Bhutan | Trongsa

Riding on the Edge of Bhutan’s Lateral Road

Embrace Bhutan Cultural Tour

Lateral Road | Bhutan

12 Nov 2019 | Tue

Day 06 of 13

  • Morning Walkabout | Wangchuk Dem Village Gangtey
  • Drive | Gangtey to Trongsa to Jakar
  • Passed by Chendebji Chorten
  • Mangdechhu Hydroelectric Dam Trongsa
  • Riding on the Edge of Bhutan’s Lateral Road
  • Trongsa Dzong
  • Lunch in Trongsa
  • Hotel Ugyen Ling Jakar

Riding on the Edge of Bhutan’s Lateral Road

Traveling across Bhutan on the famous East-West Lateral Road was truly an unforgettable adventure! This method of travel gave us the wonderful opportunity to experience all that Bhutan has to offer – its beautiful people, fascinating Buddhist culture, impressive architecture, beautiful Himalayan mountains, and natural beauty in all directions.

Bhutan’s Lateral Road

Bhutan’s Lateral Road – the country’s primary road is the East-West Highway (known locally as the Lateral Road), which began construction in 1962. The road begins in Phuentsholing on the southwestern Indian border and ends in Trashigang in the far east, with spurs to other major centres such as Paro, Thimphu, and Punakha. The 2.5-metre-wide (8.2 ft) Lateral Road must support traffic in both directions, since the cost of cutting a wider road through the middle Himalayas would be prohibitive. Safety barriers, road markings, and signage are sparse. Traffic is slow, typically about 15 km/h (9.3 mph), to minimise head-on collisions. Road accidents are still frequent and, because of the steep topography, typically horrific. Most of the route between Paro Airport and Thimphu has been improved as a two-lane road.

The Lateral Road traverses a number of high passes, including Tremo La and Do Chu La. The highest pass on the road is at Chapcha; the second-highest pass is at Trumshing La, in central Bhutan, at an altitude of over 3,800 m (12,500 ft).

– Wikipedia Transport in Bhutan

Map of Our Trip Across Bhutan

The map below covers the distance we will be traveling over our 13-day tour of Bhutan. If you zoom in and follow along, you will see a neverending series of winding curves, bends, and hairpins throughout the duration of the drive. Medication (or other remedies) is highly recommended for people who suffer from motion sickness.

Paro to Tang Valley on Bhutan’s Lateral Road

Our Tour Vehicle

Our Toyota Coaster Bus

Our vehicle was a large Toyota Coaster Bus (a popular tourist vehicle in Bhutan). It’s a perfect size vehicle (not too small and not too big) that can accommodate 15-20+ people. These types of vehicles are roomy, comfortable and give passengers great visibility on long road trips.

Road Conditions Across Bhutan

We found the road conditions on the Lateral Road to vary quite a bit (depending on its location). Around Paro and Thimphu (capital) the roads were very good (using modern highway design). These improved road conditions continued until you got to Dochula Pass where it seemed to start deteriorating. As we continued along the Lateral Road, we experienced some areas that were very good and some that were very rough – with uneven pavement (potholes, missing shoulders, graveled sections), various road widths (sometimes would narrow to a single lane), and numerous land and rock slide areas.

Unstable Section of Road With Slide

Road Construction Projects – Bridge Replacements

We also encountered several areas that were under construction (clearing rock slides, repairing washed-out areas, replacing bridges, etc.).

New Bridge Under Construction
Recently Completed Bridge Project

Driving On The Lateral “Edge” of the Road!

There were many spots where the road was very narrow (one lane), which sometimes caused issues when passing oncoming traffic. This was a bit nerve-wracking in curve situations where our driver was forced to push the vehicle on the outside edge of a road and as a passenger, all you see is straight down the mountain! 😧 fun stuff! So maintaining a speed that is “slow, steady, and careful” is the best approach when driving on Bhutan’s Lateral Road.

Common Sight… Edge of Road With No Shoulder …Looking Off A Cliffs Edge!

Sharing The Road

Traffic can be an issue at times – you are having to share the road with many other types of vehicles such as freight trucks, passenger buses, tour vans/buses, construction equipment/vehicles, and private cars/trucks.

Most freight in Bhutan is moved along the highway on eight-ton 300 hp (224 kW) Tata trucks, which are often overloaded and which stress road conditions. There is a network of passenger buses, and the most common vehicle in government and private use is the four-wheel-drive pickup.

– Wikipedia Bhutan Lateral Road

Examples of Road Rock Cuts

Road Rock Cut

Here is examples of several road rocks cuts that we passed through.

Serious Road Issues Near Trongsa

The roughest section we drove through was right before we got to Trongsa.

Many Road Land/Rock Slides in Area Near Trongsa

Due to a combination of bad geologic conditions (unstable rock and soil) and previous failed road construction projects, this large section of the Lateral Road has severe stability issues causing numerous land and rock slides.

Because much of the geology is unstable, there are frequent slips and landslides, which are aggravated by both summer monsoon and winter snowstorm and frost heave conditions. Teams of Indian labourers are housed at work camps in the mountain passes to be dispatched to clear the roads in the event of road blockage. The conditions in the work camps are poor, with the workers reduced to breaking rock into gravel on a piece-rate basis when not clearing the roads. An international aid project is under way to stabilise the worst sections of the road.

– Wikipedia Bhutan Lateral Road

The photos below should be a good visual of why we were so nervous driving through this unstable area!

Experiencing Bhutan’s Beauty From the Lateral Road

Common to See Yaks Grazing
Natural Beauty Along Bhutan’s Lateral Road

So when we added up all of these experiences:

  1. Bhutan’s Famous Lateral Road – Bhutan’s primary east-west corridor
  2. Awesome Driver & Tour Vehicle – a Toyota Coaster Bus
  3. Bit of Danger and Excitement – due to lots of curves and complex road conditions
  4. Get to Experience Bhutan’s Beauty – beautiful people, fascinating Buddhist culture, impressive architecture, beautiful Himalayan mountains, and natural beauty in all directions
  5. Slow & Steady Travel – taking time to stop off and visit destinations along the way

The end result was an experience we’ll never forget!

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