For children (and parents alike) Nepal is an intensely exotic destination. The sights, sounds, smells and tastes will fire up a child’s senses in a way that a more culturally familiar destination never would. This means that a family holiday in Nepal can be so rewarding that it could, quite literally, change your child’s life. But, make no mistake about it. Just as a family holiday to Nepal is likely to turn out to be the most rewarding holiday any of you have ever been on, a family holiday in Nepal can also be a challenge for everyone involved.
In this article we take a look at the things you should keep in mind when planning a Nepal family holiday. In a future article we will look at specific attractions that will appeal to children of different ages and more about trekking as a family in Nepal.
Compared to neighbouring giants India and China, Nepal might look like a tiny country and you may think that in two weeks you and your family can whizz across the entire country ticking off all the key sites. Well, don’t be fooled. Even for an adult this would be a punishing and, frankly, rather pointless schedule. Instead, when planning a family holiday to Nepal you should think small and focus your attention on just one area. In two weeks you and your family could focus on one of the following areas:
Lazily sail through all the most interesting sights in the Kathmandu Valley as well as fawn over a Himalayan sunrise from one of the valley rim towns. It will be two weeks of temples, stupas, markets and pure exotica for the kids.
Head to Pokhara and enjoy quiet lakeside days, stunning mountain viewpoints and some easy hiking as well as a flurry of Buddhist temples and monasteries. You could also stretch your legs on the short Poon hill trek.
The other option is the southern, lowland Terai region where your children will thrill at the prospect of scanning the jungle for tigers and rhinos on a safari in one of the regions impressive national parks. For culture mesmerise them with the spirituality of Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha.
Sticking to one of these three circuits for a two week family holiday in Nepal will mean that you’re going slow enough to make it relaxing but just fast enough to keep it interesting.
There’s no way of hiding the fact that Nepal has different standards of cleanliness and hygiene than you might be used to at home and families travelling in Nepal will need to exercise a bit of extra care when it comes to cleanliness. Always carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer gel with you and make sure your children use it (or wash their hands) regularly.
Bring plenty of spare clothes for the children. You think they get dirty quickly at home; well that’s nothing compared to an afternoon playing in a Nepalese village. Air pollution in the Kathmandu Valley can be horrendous.
We strongly recommend that all members of the family wear a face mask when walking around Kathmandu and Patan. Not doing so is likely to result in sore throats, headaches and persistent coughs.
If heading to the national parks of the south then mosquitoes can be a problem but malaria is increasingly rare. Dengue Fever is a bigger risk. Bring repellent and sleep under a net. Up at higher elevations you needn’t worry about the biting insects.
Almost invariably the first questions a prospective family travelling to Nepal asks is “Is the food safe and what will my children eat?”
Food safety standards are not what they are in the west and the truth is that if you don’t pay particular attention to what your children eat then there’s a pretty good chance that they will get sick. The first rule is don’t drink the tap water. Although you can buy bottled water in most places we would suggest avoiding doing this.
There’s no real system of waste disposal or recycling in Nepal and most discarded mineral water bottles end up being thrown in a stream or river. Much better and just as safe is to invest in a water purification system such as the excellent LifeStraw system Get a straw and bottle for each member of the family.
When it comes to food it’s wise to eat in busier places where turn-over of food is higher, but even then always check how clean a kitchen and chef looks before sitting down. If possible stick to a largely vegetarian diet which is considered safer. Food poisoning is more likely in the hotter April-June period when food goes off quicker. At altitude, where the weather is always cooler, then risks are lower.
What your children will actually eat is much easier to question to answer. In Kathmandu, Pokhara and other big tourist towns the answer is simple. They can eat pretty much exactly what they’d eat at home. While we wouldn’t really suggest travelling halfway across Asia to eat pasta, burgers, pizza and steak we also know that children are unlikely to want to eat dhal bhat for every meal and every day throughout your stay.
In fact, after a long, energy-draining trek, most adults are keen on gorging on pizza and apple pie as well… And Kathmandu and Pokhara certainly satisfy this demand, and between them they are almost certainly the best places in Asia in which to eat western food. Prices are low, the quality good and everything is hygienically cooked and prepared.
In the mountains and smaller towns elsewhere, there will be much less choice and children and adults alike will have to eat the Nepalese staple of dhal bhat. Fortunately, it’s rarely very spicy and most kids take to it – even more so if you let them eat it local style by forgoing cutlery and digging in with their hands.
Trekking lodges in more touristy parts of the mountains (such as the Annapurna’s and Everest region) will often have a couple of basic pasta style dishes available and all of them do fried noodles, which is always a hit with children.
One local (or rather, Tibetan) dish that all children will happily eat is momos. Delicious steamed or fried dumplings stuffed with vegetables, meat or cheese. In tourist areas they also come filled with apples, chocolate or anything else sweet and tasty that the chef had to hand.
