Getting from Kathmandu to Pokhara and Darjeeling by Bus
Read this before deciding to travel by land or air between Pokhara and Kathmandu (and either of these cities to Darjeeling, India). My land journeys within Nepal were the most nerve-racking trips I’ve been on. This article describes my experiences and lessons from these trips.
To quickly locate information on a specific route, scroll down to the particular route of interest.
My recent bus trips in Nepal were among the most nerve-racking journeys in all my years of travel. I couldn’t find much up-to-date information online about these trips beforehand, so I wasn’t quite prepared for the frustrations involved in overland travel in Nepal. I will offer here my experiences and lessons I learned for the benefit of those considering land travel in the Himalayan nation.
Disclaimer: You should note that the following journeys were taken during the monsoon season (and four years after the catastrophic 2015 earthquake, which might also contribute to poor road conditions). So, my experiences with horrendous traffic (unlike any I’ve experienced elsewhere on the planet) on each of my trips might be anomalous. But, the fact that it occurred on all three of my land journeys over the course of a month would suggest this might be the new norm — at least during monsoon season.
After two weeks of loafing about in Kathmandu, it was time to head to Pokhara. I had visited both these cities 22 years earlier. The changes in Kathmandu were evident, but it still resembled the city I remembered. The transformation was for the worse, as is almost always the case. A while ago, I decided I would never return to the same place twice since the level of enjoyment previously experienced could rarely be replicated. I broke my own rule by returning to Nepal.
Thamel, the backpacker ghetto, was overpopulated even during the low-season which corresponds with the monsoon season. (Although it was the tail-end of the monsoon season, the rain showed no sign of relenting.)
It seems to me that genuine interactions with locals are much harder to come by nowadays as foreigners are mainly viewed as walking wallets. Anyone who appears sincere, initially claiming he doesn’t want your money, will eventually try to sell you something or request money from you just for the supreme privilege of having engaged in this unsolicited interaction.
Points of interest that were previously free to enjoy now have entrance fees. The government started charging foreigners an exorbitant fee to stroll around the world-famous Durbar Square (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), whereas in the days of yore it was free, as it should be — after all, I don’t recall ever having to pay a toll to saunter around old town districts of any of the European cities I visited.
Perhaps it was the constant rainfall mixed with nostalgia, but I was getting depressed and I needed to leave Kathmandu.
I got a good deal at my hotel during my two-week stay, so I believed the staff there could be trusted to book my bus ticket to Pokhara without overcharging me. When I inquired where I would need to catch my bus, the staff at the hotel stared blankly at me like a deer in headlights and could only point me in the general direction. Unsure about the pickup location, the day prior to my departure date I made a trial run to ensure I’d be able to find it the next morning.
TIP: The buses don’t depart from a proper station or even a marked bus stop. Rather they parallel park alongside the road, so for those taking a bus to Pokhara from Kathmandu, I suggest you enter Sorhakhutte Bus Stop into your navigation app. Once there, walk down the street (Naya Bazaar Marg) until you locate your bus. The buses park there well in advance.
I paid a whopping 1300 NPR (Nepalese rupees), which was equivalent to $11.50 USD. I was told it would be a deluxe tourist bus, so I was shocked at how old and shoddy it was. The majority of the passengers were locals, which was a clear indication that it was not truly a tourist bus. The seats were actually going for 700 NPR, which meant I had paid nearly double.
TIP: If you are in Nepal during low-season, I suggest you simply buy your ticket directly from the bus conductor about half an hour before departure time. Otherwise, you might end up paying an inflated price for commission at a travel agency.
For the first hour, we slowly cruised around Kathmandu picking up more Nepalese riders. The driver wouldn’t turn on the air-conditioner until we got well-outside of Kathmandu city. Although the bus also came equipped with fans in addition to A/C, they were never utilized (I assumed they were broken). When the A/C was eventually switched on, it was too cold, so everyone would shut their vents, which ultimately resulted in condensation building up and dripping (and in some cases pouring) from the vents, lights and other cracks and crevices in the overhead panel. This ultimately led to the driver permanently shutting off the A/C. Since it was raining much of the way to Pokhara, we were also forbidden from opening the windows. So, most of the time, it was extremely hot and stuffy inside the vehicle.
And, forget about WiFi. Almost none of the buses in Nepal that purports to have WiFi onboard actually do.
