Getting around Nepal can be a challenging business. The impossible terrain and extreme weather conditions, plus a high level of disorganisation, mean that trips rarely go exactly according to plan. On the other hand, Nepali ingenuity will usually get you to your destination in the end. Although travel can be frustrating, it also creates memorable moments by the score. Good humour, patience and snacks are essential prerequisites.
The whole gamut of transport options is available in Nepal, from hot-air balloons to elephants. Walking is still the most important, and the most reliable, method of getting from A to B and for moving cargo; more is carried by people in Nepal than by every other form of transport combined.
One of the major considerations when using any form of public transport is to avoid travelling during festival times, especially major ones such as Dasain and Tihar (Diwali). Buses and planes are booked solid, and forget flying if you haven't booked well in advance.
There are no drive-yourself rental cars available in Nepal, but you can easily hire cars with drivers, or just a taxi. Expect to pay between US$50 and US$60 per day, including fuel, which at the time of research was set at Rs 67 per litre across the country.
It is quite popular to hire cars for return trips to both Pokhara and Royal Chitwan National Park from Kathmandu. A car from Kathmandu to Pokhara will probably cost around US$70 one way, or US$60 to Chitwan. A day's sightseeing around the Kathmandu Valley costs between US$20 and US$35. Remember that you'll have to pay for the driver's return trip whether or not you yourself return, as well as his food and accommodation for overnight trips.
If you are planning to drive a motorbike in Nepal you should double check to see if your insurance coverage will cover you, as it may be excluded under 'dangerous activities'.
Buses are the main form of public transport in Nepal and in relative terms they're incredibly cheap. Very often they're also incredibly uncomfortable. They run pretty much everywhere and will stop for anyone. You can jump on local buses anywhere, but you'll find it much easier to get a seat if you catch a bus at its source rather than in mid-run. For longer-distance buses it's best to book a couple of days in advance.
The government bus company, known as Sajha Yatayat, has distinctive blue-and-white buses that service all the main routes except the far east and far west. Although marginally cheaper than private buses, these buses are generally very shabby, poorly maintained and rarely run to schedule; overall they are best avoided.
On popular tourist runs such as the Kathmandu-Pokhara, Kathmandu-Sunauli and Kathmandu-Nagarkot runs, there are a number of higher-grade, higher-priced and sometimes air-conditioned tourist buses aimed at the tourist market.
There are literally dozens of private bus companies - it seems all you need is one bus and you've got yourself a company. The condition of the buses range from reasonably comfortable minibuses to lumbering dinosaurs held together by little more than bits of wire and the combined hopes of the passengers. As with the Sajha buses, there is a booking office in each town where you can buy tickets for long-distance routes in advance.
On the longer routes there are 'express' minibuses, scheduled both by day and night. Day travel is generally preferable because you get to see the countryside (and there are some spectacular roads) and it's considerably safer. Night travel often involves a stop somewhere en route for a couple of hours sleep.
At the bottom of the heap are the local buses that run shorter routes, carry people, their luggage and often animals, and seem to stop more than they go. Travelling by local bus is no fun and should be kept to a minimum, although to reach many of the trekking roadheads there is little alternative.
Long-distance bus travel has slowed down recently due to the large number of tedious checkpoints set up by the Nepali military to counter potential Maoist activity. These generally involve everyone getting off the bus and walking through a checkpoint. Tourists are normally exempt and can stay on the bus. A couple of these checks can severely delay a trip, especially when buses start to back up.
Bus travel in Nepal poses a significant risk of accident. It's uncommon to drive for more than an hour on any stretch of road without passing the burnt-out shell of a public bus crushed like tin foil into the canyon below. Travelling on an overnight bus trip is probably the most dangerous thing you can do in Nepal, and is certainly a bigger risk than that currently posed by the Maoists and even more dangerous than the bungee jump (only kidding on that one). You are more than 30 times more likely to die in a road accident in Nepal than in most developed countries.
During the course of researching this guide we passed ten fatal bus crashes in one ten-day period, which between them killed over 200 people. Tourist buses are generally safer than public buses but still the message is clear; keep bus travel to a minimum.
There are two train lines from Janakpur, but only the service east to Jaynagar over the Indian border carries passenger traffic. They're narrow-gauge trains and very slow, so they offer an interesting, if somewhat crowded, method of seeing the countryside. Note that tourists are not allowed to cross the border using the passenger train.
There are few organised tours available in Kathmandu or to places of interest around the valley and further a field. Normally it's just a matter of organising something through a travel agent, of which there are gazillions.
A few Nepali travel companies, such as Himalayan Offroad (4700770; www.himalayanoffroad.com), run motorbike tours of Nepal and may be able to help with queries.
