Cultural Do's & Don'ts
Coming into contact with new cultures and customs isn't always easy. In fact, just moving from one area of the Himalayas to the other you'll find that ancient customs and traditions can vary wildy over relatively short geographic distances.
To help you along the way and give you a bit of additional confidence when you meet the (always friendly and worth meeting) locals in the mountains.
- Dress appropriately
Baggy pants or calf-length skirts with a loose top are appropriate trekking and touring wear for women. Men should wear a shirt at all times. Men's knee-length hiking shorts are fine for trekking but not when visiting temples, monasteries or homes.
Nudity is particularly offensive. Whether bathing in a stream or at a village tap, men should wear shorts or underwear, women can wrap in a loongi (sarong) and douse themselves as the village women do. Only sport a swimsuit if well secluded from village eyes. Public affection is likewise frowned upon.
- Tip generously
Tipping is a new idea, but has quickly gained acceptance in Nepal and is a most welcomed gesture as you can well imagine. Trekking is no exception, especially because a vast majority of the ruthless companies that operate in the mountains pay their guides and porters well below a decent living wage (and don't provide them with adequate gear, which they than can't afford to buy). We take a strong stand against this and pay much more than the going rate, but even our staff still appreciate feeling appreciated. Around $5-10 a day for each staff member, per trekker, is nice if it can be managed.
- Look after the mountain (and every other) environment.
The first thing you can do is make sure you don't rely on bottled drinking water on the trail. Water purification tablets are available for a very small sum in the supermarkets of Thamel and they're fine for all but the dirtiest of water. Plastic bottle wastage is causing an environmental nightmare in the mountains and we'd rather have no part in making it worse. Plus - on most trails around the world there are no handy teahouses to restock, so get into good habbits now and take a refillable lightweight water bottle or bladder.
- Ask before taking photos of people
Most Nepalese don't mind being photographed, but some do. Ask first, especially if photographing ceremonies or older people. Paying for a picture reinforces a hand-out mentality which isn't great for the country. Try instead to establish a friendly rapport with a few words or gestures.
- Look but don't touch
You will see some truly amazing things in the mountains, both natural and from many stages of human history. It's crucial that you take only photos of these things.
It is illegal to export anything older than 100 years. Please do not take any religious objects (prayer stones, statues, temple ritual objects, prayer flags, etc.) away from sacred sites and discourage others from doing so. Aside from being illegal to remove antiques and sensitive environmental articles from the country, it's also ruining this amazing place for the next generation.
- Stick to the trail
Avoid creating new trails across switchbacks, meadows and in high fragile areas. Make sketches or take photos rather than collect flower, plants and seeds. Do not purchase items made from wild animals skins or furs. Take care while walking through farmland and always stay to the uphill side of livestock on trails.
- Walk around sutupas (chortens) clockwise
Walk around these religious monuments so that the outer walls are always on your right. If you encounter a stone wall covered with Tibetan inscriptions, do the same: Walk past with the wall on your right (and don’t take any of the stones). You may hear local Buddhists chanting the ubiquitous "Om mane padme hum" while they pass these objects.
- Look after yourself
Less of a local cultural significance, but worth repeating anyway. I'm sure you're aware that trekking can be dangerous, particularly at altitude. Pay close attention to your body, listen to what it tells you. Be on constant watch for the symptoms of AMS, eat enough for the energy you need and drink plenty of thoroughly cleaned water (avoiding using plastic bottles, which brings us on to...).
- Don't accidentally offend anyone
This is broad ranging, but here are the key points to stick to:
- To show appreciation and respect, use two hands rather than one when giving or receiving something, even money.
- Remember not to point with a single finger but use a flat extended hand especially to indicate a sacred object or place.
- Among Hindus, avoid touching women and holy men the traditional palms-together "Namaste" greeting is preferable.
- Don't eat with your left hand nor eat beef among Hindus. If eating with your hands, use the right one only. The left hand is reserved for washing after defecating; you can use it to hold a glass or utensil while you eat, but don’t wipe your mouth, or pass food with it.
- Don't step over or point your feet at another person, a sacred place or a hearth.
- Remove your shoes when entering a home, temple or monastery (and leather items in Hindu temples) and avoid smoking and wearing scant/skimpy dress in religious settings.
- Do not offer food from your plate, nor eat from a common pot, and avoid touching your lips to a shared drinking vessel.
- Don't give hand-outs to beggars, even children
Don’t give in to children who ask for just one rupee. Although a rupee is a small amount that anyone can spare, begging leads young children to drop out of school and take up pan-handling as their trade. If you want to help, give to a trustworthy charity or a school.
In any developing country, giving in to beggars, however much they appear to need it, is not the most compassionate thing to do. When poor, desparate people see that tourist coins flow to the poor, disabled or otherwise needy of appearance, terrible, underground industries begin to form and a societies problems may worsen unimaginably.
- Don't bargain too hard
It's easy to put yourself in the position of the locals here. When someone doesn't have all that much and really needs your trade, if you stand there and barter away all but the last dimes of their profit, it may well leave a pretty bad taste in their mouth. As fun as bargaining is, as tourists we need the locals to be able to support themselves as a result of our tourism, otherwise the whole system falls apart.
It won't matter too much if you make the odd social faux-pas here and there. The Nepali people are generally a very warm natured, good humoured culture and won't be too hard on you. Just don't show blatent disregard for their way of life or the environment in which they live and everyone will have a great time together!