August 27, 2009

Video Update: Cost and Value in Bhutan

This three-minute video update was recorded live from my guesthouse outside of Thimphu, Bhutan. In the video I talk about frugality and the choice to spend $1,000 to come to Bhutan.

Bhutan is in South Asia, between Tibet, India, and Nepal. To put it in perspective, I’ve included a map below.

another-bhutan-map

If you can’t view the video, here is a quick summary —

I’m having a great time here in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. It takes a lot to impress me, and Bhutan is an impressive and authentic destination.

Due to an active government strategy to promote sustainable tourism, it costs at least $200 a day per person, paid in advance, to visit here. For my five-day trip, I had to wire over a thousand bucks, not counting my airfare.

The $200/day is not as expensive as it initially seems, since that fee covers all lodging, meals, taxes, airport transfers, and guided tours. However, for budget travelers, it’s still a lot to swallow, especially since it must be paid in advance.

Frugality is one of my values, but I have my own definition of it. For me, frugality is not about giving up my daily coffee or putting my dreams on hold for the future. Instead, I think it’s about being clear about my values and structuring my life in a way that allows me to do things like go to Bhutan.

This kind of travel is something I’ve deliberately chosen to value. It’s not an impulse buy or something I do to escape a life I don’t like somewhere else.

***

Update: this wasn’t in the video, but today I met with a government official with the tourism office to discuss the state of travel in Bhutan. One of the things he said struck me:

“There’s an old English proverb about how if you are careful with your pennies, the pounds will take care of themselves. In Bhutan we have turned it upside down – we’re more concerned with the pounds than the pennies.”

His quote was in the context of something different (attracting the right kind of tourists to the country), but I thought it relates to this post as well. Coming to Bhutan was relatively expensive. It costs pounds – or dollars, more than one thousand of them – but I’m glad I came.

The point is not that everyone should pack up and come to the Himalayas. The point is that when you are clear about your values and align your life accordingly, you’ll be able to do more of what you truly enjoy.

You also won’t feel guilty about spending money on those experiences, because you’ll know they are events you’ve decided to prioritize your life around. Are you clear about your values? What is your Bhutan?

That’s my $0.02 — or my $1,000 plus airfare, to be more precise.

Happy Thursday, wherever you are. I’m enjoying it over here in South Asia.

###

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30 Responses to “Video Update: Cost and Value in Bhutan”

  1. Wow! Seriously. I am such a travel virgin. I had no clue there were countries that you actually have to pay to get into. Makes you really savor each day I guess!

    Loved the video. Your definition of frugality is spot on for me. Giving up certain things that are valueless for me for other things that have more value in my life. Go Bhutan! :)

  2. Always great to watch a video here and there instead of simply reading a post. Nice talk on frugality. Thanks for sharing your vision.

  3. Thanks, guys. I’m going to bed here in a moment, and I’ll post the rest of your comments in approximately eight hours.

    @Sarah,

    Don’t feel bad, Bhutan is really a special case in terms of specialty travel. There aren’t that many examples like this in the rest of the world.

  4. Congrats for making it to Bhutan and giving us this update. The $1000 seems more than reasonable to keep this beautiful place beautiful. I love their “upside down” philosophy. It’s all about quality not quantity and keeping their world livable. I plan on going there next year so I appreciate this post! Enjoy the rest of your stay. Thx.

  5. Thanks for your post! I really love your definition of frugality, too (getting clear on what’s important to you and what brings you fulfillment, and then eliminating the excess).

    You are in a part of the world that many of us will never get to see. I know you don’t usually post many photos or day-to-day info about each place you visit, but I’d love to hear more about Nepal and Bhutan (and what looks like your kickin’ Nehru jacket in the video). Awesome! :)

  6. Thank you. So many people have such misconceptions about what frugality really is, thinking they could never live such a life, giving up the things they love.

    Frugality is all about defining and pursuing core values, cutting and eliminating unimportant things ruthlessly in order to maximize your focus on the things you love. It’s really quite empowering.

  7. Bhutan is one of the countries we didn’t visit last year when we were in Asia, partly because of time and partly because of the travel restrictions (cost). We did visit two of its border crossings with India while our Indian colleagues tried to convince the Bhutanese border officials to let us go over the border for the day (as Indian day laborers are allowed to do). No dice. But we did see Bhutanese men and women in their national dress come across to India for shopping (it’s much cheaper across the border).

    I’ve heard that one of the reasons why Bhutan has high fees for its visa and tours is because it wants to maintain a standard of “quality” tourists and doesn’t want backpackers. On the one hand I can understand the reasons for this (the gov’t doesn’t want dreadlocked kids selling jewelry on the streets). On the other hand, it kind of sounds like the government wants to control people’s visits. Have you found that you can go off on your own from the tour or during the course of the tour you can wander around the markets and talk with locals one-on-one?

