Nepal has a great mix of indigenous ethic cultures and regional cultures. Over 80% of the population are Hindu. However while Buddhism only makes up 10% of the religion it's influences can be felt nationwide. Islam is the third largest religious group followed by Christianity and others.
Nepal works on a barter system for many things. Fixed prices do exist but can still be haggled down. The barter system is less difficult for tourists to work with than that of India.
Nepal's number one industry is tourism. As such many Nepalese are very used to dealing with tourists. That's not to say a tourist can expect the very best of tourist hospitality. Nepal is an economically poor country and suffers from a lack of infrastructure, electricity and has many years of political instability.
The Nepalese people are generally very friendly to foreigners. There are however people (touts) who will try to take advantage of tourists especially in the bigger cities.
The Nepalese calendar follows follows Bikram Samwat meaning it's 56.7 years ahead of the Gregorian Calendar. So yes when it's 2013 in the west it's 2069 in Nepal.
The Nepalese flag is the only flag in the world that is not rectangle.
Nepal's mainstay meal is a rice, vegetable and soup dish known as Dal Bhat. It's eaten in large quantities twice a day.
The Nepalese are a very friendly people. Many will come up to you and simply just want to say hello. This is particularly true outside big cities. Within large tourist centers you will however be approached by touts, guides, taxi men, beggars and the odd man selling something bizarre.
"Namaste" is perhaps the most important phrase you should learn when visiting Nepal. It is a greeting that means "salutations to you" or " I bless the divine in you". It is said while at the same time pressing your two hands together in front of you as if in christian prayer. The higher the importance of the person you are greeting the higher your hands should go (though is usually reserved for rituals).
A similar word is Namaskar which is used in more formal occasions.
Be warned: saying Namaste is addictive ... in a good way!
Shaking hands is quite common from man to man and woman to woman. However a man should only extend his hand to a woman if she offers it to him.
Fondness & respect:
The Nepalese will often refer to someone they respect or care for as a close relative. The word "Didi" means "older sister". While "Daai" means "older brother". These terms might take hold when two people have become the best of friends. Though it can also be used in referring to someone of a similar age to you.
The terms "Dhai" and "Bhai" mean "younger sister" and "younger brother" respectively. These terms are often used, showing mild respect, to people serving you e.g. a waiter. Though equally they are used by older people referring to younger relatives.
To say thank you with "dhanyabaad" is to show much thanks. The word "Thank you" is not used that much between Nepalese. However they do understand that tourists like to use it more commonly. So therefore, use it away to say thanks and equally the english words "thank you" work well too!
Understanding the caste system in Nepal:
Though it was abolished in 1962 the caste system is still very active in Nepal. In layman's terms it means that you are born into a certain status that will dictate your income, job, income and family including that of your children.
For example a well educated wealthy scholar might be of the Brahmin class. And there for would not be seen washing clothes. Whereas someone from the Dhobi caste would be born into a life of washing clothes and not seen as an educator or a landlord.
The caste system in Nepal is a complicated system that has both positive aspects and negatives. To learn more read this article about understanding the caste system in Nepal.
Wearing suitable clothing in Nepal
Nepal is quite a conservative country. This especially holds true in religious and rural areas. The problem is many Nepalese will not say if you can or cannot wear something out of respect for the tourist or newcomer. There can however be a deep displeasure amongst locals towards strangers who dress inappropriately.
Suitable attire for men would include long sleeved shirts and long trousers. This is again especially true when visiting peoples homes or religious areas.
Women should wear long skirts or a sari. Loose fitting trousers are becoming widely accepted too. Shoulders and chest areas should remain covered.
While in Kathmandu and Pokhara many local Nepalese are wearing western style clothing it is still seen as provocative. It may mean an openness to sexual advances or disrespect. So caution is advised.
In more rural areas one should dress conservatively as there are many Nepalese who will think of you as being too open.
The one exception is often when out trekking. However, again, going around showing too much skin is disrespecting the Nepalese culture and often drawing ill gotten attention to oneself.
Handling money etiquette in Nepal:
As a show of cleanliness when handing money to someone you should do so only with the right hand. As a show of respect you can cross also cross your left hand over to your right elbow when handing money over using your right hand.
Eating etiquette in Nepal:
Many Nepalese will eat with their right hand rather than cutlery. The number one rule is "eat and pass food with your right hand only". The reason for this is that the left hand is often used for washing after defecating.
It's also seen as unclean to drink from the same glass or bottle. Nepalese will often pour water from above the mouth rather than drink directly from a shared water bottle.
Dealing with beggars in Nepal:
Unfortunately street beggars are a common occurrence in Nepal. Part of the reason for this is that it's Buddhist and Hindu custom to give donations to the sick, monks or the needy.
Furthermore there's the issue of women being divorced or widowed and finding themselves homeless on the street. There's also the issue of homeless street children.
There are aid organizations in Nepal trying to help. Unfortunately some are corrupt or simply unqualified to make a sustainable difference. Many good meaning tourists get caught up in the feel good factor of helping those less fortunate. The unfortunate side effect is that as outsiders they are often taken advantage of without even knowing.
Furthermore the amount of beggars in Nepal is breathtaking. Some are professionals. Others are genuine. At the end of the day it's up to you. However you should never feel pressured or forced to give money out on the street. Neither would it be recommend to give large sums of money (in the local sense). Giving money or sealed food to street children is also not recommended as they will often sell back the food and use the money to buy drugs.
Learn more about the Street Children of Nepal.
Dealing with touts in Nepal:
Touts are everywhere in Kathmandu, especially Thamel, and to a lesser extend the other main touristy towns in Nepal. Some are genuinely looking for business others have the job of simply getting referral money.
Always be polite in dealing with a tout. A simple no thank you will often do the tick if approached on the street. Otherwise ignoring them is the best option and they will move on.
Visiting peoples homes in Nepal:
If you visit a family home in Nepal then there a several things to be aware of. Firstly as a tourist you will be permitted to not have to follow all the customs a local may do. However out of respect you should still try.
Dressing conservatively is a must. Long pants for men or skirts for women (loose trousers are acceptable). Removing your shoes before entering into a house is commonplace. But not always followed if the ground is bare or soiled. Follow the lead of others.
Finally is invited to Nepalese house hold you might like to bring a small gift. This can be something as simple as some fruit or vegetables. Nothing too extravagant.
Nepal is a very easy going country for tourists. Culture and etiquette in general is fairly relaxed. However there are some important notes that will help you fit in more and be respected more by locals.
- Learn to say "Namaste"
- Use your right hand for nearly everything
- Dress conservatively no matter how hot it gets
- Don't give cash to street children
Those are the main points to remember for culture and etiquette while traveling in Nepal. It's all about showing respect for the country and culture you are visiting.
After that just enjoy the wonderful warm hospitality the Nepalese people are renown for!
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