If you ask travelers what is the biggest danger when going to developing countries, the answers are normally: getting poisoned from bad food or water, getting bitten by disease-carrying mosquitoes, getting mugged, robbed, etc. I think the biggest danger of it all is traffic accidents. We were involved in a traffic accident in Nepal. These are our memories and thoughts about the Bus Crash in Nepal.
Our Bus Crash in Nepal Story
Our “deluxe” sleeper bus left Kathmandu around 1:30pm. The destination was Bardiya National Park, around 350km away. It should take 14h but normally takes 16 or 17h, depending on the traffic and road conditions. The bus had no luxury at all, it was very old, no AC, sharp edges everywhere, uncomfortable. It had a separate cabin for driver that also fits 4-6 more people. The only new equipment was a large TV screen and speakers. We spent most of the trip watching Bollywood movies and Indian music videos. The TV volume was unbearable. At some point Ilze was making fun and saying that she would write about the “nightmare” bus. The nightmare was about to become reality.
We were happy they just switched the TV off and were trying to fall asleep when it all happened. This is what we remember:
Luis: I was half-asleep on a sideways position, then briefly saw an intense light and felt the crash. My head and arm hit the seat in front of me. All went black. My first thought was to check on Ilze. She was fine but unaware of what happened as she was sleeping. People started screaming and moving around, using their phones as torch, checking what happened, trying to find their belongings. Most people seemed ok, just small concussions and cuts. I noticed that my head was bleeding. I had a cut around my left eyebrow and some pain in my arm. After a few minutes people started leaving the bus. The main door was blocked so we had to go through the front cabin. It was destroyed, the crash was on the left side of the front cabin. We had to step over pieces of glass and blood. I wondered about all the young boys and driver that were in that cabin.
Outside many people gathered around, pointing torches and mobile phones. Lots of dust and strong lights, that’s what I remember. Police arrived and tried to find out who was injured, and control the rest of the traffic. An ambulance arrived shortly after that and took a first batch of people, the ones in worse condition. Many others with small injuries, like me and Ilze, stayed behind. A local that was passing by with his 9-seater van picked us and a few more people, and took us to the hospital. Fortunately the accident took place only 25km from Butwal, a district capital with a proper hospital, so in around 30min, at 1am, we were in the Emergency Room.
Ilze: I was trying to sleep, falling asleep and waking up again and again. I thought that the bus goes too fast, and I even prayed to God for safety. Next thing I remember is seeing a bright light and hearing glass breaking. When Luis asked me if I was ok, I just realised that something had happened. I heard short screams, then people started getting up, searching their belongings, opening windows. Luis told me he had hit his head and was bleeding. As people were pointing light here and there I could briefly see his wound. It was a very deep and open cut over his eyebrow. I got some napkins to try to stop the bleeding. I picked together our stuff and shaken out glass pieces from my sandals. Meanwhile people were getting out from the front cabin. There were no doors, but that part was so destroyed that it was now opened to the outside. I looked around, there were only four people left in the bus. I hesitated leaving it. I thought what to do with our big backpacks but they were somewhere in the back of the bus, so I just left them there. Meanwhile Luis came and told that I could better use driver’s side doors to get out. I was relieved as the other side was full of shattered glass and blood. I got out. The place was full of people from other vehicles that stopped to see the crash. The police was also there. Some people were lying on the ground. I went aside and saw people taking pictures of the crushed bus. For short moment I thought if I should do the same. But then I just could not.
The ambulance car arrived but it was already half full with injured people, so they were just putting in the car the ones in worst condition. Meanwhile a crew member got into the bus to check it. He passed our backpacks through the window and I was a bit more relieved.
At the same moment I saw a policeman seating Luis in a van’s front seat. Other injured people were also put inside. There was no place for me and the policeman took out one of injured ones so that I could go with Luis. I refused, said that he needs it more. But then me and Luis squeezed in the front seat. The driver was just a local man who was passing by. He told it was 22km to the closest hospital. It was 00.57am when we arrived to the hospital.
In the Hospital
No one came to us when we arrived to the hospital. The ones that could walk went inside to try to find a doctor. The ones that could not walk had to be carried by the others.
