Nepal Travel Logistics: What It Costs If You Can't Be Bothered
I did a lot of reading about Nepal travel before I went in August. During this preparation time, I found several helpful articles by backpackers describing how much it costs to get taxis and SIM cards in Nepal, when you haggle it down or follow their tips to look for deals.
But what I couldn't find was, whether it is really very important to haggle and look for deals? I mean, how much would it hurt my wallet if I simply didn't bother?
After all, I was focused on two quite difficult things that I'm doing for the first time: trekking up a mountain over multiple days, and travelling abroad solo for an entire month. A month is significantly different from 2 days. What if I wanted to save my mental resources for that?
In the end I simply accepted that I'll just have to find out, by doing it.
Now that I'm back, I'm here to tell you how that went, and you can now compare if it's a big deal to you.
Your very first cost is going to be the tourist visa fee, through the Visa on Arrival facility. There are three different rates depending on how long you're staying. For 30 days it is $40.
What I had read mentioned the need to have an ID photo and to fill in a form. However I ended up not needing to do either.
There are e-visa kiosks when you reach the immigration area. Because I can't be bothered filling up forms manually, I went for these. Using the kiosk means you don't need to fill in a paper form and do not need to have an ID photo handy as it scans from your passport. [Actually I don't know if the photo is really needed anymore. The immigration systems seem to be quite modern and digital].
Further information can be found on Nepal's Immigration website.
Anyway, the point is I found this part quite easy even with almost no preparation.
Mobile data package
The least bothersome way to get a local SIM card is to buy it at the airport. Which is what I did.
I wasn't quite sure whether I would even be able to, you know. Most of the articles on the internet about Nepal travel depict it as a kind of faraway, mystique-laden, disaster-struck 3rd world land where a traveller must be supplied by shrewdly picking her way through the side streets of Thamel.
So I was prepared for a rudimentary airport with few facilities, and having to roam about Thamel looking for SIM card kiosks while avoiding being accidentally adopted into magical guilds by Tilda Swinton.
But to my surprise, Kathmandu airport is quite all right (to a Southeast Asian, anyway. In fact Nepal as a whole feels very like Southeast Asia). Not swank, but they have all of the services and systems you would expect in an international airport.
There were two stores for telecommunications service providers there, NCell and Nepal Telecom (NTC). I chose NCell for no other reason than that the line was not as long. Later I found out that while NCell is supposed to provide good coverage if you're going to Everest Base Camp, it isn't as good for the Annapurnas. My trekking guide and porter both were on NTC.
I bought a 3.6GB data package for 1000 rupees, from the Nepali store clerk who regarded me with a very familiar sort of urban bored patience.
I confess, as someone from a 'third world country' myself, it pleased me to see that utter lack of exotic mystery and indifferent self-confidence. It was my first inkling of the pride of the Nepali people - while they may appreciate help, they are not a nation to feel sorry for.
Most - if not all - information online would tell you what a negotiated taxi rate should come to.
- However, on multiple times on this trip I simply didn't bother to haggle.
- Second, I generally abided by the airport taxi system.
- Third, I also mostly asked my guesthouses to pre-arrange taxis to the airport.
So, how much extra does that cost?
Contrary to the conventional wisdom of Nepal travel, instead of staying in the backpacker's hub of Thamel, I opted to stay at Boudhanath, near the stupa - a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
However, the return trip even with a pre-arranged taxi was 500 rupees. Likewise to the domestic terminal.
On the other hand, from the domestic terminal to Boudhanath was only 650 rupees, also with airport taxi service.
At some point you'll want to get to the Thamel area (or vice versa). The opening bid is usually 500 rupees - so this is the fare if you can't be bothered. With some gentle haggling it can easily drop to 300 rupees, depending on the time of day, current traffic and weather conditions. But countering 500 with 300 will cause the fare to fall somewhere in between.
I didn't haggle hard, because I felt that I'd pay a Grabcar or Uber something like that anyway to move around in my home city. And the roads are quite poor in Kathmandu. There are many potholes and uneven surfaces such that your taxi rides feel like a 4x4 rally! It must be murder on the suspension. I figure they need to make enough so that they don't have to choose between basic livelihood and maintaining the vehicle.
Treks in and around the Annapurna range all depart from Pokhara. I couldn't decide whether it was safer to fly or take the bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara. It seems the jury is out on that.
I chose to come in by air. For this part of my journey, I stayed in Lakeside like most people would.
The taxi fare from Pokhara airport to Lakeside was 500 rupees.
The return trip cost 300 rupees (although if you're local, it only costs 200).
