Camping in Beautiful Bhutan is not as Far Reaching as You Think

Bhutan 1
Me at Tiger’s Nest Monastery

By Mary Lyons

When I tell people I went to Bhutan, I get mixed reactions. Sometimes I get asked, “Where’s Bhutan?” Others say, “Oh, is everybody really happy there?” in reference to their reputation for measuring Gross National Happiness. But the response I get most often is, “Wow, I want to go there, but ______…” You can fill in the blank. There’s always a but, and when it comes to Bhutan, there are two main obstacles that prevent people from visiting this amazing country. Number 1 is money. Number 2 is lack of knowledge that results in the misconception that getting there is difficult.

 

SAVE YOUR PENNIES, AND NICKELS… AND DIMES… AND PROBABLY A FEW DOLLARS

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Main building of Bhutan’s airport. It was completely empty except for one custom’s official.

Money is a justifiable obstacle. It can be expensive just to get to Bhutan. I flew from Kuwait to Kathmandu, and then on to Bhutan, for less than 500 USD round trip. However, my friend from Boston who met me there paid 1500 USD, also going to Kathmandu first. Before flying to Bhutan, travelers will have to fly into India, Nepal, Singapore, or Bangkok first. There are two airlines that fly to Bhutan. I know, I know. I couldn’t believe it either. One is Druk Air and the other is Bhutan Airlines. The planes are fairly small due to the decent into Paro, between two mountains. You’ll want to be awake for that.

Most people who are aware of Bhutan’s tourism industry already know that everyone pays a fee per day to go to Bhutan, and it is not cheap. It does, however, include everything but tips, alcohol, and souvenirs.

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Town square in Thimpu and view from my hotel room.

Tourism fees are set by the government and do not vary from operator to operator within Bhutan. I consulted several websites for a variety of tour operators within Bhutan and for the trek I wanted to do, every operator charged the same price. That’s because they don’t charge by the activity you want to do, they charge a fee per day that is set by the government. For groups of three or more, the fee is 250 USD a day. For a solo traveler or a couple, it is a bit more per day. I went with one friend, and we paid 280 USD each per day. I think a solo traveler will pay 300 USD per day. This daily fee is probably the single biggest obstacle for people who want to visit Bhutan.

Wow, that is steep, you say? Actually, it’s not a bad considering what is included. All of our lodging, food, guides, visa, and any entrance fees (not sure there are any…), and a 65 USD tourism fee is included to ensure responsible tourism. The only things not included are alcohol, souvenirs, and tips for the guides. If you know how long you want to stay in Bhutan, you can multiply the number of days by 250 USD (or 280 USD or 300 USD) and you’ll know how much your tour costs without even asking. All the tour companies I checked online post this government set fee on their website. Tourists are not charged this fee for the day of departure.

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We were greeted by this stunning sight after returning to Paro after a short walk to a museum.

There are no hidden fees. You will not be asked to pay for this or that when you arrive. I needed to rent a sleeping bag from my tour operator and I was told up front before arriving what that would cost. However, if you are trekking, you need to have your own gear because it is not available to buy within Bhutan. I rented a sleeping bag that belonged to the manager of Snow Leopard Treks, the local tour company I used. Even in Thimpu and Paro, trekkers cannot find gear, so it is important to bring everything the tour company says to bring with you.

VISA TO BHUTAN? THAT’S THE EASIEST PART!

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Bhutanese people at a local temple at one of the largest prayer wheels I’ve ever seen.

Everyone needs a visa to enter Bhutan except people from India, Bangladesh, and Maldives if they have at least six months remaining on their passports. Everyone visiting Bhutan for tourism purposes must also book through a licensed tour operator, of which there are many. The Bhutanese government does this in order to protect their country and their people from the negative effects of tourism, (not sure this is 100% effective) and also to limit the numbers of people who visit each year so they can prevent environmental damage.  They have never reached the maximum number of tourists allowed in one year, according to my guide, but numbers are growing.

Your tour operator will tell you exactly what to send them in order for them to get your visa. The cost is included in the daily fee. No special documents are required. You’ll just need to photocopy and scan some documents to email to your tour operator.

I recommend booking through one of Bhutan’s many tour operators rather than one in a surrounding country that offers a package including Bhutan. Here’s why. One, your money will go directly to the people of Bhutan. Two, you’ll be certain that you are getting the right information about your tour/trek. Three, you will pay less. There will be no extra fees that go to the tour operator. Tour operators in other countries are just middle men. They have to contact and work with a tour operator in Bhutan to book your tour, and you will pay for that middleman service.

