Backpacking Nepal: the ultimate travel guide
This post is about backpacking Nepal. Nepal is a small country in South Asia. It is landlocked in between India and China. It was once a remote Himalayan kingdom that was closed to foreigners up till the 19th century. Now it is a developing democracy that has opened its door to the world.
Nepal’s natural beauty is no longer a secret. During the 1960s and 1970s, thousands of Western travelers followed the Hippie trail that ended in Kathmandu, Nepal. Not surprisingly, Nepal remains a popular destination for backpackers.
Why backpacking Nepal
Backpacking Nepal is a unique and memorable experience. Most people know Nepal because of the Himalayas that includes Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world. But the country has so much more to offer than mountains alone.
It’s natural beauty is outstanding and much more diverse than you would think. From lush tropical jungles in the south, rolling hills with terraced rice paddies in the middle and the snow capped mountain peaks with high-altitude deserts and frozen glaciers in the North.
As a result, Nepal offers a wide range of outdoor activities, including trekking, hiking, rock climbing, white water rafting, and paragliding. It also offers a great opportunity for wildlife safari and birdwatching. Nepal’s National Parks such as Bardiya and Chitwan are home to many species of animals and birds.
Nature is one of the main reasons to go backpacking Nepal, but there is lots of culture as well. Nepal has a rich history and cultural heritage, reflected in its many temples, shrines, monasteries, and palaces. The Kathmandu Valley, in particular, is renowned for its UNESCO World Heritage sites and traditional Newari architecture.
Nepal is a melting pot of different ethnic groups and cultures, each with their own unique customs, traditions, and festivals. Whenever you go backpacking Nepal there is always a festival going on.
For backpackers, Nepal is a great budget destination that is easy to travel in with cheap transport and accomodation. Facilities can be basic, but as Nepal is developing they improve year by year.
Visa for backpacking Nepal
Most foreign nationals need a visa for backpacking Nepal. Tourist visas are available upon arrival at the Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu or at land border crossing points with India and Tibet. To avoid long queues you can now also get a tourist visa online before arrival.
You can choose between 15, 30 or 90 days and you can extend it once you are in Nepal for up to 150 days. Costs range between 30 to 125 us dollars.
How to travel to Nepal
Travel to Nepal by plane
The main international airport in Nepal is Tribhuvan International Airport (KTM) located in Kathmandu, which is the entry point for most visitors to the country.
There are several airlines that operate flights to Nepal, including Nepal Airlines, Air India, China Southern Airlines, and Qatar Airways, among others.
If you are planning to combine your Nepal journey with a trip to India it might be much cheaper to fly to Delhi or Calcutta and travel overland.
Travel to Nepal overland
From India: There are several border crossing points from India to Nepal, the most popular being the Sunauli-Bhairawa border crossing, which is located about 200 km west of Kathmandu and is the closest crossing point to the Nepalese capital. From Sunauli it is about 8 to 9 hours by bus to Kathmandu. There are also other crossing points such as Raxaul-Birgunj, Kakarbhitta-Panitanki, and Sonauli-Mahendranagar.
From Delhi you can take a train to Gorakhpur (13 hours), which is the nearest train station to the border of Nepal. From there it is a short bus journey to Sunauli (4 hours). Alternatively you can travel by train to Varanasi and then travel by bus to Sunauli (8-9 hours). There is even a direct bus from Varanasi to Kathmandu (16-17 hours)
From Tibet: The main border crossing point from Tibet to Nepal is the Kodari-Zhangmu border crossing, located about 120 km northwest of Kathmandu. The border is open year-round, but the road is often closed during the monsoon season (July to September) due to landslides. From Zhangmu, you can take a bus or jeep to Kathmandu.
The Best Places to visit in Nepal
Kathmandu is the capital and largest city of Nepal. It is a popular destination for travelers due to its rich history and cultural diversity. Nevertheless, most people don’t give it the time it deserves.
Kathmandu is home to a number of historical sites, including the UNESCO World Heritage site of Durbar Square. The city is a dymanic and vibrant place that is changing fast. While modern shopping malls pop up everywhere, you can also still find lots of traditional architecture in the small backstreets as well as ancient temples, shrines and stupas.
Kathmandu also offers plenty of opportunities to experience local culture and traditions. From trying Nepalese food, staying with a Nepalese family in a homestay, watching prayers at the local temples and participating in Nepals festivals and celebrations.
Kathmandu is also a good base for exploring the surrounding region. The city is located in the beautiful Kathmandu valley where you will find even more history and culture.
