Mountainous terrain, lack of government investment, and a harsh monsoon season mean that Nepal's roads are not in tip-top shape. Road travel in Nepal is slow and often hazardous, and should be avoided wherever possible. However, sometimes it is necessary to travel by road, whether that's to get across Kathmandu or to travel to a trailhead before a week-long hike. Here's everything you need to know about driving in Nepal and getting around by road.
To legally drive a car in Nepal, you need to have a Nepali driver's license. An international license or one from another country isn't enough and additionally, there aren't any independent car rental companies. This means in short, foreign travelers can't drive in Nepal. However, considering that road conditions are poor, traffic is heavy, many travelers come to Nepal to hike, and that hiring a car with a local driver is affordable, many travelers do not want to drive. The only foreigners who drive cars in Nepal are longer-term residents.
The exception to the above is riding a motorcycle. These are available for foreigners to rent, particularly in Kathmandu and Pokhara. Classic Indian-made Royal Enfields are a favorite as they can withstand the conditions. You'll need an international motorcycle license or one from your home country. A simple car license is not enough. Some tour companies in Nepal focus specifically on motorcycle tours (such as Clean Drink Adventures and Hearts & Tears Motorcycle Club Pokhara), so joining one of them can be a fun way to experience the Nepali roads under a bit of guidance.
Rules of the Road
The apparent chaos of the roads in Nepal might lead you to think that there aren't many road rules, but that's not strictly true. Many drivers just choose to ignore them much of the time. And because practically everyone is ignoring the rules, alternative de facto "rules" have arisen. This can be confusing for foreign tourists who are used to a particular way of driving at home.
Whether you're renting a motorcycle and driving yourself or you hired car and driver and are watching the happenings on the road from the passenger seat, here are some road rules customs you need to be aware of:
- Driving is on the left in Nepal.
- Left turns are allowed without stopping.
- Vehicles already on a roundabout must give way to vehicles entering the roundabout.
- Use of the horn, except in emergency situations, is prohibited in Kathmandu. (This doesn't mean that drivers don't still excessively use the horn, but that they can and will be fined for doing so).
- Give way to vehicles larger than you, always. So, trucks and buses give way to no-one; cars give way to trucks and buses; motorbikes give way to cars; bicycles and pedestrians should give way to everything.
- Traffic lights are rarely in working order, even in the few places where they exist. Follow the hand signals of traffic police who direct the traffic.
- Driving under the influence of alcohol is prohibited, but Nepali police lack breathalyzers so the most common way for them to check for alcohol consumption is to sniff the breath of the driver.
- Traveling on the roof of a bus (or other vehicle) is prohibited. You won't see it done in the cities, but it's a different story on rural roads. If you do find yourself traveling on the roof if the inside is over-crowded, you may be asked to get down and walk for a while if your vehicle is coming up to a known police checkpoint.
- Passengers and drivers are supposed to wear seatbelts. They're not always fitted in the back seat of taxis, but if you're renting a car and driver you should ensure your vehicle has working seat belts.
In case of an emergency: Whether you're a driver or a passenger, emergencies and accidents can and do happen in Nepal. Make sure you have good travel insurance that will airlift you to the nearest city (or even international destination) if you're in a serious accident. It's also a good idea to have your embassy's contact details on hand when you're traveling in Nepal.
Road Conditions in Nepal
The road conditions in Nepal are not good, neither in the cities nor in more remote areas. Every year, the monsoon wreaks havoc on Nepal's roads, leading to flooding and land slides, on top of the potholes that are a year-round problem. Lack of government investment means that repairs aren't made as promptly as they need to be. The roads in the cities and the main highways between towns are tar sealed, but many more remote roads are just dusty (or muddy) tracks, and are only suitable for four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Road Safety in Nepal
Another unfortunate reality of life and travel in Nepal is that road safety is not good. To minimize your risk of being involved in a road accident, minimize your time on the roads. That's not always possible, but renting a good car with an experienced driver, or taking a "tourist bus" rather than an overcrowded local bus, are reliable ways of cutting the risk.
Taking a Bus Instead of Driving
When traveling between main points of interest like Kathmandu and Pokhara or Kathmandu/Pokhara and Chitwan, a bus is a perfect option instead of trying to navigate Nepal's roads on your own or hiring a car. You can opt for a tourist bus rather than a local bus. Despite the name, they're not reserved for only international tourists, and many Nepalis use them. They're more expensive than local buses, but still highly affordable for most travelers, and infinitely safer. On a tourist bus, you'll be assigned a seat (so won't have to stand or sit in the aisle, or even on the roof!), you'll follow a schedule so will arrive roughly on time (traffic dependent!), and the drivers are much more likely to follow basic safety protocols. The Greenline buses on the Kathmandu to Pokhara route are the most luxurious, as they are air-conditioned, have comfier seats, and stop at higher-quality rest stops en route.
Tourist buses don't travel on more remote routes, such as to trailheads in the Himalayas. To get to the start of your trek or to a mountain town or village, you'll need to arrange a private transfer with a car and driver. You can do this through tour companies in the cities or hotels. Note that many regular taxis (the small, usually white cars you'll see in Kathmandu and Pokhara) aren't permitted to take passengers outside of certain city limits, or are only allowed to do so if they buy a special permit. You'll probably be asked to pay for the permit if traveling by taxi in this way.