Driving in Bhutan


Driving in Bhutan



Rule of the Road

Traffic in Bhutan drives on the left side of the road, in common with many other Asian countries.



Statistics (year 2007 figures)


UK comparison

Annual fatalities



Registered motor vehicles



Motorisation rate, (motor vehicles / 1,000 population)



Fatality rate, (deaths / 10,000 motor vehicles)



Fatality risk, (road deaths / 100,000 population)



Fatality quotient, (fatality rate x fatality risk)



Fatalities / 1,000 km road



Road length, km



Paved roads, %



Road density, (road length km / land area km2)



Vehicle density, (motor vehicles / km)



Population density, (population / km2)





Statistics Summary

Bhutan is a tiny Himalayan country in which 80% of the population lives more than 2 hours walk from the nearest road. Because of this, most of the population is not exposed to the dangers of road transport; it is only a few decades since the first motorised transport arrived in Bhutan, and to many of the population this is the first generation to witness motor vehicles in their country. Initially, with a very low motorisation rate collisions were rare, but in the last decade as motorisation is rapidly increasing (still only 10% of UK figures) fatality rates are rising rapidly.





Driving Environment

This tiny Himalayan country measures about 300 km east to west, and about 150 km north to south. The country has predominantly snow covered mountains in the north, but with mountainous tropical rain forest in the south. The country has few roads, and those existing are mostly carved along the flanks of steep mountainsides. There is only one road connecting Bhutan to the outside world, from Thimphu southbound to India. The climate varies from icy glaciers in the north, to hot and humid jungle in the south.



Driver Behaviour.

Bhutanese drivers are very unhurried, calm, and relaxed, because of their Buddhist religion and culture. However, due to their road system, it would be very difficult to rush even if they wanted to, the road infrastructure just would not permit it.






The vehicle stock is mostly of new smaller Japanese cars, a significant number of Japanese 4x4 SUVs, and with a few older Indian 4x4 vehicles. The lorries tend to be older Indian models. Agricultural tractors, and Chinese-made hand-tractors with a trailer are also common and used for everyday family transport. Minibuses having 4x4 transmission are a common mode of transport, and the largest town buses are only around 9 metres in length.





Speed Limits.

Speed is measured in km/h. Signage varies, typically the signs are hand painted orange characters on a red disc or rectangle, using European digits. Speed limits are set very low, as low as 8 km/h and 20 km/h observed in towns. The main roads outside the towns are not built for speed, and it would be difficult to find many stretches of road where 50 km/h could be exceeded anywhere in the country.





Traffic Signals.

Bhutan does not yet have any automated traffic signals. However, at one relatively busy junction in Thimphu, the capital city, a policeman manually directs the traffic from a podium. This is a wonderful spectacle in itself, whilst he gives standard police-style arm signals that are recognisable in many older driving manuals, it is done in a very artistic style as if choreographed to music.





Road signs.

Signs of all types are a random mixture of styles, shapes, and colours, nothing seems standardised.  A few signs are clearly in the standard ISO (European) system, whilst a few others are in a style similar to the pre-1965 British system, possibly copied from what formerly existed in India many decades ago. Many road signs are hand-written in English, although some are dual language in English and Dzongkha, the Bhutanese language, using the Tibetan Chhokey script. They are typically written in orange text on a red background to match the National colours. Kilometre posts are placed at intermittent intervals, in more usual colours of yellow & white, with English & Chhokey script.




Road markings.

White is used, but markings are minimal. Many roads are too narrow to have a centre lane of any type, markings are only used in a couple of the larger towns.



Kerb markings.

A few kerbs are painted alternately black / white, but only in selected places, there are few kerbs.




Thimphu has several small roundabouts, the rules and markings are conventional, although a policeman typically directs traffic at one of them. One roundabout is well marked with ghost splitter islands, but each approach leg is terminated with Stop lines, but without any signs.






Whilst there are several major routes, there are no major roads, so no major junctions in Bhutan. Most intersections are typically a T junction, without excessive traffic.



Pedestrian Crossings.

Thimphu has several zebra crossings in the town centre, they have reasonably typical zebra markings on the road surface, but no signs.



Railway Crossings.

The mountainous topography of Bhutan is not conducive to railway construction, so is not served by any railway system, so does not have any railway level crossings.




Bhutan does not have any major highways, although a short section of the road leaving Thimphu to the south has recently been made into a dual carriageway. The main road between major towns, and between the airport and the capital Thimphu are each barely wide enough for vehicles to pass in each direction, and in many places are little more than single-track roads.





City Driving.

Driving around the capital Thimphu is like driving around an English village. Although at times there may be many pedestrians, and quite a few vehicles, the size of Thimphu is not great, nor is the road infrastructure extensive. Some roads in the town are pleasantly wide, and there is even a very short section of dual carriageway, but that is merely to restrict U turns where they would be undesirable. In Paro, another town, the main street is also quite wide, so has been divided along the centre to channelize the flow of traffic.





Rural Roads.

The mountain roads are typically single-track, with passing places for opposing traffic to pass. Many roads are cut high along the sides of steep valleys, so have a vertical rock face along one side, and a vertical drop into the river on the other side. Typically the edge of the vertical drop is marked with an alpine style intermittent low stone wall.



Night Driving.

Night driving is not recommended in Bhutan. Although there are some street lights in Thimphu, much of the road infrastructure is without road markings, and without any retroreflective studs or signs.






On-street parking is considered acceptable in the main roads of Thimphu and Paro, and in other places. However, many other roads are too narrow for a vehicle to park.




Something to watch out for … Some of the older direction signs designed for walkers and animal drawn traffic were painted on slabs of stone, they may be difficult to see or read whilst moving.


©Keith Lane 2009