Arriving into Tribhuvan International Airport
If you are a UK National, you can either get a Nepal visa before you travel from the Embassy in London, or you can get a visa on arrival like most Brits do. If it’s convenient for you to do so, I’d highly recommend getting hold of a visa before you get to Nepal as the arrivals process is tedious and time-consuming.
The process (as of September 2018) for getting a visa on arrival is as follows:
- Find a landing card, piles of which will be scattered somewhere around the arrivals hall. Make sure you have your own pen, as there are none available. Hide said pen swiftly afterwards, or you’ll have hoards of people swarming towards you to borrow it and you’ll have to wait for ages before moving on to the next stage.
- Complete all the usual info on the landing card, such as who you are, where you’ve come from, and decide how long you want to stay. As of September 2018, it cost USD $25 for 15 days or $40 for 30 days. I think you can pay to stay for longer too, but I’m not sure on the price.
- Once you’ve completed the landing card, queue up for a machine to re-enter this information electronically. There was someone to help when we were there, and it takes your photo too. You get a print-out from the machine which you then take to the cashier to pay your visa fee.
- Queue for the cashier and make your visa payment. You could pay in lots of different currencies, including GBP and USD and practically every other currency you could think of. Here’s the time to use up that unwanted foreign shrapnel! They even accepted GBP coins so we could pay using the exact change and you can also pay by card.
- Get in the queue which states ‘foreign nationals – visa on arrival’. You’ll have to wait to speak to someone who authorises the visas, they’ll ask you a few questions about your trip and then hopefully stamp your passport and welcome you to Nepal. Note there is no refund if your visa application is declined, and they do ask a few more questions than most countries’ immigration officers. I think it’s maybe because they don’t get as many tourists from outside the Indian Subcontinent compared to other places. I don’t think you have to pay if you’re a SAARC national.
Once you’ve gone through immigration and customs, you’ll need to make your way into Kathmandu. Most backpackers stay in the vibrant, busy area of Thamel. There’s not really much public transport in Nepal and I don’t think there are any buses from the airport, so you’ll need to grab a taxi. The easiest option is to go to the pre-paid taxi counter and pay 700 rupees (around £4.50) for the 20 minute journey to Thamel. Note that part of Thamel is pedestrian only, so you might get dropped off a few minutes’ walk away from your accommodation. Don’t worry, you’re not getting scammed!
Upon arrival to Kathmandu, we stayed for 3 nights in Trekker’s Home. It was relatively clean and cost around £10 per night for a double room with private bathroom. It was right in the heart of Thamel, which was great location-wise but it was also very noisy at night and in the early mornings. You really need to decide whether you want the ideal location or a quiet room when staying in Kathmandu, as it’s a very chaotic city and the quieter hotels will be further out. Our guest house had a rooftop terrace which was nice, a steakhouse (which we didn’t try as it was out of our backpackers’ budget, plus I don’t eat steak) and a travel agency on the ground floor where you could book transport to other parts of Nepal and a wide range of activities, including world-famous trekking. Breakfast wasn’t included and there were no lifts, which was fine for us but may make it difficult for others.
We came back to Kathmandu at the end of our stay in Nepal, and booked a different guest house called Hotel Yala Peak to experience a different part of Thamel. Unfortunately, this hotel was filthy and I spotted cockroaches on our floor and several bedbugs behind the mattress near the headboard on our bed. They were also renovating all the bathrooms, meaning we’d have to go up two floor levels to use the toilet in the middle of the night. I quickly asked for a refund and I felt sorry for the owner who was extremely apologetic and embarrassed. I was really surprised at the state of the hotel as the pictures and reviews online were great and the restaurant out front was nice too, with ample vegan options, including scrambled tofu for breakfast. However, cleanliness is important to me and whilst I don’t expect the world for £6 a night, I also don’t expect to be eaten alive by bedbugs during the night. I’m shuddering just thinking about it!
A girl we met recommended Elbrus Home hostel, so after quickly escaping Yala Peak we headed there. It was out of the main Thamel area, so wasn’t as good as the other two places location-wise, but it was a little quieter and it was a cute, comfortable hostel. It was clean (by Nepali standards) and the owner was very friendly and helpful. It cost £10 per night for a private room and I think it was around £14 per night for a private room with its own bathroom. A really generous breakfast was provided within this price, which included mango juice, tea/coffee, porridge, a banana, toast and eggs, I just had the mango juice, banana and toast as they unfortunately couldn’t make the porridge vegan. There was a lovely garden area and each floor level had a terrace with tables and chairs for you to relax. I’d highly recommend this hostel (you can also stay in dorms here) but beware you’ll need to cross a few busy roads to get to the main centre of Thamel.