Most foreign tour companies such as Asia-Bike-Tours (www.asiabiketours.com), Ferris Wheels (www.ferriswheels.com.au) and Himalayan Roadrunners (www.ridehigh.com) have suspended motorbike tours of Nepal until the security situation improves.
Larger towns such as Kathmandu and Pokhara have taxis which, between a group of people, can be a good way to explore the Kathmandu Valley. Metered taxis have black licence plates; private cars often operate as taxis, particularly on long-distance routes or for extended periods, and have red plates.
Taxi meters are sometimes out of date (at the time of research they were OK), in which case tourists will be hard pushed to convince drivers to use them (with or without a surcharge) and will almost certainly have to negotiate the fare in advance. You will always pay more for a negotiated fare than a metered fare.
Nepal has a fairly extensive domestic air network, served by half a dozen airlines, though only the flights to Pokhara, Meghauli (for Chitwan), Lukla and Jomsom are much used by foreigners.
Residents and Nepali citizens pay approximately 35% of the tourist price for domestic air fares. Airlines will accept payment from visitors only in hard currency.
All travellers are charged an insurance surcharge of US$2 per leg. Air fares quoted in this book include this surcharge. At the time of research there was also a temporary fuel surcharge of between US$5 and US$9 per flight, which will continue as long as global fuel prices remain high.
The domestic terminal is the old Kathmandu airport, and its age shows. It can be a chaotic spot, particularly when flights are cancelled and crowds of stressed tourists generate an escalating atmosphere of fear and loathing.
Check in an hour early for domestic flights. Don't carry pocketknives, gas cigarette lighters, matches or even trekking poles in your carry-on luggage on any domestic flights. There is a Rs 170 domestic airport tax payable at check-in.
A number of private companies operate alongside the long-running, government-owned and chronically inefficient Royal Nepal Airlines Corporation (RNAC). These airlines operate largely on the popular (ie economically viable and tourist-oriented) routes, although government regulations require that airlines devote 40% of their capacity to nontourist routes. The prices for the private airlines are slightly more than RNAC (by around US$10 per sector), but they offer better service and are much more reliable.
RNAC operates by far the most comprehensive range of scheduled flights around Nepal, with flights to Bhojpur, Biratnagar, Dhangadhi, Dolpo, Jomsom, Kathmandu, Lamidanda, Lukla, Manang, Nepalganj, Phaplu, Pokhara, Rajbiraj, Ramechhap, Rumjatar, Simikot, Surkhet, Taplejung and Tumlingtar, among others.
Buddha Air (01-5542494; www.buddhaair.com) has fast, modern aircraft; the trip to Pokhara from Kathmandu takes just 20 minutes, compared with up to 40 minutes with RNAC. Buddha Air has daily flights servicing Kathmandu, Pokhara, Biratnagar, Bhadrapur, Bhairawa, Nepalganj and Janakpur.
The Sherpa-owned Yeti Airlines (01-4421215; www.yetiairlines.com) is one of the best domestic airlines and flies to Kathmandu, Pokhara, Lukla, Phaplu, Manang, Bhairawa, Bhadrapur, Bharatpur, Biratnagar, Meghauli, Simara (for Birganj), Nepalganj, plus flights to Dolpa and Simikot from Nepalganj, and Jumla and Rara from Surkhet. You can book flights online.
Some flights, such as Kathmandu to Lukla (the main airstrip in the Everest region), are used mainly by trekkers. There are multiple daily flights during the trekking season but these do fill up in October so make a reservation in advance through a travel agency in Kathmandu or direct with an airline website. Flights from Kathmandu to Jomsom and Lukla can be plagued by bad-weather cancellations and a backlog of frustrated travellers, though this isn't the problem it was a few years ago. For flights in and out of Jomsom, Cosmic Air is the one to choose (US$63 plus US$7 surcharges); for Lukla, Yeti Airlines (US$97).
Maoist activity can temporarily close domestic airports in remote parts of the country. Check the state of play before basing your plans around remote airports, especially in the far west.
Try to book domestic flights a week in advance and, just as for flights out of Nepal, the most important rule is to reconfirm and reconfirm again. Names can 'fall off' the passenger list, particularly when there is pressure for seats. This is much more of a problem with RNAC than with the private operators.
There's generally no charge to change the date of a domestic air ticket. Cancellation charges vary but are generally free more than a day or two before departure.
In Kathmandu and Pokhara there are many bicycle-rental outlets and this is a cheap and convenient way of getting around, particularly around the Kathmandu Valley. Regular bicycles cost around Rs 100 per day to rent, an Indian or Chinese made mountain bike costs from Rs 200 and an imported foreign bike costs around Rs 700. Children's bicycles can also be hired.