How to survive arriving into Kathmandu, Nepal for the first time
Back by popular demand …
It seems returning to country is more popular than I thought. I received an email from a Nepalese person asking if I could tell them what it was really like to step right off the plane and into Nepal.
I also received a similar request to write-up my thoughts for a national newspaper over here to wrap up Nepal’s previous year of tourism. It seems like it’s a popular topic for people to garner a foreigners first thoughts of arriving into their country.
I’m under pressure for time; so I scribbled all this down in one quick sitting. Raw and unedited. Take it for what it’s worth as someone who’s been here before!
A tourist’s perspective on arriving into Nepal
Having won my heart four years ago for its beauty, people, food, and culture I couldn’t help but want to come back to Nepal. As it was the tail end of 2011, Nepal’s shining glory year of tourism; I thought of no better time to return.
Last year the vague rumors of Nepal offering free tourist visas put a smile on my face, and the first notions of making a return. They are really trying, I thought to myself. Then, to learn this was only applicable to those summiting Everest, I handed over my crisp one hundred-dollar for a three-month visa with less of a smile.
“First time here?” grunted the immigration officer not even looking up at me.
I sighed, not even a traditional namaste greeting. “I wrote on my visa application that this was not my first time here.”
He looked up, confused. Then, finally shuffling through the papers actually read what I was instructed to painstakingly fill out. All this before I was then bounced between counters alongside the other tourists queuing up. Each of us equally confused at this initial procedure of different immigration forms to fill out for different counters and payment desks at Nepal’s Tribhuvan international airport.
It was then on to the rugby scrum that is baggage collection. Little men in tattered coats descended first, asking if I wanted a trolley. I remembered the hefty charge once you get outside. “No charge for trolley” signs are irrelevant compared to the “I pushed your bags fee”.
No, I ignored them and then joined the every man for himself shoulder charge of trying to retrieve ones bags. Twenty minutes later my bag did at least arrive. No thanks to the multitude of men encircling every bag that comes out onto the conveyor belt. Every man defiantly lifting each one up to see if it’s theirs.
Very disconcerting considering they swarm around the small door blocking any view of your own luggage should it emerge unscathed. You simply have no idea if someone has taken your bag either my mistake, or otherwise. Such a thing happened just before mine arrived. A mild scuffle ensued, along with re-examining of baggage numbers and much shouting. At least it made for some unsettling entertainment for newcomers to Nepal.
Sadly, the security men on duty saw no need to interject in all this. Some pale-faced tourists moved closer together in a defensive posture, surely wondering what they had let themselves in for.
Never mind, as you wheel or more likely drag your bags across to the sometimes working security scanner a 007 like security man will stride out from behind a building column and ask to see your bag tags and tickets.
Gimme some money!
Now it was time for that FOREX counter. I waited five minutes for a man to appear. My ten dollars was stared at as if an insult.
“Is this all?”
“Yes, I’m just taking a taxi.”
He raised his eyes to heaven, waggled his head and gave the typical bad exchange rate.
Money in hand it was on to the ravenous vultures of taxi men waiting to descend upon me outside. Distantly in the back of my head I wondered if anyone had yet created a tourist airport bus to Thamel yet. A nice gesture considering the year that it is. I’ve heard there is a local micro van outside the main gates, fuel strikes pending.
Get a taxi
Looking around I saw nothing but a mass of name cards, and a scraggly bunch of taxi men getting read to pounce on the new arrivals. Calls of “Just one thousand rupees” met my ears as one by one new tourists were plucked off along the pathway.
Of course this could all be mildly settled if I just roamed around to try to locate the “official” taxi ticket booth for a 400 – random guess charge. Strangely I’ve only ever seen this booth at the national flight section …
“Only five hundred rupees sir.” A straggler held on and followed me.
“Two hundred fifty,” I quipped back.
He laughs, in that way they do, “No sir, no fuel in Kathmandu this week …”
“There’s never any fuel in Kathmandu in any week,” I reply. “Three hundred last.”
He looked back at the dwindling crowds, then back at me before taking his chances and running back to the remaining tourists facing this onslaught.
I look around. Night was descending. There were a few taxi men standing to the side, but none were interested in my three hundred rupees. Had I over shot my mark?
I walked down towards the main exit road dreading the thought of a matchbox Nepalese micro van fiasco when finally a taxi stopped. A typical barrage of bartering followed, and I got in for two hundred and fifty, plus the promise of another fifty later if we arrived at the right destination.