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Me, Big Buddha, and the only decent cup of coffee I had during the entire stay in Bhutan.

 

IF EVERYTHING IS PAID FOR, I DON’T NEED CASH, RIGHT?

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Red Panda is one of two local brews, neither of which is worth writing about.

Wrong! If you plan to buy alcohol or souvenirs, you’ll need cash. Most places do not accept credit cards. Be warned, most souvenirs are made in China. Or Nepal. Or India. Not so much in Bhutan, although most tour operators will take tourists to the Handicrafts Emporium where people with disabilities are learning to create some beautiful works of art, including mandalas, Buddha sculptures, and traditional weavings.

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The other local brew, also not worth writing about. But hey, it’s beer, right.

The main reason you’ll need cash, though, is for gratuities for your guide, cook, and any helpers during your trek. Tipping is most definitely expected. It was impossible to get a straight answer about how much to tip the guides on our trek. I checked my Lonely Planet guide and that was also no help. My guide was not much help either. It is not in their culture to ask or even really discuss money, but he did give me some idea.

 

I’M A SOLO FEMALE TRAVELER. IS IT SAFE TO GO ALONE?

My response to this question is YES! Absolutely. Bhutanese people are warm and welcoming. The crime rate in Bhutan is one of the lowest in the world and they have too much pride to harm anyone and risk “losing face.” Anyone visiting Bhutan will not need to carry large amounts of money because most everything is already paid for.

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Artists at the Handicraft Emporium.

You’ll be the only female on your trek unless you’ve joined another group. Your guide, your cook, and any helpers will be men. The horses might be female. Either way, it won’t matter because you can rest assured you will be safe.

 

WHERE SHOULD I GO ON MY TREK IN BHUTAN?

Trekking in Bhutan depends on how much time and money a traveler has. Regardless of both, there are several trekking options and tour operators will tell you in detail about the trekking options they offer. There are three most popular treks in Bhutan, but none of them will be crowded. To minimize environmental damage, a toilet tent will be provided and you will be very thankful.

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Cheri Monastery day trek is quite easy for most fitness levels.

Here’s some information to give you an idea of what to expect from these three treks.

Cholmolhari Trek – app 13 days including flight days – 8 days, tent camping – includes a trek to Cheri Monastery and Tiger’s Nest and other cultural sights, like the Folk Heritage Museum – No one is allowed to climb Cholmolhari because it is sacred. This trek is challenging and you’ll be rewarded with absolutely stunning views and a great sense of accomplishment. You’ll also see some yak farms and yaks are awesome.

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Me and our guide, Sonam, at Cheri Monastery. The caretaker wasn’t there so we couldn’t go inside.

 

Gangtey Trek – 7 nights, 8 days – 5 nights tent camping –  includes a visit to the Folk Heritage Museum – considered easiest trek in Bhutan – trek through the valley of Phobjikha which is a glacial valley at 3000 meters above sea level – This is the trek for bird watchers or those who want an easier trek, but one that still showcases the beauty of Bhutan.

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Prayer wheels on the way to Tiger’s Nest.

 

Bhutan Culture and Haa Valley Trek (this is the one I did) –  app 9 days total – 2 nights 3 days trekking – 2 nights tent camping – 1 day trek to Cheri Monastery – 1 day trek to Tiger’s Nest – visit to Handicraft Emporium and other cultural sites and temples in Paro and Thimpu – Haa Valley was opened to tourism in 2001 and is still unspoiled by tourism. There is an opportunity to walk around and see the small, traditional town of Haa.  You’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the Haa Valley and Cholmolhari.

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Tiger’s Nest, this time without my big head in the way. Absolutely stunning and not treacherous, although it doesn’t seem that way from this view.

 

No matter what trek you choose in Bhutan, altitude will be a consideration, but in the three treks I mentioned, the highest point is 14,000 feet, but camping is not at that elevation. I did not experience headaches or altitude sickness on this trek, but everyone is different. All treks will have challenging changes in elevation and some steep ups and downs, but your guide will set a pace that everyone in your group can handle. Trekking in Bhutan doesn’t come cheap, but it does come with many rewards.

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This is a yak. Yaks are awesome.

 

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Spinning the prayer wheels. They are everywhere.

 

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53 thoughts on “Camping in Beautiful Bhutan is not as Far Reaching as You Think

  • October 5, 2017 at 12:23 am
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    So useful! Thinking of going over by myself. My only hesitation is my SO not being able to come on this, but I suppose I could always go again!

