Nepal is sometimes bypassed by travelers because they figure it’s an extension of India; it’s not. Nepal has a beautiful, fascinating, long history. The Nepalese are incredibly friendly and fun — learn a bit of Nepali and they will love you for it. Nepal is a mecca for outdoorsy type travelers because of the Himalayan mountains that offer up some of the best trekking opportunities in Asia. In fact, Nepal boasts eight of the 10 highest peaks in the world. The country is generally safe (check out the political situation with the Maoists, it can change rapidly) and Nepal attracts both outdoorsy types and volunteers in equal measure. The power situation makes working remotely from Nepal tricky (there can be as few as eight hours of power every day).
I loved visiting Nepal and I loved learning about culture and language. I highly recommend a visit, but that being said, post-earthquake Nepal is a very different place than it once was. The April 2015 earthquake had a devastating effect on the people of Nepal, on the country’s transportation infrastructure, and on the tourism industry. Now, it’s still a place you can travel and have a wonderful time. In fact, I am a firm supporter of responsible tourism as a way to help Nepal rebuild. But the impact, death toll, and the level of destruction mean that travelers should be keenly aware that the country will take years to rebuild. Some posit that it will take decades to recover from this earthquake. All this to say, be sensitive to the fact that this country is facing a long road ahead. Tourism is one part of a solution, but only when tourists are committed to a responsible approach to helping the country come out stronger on the other side of this quake.
You can skip straight to the responsible volunteering & travel section, or to the city guides:
Before You Go, What You Should Know
Nepal is one of the least developed countries in the world according to the U.N. This means travelers will see drastic differences between life in the cities and life in the small villages. The culture and people have a resilient spirit, however, and it’s a beautiful place to visit.
As Nepal developed, unlike many countries it remains about 80% rural. It’s also one of the least developed countries in the world according to the U.N. This means travelers will see drastic differences between life in the cities and life in the small villages. As a result of this mix, lifting the rural areas out of extreme poverty has proven difficult. The political climate is often tense, and the lack of education in these rural areas has had a direct impact on the preservation of Nepal’s natural resources. As tourists come to Nepal, the country struggled to meet tourism demand. This has resulted in poorly maintained transportation infrastructures and the use of natural resources in unsustainable ways. It’s a bit of a tough situation, as the tourists are both the core issue, and yet also the only way to bring money into these areas.
Modern Nepal is a fascinating, diverse place. Neighboring countries have had a marked influence on modern Nepali life. Travelers will see influences from India, Tibet, China, and even Mongolia. The country has 30+ ethnic groups, and with these a large variation in the number of religions and dialects. With all this diversity, the country has a mixed bag of religions as well. Predominantly Hindu, the country integrates Buddhism and animism too. All this to say, the mixing of cultures over the years have given Nepal a history as beautiful as the landscape.
The Fast Facts About Nepal Travel
Electricity: 220V/60Hz (multiple plugs as they have retrofitted many to fit American and European plugs. Be careful of plugging in some electrical devices as the the U.S. runs at 120V).
Primary Airports: Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport (KTM)
Internet Situation: Kathmandu and Pokhara have extensive access to internet shops filled with computers. There are also restaurants and cafes in both of these primary cities that offer free WiFi. The internet is decent in both of these very tourist-heavy cities. You can do most anything you need to on the internet, uploading information, photos, emails. Video calls likely only in the bigger cities. Outside of Pokhara and Kathmandu, it’s fair to non-existent. Beyond the internet, it’s the lack of consistent power that will foil your plans. You have to carefully plan your internet time if you’re running a business, you will surely want to buy a SIM with data as a backup.
Local SIM: Travelers can easily purchase a SIM card as well as data. And it’s quite affordable. Read this SIM card guide for tips on how to get one, how to top up, and what that whole process will look like.
Visas: Nepal issues visas on arrival for citizens of most countries. These can be purchased for 15, 30, or 90 days and range from $25 to $100. Check your visa requirements here. You must bring a passport-sized photo, or stand in line and pay for one when you arrive. Volunteers technically require a visa arranged by the place they are working with as volunteering on a tourist visa is expressly forbidden, though harder for them to enforce.
Festivals of Note: Phalgun Festivals, Kathmandu (Feb/March). Dashain, country-wide (September/October). Indra Jatra, Kathmandu (September).
