Travel Sustainably | NEPAL | How I Tried To Travel Responsibly

Travel Sustainably is a Teja on the Horizon article series reviewing my efforts to travel more responsibly. This first edition reviews new things I tried when I travelled to NEPAL - whether by pre-planning, or from the opportunities I found while there. It covers what I did well, what I would keep doing/using, what I would do differently next time, and what I failed to do. 

The Journey to Sustainable Travel

When I was preparing to go to Nepal and India, I was cognisant that this was a milestone trip for me. This would be the first time I travelled alone, for a whole month. I would travel completely differently than I have ever travelled before. 

So I thought, this was the perfect trip to see just how much sustainability I could realistically pack in. Not for this trip only - I was looking for things I could change, that easily becomes the new normal. 

And here's how I did, in Nepal. Maybe you would find some ideas here, that you could try too! 

Annapurna in the Monsoon Day 7: To the Base Camp on a Trail of Flowers | Annapurna Base Camp trek | Annapurna Sanctuary trek | Machapuchare base camp | monsoon flowers in Nepal highlands | alpine summer flowers | Asian female trekking | Teja on the Horizon

Come on the sustainability journey

Intentional Habit Changes to Travel Sustainably

There were five new things I intentionally prepared to try, to travel sustainably in Nepal. 

Support women's empowerment

How: While I was doing research for trekking in the Annapurnas, I discovered 3 Sisters Adventure Trekking, which trains and provides female trekking guides and porters for trekking tourists. 3 Sisters is also female-owned, and the first to open up this career option for Nepali women. 

Additional Benefits: I personally felt more comfortable trekking with other women, especially since I was doing it solo. A female guide/ porter more or less your age also has a different style of interaction - we ended up taking photos together and enjoying things like flowers and butterflies. 

Downsides: I can't really think of any downsides, vs taking a male guide/ porter, since I didn't even pack up to the weight limit of my female porter. 

Do again? If I go on a trekking expedition again, I think I would look out for the option for female guides, especially in developing countries. 

Complete the travel without using any plastic bottled water

How: I brought two refillable water bottles (because I would be trekking at the start of the trip). I also took the recommendation of an outdoorsy friend and bought a portable mini water filter.

Outdoor tech has really come a long way these days. The filter is really light and compact, and filters water to potable levels comparable to municipal treatment standards. Unless you're doing hardcore outdoor camping / offroad stuff, you just need to bring the filter itself and its squeeze bag. They both fit into a small pouch. When you're back from the trip, simply follow the instructions to clean out the filter for long-term storage. 

Additional benefits: The need to spend money to buy water drops to nil. The filter is so convenient to use (filters two medium size bottles in less than 10 minutes) that it is actually even more convenient than going out to find a place that sells bottled water. I literally just filtered tap water from the bathroom even when I was at guesthouses. 

Downsides: A little bit of upfront investment in the tool. Of the filtration-type solutions, at the time I was shopping online, the Sawyer Mini Filter was the best deal. 

Do again? It is now part of my standard travel kit. 

portable water filter | outdoor gear | sustainable travel essentials | travel sustainability review | Travel Sustainably Nepal edition How I Tried to Travel Responsibly | Teja on the Horizon

Sawyer Mini portable water filter with squeeze bag (top); all packed up in a little pouch, with pen for scale (bottom)

Avoid accepting single-use containers

How: From past travel, I knew that at some point I may want to pack leftovers for later, or buy takeaway snacks. And I also wanted to avoid taking non-recyclable plastic lined coffee cups. Again, I tapped into the inventions now available for outdoor enthusiasts. Specifically, the collapsible bowls and cups, because they were lightweight, and would only take a small amount of space in the backpack. 

Additional benefits: The lids are super airtight, if you get the proper gear. Very unlikely to get spills out from them. In fact, when I carried stuff across significant altitude differences, it got super hard to open because of the pressure change.

Downsides: If you seal them at an ambient pressure that is significantly different from when you want to open them, it can get a bit hard to open again. Not that this would be relevant for most trips. Also, you would need access to clean water to wash them between uses. (Not as big a problem if you happen to also be carrying the #2 item, a portable water filter). 

Do again? For backpacking travel, yes. It's easier to just eat in at restaurants if on work travel, though. Caveat: I keep packing them in my check-in luggage, and so I always don't have the cup with me in airports. So next time I need to remember to put them in my carry-on. And I think I need to find a slightly bigger cup. 

airtight collapsible bowl and cup with lid | outdoor gear | sustainable travel essentials | travel sustainability review | Travel Sustainably Nepal edition How I Tried to Travel Responsibly | Teja on the Horizon

Collapses almost flat

Maximise my airplane luggage allowance for the benefit of others

How: I came across a great website when I was doing all this prep work, Pack for a Purpose. It collates the needs of a lot of different local charities and projects from all over the world. For example, a school in Nepal might need stationery and mathematical instruments. So you bring your donation in kind, in whatever spare luggage space/allowance you have, and drop it off at the designated location. 

What's great about the website is that it allows the projects to specifically request what they actually need, and there is a time stamp to tell you when the list was last verified. This way you have the peace of mind that you are indeed bringing things which the community will find useful. 

Additional benefits: Since you're dropping off real things in person, there is an opportunity for fraternity with the local people of the country you're visiting. 

Downsides: Some extra time for the logistics of dropping off the items. For example, I chose to bring some supplies for a school near Pokhara. I didn't contact them ahead and didn't realise that the lodge which volunteered to be the drop-off point is closed in the monsoon season. So before I went on my Annapurna Sanctuary trek, I had to arrange to link up my guesthouse with the lodge, for them to pick up the stuff the next time they visit Pokhara Lakeside (in a few days). 

Do again? Yes, but next time I would check beforehand on the pickup arrangements. 

Pack for a Purpose initiative | sustainable travel | travel sustainability review | Travel Sustainably Nepal edition How I Tried to Travel Responsibly | Teja on the Horizon

Small batch of school supplies

Support ethical outlets

How: In my preparations I found a great article compiling a list of restaurants and cafes, with an ethical side to them. So I cross referenced them with where I was planning to stay and visit, and saved their details to my travel plan. You gotta eat, and it might as well go to support something awesome. 

Additional benefits: It is a good opportunity to learn about local values and issues. 

Our Sansar NGO's Cafe with No Name in Thamel, Kathmandu | sustainable travel | travel sustainability review | Travel Sustainably Nepal edition How I Tried to Travel Responsibly | Teja on the Horizon

Support a local ethical eatery

Downsides: Some of the places can be hard to find though. One was closed at the time I went (perhaps because it's off peak season). And... there are downsides with calling your cafe 'No Name'.

Although, ironically, it was the one cafe I did find. And the pasta was pretty good. 

[Excuse me, do you know where the No Name Cafe is? 

Not sure... what is it called? 

Er... No Name. 

It has no name?

No, no... the name of the cafe is No Name.

Is there a name or is there no name for this cafe? 

You get the idea.]

Do again? Unless someone has handily compiled such a list for my travel destination, it can take considerable effort to plan this. So I probably would limit myself to the easier travel habit of prioritising local businesses. But if I find a similar list again, I would make the effort to match up. 

Serendipitous Opportunities to Travel Sustainably

While there are things you can prepare from the outset to travel sustainably, don't forget to keep an open mind when you have arrived. Sometimes, you come across opportunities that you didn't know about, and could not have planned for. 

During my Nepal trip, I found two. 

Tibetan refugees

What happened: I met with some Tibetan refugees selling jewellery by Lake Phewa, during my stay in Pokhara. I came by to talk to one of them in particular, an affable older woman, more than once. Some of them asked me if I had cold weather clothing to spare. I did bring thermals with me, even though it was the summer, because I was trekking up to the base camp. I ended up giving away most of them. The story for that encounter is told on the travel website, She Roams Solo.  

