Nepal backpacking guide
In a nutshell, Nepal is spiritual, captivating, diverse, chaotic and out of this world stunning. Backpacking Nepal is an experience like no other.
Sandwiched between China and India, Nepal is the gateway to some of the best, gnarliest and most sought after hiking and mountaineering on the planet. Home to the long stretch of Himalayas and mother of all mountains, Mount Everest. A trekker’s paradise.
My first glimpse of Nepal was from high in the sky, flying in to Kathmandu over the layers upon layers of dramatic snow capped mountain ranges, where wee rural villages perched on top. My imagination was running wild.
As soon as I set foot on the soil I was flooded with an overwhelming spiritual feeling that is unexplainable. The high spirits and chatter of trekkers from all corners of the world, some sharing stories amongst each other of their once in a lifetime experience they’d just accomplished, others eagerly waiting in anticipation for their flight to Lukla, completely oblivious to what they were about to embark on. A chaotic flurry of travellers with beaming smiles, decked to the nines in vibrant hiking get ups. I was dodging flying poles all over the show and avoiding jam packed backpacks from smacking me in the face. I had never captured the essence of a country so damn quick.
Along with mighty mountains to trek up, there are visually stunning cities to navigate, spiritual temples to escape to, peaceful lakeside towns to explore, raging rivers to raft along, sub tropical forests to get lost amongst, an abundance of gorgeous wildlife to look out for, and the warmth of the Nepalese everywhere you turn. Dreams really do come true in Nepal.
Below is the route I took travelling two weeks through Nepal.
Know before you go
‘NAMASTE’ – Hello
‘DHANYABAAD’ – Thank you
English is commonly spoken in the main cities of Nepal, however learning a few basic phrases to help you communicate and be respectful to the locals while backpacking Nepal, wouldn’t go a miss. There are a ridiculous 123 languages in Nepal, Nepali being the offical language that is most widely spoken. You’ll find it’s very similar to Hindi which is spoken in India.
NEPALESE RUPEE – NPR
The national currency of Nepal. The current exchange rate is 1NZD = 73NPR
TYPE C – 230v/50Hz
Two round pins is the power plug most commonly used in Nepal. Regular power cuts and slow internet is a given while backpacking Nepal.
Where I travelled
CAPITAL OF NEPAL, CENTRAL
Nepalese locals laze about on the dusty roadside at the crack of dawn, casually reading newspapers as they’re seemingly oblivious to the chaos about to unfold around them. As soon as the sun is up the dirty streets become clogged with pimped out rickshaws and scooters hooning by, backpackers weave through the dinghy alleyways and bustling locals set up their market wares. Every building has thousands of tangled power lines hectically hung overhead, as smells of incense, turmeric and momo dumplings waft through the air. Bananas hang in clusters at fruit stalls, colourful temples catch your eye at every corner, flocks of pigeons and jumpy monkeys cause a ruckus, and heards of beasty cows and rough dogs bring the traffic to a hault. All of this nestled in a valley surrounded by a breath taking Himalayan backdrop.
This is Kathmandu. A tingling sensory overload.
Thamel is a great spot to base yourself in the city and has everything that those backpacking Nepal could possibly need. A kaleidoscopic line up of hostels, dirt cheap markets to classier stores, buzzing nightlife and an array of Western and Nepalese restaurants. Try the dahl bhat, a deliciously addictive feast of mountains of rice, vegetarian curries, lentil soup, popadoms, pickles and greens. Endlessly refilled until you say stop!
Take a step away from the traffic and chill out with a masala chai tea at Mandala Street, a similar vibe to the artsy alleyways of Melbourne. Stock up on souvenirs, all the best trekking gear and loads of fueling snacks here, before tackling the mountains.
To get from Tribhuvan Airport to the hub of Thamel, myself and two other random travellers backpacking Nepal split the taxi and paid 200NPR (2.70NZD) each.
Kathmandu Durbar Square is the soul of the old town. A UNESCO World Heritage Site with walkways linking the royal complex dotted with temples, palaces and shrines. Wander the town square, learn about the overflowing history of the area and respectfully observe the local offerings take place amidst the madness. Sadly many of the buildings are still in ruins after the devastating 2015 earthquake.
