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Do's and Don'ts for an unforgettable trip to Nepal
Nepal is a fabulous country where many different ethnic groups coexist in peace. Each of these have their own traditions and religious beliefs and they all tolerate each other and live together in harmony. Everyone is also very tolerant with foreigners and locals will tell you if something you`re doing is against their customs and try to show you the right way.
At the same time Nepali culture is still very conservative and traditional and foreigners should be aware of the main taboos in the country and respect them. After all, we are just passing visitors in this ancient country.
The huge statue of Mahakala unveiled in Kathmandu Durbar Square for Indra Jatra
Before starting with the do’s and don’ts, it is better to get a general idea of the extremely important role of religion in Nepal. 82% of the population are Hindu and only 10% are Buddhists, though Lumbini in Nepal was the birth place of Siddhartha Gautama who, as the Buddha Gautama, gave birth to the Buddhist tradition. On the other hand Hindu worship Buddha as well, together with their other many deities.
CASTE SYSTEM – Though Nepal “abolished” the caste system in 1963, hereditary occupational specialization through caste is less common and love marriage is more popular, caste and status still determine whom most Nepalis may (or must) marry, where they can live and who they can associate with.
Please be aware that asking for a person’s caste might be considered rude. Generally speaking, the fourfold caste divisions are Brahman (priests and scholars), Kshatriya or Chhetri (rulers and warriors), Vaisya (or Vaisaya, merchants and traders), and Sudra (farmers, artisans, and laborers). Foreigners are technically casteless, but in some remote areas, orthodox, high-caste Hindus may consider them as impure. Therefore, ask for permission before doing something if you`re not sure how your actions will be taken.
STATUS – On the basis of your name, home town and profession, status (ijat) will determine the level of respect given to you in Nepal. Foreigners have usually a lot of status and are viewed as wealthy.
TEMPLES – Non-Hindus are generally not allowed into major Hindu temples as they can pollute the sacred places. If you can enter, take your shoes off, do not touch shrines or offerings and ask for permission to take pictures.
In Buddhist temples and monasteries be equally respectful and remember to walk around stupas and monuments clockwise. Do not point your index finger to any Buddha representation as it`s considered menacing – use your hand in the palm up position.
WHAT ABOUT STAYING OVERNIGHT IN A BUDDHIST MONASTERY? See our tips under Where To Stay HERE
DID YOU KNOW? – Have you even seen a Swastika and a David Star next to each other? Well, this can happen in Nepal. However, these symbols are ancient religious icons in Asia which are nothing to do with their Western associated meaning. In Hinduism Swastika is a symbol of good luck while the David Star (called Shatkonaby Hindus) symbolizes the union of female and male.
Hindu symbols in Nepal
NAMASTE - GREETINGS & THANK YOU
Let’s start with the most used word and greeting in Nepal: Namaste (“I salute the god within you”) while holding the palms together as if praying. A more formal greeting is namaskar, but Namaste will do in most cases.
There is no translation for “thank you” in Nepali – people will smile at you instead and almost feel embarrassed if you thank them. We have been taught the word “dhanyabaad” as thank you but we found out it is normally reserved for an act beyond the call of duty, so a simple “thank you” in English should do the trick.
LEARN MORE ABOUT VISA, ELECTRICITY AND PHONE / INTERNET IN NEPAL? Click HERE!
Namaste is the most common greeting in Nepal
WOBBLING HEAD - YES & NO
Nepali people have a slight different way of wobbling their heads than Indians. They shake their head from left to right which, in most cases, means “yes”. However, try to read the situation as they do not have a way to say no with their head so they might still be wobbling even when they are not too content or satisfied.
You can generally say “no” by holding your palm up in front of you and swivel your wrist gently.
Exemplar Namaste hand gesture by our children at school in Kathmandu
HANDS & FEET
Nepalese people use their hands a lot when communicating and dancing. A simple example is the held palms as sign of greeting.