Tibetan jewelry hawker by Lake Phewa, Pokhara | sustainable travel | travel sustainability review | Travel Sustainably Nepal edition How I Tried to Travel Responsibly | Teja on the Horizon

Ethical cashmere

What happened: When I was walking along the main street of Lakeside, Pokhara, a cashmere merchant invited me in for tea, because he recognised me as a fellow Muslim. He and his daughter were already hosting an Indonesian solo female traveller, and invited me as well - I accepted. While we were there, a couple of British girls also joined us, and while we were all curiously looking around the shop, we learned they were a pedigree of certified Kashmiri master weavers.

So we asked about their cashmere. 

That was when we discovered that the way their cashmere is still produced has many traits that would be considered fair trade and ethical. But our local hosts do not know that these things have value. For them, why would you do business any other way?  

It never entered their minds to differentiate their products from an ethical standpoint. Nor are they savvy enough to sell their wares online, even though they knew it is a big channel nowadays.

We all came away thinking that someone should do something about this. (In fact, we tried to set up an Etsy store, but it got too hard). 

Fast forward to one year later, and somehow I ended up catalysing a partnership to... well, 'do something about this'!

It's still a work in progress, with a steep learning curve though! 

Have a look at -! As far as I can tell, we are the only online brand of cashmere where we make a point for the local partner to be at least just as visible as the parties from outside the region. We believe genuine empowerment means parity in the partnership.

All support greatly appreciated! 

Teja with the family of Ghulam Beigh in his cashmere shop in Pokhara, and fellow travel writer Nur Baiti Hikaru | sustainable travel | travel sustainability review | Travel Sustainably Nepal edition How I Tried to Travel Responsibly | Teja on the Horizon

Discovering ethical cashmere

Fails: Irresponsible Travel Regrets

This wouldn't be a complete and honest review if I didn't mention where I fell short, despite knowing better. There was one that stuck most prominently in my mind. 

Reusable carry bag

What happened: Actually I did bring a cloth carry bag. However, I constantly forgot to bring it with me when going out and about. Partly this was also because I occasionally used it to separate portions of my packing, so it was not always available to use. As a consequence, I often found myself without a carry bag when buying things.

This is very disappointing for me, because at home I seldom forget them. 

Trying my best to refuse disposable plastic bags | sustainable travel | travel sustainability review | Travel Sustainably Nepal edition How I Tried to Travel Responsibly | Teja on the Horizon


How I improvised: I would try to pack my purchases in whatever bag I had with me - sometimes I had my day backpack. One time, I brought some bananas back tied to my wrist with my own hair elastic band.

Otherwise I did take a bag, but re-used it thereafter for subsequent trips out. The good thing about Nepal is that, it seems fairly standard there to give out a sturdier form of carry bag, which is a kind of faux-fabric material. So although the material is probably plastic in origin, it is designed to be a multiple use item. I rarely saw the flimsy, plastic shopping bags there. 

What I would do differently: I have since acquired packing cubes, which help keep my things more organised. I reckon this means I wouldn't be forced to use my carry bag for that purpose, thus making it easier to remember I have it. 

Sustainability Discoveries: Honourable Mention

Part of the value of travel is to widen your perspective and see the different ways that people do the same things or solve the same problems. This is where I recount the three things I saw in Nepal that I found interesting. 

Plastic recycling 

I did not expect there to be plastic recycling in Nepal. After all it is a poor, developing country that was just struck by an earthquake not so long before I came.

Public collection bin for recyclable plastic bottles in Pokhara | sustainable travel | travel sustainability review | Travel Sustainably Nepal edition How I Tried to Travel Responsibly | Teja on the Horizon

Correctly used! Wow!

However, not only was there a community-driven waste collection initiative within the Annapurna Conservation Area itself, in parts of Pokhara I saw collection bins for plastic bottles. For example, along the trail up to the World Peace Pagoda

Even more impressive than the existence of such collection points, is that they were actually correctly used. There were indeed only plastic bottles in there.

I think back to my own country - much wealthier and closer to developed status - where recycling bins are frequently misused, resulting in a pointless mix of waste. Actually, this is pretty much the same across the Southeast Asia region. 