As I mentioned in my intro to Nepal generally, some eateries add on a service charge and tax in addition to the price published in the menu. This can add a whopping 17% extra onto your bill, which when you’re on a backpackers’ budget can really put a hole in your pocket. Be sure to check the menu or confirm with staff before you decide to eat somewhere.
There are dozens of bakeries dotted around Thamel and in the evenings they all reduce their stock to half price or less. Make note of the time they slash the prices of their produce and take advantage of the cheap bread and cakes on offer. Most of them are still good the next day, so it’s a cheap way to get a good breakfast for the following morning.
Food is always freshly prepared in Nepal so be ready to wait anywhere between 45 minutes to an hour for your food. Starters, snacks and mains all arrive as one course and one of you will often be served your meal several minutes before the rest of the table. It’s easier just to get used to this and eat as things arrive. It does mean that if there’s anything wrong with your meal, you can either suck it up or wait another hour for your food. They don’t put your order to the front just because you’ve complained!
The snack/side dish of choice is momos, which are kind of like Nepali samosas which you can have steamed or fried. I personally preferred mine fried but they were delicious steamed too. You could usually choose from vegetarian (vegan but check for egg), buff (beef – I’m not sure if it’s buffalo or ordinary cow though), or chicken and they were served with a small pot of spicy sauce.
Like I said before, I did find it quite hard to be a strict vegan in Kathmandu. I did my best to avoid dairy products (avoiding meat and egg was easy) but I was never convinced my food wasn’t cooked in ghee or that there wasn’t a bit of cream or yoghurt added at the end. A few times I asked for no milk products/no cheese I received a curry with paneer, and because the food takes so long to arrive I usually had to just pick the paneer out. I would never ever accept this in England, but when you’re travelling I guess you have to be more patient and understanding of the cultural differences and make the most of what you have. There was also so much poverty in Nepal that I couldn’t bear to see things wasted, so I felt like it was more ethical to pick out my paneer and give it to Alex rather than waste an entire meal and wait an hour for another one!
There are two vegan places in Kathmandu that I know of – The Loving Heart Vegan Restaurant (which I didn’t actually go to) and Aniyor Veg & Vegan Restaurant. Both places (from what I can see on The Loving Heart’s website and from what I experienced at Aniyor in person) are more expensive than your typical Kathmandu restaurant/cafe, but that’s always the case when going to a vegan speciality place. The owner of Aniyor was from South India and thoroughly understood the concept of veganism. The menu clearly stated which items were vegan and which were vegetarian, and there were a variety of fresh juices, lassis and milkshakes which could be made with dairy or vegan milk. The starters came first before the meal (we had the Tofu Pakoras and Harabhara Kebabs), which was a nice surprise. I had the Palak Tofu and Alex ordered the Palak Mushroom – both were okay but the sauce was quite grainy as the spinach had been pureed, so it was more of a runny curry than we’d expected. We also shared a lemon rice and garlic naan, both of which were gorgeous and cooked to perfection.
Beware that elsewhere, naan usually contains eggs so you’re safer to have roti or chapati whilst in Nepal (but do check it’s plain with no butter and that it isn’t made with egg). I would definitely recommend Aniyor but I’d probably order something other than the palak. The restaurant was full and I could hear other diners singing the chef’s praises, so I think our choice just wasn’t to our liking. The rest of the food was scrumptious and I’d definitely go back again.
What to wear
I covered what to wear in more depth in my general guide to Nepal, but I felt the need to dress particularly modestly whilst in Kathmandu – more so than other places we visited later. You can easily and cheaply pick up some hippie style elephant trousers (which I love!) and you’ll fit right in.
Where to go and what to do
Taxis are quite cheap in Kathmandu but you’ll need to barter hard. Walking is an option but it’s so hot and the streets are so filthy that I’d probably just recommend biting the bullet and paying for a taxi. You can read about my adventures in my Kathmandu blog and although we did walk around the capital, I probably wouldn’t do it again.
Boudha (Boudhanath) Stupa
The beautiful Stupa at Boudha is well worth a visit. It’s 250 rupees for foreigners and 50 rupees for SAARC nationals (people who are from the Indian Subcontient). It’s kind of in the middle of nowhere and you could easily walk by it if you didn’t download your Google Maps offline first, as it’s hidden behind high walls and by the side of a busy road.
