Bhutan versus Nepal: Overview
|History||Bhutan’s history is rich in Buddhist folklore and myths. The political history of the country is closely related to its religious history and monasteries.||Nepal’s history is mainly one of the legendary traditions of the Kathmandu Valley and the indigenous Newari community. These histories usually have Buddhist and Hindu versions.|
|Diversity||There are three major ethnic groups: the Bhutias, Nepalese, and Sharchops. More than 50% of the population are Bhutia.||Nepal has 125 ethnic groups.|
|Religion||75% of Bhutan’s population follows Tibetan Buddhism.||Over 80% of the population identifies as Hindu.|
|Festivals||Tsechu festival||Dashan festival|
|Travel Route||Paro, Thimphu, Punakha||Kathmandu, Pokhara, Chitwan|
|Things to Do||Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Punakha Dzong, Rinpung Dzong||Durbar Square, Boudhanath Stupa, Pashupatinath, Bhaktapur, Patan, Chitwan National Park|
|Convenience of Travel||There are no direct international flights, and the domestic transport system is slow and less developed.||There are no direct international flights; however, the country is well connected by domestic flights.|
|Best Time to Visit||Year-round, but best in autumn or spring||Year-round, but best in autumn or spring|
|Budget||Goods and travel are slightly more expensive. Foreign credit cards are not as widely accepted.||Goods and travel cost less. Foreign credit cards are more widely accepted.|
A very interesting similarity between these countries is that they are among the few countries in the world that have never been colonized by European nations and have preserved their own cultures and traditions. They were, however, both invaded by their neighboring countries — China and India.
Bhutan has long been influenced by Tibet, while Nepal was more influenced by India. If you intend to visit India, Bhutan might make a better destination than Nepal, as you can see the contrasts between their cultures. However, if Tibet (or China) is on your bucket list, we suggest that you also visit Nepal.
Bhutan’s History: Buddhist Folklore and Mythology
Bhutan’s history is full of Buddhist folklore and myths. It is believed that Bhutan was inhabited as early as 2000 BC. The Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo introduced Buddhism to the region in the 7th century. Buddhism was further strengthened with the arrival of Guru Rinpoche, a master widely regarded as the Second Buddha.
Present-day Bhutan was first formed in the 17th century by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel. He arrived in Bhutan from Tibet, defeated the Tibetan invasion and established a comprehensive legal and governance system. His kingdom weakened after his death, and the country fell into civil war as various local rulers vied for the throne.
This situation lasted until 1907. With the support of the people, Ugyen Wangchuck gained control and became the first hereditary king of Bhutan. His Majesty Ugyen Wangchuck became the first Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King) and established the Wangchuck Dynasty, which still rules today.
Guru Rinpoche (or “Precious Master”) is one of Bhutan’s most important historical and religious figures. He made three trips to Bhutan to spread Buddhism and construct monasteries. Tiger’s Nest in Paro is a good place to obtain more knowledge of the fascinating legend of Guru Rinpoche.
Nepal’s History: Dynasties and Kingdoms
Nepal’s history dates back to the time of the Gopalas and Mahishapalas, believed to be the earliest rulers of the Kathmandu Valley. Legend has it that the Gopala Dynasty, which was established by Indians, was the very first in Nepal; it was succeeded by three major dynasties — the Kiratas, Lichhavis, and Mallas.
The Kathmandu Valley was divided into three kingdoms: Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, and Patan (present-day Lalitpur). In the 17th century, when the Gorkha Kingdom was established in Western Nepal, the three-city division of the Kathmandu Valley ended. In the middle of the 19th century, Nepal was invaded by Britain.
In 1923, Britain recognized the independence of the Kingdom of Nepal and signed a permanent peace treaty. From 1996 onwards, Nepal experienced a nine-year civil war. In 2008, the monarchy was abolished, and the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal was formed.
The Malla Dynasty is a very important period in Nepal’s history. During this time, countless temples, palaces, statues, and sculptures were constructed in the Kathmandu Valley, showcasing the Mallas’s excellence in art and architecture. Today you can see their extraordinary masterpieces in the three durbar squares in Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, and Lalitpur.
The people of Bhutan and Nepal are very religiously and ethnically diverse. Both countries have protected minority groups that have distinct cultures and languages.
