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     Volume 8 Issue 82 | August 14, 2009 |

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A Few Days in the Valley

Nader Rahman
The Kathmandu Guest House.

The next time politicians are purged from the country, they need not retreat to their usual 'working vacation' destinations. Thailand and Singapore are getting old, while the time it takes to obtain a visa to a western country is too long and requires far too much information. There is an easy solution to the problem, simply buy a ticket to Nepal and stay cool till the heat dies down in Dhaka. In the worst case scenario if they come after you in Nepal, just head for the mountains, there's plenty of space to hide. All jokes aside, Nepal has become an ideal destination for Bangladeshis looking for a cheap foreign vacation. With relatively cheap tickets there and a gratis visa on arrival, it is ideal for any length of stay from a few days to a few weeks.

The reasons for going Nepal are endless, it is one of the few countries that offers visas on arrival, thus taking away painstaking lines and endless forms which have to be filled out for virtually any other country a Bangladeshi wishes to visit. Then comes the cost of going there, with two main airlines plying the Dhaka-Kathmandu route on a daily basis, it is quite easy to get a cheap flight. Biman's (www.biman-airlines.com) return air ticket to Kathmandu does not exceed 16,500, putting it on par with another major Bangladeshi tourist spot, Kolkata. Another added advantage is the fact that the Nepalese rupee is a weaker currency than the Taka, thus giving you more bang for your buck. With everything from a mattress on the floor 150 rupees a night accommodations to five star luxury, Kathmandu caters to every budget.

The valley of Kathmandu.

With the formalities of the ticket easily taken care of, one should prepare oneself for the visa on arrival. Take a few stamp sized pictures, you will need to affix them to your visa form. The visa form is short and simple, but without a picture on arrival, the process tends to be convoluted and will set you back some money. If you do not arrive with a picture, then there is a fairly easy (if not friendly) service to use at the airport to get a picture taken. The only problem is paying. It is highly unlikely that one will find Nepalese Rupees available in Bangladesh, therefore one will have to travel with US dollars, and to pay for the picture at least some of those dollars will have to be converted into Nepalese rupees. The airport offers some of the worst conversion rates that you will encounter on the trip, but if you show up without a picture, in more ways than one, that is the price you pay. It is also easy to just stand in any line where other foreigners are queuing up, do not do that. It is a waste of time and effort, look for the counter that says Gratis Visa, that is where one should go. While people from non SAARC countries pay money for their visas on arrival, Bangladeshis' first trip a year to Nepal is free and a gratis visa is issued. If one is to travel to Nepal for a second time in the same calendar, only then do visa charges apply.

Once you are out of the airport the real journey begins. There will almost always be representatives of a few hotels and guest houses waiting outside the airport, even if you don't want to use their services they are usually quite helpful. If you have a pre arranged booking, then simply hop into a cab and head for your destination. From the airport to the tourist district of Thamel, the ride should cost over 300 rupees. Without a prior booking but backed by strong word of mouth I headed for the Kathmandu Guest House (www. ktmgh.com/kgh.com) which wikitravel.org said was, “the axis on the compass of Thamel, all other addresses are given in relation to this hotel.” They were not wrong. Without a doubt every single cab driver knows where it is, and within the tourist district of Thamel, it is nothing short of the heartbeat. The staff are friendly and always available while the place itself is beautifully laid back and tranquil. Within the compound just outside the main entrance there is a delightfully shaded cafe, which is good if at times pricey. The banana pancakes and mushroom on toast are affordable and tasty.

At the Kathmandu Guest House there are a myriad of rooms to choose from, from the $2 a night backpackers dream to $60 a night Quazi luxury rooms. No matter what you choose, it is guaranteed to be value for money, as the rooms are clean and well kept. I checked into the funnily named garden facing room, which actually had no view of the garden except as one stepped out of the room. At $37 a night for a double room with attached bathroom, it was cheap, well kept and perfect for my sort of budget travel. The best part of the guest house are the people one will meet there, it offers one a snapshot of the melting pot of Thamel, and also helps people meet and form groups to either see the city or trek into the mountains. It quite simply puts forward a world of opportunities which one then has to make the best out of. It is also by no means the only place to spend a night in Thamel, there are literally hundreds of rest/guest houses and hotels in Thamel, some dodgier that the rest, but usually cheap and sometimes even reliable. It's all about how much you want to spend and just what are willing to put up with. A fellow traveller told me of 250 rupees a night accommodation at the Tibet Guest House, which offered nothing more than a bed and a common bathroom, but claimed the place offered more than value for its money.

In Thamel anything goes.

The area of Thamel is something special, sure every other place is a sort of tourist trap, but the sheer number of hotels, shops, and cafes is mind boggling. Its narrow streets without sidewalks makes it difficult to walk around without getting run over by the hundreds of rickshaws, cars and maniacal motor cycle drivers, but that only adds to its charm. The real downside to the area is that everything (and I mean everything) has been geared towards the tourist. It is difficult if almost impossible to find any establishment that caters to Nepalis. The rates for calling home and internet vary widely, some places will charge 10 rupees a minute to call Bangladesh while others will not budge from 60 a minute. Some charge 30 rupees an hour for the internet while others charge 100. Initially it is easy to get fooled into paying a premium for everything, but as soon as one gets ones bearings in the area, it is just as easy to find out the right places and preices to pay. One will eventually get ripped off, the only question is when.

The answer usually is when it comes to changing money. When I first changed money there I got what I thought was a fair rate, within a few days it fell by over a Rupee to a Dollar. I walked through the entire place looking for a money exchange that would offer me a better price, but was amazed to see that they all had exactly the same rates. Eventually I thought they were all just law abiding citizens and were charging the government approved rate. That was until I went outside Thamel and changed my money at a Western Union for three rupees more to the dollar. Only then did it hit me, that there is an implicit price collusion amongst all the money changers in Thamel. Instead of driving each other out of business by offering better rates, they secured their futures by simply sharing the pie and conning helpless travellers out of their money. Here's a simple tip, do not exchange your money in Thamel. You will get a better rate anywhere else and I mean anywhere.
To be continued next week.



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