One of the many stupas in Kathmandu, Nepal

From Thailand to Nepal

Mar 6, 2015 - Julie

I remember learning about the mountains in Nepal as a little kid; never could I have imagined that in 2015, I would be in the country! Trekking in Nepal has to be on every traveler’s to-do list. We can’t believe we’re here – it hasn’t completely sunk in.

A New Region

Nepal marks the beginning of our circuit in South Asia consisting of Nepal, India, Maldives, and Sri Lanka. We thought about Bhutan and Bangladesh, but costs and inconveniences in both countries turned us away this time around. If any countries felt foreign before, it was nothing compared to this. We have a feeling that South Asia (Nepal and India especially) will show us things that we never could have imagined. It won’t be like anything I’ve ever known or could even begin to comprehend at this point.

That thought is at the same time terrifying as it is thrilling. I like to be prepared, but there’s no way to feel ready for something that I don’t even know. So we just have to have faith and jump in. For every ounce of hesitation and doubt, there’s an equal ounce of excitement for what’s to come. How could we not be? Each time we will be challenged in this new region, we’re sure it will be matched (if not exceeded) by something else spectacular.

One of the many stupas in Kathmandu
One of the many stupas in Kathmandu

Pre-Nepal Thoughts

We could have trekked in Nepal last September/October 2014 (the best months besides March/April), but I felt like I wouldn’t be ready so early on in our trip. Am I glad we waited? Yes. The past half year have taught us so much about how to live nomadically and we’ve worn it in, so to speak. It no longer feels as novel as the beginning, but much more comfortable, especially the tougher days. But do I feel completely ready for Nepal now? No. To be honest, it’s one of those things you never feel 100% ready for. Trekking in Nepal has no equivalent, nothing to compare to.

Krabi to Kathmandu via Kuala Lumpur

First, it’s a cool coincidence that all the cities start with the letter ‘K,’ it has a nice ring to it. We ended our island-hopping in the Andaman Sea in Krabi, Thailand, where we flew Malaysia Airlines to KL, then to Kathmandu. Before anyone freaks out Malaysia Airlines, it was fine! Being used to tight-budgeted North American airlines, I appreciated being fed on both flights, despite them being only 1h40min and 4h50min, respectively.

During our layover at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), we popped into a Lonely Planet store booth where we stole glances of their country guides. Usually I browse travel books and wow over how amazing such and such destinations seem. This time around, it was unbelievably cool to know that we have already been to many of them. Another interesting fact we found there: Blumenau (Carlos’ small hometown) was #6 on the top 20 places in Brazil! Crazy! While we were pleasantly surprised, it was a bit dubious that Blumenau could beat the likes of Fernando de Noronha, Carnaval in Rio, and Lençóis Maranhenses (all on my to-go list!).

Blumenau listed as #6 top attraction in the Lonely Planet Brazil guidebook
Blumenau listed as #6 top attraction in the Lonely Planet Brazil guidebook

Nepal Visa on Arrival

Nepal has pretty lax visa regulations, with visas on arrival available with just passport, two passport photos, and the fee (USD 40 for 30 days). We didn’t think much of it. When we got off the plane at Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) in Kathmandu, it was a bit confusing because there were no signs or instructions. We went to some tables where arrival cards and visa application forms were scattered all over the place. We filled those out because we didn’t know what else to do. Afterwards, we tried to enter our information into these machines with large screens nearby, until someone told us those were just for people with no passport photos.

What we really needed for the Nepal visa on arrival: passport, one passport photo, paper visa application (that we filled out at those messy tables), arrival card (though Carlos didn’t give away his…), and the visa fee in cash. It was all in all a trial-and-error process because no one knew what was going on. After many years dealing with super-picky US Customs, it was strange to go through immigration and customs so unprepared.

Kathmandu Airport to Thamel

Our last hurdle at TIA: getting our bags! We were able to ship both of our large backpacks for free (yay non-budget airline), though any frequent traveler knows you always run the risk of lost bags. It was not encouraging that the baggage claim was a madhouse. We had read beforehand and expected as such, but even then we were unsettled by the chaos.

