Driving Guide

Bhutan Driving Guide

Bhutan is a unique beautiful country. Explore all of it by driving when you get your International Driving Permit.

2021-08-05 · 9min read

Perched on the southern borders of the Himalayas, Bhutan is a landlocked country that is home to the world’s largest carbon sink. About 70% of Bhutan’s land area is forested, and Bhutanese have long worked hard to keep it that way. Environmental conservation is a way of life in Bhutan, and this is one of the reasons why Bhutanese are considered among the happiest people in the world! How Can This Guide Help You?

Located at an average of 8,000 feet above mean sea level, you’ll find Bhutan’s topography a breathtaking scene to drive in. Outside the capital city of Thimphu, a lot of roads wind along mountainsides and others between sweeping valleys. Driving in Bhutan is very much one for the books.

How Can This Guide Help You?

This guide will give you some of the most fundamental facts and instructions to remember before traveling to Bhutan. To facilitate your smooth travel experience in the country, brush through the succeeding sections, including information on travel restrictions, road rules, driving licenses for tourists, and some exciting activities to do while in the country.

Once you’ve fully grasped the protocols and safe driving rules, take out your international driving permit, and welcome to the Land of the Thunder Dragon!

General Information

The mystical Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan was one (1) of the first countries to legally require its people to protect the environment. To ensure compliance, killing an endangered animal, for example, may place you in prison for life. Aside from this, smoking remains to be illegal in the country. Bhutan’s pillars for health and environmental conservation don’t just stop here. But before experiencing this highly unique country, make sure that you have all the entry requirements in place.

Geographic Location

Bhutan is approximately located between 26o 45’ to 28o 10’ North and 88o 45’ to 92o 10’ East. It is a landlocked country that is only bordered by India in the south and Tibet in the north. Due to its location and topography, the Kingdom of Bhutan is generally divided into three (3) climatic zones: the southern zone (bordering India), the central zone, and the northern zone (bordering Tibet). Areas along the Indian Border experience the most rainfall, while areas near the Tibetan Border experience perennially cold temperatures and the least rainfall.

Seasons-wise, Bhutan is influenced by four(4) seasons:

  • Spring (March - April)
  • Summer (Mid-April - Late June)
  • Autumn (July - September)
  • Winter (October - February)

Languages Spoken

There are at least 19 dialects in Bhutan. However, the country’s national language is the Dzongkha, known to be the native language primarily of the Ngalops from Western Bhutan. Two(2) of the next commonly spoken dialects are the Lhotshamkha (Bhutanese of Nepali origin) and the Tshanglakha (Eastern Bhutan).

Despite their rich linguistic culture, Bhutanese people understand English well. They can also speak it as English is the medium of instruction used in schools. Then, of course, Hindi, the language of their neighboring country of India, is also prevalent in Bhutan.

Land Area

Bhutan's land area is about 38,394km2 nestled along the mountain foot-slopes of the Himalayan Mountain Range. Built-up areas are located within deep valleys, supported by rivers that drain into the expansive plains of India. If you’re planning on traveling to multiple Dzongkhags (fortresses/provinces), you should expect to drive through uphill and downhill roads, both paved and unpaved.

Major highways between the Dzongkhags are well-paved and maintained, so most of the challenge comes from knowing how to drive uphill. You should be able to clear this with your car rental company, whether you should rent a manual or an automatic car.

History

The earliest records of Bhutan date as far back as 747 A.D when Guru Rinpoche traveled from Tibet to Paro Valley. He was believed to be the 2nd Buddha. Bhutan started as a highly sectarian kingdom and later on developed into a unified nation through Ngawang Namgyal, who created the first comprehensive system of laws in the country. He was also the one to initiate the establishment of Dzongs in different valleys that served as protective fortresses.

After the 17th century, civil unrest enveloped the country. Eventually, it was the Governor of Trongsa, Ugyen Wangchuck, who emerged victorious in the wars. This made him Bhutan’s first elected king in the early 20th century.

Government

Since the enthronement of King Ugyen Wangchuck, Bhutan has transitioned from a Hereditary Monarchy to a Parliamentary Democratic country. In 2008, Bhutan held its first country-wide elections. The government also consists of the executive, judiciary, and legislative branches. The people vote for the ruling political party, which comprises a portion of the legislative body, together with the national council and the opposition.

Tourism

Tourists are allowed to stay in Bhutan for a maximum of 14 days, depending on the granted visa. However, regular entry visas only permit travelers to go around Thimphu and Paro. International tourists are restricted from traveling to the rest of the 18 administrative regions unless granted a Restricted-Area Permit / Route Permit.

Despite being a relatively secluded country, geography-wise, Bhutan is a sought-after destination for tourists from all over the globe. The previous monarchs of Bhutan believed in the Gross Happiness Index more than the Gross Domestic Product as a measure of wealth. So much so that the government heavily invests in sustainable development making renewable energy their largest export product. Did you know that Bhutan has banned the use of plastic bags and tobacco since 1999 and 1729, respectively? How cool is that!

Furthermore, Bhutan is known as the world’s last Shangri-la. This is because both culture and nature are highly preserved even within bustling centers. You can expect to see locals wearing the national costume regularly, a culture that is greatly observed in the capital of Thimphu. Because of all these, in a period of five (5) years alone (2014-2019), Bhutan has recorded over a 99% increase in visitor arrivals, both regional and international, and there is still foreseen to increase in the succeeding years.

