As I stood so close to the Himalayas’ highest peaks, my mind couldn’t help but wander to the cosmic insignificance of me, a mere ant, crawling across these majestic landscapes. I was truly in awe.
Home to the mightiest-of-all Himalayan range, encompassing many of the world’s tallest mountains, Nepal is a peak experience — in every sense of the word.
It’s these epic mountains that lure most travellers to Nepal. From the moment you arrive in Kathmandu, you will notice that far more tourists wear trekking boots than flip-flops or sandals. And it is here that finding a trekking gear shop is about as difficult as finding a casino in Vegas. Nepal is a trekkers’ paradise.
But Nepal wouldn’t be half the destination it is without all leading up to those revered mountains!
Nepal is a multi-sensory journey, from the utter chaos of Kathmandu to the kind Nepalese — always greeting you with a warm Namaste — to the delicious Nepali food and ancient Hindu temples.
I visited Nepal in 2017 and have now completely rewritten and updated this guide. Read along as you start planning your trip to Nepal, or simply to get a sense of what travelling in Nepal is like.
Trekking in Nepal
A trip to Nepal doesn’t have to involve trekking, but it would be weird if it did not.
After all, Nepal is known as one of the world’s best places for trekking — not just thanks to the epic Himalayas, but because trekking is so accessible and well-supported in Nepal.
Mt. Everest gets all the media attention, but you don’t need to be a super pro trekker (or mountaineer) to experience the majesty of the Himalayas. While there are some daunting 20+ day traverses, there are also plenty of shorter treks suitable for beginners.
What makes the logistics relatively easy is that many trails pass through mountain villages where you can eat and sleep. The more remote trails are dotted with tea houses, a lodge offering basic accommodation and food for just a few dollars worth of rupees a night. For an extra fee, some tea houses may even let you shower or charge your electronics.
In case you were wondering, yes, they also serve tea.
The tea houses and villages eliminate the need for camping and provide a reliable support network on most routes. Besides this, trained guides and porters are cheap by Western standards; about $10-$15 per day for a guide or $5-$10 for a porter (someone who can carry your luggage on the trek).
It may seem a bit decadent to hire porters or a guide, but this service provides a valuable source of income to Nepal. Even more capable hikers may hire some support, and this is encouraged and highly appreciated in Nepal. In saying this, it is also possible to trek certain routes independently.
While trekking in Nepal is very well-supported, it’s nevertheless important to get some travel insurance for your trip to Nepal.
This is not just some rote advice. During my trek, I met an Australian who had severely injured his knee and urgently needed a helicopter ride back to Kathmandu. As the chuga-chuga of the helicopter approached the tea house, he was definitely bragging to everyone how his insurance was the best money he ever spent. His insurance covered this emergency in full, a cost of well over $10,000.
I’m saying this just so you can be like this guy and not the person who has to spend $10,000 on a medivac!
There are many travel insurance providers, though I like to recommend Heymondo (I’m an affiliate partner while using them myself). If you plan to hike above 3000m, be sure to get their ‘adventure sports’ add-on. For hikes under 3000m, the standard Heymondo package will suffice.
Get travel insurance for Nepal
Travel insurance will cover you for theft, medical expenses, cancellation, and more. Heymondo offers great coverage, COVID-19 included, zero deductibles, and an app with 24/7 assistance & doctor chat.
Getting to Nepal
Nepal is situated just north of India and bordering the southern edge of the Himalayan mountain range, beyond which lies Tibet. There are multiple overland borders, but you will need to fly in if you’re coming specifically to Nepal.
Nepal’s only international airport, Tribhuvan International, is relatively small, with around a dozen aircraft stands. If you’re coming from, say, Europe or North America, you’ll likely have to make a stopover in India or the Middle East. For my trip from Europe, I connected via India.
You need a tourist visa to enter Nepal. The cost depends on your intended length of stay (15, 30, or 90 days, with a maximum extension to 150 days). A visa-on-arrival is available for many nationalities, as was the case for mine. I paid for my visa in USD at the airport terminal in Kathmandu. It took about ten minutes to issue.
The chaos of Kathmandu
Before you can feel the zen of the Himalayas, you must first brave the utter chaos of Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu.
It’s a dusty beehive of activity, with honking motorbikes and rickety rickshaws zipping through narrow streets and all manner of sounds and smells attacking your senses as you get lost in this wonderful maze of a city.