It`s really important you use your right hand in many contexts such when eating with your hands or give and receive money, food or gifts. The left hand is reserved for washing after defecating (you`ll find out why in the Toilet section below). You`ll also see locals hold their right hand while the left touches the wrist when giving you money or objects.
Most importantly, never touch anything with your feet, don`t put them on chairs or tables and do not sit by pointing your feet at anyone, as all these are considered an offense in Nepal as feet are the most unclean part of your body. Always pick up objects from the ground with your hands.
One of the rare times you will see Nepali people in "deshabille" - Public bath in Kathmandu
Although Kathmandu is becoming more progressive and attitudes are shifting, most Nepalese people dress modestly and cover their bodies as you run the risk of being seen as sexually available.
Female travelers are recommended not to wear sleeveless tops, shorts, or short skirts, especially in villages where a sari or long trousers are acceptable.
Men should always wear a shirt or a t-shirt in public, and long trousers if possible (shorts are fine on well-used trekking trails but they should be at knee length).
DID YOU KNOW? - Although Nepalese schools do insist on uniforms for their students, the dress code and color of the uniform varies from school to school. In general, though, it consists of shirts with matching trousers/skirts, ties and belts.
Nepali girls at school in typical attire dancing to celebrate Teej Festival - Kathmandu
OPPOSITE SEX RELATIONSHIPS
Nepal is still a very traditional and conservative society and displays of affection between male and female such as holding hands, touching or kissing in public, are not viewed positively so try to avoid these.
Handshaking has increased, but not all local women will feel comfortable to shake a man’s hand and local men would not shake a woman’s hand in general. Namaste is the norm here.
You might notice Nepali male friends will often hold hands in public - this is normal between friends and does not indicate anything beyond platonic friendship.
Two Nepali men holding hand at Boudhanath, Kathmandu
Bargaining for any product or service you want to buy is another norm in Nepal. Never accept the first price offered by the seller - the real price can be up to half or less than what they first proposed, so keep bargaining.
Don`t bargain a fixed price like an entrance fee to a temple or product prices at supermarkets.
TIP – If you have a vague idea of the price of a product or service, just walk confidently to the seller with the exact amount of money you`re willing to pay in your hand – they will bargain a little but finally accept the deal (if it`s a fair price ;-) ).
Martina, another volunteer with VIN, trying to bargain with a street vendor - Kathmandu
There are lots of festivities in Nepal, especially Hindu celebrations as almost 82% of the population recognize themselves as Hindus. If you can plan your holiday during these festivities, you`ll be lucky to take part in colorful parades, dances and singing and learn more about Nepali joyous people and traditions.
Check out the main public holidays in Nepal here
Nepal also follows a different calendar, the Bikram Sambat Calendar. They are approximately 56 years and 8 months ahead of the English calendar. This means that the Nepali New Year happens around the middle of April and they are already living in 2075!
Nepali people work six days a week and Saturday is their rest day although most shops and public places are open for business. So Sunday is basically the first day of their week.
In preparation for Indra Jatra Festival (September) at a Hindu Temple - Kathmandu
SPITTING, LITTERING & HONKING
It is really common to see people in streets or in their house spitting on the ground or in a bucket or in the toilet. Unfortunately, this is one of the Nepalese habits you have to get used to. Before spitting they are particularly loud (similar to a coffee machine) so you can predict when they spit and avoid it in the street =)
Littering is also extremely common, especially in Kathmandu city where we haven`t seen a decent garbage bin. Though we witnessed rubbish collection exist (at least outside busy Thamel), people will still litter the streets as they do not know any better sometimes.
And finally, don`t get scared for all honking happening around you – too often it`s just an involuntary reflex of drivers too used to honk. Find your inner peace and keep walking!
Piles of garbage along the street in Kathmandu
CROSSING THE ROAD
Crossing the road in Nepal is always an adventure, especially in a big and congested city like Kathmandu. You will find there’s a secret pact between pedestrians and drivers – they will stop just few centimeters from you or avoid you when you finally gather courage and you cross.