The trip was meant to take eight hours, but it wound up lasting about thirteen. A long stretch of the road to Pokhara turned into a veritable parking lot. Engines were shut off, people paced around or squatted in the middle of the road. Someone said that a mudslide was to blame. About five hours later (having traveled no more than15 kilometers in that time) we reached a section of road blanketed in wet mud with piles of more mud scooped onto the shoulder. However, there was also road work as well as four totaled vehicles on the opposite side of the street. So, it seemed a number of factors conspired to prevent us from reaching Pokhara in a reasonable amount of time.
My return trip to Kathmandu would prove to be even longer than this first journey. My disbelief that this could happen on two consecutive occasions, prompted me to ask my second driver if this was typical (or merely the result of my bad karma), and he assured me it’s like this every day — except perhaps on Saturdays.
It should also be noted that you can expect to stop numerous times along the way even if you are fortunate enough to avoid traffic. It’s quite annoying to stop just 30 minutes after leaving Kathmandu, and then multiple other times before reaching Pokhara, which is only 200 kilometers (126 miles) away. Perhaps they do this because the buses aren’t equipped with onboard toilets.
When we finally arrived in Pokhara, I had planned on walking to my hotel one and a half kilometers away, but one look at the bus stop and the surrounding area, and I abandoned that idea. It was a large parking area covered in dirt, mud, and rocks and the nearby road appeared to be equally uneven and full of potholes. It was not very walkable, and my rolling suitcase probably would have been destroyed by such a hike. So, instead, I shared a very crowded and compact taxicab with three other passengers — each paying about 100 NPR for a short ride in what felt like a clown car. The driver was kind enough to drop us off at three different hotels in the Lake Side area (another backpacker ghetto, but much more pleasant and relaxed than Thamel in Kathmandu).
TIP: If you decide to travel to Pokhara from Kathmandu by bus, I recommend taking a seat on the right as most of the views of the valleys and rivers below are on that side.
TIP: I’m not sure that these views make the bus trip worth it if, in fact, you end up in similar traffic to what I suffered through; so you might consider flying at least one of the ways. One-way tickets cost around $100 USD on Yeti Airlines and Buddha Air at the time of this writing. It’s much cheaper (around $40 USD) for residents. I was told that in the coming months the government will change the rules so that foreigners can enjoy the same low rates as locals. (But, I don’t know if this is accurate information.) Nevertheless, it will be worth checking current airfares once you arrive in Nepal.
Pokhara was unrecognizable to me. When I first visited the place 22 years earlier, it was a lazy, peaceful town — but it had grown into a typical metropolis, albeit much smaller than Kathmandu. Obviously, it’s not nearly as chaotic; in fact, it’s still relatively quiet. But, the massive population explosion and urbanization of this region since I last visited was something I found extremely disconcerting. I searched everywhere to find something I could recognize, but aside from a cluster of fisheries on the lakeshore, I had no success — this was a far cry from the quaint Pokhara I visited when I was young.
The sky is now cluttered with paragliders and ultralight airplanes. The beautiful, verdant hillside is marred by new structures and cable car lines currently under construction. But, there is a reason the town attracts so many tourists (and therefore Nepalese people seeking higher-paying jobs that become available as a result of tourism). It’s along the Annapurna Circuit, a popular trekking route, and many trekkers stay here to recharge their batteries. And the adventure sports and other activities offered by the many tour companies are limitless. So, if you don’t have memories of this town from a bygone era that could be ruined by revisiting it, then you will probably be quite happy here.
Two weeks after arriving in Pokhara, it was time for me to head back to Kathmandu before starting my journey to Darjeeling, West Bengal, India.
I was warned that I might be better off going directly to Darjeeling from Pokhara, but after looking at the map it seemed to make more sense to stop in Kathmandu for a rest as it was on the way to Darjeeling. It turns out, however, that the geography is misleading as Darjeeling-bound buses from Kathmandu head back towards Pokhara, reaching about half the distance before circling back towards Kathmandu and therefore Darjeeling. It seemed utterly insane to me, but you can read more about that in the next section.
As you might expect, the pick-up and drop-off points for buses bound for Kathmandu are the same as the reverse trip — and so are the bus fares. There is actually a range of buses, costing as much as 2500 NPR (the top-tier buses include breakfast and lunch). Since the previous bus was advertised as a deluxe tourist bus and it turned out to be anything but, I figured I shouldn’t let myself be duped again, and just go with the cheapest ride I could find. I expected the worst, but I figured no matter how much money I might spend on a luxurious trip, it would likely end badly.
