I left Pokhara, Nepal bound for Lumbini, Nepal – the site of Buddha’s birthplace. It’s a site that has attracted pilgrims from Asia and all over the world for millenia. How easy it is for me to visit by hopping on a bus and weaving through the mountains to get there in today’s world….
Or so I thought.
I bought a bus ticket from a travel agent to head from Pokhara, Nepal to Bhairahawa, Nepal. It’s a town right at the Indian border. From there I could catch a local bus for 45 minutes to get to Lumbini.
The bus left at 6:30am and I arrived at 6am. I was approached by a Nepali guy who operated a tea/food stand. He had coffee and cinnamon buns and I was powerless to refuse them. He asked where I was going and said not to worry – that the bus to Bhairahawa is the only one that leaves at 6:30am and it’s the third one over there (he pointed).
At 6:20am I walked over to the bus where other foreigners had gathered. I showed the bus assistant my ticket, told him I was going to Lumbini, and he put my suitcase on the roof. I sat down, excited to be heading to such a hallowed place.
The guy who took my ticket then came back on the bus and told the three of us we had to change buses.
Ok, so I got up and when I got out of the bus I didn’t see the other two people anymore. But I assumed we had to get on the bus directly in front of us. I later went over this moment, second-by-second for hours trying to see if this is where my error was made, but no, I remember looking up and seeing a guy on the old bus’s roof throwing our luggage to a guy on the new bus’s roof. Since I arrived at my destination with my bag, I must have gotten on the right bus.
But even so, even seeing the bags getting transferred, I confirmed on the new bus I was heading toward Lumbini. “Han, chello,” they said, or “yes, don’t worry.”
I wasn’t worried and I took some pictures of the morning sunrise in Pokhara.
So I settled in for the five hour journey. I read more of Seven Years In Tibet and enjoyed the beautiful views of the mountains along the way.
The bus wasn’t terribly comfortable. You can see below it was “full” of people, though the definition of full would soon be redefined.
Twice during the journey, a family got on the bus with a goat. Though I rode many chicken buses in Central America, no one ever got on with animals. I never got a good picture of the goat since they were at the front of the bus and I was in the back, but the goat is behind the lady’s legs at this rest stop.
We arrived at our destination, five hours after starting just as I expected. But something was off…
At the bus park in Pokhara, I noticed that most of the people heading to Lumbini were Asian. Again, many are pilgrims or interested in Buddhism. The Western tourists were all headed to the mountains for trekking. Getting off the bus, I realized everyone was either Nepali or Western.
The bus stopped in front of a hostel. I asked the guy working there how to get to Lumbini. He just stared at me for a solid 10 seconds. Actually, I only needed one second to realize I was in for some bad news by the way his face changed when I said “Lumbini.”
I have tried to figure that out myself, but somehow instead of heading south I headed north near the base camp for the Annapurna mountain range. I was almost in China, as the other side of these mountains is Tibet/China. I should have been a stone’s throw from India..
But as I’ve become more zen, this didn’t bother me too much and an adventure is always welcome. The guy didn’t know how to get me to Lumbini and suggested I ask the trekking police across the street.
The trekking police were extremely nice and helpful. Everyone apologized for my inconvenience. It was very nice of them, though not necessary. I later realized why all the local people apologized. Getting to Lumbini was a long and arduous journey!
The policeman told me I needed to catch a bus to Narayanghat, Nepal, and from there go to Butwal, Nepal, then Lumbini. He said it was only about an hour to Narayanghat. I have later realized that you get very conflicting answers to questions relating to distance and time in South Asia.
The Narayanghat-Butwal-Bhairahawa-Lumbini Adventure
The policeman put me on a bus after waiting for about five minutes. I was the only one on it, but the policeman explained what happened and told the driver to take me to Narayanghat.
A minute later, we stopped and an obscene amount of people got on the bus. I was in a seat and my suitcase was on the roof, but still. I never could have imagined that many people could fit on a bus.
I explained what happened to the guy next to me. I think I was sitting in his wife’s seat, but they kept speaking Nepali and I didn’t understand. She sat on a bench near the driver.
After an hour, she came over and they asked if she could sit in my seat since she had a ticket for it. Of course I obliged, but just getting up and out of the seat, and her getting into the seat, took a few minutes of pushing people around to make space.
I had my small backpack with me and was truly dreading holding on for dear life as we crisscrossed the Himalayas while wearing it.
