Red Light / Green Light


In the late 1970s or early 1980s, when visiting Bhutan was still an exclusive privilege, some journalist wrote a story about this secluded Himalayan kingdom where there were no televisions, no ATMs, and no traffic lights. The revelation seems to have mystified and fascinated television-addicted, cash-ready foreign readers, whose own movements were dictated by automatic red, green and yellow signals. The mystery of Bhutan’s missing traffic lights is now a standard line for people who want to show how well informed they are about the world.

Today, more than two decades on, the shroud of mystery has been lifted and Bhutan has become just another country…almost normal. In 1999, television was permitted. In addition to international channels, we also have two channels from the Bhutanese national broadcaster (BBS, or Bhutan Broadcasting Service). There are also at least four private promoters waiting for licenses to start local television stations. ATMs were only introduced recently, but the Bhutanese have quickly learned to use them even in the deep interior of the country.

But we still have no traffic lights. Just as he did 40 years ago, a single policeman stands in Thimphu’s busiest intersection and directs the traffic by hand.

Once, not so long ago, the streets of Thimphu had a brief brush with traffic lights. Some people have a vague recollection of the alien-looking structures directing a line of vehicles that could be counted on one hand. Most people don’t even remember them.

The electric oddities disappeared as quickly and as quietly as they had appeared and nobody even talks about them today. Word on the street was that some people, including some very important persons, found the contraptions too intrusive and unsuited to the then-leisurely pace of life in Bhutan. Or, perhaps the Bhutanese people, accustomed to an idyllic rural setting, found the idea of glaring lights being projected by dictatorial inanimate objects a little disconcerting.

Of course, our paved roads and motor vehicles do not have any traditional Bhutanese features, and yet we have embraced them without a question, as we have done with so many other changes. I feel ancient when I think of all that has changed within my own lifetime, especially in terms of mobility and travel.

When the first motor roads were being built in the 1960s, I had no idea what a motor vehicle was or looked like. As a nine year old, when I reached the Indian border after walking for nearly two weeks, I fell into a confused daze as I experienced my first ride in an Indian vehicle. As I recall, the first truck that I rode on was a worn-out and scruffy looking one. I clung tightly to the tattered seat, so afraid of being thrown off as we bounced along a dirt road. Perhaps because of the trauma of my first ride in a vehicle, I have never mastered the skill of driving. 

Today the number of vehicles in Bhutan has increased dramatically, and traffic congestion is a daily reality. My inability to drive is a blessing of sorts, because I can merrily weave my way through the traffic on foot while drivers grow more impatient and frustrated sitting in their cars.

But do we miss the traffic lights? No, not at all! Personally, I prefer Bhutan to be known for an absence of lights rather than to have traffic lights that might not be obeyed. Bhutanese drivers are not known for their compliance with traffic laws!