I paid my hotel in Lake Side 200 NPR for a lift to Pokhara’s tourist bus park (we can’t quite call it a terminal). As previously mentioned, it’s not far from the lakeside, so 200 NPR was probably excessive. But, at least I believe I paid the right price this time for the bus ticket itself — 700 NPR.
TIP: Do not pay more than 200 NPR for a taxi from Lake Side to the bus park, or more than 700 NPR for the standard air-conditioned bus.
It had been raining for several days, so the bus park was muddy as hell, which made entering and exiting an ordeal. Many buses depart at the same time (7:30 AM), so the first fifteen minutes were spent waiting to just leave the parking area.
But, once we were off, we were really moving! With no traffic in sight, we were racing along for an hour or so, and then we had our first fifteen-minute bathroom break. (Or was it a half-hour breakfast break? I can’t recall. There were so many unnecessary stops.)
Compared to the last trip, though, everything seemed to be going smoothly. The A/C was functional and not pissing on our heads, we easily passed the spot that was the source of the traffic on my last trip. And before I knew it, we were just about 25 kilometers outside of Kathmandu. We had reached the home stretch!
And then the bus came to a screeching halt. For as far as the eye could see, traffic was at a standstill. Stopped buses and trucks (and a few cars) twisted up the side of a steep hillside. People milled about zombie-like while others squatted by the roadside or paced back and forth, kicking gravel in defeat. It was déjà vu; I had a sinking feeling inside my stomach. Six hours later we would turn onto the sloped shoulder and crawl past a disabled truck in the middle of the road. The bus listed toward the gaping valley below and after a brief moment in which my life flashed before my eyes, it leveled off again as it veered back onto the pavement, and the bus accelerated.
Within minutes we hit more traffic.
Another two hours later, I fell back onto my bed in a dumpy hostel — the nearest hostel to the bus stop in Kathmandu that I could find.
TIP: If you choose to travel by bus to Kathmandu from Pokhara, sit on the left side of the bus as most of the views of the valleys and rivers below are on that side.
I should first mention that there is no direct bus to Darjeeling from Kathmandu. You might find a direct bus to Siliguri, India, but even when you have such a ticket, you might only get as far as the border town of Kakarbhitta, Nepal, where you can catch a local bus to Siliguri and transfer again to a jeep or train to Darjeeling.
As noted in the previous section, the bus from Kathmandu to Darjeeling, India is actually longer than the bus from Pokhara to Darjeeling despite the fact that Kathmandu is geographically closer to West Bengal. This being the case, if you are in Pokhara and have no reason to return to Kathmandu, go directly from Pokhara to Kakarbhitta or Siliguri.
If you are in Kathmandu, you might consider microbuses instead of the regular “tourist” bus. While the tourist bus is supposedly more comfortable than a microbus, it is not permitted on the roads that head East from Kathmandu (at least not at the time of this writing). Instead, these buses are diverted northwest (away from your destination) halfway to Pokhara before circling back in the right direction. As described above, this road is prone to some of the worst traffic you’ll ever encounter. My bus from Kathmandu to Kakarbhitta took a total of 33 hours — a trip that should have been no more than 15 hours. (Indeed, every bus trip I took in Nepal was worse than the last.)
The microbus from Kathmandu should cost around 700 NPR. The tourist bus from Kathmandu should cost around 1650 NPR — although I paid 2000 from an agency near Amideva Buddha Park, which is where you will find many offices selling bus tickets. Many travel agencies in Thamel can also book this ticket. I was under the illusion, however, that I was getting a good deal by going directly to the bus ticketing service — but it turns out I still overpaid (though not as much as I would have in Thamel).
Once you arrive in Kakarbhitta, you can walk to the Immigration Office before crossing Mechi Bridge to obtain your exit stamp. You can then continue across the bridge on foot. On the Indian side, there is a checkpoint where your passport will be reviewed by an officer and your bags will be scanned. Then you will continue another 100 meters or so to get your entry stamp at the immigration office.