How come Nepalis can do it? Or do they just get a better quality of tourists? 

Leaf plates

While wandering around Kathmandu Durbar square dutifully listening to the tour guide drone on about facts and dates, stifling flashbacks to history class in school, I was distracted by something much more curious.

Stacks of leaves being turned into plates in Kathmandu Durbar square | sustainable travel | responsible travel | eco-friendly travel | travel tips | ethical travel | mindful travel | slow travel | Travel Sustainably Nepal edition How I Tried to Travel Responsibly | Teja on the Horizon

Fast plates for fast food?

Later, after the tour was over, I came over to examine it more closely. 

In the shadow of the temples and idols of the square, a few women were busy at work. Quick, deft fingers turned leaves into plates and bowls in a matter of seconds - for sale. The plates were single-use and disposable - but they were biodegradable and renewable. 

Maybe this partly explains why I didn't see plastic or styrofoam being a ubiquitous thing yet in Nepal. And I hope it never will be. 

Ethical handicrafts

In the same vein as supporting ethical outlets, I came across an interesting shop in Pokhara. You would need to walk quite a way south along the shopping road of Lakeside. Here there is a Nepali handicraft store which is run by the charity Yes Helping Hands. The crafts are made by the deaf and blind.

I wasn't looking to buy crafts, since I was travelling light and had a long way to go yet. But it would be a good place to prioritise, if you were looking for souvenirs. 

Handicraft Nepali souvenirs by the deaf and blind | Yes Helping Hands | sustainable travel | responsible travel | eco-friendly travel | travel tips | ethical travel | mindful travel | slow travel | Travel Sustainably Nepal edition How I Tried to Travel Responsibly | Teja on the Horizon

Hope they're still there

PIN THIS for your upcoming sustainable trip to Nepal!

Travel Sustainably Nepal edition How I Tried to Travel Responsibly | sustainable travel | responsible travel | eco-friendly travel | travel tips | ethical travel | mindful travel | slow travel | Teja on the Horizon portable water filter | reusable collapsible bowl and cup | Pack for a Purpose | support ethical outlets | plastics recycling


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40 Responses

  1. Mayuri Patel says:

    These are such great tips for travelling responsibly and sharing your life with others.We can help in anyway.This is also on how travel can help others anywhere in the world.Great post
    Thank you for sharing it

    • Teja says:

      I think that a lot of travel and tourism assumes that just because you came, the locals are happy. My aspiration is to get myself into the mindset whereby, if I travel somewhere, the host community is happy that I came. I think that’s a different way of explaining sustainable travel, and maybe it’s a more relatable one?

  2. Mayuri says:

    Thank you for sharing such an eye opening article, there are so many things that can be done to promote sustainability. Some of the options that you mentioned here are actually traditional and unique – like leaf plates. In India, when we eat from leaf plates, they also taste amazing :)

    • Teja says:

      In Malaysia, we used to eat with banana leaf as a plate, and even longer before that, we used to cook in bamboo, but we never wove leaves into plates like these!

  3. Kris says:

    I’ve never heard of Packing with a Purpose before! It sounds like something I’ll have to look into for my next trip. Some of the other changes you noted seem so small, but if everyone makes those efforts it can have a huge effect.

  4. Leigh says:

    These are such great tips and many would work well for any destination! I love that you found a company of female porters in Nepal, that’s definitely what I would want to do as well. Thanks for sharing!

  5. I love that you highlight a spot where you fell short of your goals – and then offered interesting ways in improvise. I’m the same with bags… and I totally kick myself when I forget (even when grocery shopping an using the bulk section I like to bring reusable containers). And the bananas + elastic was super clever!

    • Teja says:

      I absolutely believe in being honest with fails as well as successes. I think that way we can learn from each other’s mistakes and see them as a natural part of change (and not feel like maybe these mistakes are me alone…)!

  6. I am completely fascinated by the Packing for a Purpose! I want to find a way to travel and bring something useful. I think it’s such a splendid idea. Great article!

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