Safety: One of the most common issues facing travelers is gastrointestinal issues. There is very poor sanitation in Nepal so you will need to be careful with your food and water consumption. You must carry a medical kit; make sure you have several courses of antibiotics as well as a decent supply of oral rehydration salts. These ORS can save your life in the case of diarrheal illness. Anything can happen on the road. I am a firm advocate of travel insurance; here are my tips to pick a good travel insurance.
Budget: Nepal is very budget-friendly and cheap to travel. Hiking and trekking will add some expenses, but even those are reasonable. A solo traveler can anticipate rock-bottom budget of $15 per day if traveling around. If you’re volunteering some daily rates are in the $10-15 per day range to cover food and board. A little extra budget goes a long way here and you can upgrade to nice digs and eat decent food on just $30 per day per person when you are not trekking. Once you add in trekking fees, that gets a bit more. Baseline though — it’s cheap. You can scale up and have a very nice couple trip too, like this woman did.
When to Go: You’ll need to plan your visit around your planned activities. If you’re hiking, the trails are closed during monsoon season, which runs from June through August. Trekking season is September through May. Autumn and spring are beautiful; lush and green in the fall and flowering and cool in the spring. Winter can be chilly at altitude, but is pleasant in the Kathmandu Valley.
Food Considerations: Vegetarians will love traveling through Nepal because the national dish, dal bhat, is lentil soup and traditionally served with rice and veggies. Warning though, don’t be fooled into thinking that the food is similar to India — there is much less variety and the Nepalese do eat meat (unlike most of India). The Tibetan momos (dumplings) are fantastic and a staple of any vegetarian diet in Nepal. Also, many travelers get gastrointestinals issues as there is very poor sanitation. Avoid unpeeled fruits and salads. Please always sterilize your water, and follow these food safety principles.
Accommodation: Nepal has a huge range of options. From cheap, basic rooms for backpackers to much nicer hotels. And even some eco-lodges and fun things like treehouses and such. While the links in city guides below go to a hotel booking site, many are also found on AirBnB if you are member. (A Little Adrift readers get a $20 AirBnB credit here to give it a go.) For backpackers, Hostelworld is perfect for pre-booking hostels; in high season the bigger towns book up fast. Consider Agoda for researching hotels as it’s one of the best sites for Asia travels. And if you buy a local SIM (which you should), you can easily call ahead and directly reserve spots en route. Hotel owners are often on Whatsapp, and you should use that if trying to get a quick response in-country. If none of these will do, check out my detailed guide to finding good places to stay.
Transportation: Transportation between cities is easy to organize and takes the form of buses. If you’re faint of heart, don’t watch as the buses careen around curves and the rusting carcasses of other buses dot the bottom of the hillsides. The buses are the main form of transportation, but Nepal has serious infrastructure issues so be careful. But, the buses are effective and they’re virtually the only budget option. In more recent years, there has been a rise in micro-buses of 10-12 people — a bit more but likely a bit safer. If you’re in a group, it’s fairly affordable to hire a private driver or taxi for longer distances. Bicycle and taxis are great for navigating around Kathmandu.
Possible Issues: Women should not trek alone in Nepal, not under any circumstances. Go with a guide, or use a one of the buddy trek sites to find a trekking partner. Be particularly cautious as a woman hiking in the Langtang area. Transportation issues are a serious safety threat. Landslides and road accidents are high all year round, but particularly during the summer monsoon rains. I highly recommend travel insurance as health care quality is low and you’ll likely need to be airlifted out of Nepal if something serious happens.
Pre-Trip Reading Inspiration
Fiction & Nonfiction Books About Nepal:
- Arresting God in Kathmandu by Samrat Upadhyay. This is the first Nepali author to find western publication of his story and it’s worth reading for a much more personal account of Nepal.
- Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal. A fascinating, harrowing, and humbling account of one man’s plunge into the world of child-trafficking. He gives a unique take on a side of Nepal few tourists are willing or able to see.
- The Snow Leopard. The author hikes deep into Tibetan regions of the Himalayas in search of a rarely spotted type of snow leopard. Beautifully written narrative account of nature and the journey — pick up a copy before you leave because it’s hard to find on the road!