Kids will no doubt ask for money and elaborately dressed Sadhus will happily pose for photos, then proceed to persistently ask for money too. When it comes to photography, for me personally I never once gave someone money for a photo as I believe it effectively promotes a begging culture, especially in growing children. Majority of the time the Sadhu’s (holy men) that DO ask for money aren’t authentic, instead men who have put two and two together and figured out that if they create a photographic persona, they can make money from it. Ding Ding! So, just work out why you’re taking the photo and who you really want to be capturing and remembering.
The locals can be pushy, but as long as you’re firm and ask them first if you can take their photo, then you should be sweet. This goes for many countries in Asia.
Entry is 1000NPR (13.70NZD), but like almost every one I met the guards weren’t on duty to collect the fee so we just strolled on in.
Sitting high on the hill top overlooking the sea of pastel coloured buildings in Kathmandu Valley, is the striking Swayambhunath Temple, also known as Monkey Temple due to the crazy critters that run a muck around the joint. Trudge up the 365 or so stone steps to the sacred Buddhist temple, another one of the seven World Heritage Sites in Kathmandu.
Your eyes will naturally peer upwards towards the towering gold stupa, then across to the prayer flags draping from it, fluttering in the wind sending positive vibes of peace, compassion, wisdom and strength. Spin the prayer wheels as you walk around in a clockwise direction. I don’t mind a little bit of good fortune if I do say so myself!
Even if you’re all templed out, the 360 degree view of the city and mountain range sure is something to write home about!
Entry into Swayambhunath Temple is 200NR (2.70NZD)
Float right into a scene from the National Geographic as you jump on board a raft and get a kick of adrenaline paddling down the foaming white waters of Trishuli River. The river starts next door as a stream in the mountains of Tibet and flows all the way through Nepal to the Narayani River, before reaching the holy Ganges in India.
There are a heap of organised tours to choose from, mine which began just a hop, skip and a jump away in Kathmandu. Drive two hours through Kathmandu Valley, soaking up mesmerizing views of the Ganesh and Langtang mountain ranges, and catching pops of colour from the road side shops embellished with Pepsi, Cadbury and Coca Cola signs. Count your blessings as you pass by extremely poverty stricken families living in crumbling brick houses with low shackled roofs, scattered through the dusty, littered neighbourhoods. An incredibly humbling experience while backpacking Nepal, a world away from my own!
Once you reach your river spot and get on the grade 3-4 waters, you’ll be treated to roaring (and some not so roaring) rapids, dramatic scenic valleys, remarkable rock formations, impressive mountain tops, flocks of stunning native birds soaring above and some pretty blimmin’ extreme gorges, linked together by lengthy, swaying swing bridges. The views are something else I tell ya.
If only I could have had my camera in the raft without it getting soaked. The teeny amount of quick photos I managed to take once we stopped on the riverbanks don’t even come close to doing the scenery justice!
After a long, wet day on the water we stopped at our riverside campsite plonked on a white sand beach. We lazed about, played cards, shared stories, devoured in a traditional Nepalese BBQ, cozied up by the fire pit and laughed at the thought of how horrific our facials must have been when getting thrown over the rapids. The following day we done it all over again and continued further down the river.
ANNAPURNA FOOTHILLS TREK
Obviously a trip backpacking Nepal isn’t complete without slogging up a mountain or two.
My four day hike walking on average six hours a day along the rugged trails of the Annapurna Foothills, provided me with a good glimpse into the diverse and lively Nepalese mountain life, without being at crazy high altitudes. A mix of gentle climbs along wide dusty dirt roads, to steep ascends up narrow, rickety stone staircases, for hours on end.
It’s a slower pace up here in this corner of the world, as you put one foot in front of the other immersing deeper into the naturally stunning mountains. The air is fresher, soul fueling spirits are higher, and the snow capped views drastically become more and more impressive by the second.
