The Traveling Gambler: Casinos and Blackjack in Nepal
Courtesy of ET Fan:
Playing Blackjack in NepalBy BJ Traveller (with Mark Dace)
(From Blackjack Forum XXIII #4, Winter 2003)
© Blackjack Forum 2003
I love and hate Nepal as I was JAILED there 76 days but was rescued by the Nepal casino and many nice Nepalese. Nepal is a good place for blackjack, but beware ....
Major Casinos in Nepal
The major Casinos in Nepal are Yak & Yeti, Everest, Crowne Soltee, and Annapuma. Two new ones have been planned. All casinos are owned by an American. He has been running casinos for over 30 years in Nepal.
Blackjack Rules in Nepal
The blackjack games I find in Nepal were all 4 decks, S17, DAS, split to 3 hands, ENHC (dealer takes split and double with BJ). Penetration varies from 90% (for morons) to 50% (for bet spreaders), up to three “back bets” are allowed. The tables have seven boxes. The limits are 100 Indian rupees (about $2.20) and $3US (play at the same table) to $100 (Annapuma) and $300 (Yak & Yeti and Everest). Some casinos place a table max of $600 aggregate on suspected counters. One player may bet 3 to 6 boxes (different casinos allow different numbers of hands). Suspected counters may be restricted to a 10-unit bet spread.
Risks of Playing at Casinos in Nepal
All casinos are at Kathmandu, the capital, which is quite safe. (Rebels are at remote towns.) There is, however, severe foreign exchange control in this FX-short country. People bringing in more than $2,000 need to declare it and get a stamped duplication of the declaration. Read that again and make sure you understand it, because the Customs officials make no mention of this required duplicate form when you declare the funds you are carrying, which gives crooked Customs officers an opportunity to set up unsuspecting visitors for trouble when they later attempt to leave the country.
Customs officers can get 20% on catching undeclared money, so they routinely “lose” the paperwork if you fail to ask for a duplicate of your declaration form. I declared my money but was not given the duplicate certificate and ended up jailed for 76 days. (More on this later … )
Currency Control in Nepal
You can’t bring out more than you declared. You can’t buy traveler’s checks in Nepal. The Nepal casinos will not give you proof of your winnings, so you have to take the risk of transmitting any casino winnings out through black market or smuggle them out yourself.
Food in Nepal
Buffet and a la carte are offered to gamblers. Locals are not allowed to gamble, theoretically. Indians are major customers so most foods are curry flavored and beef is not offered regularly. There is a Chinese restaurant at Everest Hotel.
Comps at Casinos in Nepal
Food is comped. Yak & Yeti requires a $50 average bet for 4 hours for a room comp. Everest requires a $20 average bet for the same 4-hour time frame.
Major Attractions in Nepal
Mountain Everest ($109 for mountain flight), Palaces (3 World Heritage Sites at Kathmandu). Casinos will send cars for a city tour.
Souvenirs in Nepal
Crafts, textiles, metal castings, and wood carvings.
Blackjack Travelings in Nepal
Nepal is a mountainous country between China and India. It shares Mount Everest with China and charges high fees for climbers. The country is land-locked and has one of the lowest per capita annual incomes ($250, two-thirds that of Bangladesh) in the world.
Most travelers fly from Bangkok and New Delhi. Most people get a landing visa. The hotel reservation counter asked for $150 for a room at Yak & Yeti, which we found out from casinocity.com was the hotel with the largest casino. I didn’t take it for the possibility of room comps. The clerk offered a 50% discount to lure me. I paid $3.50 for a taxi going to the hotel ($2 should be enough).
Yak & Yeti Casino
There is a name for the casino at the Yak & Yeti Hotel but I see no reason for differentiating the casino from the hotel, thus I always use the hotel name for the casino. We found a casino host to ask for a room. He made the room reservation for us at the casino rate and said the room could be comped based on our play.
The casino was medium sized with about 20 tables offering BJ, pontoon, flush (a 9-card poker game), baccarat, and roulette. I later learned that the casino leases space from the hotel for $20,000 a month. The casino employs 600 people. A dealer makes about $100 a month working 40 hours a week, which is generous compared to Sri Lanka (where dealers get $100 a month working 72 hours a week in a country with a per capita income three times that of Nepal).
There are four blackjack tables, which are also used for pontoon. Most Indians play pontoon. The house edge at blackjack is about 0.50% off the top. Penetration was good but became worse after we jumped our bets. It was hand-shuffled but the cards are washed before every shuffle.
We took a casino car for a city tour and shopping, and went to Buddha’s birthplace (Lumbini) for a one night stay.
The Nepal casinos publish a quarterly English gaming magazine called Casino Times with articles on all aspects of gambling, including card counting. Indian gamblers play blackjack poorly and like to split 10s. The casino doesn’t care about minors gambling. We sat playing together with a 12-year old boy who scorned his father for hitting 12 against a dealer’s 6.