Ethnic Groups in Bhutan
There are three main ethnic groups in Bhutan: Bhutias (also known as Ngalop), Nepalese, and Sharchop. The Bhutias are the largest group, accounting for about half of the population. They are descendants of Tibetan immigrants who entered Bhutan from the south from about the 9th century AD. Today they are dominant in northern, central, and western Bhutan.
The Nepalese are recent arrivals to Bhutan (including members of the Gurung ethnic group). They are dominant in the southern and southwestern regions, accounting for about one-third of the country’s total population. The Sharchops, who live in the eastern regions, are believed to be the first inhabitants of Bhutan.
Ethnic Groups in Nepal
In the northern, eastern, western and central regions of Nepal, there are groups of people of Tibetan-Nepalese origin, such as the Sherpas. Large-scale immigration from Tibet and India shaped the cultural identity of Nepalese people, influencing their language and religion.
The Newaris are believed to have settled in Nepal before the Tibetan and Indo-Aryans emigrated. They follow the customs of the Hindus in India and are an important group in Nepal, especially in the Kathmandu Valley.
Religion forms an important part of the histories and cultures of both Bhutan and Nepal. The people of both regions are proud of their traditions and lifestyles.
Politics and Religion in Bhutan
About three-quarters of Bhutan’s population is Tibetan Buddhist. Of the four main branches of Tibetan Buddhism, the Drukpa Kagyu tradition has become increasingly prominent in Bhutan’s political and religious life, and it now has the most followers in Bhutan. In addition to Buddhism, Hinduism has many followers in Bhutan, especially among the Nepalese community.
Politics and religion are intrinsically connected in Bhutan; the dzongs even represent the form of government. A dzong is a fortified building that incorporates both administrative and monastic institutions. These buildings look magnificent, with towering exterior walls surrounding courtyards, temples, administrative offices, and monks’ accommodation. Paro Dzong and Punakha Dzong are good examples.
Temples and Monasteries in Nepal
Religion is of great significance to the Nepalese people and dictates most of their social and cultural traditions. Over 80% of the population is Hindu; however, Buddhism is also very influential, and both religions have some deities in common.
If you travel to Nepal, don’t leave without visiting its Hindu and Buddhist temples. For example, Pashupatinath is the oldest Hindu temple in Kathmandu. The Boudhanath Stupa is considered the holiest Tibetan Buddhist site. Swayambhunath Stupa is also a holy place for Nepal’s Tantric Buddhists.
4. Festivals and Celebrations
Festivals in Bhutan and Nepal are usually based on the Hindu and Buddhist calendars. Which country has the best festivals for you?
In Bhutan, which is dominated by Tibetan Buddhism, festivals are relatively simple. Tsechu is a major festival celebrated on the 10th day of a month in the lunar Tibetan calendar in honor of Guru Rinpoche.
In Nepal, a Hindu-majority country, the coexistence of different ethnic groups means that there are various fascinating celebrations — so there is always something worth seeing. It has Hindu, Nepali, and Buddhist festivals.
Top Festival in Bhutan: Tsechu
During this four-day celebration, you will have the opportunity to wear traditional Bhutanese costumes and witness the ritual mask dance. You will experience the sounds of trumpets, flutes, and other traditional instruments. You can also see the unfurling of the thangka, a large painting depicting the life of the Buddha.
Paro, Thimphu, and Punakha are considered the best places to join the Tsechu festivities. Paro Tsechu is on the 10th day of April or March according to the lunar calendar. Thimphu Tsechu is celebrated in September, which is the best time to visit Bhutan. Punakha Tsechu is held across the Punakha Dzongkhag in April.
Other important Bhutanese festivals include Haa Summer (a celebration of traditional lifestyles), Jambay Lhakhang Drup (a celebration of the deeds of Guru Rinpoche), and the Black-Necked Crane Festival (a celebration of the migratory cranes’ return).
Top Festival in Nepal: Dashan
Dashan is the most important Hindu festival in Nepal. It is a celebration of good over evil and falls in September or October according to the lunar calendar.
During this 10-day holiday, people from all over the world travel to Nepal to celebrate together. On the last day of the festival, family members receive a tika of rice, red cinnabar, and curd from their elders.
