Snowy mountaintops reaching into the sky. Gently bellowing yaks. Fluttering prayer flags. That was my mental image of Nepal before I visited. But now that I’ve been there, my new mental image of Nepal is quite different: shimmering lakes nestled in mountaintops. Dense, humming jungles. Bathing rhinoceroses. Chanting monks. Fluttering prayer flags (ok, some things stayed the same).
It turns out that all the things I thought I knew about Nepal were .. not wrong, exactly, just like … a very, very, very small portion of what the country has to offer.
And so when I received a notification that I was invited to visit Nepal as one of the hosted delegates of the Himalayan Travel Mart in partnership with Impact Travel Alliance, I was ecstatic.
Except: the trip was in 2 weeks. And I was leaving for Austria to speak at a conference in 1 week. Cue panic. Ahem: #travelbloggerproblems #sh*ttravelbloggerssay
Nepal has long been on my bucket list. The lure of Mount Everest has been a weird fascination of mine for years – not because I feel the need to climb Mount Everest, personally, but because I’m fascinated by the concept that other people want to do it badly enough to pay a bunch of money and suffer and maybe die just so they can say they did a thing (like, but why, though?).
The main reason I’ve always wanted to visit Nepal, actually, is my (late) grandmother. My grandmother Katy was always my travel inspiration. She traveled throughout my life, breaking every generational, gendered norm she could.
For instance, when cleaning out her home – a funny little round house on top of a hill – I found a stack of magazines and books about Mount Everest in her closet, including the 1953 issue of National Geographic featuring a cover story about the first-ever successful ascent of Mount Everest written by Sir Edmund Hillary.
And she really did: in the early 80’s, when she was in her late 50’s, she hiked the Annapurna Circuit (like the certified badass that she always was). She made such an impression on her Sherpa guide that the next year, he flew to visit her in her home (my hometown) in Louisville, Kentucky.
Can you imagine? Flying from Nepal to Kentucky to visit a guest on your hiking tour? But that’s just how amazing my grandmother was.
The next year, my mother & father planned to hike the Annapurna Circuit too, with the same Sherpa guide. But then they got pregnant with my older sister, and the rest is history …by which I mean they never did it, and now I feel the need to complete this story by hiking it myself. It’s firmly earned a place on my bucket list.
I didn’t have a chance to hike the Annapurna Circuit on this trip, but I know it won’t be my last trip to Nepal. And the next time I go, I’ll be much more prepared. Because it turns out that there are quite a few things about Nepal hat nobody tells you.
And so, without further ado, let’s begin.
Table of Contents
Psst: Planning a visit to Nepal? Check out some of our other posts to help you plan your trip! We’ll also have more Nepal posts publishing very soon.
- How to Plan a Trip: Practical Travel Planning Tips
- 21 Travel Safety Tips: How to Stay Safe & Prevent Theft
- The Ultimate Packing List: 43 Must-Have Items (by a Full Time Travel Blogger)
THINGS NOBODY TELLS YOU …
… ABOUT WHAT TO EXPECT IN NEPAL
Here are few random things you should know before you visit Nepal, with varying levels of usefulness.
Nepal has frequent power outages, often multiple times per day. Don’t panic: this is perfectly normal, and the power will come back on (eventually).
…And then, probably, go out again.
SQUATTY TOILETS ARE MOST COMMON IN NEPAL, BUT WESTERN TOILETS ARE RELATIVELY EASY TO FIND.
What’s a Squatty toilet? Well, it’s pretty self-explanatory: it’s pretty much just a hole in the ground with space for your feet on either side. You squat and use it to do your business, and then you clean up with the provided bucket o’ water and perfectly clean cup.
… In theory, anyway.
Nepal was my first ever experience using a squatty. They’re not terribly common outside of Asia, and we haven’t had a chance to travel much in Asia.
So, now that I’ve had some experience, here is what I have to say about squatties: I hate them.
Here’s the thing: they are not intuitive WHATSOEVER. They are NOT the same as dropping trow in the wilderness, where you can just aim any which way and your only concern is keeping your pants dry.
Like, y’all: I am still unclear on a few very basic squatty things. I have a lot of question, like:
- Which way should I face?
- How far apart should my feet be?
- Where do I put all my pant fabric to keep it from getting soaked?
- How does one aim, exactly?
- How does one avoid falling into a gross toilet hole while trying to move one’s pant fabric out of the way and attempting to aim things?
