The Insiders Guide to How to Travel Like a Local in Nepal. (Part 2, of the popular post “How to Avoid Scams and Jams in Shangi-la.” Read it!)
Many people ask me about what I wish I had know before I came to Nepal to help prepare for this exotic land of adventure. As the now owner of Hardcore Nepal Adventures, and TREKT Himalaya Nepal trekking agent (with Medical Trek Nepal Volunteers), here are some of the my top tips for those who are thinking of extended travel or living in Nepal.
- Welcome to Shangri-La! You will find it spiritual, and amazingly beautiful here. However, do not be clouded by all the mystic, dreaminess you may have read about ancient monasteries, and hidden valleys with the secret to youth. Nepal is a real place, with real things that happen both good and bad. So, enjoy the beauty and culture, but do not leave your brain at home. Stay on your guard in city settings, and in the remote regions, hike with people you trust. I would be remiss not to mention that trekkers have gone missing (at least one) every season since 2005, people get robbed sometimes, and unfortunately not all humans are friendly no matter how they appear. The people that have the best time in Nepal are those who enjoy the culture and beautiful Himalaya, but keep safety in mind. Please always trek with a partner, and be mindful.
- Learn to bargain for everything. In the west, we are used to having a fixed price for everything. You will find more and more fixed price stores around Kathmandu, but it is still not the norm. Generally a merchant will ask you at least double what he is willing to take for an item. Then, when you try to bargain down…. Here comes the guilt trip. Some people might react in a way that seems (to a foreigner) angry. But they are not. It is the normal way to bargain. Before I could speak Nepali fluently, I would go to buy vegetables at the market with my sister-in-law and each time we would pay for an item, I would watch her routine. First, she would ask how much something was. Then when then merchant answered, she would click her tongue in disgust and question the price. Then the merchant would wave his hand, shake his head, and say a price that was slightly lower. That’s when things really heated up. Amaju (sister-in-law) would twist her face, and begin a high pitched shout (which sounded to me like an insult), start pointing and stomping all 5 feet of her small body.
Merchant-ji would retort, but not with equal zest. And then, she would hand over some rupees, and he would hand over the bag of tomatoes. This would happen every time, at every vendor, in every type of market. I started to notice that it was not just Amaju, my husband did it, my employees did it, and so did others. Now, I have never mastered this art myself, so when I do not get the price I want, I just walk out slowly because 9 times out of ten, they will negotiate with you before you get to the door. If you still feel uncomfortable, have a local guide help you (our Hardcore Nepal guides often do this for guests, and others would too.) Be sure you trust the guide who is helping you. You want him to get you the best price. Sometimes they get a bit of a kick back from the merchant, which, a little is fine, but you took the guy along for help, so do not let him rip you off. (Just sayin’)
- Prices have gone up since the last Lonely Planet, or Rough Guide or whatever online source you checked. Yes, Nepal is still one of the most inexpensive places to travel and live. However, prices are increasing each year. So, do not be shocked if that plate of Daal Bhat (rice and lentils) at the restaurant you read about is no longer just 150 Nepalese Rupees. In fact, it might be double that price. The good news is, even at double it is still just $3 USD. The travel guides for Nepal can be great, but one thing that really hurts tourism is the posting of prices which seem, to the reader, set in stone. The prices do not fluctuate as fuel, food, and other things in the Nepal economy do. But in fairness, to run a hotel, taxi or tour company, you need to buy these things to help travelers have a good time in Nepal. So, shop around to see what the current going rate is. Be willing to pay the fair price to help keep the Nepal economy growing. It is great to enjoy the country for cheap, but not when it is at the expense of people who were already impoverished to begin with. Below I will list some common rates for taxis, guides, and hotels so you can get an idea of how much these cost. Then, if you are buying from a business (like Hardcore Nepal where this post is hosted) then consider the overhead it takes to keep people employed. If you think it all adds up, and sounds right… It probably is!
