Money in Bhutan
The local currency in Bhutan takes a little getting used to. It’s spelled Ngultrum, which I struggle to pronounce, but luckily the locals just abbreviate it to “Nu,” which is pronounced like “new,” or more accurately, something like “nee-YOU.”
The Nu is pegged to the Indian rupee, so if you’re comfortable with the rupees-to-dollars exchange rate, you’re all set. Unfortunately none of us on the trip are conversant with rupees.
The exchange rate is about 54 Nu to the U.S. dollar, or so says the Oanda currency app on my iPhone. In reality it’s a little lower than that—and, interestingly, it depends on what kind of U.S. dollars you’re exchanging. Our tour director from Odysseys Unlimited, whose name is Yeshey, took us to the currency exchange in Thimphu to get some local cash, and we found that 50-dollar bills and larger denominations get something close to the 54-Nu figure, while twenties get more like 48 Nu. I’ve also heard that the crisper and newer the bill, the better the exchange rate. Yeshey had to sign the paperwork for each of us, apparently to verify to the bank that the U.S. money we were trading in was’t counterfeit.
The exchange rate makes things look really expensive over here, when in fact they’re not. At the handmade-paper place, for example, we bought packets of three or four notecards plus envelopes on lovely textured paper for about 250 Nu, or about five bucks. I can get a can of Diet Coke—where available—for about 100 Nu, or two bucks. The iPhone money-converter app has come in very handy in the local shops.
If you take a look at the photo above, the topmost bill is 1,000 Nu, or about 20 bucks U.S. Pictured on the bill is the country’s 33-year-old king, referred to as the Fifth King, who is revered around here—as was his father, the Fourth King. The Fourth King is still alive; he abdicated to his son in 2006, in part to accelerate the growth of democracy in the country.
The Penn State travelers, by the way, are all pretty impressed with the efforts of the kings to introduce democracy into their kingdom over the past few decades. Bhutan currently has both a king and a prime minister—and you may be familiar with the prime minister: Jigme Thinley ’76g, a Penn Stater. Actually, he’s referred to around here as “the former prime minister,” as the country is in the middle of elections and those currently in office had to step down from their positions in order to run for reelection.
The second bill in the photo above, worth 500 Nu, shows a photo of the dzong we visited in Punakha. And the bottom bill, worth 5 Nu (about 9 cents in U.S. money), shows the famed Tiger’s Nest Monastery, to which we hope to climb on the last day.
Incidentally, the money over here is all currency—no coins, for some reason.
Tina Hay, editor