Traveling to Nepal is a unique, adventurous experience that leaves a traveler feeling the true immensity of life on this planet. Nepal somehow just feels ancient, older than other places. Granite sentinels, the tallest mountains on earth, watch silently over the birthplace of Buddha and many Eastern ideals.
Sandwiched between the two most populous countries on earth, China and India, Nepal is roughly the same size as the U.S. state of Michigan.
- Time: UTC + 5:45 (9 hours and 45 minutes ahead of U.S. Eastern Standard Time)
- Country Phone Code: +977
- Capital City: Kathmandu (population: around 1 million people per 2011 census)
- Primary Religion: Hinduism
- Currency: Nepalese rupee
Traveling to Nepal
Nepal has a number of official border crossings where tourists can cross overland from North India. But unless you're crossing into Nepal on a Royal Enfield motorbike as some adventurous travelers do, you'll probably begin your trip to Nepal in Kathmandu's Tribhuvan International Airport (airport code: KTM).
Pretty well all flights into Kathmandu originate from other points in Asia, so American travelers have a good excuse to stop over in Seoul, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, or some other interesting hub along the way.
Going to Kathmandu
Bob Seger sure was excited about getting to Kathmandu in 1975. The capital city was a solid part of the Hippie Trail blazed by travelers in the 1950s and 1960s. Times have changed, but some of the legacy still exists beneath and between the shops selling fake trekking gear and souvenirs.
Kathmandu is home to around a million people — relatively small by Asian capital standards. At any given time, it feels like at least half the population is crammed into the narrow streets of Thamel to offer you a taxi or tour.
Plan to be bombarded with offers from touts, porters, drivers, hotels, and mountain guides as soon as you step outside of the small airport. You can avoid a lot of hassle by having your first night's stay already arranged in Kathmandu and someone from the hotel waiting to pick you up. They'll help you to fend off the frenzy of people wanting your attention. Otherwise, you can purchase a fixed-rate taxi at the airport. Taxi meters are scarce — agree on a price before getting inside.
Getting a Visa for Nepal
Fortunately, the citizens of most countries can purchase a visa on arrival for Nepal after entering the airport; no need to arrange a travel visa before arrival.
In the hectic immigration part of the airport, you can purchase a 15-day visa (US $25), 30-day visa (US $40), or 90-day visa (US $100) — all visas offer multiple entries, which means you could cross into North India and return again.
U.S. dollars are the preferred method of payment for the visa fees. You will need one passport-sized photo to get a visa for Nepal. A kiosk is available in the airport where photos can be taken for a small fee. You should bring a few of your own photos — they are required to get a phone SIM card and are needed for trekking permits and other paperwork.
Caution: Doing any kind of volunteer work while in Nepal on a "tourist" visa is prohibited without special permission from the government. Don't tell an officer issuing your visa on arrival that you plan to volunteer!
The Best Time to Travel to Nepal
Nepal gets the most adventure seekers in spring and fall when conditions are good for long treks on the Annapurna circuit or to Everest Base Camp.
Between April and June, the Himalayan flowers are in bloom, and temperatures can even reach 104 F in some places before the monsoon rains come. Humidity ruins distant mountain views. You can avoid haze and leeches by visiting when temperatures are a bit lower. Obviously, temperatures at high elevations remain cold throughout the year.
The months of October to December offer the best visibility for mountain expeditions but also the busiest trails.
Nepal receives the most rain between June and September. You'll get better deals on accommodation, however, the mud makes outdoor excursions much more difficult. Leeches are a nuisance. The distant mountain peaks are rarely visible during monsoon season.
Currency in Nepal
The official currency of Nepal is the Nepalese rupee, but Indian rupees and even U.S. dollars are widely accepted. When paying with dollars, the default rate is often rounded down to US $1 = 100 rs. That makes the math easier, but you'll lose a little on larger transactions.
Caution: Although Indian rupees are acceptable as currency in Nepal, the Indian 500-rupee and 1,000-rupee banknotes are illegal in Nepal. You can actually get slapped with a fine if you try to use them! Save them for India or break them into smaller denominations before arrival.
International-networked ATMs can be found in larger towns and cities. You will need to keep your ATM and currency exchange receipts if you intend to exchange Nepalese rupees on your way out of the country; this is to prove that you did not earn local currency while in the country.
Don't plan to rely on credit cards while traveling in Nepal. There are a lot of good reasons to stick to cash.
Trekking in Nepal
Most visitors to Nepal come to enjoy the biodiversity and literally breathtaking mountain scenery. Eight of the ten tallest peaks in the world, known collectively as the eight-thousanders, are located in Nepal. Mount Everest, the tallest mountain on earth, stands at 29,029 feet between Nepal and Tibet.
Although climbing Mount Everest is out of reach for many of us, you can still trek to Everest Base Camp without technical training or equipment. You'll have to deal with cold — even in the lodges at night — and the myriad of health challenges brought on by life at 17,598 feet (5,364).
The stunning Annapurna circuit takes between 17 – 21 days and offers great mountain views; the trek can be done with or without a guide by hikers who are fit and know the risks. Unlike the walk to Everest Base Camp, the Annapurna trek can be chopped into shorter segments.
Independent trekking in the Himalayas is entirely possible, however, going alone is not recommended. You'll still need to apply for the necessary permits. If trekking in the Everest National Park, you'll have to get to the Himalayas via long walk or short, dangerous, expensive flight!
Traveling Responsibly in Nepal
Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world. The catastrophic earthquakes in April and May of 2015 during climbing season made matters worse.
Western companies have set up tour empires that barely pay guides and porters for their services. Do your best to avoid supporting the fleecing of Sherpas by hiring through local agencies with sustainable practices and good reputations.
If you plan on doing some serious trekking or climbing, consider booking your trip locally after you arrive in Nepal rather than making arrangements in advance through Western companies. Simply searching for "trekking in Nepal" will turn up large organizations that may siphon money from a country that is still rebuilding itself.
Other Travel Tips for Nepal
- Power: Electrical outlets are of the three-rounded-prong type (plug type "D"), however, US-style and European-style outlets are often found in tourist places. Voltage is 220 volts @ 50 Mhz. Your USB-charged devices and electronics with transformers are probably made for dual voltage and will work fine.
- Greetings: The way to greet people in Nepal is the same as in India: namaste. The popular greeting is often mispronounced by well-meaning Westerners!
- Water: Tap water is generally considered unsafe in Nepal; stick to tea or bottled water, and use water refill stations when they are available. Plastic bottles are a big problem in South Asia. Don't assume that mountain streams or waterfalls are safe. On the trail, plan to treat and purify what you drink.
- Vaccinations: Nepal has some risk of typhoid, cholera, and hepatitis. Get the usual recommended vaccinations for Asia. You should travel with budget travel insurance in case you become sick or injured on an adventure. Read the fine print to ensure your policy covers you at the elevation you'll be trekking!
- Be Sensitive: Remember that Nepal shares a border with Tibet and has suffered through political unrest in the past. The country changed from a monarchy into a republic in 2008. Avoid discussing politics and topics that could turn conversations into uncomfortable situations.