30 important things you should know before you go to Nepal
My best description of Nepal is a place that offers an explosion of contrasts between the overwhelming chaos in the cities and the peaceful mountains. If you are thinking about visiting Nepal, this Ultimate Culture Guide is all what you need to know before your trip.
Nepal is a land full of centuries-old culture, customs and gestures, influenced by the high altitudes of the Himalayas and the prevalence of Hinduism and Buddhism. The land of mountains, Sherpas, yaks, temples, stupas, beautiful countryside, prayer flags and prayer wheels, and cultural influence from neighboring countries such as India and Tibet.
This combination can make Nepal a tricky and complex country to navigate. It can cause a culture shock if you are not prepared and understand some of basic etiquette.
I have a confession to make, and as always, I want to be very honest about my own experiences. I have traveled to more than 30 countries and I have never felt a culture shock like my trip to Nepal.Even though I had done my research before my trip, I learned a majority of things in this list while I was there. It is important to be mindful of how to act, and it will end up being a learning curve while you adapt to a new culture.
It is also important to understand that culture shock is not always a negative thing. Some people manage to adapt to the aspects of the host culture they see as positive, while keeping some of their own and creating their unique blend.
In order to help you to understand more about the culture in Nepal, check it out this list with 30 important things to know about Nepal. If you are planning to visit, I hope this will help you have the best experience possible and to use your time to see the beauty this country has to offer.
1. Be prepared for the high altitude of Nepal
This is number one on my list, and you probably already know about the altitude. You may or may not feel the effects of the elevation, especially if you are hiking the Himalayas. Every person is unique.
Nepal offers AMAZING options for mountain activities, since it is home for 8 of the top 10 tallest mountains in the world. I have prepared this guide that may help you avoid the symptoms of altitude sickness, especially if you are hiking or trekking.
Altitude sickness can occur at lower elevations, including Kathmandu. It is important to know the signs and symptoms as well as what to do if you start feeling ill. My husband had some minor symptoms after the first night in Kathmandu, and they only lasted about 1 hour.
2. You really need to hire a tour/trekking guide
Look at me, a person who never uses a tour guide giving this type of advice. But I figured out that having a guide in Nepal was the best option. First of all, you are not going to want to drive in Nepal. I have driven in many countries, I had no desire to take the challenge in Nepal. The city traffic is insane and the "highways" are extremely dangerous. You can try to take a local bus if you can figure them out, or hire a cab. Hiring a cab will most likely require your negotiation skills for a fair price. With a guide, you will not only have an expert showing you around, it will also include transportation and it will be more time effective and stress free.
Secondly, if you are planning to hike the Himalayas, you will need a guide as they will plan, make arrangements with your accommodation, food, hiking permit, etc. and help you with whatever you may need during your hike, including your health and safety (see point #1). I recommend Epic Adventures Nepal on my blog, as my experience with them was fantastic and very authentic. During the high season, it is not uncommon for the lodges to fill up. The last thing you want at the end of a long day of hiking is to be told there is no room at the inn. A good guide takes care of all that!
3. To Porter or Not to Porter...that is the question
I had that question myself. The idea of paying someone to carry my belongings did not seem ethical and made me feel like a terrible person.
You can read my full experience here.
I learned that one of the best things that tourists can do is to hire a porter. Why? First of all because they need this job and it provides income for themselves and their families. By hiring a Porter, you are powering the local economy and providing much needed income. It is absolutely ethical, and rather than feel guilty, I felt so happy to be able to help one family!
Second, you get the benefit of an incredible cultural interaction. If you are booking your trek through a tour operator make sure you do your research to ensure they do it ethically and treat the porters well and they follow the International Porter Protection Group’s list of guidelines for ethical trekking in Nepal.
