Home to eight of the world’s tallest mountains, including Mount Everest, Nepal sits landlocked in South Asia. The country is most famous for the Himalayan Mountain Range and numerous temples of worship. While not everyone sets their sights on summiting Mount Everest, Nepal is still a thrill seekers playground where you can river raft, climb, hike, and paraglide.
But within the dramatic landscape, the importance of culture is ingrained in the sacred sites and ancient ruins. Even more surprising for some travelers is that Nepal has everything. South of the famous Himalayas, there are subtropical jungles where you can try to catch a glimpse of exotic animals like tigers and rhinos.
स्वागतम् – Welcome to Nepal
Kathmandu is the capital of Nepal, which constantly has a crowded and energetic buzz. The city has several prominent areas including Durbar Square, a backpacker district called Thamel, and various medieval sites including important temples. However, what you see today will be different from several years prior. In 2015, an earthquake struck Kathmandu and devastated the area. Along with lives lost, the capital lost several UNESCO World Heritage Sites. But with perseverance, the capital has continued to thrive and rebuild.
Culture and Language
Nepal is a diverse country whose history and culture is influenced by its Eastern and Southern neighbors. Similar to many Asian cultures, Nepal was once ruled by dynasties during ancient times. It wasn’t until the 18th century, that Nepal become unified as one under the Gorkha rule.
Under the rule of Jung Bahadur Rana, Nepal kept their independence during British colonialism as they worked to shut out foreign influences. The resistance ensured that Nepal would remain independent but at the cost of slow economic development and minimal modernization. But Nepal still supported the British and provided aid during both the World Wars.
Since the end of World War II, Nepal’s government has struggled to stabilize. A revolution in 1951 failed to make a new government and a royal coup in 1960, which established the panchayat system. In 1997, a civil war broke out that saw the Prince assassinate nine members of the royal family. The civil war didn’t officially end until 2008, when the federal democratic republic was formed.
Today, Nepal has stabilized and is working hard to modernize its future. The people of Nepal have worked hard to over some their struggles and many have turned to their faith for guidance. Colorful prayer flags line the streets and mountains in Nepal as a showcase to honor and bless the area. Hinduism and Buddhism are the two largest religions in Nepal and their ornate temples are some of the top points of interest in the country.
For many travelers, religion within Nepalese culture is a reason to visit the country. Backpackers, gurus, and travel enthusiasts are all eager to experience nirvana in the Himalayas. The Nepalese people are very welcoming to outsiders, but you will notice that the Caste system is in affect here. While most famous for being upheld in India, the Caste system is also present in Nepal. While the Caste system does not affect tourists, you may notice a hierarchy in society when you visit the country between local interactions.
Female travelers will also notice that Nepal is a patriarchal society, though it changes in the mountains where Sherpa women will often be in charge of running the lodge. Sherpa communities have always come from the mountains, but now they are famous throughout Nepal for their association with extreme mountaineering or trekking.
But it will be hard to experience all of Nepal and its people in one trip. There are over 60 ethnic groups within the country and up to 123 different languages are spoken. Nepali is the official language of Nepal. An estimated 44.6% of the population speak Nepali, while 11.67% speak the second most popular language – Maithili. But Nepali is used in the government and taught in schools, which makes it more widespread throughout the country. Outside of the urban areas is where you may encounter any one of the other 123 languages that are spoken by the people.
In the touristy areas, many people may speak English. While they may not be entirely fluent, they will have a strong enough base that you can communicate. English has become an important language as the influx of tourism and the demand for mountain guides has grown throughout the years.
For US citizens who are interested in visiting Nepal, you will need to obtain a tourist visa before you are allowed to enter the country. But how to travel to Nepal can affect how you apply for your tourist visa. If you are flying into Kathmandu, you have the choice to ask for a visa prior to your arrival with the Nepalese Embassy or you may pay for a tourist visa upon your arrival to the airport. But you should be aware that waiting to apply for a tourist visa at the Tribhuvan International Airport can take several hours to complete and the fastest way to enter the country will to already have a tourist visa issued by the Embassy.
For travelers who are crossing land borders into Nepal, you can apply for a tourist visa upon your arrival to the border. But you will need to pay the tourist visa fee in cash (US dollars). Old bills will not be accepted and all bills that you use to pay your tourist visa fee must be newer than 2003. Bills must also not have any damage like tears, excessive wear, creases, visible repairs, or writing. But not all land borders are open for processing tourist visas. The land borders that you may use are Kakarvitta, Birgunj, Kodari (only for groups), Belahia, Jamunaha, Mohana, and Gadda Chauki.
If you fail to receive an entry stamp into Nepal, you will not be allowed to depart the country and may face additional consequences from the Nepalese government. If you have a tourist visa, but it is no longer valid on the date you wish to exit the country, you will not be allowed to leave until you have properly extended your visa and paid the extension fee.
