I love travelling around Nepal. I have travelled up and down the country on public transport; staying with friends, in family homestays (my favourite kind of accommodation), hotels, and lodges of all descriptions. But while foreign tourists are usually willing to try out a number of different styles of accommodations, seeing them take a public bus is still a rarity.
Apart from tourist buses that go to and from Pokhara or Chitwan or jeeps used by trekkers going to and from Besisahar in the Annapurna area, I almost never see foreign tourists travelling on public transport. Even in Kathmandu, it is a rare sight to find a foreigner who dares catch a tempo or microbus around town and is invariably someone living or working here.
The condition of the roads and the time needed to travel around is one deterrent, but perhaps the biggest problem is the lack of information. There are no useful apps to tell you which buses go where and Google Maps is often limited in Nepal. However, public transport still works well throughout the country and reaches even the most remote places. Often there are just one or two buses a day, but it is possible to get almost anywhere there’s a road for just a few dollars.
Since the end of the Maoist conflict in 2007, when most construction projects were subject to long delays, roads have been built connecting almost every village. A road now goes most of the way around the Annapurna Circuit. Now, there is even a road reaching within a day or two walk from Lukla to access the Everest region.
Often travel to villages where the roads are very poor has to be done in a 4WD jeep that can handle difficult rocky or muddy tracks. Typically carrying at least ten passengers (four in a row), it’s a tight squeeze. The most comfortable seats in a shared jeep are in the front beside the driver. The shotgun seat will often still be shared with two passengers, but it is still much better than getting squashed in the back. Jeeps can also be hired in their entirety and it’s all the better if you can share the cost with a group of friends.
On blacktop or tarmac roads buses and microbuses will take you on longer trips, and for shorter distances, auto-taxis are usually available. All big towns have bus stops which are, at least in theory, the only places where buses are only allowed to pick up passengers. However, outside the city, it is usually possible to just flag down a bus.
Buses can get very crowded and depending on whether they are inter-city or just local buses, are usually much slower than microbuses, often stopping to pick up people along the way. Microbuses too can get full but when they are going between cities, then everyone at least has a seat.
In buses, unless you want to risk being pushed and shoved by the standing passengers along the aisle, go for a window seat. Sitting at the front may give a less obscured view forward, but this is where the majority of standing passengers will congregate, however much free space there is further back.
Buses, micro-buses, and jeeps will all find somewhere to stop along the road between 10 and 11 am for dal bhat and if travelling at night it will stop after 8 pm. The availability of roadside public toilets has increased dramatically in recent years, so never be shy to ask if you need to go as the driver usually stops within a fairly short time. It is now much less common for drivers to have to stop in a deserted area for the passengers to find a bush.
To find out the schedule of buses, the most reliable way is to ask a local who lives in the place you are going to or from. It can be complicated to ask at a bus station. I always arrive at least 30 minutes before the time the bus is supposed to leave, even if most of the time it will leave later than advertised (‘Nepali time.’) But on occasion, I have been glad to be early as there are instances when buses have left early because it was full.
If possible, avoid travelling during the monsoon. During this time, heavy rains can lead to landslides, mud, and roads that turn into rivers. Many roads to more remote areas become impassable during the rainy season, so be sure that you know if your destination won’t be cut off.
If time is short, a more expensive option is to fly. Though there is talk of reducing the price of fares paid by foreigners, currently Nepali passengers usually pay less than half for their ticket. Flights link all the main cities in the Terai with Kathmandu as well as less frequent destinations in the hilly districts.
Planning a road trip
If possible, try to break down your journey into shorter legs. Obviously, this will depend on how much time you have available. If you are very short of time, you might need to consider flying. But do not forget to take into account delays and cancellations, sometimes going by road can be quicker.
For example, when going by road to Ilam, you might consider breaking your journey at Janakpur (6-7hr) and Dharan (4-5hr), both are interesting places to visit, and then finally Ilam (5 hrs) making the 16-18 hour overnight journey much more bearable. If you are travelling on a poor road in shared jeeps, if possible you might want even shorter times between stops.
But this is the beauty of road trips. For the intrepid, not afraid to take a potluck and see how it goes, this is a wonderful way to explore. Everywhere you go in Nepal, there is always somewhere to stay the night and restaurants everywhere.
Thanks Piet for your feedback! You have travelled more than most around Nepal, so you know what it’s like. Most buses are not very comfortable, especially for very long distances. (Though I have occasionally found the long distance 16 hour bus between Ilam and Kathmandu to not be too bad). I’m learning though, and usually find it’s fine for up to 4-5 hour legs, though the 8 hour ride in a public jeep to Salleri, though can be a bit cramped, seems to go very fast and continues to be one of my favourite routes that I quite frequently travel. Travelling by public transport is not for the faint-hearted and as I get older, I’m not so keen on the 16 hour epics that I used to do quite readily a decade or two ago!
Of coarse, one has to understand that most local buses are of a poorer quality than the standard tourist buses. Thus, its shock absorbers are likely to be shot. I have been in a night bus with my window missing, which may be good in Covid time, but not in winter. And some buses do not leave from a station but just from a road side stop point, as did a bus to Dharan from somewhere near the far end of the airport area. in Kathmandu. Dharan to Kathmandu is still a long way. I have stopped near Chitwan, taking a day off bus travel there. Much easier than travelling up and down to Chitwan fust for a visit as many tourists appear to do. And almost any bus will find a place for your bicycle, if you want to take that along. Charges vary and are often negotiable.