Nepal //

Travel essentials

Children

Kids always help break the ice with strangers, and Nepal can be a magical place for a child to visit. Arranging childcare is easy, and Nepalis generally love kids. Some children (especially those with fair skin and blond hair) may be uncomfortable with the endless attention, however.

Parents will of course have to take extra precautions in the light of Nepal’s poor sanitation, dogs, crowds, traffic, pollution, bright sun, rooftops and steep slopes. It may be hard to keep hands clean and yucky stuff out of mouths, and you’ll have to keep a firm grip on small children while out and about. If your child comes down with diarrhoea, keep them hydrated and topped up on salts – have oral rehydration formula on hand.

Naturally, you’ll want to plan a more modest itinerary and travel in greater comfort with children than you might on your own. In tourist areas it should be no problem finding food that kids will eat, though in other places it might be more challenging. Baby food and disposable nappies/diapers are available in Kathmandu and Pokhara, but are hard to come by elsewhere. Some toys and books can be bought in Nepal, but bring a supply of your own. Carry small tots in a backpack or papoose – a stroller or pushchair will be virtually useless.

Trekking with children is generally a wonderful experience, though it can be logistically awkward if they’re too old to ride in a backpack and too young to hike on their own (though mules or horses can often be arranged).

Climate

Nepal’s climate varies significantly through the year, with seasons showing themselves very differently at different altitudes. The pre-monsoon period, generally very hot and humid at lower elevations, lasts from mid-April to early June, while the monsoon itself, when travel is difficult but not impossible, dominates the period between mid-June and mid-September. Autumn sees pleasant temperatures and dry weather, while winter is generally cool and clear.

Costs

Your money goes a long way in Nepal. Off the tourist routes, it can actually be hard to spend $30–40 a day, including food, transport and accommodation. On the other hand, Kathmandu and some of the other tourist traps can burn a hole in your pocket faster than you might expect. Even so, it’s still possible for a frugal traveller to keep to $20 a day in the capital, although the figure can effortlessly balloon to $50 or more simply by choosing slightly nicer hotels and restaurants. If you like to travel in greater luxury, you should reckon on spending $60–80 or more per day, depending mainly on standard of accommodation.

You’ll inevitably pay over the odds for things at first, and it may even feel as if people are charging you as much as they think they can get away with, but that’s hardly a market principle exclusive to Nepal. Bargain where appropriate, but don’t begrudge a few rupees to someone who has worked hard for them.

Many hotels (and most tourist restaurants) quote their prices exclusive of the 13 percent “government” tax (essentially a value-added tax) and charge another 10 percent service charge.

No matter how tight your budget, it would be foolish not to splurge now and then on some of the things that make Nepal unique: organized treks, rafting, biking and wildlife trips are relatively expensive, but well worth it.

Crime

Nepal is one of the world’s more crime-free countries, but it would be unwise not to take a few simple precautions.

The main concern is petty theft. Store valuables in your hotel safe, close windows or grilles at night in cities to deter “fishing”, and use a money belt or pouch around your neck. Some public bus routes have reputations for baggage theft. Pickpockets (often street children) operate in crowded urban areas, especially during festivals; be vigilant.

If you’re robbed, report it as soon as possible to the police headquarters of the district in which the robbery occurred. Policemen are apt to be friendly, if not much help. For insurance purposes, go to the Interpol Section of the police headquarters in Durbar Square, Kathmandu, to fill in a report; you’ll need a copy of it to claim from your insurer once back home. Bring a photocopy of your passport and your Nepali visa, together with two passport photos.

Violent crime is rare. An occasional concern is a certain amount of hooliganism or sexual aggression in the Kathmandu tourist bars, and late-night muggings do sometimes occur. In addition, there have been a couple of well-publicized armed robberies and sex murders in the national parks on the edge of the Kathmandu Valley. A few Western women have been raped, but most problems come about within relationships with Nepali men – trekking or rafting guides, for instance – not due to attack by strangers. The countryside, generally, is very safe, though there is a small risk of attack by bandits on remote trekking trails. In the Terai, there are a number of armed Madhesi groups, but tourists are not targets and you are unlikely to be affected much beyond the odd delayed bus, roadblock or bandh.

There are several ways to get on the wrong side of the law. Smuggling is the usual cause of serious trouble – if you get caught with commercial quantities of either drugs or gold you’ll be looking at a more or less automatic five to twenty years in prison.