Needless to say, I did not master the squatty. And because I grew to loathe them, I also developed an unfortunate habit of dehydrating myself in order to avoid them. Because on a long road trip through Nepal, your roadside options are almost always squatties.
… Almost. Thankfully, Western toilets (gloriously easy-to-use Western toilets, which I never fully appreciated until my first time trying to use a squatty) are relatively easy to find! Some rest stops have at least 1 or 2 stalls with Western toilets, restaurants typically have them, and every accommodation I stayed at was outfitted with in-room Western-style restrooms.
The only time you’ll be out of luck is if you’re doing a homestay. In that case, I suggest you start studying!
NEPALESE MONEY IS SUPER CONFUSING… UNTIL YOU FIGURE IT OUT.
All of the bills of the Nepalese Rupee are different sizes, which made me feel like I was in Harry Potter and encountering wizard money for the first time. But then somebody pointed out that the money is organized by size: like, the smaller the value, the smaller the bill, and the larger the value, the larger the bill.
NEPALIS ARE VERY WELL DRESSED AND HAVE AMAZING HAIR.
Listen: I try not to make mass generalizations about people & culture, but I’m making an exception here.
They all have incredible hair – and I don’t just mean because it’s all silky and healthy like a country full of walking Herbal Essence commercials, I mean it’s like, VERY COOL and carefully cut and impeccably styled.
They also all dress like, really well. Whether they’re wearing traditional clothing, religious garb, or regular street clothes, they look like they just stepped out of the pages of Nepal Vogue and are on their way to their Sartorialist Street Style interview.
These two absolutely factual generalizations are the case everywhere from Kathmandu to the smallest villages we rolled through on bumpy, unpaved roads. Seriously, keep an eye out and tell me if you don’t notice the exact same thing during your trip to Nepal!
IF YOU’RE HIP AND WITH IT, YOU CAN SAY “THAT’S SO DANGER” WHEN SOMETHING IS TOTES RAD.
This is a real thing that hip, cool Nepali youths with amazing hair say when they mean “that’s so cool.” I know, it sounds ridiculous – like a line straight out of Archer or something. But I swear, I didn’t make it up!
Sadly, neither of us here at Practical Wanderlust are cool, young, or with it enough to get away with incorporating this into our daily lexicon. So instead, we’re working on trying to get Jeremy’s high school students to adopt it. Last I heard, they were like “Mr. Garcia, stop trying to make that’s so danger happen.” Maybe next year…
THE AIR QUALITY IN KATHMANDU IS TERRIBLE.
Like, terrible. According to Yale’s Environmental Performance Index, Nepal ranked 176 out of 180 countries. The air in Kathmandu is SO BAD.
Whether you’re riding in a taxi with an open window or taking a walk down the block, I highly recommend wearing a breathing mask like this one – N95 or N99 should do the trick.
The good news? The air quality seemed totally fine everywhere else I went!
… ABOUT NEPAL IN GENERAL
Don’t know much about Nepal? That’s OK, I didn’t either! Here are some helpful and potentially eye-opening things you should know about Nepal in general.
NEPAL IS STILL HEALING FROM A CIVIL WAR.
The Nepalese Civil War began in the mid 90’s and lasted for 10 years, ending just 14 years ago. Like all wars, it was brutal and messy and horrible. It was a fight between monarchy and communism – and on at least one mysterious occasion, monarchy vs monarchy – and ended with a peace agreement that appeased both sides, who are each represented in Nepal’s current government. Nepal has been at peace ever since.
You won’t see any scars from the Civil War unless you’re looking for them, but the context is important to understand.
NEPAL’S ARMY IS EVER-PRESENT.
Part of being less then 2 decades out from a civil war? A lil’ bit of uneasiness. Which is why you’ll still see the Nepalese Army throughout Nepal. There are quite a few checkpoints, which you don’t need to worry about if you’re traveling with a guide as they’ll know exactly what to do and have all the proper paperwork in place.
One place I wasn’t expecting a ton of army checkpoints? The jungle. But because Chitwan National Park spans the border of India, there are tons of army camps and checkpoints buried deep within the jungle. The Nepalese Army actually rides through the jungle on elephants (because it’s the safest and least environmentally harmful way to navigate).
NEPAL IS A DEVELOPING COUNTRY.
Some of you might be like “duh,” but quite a few people we met during our travels in Nepal seemed surprised by this.
But today, Nepal is considered by the United Nations to be one of the least developed countries in the world. Your average Nepali citizen is earning only $745 annually. And although there is progress being made, the fact of the matter is that Nepal is, generally speaking, quite poor.