4. Religion can be complex
Nepal is definitely a very religious country, and trying to understand the religion during your vacation in Nepal can nearly be a mission impossible. According to a 2011 census Hinduism is the primary religion of Nepal, and approximately 81% of the Nepalese people identified themselves as Hindu. 11% of Nepal’s population practice Buddhism. Many Nepalis follow Buddhism and Hinduism together due to the existence of religious tolerance, and a person can follow Hinduism and Buddhism at the same time.
I had several conversations with my guides about religion, and every time I would have more questions than answers. It was amazing! Ask questions, listen to the explanations, sit back and relax while you try to digest everything. I included some topics related to religion on this list in a hope to help you understand.
5. The Living Godess - Kumari
This was one of the most intriguing things I learned during my visit in Kathmandu. Kumari is one of the icons of Nepal – she is a young girl who is believed to be a living goddess and the incarnation of the demon-slaying Hindu goddess Durga. Dating back at least to the Middle Ages, the cult of the Kumari is popular among both Hindus and Nepalese Buddhists
There are 11 Kumaris across Nepal, but the Kumari Devi in Kathmandu is the most important. She makes appearances at her house, Kumari Ghar, in Durbar Square from 10 AM to 12 PM and late afetrnoon. The Kumari’s feet cannot touch the ground; a Kumari holds her position until she hits puberty; there is a festival every year to honor her; and if you happen to see her while visiting the Ghar, you’ll be blessed with luck.
It doesn’t sound like a fun life for a little girl. With all due respect to the culture, I still have mixed feelings about how unhappy the the Kumari seems to be.
6. The meaning of the Prayer Wheels
You will definitely see the prayer wheels while you are visiting Nepal. They are cylindrical objects found in front of the Buddhist temples and stupas, inscribed with the mantra ”Om Mani Padme Hum” (typically in Sanskrit). People will walk and spin the wheels clockwise to initiate the mantra. The meaning is to help balance karma when you spin them, earn merit for your next life, and release the mantras for the benefit of all beings as they are carried in the air.
7. You cannot enter every temple
Unlike temples and pagodas you visit in other countries in South East Asia, not all temples in Nepal are free access for tourists. Some Hindu temples only allow Hindus to enter, and some parts of the Buddhist temples are reserved for special occasions only.
8. Holy cow!
Be prepared to see cows on the streets, and not on the menu. In Hinduism, cows are thought to be sacred and are deeply respected. They are held in high esteem and Hindus, especially in Nepal, worship cows during Tihar. This represents the main teaching of Hinduism, which is do no harm to an animal (ahimsa). Cows also represents butter (ghee) and strength.
It is very common to see people approach a cow, touch it and then touch their own head to receive a blessing.
9. Sacred places can be temples or mountains
As I mentioned, Hinduism is the prevalent religion in Nepal. For this reason, entering a Hindu site wearing anything made of animal byproduct and shoes, like leather, is considered a sacrilege. While hiking, the night before we made our final ascent we were asked to get rid of any snacks made of animal source. We were about to enter a sacred area of the mountains where they never eat animals.
Time to get rid of all that beef jerky!
10. Walk clockwise at the Buddhist Temples
The act of walking around sacred areas, clockwise, is called circumambulation. Buddhists believe that objects that need to be venerated, such as a stupa, a Bodhi tree (where Buddha once attained enlightenment), or any Buddha image need to be circled around three or more times as an act of respect. Going clockwise is a symbolic gesture of following the life of Buddha - east for his birth, south for his enlightenment, west for setting in motion the wheel of Dharma, and north for his liberation. In other words, it is the right life path.
11. What is the meaning of Om Mani Padme Hum
I can guarantee you will hear the chant "Om Mani Padme Hum" while visiting Nepal. This chant helps you cleanse your body, mind and spirit from negative thoughts so you can receive positive ones. These words are written on paper many times and rolled inside the prayer wheels. Each clockwise revolution of the prayer wheels is a recitation of the multiple times "Om Mani Padme Hum" is written on the paper inside.
