What is Nepal like? 8 things you should know before you travel

Nepal, despite the massive scale of its mountain ranges, is only slightly bigger than England but with a much smaller population. It’s a dramatic place to go hiking, with the Everest and Annapurna mountain ranges key attractions. We look at what you should know before you visit.

By Kieran Meeke

Published 4 May 2024

Morning clouds and boats, Fewa Lake Pokhara Nepal

Most visitors return from a Nepal holiday having fallen in love with its people. Hikers are greeted on the road with a bright smile, a bow and a formal “namaste”.

The country’s 26 million people are a mix of 40 different groups who can trace their ancestry to places as far apart as Mongolia and India.

This melting pot was able to develop into a nation because of its isolation until the 1950s.

Nepal ranges in height from Everest to near sea level and the clearest splits in its population can be defined through its three geographical zones.

At the highest altitudes you find the peoples such as the Sherpas, with their strong links to Tibet. Buddhism is the most common religion here and this is the region of prayer flags and stupas.

Against the subtropical southern border with India are peoples such as the Brahman and Rajputs who follow Hinduism, as well as some Muslims who also trace their ancestry to India.

In between are the temperate hills and valleys that are home to a mix of Buddhists and Hindus as well as other beliefs.

Although Nepal is officially secular, around Kathmandu many of these philosophies and practices have blended into something like a national religion because of the close links between Buddhism and Hinduism.

Religious celebration usually involves a meal and the importance of food to communal life is reflected in the offer of hospitality often made to visitors.

English is the second language of many Nepalese, especially those tribal groups for whom Nepali is not their native tongue.

The main attraction of Nepal for many visitors is the network of hiking trails that connect its villages. You meet local people and can immerse yourself in the culture as you meet genuine hospitality.

Snow-peaked mountains form a picturesque backdrop, even if you do not aspire to climbing them.

The fluttering prayer flags and high peaks on the road to Everest Base Camp make for great memories but sore knees, while Annapurna has a greater variety of terrain if you need any gentler days.

You will meet lots of other hikers on it but the 120-mile Annapurna Circuit also brings you plenty of opportunity to experience local life.

Surrounded by 20,000-foot peaks, and plunging to subtropical valleys, this is one of the world’s most dramatic hiking landscapes.

Pokhara is the gateway to Annapurna and enjoys a beautiful setting on Phewa Lake. A ferry on the lake is a gentle way to see the Himalayas.

The trek to Poon Hill is also noted for its incredible views of these mighty mountains. Anyone who does it is almost guaranteed to want to return to Nepal for more.

A similar experience is found on the half-day hike from Pokhara to Sarangkot, although a drive to catch the sunrise is also a popular option.

Seeing some of the most dramatic Himalayan peaks lit up by the rising sun is a sight to remember for a lifetime.

Kathmandu – now home to 1.4 million people – has become a victim of its own reputation, with its original attraction often hidden under swarms of visitors and commercialisation.

That chaos has not been helped by the 2015 earthquake, which destroyed many historic buildings in the central Durbar Square.

However, sights such as Boudhanath Stupa (one of the largest in the world), Swayambhunath Temple (reached by 365 steps) and Kopan Monastery remain well worth seeing.

Step off the beaten path and you can still find the exotic charms that first put the city on the map: carved doorways, courtyards full of drying spices, and incense-heavy local temples.

Chitwan National Park, southwest of Kathmandu, shows off a perhaps surprising side of Nepal: its wildlife. You can spot wild elephants, rhinos, sloth bears and maybe even a leopard or tiger.

The thick jungle is also home to more than 500 bird species, including dozens of endangered species.

Take a guided walking tour for the full thrilling experience of being in a tiger’s hunting grounds. You are unlikely to see one but you never know if one is watching you.

Bhaktapur is an ancient town some eight miles from Kathmandu that was once Nepal’s capital. The Kathmandu Valley is a UNESCO site, in part because of Bhaktapur’s hundreds of historic buildings, such as Nyatapola Temple which is Nepal’s tallest.

Sadly, many were damaged in the 2015 earthquake and are yet to be restored but enough survive to justify Bhaktapur’s reputation as an “open air museum”. The town is also famous for its pottery and mask making.

No Nepalese meal is complete without rice, which accompanies the main meals at mid-morning and early evening.

The usual accompaniment is lentil dal and other vegetables. Visitors will find it as “dal bhat”, served in restaurants on a metal platter holding scoops of rice, dal and a vegetable curry (“tarkari”) as well as achar pickle.

A spoon is supplied although many Nepalese still just use their right hand to eat.

It is worth noting here that the left hand is considered unclean, so do not pass anything with it. When paying, tender your cash with both hands or, even better, hold your right wrist with your left hand.

Rice is also commonly served in a stir fry “pulao” (pilaf) which features vegetables and a seasoning of turmeric and cumin.

Another must-try local dish is “momo”, dumplings with fillings such as potato or cheese – but sometimes meat – that are served with a spicy sauce.

This vegetarian diet reflects the country’s poverty – forty per cent of Nepalese live below the poverty line, and most are subsistence farmers – but also the religious beliefs of high-caste Hindus.

Caste differences make for complex rules regarding who can prepare and share food, which hindered the development of a restaurant culture.

Tourism has brought a boom in that area but you will still often have a better experience if you are invited to eat with a Nepalese family. Such hospitality is central to the local culture.

The Hindu religion prohibits alcohol but, again, that’s not a problem for tourists. Kathmandu even has more than one Irish pub as well as several lively rock bars and an “Ibyza” Lounge.

There are several brands of local beer, including Gorkha, Everest and Nepal Ice.

A more typical local drink however is chiya, a milk tea made with sugar and spices – ginger, cardamom or pepper.

You may also be offered Tibetan tea, milk tea made with salty yak butter, which is a bit of an acquired taste. The salt is a shock, and it helps to think of it as a sort of goat’s cheese soup.

Anyone who has visited an Indian restaurant will also be familiar with lassi, a thin yoghurt often flavoured with fruit and a refreshing drink on a hot day.

The most common problem for visitors to Nepal is altitude sickness. Take time to adjust and be prepared to return, hopefully temporarily, to lower altitudes if any problems arise.

Medical facilities in remote areas are limited and most medical emergencies require evacuation to Kathmandu.

Crime is low in the country but take sensible precautions to avoid scams such as children begging for milk (which is then resold).

Women should be careful about walking around on their own and everyone should be careful of motorbikes driven at silly speeds along narrow alleys. Traffic accidents are probably the greatest danger you will face.

When you see some of the mountain roads, you will be grateful to be travelling in a reliable tour bus and not public ones. Roads are often in bad condition and internal flights are a good way to avoid them.

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