I’ve been in Kathmandu for 5 months now and for the most part really enjoy life here. It did take me a while to get used to the traffic though. It’s loud, chaotic and for the most part looks like there is no structure too it. I’ve heard stories of western volunteers who got so scared of crossing the street that they were unable to function normally and had to go back home. It really is not that bad! To the untrained eye it might seem like some of the drivers here in Kathmandu had never seen a car until they got behind the wheel earlier that day, but the truth is that there is an unwritten set of rules that help guide the traffic into the wild, chaotic, obnoxiously loud, mess that it is. I’ve written them down here so now you can also learn to drive like a Nepali.
Please note that there is a different set of rules for truck drivers on the road from Kathmandu to Pokhara. Their road rules mainly involve finding creative new ways to flip their truck upside down on bottleneck bridges and taking it off sweet jumps into the gorge.
Nepali road rules for motorised vehicles:
Getting into your car:
Open the door to your car, get behind the steering wheel, close the door.
Start the engine. Horn once (to check if it is working). Please ignore seatbelt and mirrors, you will not be using them. Say a little prayer to the shrine on your dashboard. The safety of your journey is entirely in the hands of your deity, you have no influence over it what-so-ever.
Okay, so you are in your car, the engine is running and the horn is working. If you are parked on the road (and you should be), wait until a vehicle is passing you and start driving. He will horn at you. Horn back. The vehicle that is now driving next to you is forced to drive on the wrong side of the road. Do not worry, your vehicle is faster (even from standstill) and he will eventually have to back off.
If you are parked on a driveway (why would you do this? The car needs to be on the road anyway, so why take it somewhere else?) roll your car onto the street until the hood is blocking traffic completely. The other traffic will let you know when you reach this point by horning at you. When this happens, look right, left, right again, horn and start driving.
Okay you are on the road now! Here is where the rules get a little bit more tricky, but just remember, when in doubt: HORN.
If you see another vehicle (both parked or moving): Horn once
If you see a person anywhere: Horn once
Animal on or near the road: Horn once
Pothole in the road: Horn once
Clear road ahead, no vehicles: Horn once
Turn left or right: Horn once (Signal light is broken. Always. Even when it is not)
Brake: Horn once (Signal light might be working. Maybe)
Overtake someone: Horn three times. Once when you start overtaking, once when you are next to him and once when you passed him.
Overtake someone overtaking someone: Horn once
Overtake someone overtaking someone overtaking someone: You should effectively be as far on the wrong side of the road as possible. No horn is needed until someone is coming from the other direction. At that point hold down your horn until they break. (this manoeuvre is known as Nepali Chicken)
Something funny on the radio: Horn once
In conversation with someone in the car and unable to watch the traffic at the same time: horn at regular intervals until conversation is over.
Bored: Horn once
Getting stopped by traffic-cop: Horn angrily at him. Notice that they are a cop. Horn apologetically once. Avoid eye-contact.
See tourist or bideshi: Horn once
See female tourist or bideshi: Horn at regular intervals as long as they are within eyesight.
See blonde female tourist or bideshi: Lucky day! Horn at regular intervals as long as they are within eyesight, but slow down to maximise the amount of horns you get in. Brag about it to friends later that day.
See person on un motorised vehicle: Has to be a poor person since they can’t afford motorised transport. Horn angrily at him taking up your precious road space. He doesn’t need to be anywhere anyway, probably! Get overtaken by road rage. Hold down your horn and drive past him as close as you can to scare him off. That should teach him!
See your exit on the right hand side, but there is a vehicle in front of you: Quickly overtake the vehicle in front of you, especially if they are driving faster than you are. You will need to cut off the vehicle in front of you to make your exit. Horn when you do so. This sudden increase in speed followed by a quick break to make the turn will use more fuel than simply continuing on behind the other vehicle would have, but it will get you home 0.0001 seconds quicker (maybe). If the manoeuvre is successful the other vehicle will horn. The manoeuvre is obligatory for male motorcyclists with a female passenger.
Remember! The road is a social place. It’s where you meet your friends, make your phonecalls and check on relatives. As such there are a lot of social rules for the road as well.
See someone on the street you know vaguely: Slam the breaks, horn at them, roll down window and strike up conversation. Ignore any and all horns from the vehicles behind you.
See someone on the street you know well: Slam the breaks, horn at them, get out of your car and strike up conversation next to your car. Ignore any and all horns from the vehicles behind you.
See a friend’s car coming toward you or driving in front of you: horn until you are sure they have noticed you too. Stop your car next to his, you should effectively be blocking both sides of the road now. Strike up conversation and ignore all horns. Within a few minutes there should be vehicles behind and in front both of you, so you can’t go anywhere anyway. Conversation can last as long as you like. Popular topics are the bad traffic, the government knocking houses down for road widening and traffic jams.
Vehicle in front of you has stopped to talk to someone: Hold down your horn until they start moving again. Pray to whatever deity you worship to curse this person and wonder how on earth anybody could be so stupid.
Vehicle in front of you has stopped to talk to someone you also know: Horn. Get out of car and join conversation.
Get phone call: Slam breaks. Pick up phone. Hold conversation. Ignore horns.
Get phone call on motorcycle: On a motorcycle the phone call rules are a little different. Getting at least 3 phone calls while traveling on your motorcycle is obligatory, no matter how short the trip. If you get near your destination before the obligatory 3 phone calls have happened, stop and make the phone calls yourself. The reasoning behind this is that none of your friends and relatives should forget that you own a motorcycle. All phone calls made from your motorcycle start with ‘I’m on my motorcycle’ followed by a 5 to 10 minute account of the exact location where you are standing. This makes sure the person on the other side of the line can hear the cars honking at you, thus proving you are actually on your motorcycle.
I’ve also heard people say that there are no traffic signs in Kathmandu. This is not true. There is one. It tells you not to horn.