Another important festival is Holi, a Hindu festival that celebrates the arrival of spring and the end of winter. It is a colorful and playful two-day festival that takes place in March, based on the lunar calendar. People play with colored powders, water, and water balloons.
The other major festivals are Teej (the festival of womanhood), Tihar (the festival of lights), Chhath (a festival dedicated to the Hindu sun god), Lohsar (Tibetan New Year), and Buddha Jayanti (the birthday of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha).
5. Nature and Wildlife
Bhutan and Nepal house some of the most valuable forests and wildlife in the Himalayas. Bhutan has great respect for its flora and fauna. About 70% of the country’s land is covered by forests, providing a rich environment for a variety of animal and plant ecosystems.
Bhutan’s air quality is also much better than that of Nepal’s; it is regarded as the only carbon-negative country in the world. However, Nepal is much better suited for a wildlife safari, as it provides a complete jungle safari tour with jungle-luxe accommodation.
From the tropical vegetation in the south and the temperate zone in the middle to the alpine forests in the north, there are more than 5,000 kinds of plants in Bhutan. There are also species of wild animals, such as leopards, rhinoceroses, elephants, buffaloes, swamp deer, and golden leaf monkeys in the subtropical areas; many of these are on the endangered species list — for example, the black-necked cranes.
In order to protect the wildlife and its natural environment, the Bhutanese government has established a number of protected areas, including the Royal Manas National Park, which borders India and is home to the rare golden leaf monkey. Jigme Dorji National Park, located in Northwest Bhutan, has the most unique climate of all three climatic zones in Bhutan.
Nepal: Jungle Safari
Nepal’s unique landscape and climate provide the perfect habitat for all kinds of animals and plants. The subtropical forests in the Tarai region are characterized by deciduous vegetation. At elevations of over 1,500 m (4,900 ft), the vegetation consists of a mixture of many species, chiefly pines, oaks, and rhododendrons.
The forest area in the Tarai region is home to tigers and leopards, occasional elephants and buffaloes, and many deer. The Chitwan National Park in southern Nepal is one of the last homes of rhinoceroses. The safari is a popular way to experience the country’s wildlife.
6. Things to Do and See
There are some cities in Bhutan and Nepal that tourists must-see. These places are often called the Golden Triangle. In Bhutan, the Golden Triangle consists of Paro, Thimphu, and Punakha. In Nepal, it is formed by Kathmandu, Pokhara, and Chitwan.
In Bhutan, you can see Tiger’s Nest, visit the Punakha Dzong, and explore the excavation site in Thimphu, the Memorial Chorten, the National Library, or the market. In Nepal, walk around the charming durbar squares in Kathmandu Valley, admire the unique architecture there, and explore monasteries.
Bhutan Travel Itinerary
When traveling to Bhutan, you can begin your journey at Paro Airport, the only international airport in the country. The city of Paro is rich in architectural and natural beauty and boasts of Tiger’s Nest, a beautiful and extraordinary monastery perched on the cliffside of the upper Paro Valley.
Then you can visit the National Museum. Its collection includes ancient Bhutanese art, weaponry, and exquisite national stamps. Explore Rinpung Dzong, an amazing temple with unparalleled views of the lush Paro Valley. After a visit to Paro, drive to Punakha.
The Punakha Dzong is the second-oldest and second-largest dzong in Bhutan. It is a six-story structure with a central tower at an average elevation of 1,200 m (3,900 ft). Punakha Dzong was the administrative center and seat of the Government of Bhutan until 1955, when the capital was moved to Thimphu — which is your next stop.
Visit Trashichhoedzong, a beautiful, medieval monastery on your way from Punakha. Most government offices and the king’s throne room are located there. It is also the summer residence of the chief abbess. Then visit the National Library, which has a large collection of ancient Buddhist books and manuscripts.
Drive to Memorial Chorten, the pagoda built in memory of Bhutan’s third king, who is widely regarded as the father of modern Bhutan. The paintings and statues in this monument provide a deep understanding of Buddhist philosophy. Finally, head back to Paro to leave.
