Namaste and welcome to this edition of things I wish people told me before I went to Nepal!
These tips for Nepal aren’t categorized in any certain order and contain a few fun facts as well – most of these are from personal experience, chatting with locals, and from fellow travelers. To give you a little background, I visited Nepal in the middle of September 2016, for 9 days, with two friends.
Take a warm cup of chai, dip your roti into some palak, and enjoy these little nuggets of wisdom.
1. Don’t drink the tap water
After (accidentally) spilling something on my shorts in the airport, I had to wash my favorite pair of shorts. I took a bit of soap and water, gave it a quick wash in the hotel sink, and hung it up to dry. The next morning, my entire room smelled musty and like somebody crawled in my closet and died.
Turns out, whatever was in the tap water made it onto my shorts and stayed there. :(
What’s the moral of this story? Don’t drink the tap water. Most hotels will provide you with a free bottle of water when you stay, or you can buy them from the stores/vendors for around 30 to 50 cents. You’ll obviously need to shower with tap water (unless you can buy 20 bottles of water #ballin), but I recommend having a second bottle of water to brush your teeth and clean your face.
2. Go Beyond Kathmandu
Coming into Nepal, my friend and I had literally zero plans on what to do: the only things that were booked were the plane tickets and a hotel in the capital of Nepal that would be our home base for the next nine days. After chatting with other guests, locals, and even the hotel owner (Thanks, Santos!) we took small day trips outside of Kathmandu and 2 days in Pokhara.
Best decision ever. Pokhara was stunningly beautiful and was like somewhere between heaven and Earth. Just look at that photo! If you have more than 4 days, I would recommend looking into other cities like Pokhara, Janakpur, Patan, or whatever else strikes your interest. Heck, you can even cross into Tibet or Bhutan if you have the time and budget.
3. …Or, Get Lost (Literally)
After enjoying a meal of Momos (see #5) and mango lassi at noon, we had a whole day of adventuring left. Except, we had nowhere to go. Fortunately our waiter had a few ideas, one of them being a visit to the local monastery located on the mountain near the center. We grabbed our backpacks, trekked the 1 km hill, realized that we still needed 6 more kilometers, called a taxi to get us the rest of the way there (hey, it was a pretty tough hill) and … were promptly turned away.
Apparently the monastery didn’t accept guests after a certain time, much less two female guests. We were bit bummed but still had a ton of time, so we asked our taxi driver to keep going up the mountain. When we reached the top, there were no tourists in sight – just another monastery, a small store, and a gorgeous view of Kathmandu below. A little while later, while sitting down and enjoying some chai, some friendly monks from the monastery came over and we ended up chatting for a bit.
Sometimes it’s better to not plan anything and see where the road takes you. You might even see the Kopan Monastery monks. :)
4. Tourist vs Local Price (Alternatively, Life is unfair and so are the prices)
Most tourist attractions require an entrance fee — which varies from a 10 Rupees to more than a thousand Rupees — but the fees are different for locals and tourists. As a comparison, the cheapest place we visited was the Mahendra Caves in Pokhara ($1USD for tourists vs 20 cents for locals) and the most expensive were the Chandragiri Cable Cars ($22 for tourists vs $7 for locals). You can see the difference in the photo above.
At the risk of sounding like a jaded tourist, I get that the money is going towards rebuilding some of the things that were destroyed in the earthquakes, but it’s still a bit frustrating when we had to pay 5 to 10x more than a local. There are a few other blog posts that were written about this practice (which is apparently common in Southeast Asia), but I recommend checking out eTramping for an entertaining read.
5. Momos, Momos, and mo’ Momos
Y’know how every place has their stereotypical foods? France has croissants, China has dim sum, Italy has gelato, and Nepal has … Momos. Wtf are Momos? Well, they’re little round dumplings with filling inside, such meat, veggies, or paneer cheese. My only food advice for Nepal? Try the Momos, you won’t regret it. ;)
6. Bring Toilet Paper
Self-explanatory, but the majority of places we stopped at did not have TP. Be safe and bring your own lil’ roll.
