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Difference between Tibet and Bhutan: top things to know before your visit

November,18 2019 BY Sonam Tenphel 0 COMMENTS

High up in the Himalayas lie two of the oldest isolated civilizations in the world. Cut off from the outside world for centuries, Tibet and Bhutan are two of the original Himalayan kingdoms that have only recently become popular as tourist attractions for international travelers.

Lying on the world’s highest plateau, Tibet is a land of high mountains, sacred lakes, and devout Buddhists, where religion is as much a part of every day life as the tea they drink so much of. Once an independent kingdom in the Himalayas, Tibet has a history that goes back thousands of years, to before the time of the migration of Mongol tribes onto the plateau. The original inhabitants merged with the migrating people, and eventually became the Tibetan people that you see today. An isolated land due to the height of the plateau and the massive Himalayan Mountain Range, Tibet has interacted with the western world within the last century.

On the southern border of Tibet lies another great Himalayan Kingdom that has never been colonized or overrun, and which has kept itself deliberately isolated for thousands of years to preserve their unique way of life. Devoutly Buddhist, the Bhutanese people share many similarities with the Tibetan people. Buddhism was brought to the kingdom from Tibet in the 11th century, and the language is another form of the Tibetic language, similar in form and style to that of Tibet. Lying on the southern side of the Himalayas, Bhutan has a similar system of governance to ancient Tibet, which they have adapted to meet progress and the modern era.

However, as similar as things may seem between these two ancient kingdoms, they have many differences as well. While Tibet is still a developing region, with many of the modern facilities that western people take for granted only recently being introduced on the plateau, Bhutan has aggressively adopted modern technology to use to their own advantage. Many other differences exist between the two kingdoms, and while the similarities may be strong, the differences will be easily evident when you visit each place.

Different Topography between Tibet and Bhutan

The topography of the two kingdoms could not really be more different. The only similarity between Tibet and Bhutan is the high Himalayan mountains that make up the shared border. That is where it ends. While Tibet is a land on the world’s highest plateau, with arid, dry areas that are completely uninhabitable and a harsh environment to survive in, Bhutan is a lush green land beneath the Himalayas, full of forests and valleys of lush green meadows.

Tibet does have its share of lush valleys on the plateau, though they are much more spread out across the vast region, interspersed with huge plains and high mountain ranges. Major parts of northern Tibet, where the altitude is too high for even the unique Tibetan people to make a decent living, are vast tracts of desert and prairie, inhabited only by animals that have adapted over millions of years to flourish at the increased elevations and harsher climates.

Bhutan with lush forestBhutan with lush forest

Bhutan has its share of high mountains as well, though the highest is still only a little over 7,000 meters. However, as you head south from the Himalayas, which take up around 40 percent of the landscape, the forests and lush valleys come into view, the weather gets warmer and more habitable, and the climate becomes closer to that of its southern neighbors, with hard monsoons in the lower plains and valleys and much warmer winters.

Different Travel Seasons between Tibet and Bhutan

main tourist season runs from April to May and Sept. to Oct, with shoulder seasons from June to August and off season from late October to mid-Feb next year. The peaks season, which overlaps the spring and autumn in Tibet, is the best time for doing all kinds of tour in Tibet, such as trekking, cycling, sightseeing, photography, etc.

little rain on the plateau due to the shadow effect of the Himalayas which means most of the rain falls on the western side of the mountains. The shoulder seasons are the drier seasons, though not as warm as the summer, and are normally preferred for trekking.

Bhutan has a very different tourist season, as it does not have the advantage of the shadow effect. Summer in Bhutan is also the monsoon season, from June to the end of September, but the weather is a lot wetter than in Tibet, especially in the southern half of the kingdom. From October to December is the ideal time to visit Bhutan, as the weather is dry after the rainy season, and still warm enough to be comfortable. January and February are a little colder, but still dry and pleasant, though the higher mountains may be inaccessible at times. March to May is the time when the weather is dry but getting warmer, and May is the hottest month of the dry season.