In Nepal, where government servants are poorly paid, a little bakshish sometimes greases the wheels. Nepali police don’t bust tourists simply in order to get bribes, but if you’re accused of something it might not hurt to make an offer, in an extremely careful, euphemistic and deniable way. This shouldn’t be necessary if you’re the victim of a crime, although you may feel like offering a “reward”.

The worst trouble you’re likely to run into is one of Nepal’s all-too-common civil disturbances. Political parties, student organizations and anyone else with a gripe may call a chakka jam (traffic halt) or bandh (general strike). In either case, most shops pull down their shutters as well, and vehicles stay off the roads to avoid having their windows smashed. Demonstrations sometimes involve rock-throwing, tear gas and lathis (Asian-style police batons), but you’d have to go out of your way to get mixed up in this.

Drugs

Drugs are illegal in Nepal, but it is impossible to walk through Thamel or any of the other tourist hotspots without being approached by a dealer offering hash. It would be incredibly stupid to go through customs with illegal drugs, but discreet possession inside the country carries relatively little risk. While the drug dealers are often shady characters, they are not generally informants.

Electricity

Power comes at 220 volts/50 cycles per second, when you can get it: lengthy power cuts (“load shedding”) are a daily occurrence. Smarter hotels and restaurants have backup generators. Tourist guesthouses usually offer sockets that accept almost any kind of pin, but the European standard two-pin is the most common.

Emergencies

Dial 100 for the police. Hospitals and other organizations have their own telephone numbers for an ambulance, but get a Nepali-speaker to do the talking. Registering with your embassy can speed things up in the event of an emergency.

Entry regulations

All foreign nationals except Indians need a visa to enter Nepal. These are free (for 30 days) for nationals of other South Asian Area Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries: Pakistan, Bhutan and Bangladesh. All other nationals have to pay for them. Tourist visas are issued on arrival at Kathmandu airport and official overland entry points. At the former, queues can be long, so you may prefer to get one in advance from a Nepali embassy or consulate in your own country. Otherwise, have a passport-size photo at the ready. At the airport, you can pay the visa fee in US dollars, euros, pounds sterling or other major foreign currencies. At overland entry points, officials tend to demand US dollars or Nepali rupees.

The fee structure at the time of writing was $25 for 15 days, $40 for 30 days and $100 for 90 days; all are multiple-entry visas. Fees may change without warning, however, so double-check at w immi.gov.np before setting out. Tourist visas can be extended up to a maximum of 150 days in a calendar year: an extension of 15 days or less costs $30; for more than 15 days, it costs an extra $2 per day. Extensions are granted only at the Kathmandu or Pokhara Department of Immigration offices. Submit your passport and one passport-size photo with your application. A transit visa, valid for 24 hours and non-extendable, costs $5.

Don’t overstay more than a couple of days, and don’t tamper with your visa – tourists have been fined and even jailed for these seemingly minor infractions.

It is no longer necessary to have a trekking permit to visit the most popular trekking regions, but you will need the TIMS card, which amounts to much the same thing. You’ll have to pay national park entry fees for the Annapurna, Everest and Langtang areas. A handful of remote regions are still restricted, and require permits to enter.

It’s worth noting, too, that a few sites in the Kathmandu Valley, including the entire city of Bhaktapur, charge entry fees.

Customs officers are fairly lax on entry, but checks are more thorough on departure, and it is illegal to export objects over 100 years old (see Ethical shopping).

Gay and lesbian Nepal

While the gay scene in Kathmandu is growing slowly, and the government is taking a more progressive line than in the past, homosexuality is still very much frowned upon. (Lesbianism is barely even considered a possibility.) In a society where men routinely hold hands and often share beds, gay couples may feel a certain freedom in being able to be close in public, but otherwise the same advice on sexual behaviour in public applies as for heterosexual couples. The only approach a gay traveller is likely to get is from touts who, at the end of a long inventory of drugs and “nice Nepali girls”, might also offer “boys”. But it’s nothing like the scene in, say, Thailand. For more information, contact the Blue Diamond Society (w bds.org.np), a Kathmandu-based gay rights pressure group.

Insurance

It’s worth taking out insurance before travelling, to cover against theft, loss and illness or injury. Before paying for a new policy, however, check whether you’re already covered: some all-risks home insurance policies may cover your possessions when overseas, and many medical schemes include cover when abroad.

