Traveling from Pokhara to Bandipur by tourist bus is a slow, inexpensive, non-touristy way to see the Tribhuvan Highway in Nepal. It’s also full of surprises! Just like every Buddhist stupa, temple, peace pagoda, monastery and Tibetan refuge camp I visited. Even the monkeys in Nepal were full of surprises.
Here are the three most important things I learned about taking tourist buses in Nepal: First, there is no “tourist bus” in Nepal (more on that below!). Second, you don’t need to buy a bus ticket in advance (at least not for the Pokhara to Kathmandu bus trip). Third, if you get on the wrong bus you can stop in the middle of nowhere and get off. Another bus will be along within minutes, if not seconds. Or maybe hours. Weeks? It depends where you are in Nepal.
I may not be able to tell you everything you need to know about taking the tourist bus in Nepal, but I can share my experiences. I took the bus from Pokhara to Bandipur (about halfway to Kathamandu). I also took several city buses in Kathmandu itself. Note that I visited Nepal in low season (January). The rural buses — such as the bus from Dumri to Bandipur — were less than half full. In many countries like Nepal the bus depart when the driver decides there are enough passengers to make the trip worthwhile. This makes sense, but it does put a crimp in a tourist’s travel plans.
I just got back from two weeks traveling in Nepal for my 50th birthday. I’d planned to go to India as well — it was a spiritual journey, a pilgrimage into the second half of my life — but the BuddhaAir staff at the Kathmandu airport wouldn’t let me get on the plane to Varanasi (if you fear getting stranded at an airport, read What Happens When the Airline Won’t Let You Board the Plane?).
One of my most memorable experiences in Nepal was realizing I was on the wrong tourist bus. I was traveling from Pokhara to Bandipur, which is roughly halfway to Kathmandu. I demanded that the bus stop and let me off because I thought I was being cheated. I still don’t know if I got ripped off or not, but I learned a few things about the Nepali bus system!
How to Take the Tourist Bus in Nepal
First, a caveat: my experiences are simply that. My experiences! If you’re traveling in Nepal, you may have a very different experience. Be open and willing to let Nepal unfold naturally before you, without expecting anything in particular. Like a bus for tourists. :-)
Also: if you’re a Nepali tourist bus operator or ticket agent, you probably disagree with my statement that there aren’t any tourist buses in Nepal. Feel free to set me straight in the comments below. I suspect there are financial, legal, and operational differences between “tourist buses” that have the word Tourist emblazoned in huge white letters on the front window and local buses. I wouldn’t be surprised if the tourist bus operators pay more money for vehicle and passenger insurance, registration and licensing costs, and even maintenance than local bus operators.
1. Assume you’re wrong about everything
I thought a tourist bus would be more comfortable, clean, and less crowded than buses for Nepalis. I was wrong. I also thought tourists bus tickets were more expensive than tickets for Nepalis. I was wrong about that too. I was repeatedly told by bus porters, ticket sellers and Nepalis that tourists pay the same fare for bus tickets as locals do. I soon discovered that Nepali “tourist buses” are for both locals and tourists. Non-tourist buses are also for both Nepalis and tourists. This is great; I love traveling on public transportation! I just expected a tourist bus to be different because I thought I was paying tourist prices.
2. Prepare to pay more for your tourist ticket — but don’t assume you will pay more
Since I was traveling in Nepal in low season, I don’t know what bus tickets cost in high or shoulder season. Regardless of the season, I expect to pay more for a tourist bus ticket. I travel a lot, and am (finally) prepared to pay higher prices for tickets, entrance fees, and even sales tax. Plus I’m certain I read in one of my Nepal guidebooks that tourists pay more for bus tickets in Nepal. It makes sense; people who can afford to travel generally have more money than locals — especially in countries like Nepal. Most Nepalis can’t afford to pay the visa fees to visit countries like Canada, much less pay for airfare, hotels, and food.
3. Go to the bus park and talk to the ticket agent there
Instead of getting my ticket at the bus park, I bought a Pokhara-Kathmandu ticket for a Greenline Tours “tourist bus” at the physical office in Pokhara. Greenline Tours is an international tour operator. The website is awesome, and the physical offices in Kathmandu and Pokhara are pretty good. I thought an actual Greenline Tours bus would reflect the appearance of the website and offices, but I was wrong wrong wrong. The bus was just as beat up, run down, dirty, smelly and rickety as the non-tourist buses. But the porter did hand out bottles of water.
4. Don’t believe everything the tourist bus operators say
The Greenline Tours agent at the office in Pokhara told me that I couldn’t buy a “tourist bus” ticket at the bus park. He said tourists have to buy tickets in advance, through official ticketing offices. That wasn’t true. The ticket agent at the Pokhara bus park doesn’t even sell tourist tickets — she said everyone pays the same price for a ticket to Kathmandu. Her bus ticket price was the exact same as Greenline’s bus ticket price. If I buy another bus ticket in Pokhara, I’d go straight to the bus park.
5. Know that you don’t need to buy a bus ticket in advance
Buses are constantly leaving Pokhara to go to Kathmandu, Dumri, Chitwan, Gorakhpur and even a few more remote places in Nepal. There is a bus schedule that seems to start before the sun rises in the morning, but sort of falls apart as the day proceeds. Low season means there may be fewer buses, farther between. Traveling solo is easier because it’s just one seat or aisle space. So, if you’re stranded at the Pokhara airport and are considering buying a tourist bus ticket, just go to the bus park. If there isn’t a tourist bus, there will be a driver to take you anywhere you want to go in Nepal.