Different Travel Documents Needed for Visiting Tibet and Bhutan

Traveling in Tibet requires a great deal of documentation to get there, including a visa for China. The permits are only available once a pre-booked tour is finalized, and are all obtained by the tour operators on behalf of the tourists. Without the main permit, known as the Tibet Travel Permit, it is impossible to get into Tibet, and even boarding the train or flight is not permitted. The Chinese visa can be obtained by the traveler if entering via China. While entering Tibet from Nepal, visitors need to go through the tour operator to apply for Group Tourist Visa.

Tibet Travel PermitTibet Travel Permit

Similarly, Bhutan has a number of permits that are required for entry, and again, all must be obtained by the tour operator once the tour has been booked. Even the visa cannot be applied for without the pre-booked tour, and the application is done by the tour operator on behalf of the traveler. The main difference is that the visa cannot be obtained without the pre-booked tour in Bhutan, whereas in Tibet, it must be obtained from the Chinese Embassy before booking the tour. The visa for Bhutan is also not forwarded to the traveler. Instead, you will be sent a Letter of Invitation, which you will show to the immigration desk at Paro Airport, and the reference number must be used to cross-reference with the information given to the airlines by the Tourism Council of Bhutan.

Different Cost for traveling in Tibetan and Bhutan

The cost of traveling in Tibet depends mainly on how long you will stay and where you will go. Tours can cost as little as US$ 500 and as much as several thousand. However, this does not always include your accommodation and meals, and never includes your transport to the plateau. What it does include is the cost of the tour guide and driver, the private vehicle, and the tickets to the various attractions you will visit.

In Bhutan, there is a set minimum amount for the daily cost of a tour in the kingdom. This is known as the Minimum Daily Fee (MDF), which is set at US$ 250 per day, for each day of the tour. In the low season, the MDF drops to just US$ 200 per day, to promote tourism in the low season months. However, unlike Tibet, the MDF in Bhutan covers everything on your tour, from your visa and permits to the cost of your hotel accommodation and main meals. Additional expenses such as souvenirs, snacks, and room service are not included, nor is the usual tip for the guide/driver. The Minimum Daily fee does not have to be just 250 dollars though. As it says, it is the “minimum”, so you can arrange a tour that costs more per day if you can afford it.

>>How Much Does It Usually Cost to Visit Bhutan: price inclusion&exclusion, travel season with costs
>>How to Plan Your Bhutan Travel Cost

Different Tour Highlights between Tibet and Bhutan

There are many things that are different when touring Tibet or Bhutan. The first and most obvious being that Tibet has several mountains over 7,000 meters, and the world’s highest Mountain at 8,848 meters, while in Bhutan, the highest mountain is Gangkhar Puensum, at 7,570 meters and Jhomolhari at 7,326 meters.

However, while Tibet may have the mountains, Bhutan has a lot more to offer in the way of scenery. The plateau landscape can be very sparse at times, while the main landscape of Bhutan is actually made up of 70 percent forests. Part of the national policy on environmental preservation, there is a legal requirement to keep at least 65 percent of the country as forests at all times. At the last count, in 2017, the country was 70.2 percent forested.

Different Culture and Local Customs between Tibet and Bhutan

Both Tibet and Bhutan are devoutly Buddhist, and share many of the typical Buddhist customs. However, that is about where the similarity ends. While Buddhism may have been brought to Bhutan from Tibet by Padmasambhava on the back of a giant flying tiger that was in fact his former consort, many of the rituals and ceremonies of Buddhism in Bhutan are different in many ways from those in Tibet.

Horse Performance on Lhasa FestivalHorse Performance on Lhasa Festival

The people are also of a very different type, with customs and a culture that is more founded on the family unit and the preservation of the landscape than working to make a profit. This is also a national policy, initiated by the Bhutanese king, known as the policy of Gross National Happiness. This policy and philosophy guides the government of Bhutan in ensuring that the collective happiness and well-being of the people is instituted properly.

Sonam Tenphel

About the Author - Sonam Tenphel

Energetic, responsible and reliable, Sonam is a guide with more than seven years experience informing visitors about heritage sites and attractions places in Tibet.

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