    I’m not a traveler who is completely against tours. When we visited Turkmenistan a couple of years ago, the government also required an official tour in order to get a visa. We loved our tour in Turkmenistan – our guide let us wander on our own. Engaging with locals was the highlight and hearing their views on their deceased president (Turkmenbashi) and the benefits/downsides to the fall of the Soviet Union was a highlight.

    We’re planning to visit Bhutan (and Bangladesh) next time we’re in Asia. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on your tour in Bhutan and the freedom it provided to talk with people and explore on your own (perhaps after you leave the country). Thanks in advance.

  8. Wow, talk about a timely post!

    My credit card statement just came in, with all the expenses I incurred during a wonderful trip throughout the West Coast for almost 2 months… Grand total was a bit over ten thousand bucks! And since I have a strict policy of zero credit card debt, I paid the whole balance in one blow.

    I was starting to freak out about all this money spent in one single trip, but your post reminds me that I’ve structured my life so that I can live this sort of experiences… and this trip in particular was extremely important as I’m currently deciding where to establish my US base, in which I will spend a good part of each year starting in 2010.

    Thank you Chris and keep spending wisely!

  9. Hello Chris – I mentioned to you months ago that I thought you might consider enjoy traveling to Bhutan, the last Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas. So I am thrilled to read that you are there! I traveled to Bhutan in 2002 for 18 days. The Bhutanese are concerned about protecting their country and their culture so that is why they have the $200 a day. When I went, you had to have a Bhutanese guide. They did not allow people to come in and just travel around. The Bhutanese want to protect their country and culture and they don’t want it to become a Nepal — overrun with tourists. They used to only allow 6000 people into the country each year to control the numbers. The Internet and TV have only been in the country in the last decade. So – enjoy this precious gem of a country and it’s sweet kind loving people.

    P.S. I am taking a small group back to Bhutan to mix some soul work with a travel adventure. I will do this sometime in the next three years. Enjoy.

  10. Thanks for the update, Chris. I, too, found it worth the [comparatively extreme] costs, and so glad you’ve had the same experience so far (if you’re still around, definitely ask for “real” Bhutanese food, and also consider checking out the Swiss Bakery in Thimpu for something sweet). There is something that is pure magic about that country, and it helped that my guide and driver were absolutely terrific. Knowledgeable, informative, friendly, professional, really first-rate. Looking forward to seeing a few of those pictures!

  11. Great post! I live in Hawaii, a state that is very dependent on tourism. And a state that is reaching it’s carrying capacity. If we don’t do something to control the human impact on our environment soon we won’t be a very great travel destination. Sounds like Bhutan has it figured out, I’m going to investigate how they were able to do such a thing and introduce it to the sustainability conversations occurring in Hawaii’s tourism industry. Tho I’m sure it will be hard to compare Hawaii, a US state, with Bhutan, an independent county. Great food for thought tho. Thanks.

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  13. Great video and comments, Chris!
    “My” Bhutan is a great-fitting pair of Jeans and Sushi with wonderful friends :)

  14. I never even knew the place existed until now. It’s going on my travel to-do list.

    I’m from The Bahamas, and I definitely feel like we can learn a lot from Bhutan’s sustainable tourism design and promotion. It seems that the government is finally coming around about it, but more effort is definitely needed.

    Happy travels.

  15. Great post,

    This is the third time I have tried to write it. My juno keeps interrupting and I lose the message.

    I admire your writing regularly twice a month. You prove that it pays off: loyal fans that comment, news coverage, books you have written and the joy and entertainment you bring to us all. Thanks

    I highly recomment you all watch Robert Kiyosoki give a 30 min white board presentation on financial education. You don’t get this in school. Alternative to only using frugality. Create more assets (income flow) as you are doing Chris.

  16. Hey Chris,

    I fist read about Bhutan in a great book called “The Geography of Bliss”… about a writer that travels to find the countries with the highest happiness quotient. (great book, btw).

    I was struck by the uniqueness of Bhutan, and the fact that they charge money up front, and impose a guide and such schedule means that they have such high standards for those who travel there. That idea- just like in business, if you raise your prices, you get and expect clientele, is so interesting.

    Glad you are having a good time! :)
    Karen

  17. G’day Chris :) I’m usually too shy to leave a comment but can’t contain my excitement today! Why? Well, because my Bhutan is literally Bhutan! I’ve been busting to visit ever since I discovered it about 10-12 years ago. That said, it’s interesting where my money has gone since then. Most of it has been funneled into health care – so perhaps the experience of good health was my real Bhutan? That appears more accurate and my bank balance certainly indicates this. The bad news is there’s no cure in sight but the GOOD news is I’m now free to pursue another Bhutan – in this case, literally.
    Have a souza and some yak cheese for me! ;o)

  18. Congrats. Thanks for another inspirational post. I learned about Bhutan on Michael J. Fox’s TV special about hope and positivity, but Fox left out the fact that you have to pay to get in the country. :)

    Keep doing what you are doing Chris. You are an inspiration to many, including me. Now I’m trying to figure out what “my Bhutan” is…or rather, how to get to my Bhutan.

