence — want to visit grand temples with golden Buddhas sitting taller than your house, stay on a local farm and help milk cows, take in panoramic views of the Himalayas, see women hand-weaving traditional garments and paper being made by hand using high altitude Daphne tree, hear stories of Bhutanese masters slaying demons with their penises, learn the the importance of calming ones mind and ridding oneself of greed and hatred, experience a government more focused on preserving tradition and nature than wealth, learn about a country whose king once led his army to victory in war, munch on homemade rice puffs handed to you through a village window as a friendly gesture, hike through fields of rice and along slender mountain ridges, meet people who have no idea what their birthday is and fill up on chili-laced buffets served by smiling locals offering Bhutanese hospitality, then the price will be well worth it.One misconception travelers have is where the money goes when booking a #trip to #Bhutan. #travel Click To Tweet
I’m sure you’ve read plenty of blog posts touting Destination X as being “unlike anywhere else,” but seriously, Bhutan really fits the description.
Sure, the younger generations in the capital of Thimphu enjoy their smartphones, but you’ll still stroll through a charmingly weathered city with buildings made from local stone and clay, hand-painted with Buddhist images like dragons, lotus flowers and offering vessels, colorful prayer flags billowing mantras in the wind. You’ll head into smaller villages where people walk for days to get their groceries from high in the mountains, where houses are adorned with wooden phalluses and animal skulls to ward off evil, where women carry bamboo baskets of grass to feed their cattle and men practice slash and burn farming in fields of rice, wheat and broccoli (and marijuana, which grows plentiful in Bhutan).
Recommended Tour Operator: I went with Bhutan Tourister and had an unbelievable time. I highly recommend them. Please use this booking form for inquiries.
Booking Your Trip: By law, tourists visiting Bhutan must have a guide and must pay an all-inclusive rate of $200-$250 per night (low vs high season) + airfare + $40 Bhutan visa fee (unless you’re an Indian, Bangladeshis or Maldivian national) + $30-$40 nightly tariff for duo and solo travelers. This includes your private guide, 3-star lodging, three (huge!) meals per day and ground transfers.
Responsible Tourism: Making it more difficult to visit Bhutan limits the amount of tourists entering the country, helping to preserve the landscape and traditional culture. Moreover, 35% of what you pay goes to the government to put toward free education and healthcare, infrastructure and conservation.
Health: Healthcare is free for locals and visitors in Bhutan. I didn’t encounter any hotels with gyms, so if you’re looking to stay in shape I recommend Yoga Download (900+ yoga classes right on your laptop or phone), TheraBands (inexpensive resistance bands that take up virtually no luggage space) and a FitBit wristband (encourages you to be healthy and is stylish).
Paying For Your Trip: As a points-obsessed traveler, it stung not be able to pay for the trip with my credit card. To pay for your trip you’ll need to transfer the funds in US dollars to the tourism board’s bank account. The fee for me personally through Bank of America was $45 for the transfer, though they were kind enough to waive it for me as I’m a preferred client, so that was sweet. You can easily make the transfer online if you do online banking.
Language: Dzongkha & English
Local Currency: Ngultrum (Nu). As of February 2016, 1 Nu= $0.01.
Tipping: I tipped my guide the equivalent of $10/day, as I read $8-$10/day was the norm on numerous forums and travel agency sites.
Internet: Most of the hotels I stayed at had pretty decent Wi-Fi, though there was one that said they had Wi-Fi and it didn’t work. Homestays will likely not have Wi-Fi. If you want to stay connected I recommend getting a local SIM card from TashiCell, which cost about $10 for the SIM and 10 days of credit (depending how much you’ll use it, I had lots of credit left over but I didn’t use mine much), or a KnowRoaming Global SIM Sticker to affix to your regular SIM for local rates.
Food: If you like heat, you’ll love the chili-laden Bhutanese food, though many hotels cater to tourists with more general meat and veggie dishes. I was never hungry, as portions are huge and heavy, typically featuring a heaping bowl of red rice with pasta, potatoes, fish, cheese-topped chilies, cheese-topped mushrooms, turnip flowers and other meats and veggies. That being said the food won’t be what you write home about; it’ll be the well-preserved culture and heritage as well as the beautiful mountainous, green landscapes, 72% of which are covered in forest, unlike anywhere else.
Booze/Tobacco/Weed: Bhutan is a booze-friendly country (the small capital of Thimphu has 700 bars alone), though note the country is dry on Tuesdays, which is also the day many sites and shops are closed. Despite growing plentifully weed is illegal, and tobacco is illegal to sell. You can bring your own cigarettes purchased from another country, but be prepared to pay a 200% tax on them at customs.
Plugs: The outlets varied at the hotels. In some I was able to plug a standard USA-style plug into the wall, while at others I needed the European two-prong kind. Click here for a visual. It’s recommended to get a TravelMore International Travel Adapter with USB ports so you can charge multiple devices with one gadget.
Dress: While it won’t cause an uproar if you wear a tank top and shorts, it’s a respectful gesture to keep shoulders and knees covered when not in your hotel room. This is mandatory in the local temples (as well as no hats!) which you’ll be visiting a lot of. One travel essential to carry that’s great for this is a scarf shawl — which also works as an airplane blanket!
Essential Gear: Even if you visit in the warmer months it’s essential to bring warm clothes, as the mountains can get chilly all year round. Some items I recommend:
- Smartwool socks
- Stonewear Breathe Pants
- Moisture-wicking tops
- Columbia Women’s Snow Eclipse Mid Jacket
- Classic BUFF
- BUFF hat and neck warmer set
- ExOfficio Vona Gloves
- Ahnu Montara II Waterproof Hiking Shoes
- SteriPEN (The tap water is NOT drinkable in Bhutan, though your guide and hotel should supply it. I drink a lot so I also used my SteriPEN)
- XT driFILL Women’s Goose Down Waterproof Hooded Jacket
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