IDP FAQs

Remember that to go driving in Bhutan outside Thimphu and Paro, you’ll need to secure a “Restricted-Area Permit/Route Permit.” The Bhutanese Government heavily regulates tourists or outsiders to preserve their natural treasures, thus the Route Permit. Since booking a tour is mandatory for tourists, your tour guide will be the one to secure the permit for you. If you’re planning on driving around Bhutan accompanied by your tour guide, you can also do so legally with an International Driving Permit.

An International Driving Permit is a translation of your valid domestic driving license. However, only IDPs issued from government agencies or private organizations authorized by the government are official translations. You use this whenever you go driving in a foreign country. It does not, however, replace your domestic driving license by any means. This means that you’ll have to present the IDP together with your original driving license.

Is an IDP Necessary Before I Go Driving to Bhutan?

An International Driving Permit is not required in Bhutan, but it is still highly recommended. This is especially when your domestic driving license is not printed in Indian, Maldivian, Bangladeshi, English, or Roman Alphabet in general. There are two conventions of road traffic for IDPs, but it doesn't matter in Bhutan.

You’ll need to present your valid native driving license to be granted a temporary Bhutanese driving license, and the authorities should be able to understand what is printed on your native driving license. Thus, the need for an IDP. In most cases, as stated in the Road Safety Traffic Act, “authorities may exempt a person from obtaining a driving license for three months if the person has a valid international driving license.” Moreover, the benefits of having an IDP don’t just stop here.

Even though Bhutan does not require an International Driving Permit, you’ll be surprised at how convenient and beneficial it is to have one. Apart from having a translated version of your native driving license, you can:

  • Use the same IDP to drive in many other countries
  • Be able to present it to concerned authorities when necessary
  • Rent a car
  • Apply for car insurance in foreign countries

What Are the Types of Driving Licenses in Bhutan?

In situations where your IDP will not be recognized, you will be required to secure a foreign or tourist driving license in Bhutan. The government issues two (2) types of driving licenses in Bhutan to foreigners. One (1) is the 14-day, temporary driving permit issued upon arrival. The other is the official Foreign Driving License issued to foreign nationals staying in Bhutan for more than three (3) months.

The tourist driving permit is also only valid in Thimphu and Paro. Should you wish to drive outside these fortresses, make sure that you also apply for a Special Area Permit/Route Permit at the RTO. Lastly, if you want to go driving in Bhutan using a car that is brought in from India, you need to present the following requirements to the RTO:

  • Car registration papers
  • Car insurance policy
  • Car emission certificate
  • Fitness certificate
  • Valid domestic driving license

If you want to apply for the 2nd type (valid over three months), you’ll need to present a valid visa or work permit, a valid native driving license, and go through the standard processing of securing a driving license in Bhutan. The standard process involves taking a practical driving test and a driving theory test in Bhutan.

What Are the Requirements to Apply for an IDP?

The requirements to obtain an International Driver’s Permit are pretty basic. As long as you have reached the age of 18 and have a valid native driving license, you are qualified to apply for an IDP. It would be good to note that there are indeed countries that have lower minimum driving ages. However, this will not be recognized when applying for an IDP. Even if you have a valid driving license but have not yet reached the age of 18, you will not be granted an International Driving Permit.

The requirements are:

  • Valid full driver’s license from your country of residence
  • Passport-sized photos
  • Credit Card / PayPal Account

You don’t need to enroll at a driving school in Bhutan to secure an IDP. However, you are still welcomed to do so. If you are staying in Bhutan for more than three (3) months, it would be best to enroll at a driving school.

It will be an advantage to take lessons with a driving school in Bhutan because of the winding, uphill and downhill terrains in the country. To enroll at a driving school, you’ll need to have a learner’s license first. Once three (3) months have passed, you can then apply for a Bhutanese driver’s license. If you are not yet a citizen of Bhutan, you’ll also have to present your passport or any other valid identification card, and of course, your International Driver’s Permit.

Do I Need to Take a Driving Test in Bhutan to Get an IDP?

Unlike other countries where you can just exchange your native driving license for a temporary destination license immediately, you may need to undergo a lengthier but considerable process in Bhutan. However, this depends on the country where your native driving license was issued. You may be required to take and pass either a practical exam, a physical/vision exam, or a theoretical exam to be granted the 14-day temporary driving license.

It would be best to contact the Road Safety and Transport Agency (RSTA) to validate if you’ll need to take driving tests in Bhutan. If you need to take the test, you’ll need to follow the online registration for the driving test in Bhutan via the RSTA website. Remember also that you’ll first need a valid visa before qualifying for the temporary driving license. For more driving-test questions in Bhutan, you can check out the FAQ section of the RSTA website.

Renting a Car in Bhutan

When you book a tour in Bhutan, you rarely have to worry about driving as most of the tour operators have vehicle services. However, if you want to experience how it is driving in this magical place, then rent a car and book a tour guide just to accompany you along your road trip.

Car Rental Companies

Local rent-a-car companies can be found mostly in Thimphu. However, if you are looking for the internationally-renowned ones, there is no luck trying to find them in Bhutan. There are also no Transportation Network Vehicle Services (TNVS) in the country like Uber or Grab, so you might want to plan your route carefully. To rent a car in Bhutan, you can check out the following rent-a-car companies:

  • AB Travel, Bhutan Tour Packages, and Car Rental
  • Bhutan JYW Car Rental Service
  • Bhutan Car Rental Ltd.
  • Gemini Tours & Travels
  • Heavenly Bhutan Travels

If you are coming in from India, you can also rent a car in India and drive it to Bhutan if the company allows it. You just need to bring the standard car documents and have them checked by the RSTA upon applying for a 14-day Bhutan driving license.

