Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 23 – Rerethang To Upper Sephu

Last revised on November 21, 2022.

Table of Contents:

Previous Post: Day 22 – Tampoe Tsho To Rerethang Via Thampe La

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The Walk From Rerethang To Upper Sephu

  • Date: Sunday, October 20 (The trek began on September 28!)
  • Time: 5 hours
  • Distance: 13 km.
  • Start point altitude: Rerethang  3670 m
  • Endpoint altitude: Upper Sephu   2876m

For the past few evenings, dinner-time conversation had centered increasingly on our plans after we finished the trek. Plane connections, work commitments, future trips … all signs that the end was near! Over the past three weeks, we had walked over 300 kilometers through some pretty crappy weather (the first ten days) and over some fairly rough terrain, challenging even to yaks and horses, never mind trekkers! We had also walked into some stunning vistas, and in the last half of the trek, the peaks would often be in full view and not be shrouded in cloud cover.

Almost all 16 of us made it, though one dropped out in Laya with a severe respiratory issue and another on Day 21 with a stomach problem.

We had one last section – the 13 kilometers from Rerethang to the endpoint at Upper Sephu. We had left the alpine; the morning would start on the west side trail down the Nikka Chhu across relatively flat and open terrain. The satellite image below shows the stretch from Rerethang to Maurothang. It was easy walking.

After Maurathang, we crossed to the east side, and the trail mostly went across the forested slopes. We were 50 or 100 meters above the river as we made our way south. Along the way, we also crossed several streams that tumble down to the Nikka Chhu -either rock hopping our way across or making use of the wooden bridges.

The red line on the satellite image below approximates our route down the Nikka Chhu from Maurothang to Upper Sephu. It took about 3 1/2 hours at a  brisk pace to get done. In the process, we dropped another 800 meters in elevation. We had not been below 3000 meters in three weeks!

looking up the Nikka Chhu from the trail to Upper Sephu

the Nikka Chhu as it flows down towards Sephu

Along the way, I had my first hard fall of the trip! 22 days without incident, and an hour before the end, I placed my right boot on a sloped wet rock only to have it slip down. I lost my balance, and somehow the right side of my rib cage bumped hard into a rock. The trekking poles I always have in my hands helped reduce the fall’s severity, but it still hurt. It was mild enough that I could keep on walking, but every once in a while, there would be a stab of pain if I moved in the wrong way.

[It took about three weeks for the pain to go away. Back in Toronto, I had trouble lifting my right leg over the top tube of my bicycle. And then one day – no pain! Don’t you just love how time itself is often the answer, at least in the short run!]

yaks lounging on the trail from Maurothang to Upper Sephu

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The Celebration at Upper Sephu

Upper Sephu is at the end of a dirt road that winds its way up the east side of the Nikka Chhu from the Bumthang-Ura highway and Sephu proper. A few years ago, this road did not exist, and trekkers walked right to the highway and the Nikka Chhu bridge, another six kilometers away.

We were greeted there by the Yangphel support team. They had arranged lunch for us, with bottles of wine and beer and a celebratory cake. There we are, sitting at our table!

I gathered some of the leftover bits of meat and gave a local dog watching the proceedings a surprise treat. But then, maybe it wasn’t a surprise! He may have learned that gatherings like ours often result in some freebies!

a local dog watching the proceedings at Upper Sephu

Not keen on dealing with the impact of even a bit of alcohol on my head while we spent the next four hours rocking back and forth on the bus, I decided to postpone my reintroduction to beer until that evening. On the table was a bottle of Bhutan’s finest red wine, imported in bulk from South Africa and bottled in Bhutan. Later that evening, I ended up ordering a can of tonic water! Fun guy!

The lunch table at Nikka Chhu – trek done!

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The Tipping Issue

Tipping is always a big deal at the end of these treks. Over the past three evenings, the World Expeditions guide had

  • collected some U.S.$300. to $400. from each of the 16 trekkers and
  • come up with a formula to calculate each support staff member’s share based on their role.

The tip – and the concern about it shown by the guides from Day 1 –  was just another reminder of economic reality trumping what is ultimately the nonsense of the Gross National Happiness concept concocted by Thimphu’s political elite on behalf of the vast majority of Bhutan’s citizens. The speeches were made, thanks were given, a few group photos of the support crew and their trekker guests, final handshakes and hugs …

The hard-working  team which made our Snowman Trek happen

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The Trek Operators: World Expeditions/Yangphel 

World Expeditions was the Australia-based adventure travel company that

  • organized the trip,
  • created an attractive webpage detailing the trek,
  • brought together the 16 trekkers,
  • ensured that visa and other issues were dealt with,
  • worked with the local adventure travel agency, Yangphel, to ensure that specific standards were met, and
  • assigned one of its own guides to accompany the local guide.

