When you think of Nepal, images of colourful Buddhist prayer flags probably come to mind, along with towering stupas, snow-dappled Himalayan peaks and yak trains carrying gear to remote trekking camps. But there is more to the country than the best high-altitude hiking and the most stunning mountain scenery in the world. At lower altitudes, wildlife-watching in the jungle, whitewater rafting, canyoning and mountain biking await the intrepid. Here’s how to have a magnificent trip.
What’s the vibe like in Nepal for solo travellers?
Nepal is a fantastic destination if you’re going it alone, whether you’re looking to make a spiritual pilgrimage to the Boudhanath stupa or ready to tackle the world-renowned treks to the base of Everest or Annapurna. You can also spend time in the buzzy capital, Kathmandu, shooting the breeze with other globetrotters in rooftop bars in between exploring medieval temples. Travel in Nepal is wallet-friendly, so you won’t find yourself out of pocket even if you don’t have a buddy there to split the bill. The Nepalese are also good-humoured and welcoming towards travellers, including solo women.
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A Nepal trip overview
If you’re looking to do some serious trekking in Nepal, you’ll need at least two weeks – and ideally more, to allow for inevitable obstacles and delays. Take a couple of days to explore Kathmandu and two more to take in the temples of Bhaktapur and the ancient courtyards of Patan in the Kathmandu Valley. Make an overnight visit to Asia’s largest stupa in the village of Boudha and spend two or three days of spotting Bengal tigers, elephants and rhinos in the lowland Chitwan National Park.
Elsewhere, kick back for a few days in Pokhara, Nepal’s second city, where you can enjoy lakeside views of Annapurna. From here you can organise whitewater rafting on the Seti River and trekking in the Nepalese countryside. Spring and autumn are the best seasons for trekking and for visiting Nepal in general – you avoid the sweltering heat and torrential rain of the June to August monsoon, and the bitterly cold winter months.
Where to stay in Nepal as a solo traveller
In Kathmandu and Pokhara, accommodation ranges from five-star hotels and dedicated backpacker hostels to dirt-cheap bases. In other towns, you’re likely to encounter hotels with spacious, deluxe rooms on higher floors – which typically have satellite TV, decent mattresses and round-the-clock hot water – and darker, cheaper rooms on the lower floors, where solar-powered showers make cloudy mornings bracing.
More specialised accommodation includes homestays – a terrific way of immersing yourself in local culture, with shared bathroom facilities and simple rooms. Along popular trekking routes, you’re most likely to stay in teahouses – lodgings ranging from very basic to more luxurious (think electric blankets on beds, hot water in private bathrooms and a flushing toilet). All meals are included in the price, and in the evening guests gather in the lounge/dining area, typically heated by a yak-dung fire.
What to see and do in Nepal
There is so much to do in Nepal that you could easily spend a year in the country and not see everything. But even if you have less time, you can still take in the major highlights.
One of Nepal’s most atmospheric urban centres, the centuries-old heart of Kathmandu is utterly beguiling. It’s well worth taking a guided rickshaw tour of Thamel to discover Old Kathmandu’s hidden alleyways and then revisiting on foot over two or three days. Wander the maze-like alleyways and visit the remains of the splendid Maju Deval, Kakeshwar and Krishna Narayan temples on the central Durbar Square. Try to spot the town’s living goddess (devi) at the Kumari Bahal, on the junction of Durbar and Basantapur squares.
Everest Base Camp Trek
Here’s one for the bucket list if you’re a serious hiker: a 12-day trek up 5,364m (17,598ft) to Everest Base Camp, from which hundreds of climbers make their summit attempts. Spend eight days trekking alongside yak trains and past colourful stupas, crossing the precipitous suspension bridge high above the Dhudh Kosi river. Stop for sustenance at teahouses and acclimatise along the way in the amphitheatre-like market town of Namche Bazaar, overlooked by snow-capped peaks; then make it back to Lukla in half the time. As you go, you’ll be accompanied by epic views of mountains such as Ama Dablam and Pumori – names familiar to all armchair mountaineers.