The emergency room looked ok from the outside but quite different inside. A long corridor with a few rooms on one side. No chairs, no waiting room, people would just wait standing, or lying on the floor if could not stand. One could see cockroaches, geckos and the place was full of mosquitoes. There were stains of blood and other fluids here and there, and smell of urine. Rooms had beds with 2 or even 3 persons on it. The room where the injured from the accident were looked after was around 30m2 but had around 10 injured in there. Around were doctors, nurses, nursery students, police officers, security guards, and locals. People in the corridor could see everything what was happening in the room. At some point a victim full of blood was carried on a stretcher, he was covered by a cardboard, I think from a fridge. All seemed a bit of a mess.
I was in shock but no pain or worries, so just waited for my turn. After some time I was checked by a young doctor, who looked at my cut and assessed if I could have some head trauma. The diagnosis was good and I just had to be stitched. In the meantime Ilze felt that her knee was getting swallowed so she was also checked by a doctor and went for X-Ray. After a bit more time I went in to get stitched. Got a couple of shots (Tetanus and something else I don’t remember) on a bloody mattress. A young nurse cleaned the wound, gave me a shot of anaesthesia and stitched the cut. A couple of girls from nursery school looked at the procedure and smiled, I guess not many foreigners show up in that place. At some point it seemed they wanted to take a photo of me, but that did not happen. They finished the work and all was good, I was ready to go. 5 stitches, my new travel memento from Nepal.
I did the administrative procedures and went outside. I waited for Ilze who was still on the queue for the X-Ray. She arrived a bit later and no severe injuries were detected.
I have to say that, despite the bad conditions of the ER, the doctors and nurses did a good job. All the syringes and equipment used were new and sterilised and everyone wore gloves and face masks.
All ended well for us, but could have been much worse. While they were stitching me there was a young man with strong convulsions lying on a mattress in the same room. He died shortly after. He was put outside in the corridor, they didn’t bother to cover him. He was the 6th victim of the accident, five other died on the spot.
Traffic situation in Nepal
Some roads in Nepal are arguably the worst in the world. They cross mountains and valleys prone to landslides, are full of dangerous curves and potholes, constantly under maintenance, badly signalised and so on. They seem to be much worse now, probably because of the earthquake last year.
Some other factors contribute to the high rate of traffic accidents in Nepal:
- The traffic in the main roads is very intense, full of slow buses and lorries. Contrary to other countries like India or China, there is no railway in Nepal. All goods and people are transported by road;
- Most vehicles are very old and in bad condition. Some of the buses and trucks look like they were recycled from other countries 30 years ago, and are still there on the road;
- There seems to be no traffic rules other than driving in the left lane (and not always). Drivers are ruthless, respect no one, try to overpass other cars in the dangerous places. The only rule is that the bigger vehicle has the priority. Adding to that, many drivers work long shifts of more than 12 or 15h without rest.
According to official statistics, around 2000 people die per year in traffic accidents in Nepal. Mostly due to high speed and lack of first aid. We can confirm this.
We never knew what exactly happened. Some people mentioned that the driver of our bus fell asleep, went to the wrong lane and crashed into other bus. This seems a valid explanation but we are not sure. Later we saw photos of the second bus, side-capped on a ditch. Most injured people were probably from the other bus.
When we left the hospital we wondered what to do. Many of the other people were making time to go to their homes. They had to take a similar bus and be on the road for 7 or more hours. We could not do it, our minds were not prepared for that. We sat on a bench outside the hospital for a couple of hours, not knowing what to do. Finally we took a taxi to the nearest place we could rest a few days.
The place is Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha, and that’s where we’re writing this text. We are resting and trying to make any sense of this. I think we are still in shock. We are not scared or afraid of travelling. Mostly we are angry. Angry at corrupt politicians that keep the money instead of improving road and hospital conditions. Angry at transport companies that don’t get better buses. Angry at dare-devil drivers that risk theirs and everyone’s lives. Angry at policemen that let them drive like that in exchange for a small bribe. People would say: “Yes, but you know, it is a poor country, you cannot expect the same as in Europe!” That’s is partially true, but the problem is more related to corruption and world economics. There are many people getting rich at the expense of poor countries like Nepal. The money exists, but the will to change? We don’t believe so…
We know that this accident will somehow change our travel mindset. Maybe it will change us as well. How? We still don’t know…