I was told that WE has been using Yangphel to handle its Snowman trip for the past two years.

The two decades’ worth of experience with high-altitude trekking and Himalayan climbing that the WE-assigned guide – Angel Armesto –  had was a bonus. The local guide – Tandin Gyeltshen – assigned by Yangphel, was also very experienced and knowledgeable, thanks to his twenty years of handling all sorts of tours. He had done birding tours and various trekking routes, including the Snowman Trek a dozen times. Both were just nice guys who made the trip more enjoyable.

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Breakdown of Trek Costs For an International Tourist

Note: The following figures are pre-2022. In July 2022, the Bhutanese Government completely revamped its tourism policy.

  • $7800  + $400 tip is what the trek cost me.
  • $6750 (27 days x $250) went to the local trekking agency and to the Bhutanese government. The Bhutanese charge their “high value, low impact” (that is, non-Indian) tourists US $250. a day to be in Bhutam.
  • $1755  for the entire 27-day stay was the Bhutanese government’s “sustainable development fee”  (a $65-a-day tourist tax)
  • $5000 – what the trekking agency got per trekker
  • $1050 per trekker – the World Expeditions charge for making the trip happen and to pay for their own assigned guide.
  •   $400 The “voluntary” tip expected by all

See this Lonely Planet article (here) on money matters in Bhutan.

Add in US$2000.  for airfare and airport taxis; another $200. for 2 nights at a decent hotel not far from Indira Gandhi Airport. My Snowman Trek is the most expensive trek I have ever done and one that I will never surpass!

Note: In July 2022, the Bhutan Government raised the daily Sustainable Development Fee from $65 to $200! This adds another $3645 to the final cost of the 27-day trek. The price posted on the WE website is now $16900. US, more than double what it was in 2019! 

Meanwhile, the KE Adventure Travel Snowman Trek at $20,290 also includes the new SDF, two nights at a Kathmandu hotel (about $250) plus the $650 flight from Kathmandu to Paro and back. While the trek route itself is the same as the one we did, the KE itinerary includes a night at Gangtey and a night in Thimpu instead of Paro.

What was already the world’s most expensive trek pre-Covid ($7800  + $400 tip) has doubled in price!

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Bypassing The Foreign Travel Agency To Save $$

While you could just arrange the trek yourself through a Bhutanese agency,  the problem is one of numbers. You would need to find at least one and preferably two or three other trekkers who would be willing to commit to the trip at the same time as you. Thanks to its attractive website, World Expeditions and other companies like it do the finding of trekking mates for you. That is worth at least a couple of hundred dollars. Pre-Covid, a solo visitor to Bhutan paid an extra $40. a day on top of the $250; a couple had to pay $30 each extra. Being with a larger group usually brings down the cost.

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Our Trek Size of 16

However, a group size of 16 trekkers is not ideal. Consider the three previous organized treks I have done –

There were almost as many trekkers on this Snowman trek as on my previous three combined! With 43 horses and a dozen support staff, we were a small village on the move!

See the end of this post for more on Bhutan’s no-longer-functioning  “high value, low impact” tourism policy. 

final group shot of the crew – trekkers and support staff

By 1:30, we trekkers would hop into the bus pictured below. Destination – Punakha and what would be a newly-built 3-star hotel (the Zhingkham Resort) on the slopes on the west side of the Mo River. Showers, wifi, email, food choices, and food choices other than the trek food I had seen enough of …

Yangphel staff at Upper Sephu with our bus to Punakha

our Punakha camp spot was definitely an upgrade

Punakha and the confluence of the Mo and Pho Rivers

the Punakha Dzong – the view from the Zhingkham Resort

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The Complete Day-By-Day Snowman Trip Report! 

Laya To Upper Sephu high passes and campsites graph

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Tourism Policy Before July 2022:

Only citizens of India, Bangladesh, and the Maldives could tour Bhutan on their own as “unregulated” visitors. Many entered Bhutan in their own vehicles. No visas were required. They did not need to hire a guide for the duration of their stay. No proof of travel insurance was required. Indian citizens accounted for 92% of the “unregulated” regional tourists and were exempt from a mandatory $250-a-day tour package.

Meanwhile, “international” visitors had to enter via Paro International Airport on Bhutan’s Druk Airlines. Drukair’s prices are rather steep. In May 2019, I paid

  • 1595.CDN for an Air Canada  Toronto-Delhi return ticket – 12000 kilometers
  • $864.CDN for my Drukair New Delhi- Paro return ticket.     1,200 kilometers       

On arrival, the “international” tourist had to be in the care of a local travel agency and an assigned guide. They would also have paid $40. for the entry visa. They could not rent a vehicle, take a bus from town to town, or trek alone.

For “international” visitors, the mandatory minimum all-inclusive package deal of $250. a day was required to enter the country. (Visitors could upgrade their accommodations from 3-star to 4 and 5-star and thus push the daily cost beyond $250.) For the mandatory minimum package, the cost breakdown was as follows –

  • $185. went to a local travel agency that handled the visitors’ mandatory tour package  – transport, food, accommodation, cultural center entrance fees, guides, etc.
  • a $65-a-day government tax or ‘Sustainable Development Fee.’
  • Solo travellers were charged an extra $40. a day; a party of two paid an additional  $30.-a-day surcharge for each person.

The Bhutanese government’s intent a half-century ago was to prevent the country from becoming a low-budget hippy backpacker destination like neighbouring Nepal. The tourism policy has been described as “high value, low volume/ impact.”

However, this controlled tourism policy was shattered in the decade from 2010 to 2019. The graphs above and below illustrate the reason. As India’s middle class has grown more affluent, so has the number of Indian visitors.

Indeed, the growth since 2010 has been so dramatic that the “high value, low impact” policy has been swamped by a competing approach – “low value, high volume/impact.”

The stats below show that while the “high value” number of arrivals pre-COVID was reasonably stable, the number of Indian arrivals skyrocketed.

Bhutan tourist arrivals 2010 – 2018 “high value” and the total number

See the article Bhutan throws up paywall amid surge of Indian tourists from The Hindu (2019). The writer examined the tensions created by the current setup with two opposing tourism goals.

The result was that you’ve got to be either financially well-off and, as a result, probably an older”international” traveller ( 45 years +) to visit Bhutan – or you had to have an Indian passport! My trekking group’s average age was in the low 50s! Most were lawyers, doctors, company execs…these were clearly not “budget” travellers!

In 12019, the average Indian tourist spent about $50. per day compared to the $250. that “high value” tourists did. [See here for the data source. Interestingly, the one statistical chart absent from the study is the most obvious one, which shows the dramatic rise in “low value, high volume” tourism!] Meanwhile, the “high value, low impact” Indian tourists were probably flying off to Switzerland or Paris for their vacations!

In 2019,  315,599 tourists visited Bhutan. Of that

  • 72, 199 were of the “high value, low impact” class, up less than 1% from the previous year.
  • 243,400 were in the “unregulated” regional category, up 20% from 2018.

To be fair,  the large numbers of “unregulated” regional tourists were mostly found in the urban centers and temples and not on the trekking trails, perhaps because the agencies were more interested in catering to $165. a day “high-value” clients than those with more limited financial means.  During the 23 days on the trek, we met one Swiss group in Lunana, a German couple in Laya, and a local student group at Jomolhari B.C. That was it for traffic on the trail. It was, however,  a different story at the Tiger’s Nest!

The Impact of Covid on Bhutanese Tourism:

The COVID-19 pandemic would have a devastating impact on Bhutan tourism. In 2020 arrivals dropped by 91 percent from 315,599 visitors in 2019 to 29,812. There was a 92% decline in gross receipts from the previous year! In 2021 first “high value, low impact” tourist arrived in September!

The Continued Promotion of a False Image of Bhutan 

Despite the new reality, the Bhutanese government and travel agencies continue to promote the image of Bhutan as a “high value, low impact” destination. This government poster from 2019 pretends that all is good!

The poster also celebrates an off-the-cuff comment made by the King in the 1970s about “Gross National Happiness,” which somehow became government policy a decade later! More than anything,  it seems like a useful piece of fantasy concocted by Thimphu’s financially well-off political elite to diffuse any political or social dissatisfaction.

As Karma Phuntsho points out in his The History of Bhutan:

“The recent efforts of the government to promote Gross National Happiness as a new economic and development paradigm in forums such as the UN has further complicated people’s imagination of Bhutan both at home and abroad. Increasingly, more and more people now describe Bhutan as a happy country, despite the fact that a large percentage of the Bhutanese live in depressing poverty and many Bhutanese youth would willingly grasp the opportunity to work in an American kitchen or European warehouse if given the chance.”