Customers were treated courteously. A player complained about bad cards and the pit boss asked the relief dealers to line up for the player to pick. There are three small rooms at the casino. Customers can get free massages, haircuts, and have their fortunes told. There is a restaurant in the gaming hall with a platform for live dancing every night. The casino hires many beautiful hostesses to walk around lighting cigarettes and changing money for players.
The Annapuma Casino is a 5-minute walk from Yak & Yeti. This casino is the smallest one with about 10 tables. It had bad penetration (50%) as soon as we sat down. Pit bosses were very nervous about BIG ($100) bets. My friend jumped in betting $100 on the last hand. The next shoe he bet $3. The pit boss said he could only spread to 20 times his smallest bet.
At the Lumbini Casino the host would only comp 2 nights (of 4). We threatened to move to Everest, which asked for only a $20 average bet for 4 hours a day. He agreed on future room comps if we bet a $50 average. Indians got better terms. For Indians, a buy-in of $1,000 would automatically get them 4 nights. The Nepal hotels also charge twice the room rate for non-Indians and locals.
We hired a car with a driver. The quote from the casino host was worse than the travel agent’s. He suggested we get a car without air conditioning for $30 less. We took the cheaper option, as we would travel mostly in the mountain range.
We were told it took 8 hours for the 200-mile trip due to traffic jams and winding roads. We rode up and down along the Trisuli River. The car was hot when we ascended to the plain. We found that the car was in fact owned by the casino host, so we asked the driver what would happen if we wanted an air-conditioned one. He told us it would be the same car with the air conditioning turned on! We bribed the driver $10 for the air conditioning (which worked poorly). We later went to India and found that Indian taxis charge a 40% premium for turning on the air conditioning.
There is a small temple beside the point where Buddah’s mother gave birth to him 2,500 years ago under a tree. The tree had long gone. A stone marked the spot. King Ashoka erected a 6-meter stone rod in 245 B.C. On our way back we went for the 3-km cable ride to Manakamana Devi Temple. There are many beautiful stones along the Trisui River bank. It would be nice for rafting and stone picking.
Durban Square Casinos
There are three Durban Square Casinos at or near Kathmandu. We went to the one at Bhaktaur. There are many delicate wooden structures there. We (Taiwanese) were asked to pay a $10 admission fee, higher than Chinese and Indians pay (70 cents). Yak & Yeti gave us good cuts. We won about $10,000 from the blackjack table. My friend lost $11,000 at the baccarat table, however. He lost $4,000 at baccarat in one shoe, a sad contrast to a robbery of the casino cashier that day. The robber took $3,000, killing the clerk and wounding a security guard.
Everest allowed us to bet up to the $2,100 table maximum. (Yak & Yeti allowed us to bet only $600 maximum). We lost $4,000 there. The dealer got 4 blackjacks on my last four hands at Yak & Yeti. I insured three. It was time to leave ... or was it too late...?
Jailed on Trying to Leave Nepal
As we were leaving the country, at Customs, I declared for my friend. As we had lost overall in the casinos, I was taking less money out of Nepal than I’d come in with. The airport security found my money (which was not hidden). He asked for “proof” of my declaration, which I had not been given when I’d entered the country. (I had declared $26,000 when I’d entered Nepal, as requested on the Customs form. The Customs officer asked why I brought so much money in, and I said for gambling. He took my declaration form, shrugged and waived me away. He never gave me a duplicate of that form.)
I was taken to the Security Director’s Office who asked the Customs Director for the Declaration File. He said there was no record of my declaration! The Customs Director brought two empty forms with him. They asked for $4,000 for filling out the forms on the spot, and to release my $22,700 in “undeclared” funds. I refused to pay such a high bribe for a crime I didn’t commit.
It was Friday. Three armed guards took me to Customs Custody. All of my money was confiscated. Seven prisoners were sitting or lying on the 7-square-meter cell floor without blankets or pillows. Three of them were there for drunken fighting and two were drug offenders. There was no light in the cell. Prisoners had to buy their own food and water. I chose not to eat. The jailer gave me some bananas.
My girlfriend went to the casino for help. The casino management was very sympathetic and tried hard to rescue me. My friend also contacted the Chinese Embassy, which didn’t care about Taiwanese. I had about 70 bug bites on my feet after three nights in custody.
The Revenue Investigation Department had a 7-day interrogation period for my case. Seventeen customs and airport security guards fingerprinted me on my “catch report.” I was told they could share 20% of my “undeclared” money, which amounted to about five months of their combined salaries.
