Nepal is a tiny, landlocked country surrounded by two giant neighbors, China and India. When it comes to adventure travel, Nepal is one of the best destinations in the world, with challenging trekking routes, breathtaking glaciers, and picturesque valleys. But even if you have no desire to spend a single day in hiking boots, there is so much to see and do in this unique country. But there are definitely some things worth knowing before you visit.
1. Where Is Nepal?
Nepal, officially the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal, is a landlocked country in South Asia, lying along the southern slopes of the Himalayas, with the Tibet Autonomous Region of China to the north, and India to the south, east, and west.
2. How Do I Get There And What About A Visa?
Most visitors fly into Tribhuvan International Airport, in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu. Only a small number of international airlines fly to Nepal, and they fill up fast, so if traveling over peak periods, book flights well in advance.
If entering by land, there are numerous border crossings between India, in the south of Nepal, and these can be navigated fairly easily, especially when organized through tour agencies.
Getting a visa for Nepal is easy. You can get your visa on arrival if flying or if entering by road (for most nationalities). A 15-day visa costs $25, a 30-day visa costs $40, and a 90-day visa costs $100.
3. Getting Around
Buses are the main form of public transport. Local buses run pretty much everywhere and will stop for anyone, but I’m going to say that while incredibly cheap, I don’t recommend them. Tourist buses are the most common way to get between cities and are more comfortable and less crowded than the local busses, but journeys can be long and arduous. Roads are shocking, traffic is appalling, buses stop frequently for meals/tea breaks, and a breakdown or flat tire is almost guaranteed. It once took me 7 hours to travel the 124 miles from Kathmandu to Pokhara!
Flying is the transport of choice for many visitors, and it’s definitely the fastest way to travel. When faced with the choice between a cramped 24-hour bus ride, or $100 for an internal flight, I know which one I’d choose! Bear in mind flights are weather dependent and are often canceled at the last minute.
4. Where To Stay
Accommodation is varied and plentiful. Nepal is no stranger to tourists, and no matter where you go, you’ll find a place to rest your head. The greatest variety of options can be found in the most popular tourist spots of Kathmandu, Pokhara, and Chitwan, with everything from luxurious 5-star accommodations to basic guesthouses. Prices vary substantially from region to region, but for the most part, accommodations are remarkably affordable. A teahouse on a trek can cost as little as a few dollars a night, while a safari lodge in Chitwan could set you back $250 a night.
Eight of the world’s 10 highest peaks are in Nepal, as well as countless trekking routes. If you want to trek you’ll need to organize a “Trekkers Information Management System” card, and for more remote treks you’ll need a special permit. If you’re booked on a group trek, which I recommend, the tour operator should organize this on your behalf. Some interesting, unfrequented treks include the Manaslu Circuit, the Gokyo-Cho-La Pass, the Tsum Valley, the Kanchenjunga Trail, the Rolwaling Trail, and the Nar Phu Valley.
When you think of Nepal and trekking, Mt. Everest probably springs to mind, and if that’s the case, you can read more about that here. But trekking isn’t the only way to see Mt. Everest. Travelers can take a one-hour round trip flight from Kathmandu to see Mt. Everest from the air; a fantastic trip for photographers, as the airlines only sell window seats, ensuring everyone gets a great view.
6. Nepal Is Much More Than Mountains
Nepal might be famous for its mountains, but there are plenty of other amazing things to do that don’t include trekking. Nepal’s bustling capital, Kathmandu, is a historic city where three ancient kingdoms meet. Highlights through the Kathmandu Valley include the Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, and Patan Durbar squares (formerly royal kingdoms), the ancient Swayambhunath, and Boudhanath Buddhist stupas, as well as Pashupatinath Hindu temple. Outside of the Kathmandu Valley, Lumbini is the birthplace of Buddha, Pokhara is a vibrant and picturesque city known for Phewa Lake, and there are several safari parks like the national parks of Chitwan and Bardia, where you can see wildlife or go paragliding and bungee jumping
7. Language, Religion, And Customs
Nepali is an Indo-Aryan language, similar to Hindi spoken in India (Indian travelers should understand enough to get around). English is a secondary language spoken mostly in large cities like Kathmandu. Outside Kathmandu, English is spoken less, but getting around is still manageable. Simply smile and say Namaste, which is a traditional Hindu greeting meaning, essentially, “the divine spirit with me, bows to the divine spirit within you” or “my soul recognizes your soul.” You’ll say Namaste to everyone, and everyone will say it to you, but unlike at the end of your yoga class back home, here it’s used for pretty much everything — a greeting, goodbye, and even “pardon me, you’re in my way.” When saying Namaste, you hold your hands as if in prayer. Another good word to know is “thank you,” dhanyavad, pronounced: dahn-ya-vahd.
