Tips for first time travellers to Nepal

India, Nepal, Kathmandu, travel, female, solo, traveler, trip, differences

View of Kathmandu from Swayambhunath

Differences between India and Nepal travellers need to know

This guest post is by writer, editor, Indiaphile and India traveller Elen Turner, who moved from Australia to Nepal sight unseen to start a new job. Here’s what she discovered, and her tips for first time travellers to Nepal.

I ARRIVED IN KATHMANDU for the first time in the middle of the monsoon. The rain lashed the airplane’s windows as we descended into the grey clouds, eliminating any hope of the famous Himalayan views I’d been told to expect. Instead, my first glimpse of my new home was of the hills of the Kathmandu Valley, bright green and lush, and haphazard brick structures crammed together, fighting for space.

At Tribhuvan Airport I clambered into a beat-up taxi that felt, to me, as if it belonged more in sub-Saharan Africa than the South Asia I knew from my previous visits to India. The ring-road to Patan, where I would be living, was muddy, pot-holed and extremely congested. As we crossed the Bagmati River, we encountered a group of military police, clad in blue camouflage and combat boots, breaking up an altercation. We passed one United Nations office after another, many international NGOs, and shared the road with numerous UN and USAID jeeps.

All of this was a surprise to me.

India, Nepal, Kathmandu, travel, female, solo, traveler, trip, differences

A typical guesthouse for trekkers in the Langtang Valley

While Kathmandu was to become my home for the next year, I’d never been there before. My friends and family in Australia knew better than to ask why I would drop everything and move to a country to which I’d never been. I didn’t even stop to ask myself that question. I knew India, and how different could Nepal, its land-locked northern neighbour, be?

Very. I felt it immediately.

Nepal felt unrecognizable. I knew better than to expect a mountain Shangri-la, but I had expected something much more familiar, more like India. Much of the difference between the countries comes down to the fact that Nepal is extremely poor, and is classified as a ‘least developed nation.’ India does a poor job of equitably distributing its wealth, but it does have a lot of wealth and resources.

India, Nepal, Kathmandu, travel, female, solo, traveler, trip, differences

The Diwali market at the Janaki Mandir in Janakpur said to be the birthplace of Sita

Here are the differences between India and Nepal that you need to know before visiting.

1. The power situation

Unless you visit during monsoon, which isn’t advisable, Kathmandu suffers from crippling power shortages of the sort that apparently used to be common throughout India, but are not any longer. The hydro dams that produce electricity are low outside of the monsoon months, meaning that scheduled power in the middle of winter can be as little as two hours per day. At other times of the year, this can rise to 8-12 hours per day.

If you’re staying in a hotel in Kathmandu or Pokhara, you’re likely to be supplied with sufficient power from a back-up generator. Be aware that most Nepalis do not have this luxury.

2. If you’re a woman, your experience will be much easier in Nepal

While I’m a staunch supporter of women’s travel in India, the truth is that travelling in Nepal is much more comfortable, most of the time.

In general, Nepalis are a very laid-back people who don’t invade one’s personal space, male or female. Nepali men are not prone to staring or making audible or muttered comments to foreign women. There is less likelihood that a casual chat with a man on a bus or elsewhere in public will be misinterpreted, thus making it easier for foreign women to have genuine, interesting and harmless conversations with Nepali men. It’s still a good idea to dress modestly, but Nepali women—especially the young, in Kathmandu—often show more skin and wear tighter jeans and t-shirts than is common in India. Although still a very patriarchal and male-dominated society, Nepal does not have the same unwritten prohibitions against women in certain parts of the public sphere that India does. If, as a woman, you stumble into a down-market restaurant that’s patronised by men, you shouldn’t feel intimidated.

At first, I thought that these more relaxed gender codes were a mountains-plains divide, as it is often said that travelling in India’s mountainous areas is ‘easier’ as a woman. However, I visited Janakpur, a city on Nepal’s plains, very near the border with Bihar, and I found the atmosphere there very comfortable. Despite looking like a very poor, dusty, flat Uttar Pradeshi or Bihari town, in Janakpur I wandered freely, alone, without even a sideways glance.

India, Nepal, Kathmandu, travel, female, solo, traveler, trip, differences

A market in the ancient Newari city of Bhaktapu

3. Vegetarianism

Although the majority of Nepalis are Hindu, most are not vegetarian. As one myself, I love travelling in India as it’s one of the few places in the world where I’m spoilt for choice when I pick up a menu. The same doesn’t always apply in Nepal, where chicken and buffalo are very popular. But it’s still easy to get by, as veg curries and momos are available almost everywhere, even deep in the mountains.

