The Nepalese tea houses of old used to be very basic. Often a family simply welcomed visitors into their home and you would sit with the family around their stove and while away the chilly evenings before unrolling your sleeping bags in a corner of the room. The conditions were often basic, but the welcome was warm and the experience was magical.
As the number of trekkers to popular areas has increased, it is inevitable that this model has had to develop. Nowadays, tea houses are often large buildings with separate bed rooms, communal lounges, running water and wifi. It is a very different experience, and yet the welcome is still warm and it is still a unique feature of trekking in the majestic Nepalese Himalayas.
However, the basic conditions can still be a shock for some western travellers and it pays to have some knowledge of how the tea house system works. So here you go….the Peak Mountaineering guide to tea house life.
Tea House trekking is a great way to travel. It is great to know that after a tough day on the trail there will be a comfortable bed and a hot meal available. It also offers a chance to chat to other trekkers, get the low down on the trail ahead and soak up the ambience. On the other hand, tea houses generally aren’t a luxury option. They can be basic, noisy, cramped and busy. It is important to be ready for what you’ll find.
Most tea houses will have an outdoor seating area, central lounge, basic toilets with some washing and shower facilities and a series of small bedrooms.
This outdoor space is a great place to relax at the end of a trekking day in the warmth of the afternoon sun and many have spectacular views, but you might well be sharing the space with other trekkers, some chickens and and occasionally a yak or two. Sometimes there is a garden area and other times it may be that there are just flat topped stone walls to perch on. They vary widely, but almost always offer amazing views.
The lounge is, for the trekkers at least, the heart of the tea house (often the staff may choose the warmth of the kitchen instead) and they are often beautifully decorated in traditional Nepalese style. They will have tables for eating meals and comfy bench seating for socialising. Almost always, in the centre if the room, there will be a large oil drum stove to provide warmth. This is usually fuelled by dried Yak dung (a very efficient fuel source) and they do a fantastic job of warming the room in the evening.
The bedrooms are basic but serve their purpose. Occasionally there may be teahouse bedrooms with ensuite toilets but that isn’t the norm. Mostly they have simple twin beds built from plywood and with a basic but comfortable mattress – although some have other configurations. There may be a small light but it is often solar powered and will only provide enough light to get organised – you’ll certainly need your torch for reading (well, definitely if your eyesight is like mine!).
Sometimes the bedrooms have blankets or quilts but you’ll usually want your sleeping bag as well. Infact, I have never come across a tea house bedroom that is heated and they get very cold at night – you will want a very warm sleeping bag. There are often pillows but I’m never sure how clean they are and so I prefer to take a pillowcase and inflatable pillow of my own. An alternative would be to take a pillowcase to cover the pillow provided.
Other things to note are that the walls are usually constructed from basic plywood sheets and you can often hear what’s going on in the bedroom next door (which means they can hear you!). Good earplugs are essential.
A final note on the bedrooms is they will usually have a padlock supplied to lock them from the outside and a simple sliding bolt to lock them once you are inside. That’s it really. Your bedroom will be basic but does its job for the many thousands of trekkers that pass along these trails each year.
The other thing you need to know about is the toilet and washing facilities. The main thing to point out straight away is that they will be basic….and sometimes very basic! This is inevitable given the locations these mountain lodges are in. They will usually have very basic plumbing and a limited water supply which probably comes from a mountain stream. It is, if you think about it like that, amazing how good they actually are!
The toilets will sometimes be squat toilets and sometimes western style sit toilets. The staff do a great job of keeping things clean and yet they are often quite smelly simply given the number of visitors and the basic plumbing. It is also likely that some fellow trekkers have dodgy bowels and you might be visiting the loo straight after them! They might have a flush system but normally there will be a drum of water and a small jug at the side and the technique is to pour a few buckets into the toilet bowl to flush it.
It is also important to not put items like toilet paper and sanitary products down the toilet as they can soon get blocked. There will be a bin in the cubicle for that purpose. On that note, toilet paper is very rarely provided and so keep a stash on hand. Similarly, be sure to carry your anti-bacterial gel with you at all times.
There will often be a few sinks and cold running water, but sometimes not. Again, there may be showers as well (but not always) and they are usually gas heated. You will have to pay for these and there are often only a few so be prepared to wait your turn. All in all, the washing and toilet facilities will be basic compared to what you are used too, but you simply need to embrace that difference.