That said: tourism is the largest industry in Nepal, which is why its government hosts an annual travel conference for travel media (like me!) in the hopes that we will write about Nepal and bring it more visitors. Because you, as a visitor to Nepal, play a hugely important role in the development of the country and its people.
Nepal is a country that wishes more people would come visit. What does that mean for you? Fewer crowds, welcoming locals, affordable rates, and a warm fuzzy feeling knowing that you’re doing a little bit of good for a lot of people!
THERE’S SO MUCH MORE TO SEE IN NEPAL THAN MOUNT EVEREST!
Name a place in Nepal that isn’t Everest. And yes, that also includes Base Camp and the rest of the Himalayas. You too, Annapurna.
If you got Kathmandu, you get a B. If you didn’t even get that far… honestly, you’re not alone!
Before I visited Nepal, I had NO idea what else there was to see. And I have like, a weird Everest obsession: I’m forever consuming Everest-themed books and movies and think-pieces, and my idea of a romantic Friday night date is watching Into Thin Air from the comfort and safety of my couch (because while I like to learn about Everest, I NEVER want to climb it).
The closest I got to the Himalayas was visiting Pokhara, a lakeside adventure town also known as the gateway to the Annapurna Circuit. And there’s plenty to do there other than trekking!
So while the Himalayas are the star attraction in the east, in western Nepal you’ll find a huge variety of other places to visit and things to experience.
… ABOUT TRAVELING AROUND NEPAL
I spent a full week traveling around Nepal in a small, cramped van stuffed with travel agents, bloggers, and Nepali guides. I watched Nepal’s countryside pass by for 10+ hours a day as we drove from Kathmandu to Chitwan to Lumbini to Pokhara.
But there are a few things you should know about first. Like …
MANY OF NEPAL’S ROADS ARE STILL UNPAVED.
See our earlier point: Nepal is still a developing country. And as such, it still has quite a few unpaved roads. This means that a road trip through Nepal is a bumpy, slow sort of adventure (which may or may not include A/C).
To make things extra interesting, a perfectly good, newly paved road will out of nowhere revert to a bumpy, unpaved path – often lined with obstacle courses made of giant boulders and other building materials – and then randomly revert back into a paved road a few miles later.
If you’ll be doing a lot of driving around Nepal (like I did), be sure to take plenty of Dramamine, download a few podcasts, and expect everything to take several more hours than you anticipated!
DRIVERS IN NEPAL GET REALLY EXTRA ABOUT DECORATING THEIR BUSES & TRUCKS.
It feels like the majority of the vehicles on the road in Nepal are buses and trucks. And all of them are elaborately and affectionately decorated.
Drivers in Nepal, it seems, get REALLY into decorating. Like, we’re talking that neighbor down the road who has an entire storage unit dedicated to housing his Halloween set-up and Christmas display levels of decorating.
Only in Nepal, the decorations are typically spiritual words and symbols, heart-shaped cut-outs (lots of heart cut-outs), overly masculine phrases in English like ROAD KING, and, oddly, random brand names and logos, like Apple and Nike and even Facebook.
It makes for excellent road trip game material
KATHMANDU HAS ITS OWN VERSION OF UBER, BUT FOR MOTOTAXIS.
The app is called Tootle, and it’s way cheaper (and slightly more terrifying) than taking a taxi all the way across Kathmandu.
But don’t call one thinking it’s a local version of Uber when you have 3 friends who all want to share a ride in the backseat of a car, because it isn’t for cars and you just made some poor guy drive his motorcycle through traffic only for you to be confused and disappointed. Whoops!
Do, however, bring a breathing mask. You will need one. (Don’t leave your face wash at home, either.)
… ABOUT WILDLIFE & NATURE IN NEPAL
By far, the highlight of my trip to Nepal was the wildlife. The 2 days we spent in Chitwan National Park staying at the eco-friendly Barahi Jungle Lodge were absolutely unreal – I saw SO many animals! I had no idea Nepal had such wildlife diversity.
Here’s what you should know about Nepal’s wild side.
NEPAL IS A NATURE JACKPOT.
Nepal has it all, from icy tundra on the world’s highest peaks to exotic animals living in lush, tropical jungles. If you travel for scenery and wildlife, Nepal’s diversity is tough to beat!
NEPAL HAS THE HIGHEST PEAK AND THE DEEPEST GORGE.
And they’re both in the Himalayas! You’ve heard of Mount Everest, the tallest mountain on Earth, right?