Documents Required

To rent a car in Bhutan, you’ll need to present the original copies and submit photocopies of the following documents:

  • Temporary Driving License in Bhutan
  • Valid identification documents
  • International Driver’s Permit
  • Passport-size photos

Vehicle Types

There are various types of cars to choose from when you want to rent in Bhutan. When you rent, we recommend that you not only consider the price of the car and its capacity; but consider the condition and features as well. With the terrain of Bhutan, you’ll want a versatile car that can take you across off-road tracks.

Some recommend either the Toyota Innova, the Tata Sumo, the Toyota Hi-Ace, and the Toyota Prado. But then again, you can also always go for the sedans and hatchbacks if that’s suits your needs better. Lastly, you can also rent premium and luxury cars like BMWs, Volvos, and Mercedes if you prefer them.

Car Rental Cost

Daily car rental costs in Bhutan vary, depending primarily on the type of car. On average, the rental fees are:

  • Pick-up trucks : 3,000 - 5,000 Ngultrums
  • Motorcycles : 1,500 - 2,500 Ngultrums
  • Economy Sedans, Wagons, Hatchbacks : 2,500 - 3,000 Ngultrums
  • 8-seater Vans : 5,000 - 5,500 Ngultrums
  • Coasters : 7,500 - 8,500 Ngultrums
  • Luxury SUVs : 4,500 - 5,500 Ngultrums

Some companies only post or advertise immediate rental rates. There may be associated rental costs that will only be reflected on your bill. This includes insurance, administrative fee, cleaning costs, and the like. To ensure that you don’t go over budget, talk to your candidate car rental company first to calculate the estimated total cost.

Age Requirements

The minimum driving age in Bhutan is 18 years old, but most car rental companies around the world offer rental packages to individuals as young as 21 years old. However, they will charge you with a young driver’s charge if you haven’t reached the age of 24 or 25. This is because young drivers are believed to have higher accident frequencies. Also, some companies may allow young drivers to rent considering that they have between 1-2 years of driving experience already.

If you have plans also to renting bigger and more expensive cars, you have to check first with your car rental company. Some of them require a higher minimum age (like 25- 28) for the more expensive units.

Car Insurance Costs

Car insurance costs will depend on the type of car you’ll rent, your age, your driving experience, and the policy riders. Contrary to life insurance, the price of car rental insurances will be higher if you are younger and have lesser driving experience.

Besides, your car rental insurance will be charged on a per-day basis. Here are approximated rates for the different riders:

  • Collision Damage Waiver: USD30 – USD45 / day
  • Personal Accident Insurance: USD10 – USD15 / day
  • Roadside Assistance Cover: USD5 – USD15 / day

Car Insurance Policy

The usual minimum car insurance policy is third-party liability insurance. This covers loss or damage caused to another user. Third-party insurance does not cover your (the driver’s) medical / damage expenses or the car’s damages in case you meet an accident. With this, car rental companies would usually require you to buy additional insurance coverage. And you’ll have to buy it through them.

The two (2) most recommended riders for you to purchase are the Collision Damage Waiver/Loss Damage Waiver and Personal Accident Insurance. You can also add in more covers like the Roadside Assistance Cover and Fire & Theft Insurance.

Other Facts

If you satisfy the minimum requirements to rent a car in the country, the process of renting shouldn’t take you long. Also, the process you go through (if it’s a hassle for you) will be nothing like the benefits that you’ll get once you start self-driving in the country. Here some other quick facts about land travel and renting a car in Bhutan.

How Do I Get Around in Bhutan?

You can get around Bhutan by bus, taxi, chartered car, motorcycle, or private car. If you’re just exploring Thimphu, a motorcycle, a taxi, and/or car are your best options. Buses are meant for long-distance travel, while taxis can also be used for far places. Travelers less recommend buses because they have a reputation for overspeeding even in sharp bends and rough roads. Passengers, even locals, tend to be sick when riding Bhutanese buses.

While most of the roads in Bhutan are paved and safe for public transportation, the advantages of driving in Bhutan with your own private vehicle still weigh more. Here are the reasons why taking public transportation is less favored in Bhutan:

  • Buses only run to and from Thimphu, Phuentsholing, Haa, Punakha, and Paro once a day
  • Buses only run to and from Thimphu, Trashigang, Mongar, Samtse, Phobjika, Tashi Yangtse, and Zhemgang one (1) to three (3) times a week
  • Taxi drivers rarely use their meters, especially on long-distance trips

Overall, the number of public transportation services in Bhutan is fairly limited. If you rent and drive your own car instead, you’d be able to explore more than what is allowed by these public vehicles. Nevertheless, you can find timetables, routes, and corresponding fares for public transport online if ever you decide to experience the local way of life in this sense.

Do I Need To Join a Driving Class in Bhutan Before Renting?

The requirements to rent a car in Bhutan are just the standard ones required in most countries. These include your native driving license, an IDP, your 14-day temporary Bhutan driving license, a credit card for security deposit, and car insurance policies. You don’t need to enroll in a driving class in Bhutan before renting a car.

