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.
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 can at times make travel virtually impossible.
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
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 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 Buddha Air, Gorkha Airlines Sita air and Yeti Airlines
Safety and delays:
Government scrutiny of the airline industry is minimal. 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. 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.
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 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 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 and microbuses can be useful in the Kathmandu Valley.