4. The infrastructure

In some respects, such as the network of trekkers’ lodges throughout the mountains, Nepal’s tourism infrastructure is good. In most others, it really is not. The quality of the roads in Kathmandu is extremely poor, as they are in much of the rest of the country. Local buses are old, over-crowded and slow, although very cheap. Faster tourist buses only run along a couple of routes, namely, between Kathmandu and Pokhara. There are practically no railways in Nepal apart from a short strip in the Terai that connects with India, and domestic flights, although frequent and cheap, are often cancelled due to bad weather in the mountains.

Nepal is a very poor, very mountainous country, so this poor infrastructure is entirely understandable. But it does mean that when visiting Nepal, it’s not a good idea to try to do too much, too quickly.

5. It’s not OK to lose your temper

Sometimes, in India, stomping your foot and raising your voice is the only way to get what you want, or be treated the way you should be. In Nepal, this doesn’t fly. In this respect, Nepalis are temperamentally more similar to their East Asian neighbours, where losing one’s temper in public is considered an embarrassment, and the quickest way to alienate people. (Of course, this doesn’t apply to politics, which is governed by its own set of rules and non-rules!)

India, Nepal, Kathmandu, travel, female, solo, traveler, trip, differences

At the Neydo Tibetan Monastery in Pharping

6. The permeation of Buddhism

Although more than 80% of Nepalis are Hindus, Buddhism is a very visible part of Nepal’s cultural landscape. Lumbini, on Nepal’s plains, is said to be the birthplace of Gautama Siddhartha Buddha, and the country has several ancient Buddhist pilgrimage sites. In Kathmandu, there are numerous Buddhist stupas, adorned with the elegant, languorous and ever-watchful eyes of Buddha. Fluttering, primary-coloured Tibetan prayer flags are a common sight. The native people of the Kathmandu Valley, the Newars, practice a form of Buddhism that has been strongly influenced by Hinduism. Tibetan Buddhism is visible throughout the high Himalaya, which is inhabited by ethnic groups related to Tibet, and also in Kathmandu, with its significant population of Tibetan refugees.

I shouldn’t have been surprised by all these differences, but because Nepal rarely features in international news (before the earthquake this year), it’s too easy to assume that it is just a more mountainous version of India. Nepal is fascinating and unique, and has as many reasons to return again and again as its larger, harder-to-overlook southern neighbour.

India, Nepal, Kathmandu, travel, female, solo, traveler, trip, differences

Elen in Bhaktapur

Elen Turner is a New York state based editor and writer who has led previous lives in Nepal, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the Czech Republic, Sierra Leone and the UK. She has a PhD from the Australian National University on India’s contemporary feminist publishing industry and works with Kathmandu-based Himal Southasian magazine. She blogs at Wilderness, Metropolis.

India, Nepal, Kathmandu, travel, female, solo, traveler, trip, differences

Mountain views from the Langtang Valley

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19 Responses to Tips for first time travellers to Nepal

  1. Chanel | Cultural Xplorer September 7, 2015 at 10:41 pm #

    These are great tips! I am very interested in visiting Nepal in the near future and it is interesting to read the difference in treatment between India and Nepal!
    Chanel | Cultural Xplorer recently posted..Japanese Food 101: Cooking and Eating SukiyakiMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward September 8, 2015 at 8:50 am #

      I agree. I’m a long-time India traveller and I haven’t been to Nepal, so I was also very interested in Elen Turner’s observations.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..5 reasons to love Kumaon nowMy Profile

  2. Somali K Chakrabarti September 7, 2015 at 11:45 pm #

    An excellent overview of Nepal touching upon different aspects.
    Somali K Chakrabarti recently posted..Top 5 Best Small IT-BPM Companies to Work for in IndiaMy Profile

  3. Neno September 8, 2015 at 6:08 am #

    Nepal seems like the end of the world. I hope it will not be spoiled by crazy tourist crowds before I have chance to get there.

    Neno recently posted..Dorsoduro restaurantsMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward September 8, 2015 at 8:49 am #

      That’s a very one-sided viewpoint. While I can appreciate your desire to visit a place that is authentic and unspoilt, if the tourism sector is not active and profitable, the country will suffer and so will the tourists’ experience. Some sort of tourism infrastructure is necessary, despite the dreams and fantasies of would-be visitors.