About 80 percent of Nepal’s residents are Hindu, 10 percent are Buddhist, and the rest are a mixed bag. The major religious festivals are a cross-pollination of both Hinduism and Buddhism. You’ll see as many Hindu symbols and temples around Nepal as you will statues and devotions to the Buddha.
Some Dos & Don’ts
If you want to be respectful in Nepal, there are a few golden rules: Don’t touch people on the head (the most sacred part of the body), don’t point with your finger (use a flat hand or your chin), don’t eat or pass food with your left hand (considered dirty and unhygienic), show respect by using both hands to give or receiving something (including money), remove your shoes before entering a temple or monastery, and always walk around a stupa clockwise.
8. Food And Drink
Nepalese cuisine is absolutely delicious, and it’s possible to have a filling and delicious meal for a few dollars. My favorites are momos, Nepal’s version of dumplings, made with curry spices, ground meats, veggies, or cheese, and served steamed or fried.
If you’re craving a taste of home, the restaurants in Thamel cater to travelers, and you’ll find plenty of familiar meals catering to western taste buds.
I love street food, but Nepalese street food has been known to cause stomach issues in some travelers! I’d advise you to stick to well-maintained and busy restaurants or, better still, take a reputable street food tour! Try Backstreet Academy’s Secret Street Food Tour to visit some of Kathmandu’s local haunts.
Tap water is not filtered or purified in Nepal. It’s best to buy bottled water. Avoid fresh fruit juices on the streets, and any fruits and veggies washed in tap water. Perhaps have bottled water to brush your teeth.
While westernized hotels and restaurants, and most tourist attractions have western toilets, you’ll find most local establishments and public restrooms have squat toilets. If you are used to sitting on a “porcelain throne” at home, squatting over a hole in the ground can be a little off-putting at first. But squat toilets are common throughout this part of the world, so the sooner you get used to it, the better. Carry a packet of tissue and hand sanitizer.
Some Bonus Tips:
Avoid Fake Tourist Guides
Keep an eye out for overly-friendly locals at popular tourist spots, who may approach you and begin “sharing’ the history of the site.” Often these are unofficial touts, and once finished with your “tour,” they’ll demand money for their time. If someone approaches you and starts a lecture, politely cut them off and ask how much their tour will cost, if they’re reluctant to give a specific price or say “pay me what you think it’s worth,” walk away.
Don’t Buy Knives
The famous “kukri” curved knife is still part of the Nepalese army’s weapons, and it’s almost 15 inches long. While you may be keen to buy one to show off to friends at home, it’s risky. Exporting a knife from Nepal usually isn’t a problem, but that may be a different story when your flight lands at home.
You’ll see “buff” as an item in many Nepali restaurants, it means buffalo. Cows are sacred for Hindus and most refrain from eating them, eating buffalo instead.
Prayer Wheels And Prayer Flags
Prayer Wheels: These large, cylindrical objects are found in front of Buddhist temples and are inscribed with mantras, which are supposed to help balance your karma when you spin them.
Prayer Flags: When walking around temples or in the mountains, you will see strings of multicolored flags waving in the breeze. They are called lung ta (wind horse) and are traditional Tibetan prayer flags. The flags always have five colors: blue, white, red, green, and yellow, which represent the five elements, and are inscribed with Buddhist prayers.
You’ll find prayer flags for sale in many shops, so take home some for your loved ones. Just don’t let them touch the ground, it’s disrespectful.
Don’t Talk Politics
Nepal had a decades-long, brutal civil war in the mid-’90s, was a monarchy until 2008, and is still a relatively new republic. Keep this in mind and avoid bringing up uncomfortable political topics when conversing with locals.
The 2015 Earthquake’s Effects On Nepal’s UNESCO Sites
In 2015, Nepal suffered a devastating earthquake which the country is still recovering from. The country is rebuilding, and everywhere you look you’ll find construction.
Here are some things to look into in the event you visit Nepal: