A quick glance at a map and you might think the close neighbors of Tibet and Bhutan are similar regions. The truth is that they are two very different places, each having its own unique culture and history. From landscape, to terrain, scenery and tourist attractions, Tibet and Bhutan offer distinct visiting experiences. On any visit to the Himalayas, a trip to both places is recommended.
Tibet or Bhutan: Different Locations
Tibet and Bhutan are both located in the Himalayan region, and share a border that is several hundred kilometers long. Despite their close proximity, there are some important differences in their locations.
With an average altitude of more than 4000 m, Tibet is known as the roof of the world. Located on the northern side, in the heart of the Himalayas, the Tibetan plateau is the highest region in the world. Lying in the far west of China, Tibetan Autonomous Region is bordered in the north by Xinjiang and Qinghai provinces, and to the east by Yunnan, Sichuan, and Gansu provinces of China.
Tibet has an average altitude of more than 4000 meters.
Nestled in the eastern Himalayas, Bhutan, also known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon, is a landlocked country on the slopes of the world's highest mountain range, on the edges of the Qinghai Tibetan plateau. While China (Tibet) covers the northern border of Bhutan, the rest of the country borders various states of India, including West Bengal and Assam.
Tibet or Bhutan: Different Natural Landscapes
Altitude and geographic features are the main differences between Bhutan and Tibet. Tibet lies on a high-altitude plateau, which is generally flat, with high mountains rising from it across most of the region. Covered with a multitude of lakes and mountains, Tibet is a land of high mountains and desolate deserts, tundra landscapes, and vast open plains and prairies.
Bhutan is a land of varying altitudes, ranging from around 7,000 meters in the northern mountains, descending through 2,000-3,000 meter valleys, to lowland areas near the Indian border, just a few meters above sea level. Bhutan also has a much higher area of denser forests than Tibet, which extend from the Himalayan slopes to the Indian border.
The Thimphu Valley in western Bhutan has an altitude of around 2,334 meters.
Tibet or Bhutan: Different Weather and Best Travel Seasons
The climate in Tibet allows for a very long travel season. While it is possible to visit anytime, the harsh winters with heavy snowfall in some areas mean parts of the region can be inaccessible. The best travel season is from April to October, mainly covering spring, summer and autumn seasons.
Spring (April to June) and autumn (September to October) are generally dry months, with little rain and good sunshine throughout, though these are only the shoulder seasons. Summer (July and August) in Tibet is the peak season for tourism, despite it also being the monsoon season. However, with little rain actually falling on the plateau due to the shadow effect of the mountains, summer is not as wet, especially in remote areas.
During the months from April to October, one can visit Tibet for the best views.
In Bhutan, the weather is more changeable, with the higher areas having a more alpine mountain climate of snow in the winter and rain in the summer, and the lower areas being more monsoon-affected and wetter, but not as cold in the winter months. Bhutan does have a four-season monsoon climate, with mild spring and autumn seasons, harsher winters in the north than in the south, and wetter monsoons in the south than in the north.
The best time to hike to Tiger’s Nest Monastery is spring and autumn.
The ideal travel seasons in Bhutan are normally spring and autumn, from March to May and September to November. These are the times when the weather is generally warm and dry, though you might still need some warm sweaters and jackets in the early spring and late autumn. Summer is the monsoon in Bhutan, and the lower areas below 4,000 meters see a lot of rain through July and August. Winter is colder in Bhutan than the rest of the year, and while it is dry, the snow can block passes, making travel harder.
Tibet or Bhutan: Different Tour Highlights
Touring is very different in Bhutan to Tibet, and while both destinations require you to be on pre-arranged tours, the sights and attractions are very different.
A tour of Tibet naturally focuses on features of the region’s unique geography, and locations connected to ancient cultural and spiritual traditions. Mountains are what many people associate with Tibet, and a visit to Mt Everest Base Camp is a highlight on any tour. Mt Kailash is not to be overlooked either as a mountain with both a distinctive appearance and deep significance for Tibetan Buddhists.
Tibet is also home to several holy lakes notable for their beauty and spirituality. Lake Manasarovar is one of the highest freshwater lakes in the world and is considered sacred in both Hinduism and Buddhism. Lake Namtso to the north of Lhasa is surrounded and breathtaking views and is a popular destination for both pilgrims and tourists. And Lake Yamdrok, known as the turquoise lake, is considered one of the most beautiful due to its stunning color and natural surroundings.
Lake Namtso is a must-see attraction in Tibet.
The various monasteries and temples are also important tour destinations when visiting Tibet. Temples and monasteries such as Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, Sera Monastery, and Tashilhunpo Monastery, each have a unique place in ancient traditions, and unique architecture connected with their histories.
Highlights of touring Bhutan include a strong focus on the natural environment and peaceful rural scenery. Home to many wildlife sanctuaries such as Phobjikha Valley, visitors can see the home of endangered animals like the black-necked crane. Other areas, like Taktsang Hot Springs, offer visitors relaxing experiences while surrounded by nature.
Tiger’s Nest Monastery is a must for most visitors to Bhutan. Located in the Paro Valley, and perched on the edge of a cliff, even just the hike to this iconic landmark can be a spiritual experience.
Punakha Dzong is the most beautiful Dzong in Bhutan.
Bhutan also has a distinct type of fortress monastery called a Dzong, an important part of their cultural heritage. Built-in traditional architectural styles, and found in strategic locations such as hilltops and areas where rivers meet, dzongs served as administrative centers that combine government, religion, and culture. Many continue to play an important role in Bhutan up to this day.
Tibet or Bhutan: Different Cultures and Customs
Tibet and Bhutan are like siblings in the way their religion and language are related but otherwise have distant cultures and customs.
Tibet is a devoutly Buddhist region where spiritual practices and pilgrimages are part of daily life. Each year is decorated with colorful festivals that keep local traditions active. Nomadic and pastoral life remain not just a part of Tibetan heritage, but also a way of living that continues into the present. It is a tradition adapted to the high-altitude grasslands and plateaus of the region, and contributes to the cultural richness of Tibet.
Bhutan is a country committed to preserving folk customs deeply ingrained in the daily lives of its people. Bhutanese people revere the royal family, who play a central role in the country’s governance, culture and identity. Environmentalism is another important part of that identity. And whereas Tibetans work hard for their family and prosperity, in Bhutan, there is more of a desire for the family unit to preserve the landscape and look after nature than work for profits.
Bhutanese people tend to pay attention to environment protection.
Why Visit Tibet and Bhutan Together: Enjoy More in One Trip
If you are considering which of these amazing destinations to visit, then it is possible to visit them both together and enjoy and understand them more. A trip to Bhutan and Tibet in one go is a great way to understand their similarities and differences, the two unique cultures, and learn how they have diverged from the same basic religion after 1,200 years. And with such similar yet different landscapes, cultures, and traditions to explore, you can be sure you can get the best of both worlds.
Bhutan and Tibet may share Tibetan Buddhism and their border along the line of the Himalayas, but that is where their similarities diverge into their own unique cultures, landscapes, and traditions. There are more differences that you might think between these two amazing Himalayan destinations, so why not go and try out both, and see the difference for yourself.