Nepal Travel Advice and Safety
When travelling in any country you need to take some precautions. When travelling in developing countries there are more precautions to take. Then again when travelling in a country that offers adventure tourism in the sense of trekking, mountain climbing and wildlife spotting, there are yet more precautions to take!
During and (hopefully) after COVID-19 there are new precautions to take. It can all be a bit overwhelming!
Let’s deal with the ‘regular’ or ‘old normal’ precautions here and talk about COVID-19 in a later blog as currently (second week of September 2020) Nepal has not peaked in terms of cases nor is it open for tourists.
You might be asking is it safe to travel in Nepal? Let me say, yes, Nepal is a very safe country in general. But if it was 100% safe I wouldn’t be writing this blog, right?
There are a lot of things that you take for granted in your own country, and the best travel companies in Nepal should be able to give you guidance on how this differs in Nepal. For example, you probably drink from your kitchen tap at home. Nope, don’t do that in Nepal! You might eat street food in your own country. While I won’t say don’t do that in Nepal, I will say be selective and careful! Let’s make a bit of a list here to help you.
Food, Food Hygiene and Water
If you are trekking then the quality and hygiene of the food and availability of water will vary. For example, if you are trekking the Annapurna Circuit Trek, on the Mustang side there are some very comfortable lodges with great food. But in general, the menus are the same (regulated by tourism entrepreneurs themselves to avoid unnecessary competition). Standard ‘comfort’ food for trekkers includes porridge, pancakes, soups, noodles, and curry. Pretty much every trekking teahouse throughout the country makes these, including Homestay Treks in Nepal (although they might have more emphasis on curry and noodles).
In the very popular and busy areas, such as the Annapurnas and on the Everest Base Camp Trek, kitchen hygiene is generally pretty good. In more remote areas such as the Mardi Himal Trek and in tiny teahouses which are set up in remote areas specifically for trekkers, hygiene may not be so important to the locals. Probably there is no network of entrepreneurs checking standards.
If you are on a camping trek, such as to the Limi Valley, talk about food with your trekking agent before leaving. Their kitchen hygiene should be fine. They definitely want good reviews and repeat customers! And sick clients are hardly ideal!
How to take care?
It is probably best to order more ‘local’ food that the kitchen staff (most likely the teahouse owner him/ herself!) knows how to make well. Avoid those fancy things like pizza which are not eaten locally. Avoid meat! Particularly at high altitudes, there will be no proper storage for meat. If you are in a place where you know the chicken has been freshly butchered then go ahead. But to really be on the safe side, avoid any meat, poultry and fish.
It’s an unfortunate fact of life that if this is your first time to Asia or if you have a sensitive stomach you will at some point come down with a stomach upset! They may have been nothing ‘wrong’ with the food or the hygiene standard. It’s just your system is not used to so much chilli or spices or has just become overheated through walking or through the hot weather. Add the appropriate medicine to your first aid kit before leaving home.
There are a lot of really good restaurants in the tourist areas of Kathmandu and Pokhara. There are also a lot of not so good ones. My advice would be to ask around about the good restaurants – look at reviews etc. And AVOID those late-night joints selling burgers, sandwiches etc in Thamel. Tempting as these may be at 1 am after a few drinks!
Can I drink the water?
No. Please do not drink the water anywhere in Nepal. Even if you see the locals or your guide drinking it. Bottled water is available almost everywhere. In some trekking areas, such as the Annapurnas, they no longer sell bottled water because of the detrimental effect of plastic wastage. They will provide you with boiled water, at a cost. Or bring your own sterilization drops or tablets or LifeStraw bottle. This goes for restaurants in the cities too. Most of the better restaurants will serve glasses of water from a large water jar, which is considered safe drinking water. But avoid this in smaller restaurants as you just cannot be too careful.
Animals in Nepal
By ‘animals’ I don’t just mean those you will see on a jungle safari in Chitwan National Park or in the mountains in high altitude national parks such as Makalu Barun National Park.
Even on your cultural tours or sightseeing walk to Swayambhunath or Pashupatinath, you will encounter monkeys! Not for nothing is Swayambhunath known as the Monkey Temple! These cheeky primates are used to humans and will not hesitate to grab anything edible out of your hand! Keep any snacks well hidden in your bag! You may see locals feeding the monkeys. Do not be tempted to do the same. Although they are entertaining and appear friendly, they are wild animals and can bite and scratch!
The other animal you will see everywhere and the one locals are more scared of are the street dogs. Along with the monkeys, you should keep your distance as there are periodic rabies outbreaks. But truthfully these dogs are not as big a threat as the locals will tell you. They recognise who is a foe (a local who will kick them or throw stones at them!) and who is a friend. In general, tourists fall into the friend category. On the other hand, many shops, restaurants and local communities have their own street dogs who are thrown scrapes and considered part of the furniture.