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  • September 27, 2017 at 5:23 am
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    Congrats on travelling solo. I would not be so brave. Buthan really looks like one of those hidden paradises in the world.gorgeous photos! Must put it on my bucket list!

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    • October 7, 2017 at 4:09 am
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      Actually, I had planned to go solo on this trip because I don’t know many people who have the time AND money to do it, but a friend from Boston ended up joining me. I was, however, the only female. Most workers in the tourism industry are males. But Bhutan is an incredibly safe country, whether you’re a solo traveler or not.

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  • September 26, 2017 at 2:16 pm
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    It looks like you had a great time! Bhutan is one of those more mysterious countries. All the photos are gorgeous and someplace to definitely put on my long travel list!

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    • September 30, 2017 at 2:43 am
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      Thanks Sarah! I’m glad you enjoyed the photos. It is a very photogenic country. Hard to get a bad picture there.

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  • September 26, 2017 at 9:34 am
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    This is such an amazing trip. And that place looks so interesting to visit. Will definitely put this on my book mark as my future references for my next travel visits.

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  • September 26, 2017 at 5:38 am
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    I’m definitely a little embarrassed to say I don’t know where Bhutan is but it sure looks beautiful! I’m hoping to do a solo trip somewhere soon and I’m glad to hear that this is a safe destination for female travelers. Definitely adding it to my bucket list and thank you so much for introducing me to such a lovely place!

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    • September 30, 2017 at 2:47 am
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      Bhutan is just north of India and east of Nepal. It is very safe, and even though I was not a solo female traveler, I was the only female. My friend from Boston joined me on this trip. It is a beautiful place, and very safe.

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  • September 25, 2017 at 1:54 pm
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    How beautiful!!! Good sh, seeing different parts of the world is so inspiring and just makes me want to pack all my bags and take the kids everywhere! I’d really like to visit Bhutan now! Absolutely beautiful!

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    • October 7, 2017 at 4:05 am
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      I didn’t really think about taking kids to Bhutan as I don’t have kids myself, but now you’ve got me thinking about it. Locals love children, and the hotels we stayed in could certainly accommodate them. I didn’t see any children trekking, but they must have been because we saw a family with kids, ages about 10 and 12 I’d say, and there was nothing to do in that area except hike. I’d recommend bringing plenty of familiar snacks from home, for the kiddos. lol

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  • September 24, 2017 at 11:19 pm
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    What an amazing sounding trip! I never thought about going to Bhutan but I love the way you talk about people’s attitudes out there. Great tips about booking tours there and as a female travelling solo.

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    • October 7, 2017 at 4:03 am
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      Yes, Ellie, it is a very safe country and certainly beautiful. It is unlike any other Asian country I’ve visited.

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  • September 24, 2017 at 10:50 pm
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    Wow!! What an amazing experience. Go you getting to the top – that’s fab! Lovely photos, I have travel envy!

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  • September 24, 2017 at 9:01 pm
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    Bhutan does look so amazing. I just love all of the pictures you have of it. The monastery does look amazing. Love the color and the architecture. The yak was pretty darn cool as well.

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    • September 30, 2017 at 2:55 am
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      Thanks, David. Glad you enjoyed the pictures. We saw several monasteries and they were all beautiful, very peaceful.

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  • September 24, 2017 at 8:49 pm
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    Wow! What an adventure, it sounds like the experience of a life time. I’ve always hid away from camping, I love the idea of it but I just know how much of a drama queen I am! I think the fee is such a savvy yet simplistic approach

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  • September 24, 2017 at 6:17 pm
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    WOW! what an amazing experience, lucky you! I would have never guessed it was so cheap to go there and camp. I’ll have to keep this in mind for my next travels, I’ll mention this to my younger brother too (he LOVES to travel). Great photos by the way ; )

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    • September 25, 2017 at 4:25 am
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      Actually, Eloise, most people think it is quite expensive due to the daily fee, which is a minimum of $250/day. It does include everything except tips, but on most of my travels to other countries, I am well below $250 a day. So glad you enjoyed the photos. It is a photogenic country, that’s for sure!

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  • September 24, 2017 at 3:51 pm
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    My reaction to Bhutan is that I have seen the King when he came to Chiang Mai years ago. I have never been though and love to read about it. I knew there was some difficulty or fee to get into the country, I’d go alone so I’d be $300 per day which seems fine. I don’t really drink alcohol so the only extra would be souvenirs and tips. I plan to visit every country in the world so will visit Bhutan and this introduction is invaluable.