A typical policy usually provides cover for the loss of baggage, tickets and – up to a certain limit – cash, as well as cancellation or curtailment of your journey. Most of them exclude so-called dangerous sports unless an extra premium is paid: in Nepal this can mean whitewater rafting, trekking (especially above 4000m) and climbing. Many policies can be tailored – for example, sickness and accident benefits can often be excluded or included at will. If you do take medical coverage, ascertain whether benefits will be paid as treatment proceeds or only after return home, and whether there is a 24-hour medical emergency number. When securing baggage cover, make sure that the per-article limit will cover your most valuable possession. If you need to make a claim, you should keep receipts for medicines and medical treatment, and in the event you have anything stolen, you must obtain an official statement from the police.

Internet

Cyber cafés are abundant in Nepal. Beyond Kathmandu and Pokhara, however, connections can be painfully slow. Expect to pay around Rs25–100/hr. Find out whether a power cut is due before going online, as only a few cyber cafés have backup generators. Many hotels and restaurants in touristy areas offer wi-fi access.

Laundry

Most hotels and guesthouses provide laundry services, generally charging around Rs50–100/kg. In Thamel and other tourist areas, numerous laundries offer a same-day service. If you’re doing your own, detergent is sold in inexpensive packets in cities, or you can buy a cheap cube of local laundry soap almost anywhere.

The media

The media is fast-developing in Nepal and even remote places now have access to newspapers, TV and, increasingly, the internet.

Despite a literacy rate of less than 50 percent, Nepal boasts more than a thousand newspapers – an outgrowth of two noble Brahmanic traditions: punditry and gossip. Several are published in English, the most readable and incisive being the weekly Nepali Times. Of the dailies, the Kathmandu Post remains the frontrunner, overshadowing The Himalayan Times and República. All are hard to find outside big cities, but are available online.

A number of magazines are published in English, the most interesting being Himal (w himalmag.com) and ECS Nepal (w ecs.com.np). Foreign publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Time and Newsweek are available from bookshops in Kathmandu and Pokhara.

As well as several terrestrial Nepali channels, cable and satellite TV – broadcasting programmes from India and the West – is widespread, and more and more hotel rooms have TVs. The influential government-run Radio Nepal (w radionepal.org) on 103 FM has English-language news bulletins daily at 8pm. Local FM stations are sprouting like mushrooms and increasingly using ethnic languages and local dialects. There are a couple of English-language ones in the Kathmandu Valley; the trendiest is Kantipur (w radiokantipur.com) on 96.1 FM. If you have a short-wave radio, you can pick up the BBC World Service: w bbc.co.uk/worldservice lists the frequencies.

Money and banks

Nepal’s unit of currency is the Nepali rupee (rupiya), which is divided into 100 paisa (which you will never see). At the time of writing, the exchange rate was around Rs79 to US$1, Rs127 to £1 and Rs108 to €1. Most Nepali money is paper: notes come in denominations of Rs1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 25, 50, 100, 250, 500 and 1000.

More upmarket tourist businesses quote prices in US dollars, and may even expect payment in that currency. A fistful of rupees will very rarely be refused, but if you’re planning to stay in classy hotels, or book flights or rafting trips, it’s worth bringing some US currency. A selection of denominations is useful; make sure the bills are relatively new. Euros and pounds sterling are accepted too, converted on the basis of the bank’s tourist rate, or the one printed in that day’s newspaper. The Indian rupee, also widely accepted, is known as IC for Indian Currency.

One minor annoyance of travelling in Nepal is getting change. Outside tourist areas, business people will hum and haw about breaking a large note. It gets to be a game of bluff between buyer and seller, both hoarding a wad of small notes for occasions when exact change is vital. It pays to carry a range of smaller bills.

Credit and debit cards
Top-end hotels and some travel agents, shops and mid-range guesthouses accept credit cards (charging a processing fee for doing so), but most others places don’t. Most towns covered in this guide have at least one ATM, and places like Kathmandu have hundreds: almost all accept foreign debit and credit cards (though you may face a few problems if you have a Cirrus card) and have instructions in English, and many are open 24 hours. Annoyingly, however, most have an Rs10,000 withdrawal limit for each transaction. Let your bank know you intend to use your card in Nepal before leaving home, as they sometimes stop cards used abroad for fear that they have been cloned or stolen.

