Bhutan and Nepal are both incredibly interesting countries; however the latter is by far the more popular from a tourist perspective.
Having travelled both countries extensively, here are the main differences as I see them from traveller's perspective.
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Neither Nepal nor Bhutan can be reached on direct flights from Europe or the USA so whichever destination you pick is going to involve trying to piece together a number of flights. On this score though Nepal is definitely easier than Bhutan as several major airlines connect Kathmandu to hubs like Dubai, Doha or Delhi so even though you change planes you don’t have to change airlines.
For Bhutan, the only choices for the final leg of the flight are Drukair and Bhutan Airlines, and these only fly to short haul destinations in surrounding countries. Good transit points include Kathmandu, Delhi or Kolkata but don’t be surprised if you need to build in an overnight stop or at least a long layover into your flight plans.
Costs of Visas and Permits
On costs, visas and permits the two countries differ hugely. Let’s start with Bhutan. It used to be incredibly difficult to get a visa but now it’s relatively easy - the big BUT though is that you can only get a tourist visa if you have booked a guide with a licensed tour operator for the full duration of your stay AND you must have contracted to pay a minimum of $250 per day that you are in Bhutan. You cannot get a Tourist Visa as an independent traveller without a guide and so backpackers are pretty much excluded from the country. Whether you book direct with a Bhutanese operator or an international operator the same rules effectively apply. The Tourist Board of Bhutan must be paid at least $250 per day for the full duration of your planned trip in Bhutan. When they have received this amount, they issue your visa. The Tourist Board then deduct $65 per day visa fee from the $250 and send the balance to your tour operator. So not only do you have to pay for a guide for every day of your trip you also must pay $65 per day for your visa. On a longer trip this really adds up. Once you have paid the basic tour price, including the visa fee, there is though little else to pay for, as most trips are fully inclusive of all meals. There are also no charges for museums, permit fees for trekking or other charges to visit major cultural attractions. You can go up and down to the Tiger’s Nest every day on a 14-day trip and not pay a penny more.
By contrast Nepal’s systems for visas and permits are incredibly cheap but a little more complicated. A tourist visa valid for 15/30/90 days can be obtained by most travellers on arrival for just costs US$25/40/100 respectively. You can travel to Nepal and trek anywhere without a guide and if you are a masochist you can carry all your kit as well. This makes Nepal backpacker heaven - great if you are a backpacker, perhaps not so great if you are a tad older. Depending on which area you choose for trekking there will be slightly different permit fees - for the Khumbu valley the fee is $30 + TIMS Fee and Gov. Tax and for the Annapurna Circuit the fee is $27 + TIMS Fee. In both cases these are one off charges so if you decide to take 4 weeks to trek the Annapurna Circuit that is fine. Once you do decide to hire a guide or porter in Nepal there are other fees to consider beyond what they get paid as wages. All crew have to be insured for evacuation and in addition there are small fees to be paid for Garbage Management and for what is called TIMS (Trekkers Information Management System). This is meant to keep a track of who is where in the mountains so that if someone goes missing they can be tracked down. Of course, this only works if you register at every check point and lots of people don’t bother.
Adding all these bits up though they come to less than one day of the Bhutan visa fee and the only costs that begins to be significant in Nepal are the costs of internal flights. For the Everest region return flights are $330 per person and for the Annapurna region they are $230 per person. Unless you plan on trekking for a month, the flight to the Everest region is unavoidable. Annapurna can be reached by bus but a strong spine capable of withstanding 8-10 hours of shaking on a bus is a pre-requisite.
Excluding the costs of visas and permits the cost of trekking varies greatly between the two countries.
In Bhutan, for routes other than the Snowman the daily cost of $185 (the minimum rate of $250 less the visa fee of $65) will cover everything: all your transfers, guide fees, food and all your crew. For the Snowman trek, you will need to budget for about $230 per day ($295 including the visa fee) as you need a minimum of two guides to do this trek safely and yaks are required for all the sections above 4000m. And a yak’s daily rate is much higher than a donkey’s!
In Nepal, assuming you are staying in lodges your cost for trekking with a guide and crew will be about $70 per day including all your food. Most trekking operators now don’t include food in their package prices as the lodge menus have become so extensive. Without food, expect to pay about $45 per day of trekking. (Remember your overall trip cost will also include flights, hotels in Kathmandu, etc)
The experience on the trek could not be more different between the two countries. In Nepal, the main trekking routes were populated with substantial communities well before trekking began. The trekking routes are therefore predominantly the original routes used by local communities for trade - as a result they are well made, often paved and quite busy. The routes up to the various base camps were added later solely for tourists benefit.
In Bhutan, the only people you will encounter in the mountains are nomads raising herds of yak and moving from region to region with the seasons. The paths are often ill-defined, are never paved and as they were not designed for trading traffic, they are much more inclined to disappear up or down much more rugged terrain.
In Nepal, you will almost invariably sleep and eat in lodges or tea houses. These vary in standard between very basic and quite plush but they all offer a roof over your head, warm food and a bed of sorts.
Trekking in Bhutan means camping. They generally have this sorted pretty well and offer good quality tents, good food and little “luxuries” like a mess tent but it is still camping and the loo will still be a hole dug near the campsite.
Climbing any peak is Bhutan is forbidden. They are all considered to be sacred homes of the gods and large fines are levied for breaking the law. Climbing in Nepal is a way of life and, if you can see it, someone has climbed it. Any peak that is significant is separately categorised by the tourist board and climbing fees are charged according to their height and popularity. Everest fees are now $15000 and the fees to climb Island Peak are $350.
Major Cultural Attractions
Kathmandu itself is a major attraction and the area around Thamel is still fascinating even though traffic pressures squeeze it more each year. Besides Thamel, the famous stupa at Swayumbanath and the monkey temple at Pashpatinath are big tourist draws. And for a day trip, the town of Bhaktapur is really fascinating.
But when it comes to bucket list cultural attractions, Bhutan’s Tiger’s Nest trumps everything Nepal has to offer. And it really is every bit as good as all the hype. I would only go out of my way to visit Nepal to trek but if you haven’t seen the Tigers Nest it’s worth all the effort to get to Bhutan by itself.
Scenery If you are visiting either country predominantly to trek, then this may be the single most important consideration and the good news is that this is probably a draw.
Both country's treks take you deep into the highest parts of the Himalaya and both offer breath-taking views of peaks, valleys, lakes and glaciers. Anyone who loves mountains will love both Nepal and Bhutan.
And so the winner is…
If you are short on money this question answers itself: Bhutan is expensive and is likely to stay that way whereas Nepal is still remarkably inexpensive. The price of being cheap though is that all the trekking routes in Nepal are under huge pressure from the sheer volume of trekkers and none of the main routes even begin to come close to being a wilderness experience.
So, if you want to get away from the crowds and see the Himalaya as they might have been in Nepal in the sixties head for Bhutan. It may not stay quiet for long and while you are there trekking you can of course visit the Tiger’s Nest monastery (at least once!)