7. Plan Your Trekking
When you think of Nepal, what comes to mind? Mt. Everest is probably at the top of your list, and it’s no surprise – it’s the tallest mountain in the world! The most popular times to go trekking in Nepal is February through May, and September through October, when the weather is clear and there are pleasant temperatures.
During one of Pokhara’s power outages – a good chance to sit outside and enjoy the rain/tea :)
8. The Lights are Out & Everybody’s Home
Power outages are incredibly common in Nepal, even in the capital of Katmandu, due to the recent earthquake and the country’s hilly terrain. The majority of outages are scheduled ahead of time (there’s even an app for that), but a good majority “just happen.” In fact, there are special cars with huge microphones that go around the city and let the locals know when one happens.
The good news is that your hotel is most likely equipped to handle these power outages. The ones we stayed at had outlet extenders with surge protection, but if you’re worried, I would recommend bringing your own just in case. Also, don’t worry about the lights going off – most hotels are equipped with a back-up generator that will keep all the major appliances (lights, heat, etc) on.
9. Don’t Expect too much from the Internet
Fun fact: Nepal is the second slowest country in the world in terms of internet speed (Libya is #1), and many WiFi hotspots won’t work here, so plan ahead!
10. The Smog
Thanks to a booming population, a ton of cars, and low standards for emission control, Kathmandu in ranked in the top cities in the world for the worst air pollution. If you have asthma or lung problems, consider investing in a cheap sanitary mask to block out the dust. For the budget version, use your shirt as a mask like I did above
11. Taxis are Your Best Friend
Sure, you can take the bus or rent a motorcycle (or even a tuk-tuk), but I found that taking the taxi in Nepal was the quickest and easiest option. They’re everywhere, you can haggle the price, and it’s cheap – we paid an average of 150 to 300 Rupees ($1.50 to $3 USD) and around 500 Rupees to get from KTM airport to the center. If you want to go outside of the center, you can also get a taxi hire for a few hours / day – just make sure to agree on the price before you go, and ask your hotel front desk for their recommendations.
Pashupatinath Temple, a popular spot where the locals (and gurus) will ask for tips
12. How to Avoid Getting Ripped Off in Nepal, Part 2
When I was traveling in Nepal, there was a particular scam that I saw for the first time. We would visit a well-known tourist area, like the Pashupatinath Temple or Kumari Ghar, and a local would come up to us (and the other tourists) and start explaining the history of the building/temple/whatever.
Thinking it was just a friendly person, the tourists kept listening until they finished the “tour” and start to leave – until the local stops them and demands money for his or her fantastic and super interesting excursion. If someone approaches you and starts to lecture about the place, politely cut them off and ask how much their tour will cost. If they’re apprehensive about giving you a specific price (or include the phrase “Pay me what you think it’s worth”), walk away.
13. You can haggle
One of my favorite things about souvenir shopping is getting the chance to talk with the cashiers and haggle. It’s completely normal – and expected – in Nepal. Before you jump in and throw your cash at vendors, make sure you know what type of items you’re looking for, walk around a few kiosks, and figure out the general price range for those things. That way, you won’t pay 1000Rs for a singing bowl that costs 600Rs elsewhere. Likewise, remember to be courteous and friendly when bargaining to get the best deals.
14. What’s the Time?
Nepal’s time zone is a bit funny – since it’s so close to India (which have half time zones), it’s officially +5:45 hours ahead of the UTC. If you’re planning to Skype with your friends or family, make sure you get the correct time!
15. Did you know?
Nepal’s flag is the only flag that is not rectangular or square! The two rectangles symbolize the Himalayan mountains with the sun and moon inside, and you’ll see it everywhere – especially in Kathmandu’s main square.
16. Yeti, Yeti
Speaking of mountains: Nepal is famous for creating the legend of the Yeti, a furry creature that lives in the Himalayas. It’s so popular that you’ll even see it on souvenir t-shirts (along with Yaks and Buddha’s Eye!)
17. Not my Circus, Not my Monkeys
If you go to any of the main temples in Kathmandu, you’ll see a ton of monkeys – especially if you visit Swayambhunath, also known as the Monkey Temple. But be careful and keep valuables in a closed bag because the monkeys like to steal anything they can get their hands on: food, shiny objects, and we even saw one drinking a bottle of Fanta on the bench!