Well, according to my Nepali guide, Kali Gendaki Gorge is the deepest on Earth. According to Wikipedia, that claim is validated “if one measures the depth of a canyon by the difference between the river height and the heights of the highest peaks on either side.” That kind of feels like cheating, but ima let Nepal have this one.
At any rate, you can check it out yourself while trekking the Annapurna Circuit – you’ll pass right by it.
NEPAL IS MOSTLY MOUNTAINS.
According to my research *adjusts glasses,* 75% of Nepal consists of giant, majestic AF mountains. Those mountains are FULL of stunning treks, like the Mohare Dande Trek, which our friends from Two Wandering Soles hiked during their simultaneous trip to Nepal.
But don’t let all those mountains trick you into skipping the rest of the country! From the valleys of Kathmandu and Pokhara to the tropical lowlands of Chitwan National Park, there is SO much else to see in Nepal.
NEPAL IS HOME TO A HUGE VARIETY OF WILD ANIMALS!
Nepal has AMAZING wildlife diversity, and it’s home to a ton of adorable, fuzzy, cuddly animals (because all animals are adorable and fuzzy and cuddly. Yes, even the big scary angry scaly ones).
How much wildlife is there, you ask? Well, think of it this way: The Jungle Book was set next door, just a few hours away in Madhya Pradesh, India.
Here are my favorite Nepal residents:
- Bengal Tigers: Fierce, majestic kitty cats whose bellies I want to rub.
- Snow Leopards: Also fierce majestic kitties, but they like to play in the snow!!
- Red Pandas: The cutest animal in existence. It looks like a fox crossed with a panda and it’s freaking ADORBS.
- One-Horned Rhinos: Like big ol’ wrinkly hippos, but with giant horns. I saw FIFTEEN rhinos during my trip!
- Sloth Bears: Literally Balloo. Like, just big, derpy, slack-jawed bears.
- Marbled Cat: Looks exactly like a very fancy domestic cat. Like the kind of cat your cat would follow on Instagram.
- Elephants: Sensitive, sweet, intelligent chonks full of love and kindness (also: the most dangerous wild animal on this list.)
- Peacocks: Fabulous and dazzling, ’nuff said.
Obviously, you cannot actually touch, befriend, or get near any of them (and should run far away from anyone who tells you otherwise) but that doesn’t stop me from baby-talking to all of them in cutesy voices and falling in love with them from afar.
During my trip to Nepal, I spent a few days in Chitwan National Park staying at the phenomenal Barahi Jungle Lodge, a sustainable eco-lodge located on a quiet riverbank along the border of the park. We went into the park for boat safaris, jeep safaris, and even a jungle walk (our guides brought sticks to scare off any unsuspecting and unfriendly critters, which did nothing to help my anxiety).
And y’all, we saw SO MUCH! Fifteen rhinos – most of whom were bathing with families in the river, quite undisturbed by our boat silently floating by. Boars snuffling for food in the brush. A sloth bear huffalumping across the path. Monkeys playing overhead. Peacocks strutting along the riverbanks.
It was incredible.
NEPAL HAS ABSOLUTELY NO TOLERANCE FOR POACHERS.
Because Nepal has so many endangered animals and such a huge variety of wildlife, the government has instituted a no-tolerance policy for poachers.
Like … NO tolerance. Like, kill on sight levels of no tolerance. Dayum.
According to our guides, it’s very effective. Especially considering how many army camps we drove past in the jungle – it wouldn’t be easy to get away with poaching with that kind of army presence!
DOMESTICATED ELEPHANTS PLAY AN IMPORTANT ROLE IN NEPAL’S HISTORY & CULTURE …
Elephants are Nepal’s largest animal, and they’ve historically been used almost like horses were used historically throughout Europe.
For those who have lived in the area now known as Nepal for thousands of years – including Nepal’s 120+ different Indigenous communities – domesticating elephants has historically been very important and helpful, for everything from farming to navigation to, a long long time ago, fighting wars.
Today, domesticated elephants are still used for laborious tasks and are considered working animals. According to our guides at Chitwan National Park, the safest (and most environmentally friendly) way for a human to navigate through the jungle is on the back of an elephant, so the army and their park rangers, who work on conservation within the park, all ride through the jungle on elephant-back.
But wait! Isn’t elephant riding, like, super unethical?
Well, it certainly raises ethical questions – but the answer here is less black and white than you’d expect.
Here’s the thing: 1 single person riding an elephant does not hurt an elephant, physically (much like 1 single person riding a horse). And an elephant born & raised in captivity with its family is not as bad as an elephant captured from the wild and domesticated.
