When you get to a new place, one of the first things you need to figure out is transportation. After walking around in your neighbourhood, you’re going to want to explore different parts of the city. But how do you do that? The best way is to ask the people where you’re staying. If it’s a guest-house or hotel, they might just recommend a taxi because it’s easier to explain. However, if you ask about a specific route (ideally, from where you’re staying to a well known area/destination), like “Can I take the bus from Baluwatar to Pulchowk?”, they will either tell you which bus to take, the price, and where to wait for it, OR they will say “No, not a bus, you can take a tempo”, and then explain that route. At first, you will only know 1 route, but after awhile (and asking a few different people), you will figure out the best route for your daily commute and other weekend adventures.
Random vehicle – some sort of modified tractor. They are not super popular, noisy, and are mostly used for carrying construction-type materials.
Note: Due to the current fuel shortages, all public transport vehicles are much more crowded than usual, and all taxis are more expensive. If you’re planning to buy your own vehicle, you either have to be prepared to wait in long lines, or pay the “black market prices”, which can be between 2-5x the normal price. However, this is likely to fluctuate over time. This blog does not have any more information about owning/driving your own car – that’s too rich for my blood!
P.S. The Nepal Rupee is currently at about 0.092 of a US dollar. For convenience sake, it’s easy to think of 1 rupee as a penny – so 10 rupees is 10 cents, 100 rupees = $1, and 1,000 rupees = $10.
So. here’s a comprehensive guide to “How to get around in Kathmandu”, public transit edition.
When I first arrived they called this a TukTuk (popular in countries like India and Thailand), but the tempo is actually a different beast. Although the front cab looks very similar, the back cab and how it’s used are very different. A TukTuk is similar to a Bangladeshi CNG and is used as basically a small taxi, for one family or group of friends going to a single destination, and having to bargain for the price in advance usually. A Tempo, on the other hand, takes prescribed routes like a bus, and people hop on and off along the way, paying a standard fare. To facilitate this, the back is made up of two benches placed along the sides, and there’s an opening with no door that people can come in and out of. To get off, you simple rap your knuckles on the sheet metal roof, and the driver will stop at the next obvious place. Tempos are white with either blue or green stripes (not sure the difference).
People: The benches are designed to hold about 10 people (maybe 12 if they’re small and you squish) and 1-2 people in the front cab with the driver. At busy times of day, people will also stand (bent over, because the height is too low to actually stand) in the aisle. Sometimes, people also hang off the back, from 1-3 people. Be prepared for people to sit (half) on your lap!
Price: The cost is usually between 5 to 25 rupees (depending on your distance), and you can pay by either passing the money into the front cab to the driver, or by getting out at your stop and going around to the window of the front cab. Either way, they will provide the correct change (usually), but it’s easier if you use small bills and pay the exact fair.
Mini-buses are like a large-sized van (usually white). They also take certain routes, but they can differ from the routes taken by tempos or buses. There is a driver and a different guy who helps out by taking the money, opening/closing the door, and calls out the route to potential passengers along the way. You may think that having someone else open/close the door is unnecessary, but that’s not always true! One time the helper disappeared, and it took about 5 guys inside and outside the vehicle to figure out how to open the door (which had a string but no handle) – in the end, the driver had to climb out the window to get outside and open it.
People: The vehicles range in size, but there’s probably legit sitting room for about 12-16 people, and they can probably fit in about 30 people total by the time people are crouching on the edges of seats, standing up, or hanging out the door. It’s not super comfortable, especially if you’re tall.
Price: Usually around the same price as the tempo or bus. Cost is between 10-30 rupees.
This big green bus is run by the government and is supposed to run on a regular schedule (about every 10-15 minutes). There are even actual signs in certain locations that indicate a bus stop. It is quite easy to recognize. There is a driver and a helper. The helper takes the money, but his main job is to squish as many people as possible onto the bus. He will climb the outside of the bus and look into the windows. If you’re not close enough to your neighbour, he will yell and hit the bus until you’re totally squished. This bus is good for a reliable route, but is also the least comfortable option (because it’s always so full). It is also difficult to get on and off.
People: As many people as possible! There’s about 4-5 people sitting per row, perhaps 20 rows of seats. But the aisles are completely jam packed. If you’re lucky, you can reach the overhead storage area, or the bar going down the middle of the roof to hold on. However, there is often so many people that you don’t really need to hold on, their bodies will literally hold you up and keep you from falling (even with quick stops and sharp turns). This makes getting off very difficult – be prepared to have your personal space invaded! When you know you’re getting off, try to stay as close to the front or back door as possible, otherwise you have no chance! The first time I tried to get off I wasn’t able to reach the door until about 2 stops after my original proposed stop.
Price: Very inexpensive. Between 10-30 rupees. You can also get a discount if you show a student card. You generally pay after you exit the bus (and the guy will give you a receipt).