6. Expect to pay for a ticket all the way to Kathmandu no matter where you get off
Dumre (the town where the bus stops for people going to Bandipur) is about halfway from Pokhara to Kathmandu. A tourist would expect to pay about half the cost of a bus ticket all the way to Kathmandu, right? Wrong. No matter where you get off between Pokhara and Kathmandu on the Tribhuvan Highway, you pay 500 rupees. I got the same answer no matter who I asked: there is only one price for a bus ticket from Pokhara to Kathmandu. Do you know if this still true? Tell me in the comments below, I’d love to hear your experience.
7. Prepare for a loooooonnnngg bus trip on the Tribhuvan Highway
I didn’t take the bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara because I knew it would be long and rough trip (I flew to Pokhara from Kathmandu on Yeti Airlines for about $75 US. Took 40 minutes). The Tribhuvan Highway is mostly two-lane (one road in each direction) and there are a bazillion buses, mini-buses, vans, trucks, motorcycles and tractors. The trip takes forever, but there is a lot to look at! Everything from breathtaking valleys to piles of garbage to farm workers to pigs and horses.
If seeing homeless animals makes you sad, read How I Coped With the Pain of Seeing Starving Dogs in Nepal.
8. Know that you can get off the tourist bus anytime you want
When I was on the bus from Pokhara to Kathmandu — we were about 20 minutes away from Pokhara — I decided to get off the bus. At that point I didn’t know that there is no difference between a “tourist bus” and a Nepali bus for locals. I thought the Greenline Tours ticket agent cheated me by selling me a more expensive “tourist bus” ticket and put me on a bus for locals. I thought the other ten passengers — all Nepalis — paid a rupee or two for the ticket, which I paid 500. So I decided I wanted to get off the bus. This was no problem; they’ll stop and let you off wherever you want. The problem came when I demanded my money back.
9. Let yourself be surprised by…yourself!
I surprised myself by standing up, dragging my backpack up the aisle of the bus, and telling the porter I want to get off the bus now. And, I said, I want my 500 rupees back because this is not a tourist bus. I was outraged that the Greenline Tours ticket agent would tell me that it’s a “tourist bus” when it’s a regular bus. I would’ve been happy on the regular bus, but he specifically told me he was selling me a tourist bus ticket. The bus even had “Tourist Bus” in big white letters on the front window!
I stood at the front of the bus and proclaimed my outrage to everyone. The bus driver kept his head down and his eyes on the road. The bus porter turned his back to me and stared out the window, hoping I’d go and sit down. I wouldn’t stop my tirade, though. I’ve never done anything like it and I don’t know what came over me. I was outraged and determined to get off that bus and get my money back.
10. Know that you have more power than you think
The bus driver stopped to pick up someone on the side of the road. The porter said I could get off the bus now. I refused, saying I will not get off the bus until I get a refund. So the bus driver kept going and I kept proclaiming the injustice of it all. The porter called Greenline Tours ticket agent, probably saying a crazy Canadian tourist was having a breakdown on the bus and what the heck should I do? The porter then passed the phone to me; before the ticket agent said a word I repeated my whole tirade. “I’m standing at the front of your so-called ‘tourist bus’ in front of all the passengers and shouting on the phone to you. Please tell the porter to refund my money immediately and let me off this bus!”
The bus driver stopped the bus. The porter gave me a handful of rupees. I lugged my backpack off the bus. The bus chugged away, leaving me on the side of the Tribhuvan Highway. I counted my money: 450 rupees. They withheld 50 rupees, and I didn’t blame them. Administrative and processing fees, right?
11. Prepare to be humbled (remember the first tip in this list?)
Traveling in general is one of the most humbling experiences of my life. Taking the bus in Nepal was even more humbling because I think I discovered I was wrong about something I loudly and boldly proclaimed to be true. Here’s what one of the Nepali passengers said to me while the porter was giving me my rupees back: “There is no tourist bus. We all pay the same price to go to Kathmandu, tourists and locals. It does not matter where you get off.”
My first thought was that the passenger was in on the Nepali tourist bus “scam,” too. But now I’m not so sure. The Nepal bus system doesn’t make much sense to me, but I don’t make much sense to me either, so we’re even. :-)
12. Tell everything to your travel journal
This final tip isn’t just for tourists taking buses in Nepal, it’s for all travelers all over the world. Journaling about your trip is emotionally healthy, spiritually cleansing, and mentally decluttering. Here’s a specific example: it wasn’t until I journaled about my experience taking a tourist bus in Nepal — and demanding to get off the bus on the Tribhuvan Highway in the middle of nowhere — that I realized it wasn’t just about the tourist bus. It was about me.
Demanding my money back and to be let off the tourist bus was something I needed to do. I was a solo female traveler in Nepal. I was a week into my month-long spiritual journey through Nepal, Dubai and Hong Kong (but supposed to be India). I was walking into the second half of my life…and I needed to know I wasn’t helpless. I had to assert my power, to prove to myself that I wasn’t at the mercy of a bus driver or tour operator in Nepal.
Journaling about my experience on the tourist bus in Nepal was the healthiest thing I could do. Writing helped me see why I acted the way I did and helped me process the whole thing. Do you journal about your trips? If not, now is the time to start! Read 10 Best Travel Journals for Solo Pilgrimages or Group Treks.
Your thoughts about taking tourist buses in Nepal — or whatever occurs to you — are welcome below! If you have any tips or tools for travel that transforms you, please do share those. We love tips and tools :-)
Travel in faith, fellow pilgrim, and be transformed.