Annapurna Circuit Trek
Nepal’s most popular trek may well be the best three weeks of your life. Hiked counterclockwise from the picturesque village of Dharapani, the trail meanders along the Marsyandi Valley, passing a number of Tibetan-influenced mountain villages before crossing a high pass and descending to the more desert-like scenery of the upper Kali Gandaki Valley. Besides incomparable mountain scenery, with views of the mighty Annapurna along the way, there are some excellent day trips to take from the main route – to both mountain lakes and monasteries. You needn’t rough it, either: this trail is lined with teahouses, as well as Nepal’s best trekking lodges.
Eating and drinking in Nepal
In Kathmandu and Pokhara, the dining scene is extremely diverse, so take advantage of the wallet-friendly restaurants serving Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Middle Eastern dishes, as well as Nepalese staples. Nepal’s ubiquitous dish is daal bhaat tarkari (rice with mild vegetable curry and lentil soup on the side). Tibetan cuisine is very popular, too; you’ll encounter many variations on momos (stuffed dumplings) and thuk noodle stews.
Typical street food in cities includes samsa (samosas stuffed with potato curry), while in Kathmandu Valley there’s plenty of buff (water buffalo) and goat on the menu. Some trekking lodges serve yak steaks and burgers, while the more nose-to-tail aspects of Nepalese dining include such specialities as swan-puka (boiled, sliced and fried lung, filled with spicy batter), cho-hi (steamed blood pudding) and ti-syah (fried spinal bone marrow).
Don’t miss juju dhau (thick creamy yoghurt) in Bhaktapur, or sweet, sticky desserts all over the country that incorporate milk curd, nuts and jaggery (palm sugar). Whatever you do, never drink the water, but do drink chiya (masala tea) and try the black tea with salt and butter in Tibetan-influenced parts of the country. Beer buffs should look out for the very palatable Sherpa, Everest, Gorkha and Kathmandu brews.
Getting around in Nepal as a solo traveller
Reckon on a logistical challenge, given the rugged terrain, highly weather-dependent flights in small aircraft and earthquake- and landslide-damaged roads. Factor extra travel time into your travels. Given the mountainous landscape and the amount of time you save by flying, nabbing an inexpensive and stupendously scenic flight from Kathmandu is often the way to go. Do be aware, however, that neither Nepal Airlines nor smaller private airlines have a perfect safety record – crashes are not unheard of.
If you prefer to remain landbound, public buses are incredibly cheap, and riding on the roof with luggage is an option. Tourist buses to popular destinations run by travel agencies are pricier but less crowded. Renting a car or motorcycle for long-distance travel is an option (make sure you have comprehensive insurance), while short-distance hops within cities and towns via cycle rickshaw, e-rickshaw, tempo (outsized autorickshaw) and taxi require good haggling skills.
How to stay safe in Nepal as a solo traveller
Petty theft from hotel rooms and pickpocketing aside, Nepal has relatively low crime rates. Bigger concerns tend to be natural disasters; earthquakes and landslides are common. If trekking alone, register with your country’s embassy in Kathmandu before departure, familiarise yourself with altitude sickness symptoms and make sure you acclimatise properly before attempting high-altitude treks.
Cultural conventions in Nepal
Nepal is a predominantly Buddhist country and its people are overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming. Just be sure to dress modestly at all times (short shorts and sleeveless tops are unsuitable for men or women) and follow the locals’ lead of making a donation if visiting a temple. Removing your shoes in temples is a must, and if you sit down, make sure that the soles of your feet never point towards a Buddha image or another person.
Never step over someone’s legs and never touch anyone on the head. Never point at anything with an index finger – use your whole hand. Equally, if beckoning someone over, use your entire palm, and keep it facing downwards. If you hire porters or mountain guides, you are responsible for their health and wellbeing – make sure they’re covered by medical insurance and provide them with weather-appropriate gear if they don’t have it.
Fancy exploring Nepal with a small group of like-minded travellers? Sign up for our 11-day adventure Himalayan Escapades and Wildlife Encounters in Nepal. You’ll enjoy experiences including a guided rickshaw tour of Kathmandu, whitewater rafting along the Seti River and a safari in Chitwan National Park, home to Bengal tigers.
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