The Revenue Investigator asked for $650 (50,000 Nepal Rupees) for handling my case. I learned that several months ago a Taiwanese incurred similar charges and had paid the same amount. I was willing after three nights of hell, but would not pay in advance. The investigator said, “No money, no good report!” He said he had to share the bribe with 4 other people. I told him all my money had been confiscated. He suggested we borrow money from the casino host who accompanied us.
We finally gave him $150 as an advance. He recommended a only a one-year sentence. I was sent to a formal jail. There were bars at the entrance but not in the jail. About 250 prisoners lived in five big rooms circling a garden. The jail was designed for only 150 prisoners. Prisoners slept side by side. Each person had a space about 70 centimeters wide. We slept on the floor. A senior prisoner took me around telling me jail rules such as not sitting at certain spots.
The newcomers were required to clean toilets for some time. I could pay a $6 one-time charge if I didn’t want the work. After the initial donation, I needed to pay 50 cents every month.
Prisoners did not need do any work, but could make 60 cents a day making necklaces. The prisoners included girl traffickers (10 years), drug dealers (10 years), over-stayers (10 years), and murderers (20 years). The prisoner who slept beside me had sold his wife, sister, and MOTHER to India. Eight Tibetans, including three monks, were in the jail for going to India to see the Dalai Lama without a passport. There were also prisoners with similar cases to mine. I learned that most who had been victimized by the crooked Customs agents spent a month or so in prison, then were let out of the country empty handed.
Many prisoners could be released just by paying money. The Tibetans could be out of the jail any time just for paying about $1,500 each. They could then go to India after their release. If they could not come up with the money in 5 years, they would be sent to China where they would face three years in a labor camp and a $1,000 fine. The Tibetans helped me, generously giving me a bed sheet and blanket. Each prisoner was given a 24-cent food allowance plus 700 grams of rice per day. There was a food stand at the jail. Some prisoners would cook chickens or potato cakes for sale.
The casino gave my girlfriend a free room (for 3 months). She brought casino food to me everyday, including mineral water. The Casino’s Food and Beverage Manager was asked to coordinate the efforts in rescuing me. He cooked many delicious meals for me to share with the Tibetans.
The most difficult part of jail life was the boredom and the mosquitoes. A Czech prisoner left his mosquito net and a lam for me, which was a great relief. I borrowed some novels from the jail library and started writing my fifth book and a jail diary. Prisoners could buy most things from the jail. A British prisoner installed cable TV. He said he watched thousands of movies every year. I thought I would get out in a few days, then a few weeks, then months. A casino staff person arranged for my girlfriend to see the Attorney General, who was sympathetic but couldn’t help as the revenue case was beyond his authority.
On the 11th day of my imprisonment, the Nepal King went to visit China. The 12th day was my birthday and a Nepalese holiday celebrating the King’s China trip. This country found any excuse for a holiday. There was later a holiday for the birth of the Prince’s child.
On the 20th day, I went in handcuffs to the Special Court. Most revenue cases were settled on this day. I listened to the prosecutor describe how a first-time visitor like myself who had attempted to “smuggle” money out of the country deserved a one-year sentence.
I was taken to a separate room to wait for the judges’ decision. The court guard came for me after 20 minutes shaking head and raised two fingers. “Two what?” I thought. “Two months? Two years?” It turned out the court wanted testimonies from the airport security guards within two weeks. The jail guards said I was unfortunate and, “No decision was very typical in Nepal courts.”
Meanwhile, the Nepal King returned successfully from China on the 21st day. He got a $10 million grant from China. I hoped that would help his foreign reserve and spare me...
On the 26th day, the Special Court refused my bail. My lawyer applied to the Supreme Court, which was closed for annual maintenance. My girlfriend talked to the Nepal Tourism Board, which politely declined to help me. The Board’s mission was to pull in tourists, not help them after they were there.
I found I needed new holes on my belt after one month in jail. I would have lost more weight without the casino food. A Czech told me he had a bad stomach from drinking the jail water. I drank a 2-liter bottle of Coke everyday and became the bottle supplier in the jail. Most prisoners needed big bottles for storing water.
I got a place at the flat on the 35th day, when 27 prisoners were sent to a bigger jail. Thanks to the cigarettes I gave to the prisoner head, I got a wider, one-meter sleeping space. I learned that my mother had lost 4 kilos worrying about me, which was a shame as my mother was thin.
I heard many stories about the crooked Customs Department. A Nepoli returned with a gold chain. Customs charged him $150 tax. He said his brother worked at Customs. The guy got his name but collected the money anyway saying his brother would get a share. He found the Custom officer threw away his tax form and pocketed the money. My girlfriend arranged to see a judge in private. The judge would not take money from her and warned her not to give money to a broker. The judge said he would do his best but they were pressed to confiscate the money.
The regular days at the Nepal jail were, in fact, quite relaxing. A friend translated talks among the Nepolis for me. They said the jail life was better than their country life, as in the jail they had water, TV, and a roof.
