Souvenir Shopping in Nepal
Nepal is a souvenir lover's paradise. While I was there, it sometimes felt like there was a display of souvenirs around every corner. I am usually not a huge fan of shopping. However, since I am very sentimental, I love shopping for souvenirs abroad. I think it's because I enjoy owning items that remind me of what travel means to me. I typically try to focus on items that are consumable or practical. That being said, I also love buying art because a) it's good to support local artists and b) I'm a bit of a home decor fiend. (I know, I know. It's weird for someone who hasn't had a real living space in over 2 years to be a home decor fiend).
In this post, I will share with you all what to expect of souvenir shopping in Nepal. It's a doozy, though, so I've made a handy table of contents for you to use to skip around the post. Here you go! Hope you enjoy it & find it useful.
Table of Contents
Bargaining is the standard. Most vendors expect you to go back and forth on the price a little. One of the best ways to haggle is to say that you saw it cheaper somewhere else (which is usually the case) or to say that it's a beautiful item but you don't have enough rupees to cover it. If you get a chance to make friends with your hotel managers or tuk tuk drivers, ask them what they think something should cost. Our hotel managers in Kathmandu and Pokhara kept us from spending too much on everything from taxis to food.
I'll be honest, I still have a hard time bargaining/haggling for souvenirs. In Nepal, I struggled a lot because the first prices that vendors gave already seemed insanely cheap. I ended up frequently haggling smaller items down from just $5 USD (500 Nepali Rupees) to $3.50 (350 NPR). My custom became to request two or three hundred rupees less than asking price.
Where to Buy Souvenirs
As I mentioned earlier, it sometimes feels like souvenirs are available for sale around every corner in Nepal. In all honesty, though, the best places to find a wide variety of affordable souvenirs are Thamel in Kathmandu, Bhaktapur outside of Kathmandu, and Lakeside in Pokhara. I'd say those three areas have the biggest concentration of shops. Stayed tuned for things to buy in Pokhara, Kathmandu, and the rest of the country.
Clothes & Shoes
Embroidered T-Shirts. In Thamel & Kathmandu there are many tiny stalls featuring men using gas-powered sewing machines, surrounded by t-shirts with embroidered scenery & slogans. Common themes include "Everest Base Camp" or "Annapurna Circuit" with a mountain range or three yaks and a yeti with the phrase "Yak Yak Yak Yeti."
Woven Pants & Tops. Usually in a striped pattern (see image on the lower left below), these clothes are just as comfy as pajamas but work perfectly well as streetwear. Pants tend to be of the elastic waist band & drawstring variety. Tops tend to have 3/4 length sleeves.
Traditional Nepali Dress. In the shopping districts of any city in Nepal, garment stores can be found selling clothes that your average Nepali person wears. This includes everything from saris and kurtas to tunics and sherpa robes.
Yak Wool Shawls and Ponchos. In Kathmandu & Pokhara, every other shop seems to be selling (purported) yak wool scarves, shawls, and ponchos. Whatever sort of material it may actually be, these items come in a variety of patterns and colors. See photo on the bottom right. Side note; unless you are a wool connoisseur, I'm not sure there's any way you can know whether the wool is authentic or not.
Colorful Flats. In Thamel & Lakeside, there were a handful of vendors selling both clothes and super vibrant, somewhat cheaply made flats. These flats feature colorful embroidery and are sometimes mirrored as well. I couldn't resist a pair of my own - click the photo below on the bottom left for more detail.
Knit Hats, Gloves, & Booties. Any shop that sells camping gear is probably going to be located next to a shop full of warm weather wear such as hand-knit hats, gloves, and booties.
Food & Consumables
Masala Chai Blends. Masala Chai is the tastiest. It's served with milk and sugar and has a very peppery aftertaste. Every single breakfast place and hotel in Nepal is going to serve you Masala Chai. Don't pass up on the opportunity to buy your own blend to take home - just make sure it is well sealed for when you reach customs. The best place to buy masala chai is not at the overpriced tea shops of Thamel and Lakeside but at the actual grocery store. It's cheaper there and also more likely to be the same kind your guesthouse uses.
Other Teas. If you're after other teas such as Ilam, Nepal's answer to Darjeeling, that's when you will want to buy tea from a designated tea shop in Kathmandu or Pokhara.
Coffee. Like Masala Chai, this product is best bought from the nearest grocery store. Emmett and I picked up some vacuum-packed Himalayan Arabica Roasted Coffee for some of our friends & family back home.
Himalayan Pink Salt. This might be the most commonly exported item from the Himalayn region. I was pleased to find 200 gram baggies of pink salt rocks at a grocery store in Thamel for less than $2 each.
Khukuri Rum. Other than Everest Beer and the barely-drinkable homemade liquor known as raksi, Khukuri Rum is really the only alcohol to be found all around Nepal. It is a pretty okay dark rum that will suit you well after a long trek.
