I WAS IN POKHARA after a long trek in the Annapurna Range when I noticed a flier from a local business offering motorcycle lessons. I’d never been on a motorcycle in my life, but I’d always wanted to try it.
I signed up with Hearts & Tears Motorcycle Club and took two riding courses — beginner and advanced — then spent about a week riding in the mountains around Pokhara. I cannot recommend it enough — experiencing the country on a motorcycle was one of the biggest highlights of my trip.
However, riding in Nepal is probably very different than riding in your home country. Here’s what you need to know.
Before you start
First, you’ll need a valid driver’s license. It doesn’t have to be an international license, or a motorcycle license; your regular one will do. Police checkpoints are somewhat common, and you’ll be fined if you don’t have one. Also, there will be big trouble if you’re involved in an accident without a license.
You should also consider safety gear. High-quality gear, especially a safe helmet, is extremely difficult to find in Nepal, so if you plan to spend a lot of time riding, you may want to bring it from home. The company I took classes with provided a safe, well-fitting helmet and riding jacket, but I can’t say the same for the other outfits I rented bikes from.
Motorcycles in Nepal
In my opinion, there are two kinds of bikes in Nepal: the Royal Enfield, and everything else.
What kind you choose depends on what you want to do. If you’re just learning to ride, or if you only plan to ride around the town you’re visiting and venture out to a few surrounding villages, a small (100 to 180cc) Japanese bike will do. These are by far the most common — they’re reliable, gas efficient, and relatively inexpensive to rent or buy.
If, on the other hand, you plan to do extended trips, motorcycle touring, or just want a real “Easy Rider” experience, the Royal Enfield is the way to go.
The Royal Enfield Bullet…these classic bikes are still built on a 1950s British design. In fact, Royal Enfield was originally a British company, but now all Enfields are manufactured by Royal Enfield of India. These workhorses come with either a 350 or 500cc engine, and riding one makes you feel like you stepped into a time machine.
Of course, they’re not the most reliable bikes in the world, and you’ll almost surely have something go wrong if you plan to spend a considerable amount of time on one. But just about every mechanic in Nepal (and India) can work on them, and parts and labor are ridiculously cheap.
Obtaining a bike (3 options)
1. You can bring a motorcycle from outside the country. I met quite a few people who brought one from India. It’s common to purchase a bike in India, then ride it up to Nepal, where it can be resold to someone wanting to make the return journey.
If you plan to do this, note that the largest engine allowed in Nepal is 650cc, the bike can only be in the country for up to three months, and you’ll need to pay a “road tax” fee upon entry — roughly US$75 per month for the time the bike will be in Nepal, paid upfront.
2. You can purchase a bike in Nepal. A motorcycle bought in Nepal is much more expensive than one bought in India due to the high import tax, but the big plus is that it can be legally registered in your name, meaning you can take it home if you want.
Check here for more information on buying bikes.
3. But the easiest way is to simply rent one. Rental shops are common in tourist areas, such as Lakeside in Pokhara, but ask around for a reliable, trustworthy shop. Although my experience was been mostly positive, I heard stories from others who got charged a hefty fee for damage they didn’t cause.
Be sure to inspect the bike thoroughly with the person you’re renting from before agreeing to anything. I’d suggest bringing a camera along and taking pictures of the bike and any preexisting damage while the renter is standing there with you. Also note that you’ll need to leave your passport as deposit for the bike.
The cost varies greatly depending on the type of bike, and whether you rent or buy. When I was last in Pokhara — November, 2010 — renting a great condition Royal Enfield (damage insurance included) was in the neighborhood of US$60 per day.
If you plan to take an organized motorcycle tour, the price will be much higher. On the flip side, a “working” Honda or Yamaha was going for about 500 Nepalese rupees — about US$7 per day, after haggling. I’m not a good haggler, so you might get a better deal.
What to expect on the road
The best way to describe Nepalese traffic is “total chaos.”
The first portion of my training course took place in an open field, away from the hectic streets of Pokhara, but by the middle of the day it was time to get on the road and practice the skills I’d learned in some real traffic. I was nervous, even with the instructor’s reassurance.
As we neared the main street, the blazing car horns got louder and louder. When it was time to enter traffic, I had to focus on not stalling the bike, trying not to hit any of the people walking into the road, the numerous cows meandering about, chickens and dogs bolting from side alleys, and attempting to keep up with the steady flow of zigzagging taxis and delivery trucks.
Stop signs and traffic lights are nonexistent, and you quickly learn that the larger vehicle always has the right of way.
Some things you may encounter on the roads in Nepal (occasionally all at once):
- People blindly stepping into traffic, along with cows, buffalo, donkeys, dogs, chickens, and monkeys
- Trucks, buses, cars, tractors, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, people pushing food carts
- Huge potholes, bricks, dirt, gravel, sand, mud, rocks, fallen tree branches, miscellaneous auto parts, and plenty of cow shit
On my first day riding alone, I went for an early morning cruise. High in the hills, I came around a tight hairpin turn and noticed rocks and debris in the road, and I slowed to avoid it. At that moment, I came far enough around the turn that the morning sun was directly in my eyes, and I could hardly see a thing.
Suddenly, I hit something, the handle bars jerked left, the bike was down, and I was doing a backwards somersault across the pavement. I stopped with a thunk as the back of my helmet made contact with the asphalt.
More surprised and confused than anything, I got to my feet to see what I hit — a thick steel cable spanning the road about a foot and a half off the ground. The previous day a truck had plummeted over the cliff, and the cable was being used to raise it from the gorge below. Luckily, I had been going slow enough that I wasn’t hurt, and the bike suffered only minor damage.
Despite this experience, I’d say motorcycling in Nepal is well worth it. While riding in the hills I often had views of the entire Annapurna range, and other times I was riding through thick jungle, where I could pull over and watch monkeys playing in the trees.
I also had plenty of occasions to stop in villages along the way to fill up on tea and fresh dal bhat and talk to the locals — always excited to see a foreigner, especially one who pulls up on a Royal Enfield.
Tips for safe riding
- Wear a helmet — it’s the law in Nepal, and you’ll most likely be caught and fined if you don’t. It’s probably the most important thing you can do. If I hadn’t been wearing a helmet in my crash, I might not be here today.
- Slow down! With all the obstacles on the road, both moving and non-moving, you need to take it slow.
- Don’t ride at night — those black cows and buffalo can sneak up on you.
- Take a lesson. Even if you’ve been riding for a while, taking a lesson with someone familiar with the intricacies of riding in Nepal is highly valuable. For more information about what Hearts & Tears Motorcycle Club offers, check out their riding lessons page.