The Kathmandu valley is at the heart of the ancient Licchavi dynasty that ruled the valley from the 5th till the 8th century as well as the Malla dynasty from the 12th till the 17th century.
These ancient kingdoms have left behind hundreds of medieval temples, shrines and palaces. The indigenous Newar people still have their own culture and follow ancient customs that are very different from the Hindus that came to the Kathmandu valley much later. It was only in the late 18th century that Hindu king Prithvi Narayan Shah conquered the valley and it became part of present day Nepal.
Kathmandu became the new capital of Nepal and changed tremendously. However, the rest of the Kathmandu valley kept its own ancient traditions. Therefore, visiting the Kathmandu valley feels very different from Kathmandu itself. The Newari architecture with its intricate wood carvings and multi roofed pagoda style temples is still present in many of the villages of the valley.
The most famous villages are the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Patan and Bhaktapur, but it is definitely worth venturing out into some of the lesser known villages of the Kathmandu valley.
Bhaktapur is often referred to as the “cultural gem” of the Kathmandu valley and is a highlicht when backpacking Nepal. Bhaktapur’s Durbar Square is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is home to a number of temples, palaces, and other historical buildings.
The city has some of the most beautiful Newari architecture, which is characterized by intricate wood carving, brickwork, and pagoda-style roofs. walking through the streets of Bhaktapur feels like a journey back in time.
You should certainly visit Bhaktapur during one of its local festivals. The Nepali new year called Bisket Jatra and the Gai jatra festival are celebrated with lots of festivities. During the festivals, large wooden chariots are paraded through the streets, accompanied by music, dance, and other performances.
Bandipur is a hill town in Nepal, located in the Tanahun district. It’s one of the few traditional Newari towns outside of the Kathmandu valley. It’s only been a few years that tourism is promoted here and due to its distance from the capital it gets only a handful of visitors. As a result, the town has an authentic feel and offers a good insight into the well-preserved Newari culture.
Bandipur is a charming village with traditional architecture and beautiful views of the surrounding hills. The village is only 1000 meters high, which is not high for Nepal. However, it is one of the highest points in the valley.
Bandipur is on a ridge with beautiful views all around you. The stunning sunsets and sunrises are one of the reasons to spend at least one night in the village. During the day you can explore one of the easygoing hikes or you can visit one of the nearby caves.
It is located between Kathmandu and Pokhara. I can really recommend a visit if you travel in between these cities.
How to get there: From Kathmandu or Pokhara take a local bus to Dumre. Almost all buses that travel between Pokhara and Kathmandu allow you to get out at Dumre as well so there are frequent buses. From Dumre you can take a bus up the hill to Bandipur.
Pokhara is the gateway to the Annapurna mountains where you can find some of the best tea house treks in Nepal. The city itself isn’t particularly beautiful, but it is a great place to relax and unwind after a trek. Because of the relaxed atmosphere, travelers often stay a couple of days in Pokhara.
Pokhara offers everything that a backpacker might want. Cheap places to stay, good food, spas, yoga courses as well as adventure sport centers. Paragliding is hugely popular, but you can also arrange white water rafting trips or kayaking trips.
At the heart of Pokhara is the scenic Phewa Lake that is a popular spot for boating and swimming. Here you have beautiful views over the Annapurna mountains that is the main reason to come to Pokhara in the first place.
The Annapurna mountain range is located in the western region of Nepal. It includes several peaks, the highest of which is Annapurna I, which stands at 8,091 meters tall. Others are well over 7,000 meters, such as Annapurna South, Annapurna II, Annapurna III, and Annapurna IV.
Annapurna is known for its spectacular scenery and excellent hiking trails. The Annapurna Circuit trek is one of the most popular trekking routes when backpacking Nepal. The trek takes you through diverse landscapes, from lush subtropical forests to high-altitude deserts, and offers views of some of the most stunning mountain vistas in the world.
The Annapurna circuit trek takes about 3 to 4 weeks in total and shows you the Annapurnas in all its diversity. For shorter treks that are no less stunning you can choose to do the Ghorepani Poon hill trek or the Annapurna Base Camp trek.
No matter what trek you choose, you get plenty of opportunities to learn more about the different cultures in the mountains. The Annapurna region is home to a diverse array of ethnic groups, including the Gurung and Magar people. You will hike through traditional villages where you can interact with the local communities.
