I explained in an earlier post how the government of Bhutan charges a minimum USD $200 per person per day fee to all tourists irrespective of what they do, a fee that’s set to increase to $250 next year. I went on to explain why, if you can afford it, this fee might be worth paying in view of the many unique experiences Bhutan offers.
This is my follow-up post, for there is a converse argument. If you think you would like to visit Bhutan but don’t think you’ll be able to afford it or justify the expense, there are alternatives, such as Darjeeling, Sikkim, Ladakh and Nepal, that offer many of the same things much more cheaply. Whether you’re looking for beautiful scenery, Buddhist culture or mountains to climb, all of these things can be found elsewhere. Why pay $200 per day for them?
If you’re travelling on a budget or are only looking for a variation on the things Bhutan offers, here are five reasons why I think the $200 per day is not worth stumping up for.
1. It’s not the Shangri-La everyone thinks it is
Much is made of the fact that Bhutan only introduced television sets in 1999, and many people think of it as an inward-looking insular Shangri-La, untouched by the trappings of the modern world. But make no mistake: Bhutan is moving rapidly into the 21st century, with good roads, an international airport, and plenty of internet cafés to choose from in the capital Thimphu. I remember one bar I visited in Thimphu being plastered in posters of Manchester United players. The owner had become a Man Utd fan after watching live English Premier League football piped in by satellite TV. He was even able to fill me in on the footy scores I’d missed while out on trek.
There are other less obvious reasons why Bhutan is no Shangri-La. We think of it as a non-violent Buddhist nation where its kings are introducing democracy voluntarily and stray dogs multiply because nobody wants to have them put down. This may be true, but there is also a sinister side, no different from many other countries. In the last 20 years around a sixth of its population, more than 100,000 people, mostly Hindus, have sought refuge in India and Nepal after complaining of persecution in their own country. There is also an Indian underclass. While driving by road from Wangdue to Thimphu I remember being surprised by the number of road crews labouring by the side of the road which seemed to be staffed mainly by women. Upon enquiry I was told that these were Indian citizens who had come over for work with their families, and that their husbands were probably sleeping in the tin shacks that we passed close by.
2. Everything’s more expensive
So you’re forking out $200 a day for food, accommodation, guide and driver, but everything else must be cheap, right? After all, it’s a mostly rural economy, and they have all the resources they need, don’t they. Wrong. Bhutan imports a large quantity of goods from India, and I’ve spoken already of how it’s moving into the modern world. These are a canny people who are well aware of the value of their culture to outsiders, and wily negotiators for sure. This is aided by the fact that most of the tourists who visit are wealthy almost by definition because of the high tourist fee.
I remember being offered a Layan headdress, a bamboo hat with a large spike and colourful woven fabric at the back, worn by the women of the remote village of Laya close to the Tibetan border, for USD $200. This must be a staggering amount of money for a rural society which survives comfortably by trading skills and commodities with its neighbouring villages. I was sure the price would come down dramatically once we started haggling, but no. The price was non-negotiable, and at the end of the day she didn’t need the sale and could afford to let the money pass. The same trinkets you can buy for relatively little in Nepal are often more than twice the price here.
Then there are the ‘tips’. I did the Snowman Trek with an organised tour operator, the Australian adventure travel company World Expeditions, who proudly proclaimed early on in their trip notes that they didn’t ask for a ‘local payment’ like some tour operators (a compulsory hidden cost you must pay in cash on arrival which isn’t included in the operator’s advertised cost for the trip), then on a later page stated that trekkers should allow $400 in ‘tips’ in order to pay the yak drivers and muleteers that would be transporting our equipment on trek. $400 for an essential service isn’t a tip in my (or anybody else’s) book, but local operators had begun charging it, and international companies which need to subcontract to the local companies in order to operate in the country, had allowed such practices to undermine their own responsible tourism policies.
World Expeditions were by no means the only tour operator doing this, and to put the price in context, $400 was comparable to what I paid in tips the previous month to our elite Nepali Sherpa team on Gasherbrum, an 8000m peak in Pakistan, to risk their lives fixing ropes and transporting equipment through ice falls at a very high altitude.