Jackets & Sportswear. Let's say you just came to Nepal after being in a warmer climate. In Thamel and Lakeside, pretty much every other shop will have the following: fleece and down jackets, wool base layers, hiking pants, boots, gloves and anything else you can imagine you night need. Even better, if you don't want to take any of those items home, most of them can be rented for as long as your trekking lasts.
Knock-Offs Galore. Though you can find quality brand name used gear, so much outdoor gear for sale in Nepal is a big old knockoff. (Check out my "North Face" duffel bag in the picture below). Sometimes it's impossible to tell on some of the items, especially base layers and fleeces. However, the best way to tell is to see if there are multiple brand names on the item. For instance, Emmett bought a jacket with a North Face logo on the front but a zipper that said Roxy. Also, misspellings of brand names are always a dead giveaway.
Trekking Equipment. Trekking poles, sleeping bags, backpacks, and tents... They can all be had at affordable pries for rent and sale at these same sort of outdoor shops in Lakeside & Thamel.
Tibetan Jewelry. Tibetan jewelry in Nepal consists of real or fake coral and turquoise stones. Most of the turquoise and red coral stuff in Nepal that is loose in shops or on street displays is not even a little real. But I still got some cause it's pretty. The real thing can be found at jewelry shops with glass displays and higher price tags.
Every Type of Dangly Earring Ever Made. Brass earrings, silver-plated earrings, brightly colored tassels and pom poms... Seriously every kind of earring that dangles is available. Especially in shops in Thamel. I bought so many pair for myself and friends.
Beaded Necklaces & Bracelets. In Kathmandu, you can often find women with beaded jewelry displays on the side of alleys and squares. You can buy pre-made necklaces and bracelets or request a pattern or color scheme of your own.
Woven "Friendship" Bracelets. These are in nearly every store in Thamel. Chevrons, stripes, you name it. Usually found in bright neon colors.
Stone-Carved Jewelry. Tends to be flat stones featuring carvings of Buddha's Eyes, the Ohm symbol, and other religious imagery. Saw these the most being sold along the steps up to Swayambhunath.
Traditional Hindi Jewelry. Beautiful silver anklets, nose rings, toe rings, colorful bangles and more can be found at stores where Nepali women shop - typically outside of the typical tourist districts like Thamel or Lakeside.
Woven Tapestries & Rugs
Tapestries. Woven tapestries (like those pictured above) seem to be most prevalent in Bhaktapur, Kathmandu's old city. They typically feature scenery and/or animals.
Rugs. There are rugs of every variety to be had, frequently they are woven by TIbetan refugees and can found in Tibetan refugee camps in Pokhara, Kathmandu, & the rest of the country. You can even watch women weaving new rugs at some locations (see image below). We bought a rug and it's one of the most distinctive ones you can get. It's a stylized tiger and I love it.
Prayer Beads. Used in a similar fashion to the Catholic rosary, Buddhist prayer beads can be bought outside of any Buddhist temple or stupa. There is a particularly wide variety available at the shops down the street from Swayambhunath Temple in Kathmandu. In contrast, there is a surprising lack of variety of beads to be had at Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha in Southern Nepal.
Buddhist & Hindu Icons. Like prayer beads, religious icons seem to be most prevalent at religious sites. Quite a few can be found in the shopping districts of Lakeside & Thamel as well.
Prayer Flags. Prayer flags can be found at just about every book shop and religious site in the country.
Tibetan Thangkas. Thangkas are elaborate, colorful paintings on fabric that feature mandalas, the Buddha, and other religious scenes. Shops dedicated solely to thangkas seem to exist around Buddhist sites throughout the country.
Brass Bits & Bobs
Vessels, Baubles, & Trinkets. A select few of these can be founds at the typical tourist shops - again in Thamel or Lakeside - but shops like the one above that exclusively sell brass items are found in Bhaktapur.
Tibetan Singing Bowls. Many shopfronts and tables in the tourist districts will feature these little brass bowls with matching mallets. Typically used in meditation, these inverted bells, make a pleasant sound when their matching mallet is run around the inner lip.
Stationery, Books, Etc.
Rice Paper Products. Cards, notebooks, and other stationery products made from rice paper can be found in any bookstore in Thamel or Lakeside.
Embroidered Patches. Remember those stalls I mentioned in the clothing section where men sit on sewing machine surrounded by embroidered t-shirts? Those same places sell patches that are embroidered. They typically depict popular tourist destinations in Nepal (i.e. my Chitwan National Park patch in the photo above).
Mountaineering Guides & Maps. Since the number one activity that tourists in Nepal participate in is trekking, it makes sense that all the book stores (and some of the gear stores) in Kathmandu & Pokhara are full of mountaineering books and ephemera.
Kukri Knives. Kukri knives are curved blades used by Nepali people both as weapons and as tools... but most often as tools. The curved blade is pretty neat looking if you want to nab a knife for your blade-lovin' buds or yourself. They seem to be available at any sort of general Nepal souvenir shop.
So: there you have it. Hopefully I have covered almost anything you might want to know about buying cool gifts and souvenirs in Nepal. Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions for things to add in the comments. :)