Some car rental companies in Bhutan accept cash, especially if you’re not going to book in advance. If you don’t have Ngultrums or a credit card, Bhutanese also accept Indian Rupees that have the same value as a Ngultrum (Nu 1 = INR 1).

Where Are the Entry Points to Bhutan for Land Trips?

There are only a few airlines that can directly fly to Bhutan. As such, most other tourists enter the country via land travel from India. Below are some bits that can be expected when you arrive at the land gateways. If you are not an Indian resident, also remember that you need to book a tour first before crossing any border.

Jaigon-Phuentsholing Border

The Jaigon-Phuentsholing Border is located along the southwestern border between Bhutan and India. This is the border nearest to Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan. If you are neither a citizen of Bangladesh, India, nor the Maldives, it is recommended that you start your driving-in-Bhutan adventure through this border. This is because all other foreign nationals are only issued a visa clearance at Thimphu.

When you reach Jaigon (India), do not go directly to the Bhutan Immigration Office. Instead, head first to the Indian Immigration Office and have your Indian Visa stamped out. Once done, you can proceed to the Bhutanese Immigration Office in Phuentsholing and pay for the Bhutanese Visas.

Take note that the Bhutanese Immigration Office doesn’t accept dollars in land crossings (only at Paro International Airport), so you’d need to exchange your currency to Ngultrum. It will only take you a few minutes to go through immigration as long as you complete the requirements.

Samdrup Jongkhar Border

The town of Samdrup Jongkhar is located on the southeastern border of Bhutan, and it is the oldest town in the country. If you pass through this border, you will be greeted with quite a bustling quaint town. The border separates Bhutan from India, specifically along with the Indian Province of Assam. In terms of road conditions, the highway traversing the Samdrup Jongkhar Border is second best after Phuentsholing Border.

If you’re planning on visiting Thimphu, the Samdrup Jongkhar Border might not very much be a good idea because Thimphu is a 3-day ride away from Samdrup Jongkhar. The border is open daily from 9:00 am - 5:00 pm in the summer, and 9:00 am - 4:00 pm in the winter. Suppose you’ll travel to Bhutan via this border during the monsoon season. In that case, it is also recommended that you call concerned authorities before going to the border, as flooding often hampers border operations.

Gelephu Border

The Gelephu Border is located between the Phuenthsoling Border and the Samdrup Jongkhar Border. This border is most popular for those going to Bhutan for commercial purposes such as delivery trucks, construction machinery, and more. They do, however, serve tourists as well. If your requirements are complete, it will only take you less than 20 minutes to cross the border. This border is open from 9:00 AM- 5:00 PM daily.

Road Rules in Bhutan

Now that you know the initial requirements to drive in Bhutan as a foreign national, it is time to go through the most important driving rules in Bhutan. You must familiarize at least the following to ensure a smooth driving experience in the country.

Important Regulations

Road regulations don’t only cover motor vehicles. All traffic rules apply to all road users, including pedestrians and cyclists. However, since motor vehicles have more power on the road, a lot of the rules are focused on regulating them.

Drunk-Driving

Based on the RSTA Act of 1999, the maximum allowable blood alcohol concentration is 0.08 grams of alcohol per 100 ml of blood. Implementation of this rule has been stringent, especially in Thimphu, because a lot of road accidents are caused by drunk-drivers. Proposed penalties for the amended RSTA Act of 1999 included raising the fine from Nu 1,750 to Nu 10,000. Imprisonment is also possible following the offense.

Parking Laws

Illegal parking is not tolerated in Bhutan. Violators will be fined Nu 550. In the first two (2) months of 2021 alone, the violations recorded include parking in no parking areas, parking on footpath, not parking in a designated parking area, and wrong parking positions. If you are caught parking wrongly, you’ll have to pay the fine within seven (7) days from the issuance of a notice, or else, you’ll incur more violations.

General Standards

All drivers have the legal responsibility to take all the necessary steps to avoid road accidents. This includes complying with all the provisions in the Road and Safety Traffic Act, making sure that the vehicle is in good condition before taking it out on the road and obeying all the instructions given by an authorized person or traffic enforcer. Also, always wear your seat belt when driving to avoid fatalities.

Speed Limits

Another common question we get from tourist drivers is how fast they can go driving in Bhutan. Maximum speed limits vary throughout the country. In areas where no maximum speed limit signs exist, the following standards have to be observed:

  • Built-up areas : 30 km/hr
  • Outside Built-up areas: 50 km/hr (light vehicles and two-wheelers); 35 km/hr (medium and heavy vehicles)

Based on the proposed amendments to the RSTA Act of 1999, persons caught overspeeding will be liable to the following consequences:

  • A fine of Nu 5,000
  • License cancellation
  • Disqualification from securing another license for the next six months

Driving Directions

Roundabouts can have one or more lanes. You’ll have to know which way is your exit to know which lane you should stay in. Considering the driving side of Bhutan, traffic follows a clockwise direction at roundabouts. If you’re not used to the driving side in Bhutan, don’t panic when approaching roundabouts or intersections; just take your time to observe other vehicles or rely on the traffic enforcer on duty for his instructions.

Traffic Road Signs

There are three (3) types of traffic signs in Bhutan: Mandatory Signs, Cautionary Signs, and Information Signs. Mandatory signs relay the road rules that everyone should follow. If you disregard mandatory signs, you’ll be liable for certain fines. On the other hand, cautionary signs are signs that warn drivers of possible road obstruction ahead. Lastly, information signs let drivers know where they are headed to.

