Getting around is one of the biggest challenges of travelling in Nepal. Distances aren’t great, but the roads are poor and extremely slow, and public buses are crowded and uncomfortable. Tourist buses are available on the main routes, however, and you can always hire a motorcycle, or charter a taxi, car or 4WD vehicle, or catch a flight.
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Nepal’s highways are irregularly maintained, and each monsoon takes a toll on surfaces. Wherever you travel, the route will probably be new in parts, disintegrated in places, and under construction in others. The country has a truly appalling road safety record, and accidents are common. And, in addition, blockades or general strikes (bandh) can at times make travel virtually impossible.
Allowing for bad roads, overloaded buses, tea stops, meal stops, the constant picking up and letting off of passengers, and the occasional flat tyre or worse, the average bus speed in the hills is barely 25–30km per hour, and on remote, unpaved roads it can be half that. Along the Terai’s Mahendra Highway, it’s more like 50km per hour in an express bus.
Bus frequencies and approximate journey times are given throughout this guide. Inevitably, these figures should be taken with a pinch of salt: the bus network seems to grow every year, but political troubles or festivals can dramatically reduce the number of buses, and some gravel or dirt roads are closed altogether during the monsoon.
Open-air bus stations (also known as bas parks or bas islands) are typically located in the dustiest parts of town. Tickets are generally sold from a small booth. Destinations may not be written in English, but people are almost always happy to help you out if you ask.
In Kathmandu and Pokhara you may find it easier to make arrangements through a travel agent (though make sure it’s one you’ve been recommended), while in cities you can ask your hotel to buy a ticket for you.
Even the longest journeys on public buses should cost no more than Rs500.
Regular tourist buses connect Kathmandu with Pokhara, Sauraha (for Chitwan National Park) and Sonauli, as well as Pokhara with Sauraha and Sonauli. The vehicles are usually in good condition, making for a safer ride than in a regular bus. They aren’t supposed to take more passengers than there are seats, so the journey should also be more comfortable and quicker too. Some companies use minibuses, which are somewhat quicker – occasionally dangerously so. Book seats at least one or two days in advance. Note that ticket agents often add an undisclosed commission onto the price.
Long-distance public bus services generally operate on an express basis – meaning they stop at scheduled points only. They’re faster and more comfortable than local buses.
Express buses fall into two categories: day buses, which usually set off in the morning, and night buses, which usually depart in the afternoon or early evening. Night buses are generally more comfortable, though legroom is always in short supply, and between all the lurching, honking, tea stops and blaring music you won’t get much sleep (bring earplugs and an eye mask). Night journeys are also significantly more dangerous, and it’s not uncommon for drivers to fall asleep at the wheel.
Like tourist buses, and unlike local buses, express buses allow you to reserve seats in advance. Do this, or you could end up in one of the ejector seats along the back. Numbering begins from the front of the bus: the prized seats #1A and #2A, on the left by the front door, often have the most legroom. You can usually get away with buying a ticket just a few hours beforehand, except during the big festivals, when you should book as far in advance as possible.
Most express buses give you the choice of stowing your baggage on the roof or in a locked hold in the back. Having all your things with you is of course the best insurance policy against theft. Putting bags in the hold is usually the next-safest option, especially on night buses. Baggage stowed on the roof is probably all right during the day, but you can never be completely sure – if possible, lock your bag to the roofrack, and keep an eye out during stops.
Serving mainly shorter routes or remote roads, local buses are ancient, cramped and battered contraptions. A bus isn’t making money until it’s nearly full to bursting, and it can get suffocating inside. Once on the road, the bus will stop any time it’s flagged down.
Local buses often depart from a separate bus park or just a widening in the road, and tickets are bought on board. The only way to be sure of getting a seat is to board the bus early and wait. If you’re just picking up a bus along the way you’re likely to join the crush standing in the aisle.
Unless your bag is small, it will have to go on the roof; during daylight hours it should be safe there as long as it’s locked, but again, keep all valuables on your person. Riding on the roof can be quite appealing, but it’s dangerous and illegal. Even if you’ve got a seat, safety is a concern: these buses are often overworked, overloaded and poorly maintained.
By 4WD and truck
Almost every roadhead in Nepal is being extended, often on local initiative, by way of a dirt track making its painful way deeper into the countryside. And where the bus comes to the end of the road, you can rely on finding a gaadi (the all-purpose word for a vehicle) to take you further. This will often be a Tata Sumo or similarly extended 4WD; on the roughest routes you’ll even find tractor transport. Another option is to travel by truck, many of which do a sideline in hauling passengers. Trucks aren’t licensed as passenger vehicles, and take little interest in passenger safety; you should also watch your luggage. Women travelling by truck will probably prefer to join up with a companion. If you’re really stuck, you could try hitching, though this carries obvious risks.
By plane and helicopter
Aircraft play a vital role in Nepal’s transport network, and there will be times when $100 spent on an internal flight seems a small price to pay to avoid 24 hours on a bus. Most flights begin or end in Kathmandu, but two other airports in the Terai – Nepalgunj and Biratnagar – serve as secondary hubs. The less profitable destinations tend to be served exclusively by the state-owned Nepal Airlines Corporation (NAC; w nepalairlines.com.np), which has a justifiably poor reputation.
