Travel leaves a footprint no matter how you do it. The trick is to be a mindful traveller and offset as much as you possibly can.
Reduce your footprint
Say no to water bottles
Unless you are a seasoned traveller with a cast iron stomach, do not drink the tap water. To avoid adding to the mountains of plastic water bottles left behind by travellers, BYO reusable bottle. You have two options for water purification. Water purification tablets, which, based on the disgusted faces pulled by my fellow trekkers every time they drank water, tastes like crap. Option two, my preferred method is to use a steripen. It works by using UV light to destroy over 99.9% of bacteria, viruses, and protozoa like Giardia and Cryptosporidium. Several trips to Nepal, Indonesia and Thailand and it hasn’t failed us yet. Take several two litre water bottles with you to fill up and sterilise the water with the steripen. You can drink directly from the bottle once the water is sterilised. While trekking, we transferred the sterilised water to camelbacks in our backpacks.
Don’t eat meat
Nepal has an abundance of fresh and delicious vegan and vegetarian food. The local fare of Dal Baht and Momos (served at every restaurant and teahouse) are vegan, nutritious, very filling and cheap. A lot of resources go into raising animals for food and if you’re in the mountains, it’s trekked in on the back of a sherpa, with no refrigeration. So it’s really in the best interest of your stomach to not eat it!
Take your rubbish with you
As with most developing countries, there is no regular rubbish collection or dedicated landfill. If it’s not burned (not great!), it’s left to pile up in the streets, mountains and waterways. While we were trekking and even in the cities, we kept our food wrappers, floss, baby wipes, band-aids and anything non-biodegradable, in a ziplock bag to be taken home and disposed of in Australia.
If you can, invest in trekking gear which does not contain PFC’s
Per- and polyfluorinated chemicals are toxic and can leach into the surrounding environment. More info on PFC’s here. Kathmandu and Patagonia are my preferred outdoor gear shops for ethical and eco-friendly clothing.
You are a guest in this country, educate yourself about local customs and respect that things will be different to what you’re used to.
Nepal is a conservative country which means modest dress. Pants, jeans, long shorts and casual t-shirts are perfectly acceptable attire. Dresses and skirts as long as they cover your knees and shoulders. Old Town in Kathmandu is ultra conservative so loose pants or a maxi skirt is advised. In contrast, Pokhara is a little more progressive and I wore travel skirts which hit just above my knees and no one looked twice.
Your guide and porters are there to help you on your trek, not to be your servants. Guides are extremely knowledgeable and work hard to make your experience unforgettable so be sure to treat them with the respect they deserve. Porters work one between two people. They carry two backpacks, plus their own so don’t fill your bag with shit. I saw one carrying a guitar up the mountain for a fellow trekker. There’s just no need. Take only what you absolutely need and keep your main pack as light as possible.
Religion and temples
Nepal has a combination of Buddhists and Hindus. There are many religious festivals throughout the year, most of which visitors are welcome to participate in. I found Lonely Planet guides are the best to use for research of local customs and festivals and what to/not to do. There are some Hindu temples which do not allow non-Hindus to enter. Check with your guide or the locals before entering a temple or holy place and never take photos unless you have asked for or been given permission. You may see some people wearing brightly coloured robes adorned with incredible face paints. These are Sadhus, holy men and women who take care of the temples and rely on local donations. They’re very striking so for a small fee you may take their picture. But ask first!
Animal tourism is not really a ‘thing’ in Nepal fortunately. There are plenty of macaques almost everywhere you go. If you don’t offer them food they will leave you alone. You can ride elephants in Chitwan National Park. I don’t know a lot about it but it’s pretty safe to assume it’s not good for the elephants if they’re being ridden by tourists.
If you’re planning a trekking trip, it’s safe to assume you’ve already started doing your research and come across the many western owned and run trekking agencies online. These agencies often charge more than local run agencies and take most of the cut. Its the guide and porters who do most of the work so book with a local agency once you arrive. You can’t walk a metre down the streets of Kathmandu without someone offering to arrange a trek or experience for you. Meet with 4-5 different agencies/guides to find your right fit. Remember, you’re going to spend several days with this person so you want to get along with them!
If you’re looking for souvenirs, support local artisans. Bhaktapur, a short drive from Kathmandu is a fantastic place to find beautifully made, unique artworks, sculptures, paintings and pottery. We’ve brought several paintings and gifts for family both times, directly from the artists and I love knowing the person who created the beautiful works that sit in my home. Yaks wool blankets and cashmere scarves and shawls can be found everywhere, especially in Kathmandu. But, you’re best to buy them in the mountains directly from the people who make them or, from organisations who work with factories maintaining decent working conditions and pay the artists fairly. Shop around and do your research.
Nepal is the most incredible country I have visited so far. There are no fancy hotels, nice beaches or shopping experiences. BUT, it is transformative and opens your eyes to a whole new world you never knew existed. The people are warm, welcoming and many have a great sense of humour and love to have a laugh. The country is a fascinating blend of unique cultures, gorgeous old world architecture, modern conveniences (wifi in the Himalaya!) and spectacular landscapes. Add Nepal to your bucket list.