Some banks also issue credit card cash advances, and American Express cardholders can similarly draw money at the Amex office in Kathmandu. A good alternative to debit or credit cards are the pre-paid “cash passport” cards (w cashpassport.com) issued by companies such as Travelex.

Travellers’ cheques
Travellers’ cheques are more secure than cash, but are used less and less these days. US dollar cheques are widely accepted in tourist areas, and cheques denominated in other major currencies are usually accepted as well. If you’re travelling off the beaten track, however, it’s wiser to stick to cash.

Banks and moneychangers
Using banks in Nepal is, by south Asian standards, hassle-free. Numerous banks vie for tourist business, as do a horde of government-registered moneychangers. The former tend to give slightly better rates, though the latter are often more convenient.

Moneychangers can be found wherever there are significant numbers of tourists, while banks are more widespread. Hours for foreign exchange vary: at least one Kathmandu airport moneychanger operates around the clock, Nepal Bank’s central Kathmandu (New Road) branch stays open seven days a week, and some private banks keep extended hours, but lesser branches generally change money only from 9am to 3pm Monday to Friday, often closing early on Fridays. Moneychangers keep generous hours (usually daily 9am–8pm).

Hold onto all exchange receipts in case you want to change money back when you leave. Some banks (including those at Tribhuwan airport and official border crossings) will buy rupees back, though they may only give US dollars in return. If you’re entering India, changing Nepali currency into Indian currency is no problem.

Opening hours and public holidays

In the Kathmandu Valley, government offices and post offices are open Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm (sometimes closing at 4pm between mid-Nov and mid-Feb); outside the valley, they often open on Sunday as well.

Museums are usually closed at least one day a week; opening times are fairly similar to office hours. Shops keep long hours (usually 9–10am to 7–8pm), and in tourist areas generally open daily. Some banks in tourist areas and Kathmandu are also generous with their hours, but elsewhere you’ll generally have to do your transactions between 9am and 3pm from Monday to Friday. Moneychangers keep longer hours. Travel agents tend to work from around 9am to the early evening; airline offices are open roughly the same hours as government offices, and often close for lunch between 1pm and 2pm.

Nepal’s hectic calendar of national holidays can shut down offices for up to a week at a time. Dates vary from year to year – Nepal has its own calendar, the Vikram Sambat, which began in 57 BC. The year starts in mid-April and consists of twelve months that are a fortnight or so out of step with the Western ones. Complicating matters further are religious festivals, which are calculated according to the lunar calendar, while Tibetan and Newari festivals follow calendars of their own.

Phones

All tourist areas and major towns have telephone/internet shops that offer a variety of ways to make cheap international calls, including on Skype. Most have backup generators for power outages. Simpler telephone-only outfits, which advertise themselves with the acronyms ISD/STD/IDD, can be found almost everywhere there’s a phone line.

Mobile phone coverage is now found across the country, even in some trekking areas. You can generally use foreign SIM cards in Nepal, but it is far cheaper to buy a local one: Ncell is currently the most popular network, though it is not the best choice when in the mountains. When you buy a SIM (from Rs99) you’ll need to take photocopies of your passport and visa and a passport photo.

Nepali numbers are always eight digits long: in the Kathmandu Valley the 01 area code is followed by a seven-digit number; elsewhere, a three-digit area code is followed by a six-digit number; mobile phone numbers are ten digits long. You don’t need to dial the area code when you’re calling landlines from within that area. Numbers in the Kathmandu chapter of this guide are listed with codes, but note that you’ll need to remove 01 when dialling from within the Kathmandu Valley. The international dialling code for Nepal is +977. For directory enquiries call t 197 or t 535 000.

Post

Post generally takes at least ten days to get to or from Nepal – if it arrives at all. Postcards (Rs25–30 to anywhere in the world) go through fine, but envelopes or parcels that look like they might contain anything of value sometimes go astray. Letters can be sent to a hotel or a friend’s home, or care of poste restante in Kathmandu. Mail should be addressed: Name, Poste Restante, GPO, Kathmandu (or Pokhara), Nepal. Mail is held for about two months, and can be redirected on request. In Kathmandu, American Express handles mail for cardholders and those carrying Amex cheques, and US citizens can receive mail c/o the Consular Section of the American Embassy.

When sending mail in Nepal, there’s rarely a need to deal directly with the postal system; most hotels will take it to the post office for you. Book and postcard shops in tourist areas sell stamps, and many also have their own, largely reliable, mail drop-off boxes. Where no such services exist, take your letters or cards to the post office yourself, or wait to send them from Kathmandu. Never use a public letterbox: the stamps will be removed and resold.

