Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu is universally recognized as one of the worst major airports in the world. It is little more than a large brick shack, dirty inside and out, and staffed by surly, unhelpful agents who aren’t much better than the TSA.
Apparently, if you arrive during the day, the visa hall can back up for hours, all chaos and cutting in line. Luckily for me, we had to be one of the last flights in that day, as the airport was deserted.
We were directed to an arrival hall, where we used self-service kiosks to fill out our visa information. Nepal has an excellent visa-on-arrival system. You can show up at Tribhuvan and immediately get a 15-day, 30-day, or 90-day visa. They’re all multiple-entry, so you can zip out to India and back if you want, and the process to extend the visa is relatively simple. Using these visas, foreigners can spend up to 180 days in Nepal a year. If you’re looking for a cheap summer home, you could do a lot worse than Nepal!
(Of course, Nepal gets horrible monsoon rains during the summer that bring bloodsucking leeches, but for my money, that’s still more pleasant than Florida.)
Nepal’s got this great online visa system, right? You can actually fill out your application online, BEFORE you get to the country. I filled mine out on a kiosk in the arrivals hall, but all that kiosk was doing was loading a public webpage. Once I filled out the form, I went up to the visa desk, where an agent asked for my passport and collected a $40 fee for my 30-day visa. I wasn’t sure how long I’d be staying, so I’d opted for the 30-day option, knowing I could always extend it if I needed.
So after filling out an online form, here’s the irony: the border agent actually hand-writes the visa, then cuts it out of a book with a pair of scissors. This was my first introduction to the slightly haphazard way of doing things which seems to be the norm in Nepal. I gave the agent my best smile, took my lopsided visa, and headed to baggage claim.
The baggage claim area is where Tribhuvan’s reputation becomes more apparent: it’s small, dingy, and incredibly dirty. There are only two or three baggage conveyors. Bags appear to have been thrown on the floor and in corners totally at random, and there are at least three disagreements over luggage taking place as I enter the room. Several touts offer to sell me a cart to carry luggage on, while signs on the wall right behind them loudly proclaim: carts are free to use.
Luckily, I’m traveling carry-on only, so I don’t have to interact with this scene. The many Indian vacationers, who, as a rule, tend to travel with enough luggage to besiege a small castle, are not so lucky. I spend a few minutes loitering around the baggage claim area, people-watching and pretending to await my bag, which will never come. Really, I’m scoping out the airport, trying to see if there’s anywhere I could conceivably sleep, if my ride doesn’t show up.
Let me state this unequivocally: I did not want to spend the night in Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan airport, and neither do you. It has none of the sterile calm you may expect from U.S. Airports, or even other major international hubs. It is chaotic, dingy, and has a feeling of edginess. Pass through it as quickly as possible. If you feel the need to pee, wait to use the bathrooms on the plane.
With my anxiety mounting about being forced to spend a night in the airport, I finally mustered up the courage to head to the exit. I passed a security checkpoint through which I would not be readmitted, and grit my teeth. I passed a moneychanger offering outrageous rates and several strangers offering rides to anywhere in the city (“good price for you my friend!”), but I kept walking and stepped out the doors into a light rain.
A crowd of taxi drivers stood outside the doors, patiently lying in wait. To my immense relief, standing right in the middle was a young man, holding up a sign with my name on it.
Everything was going to be OK.