I had no idea what to expect upon arriving in Nepal.
This was evident from the moment we stepped foot in the country– we had no idea about the cost of visas or the currency accepted. We have successfully managed to wing our way around the country though, from celebrating Holi in Kathmandu to completing a 5 day trek with almost no appropriate gear.
One main thing we have learned about traveling in and visiting Nepal is that it isn’t a typical backpacker destination. It’s not really the place you just decide to put on your itinerary like we did, assuming it’ll all be cheap, hoping to do some cool things and maybe go on a trek. For most people who travel here, they have been planning, saving and preparing for months.
Luckily, our time here has worked out, and I’m so thankful to have been able to experience and learn about the diverse, beautiful and surprising ex-Kingdom of Nepal.
1. You can’t count on electricity
Nepal has a surprising amount of problems when it comes to infrastructure. One of the most surprising aspects of this was the problem with electricity. Never have I been somewhere, where the electricity seems to constantly be going off or being dispersed throughout the day. The term “load shedding” describes this daily occurrence for the Nepalese people. While some guesthouses will inform guests on the electricity schedule, others seems to shut it on and off throughout the day, and the occasional temporary blackout can happen anywhere. Even restaurants don’t always have electricity, but get by from backup generators or having large windows to let light in during the day. Finding yourself waiting for dinner in complete darkness for a few minutes is no surprise.
Additionally, charging our laptops, phones, and cameras have become part of a routine quest!
2. Kathmandu is very polluted
It’s sad that the Nepalese seem to have the same habits when it comes to trash disposal as Indians, and the lack of government cleanup or infrastructure doesn’t help. Crossing a river in Kathmandu revealed piles and piles of garbage floating along in the water. Also, cars emit black fumes and tap water seems lethal. In a guesthouse in Kathmandu, Simon returned from the bathroom to tell me his hands were dirtier after he washed them than before. This was due to the yellow/clay colored water that spewed out.
It’s not a surprise that we happened to get sick, and one day I felt as if I had the flu. It took antibiotics and a trip towards the fresh air of Pokhara for me to finally feel better. As our time went on in Nepal, we continued to hear stories from other travelers who also felt ill (from colds to tummy troubles) upon arrival in Kathmandu. Getting out of the capital and exploring the rest of the country seems to be the best medicine.
3. They worship a living goddess
One of the most bizarre and fascinating things I learned about Nepalese culture has to do with the Kumari Devi- or the “living goddess.” This goddess is part of an on-going tradition for Hindus and Nepalese Buddhists of worshiping pre-pubescent girls as divine manifestations of another female Hindu god.
There may be several Kumaris at a time in different cities throughout Nepal. Each girl is selected from the Shakya or Bajaracharya clan of the Nepalese Newari community ( the clan which the Buddha belonged) and the Kumari Devi of Kathmandu is of the most importance.
The process of selection is rigorous and over 30 characteristics (like having eyelashes like a cow and well-recessed sexual organs..) help choose the current Kumari. Some relate the intensity of selection to the process of picking the Dalai Lama. The current Kumari will remain the living goddess until she reaches puberty or in another case, suffers a serious illness or loses a significant amount of blood from an injury. This will all result in reverting the girl back to a “common status”.
The Kumari Devi of Kathmandu lives in a small house in the historical Durbar Square. She makes appearances at random times from a window where onlookers can worship and receive life predictions from her subtle interpreted gestures. Her feet are sacred, and they are to never touch the ground outside until her time as a goddess is up. The only way for her to leave the house, is to be carried or transported.
Most of her time is spent in that historical house while people wait on her hand and foot.
4. It’s not cheap
Being one of the poorest countries in the world, I expected Nepal to be a cheap destination to travel around day-to-day. Without doing any intense mountain exceptions or tours, I expected we would be able to live and eat extremely cheap to make up for a few fun experiences. Wrong.
Though we were able to find cheap accommodation, the cost of food was expensive, especially when compared to India and South East Asia. The tourist centers of Kathmandu and Pokhara are full of bars and restaurants, but getting by on only a few dollars for a meal can be tough. Sometimes eating local food didn’t even help to reduce the cost. The Nepalese national dish “dal baht” was often more expensive than ordering a pasta dish or a burger! If you were really on a tight budget, you would have to go pretty far outside the tourist centers and eat at a very local restaurant to get a price equivalent to what the Nepalese were paying.
Even on our treks, the food was pretty expensive due to the fixed prices decided by the tourism board. Though of course we wanted to support the communities and guesthouses we were staying at, paying $4 for curry and rice when most people don’t even make that in a day seemed exuberant, and almost like we were being taken advantage of.
Additionally, we were surprised by how inflated prices were for tourist buses, permits and tours. The popular, and safe tourist bus, Greenline, charges $20 for the 6 hour ride from Kathmandu to Pokhara. A price unheard of in India or South East Asia!
Obviously, one can see how Nepal is monetizing on their thriving trekking and tourism industry. If it helps the country and gets money to the people, I don’t mind, but I’m not sure if this is the case.
5. They have a tumultuous political history
I’m not sure if Nepal was just left out of my history books, or if India and Tibet’s state of affairs overshadowed my news exposure, but I had no idea about Nepal’s recent political crisis.
In 1996, a communist party splinter group, the Maoists declared a ‘people’s war’. This was technically a civil war, and at one point the Maoists had control of 40% of the country resulting in violence and a basket of other issues. More interestingly, around 2001 the USA handed over millions of dollars (in arms) to aid Nepal’s ‘war on terror’ with the Maoists. Who knew?! Never would I have thought that in the last 15 years the United States even had its nose in matters on the Indian subcontinent.
Sadly, this time of Maoist insurgency only worsened infrastructure and poverty in Nepal. Bridges were bombed, road construction halted and much needed funds were directed towards the war and away from aid programs. As a result, a generation of children missed out on schooling.
The troubles in Nepal didn’t stop there, and I was also surprised to learn about the assassination of the entire royal family. In 2001, ten members of the royal family, including the King and Queen were shot down by a deranged Crown Prince Dipendra. His motive will never factually be known as he also turned the weapon on himself. The Nepali people were taken over with grief and a 13 day period of mourning was declared. Half a million Nepalese lined the streets in Kathmandu for the funeral processions. Many stories and conspiracies surround the event and we noticed a few pictures of the royal family hanging on a few walls.
Though I learned a lot about Nepal’s political past, the funny thing is- I couldn’t even tell you about their current government In fact, I’m not even sure if there is one, or which is the ruling party. The Nepalese had a tough time trying to explain the current situation to us, and I’ve had a tough time tracking down current news on the internet. Though Nepal has gone through a lot of strife with politics, there is one thing that tourists can be sure of, and that’s the fact it has never been more safe.
Nepal was a fascinating place, and while we found our trek to be our favorite part, there were still so many more regions we didn’t explore. Unfortunately, we didn’t even make it to Chitwan National Park (should have chosen that one instead of Ranthambore!) where there are elephants, a small percentage of tigers, crocodiles and even rhinos.
Though it has its problems, Nepal is still by far easier to travel around than India, but often overlooked. Months could be spent here trekking, exploring vast Himalayan region or even just happily waiting around until continuing on into neighboring Tibet (a dream trip come true!)