They will also honk a lot when coming from behind you, so you just have to make space for them.
Take particular care when walking around a corner to avoid crushing into motorbikes. Just remember that pedestrians don’t have a priority when crossing so don’t expect anyone to stop for you.
TIP - Just keep in mind peak times for traffic are 8 to 10am and 5 to 7pm when people start or finish their work day.
Traffic pick time after rain - Kathmandu
Nepali food is really tasty but it usually consists of few main staples – Bhat (rice), Dhal (lentil soup) and Tarkari (vegetables or meat with spices). These ingredients are used for breakfast, lunch and dinner and fruits or desserts are not contemplated in Nepali diet unless they celebrate a special occasion.
CHECK OUT OUR HEALTH TIPS HERE (UNDER FOOD & WATER)
Nepali people love their tea and they can have it as many as 3 times a day, so don`t be surprise to be offered tea at different times of the day.
Lovely mint tea in Kathmandu, Nepal
Do not offer food that has already touched your lips to Nepalese people as it is considered “jutho” (contaminated) and they will get offended easily.
TIP – What if you are invited for a meal in a private home? First, take your shoes off before entering the home. You can bring fruit or sweets as gifts if you like. As guest you will be served first and your host won`t touch their meal until you`re finished.
You will for sure be offered a second portion – accept it as it means you enjoyed the food and you won`t hurt the feeling of your host.You can refuse the third portion by using the word “Pugyo” meaning “it`s enough” in a polite way.
DID YOU KNOW? – During birthday parties children will generally give everyone a sweet (usually a toffee) and celebrations will start with cake first, then everything else. Mum and dad will take a piece of cake with their finger and spread it on their child’s forehead – this will happen before anyone has eaten the cake =)
Fruit vendor in Kathmandu, Nepal - You can bring fruit as a gift when invited for dinner in a Nepali home
CHILDREN & BEGGARS
Children in Nepal are the cutest and sometimes they just want to practice their English with you. In other cases, especially closer to Kathmandu city center or up in the hills, children will insist asking for money or chocolate. These are usually children who just got out from school – please do not give them anything as this will only encourage this behavior.
You will distinguish school children from those who are instead beggars from when they`ve been born. Beggars, children or adults, are obviously another story, however, as with schoolchildren we are always uncertain if we`re doing more harm than good by donating some money to them – in general locals recommended us not to give any money to beggars as Nepal would like to discourage other people to become beggars.
Adorable child at a temple in Kavresthali - Nepal
TOILETS & BATHROOM FACILITIES
Toilets are an interesting topic in Nepal – do not expect Western-style toilets everywhere you go. Only touristic places like restaurants and some hotels will provide that kind of toilet and toilet paper.
In many homestays and cheap hotels you will find only a pit toilet with no flush – you will have to use a bucket of water to wash your droppings down. Toilet paper is not used, even in more fancy hotels sometimes - you will usually find a small shower you can use to clean yourself (not sure how you get dry afterwards =) ). So bring a paper roll or napkins with you in the toilet – then don`t flush it down but dispose it in the dustbin. If no dustbin is provided, take it to the nearest one in the building.
Hot shower can be a luxury and only some households or hotels will have hot water available – as the shower is usually a tap on top of the wall and is not separated by the rest of the bathroom by any windows or walls, get ready to get your flipflops wet and hang your toiletries where you can find space.
WOMEN ONLY - Sanitary pads are easily available in the community. You can buy them in medical stores or in any local shops. You can also find menstrual cups or tampons in the city area.
Pit toilet at our homestay in Kathmandu, Nepal
Tipping at restaurants in Nepal is not expected but customary. If you wish to tip, add 5 to 10% to your bill (check if your bill already includes a service charge first, highly likely).
For taxi drivers, simply round up the fare. Tipping your guide and porter during hikes is again not mandatory, but it is extremely welcomed as tips make a big part of their wage.