How to Survive Overland Travel in Nepal
I once had the misfortune of traveling by public transport from Jumla District, in the west of Nepal, to Kathmandu, all in one long push. After 31 hours in a jeep and a bus, I arrived home completely exhausted. Long jeep and bus rides in Nepal can be pretty unpleasant, but they are cheap and sometimes the only way of getting to certain places. Hopefully these tips can make your trip a little bit more comfortable.
Choose the vehicle most appropriate for your trip
While local buses and Hiaces are often the only options for journeys that are a little more off-the-beaten track, if you are traveling on a more popular route, you may have a more comfortable ride if you take a tourist bus. Here’s a quick rundown of the types of vehicles available.
These large vans are cheap and often a bit faster than the larger buses, but they can also be pretty cramped and don’t have air conditioning. Many Hiaces ply the route between Kathmandu (from the Gongabu Bus Park or Kalanki Chowk) and Pokhara every day, for about Rs 500.
“Deluxe” buses (local buses)
These full-size buses typically cost the same cost as a Hiace and are a popular mode of transport for locals traveling long distances. You’ll (usually) have your own seat, but sometimes the aisles are filled with luggage or boxes and bags of goods being transported — and occasionally even chickens or goats. NOTE: these are “deluxe” in name only!
Tourist buses are the most comfortable buses to ride in, with better seats and air conditioning, and frequent comfort and food stops.
Greenline is one of the better bus companies, with routes between Kathmandu and Pokhara ($25) and Chitwan ($20) including lunch. The Greenline office and terminal is located near the entrance to Thamel, and tickets should be booked a day or two in advance.
Numerous other companies travel the same routes, and tickets can be bought from any number of travel companies around Kathmandu. Tickets are less than Rs 1000. In the peak tourist seasons or if you’re traveling in a large group you should book ahead. Buses leave early in the morning (6.30-7.30 am, depending on the destination) from Kantipath, a main road near Thamel.
Request a window seat near the front
This is especially important if you suffer from motion sickness. Roads all across Nepal are generally in poor condition, and a lot of the vehicles are pretty worn out, so expect the drive to be bumpy. In addition, the mountainous terrain means that roads wind up and down the hills, making lots of tight turns. All of the turns and bumps can be pretty bad if you have any problems with car-sickness, but it helps if you have a window seat near the front. Don’t even buy your ticket until the conductor has agreed to give you a good seat.
Take advantage of all the toilet stops
You never really know how often the vehicle will stop for toilet breaks, so it’s a good idea to try to go to the bathroom every time you get a chance. Sometimes these breaks will be at ‘rest stops’ with some small restaurants or food stands and a set of real toilets (bring your own toilet paper since these often have just water buckets for cleaning) and hand washing stations. Other times, the bus will just pull over on the side of the road, and everyone goes out together. This option is not always convenient for ladies, especially if there’s not much cover to hide behind. Women might want to consider wearing a skirt or bringing something to wrap around you so that if you find yourself in that situation, you can still have a little privacy.
Inevitably, every jeep or bus ride will be accompanied by loud Nepali and Hindi music, which sometimes plays even through the night on overnight rides. A pair of earplugs can spare you from having to listen to that music for a 10-hour long ride. Or at least muffle it a little.
Be patient and flexible
If you choose to travel overland in Nepal, you need to be a bit flexible with your schedule. Don’t take a bus if you have a tight flight connection. Road construction is going on all the time, so traffic jams and road blocks are common. A drive that is supposed to take seven hours could very easily end up taking twelve, so don’t take a jeep/bus if you’re in a rush. If you end up stuck at a stand-still on a highway, be patient, get out of the vehicle to stretch your legs a bit, and enjoy the scenery.
Be careful about the food and water you consume at the rest stops. In general, drink only bottled water and don’t eat any food that looks like it’s been sitting out for a few hours with flies buzzing around. After you’ve spent a few hours sweating on a hot bus ride, those cucumbers and sliced fruit at the food stands can look really appealing, but often they are not washed with clean water and should be avoided. If you’re traveling into or out of Kathmandu, keep your face mask easily accessible so that you can protect yourself from the air pollution and heavy dust in the city.
Top image: Alex Drainville/Flickr