There was one Nepoli prisoner who refused to leave and had to be thrown out. Another prisoner went in and out 21 times. Some were jailed for minor offences. A prisoner was jailed for 7 months for not paying a $16 fine.
The Supreme Court refused my bail on the 43rd day as part of my money was in traveler’s checks signed by others. This was really unreasonable as I was told on my later trip that traveler’s checks did not need to be declared. I was taken to the Special Court hearing. Airport security guards lied about me “hiding money in a belt.” There was never a belt and their testimony was in conflict with the original catch report.
I had to pay for the taxi to court and also had to buy lunches for the guards. Then I learned the Special Court did not, in fact, have the authority to make a decision on my case, as the government was considering its fate. 400 cases were withheld for two months.
Several Germans visited a Tibetan in the jail. They had read his letter soliciting help in a German newspaper. They said they would put up the money ($1,400) to bail him out. The Tibetan was excited and started packing. They never came for him. We learned that several days later a small plane had crashed at Pohara, a mountain town, and 14 German tourists were killed.
I ran out of interesting books and writing ideas on the 50th day. The jail time had exceeded my expectations. The British lent me some books and recommended some books for me to buy. It took me three to four days to finish one English novel at jail. The last book I had in jail was Tom Clancy’s Executive Order. I read half in jail, and finished the rest in half a year.
The Nepal Corruption Investigation Unit searched 22 Customs officers’ homes, including the Director of the Airport Customs Department. Tons of “undeclared” wealth was found. One customs clerk had the equivalent of 120 years’ salary at his home. I finally saw some light for my case.
The Nepal. jail supposedly housed the worst people of their society, but I felt no fear among the Nepal prisoners. While I was writing my diary, I could see seven prisoners making necklaces for 60 cents a day.
The 55th day was my scheduled court date but I knew it would be cancelled as the government had appointed three new judges for the Special Court. I did the regular jail routine: woke up late, brushed teeth for ten minutes, took turns for toilet (250 shared 4 toilets), walked around the garden, chatted, bathed, ate, washed clothes, watched locals sing and dance, waited for visitors, ate, brushed, went to bed at 9 pm. Most prisoners lived a similar life of just wasting time. The only difference for most prisoners after jail was that they were older. I thought training or some education for these prisoners would be a good investment for the society.
The new judges were finally settled in and set a date for my trial, which was then postponed for a big bank forgery case. A bank manager who was jailed for the bank case said I was lucky because I would get to leave Nepal eventually, while they were stuck for life. I received a new trial date on my 71st day in jail. There was an article in the newspaper about a girl who had been jailed for over six years because the decision paper on her case was missing.
I was found not guilty on the 75th day but I had to spend another night in jail, as I needed to report to the Immigration Department. A judge told me I had to wait 130 days for my money. He also said this was a small mistake and could happen in any country.
I was finally released after 76 days in jail. The jailer made one last effort to delay my release, as he said he could not find a guard to transport me to the Immigration Department ten minutes away. A guard appeared mysteriously after I bribed him $12! I needed a new visa but couldn’t get it as the Revenue Investigator who had confiscated my passport was not in his office. I got the visa the second day but was fined for two days’ late fee (one day for the court ruling time after the Immigration Department closed, one day for waiting for my visa).
I went back Nepal after 6 months for my money only to learn that it would take the Special Court four more months to write up my case’s decision paper. And I couldn’t get my money, as there was also a “waiting period” for the Attorney General’s Office to decide on appealing my case for the government. So I paid another bribe for the Court register to speed up my case... It seemed I had missed my last payment.
Two months later, a court broker sought me to tell me I could come for my money. I again returned to Nepal, but found again that the money was not there for me. He had conned me back to Nepal so that he could “broker” my case for me with the Attorney General’s Office. I declined his offer, as I didn’t trust any officials in Nepal any more.
I finally got my money back 10 months after my release from jail. I got $420 extra on local currency appreciation, but another $2,000 was missing. We went to the court to inquire about it. The money appeared mysteriously the second day. Despite the gracious help of the Nepal casinos and many nice Nepolis, I would never go back to Nepal. I hope (but doubt) I will be the last one suffering from Nepal’s crooked government officers. Up to my last trip to Nepal, there was still no mention of a declaration certification form at Customs, which means innocent tourists like myself can land at the Nepal jail at any Customs officer’s will.
I lost 15 kilos (33 pounds) during my 76 days in jail. What have I learned? First, bribe your way out on the spot. Second, be cautious in handling foreign currency exchanges, and get evidence of your declaration, especially in any uncivilized country. Third, if you come across a similar unfortunate experience, be calm and use your jail time effectively. Fourth, avoid traveling on Fridays. ♠
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