- The Violet Shyness of Their Eyes: Notes from Nepal. Much more than the travel narrative it’s billed as, the author, a Westerner teaching in remote Nepal shares insights on how Western culture is affecting Nepal — and her opinions are far from mainstream, but you’ll find yourself agreeing most of the time.
- From Goddess to Mortal: The Royal Kumari is an absolutely fascinating part of modern Nepal religious beliefs. In this autobiography, the author details her early years as a living Goddess living at a temple in Kathmandu; after six years, however, she went from Goddess back to mortal. Intriguingly innocent as the author first experiences the attention of being Nepal’s one living Goddess, contrasted sharply with her life post-Kumari status. Unique cultural insights abound and I found the story of the Kumari one of the most fascinating parts of my visit. Order before you leave as it’s only in paperback.
- Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster. A haunting account of the author’s ascent of Mt. Everest in March 1996 on the day a massive storm hit and took the lives of several of his traveling companions. Not indicative of all treks in the Himalayas by any means but compelling storytelling centered on Nepal nonetheless.
Podcasts and Online Reads:
- No one else needs to climb Everest – let’s turn it into a memorial: This is a great piece by Jan Morris and a must-read before you cross off that bucket-list trip to Everest Base Camp. Everest is a holy spot and the death toll is climbing as what was once a pursuit reserved for the fiercest of climbers has become a spectacle of tourism.
- The Case for Traveling to Nepal: This is a piece I wrote post-earthquake that looks at the interplay between tourism and recovery as Nepal rebuilds.
- Riding High: Mountain biking is taking off in Nepal in the wake of the earthquake and the subsequent fuel crisis. This piece examines at what a mountain bike trip through the mountains actually looks like.
Socially Responsible Travel
Nepal is one of the most beautiful countries on earth. The Himalayas are a companion to nearly every moment in the country. And the Nepali people are warm and welcoming. As a country, they have embraced tourism and the money that brings to the country. Alongside that, it’s one of the poorest countries on the planet and the demands of tourism often run roughshod over conventional best tourism practices. The mingling of a beautiful landscape, a willing culture, and a high demand for tourism has created some very serious issues. But there are benefits too; even tourism done poorly has brought needed money into impoverished rural communities. Responsible travel is not about abandoning Nepal because it has some issues, but rather identifying areas where tourism can be shifted into a more positive force for good in the country. A responsible traveler should be sensitive to the development issues Nepal faces — even more so in light of the devastating earthquake. Let’s look at a few areas of responsible tourism decisions facing a Nepal-bound traveler.
Trekking in Nepal
As one of the top activities in Nepal, there are a handful of specific issues directly in and related to your trek. A key concern is the impact trekkers have on the remote mountain environments during their trek. Trekkers should plan on keeping their waste to an absolute minimum. This includes packaging from food or items you’ve packed, as well as plastic water bottles. All trash has to be burned (not ideal) or carried off of the mountain. Do your part and carry a reusable bottle and a SteriPen or LifeStraw for your trip.
Lighten your load on your trek. Carry the lightest pack possible and leave behind all the nonessentials. Some trekkers will pay their porters to carry a heavier load and this is poor practice. The porters may accept the extra fee, but they are risking their livelihoods by trekking overloaded. General guidelines are 6-7 kilos per person, with a porter carrying max 12.5 kilos. Stick to this limit — you won’t need the extra clothes you’re over-packing anyway. To that end, ensure you are paying fair wages to all porters and guides. One of the most compelling reasons to support tourism in the Himalayas is the positive impact it has bringing money into rural communities. Don’t haggle too much and ensure you are tipping and spreading money around fairly.
This is sticky subject. I expressly discourage riding elephants in Thailand and other areas of Southeast Asia. But in Nepal, there are other considerations. The elephants are primarily used in Chitwan National Park to allow tourists to see the endangered one-horned rhino. Chitwan is home to an abundance of wildlife, and unique flora and fauna. Even more, beyond the rhino, Chitwan houses the last stronghold of Bengal tigers in the wild, and is home to a critically-endangered vulture species. This park is important, and the elephants shuttling tourists to the rhinos provide invaluable funding that goes toward anti-poaching measures. This is a rare instance where responsible tourism can include a ride on an elephant as a means of supporting responsible tourism. And even more, I highly, highly recommend a visit as Chitwan National Park is a cultural stronghold of the Terai people, a UNESCO site, and a stunningly pretty place on this planet.
