Nepal is a lovely country with a fascinating and warm culture. It was my first successful solo trip abroad and it broke my fall into India. For solo travelers intimated by India, Nepal is much tamer country to travel despite it can at times feel technologically slower. The tourist route is more visible with foreign travelers and the Nepalese are easy going. There are many things to know before traveling Nepal and this post will kick off a series of posts about understanding the culture and traveling Nepal.
Things to Know Before Traveling Nepal
Watch First Impressions Kathmandu & Culture Shock
Nepal Travel Facts for Travelers
A decade ago, I did a Things to Know Before you Go to Kathmandu article.
1. Nepal’s Visa upon Arrivals
Nepal offers visa upon arrivals. A single-entry visa valid for 15/30/90 days costs US$25/40/100. If you’re from a SAARC country, you can get a 30-day visa for free on arrival. You must pay in cash, but all forms of major currency are accepted and there is an ATM machine for you to withdraw money.
2. Language in Nepal
Nepali is an Indo-Aryan language similar to Hindi, is written in Devanagari script and is the first language of Nepal. 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 a little less, but getting around is still manageable. Simply smile with a Namaste and the Nepalese will help you in any way they can.
3. Media misreporting, 2015 Earthquake Update & Nepal’s UNESCO sites
In 2015, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake shook Nepal, causing damage to roads, homes and historical sites. This was the second biggest earthquake in Nepal’s history (the first was an 8.1 magnitude in 1934). Many news outlets splashed “Nepal UNESCO sites reduced to rubble”, claiming it’s cultural heritage destroyed. This was partially true. The 2015 earthquake was truly tragic and the government is undergoing recovery efforts. Walking in the footprints of the earthquake’s destruction, you will notice mounds of rubble and wood beam supports on building structures to hold it up.
But I’ll be absolutely honest with you ~ unless you’re a historian, you won’t notice what’s missing. Nepal has a shit ton of temples and historical buildings and after a while, even the most amazing begins to blend. Nepal is a country of temples, similar to Thailand and after spending half a day in one of the temple cities, Bhaktapur, I was templed out!
4. There is more than one Durbar Square
When the media focused on ruins in Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, it sounded like Boom, everything was gone. But did you know Kathmandu has three Durbar Squares, belonging to three living temple cities — Thamel, Patan (the largest of temple cities) and Bhaktapur (a city of woodwork temples). Each city has encountered some ruin but all is not lost. You will still get a complete picture of Nepal by visiting them.
5. Occasional Blackouts
In the past, Nepal had regular blackout periods, which meant most of the city would go dark and don lanterns or power generators to keep business flowing. Today, the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) has turned on the lights, making blackouts a thing of the past. But the newfound electricity has made Nepalese people suspect that the NEA purposely left them in the dark all these years, as a ploy to force them to invest in power generators. Some locations still experience some darkness as seen in my YouTube video above.
Kathmandu is fairly lit and most westernized hotels and restaurants have backup power generators for traveler’s convenience. In more remote areas and trekking trips, take a flashlight or headlamp.
6. Marajuana grows wild in Nepal
If it smells like someone is lighting up, you might want to check your surroundings. You will find a prolific growth of wild marajuana plants all around Nepal. The plants are literally “weeds” which pop up in the most random spots. What is that?
Nepal used to have a hippie history in the 60’s and getting high was rampant as a hippie tourist attraction in areas like the infamous Freak Street in Thamel. The drug scene grew to include hard narcotics like cocaine, heroine, etc… In a 1973 agreement with the U.S., marajuana was banned as illegal, the streets were cleaned and replaced with more suitable tourist attractions like trekking and culture. marajuana was banned as illegal. Today, marajuana is still sold and travelers are often approached by illicitly dealers. While hashish is very available, tourists are also an easy target for policemen or undercover cops looking to catch bribes to avoid jail (or depending on the situation, you could get slapped around a bit and then propositioned for a bribe). To be in possession of hard drugs is two years in jail.
7. Squat toilets are common in Nepal
While westernized hotels and restaurants and tourist attractions have western toilets, you’ll find more local joints and public restrooms bearing squat toilets. Tip: Always pack a packet of tissue and hand sanitizer.
8. Avoid drinking tap water
Tap water is not filtered or purified in Nepal. Thus, tap water is often boiled before consumption. It’s best to buy bottled water; it’s relatively inexpensive. Avoid any fruits and veggies foods washed in tap water. Read more food safety tips here.