      Maybe a more generous and realistic wish would be to hope the tourism industry rebuilds in a sustainable and responsible manner.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Lakshman Sagar: Feast and fantasy in the Rajasthan desertMy Profile

      • Elen Turner September 8, 2015 at 8:54 am #

        Hi Neno, I agree very much with Mariellen. Foreign tourists have been visiting Nepal consistently since the 1970s, and Nepal relies heavily on money from tourism. As I wrote, it is a very poor country with few resources, and its natural and cultural beauty is one of their only resources. Tourism there has not developed to a point where it has ‘spoilt’ the country exactly, but there are a lot of pressures associated with tourism, such as the well-documented litter that is left on Everest every year, after the climbing season.

        After the earthquakes in Nepal earlier this year, tourism in Nepal has taken a massive hit. So, if you would like to see Nepal and not share it with too many other tourists, now would be a good time to go. The destruction from the earthquakes has given Nepal the opportunity to rebuild its tourist infrastructure in a less damaging, more sustainable way. I very much hope that it makes the most of that opportunity.
        Elen Turner recently posted..Differences between India and Nepal travellers need to knowMy Profile

  4. sravs September 9, 2015 at 4:26 am #

    my favourite spot Nepal..thanks for sharing best information and nice places, I enjoyed to reading of this article…If i will get a chance i will surely visit this place

  5. Izy Berry September 9, 2015 at 5:24 pm #

    this place is amazing all the views and different culture !!! thanks for sharing this with us
    Izy Berry recently posted..Great golfing holidays in EuropeMy Profile

  6. VJ Sharma September 12, 2015 at 7:45 am #

    Very informative for folks visiting Nepal and comparing Nepal with India is a good idea.

    Well compiled post. I am happy to hear that loosing temper doesn’t work in Nepal, but what is the trick to get things done if you are in difficult situation?

    • Elen September 13, 2015 at 6:15 pm #

      Hi VJ, I think taking the same approach as you would in many other countries would be the best idea in such situations in Nepal. State your case firmly but politely, be persistent if you have to, and only lose your temper if the other person is being extremely difficult or rude. What I was meaning by that point is that one shouldn’t be too quick to lose one’s temper in Nepal, not that there is never a case for doing so 🙂
      Elen recently posted..Why taking Matador’s Travel Writing course was one of the best decisions I made all yearMy Profile

  7. Tina September 17, 2015 at 9:36 pm #

    Great primer on Nepal … had a few misconceptions overturned!
    Tina recently posted..Travel Just Got Cheaper with Groupon Coupons!My Profile

  8. Brock September 19, 2015 at 11:52 pm #

    Nepal and India are very high on my list of places to visit. Seems like such a different world than I am used to over here in the States. And that is one of the main reasons that I am drawn to it.

    Can’t wait to set foot on their soil and to start my exploring, though no dates are set yet.

  9. Deepshikha M October 15, 2015 at 7:02 am #

    Good information shared..
    Deepshikha M recently posted..Bhopal – the city of architectural magnificenceMy Profile

  10. Yona November 4, 2015 at 8:26 pm #

    Thanks for this information! I would like to visit Tibet and/or Nepal and live in a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery for a few months. I was wondering if you have any advice as to how to find one that accepts Westerners? Thanks!

    • Yona November 4, 2015 at 8:26 pm #

      Sorry, I meant to write visit India and/or Nepal*

    • Eola March 2, 2016 at 11:10 am #

      Hi Yona, I lived in Pokhara, Nepal, for 3 years and visited Pematsal many times for their afternoon ceremonies. It is about 20 minutes outside of Pokhara. Many of my friends have volunteered there from a few weeks to 3 months. They loved the experience, the people and the place. It is better to contact them directly as I heard of people going through an agency and paying BIG money and when they arrived it was school vacation and they couldn’t work in the school. You live in a private room. If you go, have a mojito for me at MoonDance Restaurant!!

  11. Nancy Baker December 6, 2016 at 4:03 pm #

    Brilliant article, I can definitely relate to the contrast from my own experience! If you are interested in trekking in Nepal, you may find the following article of interest, it provides really comprehensive information on 10 of Nepal’s top treks;

  12. Telma I Blank Canvas Voyage December 8, 2016 at 7:26 am #

    What a great and very informative article! We have been in Nepal for 3 months now…time for India next! Cannot wait.
    Thank you for the tips! 🙂

  13. Miguel February 26, 2017 at 3:08 pm #

    Hi, Nice post. I visited Nepal 5 years ago, that was before the big earthquake and I loved the country.. It might look like India in certain aspects.. but, it’s definitely another country. I also realized that it’s not polite to lose your temper (in India it’s the only way sometimes 🙂 ). We never had any power problems or cuts in Nepal.. Anyway, it’s a lovely country to visit.

    I really enjoyed the post. Thanks!!

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