Volunteering in Nepal
What a sticky issue. Nepal’s aid industry thrives, but the general lack of government control and regulations means that this country has some serious issues in the volunteering and voluntourism arenas. Generally, don’t plan on volunteering at an industry. And if you plan to teach English, ensure you have at least 4-6 weeks minimum to devote to a location. Beyond these two types of volunteering, there is a lot of other work that is less “sexy,” but also needed. Nepal needs skilled labor of almost any form, so if you have a skill that you can spend time teaching locals, that is a valuable form of volunteering. This could be anything from agriculture to medicine to construction. Think outside the box when you are researching volunteering opportunities, and devote as much time as possible to the cause.
Let’s look at the specifics. For me, I taught English to young Nepali monks at a monastery about an hour outside of Nepal. There are countless opportunities in the realms of medical volunteering and teaching English. There are also a ton of organizations facilitating volunteering opportunities. The sad fact is, however, that most are not doing good work. Some are outright scams and will never give your fee to the places hosting your volunteering. Nepal has so many volunteer opportunities that you should not pay a fee to volunteer. Most volunteer opportunities charge just for room and board, and occasionally a small fee to cover your training — occasionally. If your schedule is flexible, then head to Kathmandu and ask around — you will have a ton of choices. By arriving and looking around, you not only save money, but it often cuts out the confusing middle-man and you can better vet the organization for its ethics and efficacy. These pre-vetted volunteer opportunities are another option for finding good placements.
Visiting Religious Sites
The Nepalese are a spiritual people. Visiting the temples, stupas, and religious sites is a clear highlight to any trip to Nepal, but keep in mind a few behavior best-practices. Show respect by dressing conservatively on any day that you plan to visit temples and religious sites. Although you should generally dress conservatively around the country too, this is doubly important at holy sites. Women should cover their shoulders and knees. Men should wear pants or long shorts and no singlets — also ensure your shirts have sleeves. Be respectful with your camera; you are not allowed to take photos inside of many temples. If you are unsure, ask first. Remove your shoes before entering temples, and never point your feet at the altar, nor should you step over people. Feet are considered dirty and people will shift their legs if you need to pass.
Consider these additional general responsible travel tips to lessen your impact on the places you visit, and this page has thorough information on additional considerations for responsible tourism in Nepal. I also suggest that all travelers read this great post on giving to child beggars; you will face this conundrum, so best to be prepared.
Explore City & Regional Guides for Nepal
- Walking around all of Kathmandu’s many temples and stupas.
- Taking a Vipassana meditation course outside of Pokhara for 10 days.
- Trekking the Annapurnas for a week with friends.
- Looking at all the wild animals in Chitwan National Park.
- Volunteering Teaching English at a monastery deep in the Kathmandu Valley.
Kathmandu is huge. It’s bigger than you might assume, but it’s still very navigable. Even better, it has the neatest Hindu and Buddhist temples I’ve ever seen. In the wake of the earthquake, some of these were destroyed. But not all, there is still much that is left and much to learn from the destruction as well. There is a lot to do in the city. The backpacker and tourist section of Kathmandu, Thamel, is a beehive of activity and amenities built for the Westerners. Though Pokhara is the main spot for Annapurna circuit treks, Kathmandu is the starting point for Everest Base Camp, as well as a lot of the volunteer opportunities in the country.
Things To Do
Temples and holy sites are rampant in Kathmandu and date back to some of the oldest Buddhist and Hindu temples in the world. No matter how “templed-out” you might be when you land in Kathmandu, you simply have to visit each of these four major sites – all different and all intriguing.
- Hanuman Dhoka, aka Durbar Square. A UNESCO site, this series of temples and buildings was once used by royalty, the really fascinating part of the square are the elaborately carved doors to where the Kumari Ghar lives. The Kumari Ghar is a living goddess and it’s worth some research to see if you’ll be in Kathmandu during one of her handful of appearances (and check the recommended reads above to learn more about her). I loved visiting this site; bring lunch and sit on the steps like locals and watch the pigeons, people, and sadhus wander.
- Swayambhunath, aka Monkey Temple. There are literally hundreds of monkeys here. The are tons of statues to the various gods, including monkey god Hanuman. Worth a visit on the day you do the other popular stupas and temples.