Somehow we make a leap from the fluff of “Gross National Happiness” to the notion that the people of Bhutan are the happiest in the world – a statement that crops up in more than one tourism promo. Meanwhile, Bhutan ranks 129th in the U.N.’s Human Development Index (2019 stats – p.13 of 19). The Economist’s 2021 Democracy Index has Bhutan ranked 81st.

Credit must be given for Bhutan’s shift from a monarchy to what The Economist describes as a hybrid regime. Its 5.71 score in 2021 is far from the low 2.62 it scored in 2006.  However, the continued impulse to flatter past and present members of the Wangchuk family for their “farseeing wisdom”  by obsequious officials is a bit much to take.

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An article –Tourism in Bhutan and COVID-19’s Lasting Impacts– from November 2020 – examines the state of Bhutanese tourism without acknowledging or factoring in the changes that have occurred since 2010, thanks to the massive influx of Indian tourists.

This Kuensel article –Promoting tourism at the World Expo– from January 2022 pretends that Bhutan’s tourism policy, the one developed by its “visionary kings” and grounded in the GNH concept,  is still the “high cost, low impact” one from the 1970s to the early 2000s!

Dorji Dradhul said that the tourism policy was far-sighted, crediting its success to the visionary Kings. “Our policy is grounded in our development policy of GNH.” (He)  interpreted the tourism policy as offering an unforgettable experience to the tourists, while also regulating the number of tourists visiting Bhutan.

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Contrasting Views On The Cost of Visiting Bhutan

For an alternative view of Bhutan’s tourism policy – one which does not really address the contradiction between a mandatory $250. a day minimum package deal for 20% of its visitors and next to no charge for the other 80%, see Is Bhutan really worth $250 per day?  by a fellow WordPress blogger, a Dutch adventurer who was there pre-Covid.

I wonder if she thinks the $200-a-day SDF is okay.

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For a counter-argument, consider the trekker Mark Horrell’s argument – “5 reasons why Bhutan is NOT worth the $200. per day tourist fee” from 2011. After he wrote the piece, the cost increased 25% to $250. Also, his opinion piece predates the massive influx of Indian tourists. In 2020 he would definitely have a sixth reason to add to his list.

While he should have referred to the $200. as the cost of the minimum daily package and not the fee, his points are quite valid.

In the end, my view is that a three-week trek in Sagarmatha National Park in Nepal at

  • one-third of the cost with
  • ten times the stupendous mountain views

is a much better deal.

The posts linked below look at  The Three Passes of Everest Trek in Sagarmatha National Park in Nepal, which I would argue is the world’s #1 high-altitude trek.  After my Bhutan experience, on top of many more Himalayan peaks and a vibrant Sherpa culture, I can add better weather and clear skies!

The High Passes of Everest Trek – Doing The World’s #1 Trek

The High Passes of Everest: Lukla to Namche (Days 1 and 2) + Acclimatization Day

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2022: Bhutan’s Revamped Tourism Policy

I was sure the Deutsche Welle website had made a typo error when I read that the daily “sustainable development fee” for non-Indian visitors to Bhutan had been raised from $65. a day to $200.

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But no …. this New York Times article (July 5, 2022) explains the new direction in Bhutan’s tourism policy, one not hinted at in any of the articles mentioned above. This is an unexpected development!

The NYT article uncritically echoes the happiness myth promoted by the Tourism Council of Bhutan and fails to mention that international visitors make up less than 25% of Bhutan’s visitors. It does not factor in the other 75% of Bhutan’s visitors –  Indian tourists.

However, as of July 2022, they must

  • pay a $15. tourist tax for each night in Bhutan, still a bargain compared to $200 for others,
  • pay a $45. per day tax if they drive their own vehicle in Bhutan,
  • have an assigned Bhutanese guide,
  • have travel insurance
  • pay entrance fees to museums, temples, and dzongs. It is $25. for the Tiger’s Nest!

It seems that the Bhutanese tourism policy aims to severely reduce the number of Indian tourists!  The 244,000 in 2019 was clearly not sustainable. Unfortunately, it will mean that many in the Bhutanese tourism industry will have to get used to significantly fewer visitors.

See here for some discussion –

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The TripAdvisor Bhutan Forum has information and links that help explain Bhutan’s revamped tourism policy.

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The Tourism Council of Bhutan issued an in-depth explanation of the new tourism policy – The Tourism Rules and Regulations of Bhutan 2022

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