Solo travel in Bhutan on a Budget
Bhutan in my head had taken the place of this mystic land that very few people have free access to and Indians are among the few (three to be precise) country nationals who get a free pass (at least for 7 days) to the kingdom of Bhutan.
So, why did I choose not to go to Bhutan when I had months of travel time at hand? when I could afford to spend a month in Rishikesh and a month in Mcleodganj just because I liked it there. The answer is simple – It still is expensive. While unlike most country nationals who have to pay USD 250 during the season and USD 200 during off-season per day (yes, a whopping $250), Indians get free access to Bhutan for 7 days with little difficulty and this can be extended for another 7 days in Thimpu (and maybe another 7? I don’t know).
What makes it an expensive country to travel in?
Even before I dig in, I want to add that it is expensive for a solo traveler, it wouldn’t be so expensive in a group.
There are no hostels in Bhutan – this should be self-explanatory on how I ended up spending the most money on stay.
The first night had to be booked online owing to immigration requirements (for solo travelers) so I got the cheapest room in Paro (my next stop) which was Rs. 1400. That was a discounted price.
A lot of properties are not listed online so they definitely are more expensive options online however when I went looking for a room the next day, the average cost of the room was Rs. 2000. Some (okay, not some but one) even denied me a room on account of being solo.
I took the cheapest room I found in Thimpu for Rs. 1300 and it’s by far one of the shittiest rooms I have ever stayed in. The taps were leaking, the carpet was torn, one frost glass was missing in bathroom, geyser didn’t work, everything looked dirty.
So, I moved into a homestay for Rs. 2000 the next day which is the most I have paid for my stay in years.
Food is actually not that expensive in Bhutan except tea which was an average of Rs. 30 (It helped me limit my consumption which is preventing me from going vegan).
At the local places, I could eat a good meal for less than Rs. 150.
While there are buses to most places, they are limited and generally one or two early in the morning. I assumed it was to protect the environment which Bhutan is so famous for but then there are so many more taxis plying on the same route. Which becomes an alternative to buses.
There are frequent shared cabs between most places (Phuntsholling, Paro, and Thimpu).
There are limited options to go to tourist attractions though or anything you might want to try other than the regular route. Booking a taxi all to yourself is, of course, expensive and how do you meet people to share a cab with without the hostel environment.
It’s not a country, you can look at in the map and decide on the next location. Because either one needs a permit to go there or there are no options to reach that place.
It’s best to take the local SIM card which helps in booking places as most cafes and stays don’t have wifi.
How difficult is it to get the Permit as a Solo traveler?
I did think it was going to be challenging to get the permit. Most articles I had read talked about how one should just tag along with out groups at the permit office or get a letter from one of the tour companies (costs Rs. 500). But I needed to know how easy or difficult it is to go there without doing any of this, it turns out it’s not that difficult (More on my Visa experiences here).
Below are the documents needed at the permit office:
- Hotel booking voucher (for the first night)
- Filled form (form can be collected at the permit office)
- Copy of ID proof (I gave voter id)
- An Undertaking stating you’re going at your own risk (This has to be addressed to the Regional Officer, immigration office)
While every single person did say, ‘Why alone?’, it wasn’t too much of a hassle.
Locals on traveling Solo:
‘Oh, you alone?, you will not enjoy’, ‘Why alone? next time come with friend’, ‘Why you travel alone?’ are just some of the things I got from locals. While most of them felt I should have had company, all of them were beyond helpful.
Everyone’s suggestion that I should seek companionship did worry me a little bit about the safety aspect.
Safety in Bhutan:
It was a strange mix of reactions to the topic of safety. A guy I met in the bus told me about the recent rape of a minor and a murder case in the small town of Paro, while another lady felt comfortable directing me to a dark alley at 7 p.m. saying, ’it’s really safe in Bhutan’.
I personally felt comfortable in Paro but not so much in Thimpu where there’s a large Indian population. A guy followed me for a bit until I looked him in the eye and took an about-turn, all this on a busy street in the center at 7 p.m.
More on safety here.
My least favorite thing about Bhutan:
To get to my least favourite let me start with my favorite thing about traveling – freedom. I feel most free when I’m traveling, in an unknown land among unknown people but Bhutan didn’t give me that feeling.
It has a large Indian tourist population, limited availability of public transport limits your movement as well. I couldn’t just look at the map and decide to go that place near a river or up the mountain, it was either an expensive cab ride away or not permitted.
The regular permit is only for Thimpu and Paro, to go further one needs another permit in Thimpu or even to extend the initial 7-days permit. I reached there on a Thursday evening and it was closed for the next three days.
My favorite thing about Bhutan:
Oh there are so many –
I was laughing about how every building looks the same and just so beautiful almost like its government approved the design or something and guess what? It is. The design gets approved by the government and so there are very similar traditional houses with painted window and door sills with traditional paint.
People really are so free there and happier. The entire infrastructure seems to be around peace of mind, there’s no honking policy, there are few street lights, the ones that are there are also soft light. There’s no harsh light or sound in most of Bhutan. Most people I met were very helpful.
If I had to talk about only one thing from Bhutan it would be just how beautifully green it is. From one mountain to another, it’s all green. No madness of flyovers, ropeways, trains, nothing – a simple well maintained highway and roads in the town.
It’s one country where every single person will understand when you’ll say no to a plastic bottle. They get it.
Bhutan’s tourism is centered around – ‘High value, low impact’ which explains the per day fee.
What country made it to your wishlist after something you read about it?