In most places in Nepal, many of the domesticated elephants you’ll see performing functional tasks were born & raised in captivity and are ridden only by 1 person at a time. There are laws forbidding the practice of harming, poaching, or capturing wild elephants – after all, the Asian elephant is an endangered species.
Because Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, many of its people are struggling just to grow enough food to eat. For a small village, even one domesticated elephant is a HUGE advantage.
Add that to the fact that Nepal is a Hindu country with deeply significant spiritual beliefs and practices surrounding elephants, and you begin to understand: it’s not so black and white.
Saying that all domesticated elephants are bad and that the practice should be abolished completely would be ignoring the cultural traditions and livelihoods of the people living in Nepal.
So it would be easy enough for me to decry the entire concept of domesticated elephants as someone born in the USA, where we don’t need to rely on large domesticated animals for feeding our communities or for transportation.
But instead, I choose to see it as more of a gray area. It’s not my culture, it’s not my history, it’s not my spirituality, it’s not my starving family … it’s not my call.
… BUT YOU MAY STILL SEE ELEPHANT RIDING ACTIVITIES FOR TOURISTS, AND THAT’S NOT OK.
Historically speaking, elephant riding as a tourist activity is VERY new. It only sprang up in the last 50 or so years. For an impoverished country like Nepal, the ability to use a resource they already have – domesticated elephants – to earn money by selling a ride to tourists is a very desirable prospect.
Perhaps that elephant could earn quite a bit more for its owners carrying you around for an hour versus performing farming tasks for the day. Everyone wants to feed their families, right? So the demand for elephant riding easily found an easy supply.
So it really so bad?
Well … yes. Thousands of years of incorporating elephants into traditional cultures, religious practices and subsistence tasks is one thing.
Groups of tourists all jumping onto an elephant’s back, all day long, just for a cool story or a picture? That is A VERY DIFFERENT THING.
You know better. Riding on the back of an elephant is not the difference between feeding your family or starving. It’s not a deeply entrenched cultural practice that your community has revered for thousands of years. It’s just a cool story and an Instagram photo.
That’s not worth it.
You are the demand factor in this equation. You control whether or not elephant riding is offered to tourists.
At our eco-lodge in Chitwan National Park, elephant riding (and bathing) IS offered to tourists. But it’s only for one person at a time, for only a couple of hours per day, with no saddle – in Nepal, that’s considered to be a more “ethical” style of elephant riding.
The elephants used for this purpose were rescued from crueler conditions and live in the nearby village (whose residents are mostly employed by the lodge, and were very welcoming of us tourists – always a good sign). Their trainers have been with them since birth, and even sleep in the same barn with the elephants – they are the elephant’s loving caretakers.
But it’s still not OK for us as tourists to ride them, or for the lodge to offer elephant rides to tourists. “Relatively ethical” elephant riding for tourists is still elephant riding. And we made sure to tell our hosts as much. They assured us that they are working on petering out their elephant riding offerings for guests – despite overwhelming continued demand.
But the responsibility is also on us: the tourists. We are the demand. Ultimately, every Nepali I asked about elephant riding said that Nepali locals don’t encourage it, but that it exists solely to meet tourism demand.
So: don’t ride elephants. And discourage everyone else from riding them, too. It’s not OK.
… ABOUT THE FOOD IN NEPAL
Before I spent 2 weeks in Nepal, I had no idea what Nepalese food was like. I kind of thought it was similar to Indian food, but I wasn’t sure. Truth be told, I wasn’t too far off…
NEPAL’S FOOD IS A LOT LIKE INDIAN FOOD, BUT … DIFFERENT.
There is a TON of Indian influence on Nepali food, which makes sense: after all, Nepal is bordered on 3 sides by India (and one side by Tibet, which we’ll get into in a momo-ent). You’ll also find tons of Indian snacks for sale in Nepali convenience stores.
But Nepali food is not the same as Indian food, and if you eat a lot of Indian food, this will be very apparent in ways that are hard to describe. While I’m not an expert in authentic Indian food, I have a LOT of feelings and opinions about Indian food in the USA, which I grew up eating. And Nepali food is just not quite like the Indian food that I know and love.
What’s different between Indian food and Nepali food, exactly? Is it the taste, color, or texture of familiar dishes? Honestly, yes – sometimes.
But overall, I think the main difference is the spices. Nepali dishes just don’t have as much spice as Indian dishes. And I’m not just talking about heat, here: I mean just like, in general. Nepali food sometimes left me wishing for spices that I don’t actually know the names of.
