Dear Penny My sister and I have been invited to our friend’s Hindu wedding in Kathmandu, Nepal, in September. We have been told that Nepal can be quite confronting and want to be well prepared. We are considering booking an “adventure tour,” as we both like hiking and photography. We are also interested in helping or volunteering at an orphanage. Do you have suggestions? We have only 2 weeks’ vacation and want to make the most of our trip to Nepal? Eliza
Nepal can only be described as “sensory overload”. Breathtaking images of the Himalayas and Mt Everest surround you, compete with cultural rituals, the smell of incense at Buddhist monasteries & Hindu temples and the constant noise of the traffic in Kathmandu. I recently visited Nepal and was so unprepared for the impact this small landlocked country would have on me. I opted for a small group tour, as traveling within rural Nepal can be quite demanding, especially for western visitors. I also had limited vacation time, so this was definitely the best option. The most confronting aspects of Nepal are the pollution, poverty, and for many people, just the daily struggle for life. The Nepali people are welcoming and go out of their way to be friendly and courteous. The photographic opportunities are just incredible; I could stand on one corner in Kathmandu and shoot for hours. Nepal is a country of celebration and festivals, which is connected with religion, tradition and social events. There is no better way to experience the culture and get to know the locals than to be invited to a wedding! Being a well-informed traveler is a safer traveler. Nepal is not for the faint hearted! In saying this, it is also one of the most rewarding traveling experiences you and your sister will ever have.
TRAVEL Nepal is not the easiest country to travel in – the roads are narrow, rough, dusty or muddy, depending on the seasons. Dogs, pigs, cows, cars, motorbikes and people all vie for their right to share a piece of it. To top this all off, deep ravines show ample evidence of wrecked vehicles who got a little too close to the edge! Take a very deep breath and remember Buddha’s quote – “The greatest prayer is patience.” Tourists traveling in Nepal have to be prepared to “go with the flow,” especially when dealing with weather conditions. Flights will often be delayed and so will other forms of transportation. As with any overseas travel, it is a good idea to register with the Smart Traveler Program, to receive the latest updates and information. Always make sure you are aware of strikes, blockades or curfews, which occur frequently in Nepal. Marches can quickly turn violent and you do not want to find yourself being deported for being in the wrong place at the wrong time! September is a great time to travel in Nepal, as the air is crisp and dry and the vegetation is lush and green after the rain. Culture and tradition play a huge part in the festivals held throughout the year, with spring wedding season a definite highlight. Brass bands, street processions with decorated cars and even horses make an appearance. Think Bollywood with a Nepalese touch and you will not be disappointed!
HEALTH It is recommended that you seek medical and dental advice at least six weeks before traveling and all your vaccinations need to be up to date. Basic medical services are available in Nepal and there are several international standard hospitals for emergency treatment in Kathmandu. When traveling in less developed countries, it is best to bring an ample supply of any prescribed medicines from your home country. Make sure these products are clearly marked and you have a doctor’s letter supporting your medical need. It is best to pack a good supply of sanitary products too, as shops are few and far between in the countryside. Avoid eating dairy products, especially ice-cream, or unpeeled fruit and always drink sealed bottled water (which is available everywhere). If you end up with a belly bug, the pharmacies in the Thamel area are used to dealing with these issues, however, I would always suggest you travel with your own medication, as belly bugs usually do not ask if the time is convenient for a visit! Altitude sickness can also be a problem to those unfamiliar with the symptoms. It usually begins as a headache, dizziness, and feelings of nausea. It is recommended that you don’t ascend to higher altitudes until your body has adjusted and the symptoms are completely gone. Make sure you have adequate travel insurance with evacuation cover. Only recently, a nurse from Australia had to be flown home after she stepped on a viper, as anti-venom was unavailable in the country. Always carry wet wipes and hand sanitizer – and note, public toilets may require squatting (so practice those 30-second wall squats!). As I said, Nepal is not for the faint-hearted!
