It's almost shameful that Nepal is so synonymous with trekking, since it keeps many people from considering it as a travel destination. With no interest in hiking the Annapurna Circuit or making the Everest Trek that follows the path of the medieval trans-Himalayan trade route established by the Sherpas, they look elsewhere for their travel adventures.
Our friend Barbara Weibel, world traveler at Hole In The Donut, recently went to Nepal for three weeks and found so much to love about the country that she stayed for three months and will soon return for another two. She shares her tips for navigating this exquisitely beautiful, friendly, and inexpensive country.
Visit lovely Pokhara for a week and climb Sarangkot (an easy walk) at dawn to watch the sun rise over the snow-capped Annapurna Mountains. Visit one of the country's National Parks, like Chitwan, where you can see wildlife from a traditional dugout canoe and walk the jungle in search of rare black rhinos. Visit the birthplace of Buddha in Lumbini. Attend a lama puja in a Tibetan monastery, and experience a special kind of chanting that Tibetans call throat singing. And if you feel you simply can't leave Nepal without seeing Mount Everest, there's still no need to trek; for $150 you can overfly it in a small plane!
Nepal is rife with volunteer opportunities, many offered by firms that have combined adventure activities with the chance to help out at an orphanage or school. Be advised that in many, if not most of these cases, none of the pricey fees charged by these firms makes it back to the children who need it. Rather than paying to volunteer, why not consider coming to Nepal and creating your own volunteer experience. Knock on the door of any orphanage or government school and chances are you will be welcomed with open arms, especially if you arrive with a sack of supplies. Your donation doesn't have to be fancy; the kids lack even basic lined tablets, pencils, and erasers. If you have a specific talent you can share, so much the better but just by being there you are providing them with a valuable opportunity to practice English with a native speaker and you have the added comfort of knowing your donated funds/supplies are reaching the kids.
While Nepal has fairly decent infrastructure, much of their power comes from hydroelectric generating plants. Electricity is abundant in the spring and summer when the rivers are high and flowing rapidly. However, in the fall levels drop as water begins to freeze on the mountaintops and daily power outages are scheduled. Starting with two hours each day, they can sometimes stretch to 16 hours per day in the heart of the winter. Few hotels have heat, so come prepared with warm clothes and a flashlight if you plan to visit between late October and mid-February.
While I always encourage immersion into a culture, home stays in Nepal can be particularly disconcerting. Anxious to please, family members will barge into your room at all hours of the day night, usually with offers of food. So if privacy is paramount, this may not be the best choice in Nepal.
Nepal offers both tourist and local buses and the name can create considerable confusion, since residents are not restricted from traveling on the tourist buses. When you buy a bus ticket through any of the travel or tour operators, it will be for a tourist bus but don't expect it to be luxurious in any way; they are just as old and decrepit as the buses ridden by locals. The main difference is that every passenger in a tourist bus is assigned a seat, while on a local bus every square inch of available space will be crammed with passengers - including sitting on the roof and hanging off the sides. And just when you think another person couldn't possibly fit, another ten will scramble aboard. It's fun to ride the local buses for short trips, but if you're on the road for a few hours you'll be glad you chose the more comfortable tourist bus, especially when you consider that a Kathmandu to Pokhara ticket is only about $6 USD.
Pokhara, while a must-see on any Nepal itinerary, is the most expensive city in the country for shopping. Do your shopping in Kathmandu instead and save Pokhara for sightseeing.
To really get to know Nepal, visit during one of its many religious festivals. Dashain, Tihar, Holi, and a host of other celebrations provide a feast for the eyes and a way to really connect on a cultural level.
The political situation in Nepal is mostly peaceful at the moment, since the Maoist forces have now become a legitimate part of the government, however there is currently no constitution in place and the competing political parties have not reached agreement on how the country should be run. There is always the possibility that instability could recur, so stay apprised of conditions by reading the English language newspapers that are abundant in Nepal, and never participate in local demonstrations.
Ladies, take heed! Men in Nepal will woo you and take drastic measures to make you believe they have fallen in love. While this might be the case in rare instances, these proclamations of undying love are based in a desire to marry a rich foreigner and emigrate to the US, Europe, or Australia. Enjoy the attention and let it boost your ego, but understand what it’s all about.