Nepalese hotels are used to catering to couples, single travellers or friends travelling together and they are not all that well kitted out for travelling families. Aside from the few big resort-style hotels that you might find in Pokhara and around Kathmandu, dedicated family rooms or apartments are not that common.
There are also very few suitable offerings on sites like Air BnB. However, what hotels might lack in western-style family holiday accommodation, the staff more than make up for with general enthusiasm to help.
Most hotels have a suite or triple rooms and will happily stick an extra mattress or two on the floor for the kids. If your children are a little older and want a separate room from mum and dad (or the other way around!) then hotels will always try and provide neighbouring rooms. In more rural areas, homestay style accommodation is a good bet for families.
More upmarket safari camps and lodges will normally have a dedicated family room or two, but it’s worth booking these as far ahead as you possibly can.
Trekking lodges almost invariably have only very basic rooms with paper-thin walls and no heating being the norm. Older children are fine but with very young children trekking lodges can be hard work. Your children are unlikely to get much sleep and, likewise, they might keep other guests awake.
Whether hotel or homestay, staff will often be happy to babysit your kids if you want to go out and have a quiet, relaxing dinner (remember those?) without the children.
As the crow flies distances in Nepal might appear small, but you’re not a crow, and so you and your family will most likely have to do most of your travel by road. And the roads rarely go in a straight line. As a general rule don’t expect to travel more than 50km in an hour. On mountain roads you’ll be lucky if you manage even half that.
Buses go almost everywhere, but rarely quickly and rarely with much comfort. For families travelling around Nepal we would suggest avoiding bus travel (except perhaps the dedicated tourist buses running between Kathmandu and Pokhara).
Small aeroplanes link Kathmandu and Pokhara with many remoter towns, national parks and major trekking trailheads, but prices are high and reliability low.
For most people on a family holiday in Nepal, the best way to get around is with a private car with experienced driver (car hire is always with a driver) organised through a reputable Nepalese tour company. Car hire is not exactly cheap but it’s much more comfortable, quicker and safer than travelling by bus and you can stop when and where you like. See also: How To Get Pokhara From Kathmandu
Almost all drivers will fawn over younger children and do all they can to please them (including treating them to sweets and ice cream whenever mum and dad aren’t watching!). Don’t expect to find safety items such as car seats.
Although Nepal is a stimulating place for families with children over the age of about five or six coming here with babies and toddlers is likely to prove much more trying for all involved.
In Kathmandu, Pokhara and other big cities you can find supermarkets stocking known-brand, trustworthy nappies (diapers), powdered milk, baby food and most of the other items that you might require, but in rural areas it will be much harder to find such items. Hotels anywhere invariably won’t have baby beds and restaurants are generally unlikely to have high chairs.
Your baby is likely to get a lot of attention and many people will be unable to resist touching the baby. This can be tiring or even distressing for baby and parents.
Finally, if you’re thinking of trekking with a baby or toddler then the simple answer is – don’t! We did once see a couple trekking in the Langtang Valley with a small baby. But, the look on mum and dads face indicated that they didn’t seem to be enjoying the experience as much as they might have hoped!
Almost all Nepalese adore children. Nepalese kids are treated like little princes and princesses. When it comes to foreign children – and in particular small children with blonde hair and blue eyes – the Nepalese will barely be able to control their excitement at meeting your little ‘darling’. Your children should be prepared for a LOT of attention.
People will cross the street merely to stroke your child’s hair or skin. Smaller children will find themselves being constantly picked up by total strangers (sometimes without the parents’ permission) and foreign children of all ages will find themselves being photographed endlessly. Most of the time these pictures are taken by other mothers wanting a picture of your children with theirs, but you can also expect big groups of twenty-something year old lads wanting to photograph your children. Though probably harmless enough this isn’tt really to be recommended.
Most children quickly realise that there are advantages to this sudden celebrity status. Namely that total strangers will gladly share sugary foods with them at times of the day that mum and dad wouldn’t approve of, and even that shopkeepers will fill your children arms with gifts! All parents will have to discuss this attention with their children in advance and you should set some guidelines on how you deal with the often obtrusive attention.
Although there might seem to be a lot to think about here, the reality is that a growing number of people do take a family holiday in Nepal and invariably the warmth of the Nepalese and the wonders you are all about to see, easily outweigh any of the minor disadvantages.
The author of this piece has holidayed all over South Asia with his children at different periods in their life and not once has anyone in the family regretted it. Forget the worries. Holidaying in Nepal as a family might just turn out to be the best holiday you ever take.
About Author: Stuart Butler is a writer, photographer and guidebook author who has been travelling in and writing about the Himalaya for over twenty-five years. He is the author of the Lonely Planet guidebook: Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya, as well as both the Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide Nepal guidebooks. He’s also written an online guidebook to trekking in Nepal for Horizon Guides. Elsewhere in the Himalayan regions he’s written guidebooks to Tibetan regions for both Lonely Planet and Rough Guides, has updated the Bradt Guidebook to Ladakh & Kashmir and is the author of the forthcoming Bradt Guidebook to Bhutan.