You’ll pass over trickling streams, underneath thundering waterfalls, along side vast terraces of wheat fields on the cliff side, and through fields of blooming red rhododendron flowers. Herds of donkeys rattle away as children confidently yell out ‘chocolate, chocolate!’ in hopes of getting a stash off hikers. Inspiring porters will boost past you and women of all ages trudge up the hills carrying the unimaginable on their backs. From bundles of tree branches, overflowing baskets of leaves and gigantic hay bales. An empowering sight.
Stop for lunch and catch your breath at one of the many traditional tea houses, oozing with character and charm. Fill your tummy with a warming dhal soup, one of the other Nepalese delicacies on offer, or even a little chunk of yak cheese! Take note that it’s totally normal for locals to eat their food with their hands, just incase you were wondering what on earth is going on.
Take time to mingle with the beautiful, friendly local folk who will tell you stories of how the legacy of Sir Edmund Hillary still lives on in the mountains. So wicked!
The Holi Festival, known as the ‘Festival of Colours,’ happened to be on while I was in the mountains. It extravagantly celebrates the arrival of spring and pretty much just spreads joy and happiness. Amazing! I dressed in white and got absolutely drenched in water and showered in a rainbow of vivid coloured paint powders. The enchanting music, questionable dance moves and playful kids raging up a storm as I past them in the fields, gave me that much needed spring in my step. A bloody good excuse to get messy while backpacking Nepal.
The most pure moment of bliss it seems is at 6am, 2000m up in Ghandruk Village where the mountains work their magic. You’ll sit in awe soaking up the panoramic views of Annapurna’s highest peaks of over 8000m, soaring above you. The mighty majestic peak Machapuchare, casually known as ‘Fishtail,’ is the most mind blowing of them all. A holy mountain forbidden to climbers.
Now this is what I call heaven.
Driving into Pokhara doesn’t seem like much at first glance, but oh boy does this gorgeous lakeside town allure you quicker than a wink.
A little tourist hot spot sitting on the side of the pristine Phewa Lake, overlooked by the beaming backdrop of the ridiculously good looking Annapurna ranges, which reflect onto the smooth waters on a cracker day.
Most of us backpacking Nepal use Pokhara as a gateway to their Annapurna adventures, me personally stopping here both pre and post hike to prepare, chill out, then relax my poor wee feet. The main street is steaming with a mixed bag of restaurants, supermarkets, ethnic and exotic handicrafts and souvenirs as tacky as they come. The strip along side the lake is buzzing with juice bars, odd street food and raging night life. Come here at sunset to see it in it’s prime.
Iconic row boats adorned in all sorts of bold colours bob along the pristine lake, which you can’t miss even if you wanted to. Anywhere from 100-3000NPR (1.40-41NZD) can get you on board one of those babies, depending how far and long you want to go. Tal Barahi Temple, a tiny Hindu pagoda sits in the lake, which you can reach by boat for almost nothing.
From climbing up the hill to the hang with the Buddha at the nearby World Peace Pagoda, dying over the out of this world views across the lake, valley and mountains from above, or signing up for adventure sports aplenty. Your brains won’t even come close to being bored.
CHITWAN NATIONAL PARK
SOUTH WEST NEPAL
You’ll be bloody lucky if you get to see one of the hundred bengal tigers down in the remote lowlands of Chitwan National Park, yet another of Nepals World Heritage sites scattered around the country. But hey, who said miracles can’t happen! A casual rhino on the other hand, and sloth bears, boars, deer, monkeys, turtles, fox, mongoose, pea cocks, lizards, elephants and wild chickens, to name just a few, are more than enough to make you add a safari to your Nepal backpacking list.
My childhood self would have lost the plot over getting to see such wildlife and endangered species on a jungle jeep safari, and to be honest, not much has changed. From the river crossing by dug out wooden canoe, passing crocs lazing in the heat on the riverside, to hushing quiet while scoping out watering holes in the park for a sneaky rhino or two, I was squealing with excitement deep inside. After this little taster my forever dream of seeing a giraffe in the African wild has now never been more real!