Traffic signs in Bhutan are written in English, so you don’t have to worry about translating any sign. Also, since there are no traffic lights in the country, you should always yield when entering intersections. If there is a traffic enforcer, you should follow his instructions.

All policies related to the traffic road signs in Bhutan can be found at the Bhutan Standard: Road Safety Signs and Symbols. If you want to review all the standards, you can google the document online.

Right of Way

To keep the peace within the road, drivers should be patient at all times and give way as much as they can. However, how do you know when “giving way” is mandatory? Even if you are in a hurry, there are specific right-of-way rules that you’ll have to follow. At any given time, the right of way is given to:

  • Emergency vehicles on duty (vehicles responding to emergencies)
  • Vehicles inside roundabouts
  • Vehicles inside intersections/turning junctions
  • Vehicles on the main road
  • Pedestrians crossing the designated pedestrian crossing zone
  • Motor vehicles over bicycles and motorcycles

The legal driving age of Bhutan is 18. Individuals below the age of 18 are allowed to drive, given that they possess a learner’s permit and are still under training according to Bhutan’s learning driving regulations. Minors caught driving without a learner’s permit will have their parents or guardians receive the penalty.

Laws on Overtaking

The roads in Bhutan are sufficiently marked, especially roads within built-up areas. With this, you should be able to know when you are allowed to overtake or not. Also, the majority of the roads in the country come with only two (2) lanes per carriageway. Considering this relatively small road size, overtaking maneuvers should be done very carefully.

When overtaking, make sure that the road ahead is clear — no road obstruction and no oncoming traffic. Also, make sure that you are not overtaking in a curve, in a junction, or a roundabout — the road has to be straight ahead. Lastly, do not forget to make the necessary signals when overtaking. This is both for the vehicles behind you and the vehicles you are trying to overtake.

Driving Side

Within the entire Kingdom of Bhutan, driving is done on the left side of the road. If you are used to driving on the right side of the road, it would be best to practice first in a safe area before experiencing the long driving distances in Bhutan. Remember that the country has plenty of winding roads and sharp curves; you must already make it a habit of driving on the left side before going through these roads.

Other Road Rules

Bhutan has a relatively low road incident count. To improve on this more, all road users are still strictly mandated to follow all the rules. Here are some other things to remember when driving in Bhutan.

If I Bring A Car to Bhutan, Are There Vehicle Conditions That Should Be Met?

Apart from having your wheels, battery, mirrors, engine, brakes, and steering wheel checked, you should also subject your car to emission testing before traveling to Bhutan. Remember that Bhutan has strict standards for environmental protection, and that includes regulating vehicle emissions. Your car’s emission should not exceed the following thresholds:

  1. For Petrol Engines
  • 4.5% Carbon Monoxide (vehicles registered before 2005)
  • 4% Carbon Monoxide (vehicles registered after 2005)

2. For Diesel Engines

  • 75% Hartridge Smoke Unit (vehicles registered before 2005)
  • 70% Hartridge Smoke Unit (vehicles registered after 2005)

Although this rule is only mandatory for Bhutan-registered vehicles, it wouldn’t hurt to follow the rule, especially when you know the authorities are randomly monitoring passing vehicles.

What Are Other Important Driving Rules in Bhutan?

Bhutan also observes a lot of the common road rules found in other countries. If you have a valid driver’s license from your own country, you shouldn’t be able to miss these rules:

  • Not parking vehicles in front of emergency service areas and private driveways
  • Wearing seatbelts at all times
  • Giving the right-of-way to emergency vehicles
  • Not overtaking a vehicle on the side at which the vehicle is turning to
  • Having a functioning alternative headlamp
  • Having a fog lamp in good working condition
  • Signaling before turning or braking
  • Avoiding tailgating
  • Leaving motor vehicles on, unattended

For newly amended rules when driving in Bhutan, updates are usually posted immediately on the Road Safety and Traffic Agency’s website. So, make sure to check the website for updates before you start driving on their roads.

Driving Etiquette in Bhutan

Bhutan is generally a peaceful nation. It continuously seeks the maintenance of four (4) pillars of happiness, which include: sustainable socio-economic development, environmental conservation, cultural promotion and preservations, and good governance. One (1) of the ways to sustain this is to promote road safety at all times, starting with practicing proper road manners.

Car Breakdown

Car breakdowns can include flat tires, overheat, cars that won’t start, broken windows/windshields, broken brakes, and the sort. If you have car insurance and opted to include roadside assistance coverage, you can contact your car rental company for assistance. If you have roadside assistance coverage, you won’t have to spend anything on towing, jumpstarting your car, and other maintenance and car rescue activities.

Although, if your car developed other hazards, contact any of the following emergency hotlines:

  • Ambulance: 112
  • Fire: 110
  • Police: 113

Police Stops

Traffic police in Bhutan is probably the most interesting and entertaining traffic police in the world. They don’t only direct traffic, but they also do it with “grace”. If you want to know what we mean by this, try to look up videos on the internet and see another great reason to visit the country.

There are traffic police that direct the flow of traffic, and then here are traffic police that monitors passing motorists. If you get called over by any of them, chances are, you might have violated a certain road rule. With this, do not avoid the police. Drive your car to the side of the road and pull your window down. Most likely, the police will ask for your driving documents, so you should prepare them. If you did violate a traffic rule, make sure to comply with all the penalties within the specified time.