- Boudhanath. A UNESCO site and most likely the largest Stupa in the world. Consider this the mac-daddy of all Buddhist sites. It’s huge and bustling with activity all day long.
- Pashupatinath Temple. This is a sacred site for the Hindu and as a Westerner you can look at the temple from the other side of the river. Also a UNESCO site, you can watch from above as they regularly perform ritual cremations in the ghats.
- Consider an off-the-beaten path trek. This great piece looks at the quiet nature awaiting those visiting the trails less taken.
Places to Eat and Sleep
No budget recommendations, they were all pretty lousy cleanliness wise, but cheap. If you cab into Thamel from the airport (walk from bus station) then you can look around. There are tons of options for every budget.
- Helena’s Rooftop Restaurant. Beautiful views over Thamel and the city. The breakfast is pretty tasty (they make the claim it’s the best in Kathmandu which might be a bit much) and the set priced meals and breakfasts make it easy to know what you’re going to pay.
- OR2K. They have wifi and a Middle Eastern/Western menu — pricier than local foods but breezy restaurant area with trendy/hippy vibe. I went for the wifi really, since that can be tricky to find at the guesthouses.
- ZAIKA Nepali Cuisine. The momos are delicious, food is reasonably priced, and the restaurant is never too touristy even though it’s in Thamel (which is a real feat to maintain the relaxing environment!). It can be tricky to find, so follow the directions on the site and enjoy. And know that it’s a relaxed vibe during the day, and pumps music during the evening.
- Stay in a nice spot. Consider Hotel Mums Home on a budget, Hotel Tibet for midrange, and Hotel Yak & Yeti for a nice place from which to organize your search.
Pokhara is a complete 180 from Kathmandu’s backpacker district, Thamel. Pokhara’s streets are wide and relaxed. Fewer shops are stacked on top of each other. This is the starting point for most treks in Nepal, and is the starting for all of the Annapurna treks. You take the all-day bus from Kathmandu, or book a mini-bus at one of the tourist agencies in Kathmandu. And since Pokhara is built up around the trekking business, you can find everything you need for a trek.
Also, there’s a large Tibetan community in Pokhara operating the tourist shops — dig around and you can find neat and unique souvenirs to ship home!
Things to Do
- Trek the Annapurna Circuit. Most people come to Pokhara to begin their treks around the Annapurna Circuit. Treks can vary in length from several days (like my Poon Hill trek) to several weeks (Annapurna Base Camp) — and everything in between. I recommend organizing through the Noble Inn guesthouse, they’re wonderful. But there are dozens of reputable companies, just ask questions and outline who’s paying for food, porter costs, accommodation, etc. And if you’re solo and need trekking partners a handful of sites offer this matching service, Trek Booking being one option.
- Kayak, rafting, boating. Pokhara is surrounded by lakes and rivers with grade 4 and 5 rapids. For adventure, try the rapids. Try boating for a more relaxing day though, you can rent it for a couple hours, fish, and swim in the lake.
- Take a Vipassana Meditation Course: Perhaps single hardest thing I’ve accomplished is completing this 10 day silent meditation course. There is a Vipassana center near Pokhara in a gorgeous spot overlooking Begnas Lake.
- Paragliding: On a clear day this would be simply stunning. I was too chicken to try, but the views from ground are stunning, so consider this a more bird’s-eye view of the Himalayas.
Places to Eat and Sleep
- Hotel Noble Inn. Family run and very clean, they were affordable and so very, very friendly. We booked our trek through them, they arranged it all and everything went flawlessly. It’s so much more than staying in a hotel, stay for a while and you’re welcomed to share stories and laughter too. It’s also centrally located and close to internet and great eats.
- Hotel Crystal Palace. Located in the Phewa Lake area, this place has wifi, pretty views, and a bit of everything for a comfortable stay. It’s mid-range pricing and conveniently located.
- New Pokhara Lodge. Just a tiny bit outside of town but still walkable to the tourist spots and restaurants. A lovely vibe at this budget option with wifi and all amenities you could need.
- Punjabi Restaurant. Seriously tasty Indian food. There are surprisingly few Indian eats in Nepal, so this one was a welcomed find – I ate there daily.
- German Bakery. Popular and for a reason, though it’s hardly a hidden spot, the Western-style baked goods can act as some comfort food if you need it.