12. The beautiful Prayer Flags
When walking around the streets or temples in Nepal, you will observe the multicolored flags waiving with the wind. They are the traditional Tibetan prayer flags with 5 colors and representations of the five elements and are inscribed with prayers– blue for the sky, white for the wind, red for the fire, green for the water and yellow symbolizes earth. As the wind passes over the flags, the mantras are activated and the air carries the benefits to all beings.
13. The interesting Nepali Flag
Nepal flag is the only flag in the world that is not rectangular or square. The Himalayan mountains are symbolized by two rectangles with the sun and moon inside. Nepalis are very proud of their flag and they are displayed almost everywhere.
14. What time is it in Nepal?
I was surprised, and also confused to find out about the time zone in Nepal. Nepal is close to India, which has :30 minutes time zone. Nepal is officially 5:45 hours ahead of the UTC and 10:45 ahead of EST.
15. Kathmandu is busier and dirtier than you expect
I knew I should have used a sanitary mask after reading so many blogs about it. This was one of my biggest mistakes, and guess what? Of course I got very sick. If I can give you friendly advice, please wear a mask.
The capital, Kathmandu is known for very poor air quality. Why? The Himalayas trap humidity north of Nepal. This makes Nepal very arid during certain parts of the year. With the lack of rain, the topsoil becomes a very fine dust. You will find this dust everywhere, and wind and traffic throw dust in the air. During the dry season, there is no escaping it. Even in Kathmandu, there are many dirt roads and alleys. Outside of the metropolitan areas, you will be hard pressed to find pavement.
16. Red is a popular color for women
Red is generally taken to be the color of life, of the glowing sun and of passion. Married women in Nepal, therefore, are encouraged to wear dresses of red colors or other hues close to the color. I didn’t need many days in Nepal to realize that red is very popular for women. I asked my guide and he explained that the first time a woman in Nepal wears red clothes is for her wedding day. Red is a sign of purity, dignity and honor. The color is especially meaningful for married women as the red sari and other adornments visibly convey their cherished status. When a woman becomes a widow, she dresses in other colors, except red.
17. Dress in layers
Your experience may vary with the weather, but I found it helpful to dress in layers. Even though the forecast is generally correct, sometimes Nepal weather can still be unpredictable and it’s convenient to add or remove layers as necessary.
18. Cars do not stop! Be careful crossing the streets
The traffic in Kathmandu is insane, even more so than other countries in South East Asia. Nepal does not have traffic lights or traffic signs (Stop, Yield, Speed Limit, etc.) and it has very few pedestrian crossing lines. Cars and motorbikes come and go from everywhere, so be careful and just go with the flow.
19. Saturdays are the only resting days
Nepal has a 6 day work week, and Saturday is the only reserved rest day in the week. That is when you will notice that the streets, temples, markets, parks, etc. are busier, with the locals enjoying their only free day. Sunday is a normal day, and I found it was interesting to see kids going to school in their uniforms.
20. Namaste , Nepal
You will use a lot of “Namaste” to greet people in Nepal- it involves placing your palms together in a prayer style in front of your chin and saying "Namaste". Namaste is used as “Hello”, “Thank you” and “Good-bye”. Literally translated, it means, “I bow to the divine in you”. Very beautiful!
21. Nepalis eat with their hands and drink without their lips touching the bottle
You will notice that Nepali people do not use a fork or spoon, especially when they are eating Dal Bhat (lentils and rice – the national dish). When I asked about it, I was given a very meaningful explanation that first, you need to feel the food you will eat with your hands. This communion with the food as an experience was very profound.
Nepalis normally share a bottle of water at the table. When drinking from the bottle, they don’t touch their lips on the bottle. Rather they pour the water into their mouths so that others can drink from the same bottle.
22. The most traditional food
Nepal has a big variety of dishes, from popular Nepali dishes to some international ones. The most typical Nepali dish is Dal Bhat. Dal is lentils and Bhat is steamed rice. The dish also includes curry vegetables. The rest of the ingredients can vary depending on the region or what fresh vegetables are available. There are many variations on this staple dish.