Asking Directions

Navigating Bhutan might come as a challenge for some, especially when it’s already outside the capital. It’s not because there aren’t any directional signs, but maybe perhaps of the enchanting sceneries that surround the road. Though because you are not allowed to go around Bhutan without a guide, getting lost is highly impossible.

However, if by any chance you’ll miss a turn and your guide isn’t also that familiar with the road, don’t worry, you can always ask the locals. You might need a little extra effort because people rarely speak English in the countryside. This is also why bringing a map along is crucial. You can simply say “Hello!” or “Kuzu zangpo la!” and then point to the map the location you are headed to. Afterward, you can say “Kadrin Cheyla”, which means “Thank You”.

Checkpoints

As mentioned, visitors need a special route permit to drive outside Thimphu and Paro. To ensure that there are no violators, the Immigration Department has set up various checkpoints around the country. Immigration checkpoints, therefore, are not just confined to the airport or land border crossings. If you come across a checkpoint, prepare all your travel documents, including your temporary driving license, your route permit, and your International Driver’s License.

Other Tips

There is a lot of road etiquette that is often overlooked. When we yield even if we do not have to is already considered a good road manner. Here are some other actions that you can remember when driving around the country.

Can I Drive Near Religious Sites?

Some monasteries in Bhutan are isolated from the bustling centers. Most often, these temples are in very secluded areas that you’ll need to hike for hours. However, some temples remain within major built-up areas. Nevertheless, as these temples are areas of prayer, peace, and meditation, you should remain mindful about making unnecessary noises when passing through these areas.

How Do I Cross Road Intersections?

Bhutan is the only country in the world that has no traffic lights. Police officers are the ones mandated to govern intersections to regulate traffic. If you should cross any road intersection, especially within busy roads and streets, look for any traffic enforcer before crossing or turning. Apart from that, standard road etiquette should apply, including no-overtaking in intersections, sticking to the lane nearest to the direction you are turning to, and the like.

What to Do When Involved in Road Accidents?

Road accidents are defined by any untoward vehicular incident involving the injury or death of a person or involving the damage to a property, not only the vehicle itself. If you meet an accident while driving in Bhutan, you have to stay alert for the possible hazards brought about by the incident. If you have passengers, you should check them right away. Also, if there is another vehicle involved, you should check how they are.

You should leave the vehicle as it is following the incident unless it is necessary for human survival. If people require immediate medical assistance or there is a fire on the scene, again, ask for help right away from any of the emergency hotlines.

Take note that hit-and-run incidents in Bhutan are subject to a Nu 5,000 fine. While if you’re caught not helping assistance to those in need, you can also be liable to a certain fine not greater than the cost of the damages.

Driving Conditions in Bhutan

Is it safe to go self-driving in Bhutan? How is it like driving during the holidays in Bhutan? How do you compare driving in Bhutan now and before? These may also be the questions lurking on your mind right now. To answer them, here are some fast facts about the driving conditions in the country.

Accident Statistics

In 2015, it was reported that vehicle accidents caused one (1) mortality every three (3) months. Thimphu has the highest number of incidents, also considering that the bulk of the population and built-up area is there. This is one of the reasons why the government believes that while raising penalties would help, information-education campaigns are still one (1) of the best methods to alleviate such issues.

Common Vehicles

As of the end of January 2021, there are about 112,208 registered vehicles in Bhutan. That translates to about one (1) vehicle per seven (7) individuals. Fifty-three percent of the total number of vehicles are found in Thimphu, followed by Phuntsholing, Gelephu, Samdrumjongkhar, and finally, Monggar.

With regards to the type of vehicles, you will most likely see the sedans, luxury vehicles, and the like within the capital or other bustling cities. However, as you go out into the countryside, you’ll most likely see vehicles that are big enough for the transport of goods, such as pick-ups, L300 vans, and mini dump trucks.

Toll Roads

There are no toll roads in Bhutan. Even along main highways, you don’t have to pay anything. However, the government is eyeing to put up tolls in the future though. It would be best to check again if this has been implemented before you travel the country, just to make sure to include it in your budget.

Road Conditions

About 60% of roads in Bhutan are well-paved. Even the main highways and passes that traverse and connect multiple fortresses or provinces in the country are paved. If not paved, other roads are made of gravel and dirt, but these are mostly found in the highlands and the eastern fortresses.

When it comes to traffic light effectiveness, Bhutan has none. This is not because of weak implementation, but the country has no traffic light. Surprisingly, unlike other countries, this does not pose any major problem as Bhutanese drivers are very responsible and respectful on the road. Lastly, numerous roads in mountainous areas are also poorly lit. Combine this with multiple blind curves, and you’ll have to take extra care when driving at night.

Driving Culture

People in Bhutan are creative. Even on the road, you will notice a lot of “humorous” traffic signs, most of them serving as mere reminders to not drink and drive, and the sort. But generally, it is safe to drive in Bhutan, even outside Thimphu and Paro.

During the monsoon season, however, it is recommended to exercise caution at all times since rains may cause flooding hazards and falling rocks in mountainous areas. Nevertheless, as long as you follow the standard safety driving protocols and observe proper road etiquette, you’ll be alright.

Things to Do Bhutan

Bhutan is such a beautiful country with plenty of unspoiled areas to explore. But beyond visiting the infamous tourist destinations, there is more to do in Bhutan.