ACCOMMODATION Thamel is vibrant, noisy and the most popular area for tourists to stay while in Kathmandu. The streets are extremely narrow and the traffic is crazy. During peak trekking season, which is autumn and spring, hotel rooms may become scarce, so it is a good idea to have something booked for at least the first couple of nights. I can thoroughly recommend Kathmandu Guest House , which is a converted Rana dynasty mansion. The guest house prides itself on being affordable to all budgets, is centrally located and the staff are very helpful. They organised day trips for me as well as finding a SIM card to fit my cell phone. Thamel has some small grocery stores which are convenient for buying water and snacks. ATM machines and money exchanges are also located in this area. Like many Asian countries, there is an intermittent electrical supply and brownouts are common. To guard against your electrical equipment being “fried”, always carry a surge protector. Electricity on treks outside of major cities can become scarce, so expect to pay to recharge your appliances and take extra batteries. Have a flashlight handy at all the times. Nepal uses 220V.
EATING Kathmandu is renowned as the “budget eating” capital of Asia, with tourist restaurants selling a wide variety of Western, Middle Eastern and Asian style fast food. Go where the tourists are queuing in Thamel and you will not be disappointed. I had no idea what I was lining up for one day, but the falafels I received were the best I have ever tasted! Traditional food can be hot and spicy, so if you are like me, just ask for the milder version. Rice is generally served with dal, a lentil dish, and tarkari, a cooked vegetable. Why not include a half day cooking course in your trip, where you visit a local market to buy ingredients, before learning how to cook Tibetan Momos? Tibetan Momos are a dumpling of meat or vegetables and cheese, served with a pickle sauce and are a staple of any diet in Nepal. Note — as in many Asian countries, your left hand is considered just as dirty as your feet, so don’t accept anything with your left hand. Use your right hand or both hands when accepting food.
SHOPPING Thamel is the home of “faux” and if you are looking for travel/hiking clothing and goods, then you have found the right place. Most shopkeepers speak English and are very helpful. If they don’t have the item in stock, then it will only take 5 minutes for the article to come from another shop! I can guarantee you will have the song, “Oh Mani Padme Hum,” by Tibetan Monks, firmly implanted in your brain by the time you leave Nepal! It is constantly played by shopkeepers and you will not be able to go home without a copy of the CD! For gifts, you cannot go past the great scarves, children’s felt toys, boxed tea, wooden carvings and Tibetan jewelry. The lacquer ware, depicting erotica, will make a great conversation piece (but maybe leave it off the gift list for Grandma!) Note — it is expected that you bargain, so don’t be afraid to take your time and check out the prices first. Most times you can cut 40% to 50% off the starting price.
CLOTHING It is best to dress in layers in Nepal, as the temperature varies greatly, depending on the season and weather conditions. Be considerate in your dress selection, as the women in Nepal dress conservatively. No low cut tops, short skirts or exposed midriffs and keep your shoulders covered. Wear a scarf, as it is handy when you enter temples or monasteries. Comfortable shoes are a must; the pavements are often uneven or cracked and there are plenty of steps to climb. Kathmandu is not known for its clean streets or non-smoking policies, so make sure your wardrobe is easily laundered and quick drying. Note — if you are considering wearing a traditional sari to your friend’s wedding, then Kathmandu has many good tailors who will produce an outfit within a couple of days at reasonable prices.
TOURISM, HIKERS AND CLIMBERS Nepal relies heavily on tourism, as it is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. Many tourists venture to Nepal for the purpose of trekking to Base Camp, or for the super achievers, climbing Mt Everest. Nepal is rich in biodiversity. Where else can you experience the highest point on earth, Mt. Everest, to the sub-tropical and tropical jungles, all within a distance of about 150km!
Novice hikers are also easily catered for in Nepal and once you escape the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu for the countryside, you will be surprised by how warm and welcoming the Nepali people are. The safest option for female trekkers is to join an organized group or use a reputable trekking company, that provides experienced guides and porters who communicate in both Nepal and English. Meaningful Trip, which is a leader in responsible tourism, offers mixed and women’s-only hikes, using specially trained female trekking guides. A portion of the proceeds from these treks helps support Empowering Women of Nepal, which is a non-profit organisation. I hiked in Chitwan National Park, which is located in southern Nepal. This park is World Heritage listed and offers the unique opportunity to see rhino and tigers in their natural habit. Just remember, western health and safety policies are virtually non-existent in Nepal, so just make sure you keep yourself safe and only go with reputable companies. If you don’t white water raft at home because you are afraid of water, then don’t do it in Nepal! Drink plenty of water, carry snacks and be conscious of not adding to the existing litter problems. One of the highlights of my visit to Nepal was an early morning scenic flight to see the Himalayan Mountains and Mount Everest — it sure beats having to climb it!