Almost any street scene in Kathmandu can feel like an establishing shot from a movie, with different things weaving in and out of your field of view. It might be porters carrying sacks of goods, vendors selling fruits, monks on their way to prayer, colourful rickshaws zipping past, or a stray cow milling about, unimpressed with the mayhem surrounding it.
All this can be a bit overwhelming. Not everyone is a fan of Kathmandu; I spoke to some backpackers who simply found it too noisy and polluted, which is understandable.
Personally, though, I love it to bits. As someone you’re used to much more orderly places, I find the chaos of Kathmandu simply exhilarating.
Thamel, the main tourist district, is great fun to explore. Even more interesting are the areas around Durbar Square.
The best way to bathe in the sensory overload of Kathmandu is to just head into any street that seems interesting. I spent an entire day just wandering around with no particular plan other than absorbing the atmosphere.
Kathmandu also invites some intentional sightseeing. The ancient shrines and stupas around Durbar Square are the city’s main cultural attraction, though still under slow restoration from a devastating earthquake in 2015. The stupa of Swayambhunath, also known as the Monkey Temple, lies about 30 minutes from the centre and offers excellent hilltop views of the city.
Besides the temples, there are really not many other tourist sights in the capital. But since the city is an experience in itself, I believe it’s essential to spend at least a day or two exploring.
Despite being such an energetic place, I found Kathmandu surprisingly hassle-free. The atmosphere is friendly, and I did not meet even one pushy seller. The Nepalese seemed to me particularly kind and honest; give someone a tip, and they might well run back to tell you that you’ve paid them too much.
As busy as the city is, you can explore it in relative peace. Kathmandu even gets rather quiet at night, so you can get a good night’s rest.
Munching mo Momos
As you explore Kathmandu, possibly still working through some jetlag, it’s a great time to take your first dive into Nepalese cuisine.
Although there are similarities with Indian food, Nepalese cuisine is quite distinct, with its own dishes and flavours using local spices.
Momos immediately became my favourite dish. They’re a type of steamed dumpling, similar to Japanese gyozas, sometimes stuffed with minced meat but mostly vegetarian fillings. Momos are a popular snack, so you can find them almost anywhere. During my trip, I quickly turned into a momo gobbler, consuming them like Pac-Man.
Besides momos, there are numerous Nepali curries to try and samosas — fried triangular wraps that are a popular snack and starter.
Probably the most common dish in Nepal is Dhal Bhat, lentils with rice. It’s likely to be the main or even only dish on offer when you go trekking, so for variety’s sake, you may wish to try the different dishes on offer while you’re in the cities.
In Kathmandu, keep your eyes on the streets’ upper levels to see if there are any rooftop terraces or balconies. It’s fun to grab a table at one of these upper-level joints!
From here, you can observe the street life below or enjoy a panoramic view of Kathmandu’s jumbled canopy of red brick buildings while sampling the Nepalese food and sipping a cold Everest beer.
Getting around in Nepal
From Kathmandu, it’s time to venture deeper into Nepal.
First, I’ve got some bad news: the infrastructure in Nepal can be pretty horrendous. If you’re travelling overland, it’s not unusual to get stuck in traffic or face cracked and potholed roads.
Still, with a bit of patience, it’s not difficult to navigate Nepal. It’s also a fun experience to ride the colourful buses that plough the routes between the cities, their windshields often decorated with stickers, religious figures, or plastic flowers.
You can book bus tickets at any of the small tourist offices you can find locally. If you wish to pre-book, it works well to use the Asian booking site 12Go.
Several domestic airlines, including Buddha Air and Yeti Airlines, fly from Kathmandu. I should mention that Nepal’s aviation safety record is not the best, with a long history of incidents and the EU keeping Nepal on an airline safety blacklist.
Of course, for some utterly mind-blowing views of the Himalayan peaks from the plane windows, so you may find this worth the extremely tiny probability of getting an unwanted close-up view.
I’m joking a bit, but it’s good to keep safety concerns in perspective, even though it’s still important to mention. Yeti Airlines has two dedicated sightseeing flights, the Everest Express and Annapurna Express, should you just want to fly for the views.
I opted to take the 7-hour bus connection to Nepal’s second-largest city of Pokhara for my itinerary. Despite the bad roads, if you leave Kathmandu at 7 am, you can reach Pokhara by mid-afternoon if there is no delay.
Relaxing in lakeside Pokhara
Pokhara is a deceptive city: upon approach, it looks like an intimidating sprawl. But once you get to the tourist district appropriately named Lakeside, you may feel like Pokhara is just a small and quiet village.