You generally pay a low fixed rate price to stay in a tea house on the proviso that you also eat there. This is a great system and the food is usually varied and nutritious. The choices on the menu are often dictated by what is grown locally and so potato dishes or eggs, for example, are staple choices everywhere. For breakfast you can have everything from pancakes to porridge and for lunch most people stop into one of the many trailside cafes along their journey.
The menus will often feature western style choices like pizza and there will usually be Yak meat dishes like Yak steaks or burgers. Having said that, in my opinion at least, it does pay to consider going with local food choices and with vegetarian options whilst on the trail.
I suggest vegetarian simply because it is hard for meat to be stored effectively it is never possible to know how fresh it is. I suggest local because I think you get more food and, as good as the cooks are at producing everything, it seems to me that they really know their stuff with the local dishes. Of course, the classic choice in Nepal is the legendary Dahl Bhat and this is a delicious, nutritious and filling choice. It is also very likely that if you choose this you’ll be offered top ups of rice and dahl which is very welcome after a draining day on the trail.
Tea houses will usually stock various snack bars, the inevitable tubes of Pringles (which seem to be available everywhere in the world!) and soft drinks and alcohol. The prices rise as you get further into the mountains and access for the porter or Yak deliveries is harder, but still remain good value when you consider where you are.
You need to ensure all water you drink is safe. The tea houses will sell bottled water and, while you can take that option, the problem is that the cost will mount up and you’ll also be leaving behind a massive trail of plastic bottles. If you imagine drinking about 5 litres of water a day for 3 weeks or so – that is a lot of plastic. I prefer, and recommend to our groups, to chemically treat the water with chlorine dioxide. It is cheap, simple and effective. It also leaves virtually no taste in the water.
Another superb alternative is UV treated water. Some of the tea houses have purifying systems and they will fill your bottles for a small charge. This is a brilliant eco friendly option but is not available everywhere. The final choice for purification is boiling and you’ll no doubt drink your fair share of delicious milky tea or coffee on your tea house journey.
Internet and Power
Almost all tea houses nowadays have internet facilities. In some Himalayan areas you pay a one off fee at each tea house and in some areas you buy small cards that allow access. Be prepared that the speed is generally far slower than you would get in urban areas and the reliability is also very variable. You can often download a few emails or update social media, but even uploading a picture to Instagram will be beyond the service in some places.
One alternative is to bring an old phone and buy a local sim card while you are in Kathmandu or at the airport. This offers service in a surprising number of places and is very good value. I’ve favoured NCell on recent visits.
Lastly, in most places you can pay a small fee to charge small electronic items like phones and power banks. It really is no problem to stay powered up on your journey. The other alternative is to strap a solar panel t the outside of your rucksack and charge a power bank as you trek, but I tend to just take a decent sized power bank nowadays.
Other Things to Consider
If you are trekking with a company or local guide they will almost certainly pre book your tea house accommodation and this is important as they get very busy in peak season. If you are trekking independently try and do the same – it is high risk to turn up and expect to always find a room. On that note, because the tea houses are busy, take care to keep tabs on your personal possessions in the lounge area and lock your room while you are out and about. It is easy to leave things behind and that will almost always be something vital that you can’t afford to lose.
Some tea houses are dotted in isolated positions along the trails, but many are in villages or small communities. When you stay in these it is worth exploring the surroundings as there are often treats to discover. These could be small local shops, great viewpoints, religious sites and, in several places in the Khumbu Valley, yummy bakeries and coffee houses.
A few places also have lovely little museums and schools and, in the bigger places like Namche or Lukla at least, plenty of bars that show films, souvenir shops, money change places and even small laundries. Oh yes, and it is worth taking note that a few places, like Pheriche or Gokyo for example, have small medical posts that can offer assistance (and sometimes fascinating trekker education sessions) for medical problems or altitude related problems. Apart from these though, you need to be self sufficient for healthcare on your journey.
Lastly, cash rules on the trail. Make sure you have enough to buy what you need. Very few places will take credit card payments and, even if you can find somewhere that will, this will only be in the larger more accessible villages and won’t continue far into the mountains.
So there we go. I hope you have found this information useful and it better prepares you for your tea house travels. The experience is a unique part of the Nepal trekking experience and, although there will be things about it that challenge you, I hope you embrace it and relish every moment.
Posted by Paul