I often get the question whether to go to the Everest region or Annapurna region. A very difficult choice as both are spectacular. I might have a small preference for the Annapurnas due to the cultural aspect and the bigger diversity in landscapes.
The Everest region, also known as the Khumbu region, is located in the northeastern part of Nepal and is home to the highest mountain in the world, Mount Everest (also known as Sagarmatha in Nepali and Chomolungma in Tibetan), which stands at 8,848 meters (29,029 ft) tall.
The region is also home to several other peaks over 8,000 meters, such as Lhotse, Makalu and Cho Oyu. There is no shortage of stunning mountain vistas. Backpackers can hike all the way up to Everest Base Camp. Being at the Base camp of the highest mountain in the world is of course a highlight for many travelers.
However, the Gokyo lakes trek to the deep blue Gokyo lakes is even more beautiful. And for a real challenge you can try the three passes trek. In addition to trekking and climbing, the Everest region also offers opportunities for cultural immersion, with visits to traditional Sherpa villages and monasteries, such as Tengboche Monastery.
The Langtang National Park is located in the Rasuwa district, north of Kathmandu. The trek to the Langtang valley offers stunning views of mountain peaks like the Langtang Lirung, the Ganesh Himal and Shishapangma.
The Langtang trek typically starts in Syabrubesi and takes about 7-8 days to complete. It is therefore a good alternative for those who do not have the time for the longer treks in the Annapurnas or the Everest regions. The trail is well-defined and relatively easy to follow.
The langtang trek takes you through a variety of landscapes and provides an opportunity to experience the local Tamang culture. Some of the highlights of the trek include visiting the traditional Tamang villages, crossing the Langtang River and visiting the Langtang glacier.
It’s important to note that the Langtang region was heavily affected by the 2015 earthquake and some of the trails and tea houses were destroyed. However, the region is now recovering and still offers an amazing trekking experience.
Chitwan National Park is a protected area in the southern part of Nepal. It is home to a diverse array of flora and fauna and a popular spot for wildlife watching when backpacking Nepal.
The park is particularly known for its population of Bengal tigers and rhinoceroses, as well as other wildlife such as leopards, crocodiles, and over 450 species of birds. It is the best place in Asia to see the one-horned rhinos in their natural habitats.
Chitwan Park is open to visitors. You can choose from a variety of activities including jungle safaris and canoeing on the Rapti and Narayani rivers.
Bardiya National Park is located in the Terai region of western Nepal. It is considered as one of the most remote and undisturbed wilderness areas in Nepal.
Bardiya has a large population of Bengal tigers, as well as other wildlife like the Asiatic elephant, greater one-horned rhinoceros, Gaur(Indian Bison), crocodiles and swamp deer. It is also a bird watcher’s paradise and home to over 500 species of birds, including the endangered Bengal florican and Sarus crane.
Bardiya is a remote and rural area with traditional Tharu villages. The indigenous Tharu people are famous for their hospitality and welcoming nature, which makes visiting a Tharu village a truly unique and memorable experience.
Bardiya National Park is less touristy and commercialized compared to Chitwan National Park, which makes it a great place for those looking for a more secluded and authentic wilderness experience.
When to go backpacking Nepal
The best time to go backpacking Nepal depends on what you want to do and see while you are there. The country has a diverse climate, with different regions experiencing different weather patterns throughout the year.
If you are planning to visit the mountain region of Nepal, the best time to go is from September to November and from March to May. These months have the most stable weather and offer clear views of the mountains. The temperatures during these months are also pleasant, with daytime temperatures ranging from 15 to 25 degrees Celsius (60 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit).
If you are planning to visit the lowlands of Nepal, the best time to go is from October to November and from February to April. These months have the most comfortable temperatures and the least amount of rainfall.
Overall, the best time to go backpacking Nepal is during the dry season, which runs from October to May. The monsoon season, from June to September, can be very wet and make it difficult to travel and enjoy outdoor activities.
Backpackers accomodation in Nepal
Accomodation in Nepal is relatively cheap. In Kathmandu, Pokhara and Chitwan you can find anything. From cheap hostels, basic guesthouses, homestays to more luxurious hotels.
For cheap and clean hostels I can recommend Zostel Hostel with hostels in Kathmandu and Pokhara. Oyo rooms are a great option to look for accommodation if you prefer good quality private rooms. They have different price classes and are not necessarily the cheapest, but they sometimes have great deals available.