TEMPLES, MONASTERIES, AND CEREMONIES While approximately 80% of the population are Hindu, there has traditionally been a great deal of intermingling of Hindi and Buddhist beliefs. The birthplace of Gautama Buddha is located in Limbini, southern Nepal and there are other important religious pilgrimage sites throughout the country. Foreign visitors are expected to pay to enter religious sites and some temples are strict about not letting non-Hindus see their rites. When photographing people, always ask their permission first. If in doubt about the appropriate etiquette, it is always better to ask than to be embarrassed by a cultural mistake. There are many aspects of Nepali culture which are confronting, especially when it comes to visiting the cremation ceremonies. Remember, it is someone’s loved one who is being farewelled by their family and it is a privilege for you to be able to attend. Pashupatinath is one of the oldest Hindu temples in Nepal and its burning ghats are the main cremation site for Nepali Hindus. If you see someone wearing all white, they are in mourning and should not be touched. Always take your shoes off before entering temples, shrines or houses and avoid pointing with a finger at someone or a statue. Do not step over offerings of food, coloured powder or flowers. Beware of the monkeys and stray dogs which inhabit Swayambhunath Temple, also known as the Monkey Temple. With fluttering prayer flags and spinning prayer wheels, the temple has beautiful views across the city and to the mountains on a clear day. My favorite Buddhist temple is Baudhanath, famous for the huge eyes painted on the white round stupa. Always make sure to walk around temples and stupas in a clockwise direction. Attending a Nepali wedding is such a huge privilege and you will gain an insight into their culture, which many tourists don’t often get to participate in. I received a random invitation to attend a wedding while in Kathmandu and figured with 600 invited guests, I would not be intruding! Traditionally, weddings are arranged by families, however, the wedding I attended was a love marriage as both the bride and groom had studied and worked together overseas. Even for a love marriage, horoscopes of the couple still have to be analysed by a priest and the wedding will usually take place at one of the special times of the year. A Nepalese bride will dress in the bridal color red, with the adornment of gold jewelry. The wedding will take place over a number of days, so it is important to have a few outfits for each occasion. Ask your work colleague for guidance as to the clothing she would like you to wear for the wedding celebrations.
SUPPORTING LOCAL ORGANISATIONS Many tourists would like to connect with the people at a grassroots level and contribute in some way to help those disadvantaged in Nepal. There is no welfare system in Nepal and Non-Government Organisations (NGO) have been set up to try to cater for the needs of children who have been abused or abandoned. Most of Kathmandu’s street children are drug addicts and many end up in the sex industry or as victims of trafficking. One great organisation is the Nepal Orphans Home, located in Kathmandu. I met with Michael Hess, the founder, and visited Nepal Orphans Home. I can vouch for the wonderful work his staff does to support the children in their care. The majority of NOH children are girls who have been rescued from the Kamlari System of indentured servitude, prevalent in western Nepal. Nepal Orphans Home can always do with school stationery, such as pencils, erasers, rulers etc. If you would like to volunteer in some way, a work visa is required (even if work is unpaid). Contact the Nepal Embassy and make sure you amend your insurance, as any form of work voids your “tourist” travel insurance. While there are aspects of Nepali culture which will be confronting to western travelers, there are so many reasons to make sure you include this wonderful country on your travel wish list. Away from the pollution, noise and street poverty of Kathmandu, Nepal lives up to its name as the “rooftop of the world”, with breathtaking mountain landscapes and tropical jungles ready to be explored. By connecting with the people through their culture and celebrations, you and your sister will have a wonderful vacation ahead of you.
Namaste and safe travels!