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    • September 25, 2017 at 4:26 am
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      James, it’s not really difficult once you connect with a tour operator, which is a requirement. No one is allowed to travel there without a guide for environmental reasons. It’s an extraordinary place.

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  • September 24, 2017 at 3:25 pm
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    Wow, so many beautiful photos for your visit. At the risk of sounding completely uneducated (which I promise, I am not!), I have to admit I had not heard of Bhutan until I read this post. Thanks for helping me learn something new today!

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    • September 25, 2017 at 4:27 am
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      You’re welcome! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for reading!

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  • September 24, 2017 at 2:55 am
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    WOW! Looks like an amazing trip! Thank you for sharing!

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  • September 23, 2017 at 5:22 pm
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    I’m so in awe of you, for Bhutan is somewhere I’d love to visit. I’m terrible at great heights though and fear I would suffer badly from altitude sickness. That said, the landscape looks so lush and fresh, I’d like to try. Great tip about booking from a tour operator; I’d much prefer that my money goes to the people there than other places. Maybe one day I can visit the happiest country on earth!

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    • September 25, 2017 at 4:28 am
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      Lisa, you could look into tours or treks that don’t go to such high altitudes. Altitude sickness is rare below 12000 feet, and there are trips in Bhutan where you could see and experience a lot while staying below 12000 feet.

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  • September 23, 2017 at 4:33 pm
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    This is the best detailed guide I have read ever for any country before, like how we can save money, how we can get the visa. Bhutan looks like a really marvelous place with great sights and culture.

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    • September 25, 2017 at 4:29 am
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      Thank you, Heraa! I’m glad you found it helpful. That’s exactly what I hoped people would say.

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  • September 23, 2017 at 3:29 pm
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    Firstly, well done lady for making it up all the way to the top. Pictures are gorgeous especially that mammoth yak.

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    • September 25, 2017 at 4:31 am
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      Thank you, Lindsey! I am obsessed with yaks. I saw my first one in Tibet. I was so excited my Tibetian guide joked with me that I came to Tibet just to see yaks, not Potala Palace. LOL! They are such cool animals!

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  • September 23, 2017 at 3:03 pm
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    I guess talking from the monetary point of view i have been lucky to see Bhutan in not so expensive cost since I am from India. Having said this Bhutan is a beautiful country and one must go and explore it 🙂

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  • September 23, 2017 at 9:29 am
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    Bhutan is one of those far away places that I would love to get a chance to visit. I have honestly never heard of a tourist all included fee. Thank you for explaining it the way you did. At first I thought, way expensive, but if you break it down to what is included, not to bad.

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    • September 23, 2017 at 2:45 pm
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      Bhutan makes for an expensive trip, especially if you’re coming from North America. I was very fortunate that my flight wasn’t expensive because I flew from Kuwait. But I think the expense is worth it if you’re interested in experiencing this culture. It is different from any other Asian country I’ve visited.

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  • September 23, 2017 at 9:14 am
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    I loved how you explained about getting visa for Bhutan. That is actually the easiest part. I am an Indian and Bhutan is our neighbouring country. It’s a pretty place indeed!

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    • September 23, 2017 at 2:47 pm
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      Yes, Bhumi, I saw so many Indian travelers while I was in Bhutan. I thought that was great that Bhutan makes visiting easy for their neighbors. And I agree, it is a pretty place. 🙂

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  • September 23, 2017 at 7:24 am
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    I feel there is good and bad in the government controlling the tourism in Bhutan – of course I completely understand that they want to protect their country from the negative effects of tourism, which you do see happening in many places. At least with the prices set, you know what to expect and you know what should be included. I would love to visit Bhutan one day, it is on my bucket list.

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    • September 23, 2017 at 2:50 pm
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      I agree, Soraya, there is good and bad with any government involvement in tourism, even in the US. But I feel like the Bhutan government does a fairly good job of being transparent about where the money goes. Also, supposedly the people who work in tourism are paid a “living wage” so that they don’t depend entirely on tips, but I’m not sure about that. They work very hard and tips are expected, and I feel deserved.

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  • September 23, 2017 at 3:47 am
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    I have been to Bhutan twice. It is such a gorgeous country. Being an Indian, it was very affordable for me to visit Bhutan. It is more expensive for western travelers. But it is worth the expense. There is no place like Bhutan- The last Shangri La of the world.