Numerous private airlines operate fairly efficiently on the main domestic inter-city and tourist trekking routes; they include Agni Air (w agniair.com), Buddha Air (w buddhaair.com), Gorkha Airlines (w gorkhaairlines.com), Sita Air (w sitaair.com.np) and Yeti Airlines (w yetiairlines.com).
An hour-long scenic loop out of Kathmandu, the so-called “mountain flight” is popular among tourists who want to get an armchair view of Everest.
At the time of writing, it was not possible to book domestic flight tickets online, though this should change in the future. For now you should book through a travel agent; tickets can be bought in hard currency only, usually US dollars. At off-peak times you shouldn’t have any trouble getting a seat, but during the trekking season flights to airstrips along the popular trails may be booked up months in advance. Agencies frequently overbook, though, releasing their unused tickets on the day of departure, so you may be able to buy a returned ticket from the airline on the morning you want to travel. Make sure to check in early for popular flights, as they are often overbooked.
Safety and delays
Government scrutiny of the airline industry is minimal, and there have been 24 major crashes in Nepal since 1992, when two international flights went down. The mountainous terrain is the main problem, particularly during the monsoon – “In Nepal, clouds have rocks in them”, as the saying goes – although baggage overloading and lack of maintenance checks are contributing factors. Radar was installed at Kathmandu airport after the crashes of 1992, and mountain airstrips now have limited warning systems in place, but for the most part you are relying on pilot skill and experience. It’s a close call as to whether flying is more, or less, dangerous than travelling by bus, especially during the perilous monsoon period.
Another problem with flying in Nepal is the frequency of delays and cancellations, usually due to weather. Few airstrips have even the simplest landing beacons, and many of them are surrounded by hills, so there must be good visibility to land – if there’s fog or the cloud ceiling is too low, the plane won’t fly. Since clouds usually increase as the day wears on, delays often turn into cancellations. If your flight is cancelled, you may be placed at the bottom of a waiting list, rather than being given space on the next available flight.
Several companies offer charter helicopter services. These are mainly used by trekking parties with more money than time, who charter a chopper for upwards of $1000 to save them several days’ backtracking. Companies are supposed to charter only entire aircraft, but in practice if a helicopter is returning empty from a trekking landing strip, the pilot will take on individual passengers for about the same price as a seat on a plane.
Driving and cycling
In addition to being faster and more comfortable than a bus, travelling by car, 4WD or motorbike will enable you to get to places you’d never go otherwise, and to stop whenever you like. Rental cars always come with a driver in Nepal, but if you rent a motorcycle or bring your own vehicle (for the latter, bring a carnet de passage and for both bring an international driving licence), you’ll find driving is sometimes fun, sometimes terrifying, and always challenging – drive defensively.
Observance of traffic regulations is lax, with drivers constantly jockeying for position. On roundabouts, confusion arises (for visitors) because priority officially goes to vehicles entering the intersection, not those already going around it. Follow local practice and use your horn liberally: to alert other vehicles and pedestrians that you’re there, when rounding sharp corners, when overtaking. Most vehicles you want to overtake will want you to wait for their signal – a hand wave or – confusingly – a right-turning indicator. Watch your speed on the highways, which are rarely free of unmarked hazards. And watch out for those cows: the penalty for killing one is up to twelve years in prison, the same as for killing a human being.
Cars and jeeps
In Kathmandu and Pokhara, chartering a taxi by the day is the cheapest option for short or medium-distance journeys. The going rate for trips within the Kathmandu or Pokhara valleys is about Rs2200 a day, though you’ll have to bargain. More expensive cars, jeeps and 4WDs can be rented through hotels or travel agents.
You’ll want to have had plenty of riding experience to travel by motorbike in Nepal, and you should of course have a licence, though it’s unlikely to be checked. When renting, you may have to leave an air ticket, passport or sum of money as a deposit. Check brakes, oil and fuel level, horn, lights and indicators before setting off, and make sure to get a helmet. Street bikes can be rented from about Rs650 a day, excluding petrol. Some travellers bring in larger Enfields from India, which have a lot more heft for long-distance cruising, but are heavy and hard to handle off-road. Note that rented bikes carry no insurance – if you break anything, you pay for it. Stick to back roads, and take care on wet dirt roads.
A rented bicycle (saikal) is the logical choice for most day-to-day getting around. One-speeders are good enough for most around-town cycling, and cost Rs150–250 per day. Mountain bikes will get you there in greater comfort, and are essential for longer distances or anything steep – a few shops in Kathmandu and Pokhara rent top-quality models. Bike rental shops are rare beyond Kathmandu, Pokhara and Sauraha, but you can often strike a deal with a lodge owner. Check the brakes, spokes, tyres and chain carefully before setting off; a bell is essential. Repair shops are everywhere, but don’t have mountain-bike parts. Theft is a concern with flashier bikes.
Taxis are confined mainly to Kathmandu and Pokhara. Although they have meters, you’ll almost always have to negotiate the fare. Fixed-route tempos, three-wheeled vehicles, set off when they’re full and stop at designated points; they’re noisy and most of them – except Kathmandu’s white electric safa (“clean”) tempos – put out noxious fumes. Cycle rikshaws – rare now outside the Terai – are slow and bumpy, but handy for short distances; establish a fare before setting off. City buses, minibuses (shorter ordinary buses) and microbuses (white Toyota people-carriers) are usually too crowded, slow or infrequent to be worthwhile, but can be useful in the Kathmandu Valley.