Stuck in Lukla? We’ve been there!
It’s sometimes cheaper to take less popular flights out – try flying from Lukla to Phaplu, and taking a jeep from Phaplu to Kathmandu!
When Phil and I did the three passes trek in Nepal, we got unlucky with the weather. The weather was so bad that there were no flights in nor out of Lukla for a whole week! Unfortunately, this isn’t uncommon. When flights are this backed up, people resort to taking helicopters back to Kathmandu.
Except those can be expensive. What normally goes for $250 USD per person goes for up to $500 USD or more when flights are backlogged. There are just a few people in Lukla who have the power to collect money for helicopter rides, which means that they jack up the prices to whatever they please, despite the “Kathmandu price.” They’re nicknamed the Lukla Mafia.
When the Lukla Mafia charges this much, it may seem like you’re stuck. That’s how we felt! We didn’t want to spend a combined $1000 USD on a 30-minute flight for the two of us.
When we were stuck in Lukla, I was looking online for any way out! This option isn’t usually taken, but it was a way out and could be the best option if you’re in a pinch!
Here’s what we did (and what you can do too!) :
Get a helicopter to Phaplu. Unfortunately, the only way to figure out if helicopters are going to Phaplu is to ask around. I’d go to the airline desks and ask if they know anything. Flights should be around $200 USD. This actually isn’t too bad if your flight is cancelled due to weather because you get a full refund, and the flight ticket is about $160 USD anyway. Even if you have to cancel your ticket (if your flight is booked for a later date), you only pay a 10% fee.
You’ll more often than not come across a lot of confusion with the helicopters. There will be lots of waiting around and hoping enough people show up to fly. Again, I highly recommend going to the airline desks and asking them for any information, contacts, and phone numbers.
If you get a helicopter, you’ll most likely need to pay cash. The bank is closed on Saturdays and doesn’t open until Sunday at 10am. There are no ATMs.
We needed the cash before Sunday at 7am, so we had to go to a shop, charge a credit card, and get the cash from the shop owner. There will be at least a 5% fee. We were charged 8% (the guy had to make some money), but someone else walked in and he wanted 10%. It depends on who you talk to and how nice you are. All luck really.
The helicopter ride is pretty short, only around 40 minutes. Before you get on, you’ll probably have to help unload goods from the helicopter. We had to take out loads of juice and beer. That’s the easy part though! I can’t imagine the porters who have to carry it all up the mountain.
We actually got put on a flight with a big education official (I think) and his bodyguard. It was cool being around a local celebrity, except we had no idea who he was! Once we arrived, there was a little crowd waiting for him.
Once you get the actual helicopter to Phaplu, you have to organise a jeep to Kathmandu. Lukla has the Lukla Mafia; Phaplu has their own version.
There are a few jeep stands in town, outside the airport. You can go to one or two, but they’ll probably end up being very similarly priced.
It’s standard to cost about 13000 r when it isn’t busy, but they’ll charge up to 25000 r if it’s a little busier.
They’ll say you can get a jeep for 1500 r per person, and then it won’t ever show up and the “only other jeep” will want 20,000.
When you say you’ll take the bus, they’ll say it’s full. If you’ve travelled in South Asia, you know buses don’t get full.
We wandered around looking to buy a bus ticket from someone else, but the lady that was going to sell it to us knew the jeep guy (that said the bus was full) and suddenly, the bus was full.
As frustrating as it is, if they want 20,000 rupees, you’re going to pay 20,000 rupees. Try to split it amongst other travellers. We went running all over Phaplu looking for other people to split it with (which sounds more impressive than it is, Phaplu’s town is pretty much a street).
The actual jeep ride is long and bumpy, but I also found it uneventful compared to the helicopter waiting, flight, and jeep negotiating. All you have to do is sit! The roads are quite winding for the first hour or two, and then it gets better. If you get carsick, I’d pop a motion sickness tablet beforehand.
You’ll stop loads for police checks, and a couple more times for food and drink stops. We stopped for dinner and got mutton with rice. The rice turned out to be dried and flattened, like dry, raw, oats. It was kinda weird and kinda interesting. I’d never had anything like it before! Stock up on candy bars (personal favourite is Fuse) and masala munch, too! You’ll be hungry.
We left at 11am from Phaplu and arrived in Kathmandu slightly past midnight. It’s only 13 hours, but it’ll feel like you were travelling for days! The jeep is hard on your body.
But hey, we made it to Kathmandu.