I recently wrote an article comparing three overlooked ways to travel on a budget but I want to take a closer look at the incredible value of backpacking. Backpacking is perhaps the cheapest way to travel and virtually guarantees an amazing experience. However, it’s not necessarily the easiest way to travel. While backpacking in Nepal I learned some important lessons.
Backpacking in Nepal taught me:
- The value of cultural immersion
- Who to trust on the road
- How to travel alone
- Networking in an emergency
- Tools to adapt to nearly any situation
In this article I present my amazing experience in Nepal, explore the value of backpacking and share the lessons I learned along the way.
Getting There & Top Priorities
In 2012 I was traveling through India and decided to visit Nepal as a volunteer. However, after doing some research and because I couldn’t find a reputable non-profit organization, I decided against volunteering.
Many volunteers in Nepal become victims of a popular scam wherein the, “wealthy foreigner” pays a fee, only to later be abandoned with no support. There have even been cases of con men creating fake schools for volunteers to teach in (though even teaching in a fake school is admirable). I met a few of these unhappy volunteers, but I also spoke with people who had meaningful experiences volunteering in Nepal.
I booked the hotel for my first night prior to my trip which allowed me read reviews and compare prices. Having traveled in India, I knew there would be dozens of people vying for my business once I left the airport and I wanted an easy first night. There is a huge range of prices for hotels in Nepal but as a backpacker I kept to a shoe-string budget, opting for cheap guest houses with simple accommodations.
Cost Summary (without regard to flights): $16.00
- Two nights in Kathmandu at $8.00 per night (859 NRP)- $16.00
Tips to get to where you’re going:
- Use frequent flier miles to fund your trip!
- Verify services carefully; You shouldn’t have to pay to volunteer
- Book your first hotel before the trip
- Schedule a transfer to your hotel
Getting Situated & Making Plans
I arrived in Kathmandu late at night and exhausted. I’d planned to stay in the city for a week but changed my mind soon after my first day on the streets.
Almost immediately I was approached by a well dressed man claiming to be a student and wanting to practice his English. I tried to avoid him but his persistence and lighthearted banter eventually swayed me. Before I knew it I was being rushed through alleyways and courtyards and shown the local landmarks. When I was thoroughly lost he requested payment for his “guide” services. I eventually paid him just to take me back to my hotel.
I decided to leave Kathmandu as soon as possible. The pollution and dust in the city has become horrendous, aiding to widespread respiratory problems. Reddened eyes peering through dust-covered face masks is a common sight in Kathmandu.
Like most people backpacking in Nepal I wanted to witness the country’s immense natural beauty. But I also wanted to avoid being scammed again. So I located a reputable travel agency and booked the major parts of the journey all at once. I probably could have saved money purchasing bus tickets and lodging en route, but when you’re traveling alone, piece-of-mind goes a long way. This wasn’t the time to save money, though I did negotiate down the original $350 price.
Crossing Nepal by bus went relatively smoothly. I braved the all-day bus trips through the steep mountain routes into Pokhara and later, into the forested “Chitwan” region. In Nepal bus crashes are not as rare an occurrence as one would hope. The twisted steel husks of fallen buses can sometimes be seen resting in ravines or pushed haphazardly to the side of the road.
Pokhara is a small mountain town and a hub for elite climbers attempting some of the most dangerous treks in the world. I took several day hikes away from the tourist area surrounding Phewa Lake and found the people in surrounding villages to be warm and inviting. In Chitwan, a region dominated by vast, pristine forests I was similarly impressed by the kindness of strangers and the sublime scenery.
Cost Summary: $320
- “Guide” Services: $4.00 (I think)
- Two nights in Kathmandu- $16.00
- Booked a 14 Day Trip from Kathmandu to Pokhara to Chitwan and back, with hotel stays and (most) food included: $300
Tips to get the most out of backpacking:
- Decide what you want to experience early on
- Keep a map of the city
- Be weary of people approaching you on the street
- Venture out as much as possible
- Take calculated risks
- Negotiate prices on major expenditures
Rolling with the Punches
My journey was nearing an end, or so I had thought. I returned to Kathmandu and spent a few days in a small, well-reviewed guest house where I enjoyed home cooked meals and the company of interesting international travelers. When I departed I had a better appreciation of Kathmandu.
At the airport the next day I was told my flight had been cancelled. In fact, at that time King Fisher Airlines was actually going bankrupt. Unfortunately for me, the airport would not put me on another flight. Even more unfortunate was the fact that my visa was about to expire, it was raining and I had nowhere to go.
I frantically called everyone I could think of in the USA and India and after a few hours I was somehow able to arrange for someone get me. A Nepali college kid, a friend of a friend (of a friend), took me out of the rain and would later help me renew my visa so that I could leave the country. After picking me up he asked, “where would you like to stay tonight?” I responded, “Someplace cheap.” Apparently his idea of cheap was slightly different than mine.
The place I stayed that night was operated by children and dirt cheap, at $4.00 a night. The kids spoke decent English, though their parents did not, and in between going to school and studying they helped run the business. This hotel was a decrepit building with sparse amenities, a fleeting power supply and a shared outdoor toilet. However, the meal I was served was extraordinary; a fragrant assortment of rice, lentils, pickled fruits, yogurt and pan fried vegetables, very similar to Indian food.
That visit was eye-opening, I saw these kids (14-17 years old) taking their responsibilities seriously. Every morning before school they would wash dishes and each night they studied, usually by candle light. I eventually made it back to New Delhi, India where my adventure continued but I’ll never forget my time in Nepal. I hope to return someday with my wife.
Cost Summary: $350
- Visa renewal for one day: $30.00
Tips to avoid an unpleasant experience:
- Don’t become flustered, do everything you can to alleviate problems
- If solo, combat loneliness by meeting with other travelers
- Spend time with the locals and immerse yourself in their culture
- Remember: as long as you are healthy and safe, you’re okay
- Don’t travel on airlines that are sponsored by Indian beer companies.