Because Bhutan has no domestic air service, doesn’t yet possess any helicopters and does not have a centimetre of railway track, the only way to see the country is either by foot or by road.
There is one main road: the National Highway, a 3.5m-wide stretch of tarmac that winds its way up and down mountains, across clattering bridges, along the side of cliffs and over high mountain passes. Rivers, mudflows and rockfalls present continual hazards, especially when it rains. The road can easily become blocked due to snow or landslides and can take anywhere from an hour to several days to clear. Take plenty of reading material.
Unless you want to walk, the only way to travel between towns in the south of Bhutan is via India, because there are no roads. Currently this is impractical for foreigners since the only road entry point that foreigners are allowed to use is Phuentsholing.
Tour operators use Japanese-made buses, minivans and cars, depending on the size of the group. These vehicles can take you almost anywhere in the country, but for trips to central and eastern Bhutan during winter (December to February) or the monsoon (June to September) a 4WD vehicle is an advantage, and often a necessity.
If you are travelling on a tourist visa, the cost of all transport is included in the price of your trip and you’ll have a vehicle available for both short- and long-distance travel. You’ll only have to rely on public transport if you are an Indian national or if you are working with a project that does not provide you with a vehicle.
Most people pay for a ride, either in a bus or cab or back of a truck. But bus services are limited, especially in the east, and it’s not unusual to see someone flagging down a vehicle asking for a ride. If you have paid for a vehicle, you will only need to hitch if that vehicle has broken down and you are stranded on a mountain road. Hitching is never entirely safe in any country in the world, and we don’t recommend it, but if you do have to hitch because of a breakdown, Bhutan is about as safe a place as you could find.
Public buses are crowded and rattly, and Bhutan’s winding roads make them doubly uncomfortable. The government’s Bhutan Post Express (02-322381), Dawa Transport (02-324250) and plenty of other companies operate minibuses and so many passengers suffer from motion sickness that these have earned the nickname ‘vomit comets’. Some private operators, including Leksol Bus Service (02-325232) and Karma Transport (02-332412), use more comfortable Toyota Coasters at about 50% more than the minibus fare. In eastern Bhutan you might arrive at the bus stop to discover that your bus is actually a truck with seats in the back!
Since all transport is provided by tour operators, you normally do not have to concern yourself with driving. If for some reason you are arranging your own transport, you are still far better off using the services of a hired car and driver or a taxi. Driving in Bhutan is a harrowing experience. Roads are narrow and trucks roar around hairpin bends, appearing suddenly and forcing oncoming vehicles to the side. Because most roads are only about 3.5m wide, passing any oncoming vehicle involves one, or both, moving onto the verge.
If you don’t already have one at your disposal, the best way to hire a car is through a tour company. It’s unlikely that you’ll find a motorcycle for rent; however, you can join an organised motorcycle tour.
Some travellers have ridden mountain bikes in Bhutan, and DOT (Department of Tourism) are promoting this kind of travel. Good routes include the upper parts of the Paro and Thimphu valleys. For a wild ride, get dropped off at the top of the Cheli La, above Paro, and ride 35km nonstop downhill.