Nepal can seem a distant and exotic destination for a first time visitor and this can give rise to a range of pre-departure questions and worries. Here we try to answer some of the most frequently asked questions about travel in Nepal.
After reading through these we hope that pre-trip worries and questions will be replaced with nothing but pre-trip excitement, because although Nepal really is a distant and endlessly exotic land, it’s also one that’s easy, safe and wildly addictive to travel in.
One of the most commonly asked questions about travel in Nepal concerns visas. The simple answer is that everybody (except Indians) needs a visa to enter Nepal. For most nationalities these are available on arrival at the international airport or major land border crossing points. Available visas and their costs are:
All visas are valid for multiple entry so you can visit Nepal and, for example, Tibet on the same trip and then return to Nepal for a flight home without having to get a new visa (so long as the original is still valid).
It’s possible to apply for visa extensions and get transit visas.
Link to online visa apply. To get a visa on arrival you must bring the correct amount in US$ cash and a passport sized photo.
“Nepal is in the Himalayas right? So, that means I might suffer from altitude sickness”? Yes and no. Kathmandu, Pokhara and most of the other historic cities are set at an altitude of between 800-1400m. The national parks of the south are even lower. This means that if you stick to these areas there’s no chance of altitude sickness. Head to the trekking trails of the Himalaya though and as soon as you get above about 2500m then altitude sickness is a possibility and the higher and faster you gain height the bigger the risk becomes.
A very frequently asked question about travel in Nepal concerns hygiene and health matters and in particular whether the water is safe to drink and the food hygienically prepared. In answer to the question about whether you can drink the water then the answer is a firm NO. Tap water in Nepal is never safe to drink. Bottled water is available almost everywhere, but because of a poor waste disposal and recycling scheme we would suggest that you avoid buying endless bottles of water and instead purchase a water filtration system prior to arrival. There are many such systems on the market but we have found LifeStraw (lifestraw.com) a very simple to use, instant and reliable water purification system.
And as to whether the food is safe to eat. Well, that’s a much harder question to answer. In the most part yes it is safe to eat. However, food hygiene standards may not be the equal of what you’re used to at home and a short bout of tummy trouble is very common. This normally passes within 24-48hrs (if it doesn’t go and see a doctor). Many times these stomach upsets aren’t actually food poisoning but are caused simply by a change of diet. Eating dhal and rice a couple of times a day for days on end does tend to have an effect on those not used to such a diet!
A few simple rules can help you avoid an upset stomach.
One of the questions everyone poses about travel in Nepal is how easy is it to stay in touch with loved ones at home? In Kathmandu, Pokhara and all larger towns as well as most villages outside of the high mountains, mobile phone reception is good and either 4 or 3G data is available and internet speeds are reasonably quick. This means that staying in touch with people at home is easy in more populated parts of Nepal. In the high mountains though it’s a different story altogether. In general mobile phone or internet access is very limited or non-existent. However, this is changing. On more popular trekking routes with lots of teahouses (trekking lodges) Wi-Fi is becoming more and more common. On the main Annapurna or Everest treks you can now find internet availability at the majority of the main night halts. In lesser trekked parts of the country then it’s easier to just keep your phone switched off.
It’s cheap, quick and easy to purchase a local SIM card in Kathmandu or Pokhara and talk time and data is very cheap by international standards.
The unit of currency in Nepal is the Nepalese Rupee (Rs). In June 2020 exchange rates were as follows:
US$1 = 120, €1 = 135, UK£1 = 150
ATM’s accepting international Visa cards can be found in almost every town of any size. Mastercard and American Express are much less commonly accepted by either ATM’s or businesses. In the mountains and rural areas make sure you have all the cash in Nepalese Rupees that you might need with you (and then add some for emergencies). Hard currency cash can normally be exchanged for Rupees in bigger bank branches and many tourist hotels (rates are often poor though). Forget about travellers cheques.