If you are very hungry and think that your plate doesn’t have enough food, don’t worry, they will continue to “refill” your Dal Bhat as long as you have an appetite. Dal Bhat is the most economical dish you can order in Nepal…you will never leave hungry! Nepalis typically eat Dal Bhat at least twice per day.
“Dal Bhat power; 24 hour!”
23. Food takes a long time to prepare
Forget about fast food. Nepalis cook everything fresh! From the rice, to noodles, to your vegetables. They will cook everything from scratch, which is great. Pressure cookers are very popular, and you will notice the pressure on as soon as they receive your order in the kitchen. Once a meal is finished it’s brought out instead of waiting for the entire table’s food.
24. Don’t drink tap water
The tap water and river water in Nepal is unsafe to drink and visitors have a choice between bottled water, purification tablets, or boiled water. Alternatively you can bring a filtration device with you.
On a trek, you will not have access to bottled water. In an effort to reduce trash and pollution in its most precious resource (the Himalayas), bottled water has been banned. At lodges along the route you will be able to buy liters of boiled water. Bring a hydration pack or bottles to fill up. The higher you go up the mountain, the higher the price gets for boiled water (up to 200 rupees per liter).
25. Etiquette if you are invited to a Nepali house
A couple of quick notes if you get lucky enough to be invited to a Nepali home. First of all, remember to remove your shoes before entering the house. If you are sharing a meal, remember to wash your hands and mouth prior to start your meal. Wait for the host to serve you and do not use your own spoon or fork to serve yourself.
Lastly, enjoy the atmosphere and experience. Ask your host questions, they love to explain their life and customs.
26. Forget hot water or western bathrooms in the mountains or rural Nepal
Do not expect to find Western bathrooms in Nepal, especially if you are visiting villages or rural areas. They will take a cold shower outside their houses using a faucet with water coming from the mountains, and the bathroom will be outside the house, with the old “squat style” hole in the ground. That bucket of water in the outhouse is to pour in after use to “flush”.
27. Bring your own toilet paper
Always have toilet paper on-hand, unless you want to use your hand! You will most likely not find toilet paper, unless you are at a Western style hotel or public places.
28. They teach English at school
Nepali is the official language in Nepal, but you will find that many people speak English. They teach English at school. You can, and should, have a conversation with the kids, as they will appreciate a chance to practice their English with foreigners.
We drove 8 hours to a remote village with our Guide and some of his family. His 6 year old nephew sat in the back seat with us. We were having conversations about him, thinking he did not understand. When we stopped for lunch, he started counting in English and we found out he was quite fluent and had been studying since he was 3. We continued our journey and had some great conversations with him in the back seat.
29. People in Nepal are so welcoming
They may not have a lot, but they will share whatever they have with you. They will take you to their house and offer you the best seat at the table. They will serve you the first plate of food. They will make you feel welcome, and they are very proud of their culture and country, sharing any story they have with you.
When we arrived at the airport, our guide was not there to meet us (due to miscommunication). A stranger from our flight invited us to her mother’s house to spend the night (it was 1AM). That is how courteous Nepalis are. Beautiful!
30. Last, but not least, Nepali people do not complain
It is true! I noticed that people in Nepal don't complain. It is not because of they don’t have any problems, or life is easy. It is just a cultural thing. They don’t complain.
It was a very humble experience to me to see the effects of the 2015 earthquake that destroyed so many lives, houses and historical buildings. They are still working hard to recover. They still show the remains of the buildings, but without adding any complaint about it. Kathmandu is dirty and polluted, but they will proudly show you the beauty behind the chaos. In the rural villages, life is not easy and they live with very little, but they will share the little they have with you. You won’t hear about problems, but just comments about how great Nepal is, and how grateful they are.
Paula wants to know...
It is long, but hopefully it is a helpful guide about the culture in Nepal. Have you been in any place where you felt a culture shock and how did you deal with it? I would love to hear your experience.