Assuming your bus only goes as far as Kakarbhitta (as mine did despite purchasing a ticket all the way to Siliguri), you will need to catch a local bus to Siliguri. Continue on the same road (there’s only one) from the immigration office until it ends at a cross-street. Siliguri-bound buses stop here and cost 60 INR (Indian rupees) – about 1 USD. The ride to Siliguri takes approximately one and a half hours. Once in Siliguri, if you want to take a shared jeep to Darjeeling (which costs 150 INR per person and takes approximately 3 hours), tell the conductor you want to get off at Darjeeling More. (I believe the train would take about 6 hours, so this $2.50 USD shared jeep is worth it.)
My Odyssey to Darjeeling
I’m writing the following for my own benefit. I want a record of this, the most horrendous bus experience I’ve had to date. But, I’m not so sure the following will be of much interest to others. (You’ve been warned.)
If I could do it all over again, I would opt for the microbus from Kathmandu or the “tourist” bus from Pokhara. Taking the “tourist” bus from Kathmandu was the absolute worst trip of my life.
I had planned to leave Kathmandu two days before my visa expired. The day before my departure, I visited a travel agent near Thamel who said he could arrange the ticket for 2500 NPR. Before buying it, I did a quick google search and found bussewa.com, an online ticketing service. This site might be useful for all bus routes in Nepal if only they accepted international credit cards (which they don’t). There was one listing for Kathmandu to Siliguri. The ticket was just 2000 NPR, so I figured I’d go with that company instead of the agent I met.
Since the website doesn’t accept international credit cards, I located the company on Google Maps. It was situated near Amideva Buddha Park. I walked to the place indicated on the map, but the office didn’t seem to exist. Locals pointed to the other side of the park, and then when I reached the opposite side, the locals there directed me back to where I started. I had spent an hour walking to this area from Thamel in the driving rain, slipping and sliding on the muddy road and getting splashed by passing cars. I was about to lose my mind. I found another bus company that offered the same trip for the same price. I took it. The bus was to depart at 3 PM the following day.
The next morning, I awoke in my Thamel hostel looking forward to spending the first part of the day binging on Western food as I expected to be deprived of such things for the foreseeable future. But, when I reviewed my ticket I noticed it said “Delhi” for my destination. So, instead of spending the day enjoying Western comforts as planned, I checked out of my hotel and headed back to the bus ticketing office. The taxi driver wanted 500 NPR, but I got him down to 300 NPR. Before reaching the office from which I purchased my ticket, I noticed the first bus service that I meant to find the previous day. I had my driver stop to let me out there.
In this office, I found the same girl that sold me the ticket at the other office, which confounded me. I explained that I didn’t want to go to Delhi, but rather Siliguri. She picked up her pen and crossed out Delhi and wrote “Kakarbhitta” next to it. I asked if I will still have a window seat, and she simply said “same seat”. I had no idea how she could possibly know that the other bus has the same layout and that that particular seat would be available without checking.
At this point, it was around 10 AM. I had 5 hours to kill. But, I had my luggage with me. What could I possibly do? So, I sat and waited for what seemed like an eternity — it was a real-life imitation of “Waiting for Godot”.
At around 2 PM, other Nepali passengers started arriving. But, the bus didn’t arrive until around 8:30 PM — about five hours after it was scheduled to depart.
It was an ugly tan bus – nothing like the pretty blue one in the photos. Somebody said our bus wasn’t coming, so they’re putting us on this one. And since it only goes as far as Kakarbhitta, I would need to call a man named Ashok when I arrived, and he would pick me up and deliver me to Siliguri.
Upon boarding the bus, there was much confusion where we were supposed to sit. The conductor wanted to put me in an aisle seat and I asserted, “No. I paid for a window seat – you need to give me a window seat.” (I realize all seats cost the same, but I figured the conductor wouldn’t understand if I phrased it differently.) He pointed me to a window seat in the back row.
As soon as I sat down, I realized it had major issues: not only was there no way to recline the seat, but it actually leaned slightly forward, while the seat in front of it was reclined fully back into my lap. I expected a 10-hour trip. This was not going to work.
I got the conductor’s attention again and demanded a different window seat. He reluctantly granted my wish. I was quite comfortable and satisfied now. I even had an empty seat beside me so I could spread out. But, my extra legroom was short-lived, as the passenger who sat behind me wanted to befriend the American onboard and asked if he could sit next to me so we could chat. As much as I wanted to tell him to go to hell, I acquiesced.
I couldn’t understand more than about 30% of the words coming out of his mouth – a mouth that ran interminably through the night. I did not need this right now.
By 3 AM, six hours after departing from Kathmandu, we only advanced 31 kilometers in the opposite direction from Kakarbhitta.