That’s not to say Nepali food isn’t good – because frankly, it’s still better than most of what I can get back home – it’s just… different.
Honestly? If you don’t eat a lot of Indian food, you probably won’t even notice.
YOU’LL SEE “DHAL BAT” ON EVERY MENU – IT’S NEPAL’S MOST COMMON MEAL.
At it’s core, Dhal Bat is basically just some rice with a little bowl of lentil soup and, sometimes, chapati. But a typical dhal bat in Nepal usually comes with a wide variety of other vegetable side dishes in adorable little bowls.
You’ll typically order a dhal bat according to your preferred meat (or lack thereof) and then gratefully accept whatever side dishes it happens to be served with. Sometimes they’re amazing, like stewed eggplant or paneer curry or cauliflower and potatoes. Sometimes they’re insanely spicy (you might want to also order a mango lassi, just in case).
And sometimes they’re pickled bitter melon. I’m a fairly adventurous eater, but y’all … I do not like pickled bitter melon.
- Want to learn how to make Dhal Bat? Ethical tour operator Backstreet Academy offers a Dhal Bat cooking class with a local, where you’ll learn authentic Nepali cooking techniques while directly supporting a local family (and their community)!
KATHMANDU HAS A THRIVING COFFEE SCENE.
There is SO much good coffee in Kathmandu! As a coffee snob, this made me very, very happy.
My favorite coffee in Kathmandu is kar.ma coffee brewed up at The Hub in Thamel, a sustainable co-op which also hosts cooking classes (and makes an excellent spot to camp out and work for a few hours!)
- Kathmandu Travel Tip: Looking for more places to get your coffee fix? Fellow coffee snob Jean from Traveling Honeybird has a guide to the best coffee shops in Kathmandu!
YOU MIGHT WANT TO GO VEGETARIAN DURING YOUR NEPAL TRAVELS.
During my time in Nepal, I ordered progressively less and less meat from restaurants. Why? Was it my neverending guilt about the climate apocalypse? My love for animals? The abundance of delicious vegetarian-friendly food in Nepal?
… Er, yes – all of the above. But also: the meat in Nepal isn’t … that … good. It’s not like it tastes bad, exactly.
It’s just that after spitting out enough tiny, sharp little bones, you might decide that maybe the small bits of meat in your curry aren’t actually worth all that effort.
Or perhaps a restaurant’s open grill is a little too close to the dusty, dirty, smoke-clogged road for comfort.
Or maybe your travel companion isn’t feeling quite well, and you start thinking of the flies you saw buzzing around the kitchen. Eek!
In any case: consider ordering vegetarian in Nepal. Because after all, there are tons of delicious veggie-friendly meals … and you’ll be doing your part for the environment!
MOMOS ARE A THING. AND THEY HAVE A CULT FOLLOWING.
You may have gotten the impression, reading this post, that Nepal isn’t exactly known for its food. And I would agree… with one notable exception: momos.
Momos are a BELOVED Nepali staple, with a cult-like following (at least in travel circles). Whenever I told my traveler friends that I was visiting Nepal, their first recommendation was always momo-related.
So like, what’s a momo? It’s a snack, not a meal (because in Nepali, anything without rice is just a snack, I learned). It’s a dumpling, but like … a dumpling that was born when Chinese food and Indian food had a baby. And then was adapted and filled with literally everything under the sun.
Historians (aka Wikipedia) credit Tibet with the creation of the momo, which is the Tibetan culinary influence that I promised like 3 paragraphs ago. Ta-daaaa!
Anyway, you should absolutely order momos while in Nepal. You should also consider buying one of the many hilarious momo-themed shirts for sale on any touristy street in Kathmandu or Pokhara. And if you see a momo-only restaurant or street food stall, you should make an immediate beeline and get some freakin’ momos.
- Want to learn how to make momos? Book a momo cooking class with a local and learn from the pros! The class I took was run by Social Tours, an ethical tour operator, at my favorite uber-hip Kathmandu coffee shop, The Hub. You’ll pay whatever you’re able and learn how to make momos from scratch – including veggie momos, meat momos, and CHOCOLATE MOMOS, which are as delicious as they sound – plus a traditional peanut tomato mint and plum based sauce. You can read a full writeup of the class I took from our friend Jessie at Jessie on a Journey!
DON’T EXPECT DESSERT AFTER YOUR MEAL, BUT DEFINITELY TRY SOME NEPALI DESSERTS.