At the start of the journey, a guy named Naba with very good English spoke to me and I explained what had happened. He also explained how to get to Lumbini, but told me it actually took five hours to get to Narayanghat.
So, I settled in for the long journey.
After three more hours, a big rush of people got off the bus in some town. I’d say 20 to 30 people got off the bus, yet as you can see below, it was still very crowded. I couldn’t take a picture when it was crazy crowded because I didn’t have enough space to get my camera out of my backpack.
With the crowd gone, Naba once again reappeared sitting at the back of the bus. He offered right away to let me sit down when he saw I had been standing. He was horrified that I had been standing for the past three hours. I told him it was ok.
Then it started. We had a nice conversation, but by chance he was a Jehovah’s Witness. He was never pushy, but he used the opportunity to tell me about them. To be honest, I knew nothing about them and he was so nice I was happy to listen to what he had to say.
When we arrived in Narayanghat Naba informed me that we both need to head to another bus station to continue our journeys, mine to Butwal, his to somewhere else. Luckily we found a shared rickshaw and we took that there.
When we arrived, I paid his 10 Nepalese Rupee fare ($0.11). You’d think I paid to put his child through school with the way he thanked me. The comfort of having a guardian angel helping me was of more value than he could possibly imagine.
My Guardian Angels
I found a policeman and he told me which bus was heading to Butwal. This time I had a seat for the entire three hour journey.
Naba was a guardian angel. He helped me get to my next bus and he even let me sit in his seat for the final hour of the bus journey. I was very grateful for that comfort.
On the bus to Butwal, I had another guardian angel. His name was Gopal and it turned out we had a lot in common. Well, not a lot, but he is currently working in The Gulf (Dubai) and I used to work there (Abu Dhabi and Qatar). He was home for a month and he was extremely nice.
When we arrived at Butwal, he told me I should catch a bus to Bhairahawa. It wasn’t clear to me until I arrived there, but this is the city where I was supposed to arrive in the first place. It just sounded like people kept saying “Bai-dawa” and I didn’t make the connection.
So, he put me on that bus and I continued the journey. This one was only about an hour, and luckily I caught the last bus of the night going there. By now it was already about 9pm.
I sat next to Nir, a mobile phone repairman on the bus. He asked me where I was going, realizing I was a foreigner on a local bus, which doesn’t normally happen, and I explained what happened. He was getting off at the first stop, but he told me not to worry. He’d tell the bus driver I was trying to get to Lumbini and to drop me off where I can get either a bus or taxi there.
I ended up being the last passenger on the bus, which scared me a bit. But they dropped me in a big intersection and told me to expect to have to pay 1000 Nepalese Rupees to get to Lumbini, or $11.50. It’s a huge fare, but I just wanted to get there, have a good night’s sleep in the place I had already reserved, and explore Buddha’s birthplace the following day.
The driver stopped and helped me get a taxi right away, explaining I wanted to go to a particular hostel in Lumbini. I thought the 1000 Rupees was a bit extreme, but after such a long day I didn’t argue. It was a solid 40 minutes driving at fast speeds in the taxi, so I think it was fair. During the day they charge about 600 Rupees to get there, and usually people wait to fill up a taxi before going to split the cost four ways. I couldn’t do that given how late it was.
The taxi driver was incredibly nice, spoke great English, and made me laugh many times after such a long day. It turns out he is friends with the owner of the hostel I stayed at.
I arrived at 11pm – 16.5 hours after I departed and 11.5 hours after I should have arrived had I got on the right bus.
It’s still a mystery how I ended up on the wrong bus with so many people telling me I was on the right one, but it doesn’t really matter anymore.
As I sat and stood uncomfortably throughout this journey, seeing the Nepalese countryside go by out my window, it wasn’t lost on me how lucky I was to be able to go to a site considered by many to be so extremely holy.
It also wasn’t lost on me how lucky I was to get there in such relative comfort, despite the journey described above. Pilgrims have visited this site for 2500 years, and only recently has it become remotely comfortable to do so. Before then, a horse was the most comfortable way of transport, but more than likely pilgrims came by foot.
So it was a very humbling experience, fighting against my modern sense of “this is taking forever.. how could this happen..” and embracing how lucky I am to be doing this and in such relative ease and comfort. I never got upset, never got nervous about heading so deep into the unknown, never looked for opportunities to sulk.
Instead, I embraced what life threw at me and, not unsurprisingly, by not focusing my attention on sulking I noticed three guardian angels who helped me along my “pilgrimage” to Lumbini. Attitude is everything.