Upwards from 4500NPR (61NZD) (2500NPR for the tour and 2000NPR for the National Park permit) will buy you a four hour jeep safari tour, which I think is an ideal amount of time. Take into account you’ll be sitting in the open air on a bumpy road in some damn hot heat. Pack lots of water, sunscreen and a hat. Oh, and your camera of course!
You can choose to take a walking tour through the park, which quite honestly is a bloody silly idea if you ask me. I saw groups of people walking in formation through the jungle with a leader at the front of the pack, who literally just held one stick to prod whichever animal came their way. The only form of protection they have on hand to use if a Rhino or beast of an animal gets close. Theres no such thing as a quick getaway to a jeep, or second chance when it comes to walking in the jungle. I wouldn’t risk it!
I met some girls backpacking in India that had been to Chitwan and done this exact walking tour. They had to straight run for their lives from a Rhino and said they saw their lives flash before their eyes. Thrilling maybe, but stuff that! Haha.
I stayed on the very edge of the National Park at a serene haven, which was the most relaxing spot to soak up the beauty of nature. The riverfront close by is a perfect spot to star gaze in the dark skies and grab a bite to eat. The main street is just as good for restaurants and browsing for offbeat trinkets.
I was told stories of one particular elephant and his rhino mate who randomly come for the odd stroll at night, stomping their way through the towns main street to disturb the locals. Pity they didn’t come to say hey when I was there.
If you’re after a bit of night time entertainment in Chitwan, Sauraha Tharu Cultural House hosts traditional dance shows performed at 7pm every night. The place was completely packed out when I went and the upbeat atmosphere, cultural dances, ethnic songs and that damn knee slapper of a human pea cock dance, made for a hilarious and entertaining night. Tickets cost 200NPR (2.70NZD).
My last stop in Nepal before crossing the nearby border overland to India was Lumbini, the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama, The Buddha. A World Heritage Site that is known as one of the most important religious sites in the world.
The spiritual soul of Nepal, you’ll explore a complex of Buddhist monuments, ancient ruins and striking temples. Monks dressed in saffron robes roam the peaceful gardens, pilgrims worship and meditate near the sacred pond, and the few tourists around admire the trees completely jazzed up in colourful prayer flags. Maya Devi Temple is the main temple where the archaeological remains of Buddha’s birth place centre. To enter the temple costs 200NPR (2.70NZD).
The World Peace Pagoda, a shiny white dome (similar to my dad’s bald head) with hints of gold, is a monument that exudes peace and the feeling of complete calm. The Pagoda is free to enter.
Heads up, this is the first of many places on my trip that I experienced an overwhelming bombard of people staring and asking me for a photo almost every step I took. However, they don’t mean any harm, it’s just that a little white girl doesn’t happen to walk past every day!
A multiple entry tourist visa for those New Zealanders backpacking Nepal, is valid for 15, 30 or 90 days and costs between 25-100USD (38-152NZD), depending on your length of stay. It’s best to pay in USD, or if you happen to have NPR you can pay in that too.
TIP- Fill out the online form less than 15 days before you intend to arrive to save time in the queue. The airport in Kathmandu is only tiny so the lines can get super long. I also had to produce proof of exit out of the country at the airport in New Zealand, which proved tricky as I was crossing the border from Nepal to India by car, so, I’d highly recommend having proof of your transport exiting Nepal to avoid hassle!
For more info on requirements, the online form, or if you’re from a different country check out the Nepal Immigration website.
BEST TIME TO VISIT
Whether you’re hiking or not Autumn is the peak season, September to November. Perfect for clear mountain views and moderate temperature.
Autumn is rivalled by Spring, March to May being the next best months for your Nepal backpacking adventure. The days are longer, the weather warmer and the flora blooming.
If you’ve read my India Backpacking Guide, then a lot of the following information is very similar.
WHAT TO WEAR
Dress conservatively when visiting temples or a place of worship, meaning cover your shoulders and knees. You can buy a scarf once you’re there to throw over your shoulders or hair when needed. Otherwise you can pretty much wear what you usually would (as long as it’s not too skimpy!) Clothes that are loose fitting, light and airy are perfect. Once you get the vibe of a place you’ll learn what you feel comfortable in and what’s appropriate to wear.
