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Johnny's Guide to Nepal - Where, What, How and Why Travel Here.

Nepal was one of those countries I never thought I'd visit, and knew even less about before coming. But after a month and a half of being here, I'm going to share with you everything I learned, what I wish I knew before coming and some of my favorite things to do here in in the busy cultural city of Kathmandu, Lakeside in Pokhara, on Safari in the national park of Chitwan as well as both the longer Annapurna Circuit trek as well as the short Poon Hill. This is my summary of the best places to stay, the most delicious food to eat, my favorite things to do, as well as what to avoid.

I honestly didn't think I'd like Nepal as much as I did, and if you asked me a few weeks ago, I would have said, it was great and I'm glad I came, but I don't ever plan on coming back. Well, since then, I've discovered more about what makes Nepal amazing, not just the long treks, and have found a lot more things to do and reasons both stay longer for as well as reasons to come back again in the future. Keep reading for a breakdown of prices, dangers, annoyances, as well as all of the good stuff and reasons why you'd want to come as well as things to know before you get here.






Kathmandu



If you're coming to Nepal you're pretty much guaranteed to pass through Kathmandu at the beginning and end of your trip. It's a busy, dusty city, but also has some great food and a lot of character. I prepared for the worst as people told me it would be full of traffic, tons of people, and lots of touts trying to sell things, but it wasn't actually as bad as I had imagined. For someone who's never been to India, Vietnam or someone else that's insane, Kathmandu will be a huge stock, but for me it was far less than imagined. People will still ask you to buy things, but luckily most touts won't constantly hassle you, and will just ask once and usually leave you alone after that. The Kathmandu Airport (KTM - Tribhuvan International Airport) is just 20 minutes away from the city and a $5 cab ride.

The main area you'll stay in is called Thamel and is where all of the backpackers and trekkers stay as it's central, cheap, and has great restaurants. I stayed at Kathmandu Village House which is connected to Ande's house. It's hard to initially find as it's down an alley, but it's a great location and has really comfortable rooms. I stayed in both the private rooms as well as the dorms and they were both great and really well priced at around $8 for dorms and $13-$20 for private rooms. If you want a more social hostel, you'll want to stay at Fireflies Hostel which is on the same street as Zostel and Wander Thirst Hostel but has the best common area I saw. The best cheap Indian food is at a place called Western Tandoori and is a must visit. Thakali Bhanchha Ghar is a local Nepalaise restaurant and had the best Dahl Bat I've had anywhere in Nepal in my six weeks there, and it's refillable for free too. OR2K has decent food and is double the price local places, but is a nice place to sit around and read a book for hours. My favorite cafe to work from and have coffee was Pumpernickel Bakery, they had decent wifi, a few power plugs and was very relaxed about letting you stay there for hours at a time.

For sightseeing, Kathmandu Durbar Square is an easy walk so you might as well go, but it's not really worth the $10 entrance. The money supposedly goes to rebuilding however and looks like it's desperately needed. The one must see temple is Swayambhunath Stupa also known as Monkey Temple. It's a bit of walk out of town so I opted for a 300 rupee ($3) taxi ride, which turned into a $5 round trip as the driver agreed to wait for me. 30 minutes was more than enough time to see the stupa, walk to the top, take photos and see the entire place. Don't miss it. Here's a video showing you where to go in Kathmandu and what it's like.





The lower stupa where they monkey's live, make sure go up the stairs.

Chitwan National Park



Either on your way to Pokhara or on your way back from Kathmandu, you should take the side trip to Chitwan. It's not exactly on the way, as it's more of a triangle, but it's worth the detour and doesn't cause you to backtrack. The bus ride takes anywhere between 4 and 9 hours depending on traffic, road conditions, and this being Nepal, both of my bus rides from Pokhara to Chitwan and Chitwan to Kathmandu took around 8 hours each. Just book a tourist bus the day before and prepare for a long day. The city you'll stay in closest to the parked is called Subarnapur and is more of a small town with a population of 3,500. Some people online have said the town is too busy and filled with tourists but when I went at the start of April, it seemed quite and most restaurants were quite empty. The only issue you might have is that all hotels there are designed for package tourists in mind so if you're unlucky with timing, you'll big with huge groups.