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    • September 23, 2017 at 6:11 am
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      I saw a lot of Indian travelers there and our guide told us that the good relationship between Bhutan and India made it easy for Indian travelers to visit. I think that is wonderful because many people in India don’t have so much money to travel outside of India.

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  • September 23, 2017 at 3:34 am
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    Good information, thanks! It’s on my bucket list, even though I’m of an age!

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    • September 23, 2017 at 2:53 pm
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      Gail, there are so many different tour options for Bhutan, and all of them allow you to see their country your way. They’ve made improvements in infrastructure in the last 10 years as well. I compared notes with another travel blogger who went in the early 90s, and it’s much easier to get around now. The local tour operators will work with you to make your visit work for you.

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  • September 23, 2017 at 2:44 am
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    I love your tip about booking a tour while in Bhutan from the Bhutan people, rather than a neighboring area. I hadn’t really thought about that before, but it makes perfect sense. Bhutan seems so far away, but I’d love to experience it while in that part of the world!

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    • September 23, 2017 at 2:57 pm
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      It was an amazing experience, filled with beauty, curiosity, and sometimes confusion. A tour operator based in Bhutan is a must, in my opinion. There are many to choose from and they are qualified, certified, and well prepared.

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  • September 23, 2017 at 12:17 am
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    You are so blessed to have been able to visit here! Everything looks so gorgeous and amazing!!! Love your photographs!

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    • September 23, 2017 at 2:59 pm
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      Thank you, Shell! It’s hard to take a bad picture in Bhutan. I just had a little Nikon D3300 pocket camera on this trip.

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  • September 22, 2017 at 11:50 pm
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    That looks amazing! I haven’t traveled out of the US, but I am creating a bucket list for overseas travel. I think I might have to add this to my list. Your post was very informative and now makes me want to do more research on going on vacation there.

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    • September 23, 2017 at 3:03 pm
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      Echo, I would encourage you to explore Bhutan as an overseas option. There’s no other place like it on earth. There’s a reason so many people have never heard of it. The tour operator you choose will guide you through the process of visas, which is actually really easy. Just involves scanning and emailing what they request. 🙂

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  • September 22, 2017 at 11:35 pm
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    This is amazingly thorough information. I’m not sure I’ll ever find myself a solo traveler in Bhutan, but I did used to be a travel agent. You have thought of everything!! Great post — great blog!

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    • September 23, 2017 at 3:08 pm
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      Thank you, Darlene! I tried to consider everything for the planning stages so people can see it is actually fairly easy to get there. I wasn’t solo on this trip, but I was the only female. A friend from Boston actually joined me. He’s traveled overseas before, so he was comfortable booking his flights which we coordinated so we could meet up in Kathmandu for a couple of days. But for everything else, our tour operator guided us through every step.

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  • September 22, 2017 at 10:45 pm
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    I have honestly never heard of Bhutan but it sounds so interesting! I cant think of anywhere else in the world where you have to pay a fee to stay but everything is included! That’s actually a really clever idea because at least you know how much money you need. Wow 14000 feet is high! Do you get short of breath when trekking?

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    • September 23, 2017 at 3:13 pm
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      I was definitely winded at 14000 feet, but we weren’t up there that long. I didn’t get a headache, even when we camped at 12000 feet. I had terrible headaches when I did Kilimanjaro, which is even higher, but didn’t experience this in Bhutan. Our guide was our pacesetter, not letting us go faster or push harder than we needed to. The fee, while expensive, made it easy to travel there. We took money for tips and souvenirs, and alcohol also was not included. I loved that we didn’t have to pay at restaurants and hotels because it was all included.

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  • September 22, 2017 at 10:03 pm
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    Bhutan is probably #1 on my list of places to visit because of the mystery still surrounding it- but I’m embarrassed to say I had no idea about the per-day fee! That sounds like a pretty good idea actually, easy to budget for! And nice being able to relax about money once you get there. I love the Bhutanese attitude towards the royal family, who seem to really care about their people.

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    • September 23, 2017 at 3:20 pm
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      Hannah, the fee is actually a convenient way to travel because tourists don’t have to pay for every little thing as they go. Makes checking in to hotels and dining really easy. Tipping was somewhat challenging because I couldn’t get a straightforward answer about how much to tip, but everything else was easy. There are varying opinions about the Royal Family in Bhutan, but the overall attitude is positive. From the outside, it seems they have a fairly transparent system of government. After visiting there, and talking extensively with my guide, I think there is definitely a part of the culture there where the idea of Gross National Happiness might not be applicable. Like any government, there are multiple sides to the story.

      Reply

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