9. Catching the Bus in Kathmandu
Catching a bus in Nepal is a lesson I learned on my first trip. Bus signs are often written in Nepalese, not all bus stops have obvious bus signs nor do they look like bus stands. Fare collectors hang out on the side of the bus shouting out their destination. Fare is charged according to distance and you pay your bus fare when the bus attendant approaches you.
Tip: Kathmandu has two main bus stations~ Kathmandu (Gongabu) Bus Terminal and Ratna Park Station (click respective links for map location). Ratna Park is the easiest to reach if you’re in Thamel. Gongabu Bus Park is further out near the Embassy District.
10. Shopping Knock offs in Thamel
If those NorthFace jackets or trousers sound too cheap to be true, it’s likely a knock-off. Nepal has excellent seamstresses and they are good at counterfeiting NorthFace apparel. As a trekking hub, you will find a wealth of stores in Thamel and Pokhara carrying the brand. It bears the label but the quality is just shy of the original. Similarly, they used to counterfeit Lonely Planet books, by xeroxing pages. I bought one myself just to have a souvenir!
Outside of trekking gear, Nepali boutiques offer hip looking fashion apparel for tourists, with funky knitted items to neuvo hippie themed shirts and dresses.
11. Roads, Dust & Face masks
Roads in Nepal can occasionally be in disrepair, due in part to the earthquake. The government is said to be working on improving them. Still, you’ll find large potholes and a lot of dust, especially in the more urban areas of Kathmandu. You’ll see Nepalese wearing face masks when driving on the road. Women cover their faces with saris or scarves.
12. To eat “Buff”
You’ll see “buff” as an item on many Nepali food menus (i.e. Buff momos, buff burgers, etc… ) This does not mean you eat naked. Buff is a common term for buffalo. Hindus treat cows with reverence and similar to India, many refrain from eating cow; instead, they eat buffalo.
13. Buy your Nepal SIM card at the airport
If you want consistent internet throughout Nepal, buy a Nepalese SIM. I highly recommend buying your SIM at the airport, where there is proper help activating it. Some travelers try to cheap it by getting it in Kathmandu and I regret having been one of them. You need a copy of your passport, a shop that can authorize your SIM purchase (as you’re a tourist vs local) and setting up your plan through locals be challenging without proper translation. The SIM plans are inexpensive and I’ll add more details later on my Kathmandu guide.
14. Avoid street food in Nepal
I’m a big street food foodie, so I hate having to list this. Nepalese street food has been known to cause many bold adventurers a case of traveler’s stomach issues. Refrigeration is poor in Nepal so street food isn’t always refrigerated and food can be reused after a day of being out. Stick to well-maintained and busy restaurants.
Tip: Have local friends show you around or take a reputable street food tour with an local authorized guide, such as Backstreet Academy (review and videos coming soon).
15. Ring Road circles the heart of Kathmandu
If anyone refers to Ring Road, know they are talking about one main road that circles the heart of Kathmandu and Lalitpur. It hits many main points of Kathmandu such as Swayambhunath, Patan, Pashupatinath, Tribhuvan International Airport, Gongabu Bus Terminal and even runs through the countryside. This is helpful to know if you ever used a bus in Kathmandu.
16. Cost of tourist attractions are on the rise
Nepal is a relatively inexpensive tourist destination, with costs between Southeast Asia and Asia. But the cost of tourist attractions are on the rise. Some say this has to do with making tourists help with recovery and restoration of UNESCO sites. Others say, government administration salaries are pocketing the funds. Either way, I found the attractions cost three times more than 2009.
Good news for travelers: many attractions are not patrolled late in the afternoon or at all.
17. Best hotel deals in Kathmandu
I’ve had awesome opportunities to experience a range of Kathmandu hotels from boutique to standard 4-5 star luxury hotels. Some prices are less than a western hotel, albeit the standard can be same in quality. But off-peak season, I’ve seen those hotel prices drop almost by half on agoda.com. It’s practically a steal.
Things to Know about Nepal Culture
18. Hindu or Buddhist?
If you ask a Nepalese person if they are Buddhist or Hindu, their response will be “Yes”.
The major religions and religious festivals are a cross-pollination of both. Surprisingly, 80% of Nepali folks are Hindu and only 10% are Buddhist. In marriage, a Buddhist may marry a Hindu and religious affiliation is less a concern than caste.