A key question for potential visitors is how much is a holiday to Nepal going to cost? On an international scale Nepal is a very good value travel destination. In Kathmandu and other tourist centres it’s possible to get a clean, quiet hotel room with plenty of Himalayan flavour for as little as US$30 a night. A fancy boutique hotel room might only cost two or three times that. Food is equally good value. You can splash out just a handful of dollars and be rewarded with a world-class curry in a top Kathmandu restaurant. Or, if you stick to the national dish of dhal bhat (rice, lentils and pickled vegetables) in simple but hygienic local places then you can get a filling meal for no more than a dollar.
If you trek fully independently then in many parts of the mountains you could get by on US$15 a day, which would cover three square meals and a bed for the night. Double that and you can add in a porter-guide to carry some of your luggage, translate conversations and keep you on the right trail. Fully organised camping treks cost a minimum of US$100 per day and a safari in one of the southern parks starts at about the same.
This is another big question asked by many first time visitors. The convoluted geography of the country can make getting around Nepal a very slow undertaking. What looks on a map to be only 50km as the crow flies doesn’t take into account the huge changes in altitudes and the twisting, narrow and often poorly maintained roads. This means that 50km as the crow flies can actually add up to 150km as the human being travels! Add in the possibility of landslides blocking roads, break-downs (very common on public transport) and stops for food, drinks, photos and because you got lost and it becomes clear that a deep sense of patience and an ability to see the funny side in even the most uncomfortable bus seat are all essentials when travelling around Nepal.
There are three main ways of getting around (four if you count walking!)
Bus is the cheapest – and definitely the most adventurous – way to travel around Nepal. Buses go to almost every town and village with a road, but be warned that bus travel is invariably very slow, breakdowns are painfully common and comfort isn’t a priority! That said, there are an increasing number of luxury buses linking major urban centres. The Kathmandu to Pokhara route is served by many such buses, some of which are aimed exclusively at the foreign tourist market. These buses are reliable, comfy, punctual and a good place to meet other travellers.
Many travellers get around Nepal by private vehicle. These normally take the form of a small 4x4 (or, if just sticking to main routes within and around the Kathmandu Valley, a normal saloon car) and are arranged through a tour company. Vehicles always come with a driver supplied. Rates for longer journeys or to trailheads high in the mountains aren’t cheap, but if you can afford it then this is definitely the best way to travel. The drivers normally speak some English and will often act as informal guides. You can stop to admire the scenery, grab a bite to eat or take a minor detour. Journey times are also much quicker and drivers are generally more respective of road laws than bus drivers!
Nepal has an extensive internal flight network and a flight is a fast and easy way to get from one end of the country to the other. Flying is an especially good way to reach mountain trek trail heads that would otherwise take two or three days by vehicle. However, for each plus there are a number of negatives. Flight prices are steep, the safety record is pretty poor and flights are frequently cancelled due to bad weather (this is especially the case with mountain flights). Never book an internal flight from a mountain airstrip back to Kathmandu for an international flight on the same day. The risk of the internal flight being cancelled is just too great.
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This is the big one. The most frequently asked question about travel to Nepal is ‘Is it safe?’ And yes, we’re pleased to say that in terms of crime Nepal is a very safe country. There is little in the way of petty crime against tourists, even in big cities. That said it always pay to be cautious. Avoid carrying large sums of cash around with you or visible valuables and be careful of pickpockets in busy areas (city bus stations and the Thamel tourist zone of Kathmandu in particular). In hotels keep your valuables in a safe if available.
Violent crime is very rare indeed but the possibility is always there. Avoid dark alleyways in big cities at night and take a taxi home from a bar or restaurant rather than walking through quiet streets (unless it’s very late then it’s generally fine to walk around the tourist districts of Kathmandu and Pokhara in the evening).
Kathmandu used to be the end of the road for the Hippy Trail across Asia in the 1960’s and ‘70’s. This was largely due to the fact that hashish was legal, cheap and easily available. Today it’s illegal, but even so shady characters offering hashish and other drugs are common on the streets of the Thamel district of Kathmandu. The easiest way to deter them is to totally ignore them. Whatever you do, do not purchase any. The authorities take a zero tolerance view of foreigners getting involved in drugs and there are plenty of foreigners languishing for years on end in Nepalese jails on drug charges.
