Nestled between India and Tibet, the remote and breath-taking Kingdom of Bhutan has always been popular for restricting the inflow of tourists. 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.
Paying $250-A-Day Royalty In Bhutan
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 the 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.
Backpacking Through Bhutan For Indians
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) you’re still bound by 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 Bhutn, 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).
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 Travelling In Bhutan
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:
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 the population in Tawang are actually Bhutanese, uniting either side of the border into a seamless cultural scene.
Further Reading: My First Impression of Bhutan