18. All Dressed Up and Somewhere to go
When visiting temples, it’s especially important to dress modest and respectful. Women should keep most areas covered (shoulders, chest, below the knees) and men should wear long pants (no shorts). I kept a long scarf in my bag just in case we decided to stop by a temple – it doubles as a long skirt or can be worn to cover your shoulders.
19. Prayer Wheels
Since we’re on the topic of temples, let’s talk about something that you’ll definitely see: a prayer wheel. 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. Be sure to walk in a clockwise direction!
20. What are those colorful flags?
When walking around temples in Nepal, you might see a string of multicolored flags waving in the breeze. They are called lung ta – wind horse – and are traditional Tibetan prayer flags used to bless the area around it. The flags always have five colors, blue, white, red, green, and yellow, which represent the five elements, and are inscribed with prayers.
21. How Expensive is Nepal?
Nepal is a very inexpensive country. In fact, it’s probably one of the cheapest I’ve been to (no wonder backpackers love it!). A decent lunch was around $5-7USD, drinks were $2-3USD, and double hotel rooms were around $20-25USD.
22. Dress in Layers
Your experience may vary with the weather, but I found it helpful to dress in layers. Even though the forecast is generally correct, sometimes Nepal weather can still be unpredictable and it’s convenient to add or remove layers as necessary. One of my favorite “must take items” on this trip was a lightweight and waterproof jacket. It rolls up into a small bag, looks great and matched my wardrobe, and was even used as a blanket (and easily washed afterward!)
23. How to Make Friends & not Offend People
If you want to be respectful in Nepal, remember these golden rules: don’t touch people on the head (the most sacred part of the body); don’t point with your finger (use your chin if you must); don’t eat or pass food with your left hand (considered dirty and unhygienic); and don’t show the soles of your feet.
A Kumari is one of the icons of Nepal – she is a young girl who is believed to be a living goddess and can be visited at Kumari Ghar in Kathmandu (see #12). I highly recommend reading more about kumaris – their feet cannot touch the ground; a Kumari holds her position until she hits puberty; there is a festival every year to honor her; and if you happen to see her while visiting the Ghar, you’ll be blessed with luck.
25. Getting a Visa
Freaking over your visa? Don’t! Obtaining a visa to Nepal is super easy and painless – you don’t even need to send any documents to an embassy. When you arrive at KTM airport, there will be a couple of kiosks where you enter your information, take the printed slip of paper, and go over to a counter to receive your visa. The cost is $25USD/15 days, $40/30 days, and $100/90 days and I recommend bringing small bills as they do not take credit cards.
*Note: This is my personal experience with a US passport, please check yours accordingly. :)
26. Money vs. Credit Cards
Since we’re on this topic, make sure to convert your USD/EUR/currency to Nepal Rupees as soon as possible. Nepal is still very dependant on using paper bills, and credit card machines are hard to come by – I think I used my cards a total of 3 or 4 times while we were there. You can book hotels in advance with a card (I use Booking and Hotels) to get reward points, but most other places, including restaurants, cafes, souvenirs, and transportation only accept paper Rupees.
27. Tipping in Nepal
In general, tipping is not necessary in Nepal. Restaurants, cafes, and hotels have a “service fee” added to your bill, which is usually 10%. The only exception is your trekking tour guide and porter – aim for about 15 to 20% of your total tour cost, since they’re the ones responsible for getting you back safely. ;)
Overlooking Durbar Square in Katmandu – can you count the number of rooftop restaurants?
28. Hidden Gems
Houses and restaurants are stacked on top of each other in Nepal, which means that there are a lot of “rooftop” cafes! For a great view and cheap eats, walk around the main attractions until you find a restaurant that you like. They’ll often be marked with signs on the ground floor, and all you’ll have to do is walk up a flight (or 2, or 3…) of stairs to get there.
Phew – that’s about it! I hope this doesn’t come out in a negative way, since I loved my travels in Nepal. It was the first country that really threw me into a culture shock with the amazing architecture, friendly people, and culture.
Likewise, I hope you didn’t get too tired from these tips (like my monkey friend up there) :)
What were you surprised to find out? Do you have any similar stories? Let me know!