Lots of women tourists travel independently or in a small group all around Nepal with no problems. Most Nepalese (especially Nepalese women and families) will go out of their way to welcome and help female travellers and the experience of travelling around Nepal for a foreign woman alone can be very rewarding.
However, as in most parts of the world, a women travelling alone can garner unwelcome attention from men. Normally this will just take the form of staring, catcalling and, occasionally, a groping attempt (mostly this happens on overly crowded city streets or on buses). If you’ve travelled in India then rest assured that it’s no way to the same level of harassment as there. By and large Nepalese women are much more a part of day to day life and are much more confident in their dealings with men than in India (this is especially the case with women from mountain areas or those of Tibetan background).
To lessen the risk of unwanted attention wear non-revealing clothing. Avoid hanging out in bars and, if you can, team up with another travelling woman. If a situation does start to develop then call on the help of passers-by. Invariably people will jump to your defence and loudly admonish a man giving you unwanted attention. Rape and violent crime against female travellers is very rare, but it does occasionally occur.
Problems can also arise when trekking alone with a male guide (at the same time though there are many examples of foreign women striking up lasting relationships with Nepalese trekking and tour guides). It’s generally best to use the services of a more upmarket trekking company who will likely have set stricter rules for their employees. If you’re concerned about trekking or otherwise travelling with a male guide then there are an increasing number of female guides. Put in a request with your trekking/tour company as far in advance as you can and they should be able to organise a female guide. For safety sake a woman (or a man for that matter) should never trek totally alone.
Female sanitary products are widely available in bigger towns and cities, but not in villages or on trekking routes. It’s best to bring sufficient supplies with you from home.
Nepal sits on a highly active seismic zone where the Indian and the Asian tectonic plates meet. It’s this meeting of plates that created the Himalaya in the first place and continues to push the mountains ever higher into the skies.
But while this plate tectonic action has created a nation and mountain range of staggering beauty. It can also cause huge destruction. Earthquakes are common in Nepal though the good news is that most are so slight you won’t notice them.
Every now and then though a major quake rocks Nepal. The last big earthquakes occurred in April and May 2015 and resulted in over 9000 deaths, thousands of injuries and widespread destruction (including damage or destruction to many historic buildings and monuments in and around the Kathmandu Valley).
Experts fear that not all the energy was released in these 2015 ‘quakes and that in the next few decades an even larger earthquake is due to hit. When and where remains the great unknown, but the chances are that you will not be there if - or when - it happens.
In theory power comes at 220volts/50 cycles per second. In reality the electricity supply can be a bit hit and miss even in Kathmandu. Blackouts (power cuts) are common in all towns. Hotels often have their own back-up generators for times when the mains power is taking a nap. In rural areas, and in particular in remote mountain zones, there might be no mains power at all. In these places power comes from small solar panels and is just about sufficient to charge small electrical devices and power a few lightbulbs.
Plug sockets come in a range of styles but the most common is the European style two-pin socket.
Nepal is a five hours forty-five minutes ahead of UTC. This means that when it’s noon winter time in London it’s 5.45pm in Kathmandu and when it’s noon in New York winter time then it’s 10.45pm in Kathmandu. There’s no daylight saving in Nepal so during the summer in Europe and North America you should deduct one hour from the time difference.
