How not to cause offense...
In addition to the GHT Code of Conduct there are lots of common sense lessons learned from years of trekking in the hills. Almost anyone who visits the Himalaya returns with a story of another tourist’s inappropriate behaviour or dress. To commit the occasional faux pas is inevitable when exploring foreign shores and local people will often make light of your indiscretion. However, taking advantage of traditional hospitality without understanding the implications, overt ostentation, disrespecting ceremonies or customs, and dressing inappropriately are all considerable insults and should be avoided at all costs.
If you are unsure how to behave then follow the lead of a local, and if necessary ask questions. Everyone will understand that you are trying to do the right thing and you’ll be given all the support to participate in local lives to the fullest. This list of Do’s and Don’ts is by no means exhaustive, so please apply liberal amounts of common sense to your day.
1. Respect cultures and traditions
(a) Consideration be a considerate guest at all times. Himalayan cultures are rich and diverse and can sometimes confuse a visitor but if you are friendly, approachable and consider those around you before yourself, you will always earn the respect of locals.
(b) Photos ask before taking a photo, as many people prefer not to be photographed for personal, cultural or superstitious reasons.
(c) Gift giving the complex patina of Nepali society sometimes calls for gift giving or making a donation; this may be to a monastery or shrine, at a wedding, or at a cultural program. Whenever you are faced with needing to give a gift you should seek the advice of a Nepali to work out what is appropriate. The method of or the formality associated with giving a gift is often as important as the gift itself so make sure you are aware of any protocols.
(d) Affection do not show affection in public.
(e) Bathing showing your genitalia when bathing is offensive. Use a sarong, modesty screen or shower tent and when visiting a hot spring try to behave modestly.
2. Benefit local communities, commercially and socially
(a) Share skills and experience teach when you can, offer a fair rate of pay for services, participate in activities whenever invited.
(b) Do not publicly argue, drink excessively or fight. Demonstrations of anger are considered an embarrassing loss of face on your behalf.
(c) Begging of all the negative impacts tourists have had in the Himalaya, the encouragement of begging along the trail is probably the most problematic. Handing out candy (referred to as sweets, mitai or bonbons) to children who never clean their teeth is thoughtless and irresponsible. Giving money to small children in return for picked flowers is destructive and illegal in all National Parks. If your conscience struggles with the wealth divide then provide skills through training and education, or donate to one of the major charities based in the major cities. But do not just give away items along the trail and so perpetuate a habit that ultimately only reduces self-esteem and can cause long-term problems. If you aren’t convinced of the negative effects of pandering to cute children then trek away from the main trails and experience the genuine, openhearted joy that children show tourists without the expectation of a ‘reward’.
3. Adopt new customs
(a) Clothing do not wear tight or revealing clothing, especially if you are a woman. There is a firm dress code followed by all Himalayan women and is only not observed by the very poor or for special reasons.
- It is considered offensive to expose your knees, shoulders and chest at all times and especially in any place of worship. Unfortunately for women, this means that wearing detachable leg pants is not very sympathetic to local customs in the Himalaya, and cropped tops of any description should be avoided. Men can wear long shorts but should avoid exposing their chests.
- It is also considered offensive to highlight genitalia, so avoid wearing stretch or very tight clothing around the chest or groin area.
(b) Entering homes it is critical that you wait to be invited into a home. The social systems that operate throughout much of the Himalaya prescribe a rigid hierarchy of which rooms you may or may not be allowed to enter, respect the wishes of the homeowner. The cooking-fire area is often sacred so always check if you can dispose of burnable rubbish before consigning it to the flames.
(c) Greetings In India and Nepal people greet eat other with the traditional, ‘Namaste!’ Sometimes they will shake hands, especially if they are involved in the tourism sector or have retired from the Royal Gurkha Rifles, but in general you should avoid touching people, especially of the opposite gender. In Bhutan, ‘Kozu Zangpo La!’ with palms upturned is a traditional welcome. Wherever you are, a warm greeting or thanks, or taking a little time to play or practice English is always preferable to a short or quick reply. It will both build respect and relieve any stress you may feel from curious locals.
(d) Eating do not use your left hand to eat or pass objects. Traditionally all Himalayan people eat only with the right hand, the left being considered unclean. Therefore pass foodstuffs to another person with your right hand and use your left as little as possible. You should also avoid touching the lip of a vessel to your mouth, just pour the drink into your mouth.
(e) Offering payment and/or gifts it is respectful to use both hands, or with your right hand while touching your left hand to your right elbow.
(f) Language learn some basic phrases and use them as often as possible.
1. Tread softly stick to trails and recognised camping areas. Avoid creating new tracks, or damaging the environment in any way. Follow the adage: take only photos, leave only footprints.
2. Pack it in, pack it out avoid taking tins, glass, or plastic containers and bags unless you plan to carry them back to a major city.
3. Conserve water quality wash away from water sources, and always use local toilet facilities when available. Bury all organic waste at least 30cm below the ground and 50m away from water sources.
4. Conserve natural resources what few resources there are belong by right to the locals. Always ask permission before using anything along the trail. It is illegal to disturb wildlife, remove animals or plants, or buy wildlife products.
1. Beware of altitude sickness use the buddy system to watch for symptoms of altitude sickness. Make sure everyone remains fully hydrated by drinking water throughout the day, everyday. Stay together along the trail, and communicate frequently with everyone.
2. Be safe carry an extensive first-aid kit and know how to use it. Have multiple plans for emergency evacuation and designated decision makers. Leave your itinerary details with someone responsible at home.
3. Be self-reliant don’t assume you will receive help or assistance. Ensure your group has extensive field-craft and navigation skills. Research thoroughly, is your route appropriate for your party? Do you have the necessary skills, experience, resources and equipment?
4. Remain hydrated drinking between two and four litres of water per day will help prevent altitude sickness and improve your body’s recovery time.
5. Don’t rush there are no prizes for coming first on the trail and rushing will probably over-stress your body and may increase your chances of suffering from altitude sickness. Frequent stops to drink water and rest often become photo opportunities and a chance to chat with locals.
6. Trekking poles that more people aren’t impaled by absent-minded trekkers swinging their poles is amazing. Be aware of the pole tips, especially when crossing bridges or negotiating narrow or steep trails.
7. Beware of yaks many porterage animals you meet along the trail are yaks or hybrids of yaks and cattle, and all of them can be dangerous. Every season at least one tourist will die because they got too close to the large horns or were knocked from a bridge. If you see any pack animals (even donkeys cause accidents) coming along the trail you should scramble up the hillside of the trail and wait until they pass.
8. iPod use rather than listening to the noise of life along the trail some people prefer to plug in to an iPod. Doing so puts you at greater risk from animals and rock fall.
9. Common courtesy the trail is often busy, especially at steep or difficult sections. A common courtesy is to give way to people walking up-hill, or to those who are obviously struggling or carrying a very large load.