Wangdue, Bhutan - Budhbir Tamang started driving trucks on Bhutan’s treacherous mountain roads when he was 15 years old. He tells stories of close calls on the country’s central East-West Highway, experiences that left him inches from plunging off mountain cliffs to certain death.
Every trip across Bhutan was a hair-raising, white-knuckle experience on narrow roads with no barrier between him and a fatal skid into the abyss. His job is not as thrilling these days. The 27-year-old truck driver for Tashi Commercial Corporation has benefited from ADB assistance in the renovation and upgrading of 328 kilometers of the East-West Highway, a vital passage that connects the two sides of the country.
All-weather, nonskid pavement was installed, along with concrete barriers that line the most dangerous curves—an effort to stop vehicles from going over the side. “It’s still dangerous being a truck driver,” said Tamang, “but now my wife doesn’t worry that I won’t come home alive when I have to drive cross-country.”
Bhutan did not have a single motorized vehicle until the 1960s, but now recognizes the vital impact of roads on economic and human development. Half of the country’s population lives more than a half day’s walk from the nearest drivable road, limiting access to markets and basic services. There are few other transport options—no domestic flights, no railways, no rivers fit for water transport.
Bhutan’s vehicle fleet has grown rapidly in recent years, but the country’s road network, comprising 4,153 kilometers of drivable roads, provides only limited coverage and cannot meet the growing demands of larger and heavier vehicles. Bhutan depends heavily on the single highway that bisects the country from east to west.
The ADB-supported Bhutan Road Improvement Project has reduced vehicle operating costs by 19% to 38%, cut travel time by 25%, and directly benefited nearly 100,000 people, according to an independent evaluation by ADB.
“The benefits of that project have been immense,” said Pherub Phuntsho, an engineer with Bhutan’s Department of Roads, who reported that the frequency of heavy vehicle and bus accidents has fallen dramatically. Highway renovation also allowed heavy construction vehicles to enter cities along the route and spurred a building boom.
ADB’s roadwork in Bhutan has improved economic prospects, living conditions, and the quality of life for communities near the project by providing jobs, shortening travel times, decreasing transport costs, and improving access to health services and education.
“If you ask any Bhutanese what they need most, they will say ‘roads’, said Sangey Tenzing, director general of the Department of Roads. “They need electricity. They need schools. They need clinics. They need many things, but they can’t have anything until they get the road. Without roads, we cannot progress as a nation.”
The impact of upgrading the East–West Highway is highly visible. Traffic in some sections of the highway has increased from as few as 4 or 5 vehicles per day to between 300 and 400 vehicles per day.
The ADB-supported project has moved Kapil Manigajmer out of the dirt. The 34-year-old roadside vendor along the East-West Highway sold fruits and vegetables from a basket on the side of the road, often sitting on ground on the dirt shoulder.
Today, the increased business she has received from the hundreds of vehicles that pass each day has allowed her and other vendors to move to a well-built stall, away from the dust and dirt of the roadside.
Temphey, a 50-year-old farmer who gave only one name, lives near the western city of Wangdue. He has also seen his life dramatically improved thanks to the highway improvement. He remembers well the days when his family’s income depended on oxen. The farmer of potatoes, radishes, and chili peppers used an ox to plow his fields, and used the same animal to spend a grueling a day and a half hauling his goods to market.
Today, Temphey lives an easier life. It takes about an hour to get his produce to market. The increased productivity of faster market access raised his income to the point where he could afford to buy an automated tiller, which takes much of the punishing labor out of working his fields.
“I used to live like the ox in the field,” Temphey said. “Now, my work is easier and I can spend more time with my family.”