The standard tourist visa allows a maximum of 14 days to stay in Bhutan. However, tourists can have their visas renewed with a fee of Nu 500 when necessary. Below are some suggested reasons for you to be able to stay in Bhutan longer.

Drive as a Tourist

If you avail of tour packages, chances are, your itinerary will be cramped and limited. So when you visit Bhutan, we recommend self-driving instead and just hire a guide that rides with you. This way, you wouldn’t be restricted to the fixed destinations and schedule of tour packages, but you will be able to create your itinerary and pick your most preferred places to visit.

On the other hand, you can avail yourself of a chauffeur-driven road trip. If you do this, most likely, you will just be taken to the most popular tourist spots. To experience the areas that you weren’t able to go, that’s the time when you should rent a car and go on a self-driven road trip.

Work as a Driver

If you don’t like to work in an office and love driving, you can explore working as a driver in Bhutan. Driving jobs can include delivery-related jobs, passenger transport jobs, private driving jobs, and others. However, to work legally as a driver in the country, you have to obtain a work permit first from the Department of Immigration.

To do this, you have to find an employer first, and they will be the one to seek approval for recruitment from the Department of Labour. Once they receive approval, they will also assist you in processing your work permit at the Immigration Office. With this, you’ll need to prepare the following documents:

  • Duly accomplished application form
  • Duly accomplished employer undertaking
  • Duly accomplished employee undertaking
  • Copy of passport with employment visa (for non-Indian nationals)
  • Copy of passport or voter identity card with employment entry permit (for Indian nationals)
  • Qualification Certificate
  • Medical Fitness Certificate issued by a government-accredited medical officer in Bhutan
  • Passport-size photograph
  • Original or notarized copy of academic certificate (for Bangladesh, Maldives, and India nationals)
  • Approval from the Department of Labour, Ministry of Labour and Human Resources
  • Other documents that may additionally be requested by the Department of Immigration

Work as a Travel Guide

If you’re interested in pursuing a career in tourism, why not try working as a travel guide in Bhutan? This may entail you, however, to study not just the places and history of each destination, but as well as the culture and lifestyle of the Bhutanese. As a travel guide, you are expected to answer all the questions thrown by your guests. Also, if you know how to drive, this will be an added advantage. Compensation for more skilled travel guides may be higher than those who are still starting.

Apply for Residency

According to the Immigration Rules & Regulations of Bhutan, foreign nationals who are married to a Bhutanese after June 10, 1985, and children born to them can apply for an Immigration Card. The requirements for this are as follows:

  • Duly accomplished application form
  • Court marriage certificate
  • Copy of Citizenship Identity Card of Bhutanese spouse
  • Family tree of Bhutanese spouse from the Department of Civil Registration and Census
  • Passport and other identification documents of applicant
  • Birth Certificate (for children)
  • Valid immigration permit or visa for marriage purposes (if applicable)

Foreigners who don’t fall in any of the categories above can apply for an Immigration Card as well. However, he/she has to exit the country for six (6) months and travel again to Bhutan to apply for the Immigration Card.

Other Things to Do

To lengthen your stay in the country, work and marriage aren’t the only options. You can obtain a student permit or travel to the country as a volunteer for different causes.

Where Can I Volunteer in Bhutan?

Bhutan presents plenty of volunteer opportunities. If you’re interested in making a difference while traveling, here are some organizations that you can network with.

Education

  • Tarayana Foundation
  • Teach in Bhutan
  • Bhutan Youth Development Fund
Environmental Conservation

  • Royal Society for Preservation of Nature
  • World Wildlife Fund Bhutan
  • Natucate
Health
  • Surgicorps
  • Tibetan Health Organisation
  • Disabled Person’s Association of Bhutan
  • Helping Hands Health Organisation
Cultural Preservation
  • Crooked Trails
Community Development
  • One World 365
  • Save the Children

Where Can I Study in Bhutan?

Even though Bhutan is quite strict at regulating foreign visitors, the country is open to international students who wish to be educated in the Bhutanese-way. The Royal Thimphu College, for example, believes in the power of cross-cultural learning. This is why they continuously equip their campus and system to welcome international higher education students warmly. Another institution that has strong academic programs for international students is Naropa University, via their Bhutan Study Abroad Program.

Other schools and agencies that you can look into are:

  • Wheaton College
  • The School for Field Studies
  • Academic Programs International: Bhutan

The Top Destinations in Bhutan

Whether you’re in for cultural exploration in the ancient capital of Punakha or go on a breathtaking adventure up the Himalayas, Bhutan will surely be a trip to remember. Here are some destinations to check out when you want to go driving in Bhutan.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery

The Tiger’s Nest Monastery (Paro Taktsang) is probably the most popular of all Bhutanese Temples. Not only is it accessible to visitors of all ages, but it also sits atop a cliff with a 900-meter drop. Built-in a cave area during the late 17th century, the temple got its name from the tigress who was believed to bring Guru Rinpoche into the cave where he lived for more than three (3) years.

The best time to hike up the monastery is outside the wet, rainy months. This is to avoid the hazards of hiking up a dirt road. The months of October to December present clear weather. However, do expect that it will be chilly this time of year, so make sure to wear appropriate clothing.

Driving Directions

Paro Taktsang is about 16km north of Paro. It will take you about one and a half hours to drive from Thimphu to the monastery via the Phuntsholing Highway. There is a parking area at the foot of the mountain, and it is also where you are going to start your hike.