Nepal Travel Itinerary
Most travelers who visit Nepal start their trip at Kathmandu, where the only international airport is located. In Kathmandu, start your day by exploring UNESCO World Heritage Sites, includes Swayambhunath, an ancient pagoda overlooking the city, the Hindu temple of Pashupatinath, and Boudhanath Stupa, where you can spin prayer wheels.
After a quiet night, you head to the Kathmandu Durbar Square. The square showcases various architectural styles from the 16th to the 20th century. In the afternoon, head to Bhaktapur, which is famous for its fine craftsmanship traditions. The old town of Patan is most notable.
After Kathmandu, the next city you should visit is Pokhara, where you can rent a boat to paddle around the pretty lake and admire the impressive views of the Annapurna massif behind the town. Once you’ve explored Pokhara, stop by at Chitwan National Park, where you can go on a jungle safari and keep an eye out for wildlife.
Bhutan and Nepal are located south of the Himalayas, which means that both countries have various Himalayan hiking routes. Trekking in both countries takes you to the top of the Himalayas, which offer breathtaking views of mountains, valleys, lakes, and glaciers.
The experience you will have on these two treks could not be more different. Nepal is by far more popular from a tourist perspective. Bhutan also has some great hiking routes, but the hiking spots have not been commercialized for tourism.
Trekking in Bhutan
As Bhutan lies near the Eastern Himalayas, it offers some short treks, such as the Druk Trek, Jhomolhari Trek, and Bumthang Owl Trek. For those looking for an ultimate mountaineering trip, the world-famous Snowman Trek is considered one among the most difficult hiking trip in the world and requires a month to complete.
During the trek, the only people you will meet in the mountains are herdsmen who raise yaks and move from one area to another as the seasons change. Trekking in Bhutan means camping, and the toilet will be a hole dug near the camp.
Trekking in Nepal
Nepal is located along the Western Himalayas and is home to eight of the highest mountains in the world, including Mount Everest, Manaslu, Annapurna, and many others. The trek to the Everest Base Camp is the most famous in the world — it attracts millions of tourists every year.
There are a large number of communities at the starting points of the main trekking routes. In Nepal, you almost always sleep in a hut or teahouse. You will be provided with a roof, warm food, and a variety of beds.
8. Best Times to Visit
You can visit both Bhutan and Nepal year-round, but the most popular times to visit these countries are autumn and spring, as the weather is most pleasant then. An important characteristic of the climate in these countries is the summer monsoon, which causes heavy rainfall every year.
The monsoon season lasts from May to September. Heat and humidity levels rise, and the clouds make the mountain views seem mysterious.
Spring and autumn are the peak seasons to go trekking across high passes, such as those in the Annapurna Circuit or Everest Base Camp. Winter is the best time to visit low-altitude areas like Chitwan National Park. The monsoon season is the perfect time to discover Kathmandu’s historical heritage without being rushed by crowds.
Spring is the best time to see Bhutan’s beautiful landscape with its flowers in full bloom. Autumn is a great time to trek to Druk Path; the valleys in Central Bhutan, like the Haa Valley and Trongsa, are best visited in the monsoon season.
9. Convenience of Travel
Bhutan and Nepal have just one international airport each — Paro International Airport in Bhutan and Tribhuvan International Airport in Nepal. There are no direct flights from Europe, the Americas, or Australasia. When flying internationally to Bhutan or Nepal, you would have to take a connecting flight.
Only five countries are connected to Bhutan by air: Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Singapore, and Thailand; Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines are the only carriers permitted to fly into Bhutan. If you are going to Nepal, there are many more options for airlines and stopovers, such as Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore, Malaysia, and South Korea.
Domestic Travel in Bhutan: Land Transfers Can Help You Explore More
Flying and driving are the two main modes of transportation in Bhutan. It has four airports: Paro, Jakar, Trashigang, and Gelephu; apart from Gelephu, the rest are interconnected. Domestic flights make it easy to journey across western, central, and eastern Bhutan.
if you plan to traverse the popular travel route from Paro to Thimphu to Punakha, the traveling by private car might make your trip easier and your travel time shorter. This way, you can spend less time traveling and more time exploring. Paro–Thimphu is a 1½-hour drive, and Thimphu–Punakha is 2½ hours.
