As I just shared in my last post, I had one of the most unique travel experiences of my life at the end of 2019 when I joined a Trekking and Photo Tour in Nepal. Nepal has always captured my imagination, but I still didn’t know too much about the country’s history or its people until I started preparing for my trip and reading every last line of Lonely Planet’s guide book on Nepal. While that is a great resource that I would encourage any would-be traveler to Nepal to review in detail, today I want to highlight seven thoughtful tips that I believe are important to consider before planning a first-time trip to Nepal.
1. Nepal has more to offer than Mount Everest and the snow-capped Himalayas.
First of all, I want to say that for many – me included! – trekking in the Himalayas is THE reason travelers add Nepal to their Bucket List. And for good reason! They are absolutely incredible. Truly magnificent, glorious and worth every moment of your time.
With that said, Nepal has a variety of other geographies, climates, and cultures that are worth exploring. Curious travelers may want to build time into the itinerary to explore Nepal’s diverse terrain. For example, in the lowlands of Nepal called Terai, the subtropical zone near the border with India, you can search for One-horned Rhinos, Bengal tigers, and rare birds in Chitwan National Forest. Go even further west in the jungle and you can reach the Bardia National Park, which sees fewer visitors and is an adventure for those who prefer to go off-the-beaten track.
Located just east of Kathmandu, the historic city of Bhaktapur, known for its large collection of temples, is a popular day-trip from the capital. Tip: go early to avoid the worst of the inter-city traffic.
In the western hills of Nepal, you can take it easy in Pokhara, Nepal’s lakeside town with hippy vibes and vacation feels, where yoga retreats and paragliding adventures await. Pokhara feels like the complete opposite of Kathmandu, a bustling city that demands a few days of your time, too.
Tip: Traveling around Nepal is an adventure in and of itself. Roads are often not paved and are very dusty/muddy, making for bumpy rides, and they get congested quickly. If you are short on time and want to explore beyond Kathmandu Valley, consider flying domestic, such as to PKR for the Annapurnas or BHR for a jungle-adventure in Terai.
2. Nepal is a multi-cultural nation.
Even though Nepal is a rather small country (less than one fourth the size of the U.S. state of Texas), Nepal is home to dozens of different people groups, who are divided along ethnic lines, caste systems, religions, and customs. For example, the now-famous Sherpa peoples make up less than 2% of the population, live in the high Himalayas, and are mostly Tibetan Buddhists. The Khas Chhetri, on the other hand, form the largest people group (16-17%), trace their lineage back to medieval India, and practice Hinduism. The Muslim community makes up less than 5% of the total population, with the majority living in the Terai region.
As most visitors to Nepal first land in Kathmandu, the city provides a great opportunity to see firsthand the diversity of peoples and customs. From the marvelous Boudhanath Stupa to the Swayambhunath Stupa (aka the Monkey Temple), travelers can observe multiple religious customs in one day. Thus, it is worth incorporating sites that reflect the rich cultural diversity of Nepal when planning your trip to Nepal.
Tip: I highly recommend making a concerted effort to grasp the general diversity among Nepal’s population before you arrive. Before my own journey to Nepal, I listened to a podcast series by American linguists living in Kathmandu and enjoyed their reflections on analyzing, categorizing and working through the Nepali language, plus their own anecdotes about being a foreigner in Nepal. Who knew there are well over 90 different spoken languages in this one country?!?!
3. While Nepal is home to a dozens of languages, English is widely spoken in the cities and by those who work in the travel industry.
After Nepal opened up to international tourism in the 1950s, foreigners began to flock to this mountainous kingdom, especially after Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made the first recorded summit of Mount Everest in 1953. Since that time, educational opportunities for Nepali children have grown with the aid of international groups and the literacy rate has grown significantly. English has become the go-to second language for many Nepali people, as it is the common language among most travelers. As such, navigating around Nepal is relatively easy – from an English language standpoint.
Tip: If you are nervous about traveling in Nepal because of language barriers, do your best to learn a few basic phrases (and numbers!) in Nepali ahead of time. The best way to learn is through conversations with locals, so don’t be shy about asking!