  19. Hello Chris. I’ve been reading your blog for a few months now…very enjoyable as well as informative, indeed.

    I just wanted to caution you on saying things like, “It takes a lot to impress me..”

    You’re still on the young side, and as you age you’ll find that many of the things that seemed unimpressive will totally surprise you…and, in fact, blow you away.

    Just something to think about.

    And I don’t mean this in any way to be derogatory…just something that I’ve learned myself along the way.

    Take care & travel safe.

  20. Thanks for the article Chris. Like Sarah I didn’t know that it cost to get in Bhutan, but really when you put it into perspective like how much you spend in a normal day back home whether it be on food, a night out, rent and everything else there is it really doesn’t seem like a lot. Just a matter of thinking about what you really want and switching around your priorities.
    Thanks again.

  21. Heh, the first time I heard of Bhutan was from this TED talk by Jonathan Harris. I would love to see if Bhutan really was the way it is for myself. Definitely on my list for future travel destinations.

  22. You mentioned Bhutan being “impressive and authentic.” I’m interested in hearing more about the “authentic” part – what it is about Bhutan that leads you to characterize it that way? (I’ve never been to Bhutan, btw, but now I’m intrigued!)

    I read your definition of frugality to my husband this evening, since it’s exactly what I was trying to express to him last night when we were talking about our priorities, plans, dreams…my Bhutan is definitely having the freedom to travel!

  23. Chris,

    I enjoyed your video. It reminded me of my friend who lived there working for UNDP. How do you like the food? She said that the food was so spicy it ruined her taste buds after living there for one year!.

    Etsuko

  24. August 28, 2009

    Stephanie

    Chris,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts about Bhutan, one of my favorite places on earth! Like you, I have been fortunate to travel to a lot of places (43 countries so far) and Bhutan was truly a very different experience, and so worth the expense (for me). It’s important to note that one can not travel on their own in Bhutan – you must be accompanied by a guide (or at least that was the case when I went back in 2004) and adhere to a schedule approved by the government. Even though I really prefer to travel independently, I do not think it takes away from the Bhutan experience to be with a guide(s) – it keeps the country from being overrun and is still a very real experience.

    Enjoy the rest of your time there and travel safely,

    Steph

  25. August 28, 2009

    simplybhutan

    Thanks for the great post and the video on Bhutan. I hope you had a good time.

    Like you mentioned it is about finding what an individual’s Bhutan is and I think Bhutan does have a lot of things to offer..

    Am tweeting this post of yours..

    Good day

  26. Hi Chris. I’ll bet Bhutan is amazing! Great insight on the idea of frugality…couldn’t agree more. Way smarter advice than Suze Moron (er, I mean Ormon).

    Next time you’re in that neighborhood you may want to check this out. Friends of mine recently did a 15 day trek through the Himalayas to the Forbidden Kingdom of Mustang. It has remained unchanged for 1000 years and has just recently opened up to foreigners. They hiked to the captitol of Lo Monthang and had an interview with the king in his palace – first time a tv crew ever interviewed him in his palace. It is going to be a stupendous documentary!

    enjoy!

  27. Thanks–I’ve really enjoyed reading your thoughts on frugality and, especially, sufficiency. I’ve always believed in money as a means to an end: having “enough” money, for me, means being able to live my life on my own terms. But making money for the sake of making money generally means the plot’s gotten lost somewhere, and hollowness and unhappiness tend to follow suit.

    I really dig this blog! Best of luck to you in your travels and creative endeavors!
    Hilary Gardner

  28. Chris,

    Been to Bhutan several times. It is pristine and beautiful, and like many places in the world, has a recent history of ethnic cleansing. Notice the Indian/Nepali’s hammering rocks on the side of the road? Though many of them are 2nd or 3rd generation in Bhutan, they have no opportunities to grow out of squalor. A refugee community just formed in Portland as a matter of fact. So enjoy, but keep your eyes open for injustice.

    That being said, I love the culture, religion and especially the spicy food and sweet people, and when I have $1,000, I’ll be there in a heart beat!

    -Joshua

  29. Chris, you are spot on about frugality. It’s not about deprivation. It is about owning our power as consumers (or non-consumers, as the case may be.) Money is energy. Being frugal is about taking control of your money–generated by your own hard work or your energy–and channeling it where we wish.

    My Bhutan is getting my business off the ground, so that I can support myself solely through my art and writing. I don’t need to travel the world (though that would be very cool) in order to fulfill myself. I need to be able to have the time and space to pursue my many art forms.

  30. mate, I think you’re totally vindicated in spending 200$ a day to visit a country that measures its political success by happiness polls. bhutan seems totally unique, and putting up a steep barrier to ware off “unwanted” travelers is a completely respectful decision.

    the more I hear about this country the more intrigued I am in going – would love to hear more about the people, culture, music etc compared to the rest of the region..

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