How to survive your first time in Kathmandu

When you first arrive in Nepal it can seem a little daunting (unless you’ve just arrived from India, then it will seem like a breath of fresh air). Tribhuvan International Airport is a small, busy place and flights in and out can be extremely expensive compared to somewhere like Delhi or Colombo. It’s also possible to take buses and trains from Varanasi, but I would avoid this in the summer months because it’s so bloody hot.

The visa

You can apply for three different tourist visas: 15 days ($25), 30 days ($40), or 90 days ($100). If you want to extend your visa it’s so easy, just head to the immigration office near Thamel, fill out the paperwork and pay the extra fee. Visa applications can be done on arrival, however, it’s a very slow process so try to fill out and print the paperwork before you arrive if possible. If not, there are a few temperamental computers where you can fill it in on arrival. Once you have that done, get in the queue to pay (multiple currencies and card are accepted now) then the queue to get your passport stamped, then the queue to get your luggage.

Leaving the airport

The most stressful part is getting from TIA to the city center, especially if you’re going to the very touristy area of Thamel. When you leave the airport you’ll be bombarded with a ton of taxi drivers yelling at you to get in their car for a “good price”. Most charge around Rs.800 ($7.50), if you haggle well then you can get them down to Rs.500 ($4.50) or even Rs.400 ($3.60) if you’re really good. There are pre-paid taxis but they charge even more for some reason.

Just act like you know what your doing, and don’t be surprised when they either try to charge you more or drop you as far outside Thamel as possible and say they can’t drive in there, which is a lie. It’s Asia, whatever you pay you’ll still be getting ripped off for that 5km drive. If you arrive during the day and feel like an adventure you can walk to the ring road, catch any bus going to Ratna Park for around Rs.20 (20¢) and walk from there!

Handy tip: download the Maps.Me app and mark your hotel on there so you can use the GPS, even offline.

Getting a SIM card

One more thing before you leave the airport: pick up an Ncell sim card! You’ll pay more than double once you reach Thamel, so get one while you can. You’ll need to fill out a form, they’ll scan your passport and take your photo if you don’t have a spare passport pic handy, before you know it you’ll be roaming 4G with 16GB per month for Rs.1024 ($9.30). Download the free app and you can easily keep track of your data usage and top up with recharge vouchers found in most shops.

Handy tip: don’t feel like you have to commit to a long plan, you can start with just one day and top up as often as necessary. This is especially useful if you’re going hiking, you won’t have much signal up in the mountains!

Thamel

Thamel is a weird and wonderful place and can be a little overwhelming at first. It’s dirty, dusty and extremely polluted – I got a horrendous cough on my second day. It’s also quite loud and busy with locals trying to go about their daily business while also dealing with the hundreds of hikers and hippies that swarm the streets day and night. You’ll find everything you need here, whether it’s food and drink, hiking equipment or hippy pants.

There are three main streets running north to south, with multiple streets and alleyways connecting them all from east to west. It’s easy to get lost at first but you’ll soon start recognising the main landmarks, especially once you start finding the best places to eat, of which there are many. Here are just a few of my favourites:

  • Yala Cafe for the best breakfast sets
  • Western Tandoori and Naan House for the best Indian food
  • Keventers for the best milkshakes and brownies
  • Thamel Falafel for the best wraps
  • White House Kitchen for cheap, tasty food

Shopping in Thamel can be an interesting but also mind-numbing experience. Ten thousand shops selling fake North Face gear and other fake hiking brands for far more than they should, plus a few rare gems selling the real deal for the same price you’d expect to pay at home. Listen, if you’re serious about hiking you’ve probably brought your own gear. If you’re a newbie and you don’t want to invest, then don’t. The cheap stuff can actually be amazing! My main recommendation is Kala Patthar – a tiny shop with a big warehouse upstairs and very honest prices.

You’ll also find the usual touristy shops selling almost everything: hammocks, handbags, jewelry, knives, Christmas decorations, tea, incense sticks, soap, shoes, and a million cashmere blankets. Some shops will be honest with you and give you a fair price, some will try and trip you off worse than you’ve ever experienced because some idiot tourist will pay that price one time out of fifty.

Handy tip: When shopping for gear, don’t settle for the first shop you find! Spend a few hours checking as many shops as you can handle for prices on each item that you need. Make a note of the prices and the location of the store so you can go back to them later on and get the best deal.

Getting around Kathmandu

Once you’ve driven yourself crazy walking round in circles and repeating yourself to a hundred guys selling the same jacket, then get the hell out of Thamel. There is a lot to see in this chaotic city! It’s super busy and walking can be stressful but it’s the best way to see, hear and smell all the little details. You can easily grab a taxi or tuk-tuk from pretty much anywhere, and buses go from the ring road or Ratna Park to the main sights outside of the city center.

Check out this list of fun things to see and do in the city!

Leaving Kathmandu

You better be thinking about leaving Kathmandu while you’re in Nepal, the city has some great things to see but it’s nothing compared to what you can find in the hills and mountains throughout the country. Your hostel or hotel will be able to book you a ‘tourist’ bus to the most popular destinations such as Nargakot, Bandipur or Pokhara.

If you want a more authentic experience then make your way to the relevant bus station (again, ask your hostel or hotel) and hop on any local bus or minivan heading in the right direction, this way is always a little cheaper but can take much longer, and is not very comfortable… especially in the heat of summer.

Handy tip: if you’re a nervous passenger then think about taking the tourist bus, or even flying, between cities. The driving in Nepal is terrifying, and I don’t mean the usual “loud and busy Asian driving” that you’d find in Vietnam, I mean that every time I took a long-distance bus I witnessed an accident with at least one fatality. It’s worse than India, worse than Bangladesh, it’s the worst I’ve ever seen.

You can view the full album here.

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