With its fresh air, tree-lined streets, and wide-open views of Lake Phewa (and, on a clear day, views of the snow-capped Annapurna peaks), Pokhara certainly has a way of soothing your mind.
Lakeside has a pleasant traveller atmosphere and it’s a great place to just hang out for a while. There are lots of restaurants and entertainment, though the nightlife is limited with an 11pm bar curfew. The somewhat hidden Busy Bee Cafe seemed a popular spot for drinks and dancing.
For some trekkers, Pokhara serves as merely a pitstop for supplies, guides, or onward transportation. However, it’s a great city to explore, go boating on the lake, or visit nearby temples for at least a couple of days.
Finally, Pokhara is filled with all manner of yoga studios and massage parlors, which may be especially tempting when returning from a tiring expedition.
Climbing to Annapurna Basecamp
Annapurna Basecamp is one of the most awe-inspiring places I’ve visited, ranking alongside such epic locales as the vast Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia or the thunderous waterfalls of Iguazu in Brazil.
This trek goes to the highest point near Annapurna peak that’s reachable by foot without mountaineering. It takes 7 to 11 days, depending on your pace and where you start. For more technical details, see my guide to trekking Annapurna. It’s also known as the ABC Trek, Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, or Annapurna South Trek.
As you embark on this or any trek, your Nepal experience kind of narrows into a focused tunnel, with only one goal; reaching your destination!
It feels great to be so in the zone. With every step, it’s clear what must be done next. Every morning you wake up, grab breakfast, and then strap on those hiking boots. Mostly away from any decent internet, you’ll connect instead with 360 degrees of jaw-dropping scenery surrounding you.
Standing at Annapurna Basecamp (altitude: 4130m), encircled by ten epic Himalayan peaks, I couldn’t help but be affected by the geological awesomeness of it all. My mind wandered uncontrollably to the crushing of tectonic plates over millions of years. It’s truly breathtaking.
It’s not just the peaks towering above that make the trail so worthwhile. Along the way, you pass through wonderful rural lands, past rivers and waterfalls, and fern- and moss-covered forests.
Small villages or colourfully painted tea houses decorated with Tibetan prayer flags make for key waypoints. The multi-coloured flags are used to bless the surrounding area, believed to be spreading good vibes carried by the wind. Picturing this can help keep your spirits up as you tackle a difficult ascent.
I should mention that I was quite lucky with my Annapurna Basecamp trek. To me, it was utterly serene, though this may not have been the typical experience.
I went at the end of May — the tail end of the hiking season just before the monsoon arrives. There is a greater risk of poor weather at this time, but luckily it was fine.
The huge upside is that it was very quiet. I met other trekkers maybe once every half hour; there were enough for a friendly atmosphere at the tea houses, but not so many as to detract from the nature experience. Amazingly, when my friend and I made it to the top, there were only two other trekkers there at the same time.
I’ve been told that it can be a continuous single-file line all the way to the top in the peak season (mainly October and November). Some say this makes it a fun social trail; others say it’s overcrowded. A Nepali hiker who’d done it many times said it gets difficult to find a bed during this period. He much preferred the offseason.
Before you go trekking in Nepal:
- Be sure to arrive with well-worn-in boots. Attacking the Himalayas in brand new boots may lead to a festival of blisters – not fun!
- Don’t have all the necessary gear? Don’t worry, you can easily rent or buy anything in Pokhara or Kathmandu (e.g. hiking poles, sleeping bags, waterproof jackets, you name it).
- Altitude sickness is real! Your body has to adjust to the thinner air at higher altitudes. It’s a particular concern above 2500m, so take it easy and be sure to acclimatise.
- A TIMS Card (Trekkers’ Information Management System), obtainable at the official offices, is mandatory for many treks. They cost the equivalent of $10 for organised group trekkers and $20 for independent trekkers. Some protected areas may require additional fees or permits.
- Get travel insurance. You can get a quote for insurance covering mountain trekking at Heymondo.
What’s the best trek in Nepal?
I’m focusing on the Annapurna Basecamp trek, simply as it’s the one I’ve done. I should mention this trek and the much longer Annapurna Circuit were becoming known for overcrowding in pre-pandemic years. According to the official statistics, between 10,000 and 30,000 people visit Annapurna National Park every month during normal times. The next most significant trekking area sees about 10,000 visitors per year — at least a factor of 10 difference.
If you’re looking for a more solitary experience, consider trekking the ABC in the early or late season. There are numerous other treks, such as Langtang, Manaslu, Mardi Himal, and many others — of which I’ve since heard many inspiring tales. Some of these treks are circular, offering an advantage over the out-and-back route of ABC. The ABC trek is definitely not the only one and, depending on the time of year and expectations, may not even be the best choice. It’s worth researching all the options!
