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Nepal's Cultural Do's and Don'ts

Nepal is a land of windswept peaks that reach up to the highest point on earth, and subtropical lowlands rich in biodiversity. There are also many religions, ethnic groups, languages and traditions. It is home to Lumbini—the birthplace of the Buddha—and the Pashupatinath Temple of Lord Shiva, a pilgrimage site for Hindus. Taking into consideration the array of cultural practices and rituals, there is some general etiquette to follow when traveling to this wondrous country.

Here are some guidelines to follow during your stay in Nepal:

  • A traditional way of greeting and bidding farewell is the warm salutation namaste (nah-mah-stay) or the more formal namaskar (nah-mah-scar). Place the palms together and bow slightly, especially when meeting an older person.
  • Elders should be treated with marked respect.
  • Show patience and friendliness, and refrain from displays of anger.
  • Public displays of affection between men and women are discouraged.
  • When a person gives a headshake or bobble, tipping the head from side to side, this means “yes.”
  • The same respect for privacy you would have for people at home applies to photographing people during your trip. Take photographs of people or objects only after receiving permission. You needn’t speak the local language—just hold up your camera, smile and point. If they refuse, respect it. If you take someone’s photo and they request a copy, do your best to send it.
  • Although you may see younger people wearing more revealing clothing, you should try to dress modestly. This is especially true for women.
  • In many Hindu temples, non-Hindus are not allowed to walk inside certain parts of the temple complex.
  • Leather articles such as wallets, belts and bags are prohibited inside most Hindu temples. Be cognizant that these are sacred places where people come to pay their respects and be sure to ask for permission before taking photographs inside a temple.
  • Don’t point at sacred items or paintings. Instead, motion with your chin or extend your hand, palm flat and skyward, at the object you’re referencing.
  • While walking, always pass manis (carved stones), chortens/stupas (Buddhist monuments) and prayer flagpoles with your right side facing the sacred object.
  • It is demeaning to sit on mani stones, as they are inscribed with the mantra of Avalokitesvara, a being of enlightenment who embodies the compassion of Buddha. The same respect applies to stupas, as these sacred structures contain relics and are places of meditation and worship for Buddhists.
  • When entering temples or a Nepalese home, remove footwear and hats. Dress conservatively in a way that expresses respect for the place of worship or household.
  • Do not enter someone’s home without an invitation. They may only welcome you to the porch or yard.
  • Wherever you go, you will be offered tea. Accept it politely, even if you will not drink it.
  • Wash your hands before and after meals.
  • Food should only be touched with the right hand. However, the left hand may be used for holding utensils, glasses and bowls.
  • Don’t touch other’s food, plates, cooking utensils or serving dishes with your spoon, fork or hand used for eating. Don’t eat from other’s plates or drink from their bottles or glasses. It is considered impure.
  • Avoid touching people with the left hand, as it is considered unclean and will cause insult. Keep this in mind and use your right hand when giving or accepting any object. To use both hands is even more respectful.
  • Feet are considered dirty. Never touch anything with your feet, and don’t point the bottom of your feet at religious altars or toward people. This is regarded as an offense among Nepalese. To avoid this, sit cross-legged or kneel on the floor while in a temple or holy place. If you must extend your legs, point them away from sacred icons. Never turn your backside to a religious statue.
  • Do not step over a person sitting or lying on the floor, as it is offensive.
  • We don’t want to encourage begging, so we discourage handing out things to children, such as money, pens and balloons. Candy and other sweets are particularly damaging, as they contribute to dental problems, especially in rural villages. Handing out gifts also creates unrealistic expectations. More positive suggested ways to communicate with children include blowing bubbles, drawing funny pictures, tossing a Frisbee or ball, or taking photos on a digital camera and showing them their images.
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