Back by popular demand … (Updated for 2017)
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 ten 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 (I’ve since been back many times and in 2017 nothing much changed in regards to arriving at the airport!), 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 and in 2016 to China only, 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 when approaching Nepal airport. 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. (in 2017 they are “insisting” that USD $50 is the minimum you can exchange at the airport)
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 – do note that in 2016 load shedding (power cuts) were curtailed, however it is rumored to returned at the end of 2017 – so do bring an additional supply of batteries for your devices.
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 (updated 2016)
International arrivals and departures from Tribhuvan airport can often be more convoluted than necessary. While many passengers don’t experience this much annoyance or frustration it can still happen. It’s best to be prepared in either case.
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 (Nepali passport holders / foreign passports), walk over to the ATM like electronic passport scanners kiosks to the left
- Place your machine readable passport ID page over the scanner on the lower left. Make sure the barcode bit of it is directly over the black part of the scanner. Let it scan … wait a bit … try again. If successful you need to confirm by pressing on the touch screen. You’ll be prompted to enter in your hotel details and length of stay. There’s a very annoying Nepali “Ward” and “District” codes to be filled out. I pressed “0000” for them all and it accepted it
- The machine will then try to take a photo of you. Yes, you’ll probably have to duck and step around a bit. Keep pressing the unresponsive “take photo” button until it finally obeys and your photo is taken. Confirm all your details and collect the bit of paper it spits out
- If it’s a full flight and these passport scanners have long queues (in 2017 many were broken and the staff did not know how to operate them) then it might be worth it to skip them and just queue at the regular counter.
- Walk up to the next counter which is at the end of the arrival hall or to the right of the passport machines. Hand over the slip of paper along with the required money (USA, RMB, Sterling or Euro – you’re safer with USD) for a two or three colored receipts (there is an ATM in arrivals but it rarely works so don’t count on it)
- Turn to the right and there will be several kiosks for visas. Some are for 15/30 days others are for 90 days. Don’t queue at the wrong counter or you’ll be sent to another one down the row. Check first, then queue. There are little signs above them
- Hand over all your receipts and passport before confirming what type of visa you want. Get your sticker like stamps. Leave to your left
Get your luggage back at the airport
- You should have small bar code (baggage 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 where your bags should appear
- All the baggage trolleys are free to use. Don’t accept 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/woman 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 – he’s quite grouchy so don’t take crap from him
- Ask him the rates. He will ask you how much you want to change. His minimum change is USD $50 which he will give a bad rate. You’ll some of it for a taxi.
- Leave and try and not feel defeated by his smirk
Getting from the airport to Thamel or Kathmandu city
- The 2017 rate from the airport to Thamel is 450 rupees. 400 if you are really, really good at bargaining. 500 is if you just don’t want to bargain much. 600-800 will get you less hassle. If you intend to pay anything over this then please just send it to me or buy one of my Nepal guidebooks which explains all this very succinctly
- Once outside the main building doors (you can bring your baggage trolley) ignore the mass of taxi men running up to you 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 – you’re nearly there
- Real fuel shortages do occur regularly, a taxi 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 and will drop you near Swayambhunath.
- During strikes there is a real bus that will take you to/from the airport/Thamel
Leaving Kathmandu Airport
In case you were wondering if it was just as fun leaving as it is arriving I wrote some tips about leaving from Kathmandu Airport.
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