The tourist visas that are available when you apply to the Embassy or upon your arrival to Nepal are for 15, 30, and 90-day increments and cost $30, $50, and $125 US dollars. US tourists also have the option to ask for a 5-year tourist visa with the Nepalese Embassy, which allows for multiple entries into the country. The cost of this tourist visa is $160 US dollars but be aware that any tourist within Nepal cannot stay more than 150 days in any calendar year.
It will also be difficult to travel into China from Nepal, as the Chinese Government has placed numerous restrictions or closed the border entirely. If you wish to visit Tibet, you will likely have to book a guided tour and wait for the appropriate documents for a legal crossing.
Finally, the US government has a high-altitude health warning standing for Nepal. This is due to the high-altitude locations that attract many tourists. You should never trek alone, and you should be aware of the signs of high-altitude mountain sickness. If you do fall ill, it is important that you follow a doctor’s medical advice.
While the tourist visa is the most important part of your budget, since you can’t enter Nepal without it, you also need to consider the rest of your budget for your trip. Nepal is an affordable country to travel and the country attracts many backpackers who are on a tight budget. In order to be prepared, you should consider the airfare, accommodation, food, drink, and transportation as part of your budget.
Airfare will be the biggest portion of your budget. Nepal is far away, and they only have one international in the entire country, which is located in Kathmandu. Most flights to Nepal will cost an average of $900 US dollars, but you may find that prices will increase over $1000 US dollars or decrease to special rates of about $500 US dollars. The time of year that you travel to Nepal can also affect your airline ticket price.
The Himalayas as harsh and most people will avoid winter at all costs. This means that the best times to visit Nepal, when the weather is calm and clear, are in spring and fall. The most popular tourist seasons in Nepal run from September to November and March to May. During these months you may see an increase in flight costs. But you can also save some money by booking your airline ticket well in advance of your intended departure date.
Once you have gotten your plane ticket booked, you will need to decide on your accommodation. Dorm beds will be the most affordable way to sleep in Nepal, with many options costing about $10 US dollars per night or less. Even a budget hotel won’t cost much more, and you may have a more private space for just $15 US dollars, though some places may charge up to $25 US dollars per night.
If hostels are not your accommodation preference, there may be small hotels located where you are traveling. A midrange hotel will cost about $25-$80 US dollars, with Kathmandu being the most expensive area. A luxury or nice hotel may be in the form of a lodge, which would likely charge anywhere from $150-$250 US dollars per night. You also have the option to take a guided camping trip, which would likely cost $60-$80 US dollars per person.
It will be important to rest up in Nepal because of the high altitude draining your energy, but when you’re not resting, finding good food is important to stay healthy while you travel. Nepalese food will vary largely on where you are in Nepal because of what is available to eat and the country’s diverse culture. The only dish that is eaten throughout all of Nepal is called dal-bhat-tarkari and it is a dish that has cooked rice and lentil soup.
Other popular dishes in Nepal include gundruk, which ferments leafy greens into pickles. This is usually added to the dal-bhat-tarkari dish and may also be served with curry. Bara is a traditional Nepalese snack, which is a rice flour pancake that is served alone, with an egg, or minced buffalo. Yomari is a festival food that is normally served at the end of the year in December and is a dumpling stuffed with a molasses or coconut mixture. Finally, momos are one of the tastiest dishes, which is Nepal’s take on a Tibetan dumpling. The dumplings are steamed with vegetables and a savory meat with a special hand-made technique.
The good news is that food is affordable in Nepal and even a midrange restaurant will serve dishes for $10 US dollars and under. Local food is the most affordable way too eat and you’ll save a lot of money by eating at less fancy places. Nicer places or lodges will have more expensive meals that usually cost $12-$15 US dollars per meal.
If you want to drink, you be limited in your choices as the most popular alcohol choice is beer. But beer is affordable with most bottles costing less than $3 US dollars. Import beets may be an option too, but they will be several dollars more. For travelers on a strict budget, the cost of alcohol can quickly add up and since you’re in a high-altitude destination, it is better to be moderate in your drinking.
Another portion of your budget may go to paying for guides. While a permit to climb Mount Everest costs thousands of dollars and months of training, there are plenty of other guided trekking options for the people who aren’t quick equipped to reach Everest’s summit and that’s okay. You don’t have to be at the top to get amazing views and many guides will take you into the stunning mountain valleys and to the high-altitude monasteries for a little peek. Most trekking guides will charge $25 US dollars per day for their services. This only covers their service and you will still have to pay for your food and accommodation.
A more complete guided tour or trekking expedition may cover food and accommodation at a higher cost. Some tours do come as a bundle but can cost up to $100 US dollars per person or more, depending on how long the tour goes and how far you travel. The most expensive guided tours will cost thousands of US dollars per person but would last for up to two weeks long and be an extreme trekking experience to locations like the Everest Base Camp.
Overall, Nepal can be exactly what you need to fit your budget. You can travel affordably, or you can live the life of luxury in the Himalayas. A backpacker’s budget would be to spend about $50 US dollars per day, while a more moderate budget may have you spending up to $150 US dollars per day. Anything over $150 US dollars per day would be considered a luxury vacation or you’ve booked yourself for an extreme trekking adventure.