As a guest at an auspicious occasion, there might be a red dot placed below your forehead (between your eyes) called tikka. Nepalese hosts may place a tikka on your forehead to welcome you with warmth. Being a delegate for a travel mart conference, we were tikka’d a lot into many events.
Locals use the tikka daily as a way to take prasad (‘blessings’) after visit to a temple for prayer.
20. Temple mirrors and colored powder decoded
Some religious statues or altars have red and yellow powders on them and a mirror above temple entrance. This is so you can afix your own tikka in the case a priest is not there to do it for you.
21. Remove footwear before entering temples and Nepalese houses
When visiting temples and homes in Nepal, always remove footwear. This is a common etiquette you’ll find often in India, Asia and Southeast Asia. Streetwear is considered dirty and disrespectful. Removing your footwear and walking barefoot is a sign of respect for these sacred places.
Things to Know about Nepal Culture
22. Hello and Thank You in Nepali
Many Nepalese know Hello and Thank you, but hearing you speak in their language is still a sweet sound of respect. When saying Hello in Nepal, you say “Namaste” and fold your hands into a prayer. Thank you is “Danyavad” (pronounced: dahn-ya-vahd).
23. What is a topi?
You will see older men donning hats called topi. This is a symbol of national pride, national dress and is commonly worn by Indian Gorkha men and hill-dwelling Nepali.
24. Nepali, Nepalese… what is Newari?
Nepali, Nepalese, Newari… I get these terms confused. They are all Nepal. Nepali is a language similar to Hindi (and sometimes, it can be referred to as the people/culture). Nepalese are generally, people of Nepal. Newari is specific, a unique lifestyle and age-old traditional Newar culture and language, where the old traditions and beliefs are still adhered to. Newars are descendants of the first dwellers of Kathmandu.
25. Nepal still recognizes caste systems in society
Caste systems are still alive in Nepal. The caste systems govern arranged marriage partners, diets, even schools children attend from an early age. While Nepal is occasionally influenced by modern thinkers and youth, the caste system is still very strong and children who go against the system in search of free love, can face the threat of disownership from the family.
26. Sherpa is not always a Sherpa
It’s easy to confuse the term Sherpa in Nepal. The word automatically strikes the idea of trekking porters and guides. However, in Nepal it can also mean an specific ethnic caste of mountain people in the Himalayas. Ethnic sherpas can be porters and guides, but not all sherpas belong to the ethnic minority group of Sherpa. They can be Tamang, etc…
27. “Daal Bhat Power 24 hours”
Daal bhat is a yellow lentil soup and popular but basic meal of Nepalese (especially trekkers and sherpas). It’s said that Nepalese can eat daal bhat three times a day and that simple dish can keep one strong and sustained through the day. However, generally brunch and dinner are the two main meals.
28. Electricity in Nepal
Look up towards the phone and electrical lines and your jaw will draw open upon witnessing electrical cords wrapped in a large jumble, like tangled hair. Unfortunately, it makes the street look disorganized and chaotic. But yes, there are electricians who work to sort through the jumbled mess to troubleshoot electrical problems.
29. Is it a “hill” or “mountain”?
In Nepal, if you mistakenly confuse a “hill” with a “mountain”, you might get a Nepali chuckle. Eight of the world 10 highest peaks (i.e. Mount Everest, are in Nepal, so a “mountain” by Nepalese standard is defined as something that is snow-tipped and above a certain sea level. Over 14 peaks in Nepal stand above 22,000 feet above sea level. Everest itself, stands over 29,000 feet.
According to Nepalese, the majority of “mountains” in the world are hills.
30. Problem with Trash
You will find an abundance of trash and a prolific growth of wild marajuana plants. Locals will burn piles of trash but obviously there is a problem with littering in general. As a traveler, save your trash until you can find a place to dispose of it.
31. Cranial power
In Nepalese culture, heavy objects are strapped to the head to be carried. The belief is that the head is the strongest part of the body.
32. Women do laborous jobs
You’ll find many physically laborous jobs being performed by women (i.e. carrying heavy construction materials from a construction site, quarry work, etc…) Women handle a shocking amount of manual labor, that you might attribute to being a man’s job!
Travel Essentials to Shop for Nepal
|Recommended Essentials for Nepal. Click to Shop.|
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