Don't sign up for a package tour, they're terrible. You'll be in a huge group of people you probably won't want to spend time with and you'll be supporting animal cruelty as part of the trip is Elephant riding whether you take it or not. The problem with Elephant riding in Nepal isn't just the riding itself, it's more to do with the animals being chained all day and night when not in use, and the torture they endure when they are broken in when young. It's the same reasons not to support Elephant riding in Thailand which I wrote about in the past. The good news is, you don't need to do the Elephant safari to see Rhinos and other animals up close. You can book a Jeep safari on your own once you arrive as they leave everyday at 1pm, or you can go on a walking safari like I did. You can even get lucky and see your first Rhino just to the left of the canoe boarding area on your own like we did on our first day there.

I took a 2 day walking safari which actually turned out to be 3 days and 2 nights as we had to spend the night in a tiny village near Padampur twice. It was a great experience as I got to see wild peacocks, tons of birds, wild boar, spotted deer, mule deer, and rhinos in the wild while on foot. At one point I was 10m (30ft) away from a Rhinoceros and had to back away slowly as they could potentially charge and kill if they feel threatened. We didn't the rare Tiger but knew they were close as we walked past his fresh scat just minutes after he was there. The reason I can't recomend the walk for everyone is because it was way tougher than I had expected and actually a longer and harder walk than even most of my trekking. We walked 25+km (15 miles) through the hot, humid jungle, crossing rivers barefoot, and honestly I was exhausted both days. If I were to do it again, I would have asked to take a bus close into the park and just walk the last 2-3 hours. The cost was $55 a day ($110 total) for myself, park fee, and the two required guides which could have been split with up to 4 people if you can find friends or form a group. I paid for the room and my food separately which was $30 total for 2 days making the entire trip $150 including the bus rides. I also tipped the guides 10% at the end for their service. I booked mine when I arrived through Jungle Explore Tours who were great, but you can also go through United Jungle Guide Service which has more reviews.


With a wild one horned rhino in Chitwan!


Trekking in Nepal



The primary purpose of going to Nepal would be to go on a legendary trek through the Himalayan mountains. The original legendary trek has always been the Annapurna Circuit, but in recent years because of movies and popularity, Everest Base Camp is now equally popular. I chose to attempt the Annapurna Circuit which I wrote about here and was planning on attempting the EBC trek in the future but due to my body not responding well to the cold especially at altitude, I may skip this bucket list item for something warmer in the tropics. I did however complete the shorter Poon Hill Ghorepani trek which was busy with tourists but still beautiful and worth doing.

However, after talking to locals and people who had done multiple treks, the ones I would recomend and want to do myself is the Mardi Himal Trek as it's less busy, in beautiful nature, and has stunning views without going past 4,250m/13,600ft, which is still extremely high but not as freezing and insane as EBC and Annapurna Circuit at 5,500m. If I were to do the Everest Base Camp I would do the classic trail instead of flying to Lukla as 95% of people do today to save time. This helps you acclimatize better and avoids the often canceled terrible flight. I would take the bus from Kathmandu to Jiri to start the hike to EBC and possibly also go through Gokyo Lakes.

No where else in the world into the mountains can you go on a 20+ day trek without carrying cooking or camping gear. Nepal is really the perfect place as there are tea houses setup in villages along the treks. Be prepared for basic conditions and the cold as none of the places are insulated, but it's worth the journey.






Volunteering in Nepal



Aside from trekking, the other people I met during my six weeks here all came to volunteer. Both All Hands and Hearts as well as Hands.org offer volunteer opportunities without the need for volunteers to pay to be there. That means in exchange for your labor you get free accommodation, food, and an experience of a lifetime. It's something I would love to do in the future as meeting a few people who had done it, they all said it was a great cause as well as program. A girl I met at the airport in Kathmandu spent a few months there building schools and even though she was encouraged to fundraise, nothing was required and the charity was legitimately doing good things and making a difference.

After the trek I picked up a book in a hostel in Pokhara titled "Leaving Microsoft to Change the World" buy John Wood which was about a former executive who during his trek on the Annapurna Circuit visited a village to realize the school's had no books in their libraries and vowed to come back to change things. It was a really good read, especially in Nepal and it was great to hear about the changes he's made with the Room to Read Charity that has come from it. Get yourself a Kindle eBook Reader and stock up on books before you come as you'll spend a lot of time reading while in Nepal as the internet isn't great here and non-existent in the villages. Dress warm, come prepared, and you'll love it here. 







