Tucked away among towering mountains and dotted by colourful prayer flags, Nepal is a real life Shangri-La. Many of the small nation's most eclectic towns sit sheltered in valleys surrounded by the snow-capped Himalayas. And of course all sit in the shadow of the outdoor adventurer's apex challenge: Mount Everest. With mountains steeped in local legend and a unique culture which has been cultivated over years of isolation, Nepal has long attracted the attention of broadened minds. Its legacy ranges from the lore of Kathmandu as a 1960s Hippie Trail enclave, to meditative retreat to trekking mecca. Combined with storybook temples, smiling locals and bold coloured textiles, here's what you need to know about Nepal.
How to Get There
From Toronto: 18 - 29 hour flight
From Vancouver: 26 - 37 hour flight
Bus - With treacherous roads, buses are the travel method of choice for overlanding. Buses operate just fine in urban centres but are often crowded.
Taxis - Are more expensive than travelling by bus, but carry the obvious benefit of being less crowded and more time efficient. For a cheaper alternative for city travel, consider a rickshaw.
Foot - As a country known for its treks, naturally the best way of getting around is walking.
Cities of Particular Interest
Kathmandu, pre-earthquake. Boudha-Stupa currently undergoing repair.
Kathmandu - Capital of Nepal and culture centre of Nepal, but has air quality problems from pollution and dust.
Pokhara - Lakeside city northwest of Kathmandu. Prized among adventurers for superior air quality and natural scenery.
Bhaktapur - Nepal's most well preserved historic city. It does not allow motorized vehicles and is known to be the centre of Nepali pottery-making.
Climate - Expect heavy monsoon rains in June through September, with cool to cold weather from October to March. April to June proves to be the most seasonable time for travel.
Language- While the official language is Nepali, Nepal is more linguistically diverse than all of Europe. Due to a large tourism industry, many shop owners, hotel operators, and tour guide speak English.
Currency - Nepalese Rupee, though the United States Dollar and European Euro are frequently accented in larger cities.
Religion - As the world's only Hindu State up until 2008, Hindu is the religion of over 50% of the population. Nepal also has a large Buddhist population with Islamic and Christianity found amongst a very small minority.
People - The Nepalese often depend on travellers to support the economy, and as such they are welcoming and friendly to visitors. Travellers may be rushed through guided hikes, but very rarely will they be bothered by scammers on the street.
Tea House Trekking - Nepal is famous for its mountain treks, but those new to the serious hikes will have an easier time following so-called tea house treks. Tea houses in Nepal have become something more akin to a small hotel, providing accommodation for travellers as well as tea. On tea house treks, travellers hike from one tea house to the next, not having to worry about tents and only working towards the pizza and beer that wait for them ahead.
Everest Base Camp Trek - By far the most famous trek in Nepal is that of the trail that leads up Mount Everest. While climbing the peak to completion requires a Sherpa, a number of gear, and years of training, those who have acclimatized to the altitude can hike up to the famous Mount Everest Base Camp.
Imbibing in Raksi - Occasionally labeled as "Nepali Wine," Raksi is a drink made "in house" by many bars and compared to tequila. While strength and taste may vary, it is very cheap to drink and great to mix with juice or soda.
Dining in a Vegetarian's Paradise - While not a strictly vegetarian country, many in Nepal are Buddhist or Hindu and do not eat meat. With the addition of poor quality meat, travellers will find a wide variety of meat-free meals.
What to Buy?
Clothing and Textiles - Traditional Nepali clothing is one of Nepal's biggest exports. In city markets, visitors will find wool products made from yak and sheep wool as well as embroidered items. Nepali clothing is notable for not only it's attractive bright colors, but high durability and warmth as well. Visitors will also want to consider textiles like cashmere and silk as well as goods made from them.
Tea, Incense, and Spices - While not as famous for it as India, Nepal has long been a producer of tea, incense, and a number of spices. Look for Nepali blended masala, incense made at one of Nepal's Buddhist monasteries, and black tea grown at either Maloom, Mist Valle, or Gorka Tea Estates.
Singing Bowls - Nepal's most unique souvenir. When the rim of this metal bowl is rubbed with a stick, it produces a high pitched vibration that is said to have healing qualities. Look for perfectly symmetrical, highly decorated brass bowls.
Health and Safety
Coping with the Altitude - While those who stay in Kathmandu will not experience the altitude as much, even sights just outside the city put traveller's at risk for altitude sickness. Bring medications and before trekking acclimatize under the "Climb High, Sleep Low" mantra.
Traveller's Diarrhea - Having traveller's diarrhea strike while in Nepal is so possible, it's likely. As a poor country, much of Nepal still functions without modern sanitation and very few health standards. While traveller's diarrhea can be treated with medication, poor choices can lead to more serious illness like typhoid, cholera, or dysentery. Treat raw produce as suspect and beware of vendors selling bottled tap water and actual bottled water.
Avoid Solo Treks - While famous for its trek, never trek alone. Not only can the weather be dangerous, but there have been known to be a few murders and disappearances on the trails, particularly in Langtang north of Kathmandu. While most cities in Nepali are deemed safe for solo travelling women, solo trekking poses even more of a risk to them.
Avoid Demonstrations - Give strikes and protests a wide berth, they have been known to turn violent. If there are any areas of political instability, be sure to keep a low profile if not avoid completely. Consult your local embassy on the political situation if possible before heading deeper into the country.
Since the Earthquake - On April 25th, 2015 a 7.9 quake rocked Nepal with an epicentre just 80 kilometers outside of Kathmandu. Although it resulted in over 9,000 fatalities and severe damage to many historic buildings, the country has pulled itself together in record time in order to not miss its economically essential peak travel and trekking season. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) lifted its warning against all non-essential travel as of July 2015.
Do you count Nepal among your favourite countries?
What advice would you lend to travellers heading there?
Related content on Canadian Traveller