You walk through an entrance, pay your visitors fee and then walk CLOCKWISE around the stupa, spinning the prayer wheels as you go. There are numerous cafes with rooftops overlooking the religious building where you can sit and have a drink or bite to eat, but of course they’re expensive as they’re in such a prime location. There are also lots of stalls – I got a prayer bracelet for 80 rupees (about 50p) and om mani padme hum is played continuously as you walk around. As you walk in a clockwise direction, there’s a ‘secret’ stairway on your left not far from the entrance which leads you onto a terrace with a beautiful mural on the wall, which offers the perfect photo spot with the stupa in the background.
You can walk from the Stupa at Boudha to Pashupatinath Temple, crossing a river and passing another hindu temple surrounded by monkeys. The walk itself is more enjoyable than visiting Pashupatinath, which costs 1,000 rupees each to get in (about £7). As a non-Hindu, you aren’t allowed inside the actual temple itself (this isn’t the case at all Hindu temple) and the hefty price tag left me feeling outraged and stubborn, so we didn’t go in. To put the price into context, it was about 2-3x what we were paying for a meal for two, and almost as much as a night in a guest house with a private bathroom. To make matters worse, it’s free to enter if you’re from a SAARC country. I spoke to others who went and said they were really disappointed when they did pay to enter, as they couldn’t really see much anyway as they weren’t allowed inside. There are lots of monkeys playing around which you can see from outside, which I guess softened the blow a little.
You can easily spend a few hours meandering the alleyways and backstreets of Thamel, wandering in and out of the shops (which all sell the same items) and haggling for souvenirs. Bear in mind that Nepal has a bargaining culture, so you’ll need to be prepared to barter if you want to buy anything and not get ripped off.
I feel most comfortable starting at just above half the price the shop assistant asked for and then working up to no more than 3/4, but many guides say you should start at half or even below. You have to find your own style and do what feels right for you. Bear in mind you’re usually arguing over a really small amount of money, so don’t go over the top and end up offending someone, but also don’t get ripped off just because you’re a tourist!
I actually think that for me, bargaining is a good practice to build my confidence and become more assertive. We don’t really barter in Britain, so that’s probably why we’re always so worried about offending someone and aren’t known for being particularly assertive!
As we visited at the end of monsoon season, it rained most afternoons in Kathmandu and it wasn’t the best time to trek. We decided not to go trekking whilst we were there, but we met some great people who did and had a fantastic time. The general consensus was to wait until arriving in Kathmandu before booking any such activity, and buy/rent any equipment whilst you’re there too. It’s much cheaper in Nepal than back home. There are travel agencies everywhere in Thamel, and whilst I’d always suggest shopping around for the best price, competition is so fierce that the prices are pretty much the same wherever you go.
Durbur Square & Monkey Temple
We didn’t have time to visit either of these attractions, so I can’t really comment other than I know lots of tourists say these two places are worth a visit. Durbur Square is another 1,000 rupees to enter, so you’d have to decide whether it’s worth it to you. I believe it’s an old square where the Kings used to live, but please excuse my ignorance as I didn’t actually go.
Monkey Temple is another Buddhist Stupa you can visit which is practically overrun by monkeys and I’m not sure how much it costs. I’ve seen some great photos and it looks really pretty, so if you have time then maybe you’d like to go.
Getting out of Kathmandu!
Kathmandu is fascinating but it’s also exhausting, so you’ll probably reach a point where you’re ready to get yourself outta there.
You can catch a tourist bus to Pokhara (7ish hours, 600-800 rupees per person) or Chitwan (5-6 hours, 500-700 rupees per person) from Sorhakhutte taxi stand, which is a 5-15 minute walk from Thamel, depending on your exact location. The buses all leave at 7am and you’ll see backpackers pouring out of Thamel from 6am onwards, all going in the same direction. Follow them to the taxi stand and there’ll be a line of literally hundreds of buses waiting for your onward journey. Make sure you get on the right bus as the same companies go to different locations and the buses aren’t always marked with their company name, so you’ll have to periodically ask bus drivers and ‘helpers’ along the way.
I’ve only just come across this helpful Nepal tourism website as I’m writing this article, but it seems an informative tool to help you decide what to do whilst you’re in Kathmandu and beyond (as well as my blog, of course!)
Check out my individual location guides to find out where we stayed, how we got there, what we ate and what we did in Kathmandu, Pokhara and Chitwan, including vegan guides to each destination.
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If I’ve missed anything or if you have any questions or feedback, please do let me know in the comments. I’d particularly love to hear if you’ve found this guide useful, or if you’re a fellow blogger/organisation looking to work together. Feel free to get in touch!