Domestic Travel in Nepal: Flying is Time-Saving
Nepal has a well-developed network of domestic flights. There are more than 10 airlines connecting popular travel destinations, such as Pokhara, Bharatpur, Lukla, Nepalganj, and Biratnagar. Air travel in Nepal can save time — for example, a flight from Kathmandu to Pokhara takes only 30 minutes, while driving requires 8 hours.
We know that most of the country is covered by jungle. Road conditions are not always good; damage or blockage is common, especially in the monsoon. We suggest taking a private vehicle for short distances, such as from Kathmandu to Bhaktapur.
10. Travel Visas
You need tourist visas to visit both Bhutan and Nepal. Bhutan visas are processed online by travel agencies and are approved by the Bhutan Tourism Council upon receipt of full payments for travel costs. Meanwhile, Nepal has a much simpler tourist visa policy.
Bhutan Visa: You Need a Travel Agent
A Bhutan visa can only be issued through a travel agent who arranges a Bhutan trip on your behalf. You need to book a tour package and pay in full; you will then receive a clearance letter. The Bhutan visa will be stamped on your passport only when you show the clearance letter at Paro Airport or while crossing the border.
The fee for a Bhutan visa is US$40 per person. Usually, this fee is included in the tour package. As per the policy of the Bhutan Tourism Council, travel in Bhutan costs a minimum of US$200–US$250 per person per day seasonally; this includes private guides and drivers, meals, accommodation, entrance fees, and taxes.
Nepal Visa: Easy to Get
A Nepal tourist visa allows multiple entries and can be obtained on arrival at Tribhuvan International Airport. Overland travelers can obtain their tourist visas at the border. India and China share most of Nepal’s borders.
You need a passport that is valid for 6 months that has two blank pages; a passport-size photograph; and cash. A visa can cost US$30 for 15 days, US$50 for 30 days, and US$125 for 90 days.
11. Expected Budget
Compared to Western countries, Bhutan and Nepal are both very affordable — many travelers find that they can arrange private travel and luxury hotels without paying too much. The quality of food and services is usually good, and you are treated like a VIP.
Generally speaking, travel in Nepal is slightly more affordable than in Bhutan. Goods and services in Nepal are usually cheaper, so food and souvenirs usually cost less.
Travel cost in Bhutan: Worth Your Money
The Bhutanese government has adopted a “high cost, low impact” policy, which means that they charge a minimum daily travel fee of US$200–US$250 per person. You will have to pay several hundred dollars more per day if you want to stay at a higher-end hotel.
Travel cost in Nepal: More Affordable
Our private tours of Nepal have a starting price of approximately US$170 per day; this includes private guides and drivers, meals, 3-star accommodation, entrance fees, and taxes. The prices of our tours can change depending on your travel interests.
12. Access to Wi-Fi
In Bhutan, Wi-Fi is available in cities and hotels. It is usually free in hotels, but the network is likely to be weak in remote areas. Purchase a SIM card for your smartphone for connectivity outside the hotel. Bhutan Telecom and Tashi Cell offer 3G and 4G connectivity.
In Nepal, Wi-Fi is widely available in almost every hotel, restaurant, and cafe in cities and also more remote areas. Internet cafes are available in smaller towns, such as Namche Bazaar along the Everest Base Camp trek. You can also purchase a SIM card that offers 4G; popular telecom companies are NTC, Ncell, and Smarttell.
You might enjoy Nepal more if:
- You are the kind of traveler who goes in search of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
- You are interested in taking a jeep safari to spot different kinds of wildlife.
- You prefer efficient domestic air travel.
- You like to make your own travel arrangements.
- You are interested in trekking in the Himalayas.
You might enjoy Bhutan more if:
- You are looking to witness a culture that has witnessed minimal interference from outside influences.
- You would like to see the endangered black-necked crane.
- You are interested in Buddhist sites, like the legendary cliffside Tiger’s Nest monastery.
- You want to see people who are proud to wear their national costumes every day.
- You are searching for an opportunity to see the rural lifestyle and architecture in the beautiful Punakha and Haa Valleys.
Visit Bhutan and Nepal with Asia Highlights
If you cannot decide which country to visit, why not see both? It is easy to connect these two countries by flying from Kathmandu to Paro. Just contact our travel consultant, and we will be more than happy to help you make a decision.