Downsides to Nepal



I'd love to say my time in Nepal was all beautiful mountains and great food, but it wasn't. Traveling through and living in Nepal is difficult, possibly the most difficult place I've been to in the 40+ countries I've been to so far. Everything is hard and this is by far the most 3rd world country I've visited so far, making places like Guatemala and Cambodia seem easy to get around, do things and and developed. The roads and traffic in Nepal are terrible and there is dust everywhere, and I mean everywhere. They are even building roads into the traditional treks like the Annapurna Circuit, because the locals there think it'll bring them more tourists and more money if people can just drive there. You are also pretty much guaranteed to get diarrhea at least a few times during your trip even if you try hard to avoid it, and simple things like activated charcoal (on amazon) which is the best solution for it just isn't sold here for whatever reason, while over the counter antibiotics are overly and cheaply prescribed without any thought of the consequences of creating a future of mass antibiotic resistance. That being said, buy and bring your own preventative and natural cures such as activated charcoal from home beforehand.

Aside from the above, there is also an ugly trash problem as it's ultra common for locals to throw their food, drink and candy wrappers everywhere on the street. I've even seen people throw full plastic bags worth of garbage out the window of bus windows without a single passenger thinking it was strange or saying anything.  Even in the otherwise pristine national parks and mountains locals litter without thinking twice. To make it worse, even though the tap water in the cities aren't drinkable, there's no recycling program for the millions of plastic bottles used everyday. The only saving grace for Nepal is the fact that the country is so spread out for their population that it looks like there's still unspoiled space, but it's not going anywhere as plastic doesn't degrade, and will just get worse overtime.

Just like not thinking about their environment and not thinking about future consequences, it's common in Nepalese culture to tell little lies whenever it's more convenient. If you ask for something and they don't have it, even at a restaurant, instead of telling you then, they'll put it off for as long as possible or until you ask again. Imagine asking for something like ketchup, a certain drink, sauce, dish, plate, or whatever, getting a smile and nod, then realizing 20 minutes later that they never had it in the first place. If you book a bus ticket and they can't get commission on it, they'll often lie and tell you it's sold out and sell you something else. These little white lies, terrible service and constant need to over charge so you have to bargain really gets on your nerves after, but even with all of the downsides, overall Nepalese people are good hearted people and the country with its natural beauty is gorgeous. It's also a taste of some amazing Indian food, a similar culture but with far less people, and it allows you to test yourself before going to the madness to see if that's something you're willing to put up with. The upsides of Nepal are much higher than the downsides as it's very safe, it's beautiful and a really unique travel experience that not enough people get to experience.






Overall Thoughts on Nepal



I'd say go for it. With easy flights from Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, I've always wondered why more people don't go there. The country really has a lot to offer as it's a nice mixture of mountains, wildlife, and culture. The trekking is beautiful and the tea houses although basic are much more easy and comfortable than needing to carry sleeping and cooking equipment or camping. The Himalayan mountains are majestic and can be seen even at the shorter, less than 10 day hikes. You can also cross off big bucket list items like complete the Annapurna Circuit, or get to Everest Base Camp if that you're dream. But for me, if I go back again, I'll just be doing another shorter trek like Mardi Himal and possibly do some volunteer work with All Hands and Hearts or Hands.org.

Seeing Rhinos up close and in real life was also worth the crazy bus rides to Chitwan, and even though Kathmandu is dusty, busy and a bit crazy, it was a nice experience going there and the food is great. I really enjoyed the mutton or chicken dal bhat especially in Kathmandu, and in Pokhara the Indian food was really good, cheap, and the Indian food gave you a taste of what it would be like there but without as many people. Another great excuse to go to Nepal is to experience the Holi, the Festival of Colors in Kathmandu as it's a ton of fun, great for photos and video and since it only lasts one day, it allows you to go wild, have fun, then do something else without feeling trapped.

With only 900,000 tourists visiting Nepal each year, i'm actually surprised how few people go and I have a feeling it won't be more popular anytime soon as it's a bit out of the way, and really focuses on trekkers more than anyone else. But if you go, I promise it'll be an unforgettable experience. Here's a video of me experiencing Holi in Kathmandu.





I hope everyone enjoyed this blog post and my guide to Nepal. Share it with your friends or online if you did, and feel free to leave a comment below if you have any questions, comments, or want to simply say hello.


With love from Nepal,

Johnny FD

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  1. Feel free to ask any questions about traveling to Nepal here.

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  2. Tourist attractions are great. Thank you for sharing this useful information

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