How to Get Around
We have to be honest, while you can travel around Nepal, it isn’t always the fastest or best experience as you move from destination to destination. Many of the roads in Nepal are poorly maintained and with numerous towering mountains, traveling can be very slow. Road conditions can always change too, based on unexpected natural events and you may not reach your destination in the timeframe you’d like. For this reason, it is recommended that you use domestic flights to save on time.
But you’ll have to add flights into your budget because they are expensive. While Nepal only has one international airport, there are numerous small airport runways scattered throughout the country. These mountain airports are questionable to some travelers, but they are the most reliable way to travel. Yet, they come at a cost. A mountain flight in Nepal usually costs about $200 US dollars. When you’re traveling to numerous locations, that price can really add up.
If you can’t afford air travel, you can travel by bus. But it is highly recommended that you travel by the tourist buses and not local buses. Local buses tend to be less reliable and many have disastrous accidents. Tourist buses are more expensive, but the drivers are also more cautious and there are only rare incidents of accidents. While you won’t be traveling fast, you’ll at least be traveling safe and keeping to a budget. Most tourist buses will cost less than $10 US dollars, even for longer distances.
The only other way to get around Nepal is walking. For some, extreme trekking is the way to go and they want to walk the impressive Himalayan Mountains and see Everest up close. While walking is free, it is not recommended that you ever walk alone. In small city destinations going a few blocks around town shouldn’t be a problem, but if you’re looking to take mountain paths to the Everest Base Camp or visit a monastery, you should hire a guide.
High altitude sickness is a problem for many travelers who visit Nepal, as they are not used to being so high up. Even the town of Lukla, which is the starting point for trekking to the Everest Base Camp sits at over 9,000 feet in altitude. With a guide, you’ll be safer as you trek in the mountains and will not be alone in case you need to seek medical assistance.
Top Places to Visit: Cities
Kathmandu is the central hub for Nepal, but there are a few other cities that are often on people’s travel bucket lists. Here, we will give a brief overview of the top city destinations in Nepal.
Kathmandu can be an overwhelming place, but all tourists who travel by air will be introduced to its chaos the instant they step foot in Nepal as the city has the country’s only international airport. Most famous for the ancient architecture, the streets are filled with temples. Durbar Square is still being rebuilt after the 2015 earthquake, but the nearby Buddhist complex called Swayambhunath is also a sight to behold.
Lukla is a famous city because it is the stopover place for explorers who are looking to visit Everest and its Base Camp. The city is a high-altitude location, that rests at over 9,000 feet above sea level, but is also a good place for you to get your bearings. Most travelers will fly from Kathmandu into Lukla and rest for a few days to acclimate to the altitude. Then, they begin their journey towards the Everest Base Camp.
Lumbini is one of Nepal’s most sacred sites, as it is the birthplace of Siddhartha, also known as Buddha. The city boasts impressive monasteries and ponds, where many people congregate to meditate.
Janakpur is an ancient city that was once the capital of an Indian kingdom. The gorgeous architecture still stands, and it is a place for Hindu worship.
Once you’ve begun your trek to Everest, Khumbu is one of the most popular stop-over destinations on the trail. There are countless accommodation options, as well as the famous Tengboche Monastery. Plus, not to mention amazing views of Mount Everest.
Pokhara is located in the famous Annapurna Region of Nepal and it is a great place for outdoor adventures. The Phewha Lake provides a resort area where you can relax in luxury lodges and take in the amazing views.
Points of Interest
Along with the cities, there are many points of interest throughout Nepal with Mount Everest being the main star.
Mount Everest is the tallest mountain above sea level, and it stands at a staggering 29,030 feet. While extreme mountaineers will travel to Nepal to attempt to reach the summit, other travelers are happy to catch a glimpse of this famous mountain. For explorers who want to partially climb Everest, you can hike to the Base Camp from Lukla.
Chitwan National Park
Unlike the Himalayas, the Chitwan National Park sits in the tropical area of Nepal to the south. This is where tourists go to catch glimpses of rare animals like rhinos and tigers. Other animals that inhabit the park include sloth bears, leopards, and deer. Closer to India, this portion of Nepal is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Langtang National Park
One of the more accessible mountain areas, Langtang National Park sits just 8 hoursh outside of Kathmandu by jeep. You won’t have to pay a pricey mountain flight and you’ll still have your breath taken away by the mountain views. This area is also less touristy than the Everest and Annapurna regions, which makes it great for off the grid travelers.
Get Out and Go
While Nepal would often be called a country of extremes, thanks to the Himalayan Mountain Range, it is also a country of balance. In Nepal, you can wake up to mountain views and spend the afternoon transcending through meditation. Whether you’re an avid mountaineer looking for the challenge of a lifetime or looking to find yourself, Nepal is a place that will stay in your memories long after you’ve returned home.