4. Nepal has poor air quality.
In the weeks and months leading up to my journey to Nepal, I prepared my body for the lack of oxygen I’d encounter at higher altitudes by working out with a training mask. As a result, my sea-level lungs were in pretty good shape to function well on thin air. However, they were not ready for the amount of other particles I inhaled during my time in Nepal.
Since the Kathmandu Valley is nestled at the base of the Himalayan mountain range, which blocks the flow of air moving northward onto the Tibetan Plateau and beyond, Nepal and its most populated region suffers from some of the poorest air quality in the world. Sadly, air pollution from neighboring powerhouses like India and China does not stop at the Nepalese border. Plus, the ever-increasing road traffic kicks up clouds of dust at every turn of the wheel during dry season.
While there are times of year when weather patterns can offer clear skies (I see you, monsoon season), I was heartbroken to see for myself how this beautiful country wears a shroud of pollutants over her regal shoulders.
Tip: When visiting Nepal, I highly recommend bringing several different face coverings to use for various circumstances (which may feel someone normal after 2020 anyway). I had a great merino wool buff for hiking in the high altitudes, but it was too hot and heavy for warmer temperatures or for city life. I ended up buying a lightweight buff in Manang to use when it wasn’t so cold – which turned out to be most of the time! If you are traveling in a vehicle and the windows are open, your lungs will thank you for the extra protection. Trust me.
5. Nepal has made great strides in recovering from the 2015 earthquake, but its thunderous echo remains.
On April 25, 2015, the world looked on in horror as ancient temples crumbled and entire villages were swept off mountains. Thousands died and hundreds of thousands were displaced from their homes in one of the worst seismic events the region has experienced in modern times.
With hard work and assistance from the international community, Nepal has labored through the pains of reconstruction. While ruined buildings remain as evidence of the vast destruction, the Nepali people have bounced back and welcome travelers to their country.
Tip: Do your homework on which historic sites are in operation and open to visitors, as many in Kathmandu and Bhaktapur were destroyed. Heritage structures took a backseat to rebuilding homes, and over five years later, these once famous sites are still in various states of reconstruction.
6. Hiking from teahouse to teahouse is an absolute gift for the adventurous soul.
Although I did say that Nepal is more than its mountains, the power and beauty of the Himalayas is undeniable and a treasure to explore. For those who love to hike but aren’t big on camping, Nepal is one of those places that you just have to include on your Travel Bucket List. You’ll find lodging and meals at teahouses, and although the degree of comfort may vary, a warm meal and a hearty smile can go a long way.
Tip: If you don’t book a room in a teahouse in advance (which isn’t always possible, anyway), it is best to start your trek early so that you don’t arrive at your sleeping destination too late in the afternoon. The best rooms and the best beds go quickly!
7. Hiring a Nepali guide will allow you to get to know the country, culture, and customs in unique ways.
As you guys should know, I am all for independent travel, and Nepal is a backpacker’s paradise – the perfect place to wander and wonder on your own. Notwithstanding, for first-time visitors to Nepal, I still recommend hiring a Nepali guide to help you navigate some aspects of your trip, especially if you are going trekking. Walking side by side with someone from a different country is a gift; you have an opportunity to learn more deeply about a people and place.
Our Nepali guides and porters were an integral part of our travel experience. I am so grateful for all they did for us and for all they taught me. You can bet that if and when I return to Nepal, I will hope to connect with these sweet friends!
Tip: Consider reaching out to my guide Nir from Himalayan Experience Adventure Trek. Nir and his team will work to meet your needs according to your trip goals! As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, work has been hard to come by and practically non-existent. They need your support now more than ever!
Special Note: In the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns, Nepali guides have had little to no work for the bulk of 2020. My lead guide, Nirkumar Rai, created a GoFundMe relief page to raise support during these trying times. If you would like to support him and his team, please consider making a donation HERE.
Planning a Trip to Nepal can seem somewhat overwhelming for first-time visitors. While there are a number of details yet to consider, I hope these bigger picture concepts will steer you in the right direction. Of course, I will be more than happy to assist you in designing your Himalayan adventure, as I am dreaming of my own return to Nepal someday!
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN TO SHARE
Have you ever been to Nepal? If so, what are some tips and tidbits that you’d want would-be travelers to know? Are you planning on discovering Nepal on your own or would you prefer to hire a local guide? Do you also try to learn a bit of the native language when you’re traveling?