Theft and Other Man-made Dangers
First, let me say that theft does happen. Never leave your bag in the bus during stops; never leave your hotel room unlocked; do not flash too much money around in public. These are the same things you know not to do in your hometown. BUT in general, Nepal has a very low rate of theft (although, again the locals might tell you differently). There have been many times I have left a bag unattended around the country without mishap. Not that I would leave my handbag or wallet unattended just anywhere! Do not be overly worried but do take the regular amount of care.
Can I walk around safely at night?
In the tourist areas, such as Thamel and Lakeside, there will always be people around coming out of bars and clubs late at night. Mostly a bit tipsy. But I would say, you are less likely to have trouble with those party animals than in your home town! Naturally, there is always one bad apple, but in general, you should not feel unsafe.
In many towns and villages, street lights do not exist or provide less light. Unlike in my home town, here I wouldn't walk down a dark street, because it is the norm here, no one is waiting to jump out at you! And anyway, outwith the tourist's areas, after 10 pm most people have gone to bed.
How about on the trek or in villages?
I would suggest you don’t walk around at night when trekking. It would be easy to get turned around and lose the path. Same within jungle areas such as Bardia National Park where wild animals might be roaming around. If you must go somewhere at night tell your guide or hotel owner. Or take someone with you.
Is it safe for women to travel alone?
Nepal is pretty safe for women. In general, men are very respectful. Of course, those men working in the tourism industry have met a lot of female tourists and have had a lot of romantic encounters! But a firm ‘no’ is generally enough. Naturally, like everywhere, no place can be 100% safe and the normal precautions should be taken.
Is it safe to get an Uber?
Uber hasn’t reached Nepal yet but there are similar services. Cars and motorbikes can be booked through apps. Please ask your travel agent or hotel for details and download. For me, I dislike motorbikes so I do not ride with people I do not know. Regulation of such services is a bit loose so do so at your own risk. Taxis are generally safe. You will, of course, be ripped off price-wise! They do have meters, and yes the meters do work! But as a tourist, it’s going to be hard to get the driver to switch it on. Negotiate a price before the journey. If you are starting from your hotel they can organise this for you. Hint: when arriving at the airport, get the pre-paid taxi from the exit. Yes, it’s a bit more expensive than the real price but it will save you a lot of trouble. And you won’t get the ‘real’ price anyway! If you are die-hard budget backpacker…. walk down to the main road and bargain hard with the taxis there.
I heard marijuana is legal in Nepal. Is that true?
It was until the 1970’s! Since then marijuana has been and still is illegal in Nepal. It might be easily available but that doesn’t mean you should buy it. Other drugs are also illegal. Stick to beer!
Nepal sits in an earthquake zone. Not a lot of tourists actually knew that prior to 2015. Maybe few of you know that now! But yes, there is always some risk of earthquakes. More likely is the risk of landslides when trekking, or of floods or disruptions on the roads due to either flooding or landslides.
Should there be a large earthquake, stay put until the shaken has subsided. That might be a few hours later. Do not attempt to return to your hotel until that time. Then just take what is necessary and stay outside again. Follow what the locals are doing. Once it is safe, report to your embassy. Public transport will not be available, so you might have to walk. If you are outside of Kathmandu, stay put or follow what your guide/ hotel/ local friends say.
In case of landslides on the trek – do exactly what your guide tells you. Do not hang around in a landslide-prone area longer than necessary.
There are cases every year of people, including tourists, being swept away by floods and landslides. Do take care, particularly in the monsoon season.
Altitude sickness is a real thing. Symptoms can range between a headache and tiredness to High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). This results in fluid in the lungs, shortness of breath and can result in death.
There is no way to know who will suffer from altitude sickness. It doesn’t go on age or fitness level.
Things to remember: learn to recognise the early signs. You may be the only person in your group to have them. But it is nothing to be ashamed of. Tell your guide immediately. Rest. Do not ascend! If after resting the symptoms are still there or have gotten worse, descend.
Although the altitude-related illness can be fatal, if it is recognised early, there will be no lasting damage and you may be able to continue your trek after a good night’s sleep at a lower altitude. NEVER leave it too late. ALWAYS tell your guide straight away should you feel unwell.
By now you will have realised the importance of insurance. If you are trekking ensure your insurance covers high altitude trekking and helicopter rescue. If you are climbing or even if you are going to a trekking peak such as Island Peak ensure your insurance covers that too.
And, as mentioned at the start, I will be covering safety and precautions regarding COVID-19 in a later blog.
In brief, Nepal is a pretty safe country in all aspects. But, as they say, shit happens! Be as prepared as you can be, chose the best season to visit Nepal because that will also make a difference in terms of safety for travel and trekking, and be careful when choosing your Nepal tour agency. They should be able to handle emergencies and have great reviews from previous clients.