- You can still get things for really cheap! Having said all that (above), there are still a lot of things you can do and buy for way less than anywhere else in the world. Example, there is a tour operator in Thamel that sells Nepal rafting trips for $30 per person. It’s a jump in the raft, put on the life jacket type experience on the Trisuli river, but, it is not much different than any other Trisuli river trip. And if you do not expect much, there are hotels in Kathmandu and Pokhara for around $12 per night (some even cheaper). If you want to do a home-stay in a remote village, you can usually get room and board for less than $5 USD per day. So you maybe trek somewhere, and stay for a while. There are certain routes that have home-stay options where Nepali families welcome guests. Ask a local tour operator for advice. To get the best deals, it is best to make friends with locals and expats early, have plenty of time to spare, and not be picky about where you eat and sleep.
- Ladies – They ALL love you. Your guides that is. I am not even kidding here. I wish I were. And seeing that I am the wife of a Nepali guide, I think I can speak with some authority on the subject. However, here is the cold hard truth about the guide who swears you are the most beautiful foreigner he has ever seen, and you are so different than all the others, and even though he has only known you for five minutes, he is deeply, seriously and madly in love with you – It’s part of the guide training. They all say it. They said it to the last girl on the trip too. And if he is over 20, he is likely already married and possibly has kids. OK, so now you have been warned.
I could go on about this, but after 10 years of marriage (falling in love under circumstances which I have described) and owning a business that employs guides, and talking to countless tourists, this, I must admit, is the reality. It is extremely charming this flattery, this love gushing, but let me give you the example of a friend, we’ll call her Kathy. Kathy has a PhD in physics, she is from a very well-off family (and is the niece of a famous rock star – no kidding), and she is an excellent mountaineer. When she finished climbing Cho-Oyu, she called me in the USA completely distraught and bewildered. She did not know what to do because the expedition cook was madly in love with her, and had proposed marriage (which she was actually considering), but she had been having a fling with her Sherpa climbing guide who she just found out had a wife back in the village. She was shocked, and hurt. I told her not to worry, it was the hundredth story I had heard like this. Then, I recounted some of them to her, including my own (I am married to the guide who fell madly in love with me, but… uh, it was not always easy). She at first felt angry, but I told her not to be. It is easy to say “I love you,” when it is a foreign phrase to you. It has a different meaning. And actually, the concept of a “love” marriage is still not the norm in Nepal. I told her to just be wise for the future. She told me I should write a book to tell other unsuspecting ladies. I am not sure I am up for that… But here it is girls – the truth. Now, go have fun at your own risk. Fall in love with whomever you wish… But keep what I said in mind! 🙂
- Research and read as much as you can about the culture. Nepal’s culture is like none other. It is unique, and mysterious, and liberating. An extended stay in Nepal will change your life and the way you see the world. It is totally worth it. The way you will have the best time is to do your research, avoid scams (read my post “How to Avoid Scams and Jams in Shangri-La” here), give yourself plenty of time, and adopt a go-with-the-flow-attitude. This is a country where the carefree attitude thrives; where a playful spirit wins friends; and where a sharp mind keeps you out of trouble. Below is a list of things to read (some from my blog posts) that I hope will help you have a good time. As always, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Happy Travels! You will love your trek or trip in Nepal!
More Nepal Reading
How to Avoid Scams and Jams in Shangri-La (this has tons more cultural/travel notes, and pricing)
The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen (must read for trekking in Nepal, especially Dolpo region)
The Lost Horizon by James Hilton (This is the original book about Shangri-La, besides Buddhist texts)
While the Gods Were Sleeping: A Journey of Love and Rebellion in Nepal by Elizabeth Enslin (Elizabeth is the mother of one of our former guides, Amalesh, this book is in large part about her as an American having a baby in Nepal, and raising in a village in the 1980s.)
How Much Things Cost In Nepal (approximate prices as of November 2015)
Private guide hire – $25 per day
Private porter hire – $15 per day
Taxi fare – minimum 200 NPR, more at night. (And this is not during time of the fuel crisis, in which fares to the airport from central Kathmandu could be as much as 2000NPR)
Cheap Hotel – $10 – 12
Staple Food (Daal Bhat) – 250NPR per plate
Minimum group trekking fee – around $100 per day from local agent depending on amenities. This would not include flights, or permits to restricted regions.
Trekking permits/TIMS cards – $50
Average apartment price – 20000-25000 per month (Of course you can get much more luxury, or less for different prices, but this is average for a place that most Westerners would find okay.)