Once we finally turned south the traffic ended. But, as soon as it ended, we stopped for one of the many 20-minute breaks to come.
We would not encounter any more traffic on this trip. But, given the fact that the road was in total disrepair, the bus couldn’t travel any faster than 50 kilometers per hour with over 500 kilometers to go.
Between the delay of the bus’ arrival in Kathmandu, the insane traffic, the fact that the bus was forced to travel many miles out of the way before correcting course, the numerous rest and meal breaks, and the low speed of travel on the broken road, I arrived in Kakarbhitta 33 hours after my original departure time.
The town was eerily quiet and dark. Ashok, the man who was to take me to Siliguri, was not there. I didn’t really believe he would be there though. He expected me to arrive at 9 AM. I was there at 10 PM, and I had no way to contact him without WiFi.
I was unsure if I stayed the night whether I would be overstaying my visa. So, I thought I might try crossing the border into India when I arrived at Kakarbhitta, but I was told the border closed at 10 PM. I had just missed my chance to cross that night.
It was clear I’d need to stay the night. Several men circled me like wolves, insisting I follow them to their hotels. I knew they were going to try to get a commission from whichever hotel I chose to stay at (which meant an inflated price for me). I somehow got rid of them and found a hotel near where the bus left me off. Now that I had Wi-Fi, I messaged Ashok on WhatsApp. He claimed to have waited for me from 9 AM to 6 PM. At this point, he seemed to have no interest in helping me get to Siliguri. I had no energy to argue with him. I would have to figure the rest out on my own.
The next morning I walked to immigration control on the Nepalese side of the border to obtain my exit stamp. I then proceeded to cross the very long Mechi Bridge to the Indian side. It began to pour. My umbrella protected my head and backpack, but the rolling suitcase trailing behind me got soaked. Before reaching the other side of the bridge, I came upon vehicular congestion blocking my way. I was flanked by cars and rickshaws on all sides — there was no space for me to pass, so I was standing with my bag amidst the vehicles, and could only take tiny steps forward when the traffic crawled on. I’m sure I looked hilarious.
At last, I arrived at the first Indian checkpoint at the end of the bridge. It was a little open-air building, but at least it provided shelter. My passport was checked and bags were scanned, and I waited for the rain to let up. It started to let up after 15 minutes, but the immigration officer had just waved down a shared rickshaw for me (without me even asking for one). She told me not to pay more than 30 INR for the short trip to immigration control. I squeezed myself and my bags into the tiny rickshaw that was already crowded with four Indian women.
Fortunately, it was indeed a short distance. The driver requested 60 INR. I handed him 30 and walked inside the building.
It seems few foreigners pass through here. I was the only one there aside from an American girl who was on the verge of tears. She was trying to get to Nepal, but was caught in limbo because she overstayed her visa and apparently it wasn’t enough to simply pay a fee – they required her to do a bunch of paperwork, and it sounded like she might have to return to Kolkata before leaving the country. I couldn’t quite follow the story, but she seemed rather desperate and couldn’t understand why paying penalty fees wouldn’t suffice.
Notwithstanding the problems they were creating for that poor girl, the immigration officers were quite friendly and jocund; I think they were grateful to have a couple of foreigners to process to briefly save them from the ennui they experience at work.
I didn’t quite know how to get to Darjeeling at this point. The officers advised me to walk down the road until it ended at a cross-street. Fortunately, when I reached this road, I found a bus sitting there with a man chanting loudly “Siliguri, Siliguri” beside it. He helped me toss my luggage into the storage compartment, and I boarded the bus. Within minutes we got going and were hurling towards Siliguri. The cost of this trip was less than one US dollar (60 INR). I told the conductor that I needed to get off at “Darjeeling More”. An hour and a half later he waved at me to indicate we had arrived at my stop.
At “Darjeeling More”, I took the first driver who approached me since he seemed to offer a fair price for the three-hour trip from Siliguri to Darjeeling: 150 INR (which is just over two US dollars).
However, I should have held out for another jeep with a vacant front seat because this one only had room in the back of the vehicle. At this point, after so many hours of travel, my back was sore, and huddling in the rear seat with three other passengers resulted in excruciating pain. Nevertheless, aside from one unnecessary 30-minute lunch break, my neighbor falling asleep and crushing my ribs, and my extreme back pain, this ride went rather smoothly.