Bhutan vs Nepal
When considering a trip to the Himalaya, Bhutan and Nepal are the two obvious countries to consider. Both have fascinating cultures and people famed for their friendly outlook, so how do you choose?
If you have the
budget and are interested in experiencing the gentle ways of the Buddhist culture surrounding the Himalayas, whilst trekking through mind blowing scenery, we would recommend visiting both
countries. However, if you only have the budget to visit one, let us take you
through some of the main differences between Nepal and Bhutan, to help you make
Similarities between the countries
Both countries are
rich in history and culture, with breath taking scenery in their mountain regions. They offer ethnic, flavourful cuisine
and welcome visitors with warm hospitality. Nepal is largely Hindu in the valleys, however as you enter the mountainous regions Buddhism becomes the main religion. Whereas, Bhutan is mainly Buddhist
with only around 20% of the population following Hinduism. Whilst these countries
differ in their religious beliefs, you’ll find monasteries and temples scattered
prolifically throughout both their landscapes, with shrines and monuments taking precedence in the cultural architecture. Expect to be involved in religious ceremonies undertaken prior to trekking over what are considered to be sacred lands.
Both countries have incredible trekking opportunities as they are blanketed by the Himalayan mountains, however in Bhutan summitting the peaks is considered disrespectful as each is believed to be the sacred home of gods or spirits, and climbing any peak over 6000m is forbidden. In Nepal there are no such restrictions, climbers are free to summit any peak except Machapuchare (the 'fishtail' peak) in the Annapurna region. Sherpas refrain from standing on the very summit of Everest as this is where Miyolangsangma, the Tibetan Goddess of Mountains, lives. However, there are no laws to state that other climbers can't do this.
Neither Nepal nor
Bhutan can be reached directly via flights from Europe or the USA. Whichever
destination you choose, it is going to involve a number of flights and connections.
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 the surrounding countries. Good
transit points include Kathmandu, Delhi or Kolkata but don’t be surprised if
you need to build an overnight stop or even a long layover into your
flight plans. This could be considered an opportunity to explore somewhere else on your journey.
Visas and Permits
When it comes to visas
and permits, the two countries differ hugely.
Bhutan used to be incredibly difficult to get visas for, but
now it has relaxed somewhat. 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 £200
or $250 per day that you are in Bhutan. You cannot get a Tourist Visa as an
independent traveller without a guide, so backpackers are pretty much
excluded from the country. Whether you book direct with a Bhutanese
operator or an international operator the same rules apply.
This means that once you have paid
the basic tour price, including the visa fee, there is then 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 much cheaper 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 £25 or $30/, £38 or $50 and £76 or $100 respectively.
You can travel to Nepal and trek anywhere without a guide, however you must be
with another person or in a group as per the new solo traveller restrictions
for 2023. This makes Nepal a backpacker heaven.
Depending on which
area you choose for trekking, there will be slightly different permit fees.
Once you 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, Tips 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.
Totalling this up, generally comes to less than one day of the Bhutan visa fee. Costs
only begin to be significant in Nepal when factoring in any internal flights. 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.
The experience on
the trek could not be more different between the two countries.
In Nepal, the main
trekking routes pass through populated communities and are predominantly the original routes
used by local communities for trade. As a result, they are well made, often
paved and well trodden. The routes up to the various base camps were added later
solely for the benefit of the trekkers and adventure seekers.
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,
never paved and as they were not designed for trading traffic, they are much
more inclined to disappear into the much more rugged terrain.
In Nepal, you will
almost invariably sleep and eat in lodges or teahouses. These vary in standard
between very basic and quite plush, but they all offer a roof over your head, good quality food and a bed for the night.
Trekking in Bhutan
means camping. This is generally in good
quality tents, with locally sourced, fresh food and little ‘luxuries’ like a mess tent.
is a vibrant, eclectic mix of colour and smells. The area around Thamel is fascinating, with prayer flags adorning the streets and locals hollaring you in to their brightly fronted bazaars. Besides Thamel, visit the beautiful stupa
at Swayumbanath or the monkey temple at Pashpatinath for an immersion into Hindu culture.
When it comes to
bucket list culture, in our opinion, Bhutan’s Tiger’s Nest trumps everything Nepal has to
offer. It really is every bit as breath taking as is said. We would recommend going
out of your way to visit Nepal for trekking but if you haven’t seen the Tiger's
Nest it’s worth all the effort to get to Bhutan alone.
In terms of
scenery, if you are visiting either country predominantly to trek, then this
may be the single most important consideration and in that respect there is no obvious winner between Nepal and Bhutan. Both country's treks take you deep into the remotest parts of the Himalaya and both offer awe inspiring views of peaks, luscious green valleys, icy, glacial lakes and the formidable glaciers that stand tall over them. Anyone who loves mountains will struggle not to love both Bhutan
If money is a limiting factor, Nepal is much less expensive than Bhutan and this isn't likely to change, with competitive prices on all the major Nepalese routes. Nepal is easier to get to, has higher mountains, will cost you less overall and is a truly magical place. The price you pay for this will be far more people
trekking in Nepal, and the numbers increasing each year. However, for high peak treks and bagging summits, Nepal should be your go to.
…. As you can
probably tell, we’re undecided. Both countries offer iconic scenery, rich cultural
experiences and will leave you with life-long memories.
Maybe you should
just visit both?!