Bhutan Driving Advice and Car Hire Info
Driving In Bhutan
All visitors (except nationals of Bangladesh, India and the Maldives) must obtain visa clearance from Thimphu before coming to Bhutan. Visas are only issued on arrival, but you must apply in advance through a tour operator and receive visa approval before you travel. A standard visa only covers Thimphu and Paro. The rest of Bhutan is considered a restricted area, and foreigners need a “Restricted-Area Permit” to enter. Immigration checkpoints are located at important road junctions throughout the country, where police check the permits of all foreigners. In addition, foreigners wishing to visit Buddhist temples must obtain a “Temple Permit” from the Ministry of Culture. Therefore, apart from the countries mentioned above, independent travel is not possible to Bhutan at present. However, there is no restriction on foreigners driving once in the country. You need to request temporary authorisation to drive through your tour agency. For longer stays, visitors can request a Bhutanese driving licence from the Road Safety and Transport Authority of Bhutan upon presentation of their home country’s licence. Given the restrictions mentioned above though, it’s unlikely you’d find a tour company who wouldn’t want to accompany you when driving, so at present independent self-drive looks almost impossible. (If anyone has managed this please let me know)
The roads are generally in good condition for Asia with around 60% of Bhutan’s 8000km of roads paved. The main road through Bhutan is the East-West Highway, locally known as the Lateral Road, which runs from Phuentsholing on the border with India in southwest Bhutan to Trashigang in the east with spurs to Thimphu, Punakha, and Paro. Western Bhutan has paved roads connecting Thimphu with Paro and Punakha, and to Ha in the west, and southwest to Chukha and Phuentsholing. The section from Thimphu to Punakha, is a mix of paved road and gravel tracks, and is not in as good condition as the rest of the road and can take 3 hours to drive the 75km distance. In the central region, aside from the Lateral Highway, paved roads go to Wangdue Phodrang and Zhemgang, and south as far as Gelephu and Sarpang for the border crossings into India. Eastern Bhutan has fewer roads, with spurs from the Lateral Road to Trashigang heading north to Trashiyangtse and Lhuntse, and south the Pemagatshel and Samdrup Jongkhar.
Due to the topography, the steep slopes and winding roads, travel speeds rarely exceed 40 kmh. It sounds like the scenery is so stunning though you wouldn’t want to be speeding through it. Cars can be brought into the country from India. If you plan to do this, the Road Safety and Transport Authority (RSTA): www.rsta.gov.bt will have to endorse the documents.
Although I try and keep the information in the site updated as much as possible, in a rapidly moving world, situations can change daily. Therefore please use the site as an approximate guide, and in conjunction with other resources in order to form your view on driving conditions, roads, safety etc.
Bhutan Car Rental-
None of the big multinational companies have branches in Bhutan but there are some local rental companies, usually linked to tour operators. Most will expect you to take a driver. Around 5 years ago I enquired to over 20 companies and was unable to find one which allowed self drive. If you do find one that does, please let me know.