Travelling as a Woman in Nepal
Before we get into it, I would like to add that the tips in this article could be applied to many travel destinations, not just Nepal, and these points are drawn from my own personal experiences only.
Although this article is about Nepal, I will start with this;
By far in my experience, neighbouring India has been one of the most challenging places to travel as a woman, alone or otherwise.
I will never, ever, forget how I felt, stepping off the plane in Nepal’s beloved Tribhuvan Airport (tiny, cramped and charming) arriving in Nepal for the first time.
I had just finished a stint in India (also my first time) and had lived, worked and studied there in social work for five months.
Upon my arrival I experienced instant relief! The amount of freedom and safety I felt was immeasurable and exposed my self-imposed conservatism I practiced in South India.
Once in Kathmandu (or Ktm as it is affectionately known), I threw off my dupita with glee (the matching scarf to the Indian suraal kameez or kurta suraal in Nepal, a traditional outfit for women).
Exploring this new and mainly Hindu country, I rejoiced at not having my every single movement noted and remarked upon by all nearby observers. I relished at not being stared at as much, and having a little more space to myself, a concept unheard of in India but one that is understood on some level in Nepal.
So, for me, exploring as a lone woman in Nepal has mostly been an absolute pleasure. In Nepal, you are always somebody’s younger (bahini) or older sister (didi) to a Nepali family you just havn’t met yet. The sense of community is almost palpable.
If you are going to rural areas, yes, cover your shoulders and legs and extend it to your knees. This is as much for your own comfort to reduce the ratio of stares you get from passers by, and is more respectful to others in their own community. I also find its easier to strike up conversation if you feel comfortable and are wearing clothes similar to the locals around you. In the city you can freely wear short shorts in the city if you fancy. However you may get a few stares, but this is just because it looks a little different, and if you are of Caucasian background, white legs tend to stand out!
It can be challenging to find out what is happening around the town/in Nepal if you want to go out and have a less touristy experience. Asking locals straight up if they know of local music, nearby festivals, temples etc. can really pay off, as finding this local know-how on the internet is rarely effective. Its all word of mouth and rather than bothering them, locals enjoy sharing their information with you. Its amazing the unique experiences you can find from a little tip off from that didi selling chia on the street.
Do practice being politely brave. If you hear some music in a temple or discover an interesting event as you walk past, it is generally ok to ask if you can sit and join them or ask what they are doing. Although unsure how appropriate it was at first, I was always welcomed and once seated, even offered tea!
Other classic Nepali points to note are the random Nepali boys loudly singing out their current favourite Bollywood song to you as you as you walk past, an amusing and consistent soundtrack to your visit here. Stay tuned for that to continue in India!
What is not appropriate is being cat called, or having to put up with boys hassling you on the street. In very touristy areas, I have often experienced being followed (for like, a while!) by touts who want to start a conversation about making trekking bookings at their shop etc. From my experience just ignoring this behavior or politely declining seems the best way to be rid of unwanted attention.
As with any travel destination, use common sense and try not to get into a situation where you do not feel safe. If you are trying to get back to your accommodation late at night, suss out the taxi driver first before even negotiating a price. When getting a taxi anywhere after midnight, check out if the driver has been drinking or looks sober. Even though Nepali laws are now quite strict (even including police check points), it is still something to be aware of.
And, you may attract some strange conversation about being married, or would like to be, to perhaps, a Nepali guy! Sometimes I avoid the younger taxi drivers, I am not sure why, but I think when a driver has been drinking or seems a little ‘off’ they have tended to look a younger age. As an avoidance strategy, I might pretend to be on the phone to someone until the taxi drops you at your door, so they think someone knows where you are right at that minute, (or even better, a real phone call!).
Or you can organise to message your friend when you get home and that they are expecting it. Its good to sit on the back seat away from the driver, and you can even make a comment about your partner being mad that you are out so late and that he is waiting for you. There are even apps these days where you can be followed by a gps tracker and then ‘mark yourself safe’ if you feel the need to use one. Some girlfriends I know in Ktm carry a personal alarm. Not that I have ever known anyone to have to use it, perhaps they are more for peace of mind. I also know girls to walk short distances at all hours without any trouble again though I do not guarantee that this will be the same experience for everyone.
In terms of trekking, I have heard of girls trekking solo with guides with no problem (there are women guides too!). As with any service, get recommendations and reviews first. I have not yet met any girls who trekked alone without a guide, although I am sure they are around. I would be interested to find out actually, if you are one, or know about one, please share your experiences with us!
There is a lot more wonderful information for solo travelling women, such as Facebook’s Bicycle Travelling Women for starters which is focused on cylists. These diaries and blogs are a great support for times when you wish to venture solo. Be aware that good intentioned people will try to freak you out a bit with horror stories. I could write a whole article on people’s reactions to women travelling alone and how to seek useful advice verses people (perhaps not intentionally) projecting their fears onto you pre-departure!
You will have to deal with the common question of; ”Where is your husband?” “Does he know you’re here?” “Why aren’t you with your family?” accompanied by the classic Nepali head wobble. I find answering that he is just down the road at the shop buying some milk is a perfect response for all situations and gets them off your back pretty quickly!
By the same token, don’t take this too far. Conversations about your boyfriend/partner back home and anything sexual is not normal or appropriate in this predominately Hindu (or any?!), culture. Similarly, Bollywood has not done bideshi/foreign women any favors in projecting a sexualised view of female western identity, and this can also affect the way men treat you when they see you are travelling alone.
A Few Other Tips
Its ok to bring your nice clothes from home, as you don’t need to wear trekking gear or “happy hippy” pants every day. Shoes for bigger sized feet can be tricky to find here and sometimes the clothes are a bit random and from China, but overall the shops with western clothes are increasing in Ktm and most things can be found. And girls, do bring your preferred brands of tampons (sorry guys) and quality toiletry products as the choices here are limited. There are some local organic products here which are great and support local buisness, and these are worth checking out.
Take garlic! Take multivitamins and eat the local yoghurt so you can boost your immune system, so you can then go and eat street food!
Don’t be surprised if a Nepali family takes you in and tries to feed you, Nepali’s are one of the most welcoming cultures. Of course however, keep your wits about you and judge the situation or invitation on how comfortable and safe you feel in accepting. Some more traditional families may be fearful of you leaving their home after dark, so be prepared to be asked to stay the night in some cases.
A good friend once suggested to me, that if you ever feel unsafe (a rarity in Nepal for me) find women! Find a group of women, tell them you feel unsafe, and stand in the middle of them! Here the sisterhood is strong and they are your sisters whether you know them or not.
In some ways, the entire country of Nepal is like a huge welcoming awesome family that you just haven’t met yet, and they can’t wait to sit you down and share their momo’s and dahl baat with you and share stories between your cultures. Yes of course there are the usual tourist touts in the touristy areas such as Thamel and Lakeside Pokhara, but its doesn’t take much to push through that and find a little local restaurant and start a conversation with a local family and your unique connections to this incredible, beautiful and unique country, no matter what your gender. As with any travel destination, use your common sense but don’t lose your open heart, so you may enjoy the Never Ending Peace And Love that is NEPAL.