Western visitors to Nepal may find some of its customs strange and even sometimes perplexing. This is a country of diverse ethnic groups, each of whom has its traditional beliefs and practices that should be respected at all times. Of course, being polite to anyone you meet on your travels will go a long way. However, some things that are inoffensive to westerners can cause great offence to Nepalis. It is wise to get to know the local etiquette. Adherence to these simple rules of behavior will ensure that you enjoy your stay and will be welcomed wherever you go.
Namaste, the traditional word of greeting in Nepal, is used when meeting or departing. It is usually accompanied by a slight bow and with a hand gesture where the palms join in front of you, the fingers pointing upwards. This greeting is used throughout Asia and expresses courtesy, politeness, honor and generosity between relatives, guests or strangers. Do not spoil the effect of your Namaste by then taking a photograph of the person, their home or property without asking permission. Namaskar is the more formal or highly respectful variant.
Shaking hands is not common in Nepal. You can shake hands with a man if he extends his hand first, but not with a woman. Men and women should not hold hands in public or make any other display of affection, although holding hands with someone of same sex is fine. The forehead is the most sacred part of the body, and you should never touch a Nepali on the head—not even a child.
Westerners are used to pointing at things. We say “it’s rude to point” but do not really consider it very offensive. In Nepal, pointing with one finger, especially at a holy place or sacred object is highly offensive. Point only with the flat of the hand extended in a gesture that looks open and welcoming.
What to wear
Shoes are considered a degrading item of clothing because they cover the feet, the most unclean part of the body. Take them off before standing on a chair or bench and before entering a home, temple or stupa. Wearing any other item of leather clothing is also forbidden in a holy place. Don’t point the soles of your feet at anyone, and when seated on the ground keep your legs tucked under you so people do not have to step over them. Most insulting of all: kicking anyone or touching them with your feet.
Shorts and crop-tops, commonly worn by female tourists, cause great offence in Nepal. Men should also cover their chests. Shorts are seen as a sign of low status, but if they are of a reasonably modest length they can be worn by men on the more popular hiking trails. Trousers are preferable and must be worn when visiting holy sites. Women should never expose their thighs and should cover their shoulders at holy sites. Although many women suckle their babies in public, bikini tops will cause offence.
Washing or bathing in public should be done discreetly. Never wash in a stream that feeds a water-driven prayer wheel. Use only your right hand for eating or to take or give food. The left hand is considered unclean because it is used for toilet ablutions. As a foreigner you may be considered untouchable, so you should not handle cooked foods on display or offer leftovers to local people. Don’t put your lips to a cup, glass or bottle that others will drink from, and do not touch other people’s food, plate, serving dish or cooking utensils.
Dispose of rubbish by burning wherever possible, but do not throw anything—including cigarette butts and paper tissues—onto a house or tea shop fire that may be considered sacred. More than likely your host will fish it out and throw it in the street!
In Buddhist areas, besides roads, trails or rivers, you will come across many stone mani walls. These are usually inscribed with the mantra “om mani padme hum” and are devotional sites for the use of travelers. Always keep to their left, and walk clockwise around any temples, stupas or prayers wheels. When you visit a monastery or gompa, it is usual to put a few coins in the donation box. If you are received by a lama, one of the monks will probably give you a kata or ceremonial white scarf to present to him.