We are back from our backpacking trip to Bhutan, the country of happiness but touch is still intact and memories are fresh. We had been planning this trip for last couple of years and finally packed our bags in 2016 summers to explore Western Bhutan (Thimphu, Punakha, Haa Valley & Paro) over a 9 day trip. All this, we could achieve by spending less that 1000 rupees ($15) a day. Thankfully, Indians are allowed to travel on their own which helped us to achieve this feat. Tourists from all other countries have to mandatory engage with tour operators at a minimum daily budget of $250. So how did we manage such a fulfilling trip on such low a budget (including stay, travel and food)?
1. Stay at budget hotels in proximity to city center
To save costs on transport, we always look up for an affordable clean place in the city center. This also gives us a chance to feel the pulse of the place. We did the same in Bhutan and this helped us a lot in saving time and money. City centers, the Clock Tower (Norzim Lam) and Town Square in Bhutan’s major tourist cities of Thimphu & Paro respectively, provide multiple budget hotel options. Major tourist attractions can be explored at an affordable rate from these either by walking or by riding in a shared taxi. The city centers are also close to multiple eateries, taxi stands and bus stands.
For more stay options at Bhutan, please read: Bhutan Backpacking: Hotel Booking Tips
2. Explore Bhutan cities on foot!
Explore cities ringed with mountains on foot? Yes, you read it right. Following the first tip of taking accommodation in city center makes this tip a cake walk.
Cities in Bhutan are small with major attractions located within a radius of 2 to 4 kms from the city centre. The best part is that the walk through cities in Bhutan is unlike anything you would expect. We walked along the river, through the local markets, crossing home farms and filled our lungs with fresh air. It did not seem like we are walking through a busy city. Less and disciplined traffic, clean roads and beautiful sights make the walk easy. Except Thimphu, no other Bhutan city has public transport and walking or hiring taxis are the only options. Trust us, try the walk!
3. Use public transportation: Coaster buses and shared cabs
Coaster buses and shared cabs are the best option for inter-city transport. Bus options are limited (low frequency, so book in advance) and finding exact information is difficult (as different private operators are licensed to ply on different routes). Buses are super comfortable and dot punctual (Please do not be late!). You will enjoy Bhutanese and Bollywood music while curiously looking out at breathtaking views. In case, you want to save time, shared cabs are really good options. We opted for bus for all inter city travel and followed this itinerary. You will easily get them in most of the cities unless you are diverging from the main route. Individual cabs can be expensive if you are single or two in number. Bus rides are also accompanied with stops to eat at local family run Bhutanese food joints, something which you may miss otherwise.
4. Enjoy Bhutanese delicacies at local restaurants
If you have traveled so far, you will certainly not want to miss trying the local Bhutanese dishes. There are a few restaurants which offer Bhutanese buffet but we found them to be a bit expensive. There are multiple small family run restaurants on the highways and in cities which offer homemade food at much cheaper prices. One will not find such places on Google but definitely your eyes and nose will be able to spot them! We had multiple meals of Ema/Shamu Datshi (prepared primarily in cheese and chilies) with red rice at such places.
5. Go beyond the guide book
You are standing amidst heavenly green mountains and clear air. One will spot multiple monasteries and temples on a hill top. Places that may not even have a mention in your guide book. Should that stop you from exploring it? No! We did multiple such hikes. These trails were free of tourists, wind through the villages, across the rivers and go straight into the heaven that is the mountainous forest. We updated our guide book with the new findings!
6. Shop for souvenirs at Paro and Tiger’s Nest Monastery
One shopping spree can crash all your budget calculations! Since most of the things in Bhutan are imported from neighbouring countries, they come with an extra cost. So, after exploring all major cities of Western Bhutan, we realized that Paro is the best place to buy any souvenirs from Bhutan. Same souvenirs will cost you almost half in Paro of what you would be paying in Thimphu. Rates are further lower at the local market situated at the base of the Tiger’s Monastery trek. Options are limited here and you will be able to strike a deal after slight negotiation. Please do not haggle much as these will be the lowest rate that you will find all across Bhutan 🙂
So if you are planning a trip to Bhutan and don’t want to sign up for one of those tour packages, these tips will be helpful in keeping your budget low and happiness high. Give your legs a good shake for the best exploration of Bhutan!
Click here to read more about our 9 day itinerary for Bhutan trip
Travel Date: 6th to 14th May, 2016