Nepal: Namaste with a Caveat
We at Tusker are not into fear mongering and have never let street crime or nature’s capricious curveballs stop us from exploring over the past 42 years. We try to travel smart using as much intel and savvy as possible so we can travel safely. Our mission is to keep our fellow travelers up to date on our destinations so they can travel successfully.
As adventure travelers we are naturally curious, compassionate and willing to take risks. These are great qualities enriching our lives, but also can make us vulnerable to scams.
Nepal is a magnificent adventure travel destination, but there is a caveat. It isn’t Shangri-La and you must be as street smart in Kathmandu as you are in Kansas City.
You are most vulnerable during the transition between Kathmandu and your Himalayan trek. After spending 18 days trekking to Everest Base Camp through sacred villages you are on a mountain-high overflowing with Namaste, but if you let your guard drop in Kathmandu, it may be a quick trip to reality.
Nepal: Level Two
The U.S. State Department currently rates Nepal as a Level 2 country advising travelers to “exercise increased caution.” Uncle Sam ranks countries at four levels with Level One (Mongolia, Chile) being safest while Level 4 (Somalia, Yemen. Libya) being do-not-travel zones. Other Level Two destinations include Tanzania, Colombia and Mexico.
The State Department warns of Nepal’s isolated political violence following the 2017 elections, but these incidents mostly occur on the Nepal-India border in the Terai district, far from the Himalaya, where you’ll most likely be trekking. The Department recommends never trekking alone anywhere and says overall tourist crime is still relatively low, although it has risen throughout the country. Nepal is one of the world’s poorest countries and the 2015 earthquake only accentuated the desperation of its underclasses.
ATM-skimming in Kathmandu is not uncommon and Uncle Sam recommends you exchange your dollars for rupees at banks, bureaus and at your hotel. Avoid street money changers and don’t search for the best exchange rate at the cost of your security. Always use your hotel’s safety deposit box and never walk Kathmandu’s streets with lots of cash, flashy jewelry or your passport.
The U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu is a good resource and back up in case you need help. Its phone number is 977-1-423-4000 during business hours and 977-01-400-7200 in case of an emergency in the middle of the night. Kathmandu’s cops can be reached by dialing 100, but they are poorly paid and most tourist crimes go unsolved.
Transparency International ranks Nepal 122 out of 180 countries when it comes to corruption, a poor score and perhaps an indication that dishonesty at the top filters down to street level affecting travelers.
Street-level Kathmandu: Glue Boys and baby scams
Every city in the world has its own cons and Kathmandu can prey on your compassion for the poor if you let it. Perhaps the most ingenious if disingenuous ruse is the mother’s milk scam. A mother holding a baby approaches you pleading for you to buy her milk for her baby. You agree and she walks you into the nearby grocery store where you pay double the price for Red Cow powdered milk. After you’re gone she returns the milk to the grocer and they split the profit.
The most sad and potentially dangerous street threat is Kathmandu’s glue boy gangs. There are at least 5,000 teen boy orphans living in the streets and parks who form gangs addicted to carpet glue. Sniffing the glue out of plastic bags decreases their hunger and keeps them artificially warm. To get the 70 rupees to feed their habit they beg tourists for money in Thamel district. These kids can often get violent, according to Frankie Nazardo, a photo journalist who lived among them. They beg for money or cookies.
“They are one of the most powerful gangs because they have the best turf in the tourist area and have a monopoly begging tourists. If you give them cookies give it open, because if it’s closed they will resell the package for money to buy more glue,” Nazardo writes in his Dazed blog.
The 2015 earthquake led to more orphans, many who ended up on the streets of Kathmandu.
Cab drivers have about as good a reputation as congressmen and sometimes for a good reason. Kathmandu’s taxis do not have meters so you need to have a sense of what a cab costs before you get in. Write out your destination and get a verbal agreement from your driver before setting off about price and destination. Note the cab’s number on the side door should you have a problem.
Your first contact with Kathmandu is at Tribhuvan International Airport. You’re jet lagged and tired, but need to have your wits about you. There is either the Tusker Transfer, or a taxi desk just after immigration and it has a large board with government-dictated pricing written on it for many destinations. It shouldn’t cost you more than 800 rupees ($8) to get to Thamel or your hotel. You can find cheaper cabs walking away from the airport but is it really worth it?
In the airport hallway there are hordes of unofficial porters who will want to take your bag to the cab. They are pushy and will expect a tip. It’s probably best never to surrender your bags to a stranger especially in a new destination in your jet-lagged state. You may never see them again. If you get in a cab, don’t be surprised if another friendly person jumps in who tries to sell you tours. Tell your cabbie that you already have booked your tours and don’t want the sales pitch. Kindly ask the cabbie to have the tout exit.
This is a no-brainer but you would be surprised how many adventure travelers end up in Nepal’s jails because they violate its draconian drug laws. A small amount of marijuana could get you a jail sentence of five plus years. When you see the young men in Thamel selling hashish do not engage them in conversation. They sometimes work with corrupt cops so don’t let your curiosity end your trip. The only drug you should be taking on this trip is Diamox for high altitude or an antibiotic for Delhi Belly. Be disciplined and smart. The only high you need in Nepal is just a few days’ trek from Kathmandu – way up in the Himalayas.
Women need to be cognizant of cultural issues here. Dress conservatively, short sleeves and shorts are not a great idea especially in monasteries. Jewelry should he modest unless you’re with your group in a restaurant.
Many women have been romanced by Nepali guides and been disappointed. “Here is the cold, hard truth about the guide who swears you are the most beautiful foreigner he has ever seen, even though he has only known you for five minutes,” writes Sandra Krasa in her Hardcore Nepal blog. “If he is over 20 he is already married, possibly with a kid.”
Sorry for this romantic buzzkill, but it’s not unusual for women trekkers to feel they were taken advantage of. In Sandra’s case she married her Nepali guide and they have been together for ten years, but that’s far from the norm.
Group Travel to the rescue
Traveling in a group insulates you from much of Nepal’s dark side and gives you an experienced sounding board to rely on before venturing onto Nepal’s streets and trails.