Chaos in the Kathmandu Airport, Nepal
Chaos in the Kathmandu Airport, Nepal

There were people everywhere. It was hard to jostle around between all the bodies and carts and piles of unclaimed luggage that took up a significant portion of the floorspace. An unusual number of large-screen TVs were floating through the conveyor belts (apparently it’s a thing to buy cheap TVs in Malaysia to bring back to Nepal). The conveyor belt curved back and forth, causing luggage to fall off at the turns. People waiting around often had to push the bags back on – one large TV box needed multiple people to keep it on the belt. It was also raining when we arrived so every single bag was completely soaked. Carlos wrung out water from the shoulder straps of his backpack.

We had also read that people often pick up every single bag to check if it’s theirs, even though it may look nothing like their bag. So Carlos elbowed his way to the very beginning of the conveyor belt to make sure no one took our bags while I kept eyes and hands on the rest of our stuff. Before we left the baggage claim area, someone explicitly checked both of our bags against the luggage tags. It was good to know that they checked, but also concerning to know that they needed to check (think of how many TVs someone could steal!).

Luggage pile in the Kathmandu Airport, Nepal
Luggage pile in the Kathmandu Airport, Nepal

Now all that was left to complete the trip was to make our way out of the airport and to our guesthouse in Thamel. We had no Nepalese rupees and there were no ATMs at the airport, so we had no choice but to use the money changer at the airport (that supposedly gives the worst rates ever). Luckily we just needed enough for the taxi to Thamel, and we used our leftover Thai Baht so we didn’t feel so bad.

Booths at the airport offered prepaid taxis, but as usual, we were very adamant about getting the best transportation prices. So we went out to negotiate ourselves. It’s more time and effort-consuming, but it’s one of the things that differentiates us from regular vacationers – we can’t afford to overpay on transportation every single day. This inevitably means that we go through many offers before reaching an acceptable price, though we’re used to it by now. Still, we get surprised by what people offer us, like this one taxi driver at the Kathmandu airport:

Taxi Driver (TD): “Taxi! Taxi!” (as he walks over to us) “Where you go?”
Us: “Thamel. How much?”
TD: “Thamel… 800 rupees.” (this is about USD 8)
Us: “No, thanks.” (immediately walks away)
TD: “Ok ok! I give you discount.”
Us: (we turn back to hear what he has to say) “How much?”
TD: (thinks about it) “…$10 dollars.”
Us: (so horrified that we laugh) “That’s even more than 800 rupees!”

I told the guy he’s a funny man, and he sheepishly smiled because he knows he just tried to trick us. We laugh because negotiating with humour always works out better for everyone. However, times like this, I can’t believe that people could think we would be stupid enough to fall for it. Though the fact that multiple taxi drivers tried something similar makes me think that there must be people who do fall for it. In this case, those unknowledgeable tourists are just encouraging taxi drivers to scam everyone. (We ended up taking a taxi for 500 rupees, though you could probably get down to 400 rupees during the day.)

First Impressions of Nepal

  • It was cold! Not cold by Canadian standards, but definitely cold compared to where we’ve been the past six months. Coming from crazy sunny 35 degrees Celsius (95 F) in Thailand to rainy and windy 10 degrees Celsius (50 F) in Kathmandu was a big jump. We needed some warmer clothes!
  • The time here is a bit odd:
    • First, Nepal has its own time zone at UTC+5:45. So instead of the usual one-hour increments between time zones, Nepal is 45 minutes off of one and 15 minutes off of the other. It made it much more confusing to mentally figure out what time it was back home in Canada or Brazil.
    • Second, the year here according to the Nepali calendar is 2071, not 2015. The Nepali calendar is almost 57 years ahead of the Gregorian calendar. Months of the year are also different, ranging from 29-32 days, and shifted – the new year begins in mid-April.
  • Neighbourhoods in Kathmandu had a certain look – narrow alleys, old houses, buildings of differing heights/shapes/materials/designs all stacked against each other. Pedestrians, bicycles, rickshaw, motorbikes and small beaten-up cars all fought for space in the narrow (and often muddy) alleys. It certainly made for a lively atmosphere.
  • In the tourist neighbourhood of Thamel, there were trekking companies or stores selling trekking gear everywhere. Every other stall in every alley was trekking related. The other ones sold other gifts or souvenirs, from clothes to teas to local crafts. All of these stalls filled the streets and alleys with vibrant colours!
Store selling trekking gear in Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal
Store selling trekking gear in Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal
  • The food portions in Nepal were great. There was unlimited refills on dhal bhat, but every dish came in a sizeable portion. Being used to ordering more dishes in other countries in order to get full, we found ourselves ordering more than we could eat for the first time.

The next order of business: explore Kathmandu and prepare for our trek!