Kathmandu-Pokhara: Bus or Flight?
A key feature of most tourism-related Nepal travel is this Kathmandu-Pokhara connection.
So even past travellers I asked could not say whether they recommend either, no matter which option they actually went for.
On the one hand, transit by road comes with the disturbing warnings of possible landslides, and anecdotes of a bus careening into ravines every week or so. Supposedly the more comfortable tourist buses are less prone to this, and you could also hire a small van.
On the other hand, flights may be delayed or cancelled, particularly in the monsoon season. And the condition of the planes is a question.
The flight option
Here's the scoop on the plane option. I flew Buddha Air; the ticket cost me $122. Actually this isn't that much more expensive than the bus option, so it makes reasonable sense if you can't be bothered (by this I mean the tourist bus option, which reportedly has a lower probability of ending up in a ravine). Unless you're wandering to other places along the way (I had wanted to go to Gorkha initially!) which has to be done by road.
The plane looked very standard - no disturbing views of plane insides, standard fittings, etc. As far as I can tell, the airport procedures (both ends) are also very standard and surprisingly thorough. I mean, when was the last time a baggage handler asked to see your baggage stub before letting you have your luggage?
Later on a local Kashmiri family befriended me in Pokhara. I learned from the daughter that they consider the better airlines to be Yeti Airlines and Buddha Air. Neither of them will fly in bad weather, although they have different habits. Yeti tends to delay and wait for the weather to clear, whereas Buddha tends to cancel the flight.
She also told me a morbidly funny story about her brother, who famously never takes the bus to Pokhara when he visits the family shop. Not that he liked flying either - he is convinced both ways would kill him eventually.
One day he decided he would try the bus instead of flying. Unfortunately that day the 2015 earthquake struck Nepal!
P.S.: In the end I took a flight the other way too. This August was the very same monsoon season that saw so much rain and flooded large areas of Nepal and north India. Landslides were reported along the highway and there were massive jams for a few days.
OK so I don't know what it is about me, but I can't feel easy unless I know whether and how I can get clean clothes. Plus, it was my first time travelling long enough that I actually will need multiple laundry cycles.
I realise this is something most travellers deal with as they go. I know it would probably be affordable, and is just about my peace of mind. But it still irked me a bit during my Nepal travel budget planning, not having visibility of the cost.
So if you're like me, rest easy for you shall have some ballpark numbers to work with now.
For some reason, the cost for laundry services in Pokhara is very variable.
Now, remember that I can't be bothered. I asked my guesthouse to manage my laundry. In my defense, the day after the trek concluded I found it really hard to care about anything but a massage. By this method, laundry cost me 150 rupees per kilo.
Later on I couchsurfed at the home of the Kashmiri family who befriended me. Another girl who was likewise there reported that at first she was paying even between 200-210 rupees per kilo in the Lakeside area.
However, if you take some time to look further south away from the tourist strip of Lakeside, in the side streets you can find laundry services at 50 rupees per kilo.
I didn't do laundry in Kathmandu.
However, while wandering about Thamel, I did note the prices there. It seems to go for around 100 rupees per kilo.
Also, for some reason beyond my appreciation, laundry by "American machines" is a selling point. Hopefully someone more savvy than me can explain what that's about!
*Nepal travel for Muslims: Halal food
This final topic is a bonus one just for Muslim travellers.
Is it easy to find halal food in Nepal? The answer is yes. The catch is (I'm looking at you, Malaysians) it is vegetarian food. But it's very good. And *ehem* I believe it's sunnah to eat meat only sparingly ;) .
Nepal is mainly Hindu and Buddhist, and while they're not entirely vegetarian, it is easy to come by. I'm told that around 10% of the Nepali people are Muslims, with an additional number from resident Kashmiri communities.
A few highlights
There's of course the vegetarian dal bhat - essentially rice and veg sides. I adore this Nepali staple and relied on it throughout my trek, supplemented by vegetarian mo mo. [If you don't try these in Nepal, I think the visa stamp in your passport should be confiscated].
Near Boudhanath in Kathmandu, you would also find lots of little stalls selling laphing, a Tibetan street food. This is also vegetarian and tasty - and very cheap. Like, less than 100 rupees. In fact I wish I'd tried it earlier, and so would have time to eat it more than once.
In Pokhara, there is a restaurant run by local Nepali Muslims that serves halal meat dishes. They are literally called 'Pokhara Halal Food Land' and can be found on map apps. However it is a bit hidden, as you have to enter a short corridor into an inner mall area, which is where it's located. Prices are ok, and the food is good.
The above information is based on a 2017 trip to Nepal in the month of August in the off season.