Although Nepal has quite a snack culture, and you’ll find everything from snack cafes to momo-only restaurants, you’ll have a harder time finding desserts. Which is probably good for my health, but bad for my raging sugar addiction.
That said: when I DID have a traditional Nepali sweet – called “Mithai” or “Guleo Khaanaa” in Nepali – it was BOMB.
Like handmade Sel Roti, Himalayan slightly sweet donut rings made from rice flour and deep-fried. Or a crunchy and sweet and sticky Jeri. Or a Jeri Swari Haluwa, which is like a crunchy sweet honey-soaked funnel cake with a dollop of soft halwa wrapped in a fried flatbread which is SO FREAKING GOOD I have been dreaming about it ever since.
- Kathmandu Travel Tip: The Jeri Swari Haluwa I tried was at a century-old shop in Kathmandu called, according to my notes, Shree Kumari – but I can’t find anything online to help me locate it again! So you’ll just have to do what I did and take the (wonderful) breakfast tour with Backstreet Academy – it was one of our stops!
… ABOUT CULTURE & SPIRITUALITY IN NEPAL
Nepal is a deeply spiritual country, something that I – as a not-spiritual person – didn’t expect to be quite so affected by.
But the spirituality in Nepal is an ever-present sensory experience: colorful prayer flags, chanting, ritual circling, the ringing of bells and shuffling of prayer wheels, the smells of incense and burning candles made from animal fat, groups of monks chatting (and, in one case, texting, which made me do a double-take), and temples in all sizes and shapes and colors. You can’t help but embrace Nepal’s deep spirituality!
Here’s what you need to know.
YOU’LL SAY “NAMASTE” FOR EVERYTHING FROM THANK YOU TO GOODBYE.
The traditional Hindu greeting is the default throughout Nepal. It means, essentially, “the divine spirit with me bows to the divine spirit within you” because it is a Hindu belief that every person contains a bit of the universal spirit of Brahman.
Or, somewhat less spiritually and more easily palatable to us non-Hindus, it means “my soul recognizes your soul,” which is such a deep and poignant greeting that I find absolutely beautiful (and something I don’t recall ever learning despite having taken a plethora of namaste-ing yoga classes).
You’ll say Namaste to everyone, and everyone will say it to you. Unlike the end of your yoga class back home, it’s used for everything in Nepal: as a greeting, as a goodbye, as a thank you, as an “excuse me, pardon me, you’re in my way,” everything.
And yes, feel free to throw in the prayer hands and head bow, too – it will quickly feel natural. Just try not to do it so much after you return back home because chances are you’ll come off like an enlightened douchecanoe.
NEPAL IS THE BIRTHPLACE OF LORD BUDDHA.
Yes, THE Buddha. His name was Siddartha, and he was born in Lumbini, Nepal sometime around 650 BC. His mother died shortly after childbirth, and Siddartha lived here in a small palace with his high caste Kshatriya Hindu family before deciding he didn’t want to live that privileged life and taking off on the journey that would eventually lead him to spiritual enlightenment. Psst: I wrote a little historical write-up in an Instagram caption, if you want a quick summary!
Today, Lumbini is a site of religious pilgrimage. Each Buddhist country has built an elaborate temple to pay their respects to this holy place.
Although I am not Buddhist, Lumbini is an incredibly meaningful place to visit, and it was amazing to see how many of the visitors to Buddha’s birthplace were deeply and visibly moved.
NEPAL IS A HINDU COUNTRY.
Despite being the birthplace of the Buddha, Nepal is a predominantly Hindu country. For many years, in fact, it was considered the only Hindu country in the world – until the Civil War, that is, when it became officially secular. (It was not a religious war, though – both Hindu and Buddhism are deeply peaceful.)
About 80% of Nepal’s residents are Hindu, 10% are Buddhist, and the rest is a mixed bag. You’ll see as many Hindu symbols and temples around Nepal as you will statues and devotions to the Buddha.
Although you will frequently be asked to take your shoes off to enter a temple as a sign of respect, otherwise you’re perfectly free to practice religious freedom – in fact, pressuring a foreigner to convert is actually punishable by law in Nepal.
YOU’LL SEE PRAYER FLAGS ALL OVER NEPAL.
If your mental picture of Nepal includes tattered prayer flags fluttering in the wind in front of a snowy peak, that’s … actually pretty accurate.
Although their origin is actually in Nepal’s neighbor, Tibet, Buddhist prayer flags are ubiquitous in Nepal, from alleyways to temples (and yes, even to snowy peaks).