Paragliding along the Himalayas
Returning to Pokhara after such intense trekking, my first order of business was to remove my hiking boots and do absolutely nothing at all.
While relaxing, my eyes turned to the skies, where paragliders can be seen soaring over Lake Phewa almost every day. It looked awesome, so my friend and I knew we had to do this before we finished our trip.
The paragliding launching point at Sarangkot is world-famous. I’ve since met paragliders in many other countries who speak of it fondly. The thermal air currents at Sarangkot almost guarantee a long and smooth ride.
You can arrange a tandem flight for the equivalent of about $50 to $100, depending on the length of the flight. You’ll soar over the hills near Pokhara, then towards Lake Phewa, before landing on a grassy field on the opposite side.
Unless you have an intense fear of heights, the flight will probably release more serotonin than adrenaline; it’s a gentle joy to fly like a bird and enjoy the views.
Later that night, we met up with one of our pilots, a British expat, and his local crew for drinks. It was interesting to see the Nepali pilots are a bit like local rock stars, well-trained Top Guns who earn way above the typical salary for Nepal. It was cool to hear about these ace paragliders’ passion for flying and I felt like they probably had one of the best jobs in the world.
Packing for Nepal
I don’t usually include packing lists as they are often quite obvious. Just don’t forget your toothbrush and underwear? You know, the normal stuff.
But since Nepal may involve some specific conditions and terrain, it may be helpful to know about some less common items you should bring.
Some good items to pack for Nepal:
- Sleeping bag liner. For extra comfort or hygiene when using the wool duvets provided in tea houses. A liner is thin and compresses to about the size of an apple. I went in summer; bring a full sleeping bag in winter.
- Microfiber quick-dry towel. Lightweight and easy to pack.
- USB power bank. The low temperatures at higher altitudes can make your phone- or camera batteries perform very poorly. Hence, it’s worth having some backup power. Keep batteries warm to preserve their charge.
- Water purification tablets. There are often taps in the mountains where you can fill up a water bottle; just pop one of these tablets into the water, and it will be safe to drink. You could also use a UV sterilizer.
- Flip-flops. Nice to wear after wearing hiking boots all day.
- Loperamide (brand name Imodium). Should you be so unlucky to get any food poisoning, you really don’t want to be, uhh, pouring coffee all day — especially if you’re hiking. Sorry, this just needed to be said! Loperamide can be of huge help in case of bowel issues.
- Buff. This is a type of flexible bandana that I like to use. Excellent for sun protection while hiking or used as a mask when dealing with dusty air in cities or towns.
- Toilet paper. Toilets rarely have any paper, so come prepared.
- Baby wipes. Great for cleaning when showers are not available.
Is Nepal cheap?
There are two kinds of tourists in Nepal: the few who spend over $100,000 to summit Mt. Everest and everyone else.
If you’re in the latter group, then yes, Nepal is very cheap!
Basic necessities are inexpensive in Nepal. A basic private room in a hotel starts at the equivalent of about $10. A local evening meal might be around $5. A ‘premium’ tourist bus between Kathmandu and Pokhara will set you back about $10.
Costs increase if you opt for guided trekking, though it can be reduced if the cost of a guide is shared. However, adventure sports such as rafting or paragliding are priced at Western levels and don’t match those of the local economy.
Travelling independently and not being too fussy about staying in basic or standard hotels and hostels, I spent about $20 per day on average in Nepal. This excluded paragliding in Pokhara, which cost around $100 for one tandem flight.
Other Nepal experiences
My time was limited during my trip to Nepal; I didn’t quite have a chance to do everything, so let me mention two things that were left on my travel list.
If I return to Nepal, I would definitely go to Chitwan National Park, a lowland jungle filled with one-horned rhinos and Bengal tigers. A safari in this park is one epic addition to a Nepal itinerary that isn’t mountain-related. It’s seeing a different side of Nepal, and partaking in the ecotourism helps support the local wildlife protection.
I would also consider staying in a valley somewhere off the classic trekking trails, perhaps as part of a homestay experience, to get a better taste of local life. For a future trip to Nepal, I would certainly put this at the top of my list.
In all of my travels around the world, visiting Nepal was a definite highlight. Nepal’s low level of development can throw up the occasional challenge, but it’s all part of the adventure. Travel to Nepal and you are sure to have an unforgettable experience!
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