All buses other than the green Shaja bus are privately owned. However, they still follow certain routes. You can usually recognize them by their colour (some are white with certain patterns or gold), size, numbers (very easy to learn Nepali number from 1-10, which are different from English numbers, and have different symbols from Bangla numbers even though they’re pronounced the same), or the route name in the front window (a lot harder to learn Nepali script and recognize words). The bus I used to take home from work was the number 26 bus (looks like a stylized 2 and a backwards 3 in Nepali), which is white with blue and red patterns (usually). It comes pretty regularly and is smaller than the Shaja bus (it only had one door at the front). There’s still a driver and a helper, but it’s more likely you will get a seat, and there is less room to squish people in the aisles. These buses stop at all major intersections along the route.
People: It probably holds about 30 people sitting and another 15-20 people standing. Because of it’s size, there is usually 4 people sitting to every 2 people standing, which is a much better ratio than the Shaja. It’s quite difficult to get off if it’s full and you’re standing at the back (because there’s only 1 door). However, the stop I got off at is very popular (at least half of the bus gets off there), so I never had a problem.
Price: Same price as the Shaja bus, 10-30 rupees. You usually pay the helper as you’re exiting (he stands on the stairs), or just outside the bus after you get off. If the bus is really empty, he will come around to take payment throughout the journey.
Motorcycles and Scooters
This is the most common way for locals to get around. They don’t use as much gas, and you can easily weave in and out of traffic to get to your destination more quickly. The law says that the driver must wear a helmet, but there is no laws about the passenger wearing a helmet (so they usually don’t). You can buy or rent this type of vehicle for a decent price, it just depends on how much you want to spend vs. the likelihood of it breaking down (if it’s an older vehicle). Electric versions are also available, but you have to ensure that it is charged when the power is on (can be difficult with changing load shedding schedules), and that you are not going long distances (only good for in the city, not as much for travelling to other parts of the country).
People: Most vehicles are seen only carrying 1-2 people, but they can hold a whole family of 5 if you’re willing to get up-close and personal. Many people also hang grocery bags off the handles, or the passenger can even be seen carrying long metal poles for construction – pretty impressive! Most people wear either a scarf or mask over their mouths, and either a visor or sunglasses over their eyes – making their whole face pretty covered and unrecognizable. This is because of the the high amounts of pollution in the air in Kathmandu.
Price: You need to buy the bike (plus registration) and the helmet as start up costs. Regular costs include fuel, insurance, and maintenance.
Taxis are your only option after about 6-7 pm. For some reason, all of the public transportation stops quite early (even in the heart of the city). Therefore, if you’re planning to go out to dinner, drink, or even just the gym after work, this is probably what you have to take home (if you’re not planning to walk or bike). Taxis are very similar here to any other part of the world, except the condition they’re in is usually worse, and the size is usually a smaller car. For some reason they’re almost all white hatch-backs with roof racks. Don’t expect seat belts… It’s best if you know where you’re going, and if you don’t, have your phone out and GPS on to guide the way.
People: It seems perfectly safe to take a taxi here by yourself, I’ve never heard any problems (unlike other countries I’ve visited, where talk of robberies was quite common). However, it will make things rather expensive, because the price doesn’t change based on passengers. Therefore, the more people you have, the lower the cost of travel per person. The nice thing is, they don’t really care if you shove extra people in, so you can probably fit up to 6 or 7 people in there (if you’re not going a long distance – since it’s definitely not going to be comfortable)!
Price: This is the pricey-ist way to travel (especially if you’re an obvious foreigner). The price can be anywhere from 300-700 rupees (but they may start at prices up to 1,300 rupees, which you should never pay!). Be prepared for the price to go up once it gets dark, and double if you’re white. As a general rule, you ask for your destination, they tell you a price, then you start at half that price. You will normally pay the half-way point (so about 2/3 to 3/4 of their original offer). You are likely to get a better price if there are other taxis in the area, since they know you have options. A taxi once tried to charge us 1,200 rupees because it wasn’t a very populated area, at night, and there were no other cars around. This is double the price we ended up paying when we found another driver to ask.
Walking (and bicycles)!
Many people get around in Kathmandu by walking. It’s a great way to keep fit and warm up on a cold day. However, the sidewalks are majorly lacking, and the people here walk very slowly (and take up the whole sidewalk), so it’s not ideal when you’re in a rush. Also, there are many holes, brick piles, and other obstacles, so make sure to bring a flashlight (and a phone for GPS), so you can stay safe at night (not safe from other people so much as safe from falling down). Some streets and alleys may look like proper roads on GoogleMaps but are not really roads in real life (as seen above). Some people I know walk about 1.5 hours to work instead of taking public transit. Biking is also an option, if you’re not afraid of the traffic, and is quite popular.
People: As many as you’d like…
This blog is one in a series about transportation in various countries. To read similar blogs, check out the links below:
- Ghana – Trotro Etiquette: Your Guide to Getting Around Ghana!
- Nepal – How to get around in Kathmandu – Transport in Nepal
- Bangladesh – The madness that never ends! – Traffic in Dhaka
- Nepal – Walking Past Paradise: My Commute to Work in Nepal
- Bangladesh – Getting Around in Dhaka – Rickshaws, Buses, Cars, and CNGs
- Nepal – Weaving between motorcycles – The art of crossing the street in Kathmandu