  1. From Thimphu, drive south to the Babesa-Thimphu Expressway.
  2. At the 1st roundabout, take the 2nd exit towards the Paro-Thimphu Highway / Phuntsholing Highway.
  3. Continue to drive along the Paro-Thimphu Highway.
  4. You should expect to pass the Paro International Airport.
  5. Continue again to drive north along the Paro-Thimphu Highway.
  6. At the roundabout near the Outdoor Park along Paro Chu, take the 2nd exit.
  7. Drive straight and turn right before you reach Satsam Chencho Tshongkhag.
  8. Keep to the right until you reach the parking lot to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery.

Things to Do

You should expect that a trip to the monastery will cover a day’s itinerary. This is because a one-way hike would take about two to three hours, depending on your pace, and about an hour to tour the different buildings.


1. Hang a Prayer Flag

The trail going to the monastery is unpaved, moderately steep, but wide. Along the way, you will see tons of prayer flags believed to bring good karma, happiness, and good luck to all passersby.

2. Eat at the Taktsang Cafeteria

Halfway through the hike, after about an hour or so, you’ll reach the Taktsang Cafeteria, where you can rest and eat. There is also a prayer wheel that you can spin. After the cafeteria, stunning views of the valley and the monastery will be more prominent. You wouldn’t feel the tiredness of the hike with such great views, apart from the fact that the trail’s difficulty will lessen thereafter.

3. Finish a Full Hike to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery

Just right before the monastery, you’ll have to climb up a set of stairs, recognized as the most challenging part of the entire hike. You may have to climb the stairs slowly and be aware of adjusting to the altitude, but it’s all going to be okay and worth it.

Haa Valley

The Haa Valley is one of the most pristine, unspoiled areas in entire Bhutan. It is divided by the Torsa Strict Nature Reserve and the Jigme Dorji National Park in Paro. The Haa Valley is a hiker’s paradise because of the magnificent views of the mountains and the settlements that still practice some of the oldest Bhutanese traditions.

Driving Directions

Haa is located along the southwestern region of Paro. It is about a 3-hour drive from Thimphu via the Bondey-Haa Highway. Note that the Bondey-Haa Highway is a zigzag road with numerous sharp curves, so be careful when driving here.

  1. From Thimphu, drive south along the Babesa-Thimphu Expressway.
  2. You’ll also be driving along Bumthang-Ura Highway if you continue driving straight.
  3. After Bumthang-Ura Highway, turn right just before Phuntsholing-Thimphu Highway to stay on Paro-Thimphu Highway.
  4. Turn left at the Chencho Nidup Tshongkhang to stay on Paro-Thimphu Highway.
  5. Then turn left towards the Bondey-Haa Highway, just right before Bumthang-Ura Highway.
  6. After Bharath Petroleum Bunk, turn right.

Things to Do

More like how should you experience Haa Valley? Or how do you embrace the gifts of the Haa Valley? Here are a number of ways to do just that:


1. Witness the Vibrant Summer Festival

The Haa Summer Festival is a celebration of the life of Bhutan’s nomadic herders. Some of the activities during the festival include traditional sports, religious performances, exhibitions of local cuisines, selling of goods and flowers, and many more.

2. Hike Around the Hills of the Valley

The Haa Valley is a hiker’s dream. If you’re not too keen on hiking, you can also bike around the areas. You can visit the houses of the nuns or explore different temples. Either way, just by looking at the scenery, you’ll already have a worthy travel experience to the Haa Valley.

3. Hike to the Haa Chu River See Yaks in the wild

The high banks of the Haa Chu River have been established as a walkway for visitors. The river is close to the slope of the hills, giving visitors a very scenic place to spend the afternoon at. When you hike towards the river, you may be able to find yaks wandering around.

Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory

Established in 1990, The Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory is one go-to destination that you can’t miss to visit. Amidst technological developments, Bhutan continues to produce its paper, Deh-sho, using ancient, traditional methods. This exquisite craft has been used for centuries to produce manuscript books and prayer books.

You can visit the factory at any time of the year, and it is open between 8:30 - 5:00 pm, Monday - Saturday. If you’re planning to try your hand in paper-making, it is recommended to allow at least 2 - 3 hours in the factory.

Driving Directions

The Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory is just located within the capital region of Thimphu, between the Dechen Lam-8 Road and the Khujug Lam Road. You’ll need to pass through the Dechhen Lam Highway to reach the area. Thimphu roads are well-paved, but remember that there are no traffic lights in Bhutan, so you’ll need to be attentive to the traffic enforcers, especially when crossing major highways.

Things to Do

Since its establishment, the factory has been equipped to produce papers in bountiful quantities for commercial distribution. The papers are then exported to India, Nepal, Japan, Europe, and the United States.


1. Observe How the Deh-sho Is Made

When you visit the factory, you’ll be able to see the entire production process, from the soaking and boiling of the Daphne & Dhekap Tree Barks to the pressing and drying of the resulting paper.

2. Experience Making Your Own Deh-Sho

If you like a hands-on experience, you can also try the different processes of making a Deh-Sho yourself. Personally, handmade papers make the best souvenirs and gifts!

3. Shop Different Handmade Paper Designs

After your immersive tour, you can visit the shop to buy different handmade paper designs. These handmade papers may become more expensive when you buy them in other countries, so make the most out of your visit and buy them here instead!

For more driving tips and questions about getting a valid driving license in Bhutan, contact the International Driver’s Association.

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