Bhutan
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Backpacking Through Bhutan: Is It Possible?

Nestled between India and Tibet, the remote and breath-taking Kingdom of Bhutan, has always been well known, for restricting tourist activity. But if you look at the world now, Bhutan is the only remaining Buddhist Himalayan Kingdom in the entire world, which makes it alluring to tourists. What makes it more alluring is the fact that it has only opened its borders to tourists only in 1974.

Perhaps that’s why I’d initially decided to backpack across Bhutan, I knew I was in store for a travel experience unlike any other. But I wanted to travel like a real backpacker.

people of bhutan

Paying $250-A-Day Royalty

Where many want to experience Bhutan’s culture and learn about the unique sentiments attached to it, travelling to this Unknown Shangri-la is no easy job.

The country requires you to pay $250-a-day in Royalty, against which you will get a pre-booked accommodation, and a complete end-to-end itinerary — right from the morning tea to late evening snacks. You will moreover be accompanied by a tour guide, during your entire period of stay in Bhutan, making it very clear that independent travel, or backpacking, is next to impossible in Bhutan.

What’s worse is that even if you’re ready to pay $250-a day and are ready to compromise with your movement, by getting pre-booked travel arrangements, it’s not guaranteed that your application will be selected. The country allows only a limited number of tourists per season, on first come first serve basis. And if you just happened to be unlucky enough to not make it in the first few thousand people, your application will be put on hold and will only be processed in the upcoming season.

But $250-a-day royalty doesn’t apply to Indians. And I thank the Gods for that, and consider myself lucky. We can cross the border pretty much anytime we want – with only a permit, which can be obtained from the immigration department, at one of the borders. Getting a permit is easy and can be obtained with any photo ID card, which has an address proof. I used my Election Card.

thimpu streets

Backpacking Through Bhuttan For Indians/Bangladeshis

For non-Indians/Bangladeshis, as I said, backpacking is unfortunately totally not possible. Because the $250 daily tariff includes your food, your accommodation and your tour guide. So you’re pretty much restrained in an orderly executed travel plan. And there is no other option, unless you want to take the adventure to a next level, and go vigilante. (Read more about what $250 a day includes, here)

Though you can travel solo (by paying a US$40 surcharge) but you’re still bound with a predefined itinerary and your tour guide. So backpacking and wandering as you wish is practically impossible!

This leaves us to talk about Indians. Yes, we can backpack across Bhutan fairly easily, but with a twist. When I visited Bhutan, and travelled solo, I started from Phuentsholing. And my Route Pemit, which I’d obtained from Phuentsholing, was limited to Thimpu and Paro, with a validity of only 1 week. To get it extended, I was required to visit the immigration headquarter in Thimpu, and indulge in long, annoying – often half understood – talks, with a couple of immigration officers. Rejecting my ‘one-month-long extension request’, they offered me another 15 day extension to four more cities (Bhumtang, Mongar, T/Gang and exit via S/Jongkhar).

Bhutan BRO

Though the process was easy and wasn’t much of a hassle – by Indian standards – I was pretty much restrained to go anywhere but the mentioned 4 cities, and had to leave the country in a 15 day period. Looking at this, I can say that IN A WAY I could manage to backpack, and travel on my will, across Bhutan, and IN A WAY I couldn’t.

Don’t Go Solo

Though Bhutan gives Indians a freedom to roam around a few limited cities – the idea of allowing tourists to go solo never struck the country. The minute you enter their immigration office solo, wearing your untidy backpacking garb, and tell them you want to see their country like a local, they go baffled. “Why would anyone want to do that” they ask themselves, before asking you.

When I was in their immigration office, at Thimpu, I had a similar experience. The immigration officer I was fixed an appointment with, never understood my fascination in solo travelling and ended up asking me – with an indirect order, they call Immigration Letter – to leave the country in next 15 days, following a defined route. Here’s the route map I was entitled to follow:

travel itinerary bhutan

Don’t Get Disappointed

If you could not go to Bhutan but are still interested in going somewhere similar, I’d recommend you go to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, India. Tawang is probably the most culturally and scenically similar to Bhutan, out of anywhere in India. And it has the world’s second largest monastery, after the Potala Palace in Lhasa. Moreover Tawang is only 15 kilometres away from the nearest town of Bhutan called Trashigang, making you feel that you’re almost there except for a border diving the two countries. You will moreover realise that about a quarter of population in Tawang are actually Bhutanese, uniting either side of the border into a seamless cultural scene.

Further Reading: My First Impression of Bhutan

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Filed under: Bhutan

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Shortly after my first real nine-to-five job, I left that lifestyle behind, and with it, everything that didn't fit in my backpack. I've learned that this world is too big (and too interesting!) to stay in one place. I believe that with a little courage and inspiration, everyone has the power to follow their dreams. Just as I've followed mine!

7 Comments

  1. Hello, Dev. Could you, pls, explain what do the $250 mean ? I mean, to whom do you pay it , and when, upon arrival or …? It’s really funny that you can just go backpacking and organize your accommodation, food, etc. as you please . Thanks.

  2. Interesting post but I’m disappointed that only Indians can backpack Bhutan – $250 a day is just crazy! I did go to Tawang though so I feel like at least I saw something similar without the big price tag – India is amazingly diverse 🙂

    • Yes this $250 a day fee disappoints many. But since Bhutan is a very poor country, the government uses a significant part of this money to provide free education and healthcare in the country… And glad to know you’ve visited Tawang, the Buddhist culture around that area is not too different from that of Bhutan.

  3. Whoa, that’s a steep visa fee! I’m an American and there isn’t too many places we will owe that big of a fee (unless we’re trying to expedite). Counting myself lucky here.

    • Yes, American passport is strong and offer much freedom to those holding it. As far as the Bhutanese VISA fee is concerned, the country has kept it so high because it goes straight to provide free education and healthcare to its people.

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