In the lead up to the start of the first busy season of the year in Nepal, now is a good time to inform travellers of the most up-to-date travel safety risks they should be aware of. In general, Nepal is a relatively safe place and Nepalese people are some of the nicest I have ever met anywhere in the world. However, like anywhere, there are good places and bad places, good people and bad.
Before you travel to Nepal there are some things you should know and pack to make your visit safer, easier and more enjoyable. First and foremost, do not travel without travel insurance from a reputable company. Read your policy carefully. Ensure it covers trekking, helicopter rescue and medical repatriation to your home country if required. Carry your policy with you at all times in a waterproof cover or ziploc bag. If you need assistance, follow the instructions written on your policy.
Pack an unlocked phone that you can put a local SIM card into. You can buy one just outside the airport in Kathmandu on your arrival and data plans are relatively cheap. The SIM cards are typically the Micro SIM size, but you can cut it down with a pair of scissors to a Nano SIM size, especially if you have an iPhone. Ask the person you buy it from, they will typically help you set it up and add credit. Free WiFi is available in most hotels, restaurants and cafes and your phone should work on most trails. Remember to check-in with family or friends.
Here are five travel safety risks you should be aware of:
Health and hygiene
Where possible, you should attend a travel clinic at least 6-8 weeks before traveling to Nepal to ensure your immunisations are up-to-date. Nepal is among the poorest and least developed countries in the world and visitors are at a high risk for enteric diseases, causing diarrhoea and vomiting. Enteric pathogens enter the body through the mouth, usually via contaminated food, water or hands. Wash your hands regularly and carry hand sanitiser. Avoid drinking water from the tap and order drinks without ice. Also, brush your teeth using bottled water. You will also notice the pollution, especially if you suffer from asthma – make sure you carry your inhaler. Consider packing a small first aid kit that includes sterile wipes for minor cuts, waterproof bandaids, Imodium, paracetamol and bug spray. Avoid street dogs. Some of them bite, and carry rabies.
If you plan on going trekking, allow yourself time to acclimatise to the altitude and don’t allow your trekking company to push you too far, too fast. Before you leave for Nepal, learn about Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) – and most importantly, learn how to avoid them.
Petty crime and scams
Local scams will start the moment you get off the plane, from the person who helps you with your bags expecting a payment for him and his friend, to the person who finds you a taxi and then rides with you to try and sell you trekking tours. If you are taking a taxi from the airport to one of the most popular tourist districts, Thamel, a taxi shouldn’t cost you any more than 700 rupees (approx. £4.75). Be aware of pickpocketing and bag snatching, especially around the airport. Wear hiking trousers with zip pockets and keep track of your passport and money at all times. Ask the hotel staff where it is safe to travel after dark, especially after 10pm. Be aware of the baby milk scam, where a woman and child ask you to buy them milk in a shop. The shop will sell it to you at a higher than normal price and then when you leave, the woman sells the milk back to the shop and they share the profits. Win/win, for them! Be aware of people trying to sell you marijuana on the streets. It’s illegal and there are undercover police who walk the streets.
Road traffic accidents
On your journey from the airport to your hotel, one of the first things you will notice is the poor condition of the roads and the sheer amount of traffic, sometimes five vehicles wide squeezed into two lanes, all trying to go in different directions. For the most part, you very rarely go anywhere over the speed of 30mph, however if you travel at night, either by taxi or bus, there is a higher chance of road traffic accidents. Always wear your seatbelt. Avoid travelling at night wherever possible.
Demonstrations and protests
While Nepal is mostly peaceful, it does have a long history of demonstrations, protests and civil unrest. Some by politicians, some by students, some by teachers and some by Maoists. The political situation has improved in recent years, but demonstrations still do occur and they have been known to turn violent. As a rule, avoid all demonstrations and protests. If you get caught in a large crowd, walk sideways to exit out of it, this will help you get through the crowd and to safety. Check local media when you travel for notifications of scheduled protests.
The risk of natural disasters in Nepal is ever present. It is located in an area of major seismic activity and in 2015 a 7.8 magnitude earthquake killed over 4,300 people, and triggered avalanches and flooding. Hundreds of sizeable aftershocks followed and a second major earthquake of 7.3 struck causing further deaths, injuries and destruction. If there is an earthquake, know how to react. Identify immediate risks to you such as falling debris. Hide under a table and protect your head. If you become trapped, don’t shout unless you can hear voices close by. Save your energy, you may be there for some time. Research and case studies of survival shows that you are more likely to be found and rescued by constantly tapping your hands or feet against something. It uses less energy than constantly shouting and sound location equipment used by search and rescue crews can detect tapping.
In addition, while trekking there is always a risk of landslides, avalanches and rockfall. If you are caught in a landslide or avalanche and are lucky enough to survive, your next task is to stay alive and not suffocate. Firstly, find which way is up. To do this, spit or urinate. If it flows away from you, you know that direction is down. Dig upwards. If you are trapped, don’t scream, it will use up valuable oxygen. Try and poke something upwards, a hiking stick or even a broken branch.
While natural disasters are a travel safety risk, they are not something you can predict, but you can plan for one. Have a plan and stick to it. If you are travelling with a group, arrange a place to meet if something major happens. Ideally a place that is easy to find with a reference point that is not too far away. On rainy days or days where the air is filled with smog, it’s sometimes difficult to see very far in Nepal, especially around Kathmandu.
Travel safety advice
Maintain a low profile. Don’t show signs of wealth and certainly don’t show that you are carrying large amounts of cash. Avoid wearing jewellery. Cameras and laptops can also attract unwanted attention. Monitor local media and social media for any news that may affect you on your stay. Share a copy of your travel itinerary with your family or friends at home. Also, give them a copy of your passport and insurance policy. In the event you lose your passport, it’s sometimes easier to get a replacement if you have a copy of it.
Don’t be a victim of the helicopter rescue scam in Nepal. If you are trekking and you genuinely feel like you cannot go on due to sickness or injury, then of course there are options available to get you to a nearby lodge at a lower altitude, or rescued by helicopter and taken to a hospital. However, if you complain of a minor ailment and the guide insists you take a helicopter, then it is up to you to refuse. Some unscrupulous guides are paid commissions for each trekker they get ‘rescued’ by helicopter. Don’t let them ruin your trip of a lifetime. Travel safe.
A version of this article appeared in Safe Travels Magazine