Welcome to Nepal
Twenty minutes later and I am back at my old guesthouse. No electricity, load shedding was reaching its winter peak, just how I had left it the last time.
Welcome back to Nepal, so far it seems not much has changed in its year of tourism. Good thing it’s now 2012 and we can move on. Writing this in my candle lit room I ask myself, “was once, actually, really, more than enough!”
“The adventure awaits” is more like it.
Never mind the arrival, I’m not a first time visitor. I know tomorrow I will head out and avoid Kathmandu’s Thamel district to meet some real Nepalese people. People eager for me to tell them of how things have progressed outside of this tiny little landlocked country over the past few years.
We will share tea more than once. They will wonder why I came back. And I will wonder why I didn’t come back sooner.
Quick tips on how to survive arriving at Tribhuvan airport
Getting through Kathmandu Airports immigration queues
- Fill out your arrival papers on the plane once they are handed out
- Upon departure from your plane push and shove like everyone else to get ahead first
- Arriving into the immigration lounge take note of the queues (Nepalese passport holders / foreign passports), grab the next lot of forms from the counters on the left and fill them while queuing
- There are usually two counters (both unmarked) jump into the queue for the one to get your paperwork stamped and get a bill for your visa
- Once you have your bill, turn around to the counter behind you and look confused at the mass of tourists standing there. Shuffle your way into the queue (don’t go to the back!)
- You are now in the payment and passport stamp queue. Make sure you have your paperwork and passport held up otherwise you might get mistaken for the mass of people queuing to get the visa bill. Hand over your paperwork, money and passport
- Get stamped in, leave to your left
Get your luggage back at the airport
- You should have small bar code and number stuck onto your ticket or passport that should match your luggage – don’t lose it!
- If in a group one person should remain back with all hand luggage while everyone else forms a protective circle and gets as close to the luggage conveyor belt exit window as possible
- If alone, make sure all your stuff is zipped up and barge in head first to get a clear view of the where your bags should appear
- Avoid all trolleys or offers to carry luggage from everyone
- Do not be afraid to push back at the heaving mass of men, women and old people elbowing you anywhere they can while waiting for the luggage to appear. Give an inch and you’ll be jostled to the back in an instant!
- Be prepared for some close bodily contact with high odor people of all types
- When the conveyor belt starts to move, stand your ground!
- If you see your bag appearing don’t move, it will/should get to you. Don’t panic when you see at least five people pick it up to see if it’s theirs. Even if you are the only person in the world with a bag covered in pink polka dots
- Grab your bag and allow the crowd to slowly push you to the back
- Move out to the main clearing and be prepared for a security man to jump out. He wants to compare that ticket number which should match your bag ticket number
- If there’s electricity have your bag x-rayed on the way out
Changing money at Kathmandu Airport
- There’s a small forex near the exit doors: wait for a little man to appear
- Ask him the rates. He will ask you how much you want to change. Try to change as little as possible as he’ll give you the worst rate in the country
- Leave and try and not feel defeated by his smirk
Getting from the airport to Thamel or Kathmandu city
- The 2012/13 rate from the airport to Thamel is 300 rupees. 250 if you are really, really good. 400 is if you just don’t want to
- bargain much. 500 will get you less hassle. If you intend to pay anything over this then please just send it to me
- Ignore the mass of taxi men running up to you, walk out the doors and turn right, do not say hello or namaste, just walk
- When the crowds thin out blurt “250 rupees Thamel” to one of them. Keep walking. Repeat until there is only one man left
- Nod your head at the repeated mentions of the cost of fuel. Say you know there is a fuel shortage from when you were here last week. Make sure he understands this. Begin the bargaining process with the repeated walking away tactic
- Eventually the taxi man will agree on a price then disappear. He’s actually gone off to find another taxi man to see if they can squash you in with some other people or a “Friend”. You should never accept a taxi ride with a “Friend” even if they are just going to the exit gate.
- Make sure, and triple confirm the taxi man knows the exact address of your hotel, and agrees on the price. Get his name. Repeat the price. Get in the taxi and enjoy the ride your nearly there
- Real fuel shortages do occur regularly, the price usually goes up 100-1000 rupees depending on its duration.
- There is a bus (micro van) going from the airport gate to the city. It’s a pain but will only cost you 10 rupees. Plus at least two long walks.