One of the first questions everyone asks is ‘When is the best time of year to visit Nepal?’ The broad answer to this is that you can visit Nepal at any time of year and somewhere in the country will be at its best. But, for the overall best combination of clear blue skies, fresh, green scenery and pleasant temperatures in both the mountains and at lower levels then the answer is resounding. October through to mid-November. The next best period is March and April. December to February is perfect in hotter, lowland regions such as the national parks of the Terai lowlands, but up in the mountains it can be very cold indeed. The May to September period is generally wet throughout most of the country and not a great time to visit. The exception to this rule though are the trans-Himalayan regions such as Upper Mustang, Dolpo and far western Nepal which are at their best through these months. For a much more detailed look at weather and when to visit Nepal see Nepal’s Climate and Nepal’s Trekking Season
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This one is easy to answer. Spend as many days as you possibly can in Nepal! Most people have around two weeks. This will give you just about enough time to glimpse a few of the highlights of the Kathmandu valley, do a short trek (Langtang is a good bet for such a short stay) and possibly take in a quick safari in Chitwan National Park. With three weeks you can do all of the above but do a longer trek such as Everest Base Camp or Annaupuna Sanctuary. With a month to spare you could visit most of the historic sites and towns in the Kathmandu Valley, relax in Pokhara, do a safari in one of the national parks in the southern lowlands and either do one long trek (Everest Three Passes, Annapurna Circuit, Manaslu Circuit and Kanchenjunga are all possibilities) or two shorter treks with a break in between.
If time is of the essence then you can get a memorable taste of Nepal in just a few days. With a week you could devote yourself to a thorough exploration of the historical and cultural treasures of the Kathmandu Valley and surrounding areas as well as watching the sunrise over the Himalaya from one of the valley rim towns such as Nagarkot. Or you could rush to Pokhara to check out the towns museums and fine lakeside setting before doing a very short trek to the Poon Hill view point.
And if Nepal is really just a transit stop for a day or two on the way to somewhere else (and mark our words, you will regret such a short stay) then a quick scoot around the highlights of Kathmandu and neighbouring Patan will wet the appetite for a return visit.
We can’t possibly list everything there is to do in Nepal in a paragraph or two (look for our more detailed blog posts on individual activities) but quite simply Nepal is one giant adventure playground and one huge gallery of art and culture. In fact, beaches aside, Nepal has almost everything. Adventure, indulgence, spirituality, adrenaline sports, wildlife, shopping, culinary thrills and epic scenery. In Nepal you can be pampered in a spa in a divine boutique hotel, you can take to the high trails of the Himalaya, bungee jump, raft the wild white waters, spot tigers and rhinos, feel inner peace in a temple courtyard, join a yoga course, cycle to Himalayan viewpoints, stay with a Nepalese family in a rural farmhouse, search for fossils and shop for spices in noisy, colourful bazaars. Within this small countries small borders can be found the best of Asia !
It’s probably best that you have a rough idea where in the world you’re headed before boarding a plane! Nepal is a landlocked, medium sized country measuring 147,000km² (this makes it the 93rd largest country in the world by area) in South Asia. It is roughly 800km long and 200km wide and is bordered by India (to the south) and China (Tibet) to the north. Much of the country is mountainous with distinct ranges rising up to the Himalaya. Nepal contains eight of the worlds fourteen highest mountains (all of which are above 8000m high), including the biggest of them all, Mt Everest. But not all of Nepal is mountainous, the south of the country falls firmly onto the Indo-Gangetic plain, a low lying and almost pancake flat plain that stretches across much of the northern and central parts of the Indian sub-continent.
The capital is the ancient city of Kathmandu. The majority of Nepal’s population live in and around the Kathmandu and the surrounding valley as well as the Terai plains of the south. The Himalaya are lightly populated.
Ask a Nepalese person about their political leaders and you will almost certainly get a smile, sigh and shake of the head as a response. If politics in Nepal could be summed up in one word it would be ‘chaotic’. Nepal is a parliamentary republic with a multi-party system. It has three recognised political parties. To the casual observer, politics in Nepal can seem to be little more than a jump from one crisis to another (yep, even more so than most countries). Corruption, cronyism and abuse of power by politicians are huge issues in Nepal and these actions have done much to stem Nepal’s economic development.
While this is all terrible news for the long suffering Nepalese people, a tourist is unlikely to notice – or be impacted – by the rot inherent in Nepalese politics. The occasional strike (known as bandhs) do cripple transport and see everything shut down, but for the most part a tourist need not worry at all about visiting Nepal due to politics.