7 interesting facts about the roads in Bhutan

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Did you know that there are no traffic lights in the Kingdom?

Bhutan is a tiny country tucked away in the corner of the Himalayas, sandwiched between China and India. 60% of the country is under pristine forest cover, and more than half of the country is protected land. The country was introduced to print media as recently as 1965, and radio in 1973.

Given that information, how would you imagine their roads to be like? Well, wonder no more; allow me to paint you a mental image.

1. As of 2017, there were 12,204.05 km of roads in Bhutan, only 60% of which are paved

The first paved road in Bhutan was constructed in 1961 through the First Development Plan when a 175 kilometres paved road was built from Phuentsholing to Thimphu.

Present-day, most of the paved roads are in western Bhutan, connecting the capital Thimphu and the other bigger cities like Paro, Punakha, Haa, Chukha, and Phuentsholing. 

The central region also has paved roads, including Sarpang, which facilitates border-crossing into India. Eastern Bhutan has its share of paved roads, albeit less than the rest of the country.

2. Bhutan is a mountainous country, so the roads are mostly windy with endless slopes

The terrain in Bhutan ranges from 160 metres to 7,000 metres, sometimes within less than 100 kilometres of each other! The result is some very steep slopes and windy roads. These roads were lovingly referred to as “vomit comets” because the minibuses of the late 1900s would typically make wild turns at the bends at reckless speeds, inducing nausea in the passengers.

3. Bhutan’s road condition makes it an ideal destination for biking

The terrain makes cycling extra challenging, both on-road and off-road. Even the King has a love for cycling, and has taken part in the challenging Tour of the Dragon, a mountain bike race that is believed to be the toughest in the world. 

Biking tours are popular in the Kingdom. After all, there isn’t a more intimate way to experience the country, from the sights to the children running up to greet you.

4. Most roads have only one lane

Most roads in Bhutan have only one lane, which is uncomfortable when facing opposite traffic. But there are some beautiful two-lane highways as well, like the section of road between Paro International Airport and Thimphu, lauded as one of the best roads in Bhutan.

This nice, paved road lasts approximately 50 kilometres, which is why you can get from the capital Thimphu to Paro airport in 1 hour 20 minutes.

The Paro-Thimphu Highway

5. The main highway is known as the East-West Highway

This road is known locally as the Lateral Road. It runs from Phuentsholing at the border with India, all the way to Trashigang in the east. There are spurs to Thimphu, Punakha, and Paro. 

The East-West Highway is part of the Asian Highway Project, also known as the Great Asian Highway. The Asian Highway Project is a cooperative project by a few Asian countries, European countries, and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP). The goal is to improve the highway system in Asia. The East-West Highway is designated as Asian Highway No.48. 

6. There are no traffic lights in Bhutan

You read that right. There are no traffic lights in Bhutan, the only country in the world that can make this claim. Even in the core cities, a traffic police with white gloves directs the traffic, an amusing sight to behold. 

According to one source, one set of traffic lights was installed but then quickly removed not long afterwards, as the Bhutanese preferred manual traffic management, even in Thimphu, which has the most traffic in Bhutan.

7. The roads in Bhutan are classified into different categories.

They are as follows:

National Highway

There are three kinds of national highways, the Asian Highway, Primary National Highway, and the Secondary National Highway.

The Asian Highway is mentioned in number 6 above.

Primary National Highways are strategically placed to connect two designated points via the shortest route possible. They connect Dzongkhags and have two lanes. 

A Secondary National Highway is defined as a highway that connects a Dzongkhag with a road of equal or higher classification, or a road that connects to Dzongkhags. Just like Primary National Highways, these roads have two lanes. 

Dzongkhag Roads

Dzongkhag roads connects any of the following:

  • Dzongkhag with Gewog
  • Dzongkhag with Dungkhag
  • Dungkhag with Dungkhag
  • Dungkhag with Gewog
  • Gewog with road of existing or higher classification

Thromde Road

These refer to all the roads located within the municipal boundary, apart from the national highway.

Farm Road

As the name suggests, these roads connect to farmland areas.

Access Road

Access Roads include the following:

  • Forest Road
  • Health Road
  • Education Road
  • Telecommunications Road
  • Power Road
  • Private Road
  • Project Road
  • Public Institution Road


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