On the Most popular hiking trails such as the Annapurna Circuit trek and the Everest Base Camp trek, lodges and facilities are also increasingly more comfortable. Hot water, western toilets and blankets are not difficult to find anymore. However, if you travel off the beaten path things get more basic.
What and where to eat in Nepal
What to eat
Nepalese cuisine is based around rice and lentils with plenty of vegetarian curries, spicy chutneys and fried snacks in addition.
Nepal’s national dish is Dahl bath. Although the rice and lentil soup is almost the same everywhere, there is a huge variety in accompaniments that come with it. This makes every dahl bath unique. Each family has its own secrets and every region its own local twist to this national meal that most Nepali people eat twice a day.
Nepal is an incredibly diverse country. The different ethnic groups have their own specialities. The Newars in the Kathmandu valley are famous for their spicy meat dishes, rice pancakes and bean soup.
Nepalese cuisine is also influenced by its neighbors. Tibetan Momo’s and chowmein are very popular. India introduced lots of fried streetfood snacks like samosas and pakoras.
Where to eat
In Kathmandu and Pokhara you can eat almost anything. Every world cuisine is represented in Thamel. There you can find German bakeries, Italian pizzerias, Falafel bars, Chinese restaurants, hamburgers and anything else. Even on the popular treks in Nepal it is incredible what the locals can make in their small kitchens.
All these international food options do come with a price tag. If you are on a very tight budget the cheapest places to eat are street food stalls and local restaurants that serve mostly Nepalese food. Dahl bath, momos and chow mein are cheap and filling options.
Some of these places can look very basic, but they sometimes have surprisingly good food. Follow the crowds and if a place is busy it is for a good reason. It also means it is a safe place to eat.
Language and culture in Nepal
Nepal is a very multicultural country with over a 100 different ethnic groups and languages. The main language is Nepali written in the Devanagari script.
The Southern Terai is home to the indigenous Tharu people who live together with the Madhesis. The Madhesi ethnic groups are of Indian descent and primarily speak Maithili and Bhojpuri.
The ethnic groups living in the hills and mountains are incredibly diverse with very distinct cultures and customs. Many of them are of Tibetan descent and practice Buddhism while others are Hindu.
One of the most famous are the Sherpa people in the Everest region that most tourists know as guide and porters on their trek in Nepal. They are related to Tibetan and speak a TIbetan language. Their most colorful festival is the Mani Rimdu festival in the Tengboche monastery.
Another famous group are the Newars. The Newar people are an ethnic group native to the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal. They have a rich tradition of art, architecture, music, and dance. Throughout the Kathmandu valley you can see their intricate woodcarvings, metalwork, and pottery. The Newars are also famous for their festivals, especially the festival of Bisket Jatra, which is celebrated in April.
In Nepal, Buddhism and Hinduism have been intertwined for centuries, and many Nepali people practice elements of both religions. Many Nepali Hindus believe in reincarnation and karma, and they often worship at Buddhist temples and shrines. Similarly, many Nepali Buddhists also worship Hindu deities and practice Hindu rituals.
Buddhism in Nepal is of the Mahayana sect which is a branch of Buddhism that emphasizes the path to enlightenment through devotion to the bodhisattva. Many Buddhist temples in Nepal are dedicated to the worship of bodhisattva
How to travel in Nepal
The bus is the best way to travel in Nepal. Good roads connect Kathmandu with Pokhara and most cities in the southern Terai.
Bus rides in Nepal can be long and bumpy, and the roads can be winding. Always bring enough water and snacks with you, because there is always a chance that the bus breaks down or the road is blocked by an accident or landslide.
Roads are being built into the rural areas and mountains as we speak, impacting some of the popular treks like the Annapurna Circuit trek and the Everest trek. Most of these rural mountain roads are dirt tracks with steep inclines and hairpin turns. Shared Jeeps are a bit more expensive, but a better option in the mountains than a large bus. Even then it will be a scary experience.
To avoid the mountain roads it is also possible to fly. Yeti airlines and Buddha air have a good reputation. From Kathmandu you can fly to Pokhara and Lukla (for the Everest trek) as well as other destinations in Nepal. From Pokhara you can fly to Jomsom or Manang (for the Annapurna Circuit trek)
Useful apps for backpacking Nepal
Besides useful apps like Google translate, Google maps or maps.me there are a few Nepal specific apps that are useful to have when backpacking Nepal
Pathao: Pathao is the oldest and biggest taxi hailing app in Kathmandu. Tootle is also used widely
Foodmandu: The first food delivery app in Kathmandu that delivers food from over 100 restaurants to your doorstep.