3. The weather is unreliable
The further east you go in the Himalayas, the wetter it gets. Bhutan is right at the eastern end of the high Himalayas, and Bhutan is certainly wet. I remember having to put up with heavy rain almost every day when I did the Snowman Trek in October, supposedly prime trekking season, and yet our cook, who was doing the trek for the umpteenth time, said it was one of the half dozen Snowman Treks he’d done when he’d had really great weather. They say more people have climbed Everest than have completed the Snowman Trek, and around half of the people who start it have to turn round. The reason for this is they tend to use yaks rather than porters to carry equipment (porters are almost unheard of in Bhutan, yet are a part of life not far away in Nepal), and a lot of snow up high can close the passes. I got a right soaking, but I completed the Snowman Trek, so I was lucky.
Perhaps as annoying as the rain is the cloud. Even when it isn’t raining, cloud hangs around the high peaks, and getting a great view of giant white snowcaps is rare. I spent three days trekking up to Jhomolhari, one of Bhutan’s most beautiful mountains, and a further three days camping by its base, but rarely got even a glimpse of glacier.
4. The trekking is better in Nepal
This is key for me, as a very keen hiker. The fact is, they’ve been doing it for longer in Nepal, the scenery is more dramatic, and the weather and the trails are better.
I’ve already talked about the weather, and the combination of yaks tramping over very wet surfaces can make the trails a quagmire, where it’s difficult to admire the scenery because you’re constantly having to watch where you’re putting your feet, but some of the other factors need qualifying.
It’s standard practice when trekking in the Himalayas to go with a crew of guides, kitchen staff and porters (or in the case of Bhutan, yak drivers and horsemen) who carry your kit from camp to camp, pitch the tents, cook dinner and wake you up every morning with bed tea and breakfast before breaking camp for the next day’s trekking. It sounds luxurious, and for a wild camper it is, but some people do it better than others, and in Nepal they’ve become very good at it. The food’s better, and they break and pitch camp more quickly. Often in Bhutan I found myself waiting around in the cold after breakfast, and at the end of the day I nearly always ended up erecting my own tent because it was quicker. This may sound churlish, but if you’re paying premium prices in Bhutan, you should be getting better service, not worse.
There’s not just the standards of service they’ve become good at in Nepal. They’ve generally had more time to adapt to responsible tourism practices. There are irresponsible operators in Nepal, for sure, but there are also staff who are very keen environmental practitioners, for whom it would be unthinkable to leave litter behind on trail. One night on the Snowman Trek I stayed in one of the most despicable campsites I’ve ever seen in one of the most beautiful locations, beside a lake in a bowl high above a deep forested valley. Broken glass, plastic bottles, tin cans, old boots and toilet paper seemed to cover every square metre of the place we stopped to camp in, but nobody seemed greatly embarrassed by it.
Finally, the scenery. Bhutan’s landscape tends to be more rolling, with giant snow-capped mountains spread out on the horizon at intervals, often obscured by clouds. Beautiful, for sure, which I have very many happy memories of, but it’s not like parts of Nepal, where you’re right in amongst it, surrounded by the most improbable giants at every turn. I have some great photographs from my trekking in Bhutan, but when I think of my all time favourite Himalayan views, they are elsewhere.
5. You can’t go mountaineering
It’s a little known fact that Bhutan contains the highest unclimbed mountain in the world. 7570m Gangkar Punsum is the highest mountain in Bhutan and the 40th in the world, but as of 2011 no one has yet set foot on its summit. Why? Locals in the Laya and Lunana region of Bhutan believe the summits to be home of the mountain gods, and by climbing them we profane the deities. After a British team attempted Gangkar Punsum in 1986, they complained to the government and a general ban on mountaineering was introduced as a result. While other countries such as Nepal have confronted the problem of offending the gods by a permit system and designated holy mountains which remain unclimbed, Bhutan chose to introduce a blanket ban which remains in force to this day. So while the country would be a mountaineer’s paradise with literally hundreds of remote unclimbed peaks to choose from, if climbing’s your activity then head elsewhere.
That’s it then – why bother going to Bhutan, when I can visit Nepal far more cheaply?
Certainly, if money is a consideration, then I’ve argued that you’re far better off going to Nepal. Not only that, Nepal has and does many things better than Bhutan. But I loved Bhutan, and I’ll be going back one day I’m sure. Why? For many reasons I’ve outlined in my previous post, and if you think you can afford it then you should read this as well. IMHO, both sides of the argument are equally valid depending on your perspective.