Getting from Kathmandu to Pokhara has somewhat of a reputation, due to the limited options of either taking the road with sheer drop-offs via bus (or private car if you have the cash) or taking a flight, on a route which doesn’t have the best safety record. Weighing up the best option isn’t always easy, and is usually dependant on time (bus: 6-8 hours vs. flight: 30 minutes) and cost (bus: $10 vs. flight: $100).
The tourist bus to Pokhara
As I had time, and because I need to budget, I decided to take the bus. I’d heard horror stories about the road between Kathmandu and Pokhara, so was prepared for a horrendously bumpy journey. However, considering this is one of the poorest countries in the world, and they are still recovering from the earthquake in 2015, the conditions of the roads weren’t actually too bad.
I mean, sure, it was bumpy – you wouldn’t want to read your book on the bus, you’d soon feel very nauseous. Also, my fitband told me I had walked around 1400 steps over the course of the journey, whilst I was sat in my seat. But, the roads are tarmac, and traffic tends to stay on their own side of the road.
Here’s the essential info you need and a few tales of the journey.
Buying your ticket
Every travel agency in the tourist district of Thamel in Kathmandu sells bus tickets for this journey. I bought my ticket the day before I travelled, from Global International Travel Agent. You can choose different levels of comfort – local, tourist standard or VIP buses. I paid 900Rs ($9) for my ticket with Debit Tours, a bright green standard tourist bus. I’ve heard Greenline are good, but it costs $23, and from what I saw doesn’t offer anything extra than the other companies.
An early departure…
All tourist buses leave from tourist bus stop on Kantipath Road at 7am. The journey is supposed to take six to eight hours. I arrived about 6.40am and was the first one on my bus. I was pleasantly surprised when we set off with a never mind prompt, but early departure at 6.59am! The bus was only half full too – delightful!
My joy was very short lived when we drove around the rest of Kathmandu for over an hour, picking up locals from various bus stops. I knew it had been too good to be true!
As we finally started to make our way out of the city, the bus stopped at the side of the road with no explanation. I could see all the other tourist buses ahead, so knew it wasn’t a problem with just our bus. There seemed to be confusion as to what the problem was. The driver was on his phone. Locals waiting for a bus were getting annoyed because no traffic was coming from that direction.
I quite quickly had to switch into “travel mode” i.e. don’t even worry or get annoyed about it, we’ll get moving when the driver says, or when the roads allow it.
After 30 minutes we were off again, but crawling along. We moved less than 500m, then stopped again for another 20 minutes. Then we set off over a dusty, bumpy road turning this way and that way, along the wrong side of the road. I was thinking this would be it for the rest of the journey.
It turns out there were roadworks on a short section of road, but instead of letting any traffic through, they had just shut the road to traffic both ways, and it was causing long delays.
By this point, it was two hours and 45 minutes since we had left the original bus stop and we were less than 5 km away from Kathmandu.
Finally on the move
Now we were properly going – the windy mountain roads and views were incredible! Not just of the dramatic valley landscape but also the hundreds upon hundreds of lorries, trucks and buses snaking up the hairpin roads. They were heading towards Kathmandu, all stuck due to the same roadworks.
Each truck was individually decorated in bright colours and patterns. I even saw one tastefully covered with the words “I love anus” – I bet you do mate! (Un)fortunately, we were moving by that point so I didn’t manage to get a picture… sorry!
The poverty along the way was crazy. Shacks built onto the side of the road were nearly falling off the cliffside. Communities have developed along the road purely to act as a stopping off point for the tourist buses and trucks that drive past every day. Huge sponsored Tuborg and fizzy drink company brands were outside every tiny shop or restaurant. Guys in their underwear were washing with water coming out of a pipe right by the side of the road.
But people seemed happy. Kids were playing football, on their bikes or walking home from school. Adults were sat watching the world go by or going about their daily business.
Four hours and only 75km into the journey, we stopped for lunch which was actually really good – $3 for a buffet. I love a buffet (especially breakfast ones!) and this one included daal bhat, saag aloo, cauliflower curry, noodles and salad.
I ate outside overlooking the valley of the Trishuli River.
Two hours further on the bus and we had another 30 minute break, at Nepal’s equivalent of Starbucks – “Star coffee”. I drank my first sweet and milky masala tea – it was delicious! There was even a proper toilet at this stop. You don’t get that luxury on every bus journey, trust me.
Arrival to Pokhara
About 3.30pm, after eight and a half hours travelling, we arrived into the bus park in Pokhara, just outside the main tourist area. You will be hounded by taxi drivers when you get off. And yes, they will try to rip you off. Offer them half the price of whatever they suggest to Lakeside, where most hotels and hostels are.
After a few days in Pokhara, my friend and I set off for our Annapurna Base Camp hike.
Return to from Pokhara to Kathmandu
The journey back from Pokhara was much the same, except I travelled with Baba Adventures and booked my ticket through my guesthouse. All buses for Kathmandu leave at 7.30am. Again, we had a stop for lunch overlooking the river and one more short stop for coffee.
Every tourist bus seemed to stop at the same places. Whichever company you go with – Mountain Overland, Blue Sky Adventures or Debit Tours, you seem to get a very similar level of service.
I’m not sure the free wifi worked on any of the buses, but surely that’s to be expected driving through the valleys of the Himalayas. Thankfully, the A/C did work as it got pretty warm in the afternoon.
There weren’t any of the delays or queues that I’d faced on the way, so we made it in a mere six hours. This was mainly due to there being a nationwide strike (which is apparently fairly common) so lots of the regular traffic wasn’t on the roads. The day before I was due to leave, I was told that the buses might not be running at all. Cue a slight panic about missing my flight out of Kathmandu the following day. But there was no need in the end!
*Tip: do not leave Pokhara on the same day as your flight from Kathmandu – always give yourself some contingency time.
So, was it really that bad?
No, the journey was actually pretty okay! The roads weren’t as bad as many I have been on. If anyone has taken a bus between Lake Atitlan and Semuc Champey in Guatemala, you will know just how bad roads can be.
Just be prepared for unexpected delays. It might get hot, but will probably be cool when you leave, so wear layers. Make sure you have good music/audiobook to listen to. Just take in the views and sights of life in Nepal!
Have you travelled in Nepal? How was your experience? Or if not, where has been the bumpiest bus journey you’ve had? Let me know in the comments below!