Backpacking Nepal money matters
The official currency of Nepal is the Nepalese Rupee (NPR). You can exchange major foreign currencies at banks and money exchange counters in major towns like Kathmandu and Pokhara where you can also find ATM’s that accept foreign bank cards.
Some places, especially in rural areas, may not accept foreign currencies or bank cards, so it’s best to carry a combination of cash and a credit or debit card. If you go trekking, always bring enough cash in Nepalese rupees with you.
Backpacking Nepal is cheap. If you stay in cheap guesthouses and eat local food on the streets you can easily get by on less than $20 dollar a day. For 30$ a day you can travel comfortably throughout Nepal, staying in somewhat better places.
Accomodation: Less than 8 euro for a dormitory room and less than 15-20 euro for a basic private room
Food: Street Food is available for 1 – 2 Euro. A complete meal in a budget restaurant will be less than 5 Euro and around 10 euro in a mid range restaurant.
Transport: A bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara costs around 10 Euro. For a 12 hour journey into the mountains expect to pay around 15 to 20 euro. Mountain flights can be expensive. A one way flight from Lukla to Kathmandu costs around 200 euro.
Backpacking Nepal safety
It is generally safe to visit Nepal, but as with any destination, it is important to be aware of local conditions to ensure a safe and enjoyable trip.
Nepal is a developing country, and the infrastructure and level of development can vary widely. Some areas of Nepal may have higher levels of crime and insecurity such as some of the border areas with India. It is a good idea to take common-sense precautions such as avoiding traveling alone at night and keeping valuables secure.
Nepal is also prone to natural disasters such as earthquakes and landslides. There were two big earthquakes in 2015 that caused a lot of damage in Kathmandu. Keep yourself informed about weather conditions especially during the monsoon when there is a higher risk of landslides and floods
Health issues in Nepal
The biggest risks in Nepal are related to your health. Some areas may have limited access to medical facilities and other basic amenities. It is important to bring a good first aid kit and have adequate travel insurance coverage in case of unexpected medical emergencies.
Sanitary conditions in Nepal are basic. Diarrhoea is the most common health issue among travellers in Nepal. Bring a water filter with you and a hand sanitizer to minimize the risk.
Be careful with street food and dodgy restaurants. If it comes to street food I always look where the local people go. If a place is busy with locals, it is probably safe to try. The times I got an upset stomach was mostly due to mid range tourist oriented restaurants where you can’t see what is happening in the kitchen. Ask if they use filtered water to clean vegetables and watch out with salads.
If you happen to have diarrhoea, it is important to keep yourself hydrated. Oral rehydration Salts are widely available at the pharmacies in Nepal (known as jeevan jal). If the symptoms are severe and don’t dissapear within a few days, I recommend to do a stool test to see if you have a bacteria, virus or amoebe (giardia).
In the mountains be aware of altitude sickness. Don’t underestimate this real risk and don’t go too high too fast. The key to prevent altitude sickness is to take it slow, give your body enough time to adjust to the height and to drink enough water. Experts advise to not ascend more than 300 – 400 meters per day once you are above 3000 meters high.
Solo female travel in Nepal
Nepal is a safe country for solo female travel, but women may encounter some social and cultural differences in Nepal. Nepal is a conservative country, and it is a good idea to dress modestly and respect local customs and traditions.
Make sure your shoulders and legs are covered. Best is to buy a kurta suruwal. They are very comfortable, lightweight and easy to wash.
Be aware of crowds, especially during festivals like Holi. Safe ways to enjoy festivals in Nepal is to find a safe spot from where to witness the festivities or stay close to other women and families if they are around.
Books about travel in Nepal
Lonely Planet: The Lonely Planet is a useful guidebook when you travel to Nepal. They also have a special edition for trekking in Nepal. However, if you are already sure which trek you plan to do I can recommend Cicerone and Trailblazer that have guides about the Everest Base Camp trek and the Annapurna circuit Trek.
Manjushree Thapa: Manjushree Thapa is one of my favorite writers from Nepal. To learn more about the recent history of Kathmandu I can recommend her book Forget Kathmandu. She has also written fiction. Tilled Earth is a collection of beautiful short stories and I also really enjoyed her book All of us in our own lives
Samrat Upadhyay: No other writer can catch the essence of Kathmandu as good as Samrat Upadhyay. My favorite remains his first book “Arresting Gods in Kathmandu”.
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