One of the anxieties of visiting a foreign land is wonder the customs of the people there and how to be a good guest. A great deal of people do not want to go to a new place and do something that offends the native folks. Nepal is no exception. As a matter of fact, we get more question on how to behave more than what to eat and drink and what not to. We thus decided that a quick cheat sheet would be beneficial to everyone who is planning for a trekking in Nepal or visit Nepal for leisure.
The people of Nepal are one of the most resilient and easy going and tolerant on earth. While tourists rarely feel the impact since institutions catering to them such as hotels and restaurants have back up plans, sadly power does go out hours at a time in Nepal, especially in Kathmandu. Nepal recently is recovering from an acute shortage of fuel including cooking gas caused by a political tug of war with India from where most of these supplies come from. Ke Garne (what to do)? Nepal ma estai ho (this is how it is in Nepal) are most of the responses from people there and almost all of the time, these two phrases come with a trademark smile that only a Nepali can produce. So with this in mind, you can probably conclude that there isn’t much you can do to heavily offend them. Even so, here are some pointers to calm your jitters a bit more.
Namaste, where are you from?
The most widely used word in Nepal is Namaste which in a simplest from means greetings. The reciting of the word usually accompanies a bow or a nod of the head and palms put together in the middle of your chest, palms touching and fingers pointing up, but in an informal setting, merely saying Namaste is fine. The deeper symbolism is Namaste is “I honor the soul in you”, but treat it as just a hello. Nepalis love to say Namaste to tourists and in trekking trails or along the outskirts of Kathmandu, young people might be curious to know where you are from and with a show off of their English skills, they might say/ask, “Namaste, where are you from?” Tell them. They are curious and they love being able to practice their English by conversing with you. Nepalis do not have hostility towards any people from any country. I am from America. I am from Canada. I am from the Britain (United Kingdom might throw them off a bit), Netherlands, Australia, Singapore, China etc. They love that.
You’re welcome not to say you’re welcome
Dhanyabad in Nepal (and Hindi) means thank you. After any transaction or favor, it is always nice to say Dhanyabad. Unlike Namaste however, Dhanyabad is not too widely used by Nepalis. The assumption is that it is a duty of a person to provide service to another so no thank you is required. In the western culture and many other cultures however, it feels off not to say it, so it is safe to say that Dhanyabad is more common in tourism that in the traditional Nepal culture. Getting out of a taxi, after finishing a shopping transaction or leaving a restaurant, smile and say Dhanyabad. That’s good enough, but if you hear nothing in return, that is normal too since you’re welcome is non-existent. If someone thanks you with a Dhanyabad and if it makes you awkward, return a Dhanyabad to that person as well.
Attire and Religion:
Let’s get the most important thing out of the way. Some Hindu temples have a clear sign that says in English “entrance for Hindus only”. If there are signs (for MAT Nepal customers, of course we will advise you of this), just don’t go if you are not a Hindu. In other temples, don’t wear shoes inside the temples. Visiting with shoes on are ok at Durbar Squares and outside of temples.
Nepalis love to make you feel special. If they put a flower garland on you or a cotton fabric (Khada – more popular in the trekking areas), that is their way of welcoming you. Moreover, a red powder substance mixed with water (Tika) is another symbol of the Nepali hospitality and honor (besides being used on gods). If they put that on your forehand, they are welcoming you and honoring you. After all, one of the more popular practices of the culture is “Aatithi Deva Bhawa”: guests are gods.
One thing that we see our customers and non-customers stress out more than the people of Nepal are the attire. Nepal sees a lot of tourists every year and they come in many types. Some like to stroll around the city and trek in shorts and some like to wear long pants to avoid bugs in warmer weather. Men and women very frequently wear shorts and t-shirts while trekking and that is more than fine. Nepali women might not wear shorts very often, but they do not expect you to be like them. They like you being you and enjoying their country. Rule of thumb: be comfortable. That’s all. We are not sure what the reaction would be if you were in your bikini except the fact that you’d probably be very uncomfortable yourself (not that you would do it)!
You think you know how to bargain?
It is not a common practice to bargain for goods in western cultures but boy or boy you paid too much if you do not bargain while shopping for souvenirs. Whether you are buying a knock off Northface or a cute prayer wheel or a pashmina shawl. If the asking price is 1000 rupees, 700 rupees is a good benchmark. Our mission is not to be against those merchants, but we want to protect you as well. These items are priced knowing that you are going to bargain, so bargain away. Just make sure that you know that there is no bargaining in supermarkets that sell mineral water, soaps and shampoo etc.
Many people leave Nepal in a very somber mood and perhaps that is why they say, “Nepal: once is not enough”. You become very close to the country, your guides, drivers, cooks if you are on expedition and your hotel workers. That is indeed the beauty of Nepal. The drawback of this might be that you might feel that the regular tipping that you give to the folks that provided you service might not be enough. Well, it is because anything above and beyond is good. You’ve made a trekking guide’s day if you tip him $20 for being at your service for a week to 10 days. Was a taxi driver very nice to you? Ok, then round up the fare to the next zero and add another 50. For instance, if the fare was 272 rupees, take it up to 300 and add another 50 and make it 350. You’ve earned yourself a Dhanyabad.
While it might feel daunting for many to be in a different culture, people of Nepal are free spirited. If you do something unusual, they might laugh, but it will not be laugh at you; they will rather laugh with you. While you are under our care, you will need to worry about none of this since you have us. If you unintentionally do something that is not allowed and need a comeback line, that when this comes handy: ke garne!