My biggest tip would be to pack light! I only had one small carry on bag plus my daily back pack and it was my brightest idea yet. No one wants to lug around a ginormous, heavy bag in the heat.
When it comes to hiking, a warm jacket, sturdy hiking boots and hat are all must haves!
WHERE TO STAY
Backpacker’s, guest houses and tea houses (in the mountains.)
Backpacker’s are always a fun time, cheap and a great way to meet others backpacking Nepal. I absolutely adored staying with local families in their home and learning about their culture and way of life. For good deals, Hostel World and booking.com work wonders!
For the most part backpacking Nepal is incredibly cheap!
1L WATER 25NPR (.25NZD) ‘Aquatabs’ are handy to pop into your reusable bottles- Don’t drink the tap water!
RESTAURANT MEAL 200-400NPR (2.50-5.50NZD) Always use hand sanitiser before and after eating.
DORM ROOM 200-650NPR (3-9NZD)
BUS 400- 900NPR (5.50-12NZD)
TAXI 200-600NPR (2.50-8NZD)
Tipping is commonly expected in Nepal, especially for the amazing porters and guides in the mountains who you will grow to have ridiculous respect for. It’s completely a personal decision on how much to tip and whether you appreciate the service enough, so don’t feel pressured.
When it comes to eating out, most restaurants have a mandatory charge of 13% tax and 10% service charge already added onto the bill. Keep that in mind when ordering food as it will cost a lot more than the price on the menu.
Just like going anywhere it really depends what kind of traveller you are. You CAN get by travelling through Nepal on zilch. I found eating out to be just as cheap, if not cheaper than buying from the supermarket and cooking at your accommodation.
You can find ATMs in major cities and larger towns, however be aware that you will more than likely have to try a few before you find one that works. Debit, credit and most travel cards are accepted and I found this the easiest and safest way to handle money in Nepal.
Buses are the most popular way to travel your way through Nepal, trains aren’t a thing here. From air conditioned tourist buses to hectic, rusty local buses, there isn’t a shortage around!
The roads in Nepal are in very poor condition and without a doubt some of the worst I’ve ever been on. The bumpy mountain terrain, humungous pot holes, sharp bends and congestion of traffic make for some tummy gurgling and slow poke bus rides!
You can wing it and buy tickets from the bus driver on the day, or book in advance from a bus counter, tour agency or online at busnepal.com. Don’t expect to see a timetable or list of destinations at bus stands, you’re best to ask someone who looks like they know what they’re doing amongst the chaos.
For short distances I found walking everywhere to be the easiest, if not there are cycle rickshaws and taxis you can catch. The maps.me app saved my life so many times when trying to navigate where I was walking. You’re able to download live maps for each city while you have internet, which can then be used offline when you’re out and about.
Ask hostel staff what the going rate should be for your trip, then barter and agree on a price with your taxi driver from there.
I came out alive so trust me when I say Nepal is safe to travel alone. I never once felt unsafe and I truly mean that. Certain people made me feel uneasy at times, of course, but I’ve come across these people all over the world.
However, when hiking I would highly recommend to hike with a group, just to be on the safe side.
Have your wits about you! Don’t go out alone late at night when possible and keep your belongings on you tight- a padlock and chain will come in handy.
People will stare and ask you for photos left, right and centre. Remember, some people have never seen a westerner in their life and you may be their only chance! Get used to being treated like a celebrity.
My god will you get hassled, ALOT. Learn to say ‘no, thank you’ and keep on walking, or even ignore them when appropriate, as harsh as this may seem. Confidence will get you a long way.
Travel with an open mind and open heart, embrace their culture and your experience will be a million times better!
If you need anymore tips on solo travel check out my dedicated blog post ‘Travelling solo for the first time? My TIPS for SOLO TRAVEL newbies’
Namaste Nepal, you gorgeous country you.
Comment below where in the world you’d like to read about next, I’d love to know!
Thanks for reading,
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