Parcels can be sent by air or sea. Sea mail is cheaper but takes a lot longer (three months or more) and there are more opportunities for it to go missing. Again, the private sector is much easier to deal with than the official postal service. Shipping agents and air freight services will shield you from much of the frustration and red tape, but for this they charge almost twice as much as the post office. Be sure you’re dealing with a reputable company.

Time zones

Nepal is 5 hours 45 minutes ahead of GMT. That makes it 5 hours 45 minutes ahead of London, 10 hours 45 minutes ahead of New York, 13 hours 45 minutes ahead of Los Angeles, and 4 hours 15 minutes behind Sydney. Nepal doesn’t observe daylight saving time, so daylight saving time elsewhere reduces/increases the time difference by one hour.

Tipping

Most restaurants automatically include a percent service charge in the bill. Trekking porters and guides have their own expectations.

Toilets

Toilets range from “Western” (sit-down) flush options to a shed over a hole. In basic lodges the norm is a squat toilet. When travelling by bus you’ll almost always find a bathroom available at stops – but sometimes there is nothing but a designated field. If in doubt, ask Toilet kahaachha? (“Where is the toilet?”). Don’t flush toilet paper: put it in the basket provided. Note that paper is not provided in more basic places; Nepalis use a jug of water and the left hand.

As many villages have no covered toilets, it’s deemed okay to defecate in the open – but out of sight of others, in the early morning or after dark. Men may urinate in public away from buildings – discreetly – but women have to find a sheltered spot.

Tourist information

The handful of Nepal Tourism Board offices inside the country are generally friendly, if not necessarily full of information. You’ll get the most useful information from guesthouse staff and other travellers. Check the notice boards in restaurants and guesthouses around the tourist quarters for news of upcoming events or to find travelling or trekking companions. In the capital, the Kathmandu Environmental Education Project (KEEP) and the Himalayan Rescue Association can provide trekking information. Nepal’s English-language newspapers and magazines are also good sources of information, and there are several useful websites.

Useful websites

w catmando.com Comprehensive (if rarely updated) lists of Nepal-based businesses, including hotels, travel and travel agencies.
w digitalhimalaya.com Hosted by Cambridge University in the UK, this site offers the last word in research, news and resources for Nepal and other Himalayan countries.
w ekantipur.com Online edition of the Kathmandu Post, one of the country’s best dailies.
w fco.gov.uk/travel This UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office site is usually the most detailed government advisory service on travel to Nepal.
w himalayanrescue.org Useful trekking resource run by the Himalayan Rescue Association.
w keepnepal.org KEEP’s website is good for environmental, cultural and trekking information.
w mapmandu.com Online city guide with reviews and tagged maps.
w nepalhomepage.com Helpful Nepal gateway, with FAQs on travel in Nepal, local yellow pages, directories, and photos, though information is not always up to date.
w nepalnews.com Good news service with links to many Nepali media outlets, including the fortnightly Spotlight magazine.
w pilgrimsbooks.com Online branch of Nepal’s best bookshop.
w http://travel.state.gov The US Department of State’s website details the dangers of travelling to most countries in the world.

Travellers with disabilities

Nepal is a poor country without the means to cater for disabled travellers. If you walk with difficulty, you’ll find the steep slopes, stairs and uneven pavements hard going. Open sewers, potholes, crowds and a lack of proper street crossings will all make it hard for a blind traveller to get around. That said, guides and porters are readily available and should be prepared to provide whatever assistance you need.

With a companion, there’s no reason why you can’t enjoy many of Nepal’s activities, including elephant rides, mountain flights and sightseeing by private car. If you rent a taxi, the driver is certain to help you in and out, and perhaps around the sites you visit. A safari should be feasible, and even a trek, catered to your needs by an agency, might not be out of the question – mules or horses can be used on a number of trekking routes, for example.

Basic wheelchairs are available in Kathmandu’s airport, and smaller airports, including Pokhara, are mostly at ground level. Generally, however, facilities for the disabled are nonexistent, so you should bring your own wheelchair or other necessary equipment. Hotels aren’t geared up for disabled guests, though the most expensive ones have lifts and (sometimes) ramps.

Read More
  • The Nepali year
  • National holidays