EACH PRAYER FLAG COLOR HAS SIGNIFICANCE, AND THE MORE TATTERED AND FADED, THE BETTER.
Each color signifies a different element and even direction. But most importantly of all, Prayer Flags should always be fluttering in the wind! The more tattered a Prayer Flag, the better.
Why? Because the purpose of a Prayer Flag is to send your prayer off on the wind, so a tattered, faded Prayer Flag shows that it has helped answer lots and lots of prayers.
You can find Prayer Flags for sale at the many souvenir shops and craft shops throughout Nepal, and you’re supposed to receive them as a gift – so bring a few back for your loved ones at home! Just don’t let them touch the ground – it’s disrespectful.
THERE ARE MORE THAN 120 DIFFERENT INDIGENOUS NATIONALITIES WITHIN NEPAL.
Each has their own culture, language, and history, and together they make up a whopping 35% of Nepal’s population (many claim it’s even more).
However, like many Indigenous communities throughout the world (including here in the USA), the Indigenous Nationalities of Nepal are marginalized and are fighting for rights and recognition from the Nepalese Government.
And as a guest of the Nepalese Government (who planned and hosted my trip), I didn’t have much of an opportunity to learn about the Indigenous peoples of Nepal. I’ll definitely be seeking that out on future trips to Nepal. In the meantime, I’ve provided a few useful resources with more information!
- Resources & Information: For some fantastic resources on the Indigenous Peoples of Nepal, I recommend taking a look at the Indigenous Voice and the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs.
KATHMANDU IS HOME TO THE NEWARI PEOPLE, AND THEIR CULTURE IS EVER-PRESENT.
One of the most visible Indigenous communities in Nepal is the Newari people, who are the native residents of the Kathmandu Valley and still make up a significant portion of the population. Newari people are considered their own ethnicity and speak Newari as their first language, rather than Nepalese.
You’ll find traditional Newari architecture, art and food throughout Kathmandu as well as in Palpa. They have their own festivals, their own spiritual customs, their own calendar, and even their own definition of birthdays, which change from year to year.
If you find yourself in a temple filled with pigeons somewhere within Kathmandu, that is a Newari temple: in Newari culture, it’s believed that the wind from all those wings flapping at you when you run at a giant flock of pigeons is cleansing. I found it alarming, but then again, the pigeons in San Francisco are next-level aggressive.
To experience Newari culture, I recommend trying some Newari food – this blog has some fantastic suggestions – or, if you’re able, adding a Newari homestay into your Nepal itinerary. A homestay is a fantastic way to directly support a local family and community and to get to know locals. You can book a Newari homestay with Community Homestays or even on AirBnB.
THERE IS SO MUCH JOY & DANCING IN NEPAL!
One that struck me during my 2 weeks in Nepal was how much DANCING we saw! Dancing is a deeply ancient and traditional ritual in Nepal, and everywhere we went, locals performed music and traditional dances for us – and each time, we were invited to join in, too.
We never knew what we were doing and I’m sure we looked ridiculous, but we were all smiling and laughing together – the joy and music was so infectious!
That is what will stick with me long after my trip to Nepal: the welcoming people, the deep spirituality, the rich history, the joy, and the dancing.
I hope this has opened your eyes to some of the things you didn’t know about Nepal! If you’re anything like me, your mental image of Nepal was something like solemn mountains, fluttering prayer flags, and white dudes hanging off of mountainsides in never-ending blizzards.
And while all that is definitely there, there’s also SO much more to see and do in Nepal! So move that mental image over and watch this music video instead – because, y’all, THAT is what the rest of Nepal is doing!
Did we pique your interest to travel to Nepal? What was the thing nobody tells you about Nepal that surprised you the most? Drop us a comment below!
Psst: Planning a visit to Nepal? Check out some of our other posts to help you plan your trip! We’ll also have more Nepal posts publishing very soon.
- How to Plan a Trip: Practical Travel Planning Tips
- 21 Travel Safety Tips: How to Stay Safe & Prevent Theft
- The Ultimate Packing List: 43 Must-Have Items (by a Full-Time Travel Blogger)
Disclaimer: I visited Nepal as one of the hosted delegates of the Himalayan Travel Mart in partnership with Impact Travel Alliance. A huge thanks to our hosts, the student leaders of the Pacific Asia Travel Association who organized the conference, our guides and drivers, and everyone who helped along the way to make my trip an absolutely incredible experience! As always, all opinions, inaccuracies, gross generalizations about the attractiveness of Nepalese people, and under-informed facts about Nepal I got from Wikipedia are entirely my own fault.