The flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kathmandu was quick and eventful. We had some extra ringgit left over, so our plane snacks were a bit more elaborate than usual. Air Asia doesn’t have any entertainment, but at this point a 4.5 hour flight is like driving a few miles to the store—it doesn’t feel like anything. The first thing we noticed stepping off the plane, was the lack of humidity. It was sunny and warm, sure, about 30/88 degrees. But without the oppressive mugginess, there was no instant sweating, no totalitarian humidity.
You can get a visa on arrival in the Kathmandu airport. So you fill out a form, stand in line for a while (one of you can go convert some money while you do this.) Finally you hand over your arrival card, visa form, passport, passport photo, and 40 USD and then your passport is visa’d, in a process that takes 3 people and seems overly complicated but doesn’t take too long. Rach and I start talking to another backpacker, a lady from the UK, who is just as excited to be in Nepal as we are. We agree to share a taxi.
Collect your bags (Kathmandu is the only airport I’ve been where they check the luggage tags to make sure you haven’t stolen a bag that’s not yours, an ominous security measure), walk through customs (who, to be honest, don’t seem to stop a lot of foreign backpackers) and then it’s time to get into the city.
You kind of know that the first couple cabbies that come up to you are going to be a bit shit. We tried to walk past them all, but a persistent guy kept following us. “Come with me. Taxi. 500 ruppees” (100 rupees is, roughly, equivalent of 1 USD). The price should be 250, so we ignore him.
“Come on, how much you want?”
“300 hundred,” we say, thinking this low price will drive him away.
There was no hesitation. “Okay, 300 okay. Let’s go.” This should have been a warning sign.
We walk out of the airport, across the parking lot to his OLD car and he says, “I am not taxi driver. I am hotel driver. You stay at my hotel and taxi is free.”
Our friend already had a place booked. We didn’t, though I knew where I wanted to head. We could have still said no and found a taxi to take us into the city. But sometimes it’s easier just to go with the flow. As we talk, we are surrounded by 10 or 12 people who seem not so much curious about the conversation or us but just really interested in seeing how well they can surround us.
“How much is the room?”
“Very nice room. You will like it.”
“I do like very nice rooms. How much is it?”
At this point in our trip, Rach and I are both pretty aware of the twinkle in his eyes as his brain conducts some advanced algebra to figure out a price that lower than we will pay but not so high that we just don’t leave.
“Ten dollars,” he says. “Very good room. Double room, big bed, attached bathroom, just stay one night and go somewhere else tomorrow. Good room.”
Ten dollars is about 850 rupees, which is a fair bit more than we were hoping to pay. But it’s very cheap in the overall picture, and, hey, free cab ride. They promise to drop us off at the hotel, then take our friend to her guesthouse, free of charge. We agreed.
Once in the car, it became evident that we had mistimed our arrival. We had thought it was the day before Holi (a Hindu festival where everyone is happy, covered in paint and powder, and pretty happy to douse you), which meant we had a day to secure some powder/squirt guns/etc. It didn’t take long to learn that we’d screwed up our timing. Many people we saw had facepaint, or colored shirts, or both. It turned out that we arrived at 4 pm on Holi itself, as Nepal celebrated a day earlier than India.
Best laid plans and all that.
I mentioned we had an old car, and it really struggled with the 3 of us in the back seat, 3 big backpacks in the boot, and two Nepali dudes in the front. It kept stopping and one of them would get out and kick the tire or something and we’d rumble forward again. The road did us no favors; it was unsealed, had more potholes than road, and weaved up and down. At last, the brave car came to a stop and couldn’t be revived.
They didn’t say anything to us, but one of the guys took off down the road. 5 minutes later he was back in a smaller car that was equally old but still driving. This car had less room and we threw two of our big bags on the roof. No ropes or anything to tie them down, just rested them there. Like particularly underwhelming clowns, we clambered back into the car.
Even from our cramped positions, Nepal was cool. I had been before, but Rach was really digging how different it feels from South East Asia. We finally got to our hotel. They asked our friend to wait in the lobby. As she did, the cab took off. We were shown a nice room, and nodding appreciatively, we asked
The guy laughed as though this was a scandalous suggestion. “No, no. This is not 10 dollar room.”
“Then show us the 10 dollar room, please,” one of us said.
He led us to a dorm room, with no attached bathroom. We don’t need privacy or attached bathrooms, of course, and often we will choose these rooms. But we also knew they were taking the piss. We argued a bit, and the upshot was we agreed on the original room for 12 bucks (including tax). At this point, we wanted to go celebrate the last of Holi and just get it done with.
Our friend was still in the lobby. No one would show her to the hotel she had booked. We were caught up filling out forms, and I got trapped into a 45 minute discussion with the owner who really wanted to talk me into hiring a guide for trekking and also thought it was outrageous we were leaving the next day to find a cheaper room. “You will not find something cheaper,” he warned. (Spoiler alert: We did, by more than half.)
So at last we got out into the streets. Our friend had found her hotel, dropped her bag, and came back to join us in the Holi festivities. It didn’t take long to find people who were willing to indoctrinate us with holiday cheer. It was hard to take a picture, as Rachel noted, because there’s always so much going on. Taking a picture of one aspect leaves another four out. Kathmandu isn’t a photogenic city in that regard, but it’s a fantastic one in terms of the vibe.
We saw many foreigners* that had really celebrated Holi, wearing shirts that were all colors or just a blotchy grey from all the colors mixing. As we walked the streets of Thamel, everyone was so cheerful (especially when they saw our red faces and clothes). We must have said and heard “Happy Holi” a hundred times an hour.
*Foreigners in Nepal (and probably India) are a different breed from those in SE Asia. Half have dreads (turns out there’s an artificial way to do this that doesn’t take a year. Who knew?) The remaining have beards, hiking boots, plaid shirts, and trekking clothes. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so much at home anywhere in the world.
And then it was dinner time. Nepal is special in this regard because we can eat just about everywhere. The default food is dahl baht, and nearly every restaurant has veggie springrolls, veggie momos, veggie curries, veggie burgers, veggie veggies! You name it. Even after Malaysia, a mecca of veggie food, it was oh-so-welcome.
The time difference was a mere 2 hours and fifteen minutes, but we’d gotten up at 6 to get to the airport by 9 to catch our flight at 11:30, so the nighttime found us pretty tired. We said goodbye to our buddy, headed back to our hotel, and chilled the hell out.