Namaste Nepal - 9 highlights of the real Land of Smiles

Namaste Nepal – 9 highlights of the real Land of Smiles

Nepal has become one of my favourite countries in the world, the Nepalese being the most friendly people I have ever met… And I’m heading back there next month – this time for a traditional wedding – I can’t wait to book the flights this weekend!

The Himalayas and Everest had been on my bucket list forever but after a little research I decided I would rather stay lower and explore more of the country than challenge myself to a long trek to Everest Base Camp.

My friend and I only had a short space of time and as we wanted to see so much, so I booked the trip through tour company NEAT which a friend had recommended. We gave them the specific places we wanted as part of the itinerary and they were fantastic, accommodating all of our requests, from visiting cultural capitals to trekking the Annapurnas, relaxing in yoga retreats and elephant trekking in the jungle. We even tagged on a few days in Tibet at the end, but I’ll save the details of that trip for another post.

Nine highlights of our incredible itinerary  included:

1. Kathmandu – the capital. We stayed in the lovely International Guesthouse right in the centre, walking distance from the old town area of Durbar Square and all the beautiful old temples and statues including Kumari Bahal (House of the Living Goddess), Basantapur Tower, Hanuman Statue and Jagannath Temple (complete with its series of erotic carvings). A recommended little rest stop on the way back is Snowman Cafe on Freak Street for some of the best chocolate cake around. Traditional Nepalese food is delicious and I would highly recommend dinner in the old town at Third Eye, and at Thamel House Restaurant (a converted old Newari house). For something a bit more refined, Krishnarpan at the five star Dwarikas Hotel was delicious and provided a six course taster meal of delicious traditional dishes. A short jaunt away is the unmissable Swayambhu Temple (also known as Monkey Temple due to the huge numbers of primates hanging around!)

2. Bhaktapur – one of the three royal cities with Kathmandu and Patan. We were lucky to be visiting during the time of Nepali New Year and so witnessed a fair few festivals, including catching the tail end of Bisket Jatra, which is held in the medieval town of Bhaktapur. Although most of the action was over when we arrived, we spied the festival chariots at Khalnon Tole. As one of the three royal cities it also has a historic Durbar Square, Royal Palace, as well as the 55 Window Palace (visible through the golden gate), and Siddhi Lakshmi Temple. As a result of the public holiday, there were limited craftsmen at work at Pottery Square, but it did mean we got to witness a buffalo sacrifice at Nyatapola Temple (well, we witnessed half of the ritual and then had to turn away!) I was treated to a birthday lunch with a view at Cafe Nyatapola at Taiumadhi Tole (thankfully this was before the buffalo met his untimely end as I’m not sure I would have had the stomach after!)

3. Nagarkot – renowned for its views of the Himalayas. Just the drive to the village alone is worth the trip, through forests and peaceful countryside villages. We stayed at Hotel Viewpoint, which was perfectly positioned to give us great sunrise views of the mountains from right outside our room, although it was little more than a chalet, so we headed out for dinner, wrapped up warm and equipped with head torches. I finished my birthday here in Sherpa Alpine Lodge and it was magical, little more than a hut lit by candles with a couple of guys working there (playing guitar more than serving food as there was only one other table). I was treated to a Happy Birthday serenade (not quite the lyrics I’ve ever heard!), fried apple momos (better than a cake any day) and tongba (alcohol made from millet, served with hot water – not something I would ever drink through choice, but it kept us warm!) The next day’s sunrise didn’t quite provide the views we hoped for due to cloud, but it was still a highlight of the trip.

4. Pashupatinath – home of one of the most significant Hindu temples of Lord Shiva in the world. Whilst Pashupatinath Temple was worth a visit, the most interesting part of the trip for me was the activity around Bagmati River.  The river is considered holy and as such Hindus are brought here to be cremated. There were a number of cremations going on when we visited, with one that was particularly high-profile and we awkwardly sat back to observe the rituals, which were pretty detailed. The experience itself was not particularly pleasant, watching others grieving and inhaling the fumes of several cremations was uncomfortable to sat the least, but a fascinating insight into local culture. This was also the only place where we got up close, and even spoke to, the sadhus (holy men).

5. Boudhanath Stupa – the biggest stupa in Nepal. Located on the outskirts of Kathmandu, we unfortunately had to visit during the public holiday to celebrate the birth of Buddha and as such it was teaming with pilgrims performing their circumnavigations. We managed to battle through however to see the two monasteries: Tsamchen Gompa and Guru Lhatchang Gompa and also got to check out the artists busy at work with their thangka paintings. We even indulged in some retail therapy, buying some beautiful mandalas at Tushita Heaven Handicrafts.

6. Patan or Lalitpur – the third of the royal cities. Again, our tour of this medieval town centred around Durbar Square. We also got to check out King Yoganarendras Malla’s statue, the Royal Palace, and the Golden Temple where we got to meet the main priest (who was less than 12 years old!). Our guide drove us to another lovely lunch spot on the way at Bakery Cafe, which provides work for deaf Nepali’s who would struggle to find work otherwise – and which also serves fab momos!

7. Trekking the Annapurnas. Due to our time restraints we opted for a three-day trek in the Annapurnas. We drove to Pokhara, where we dumped most of our kit at a hotel, deciding to share one backpack for the trekking itself. The car journey itself had already started to whet our appetite for the mountains, with stunning valley scenery and glimpses of the distant snow-capped peaks. We passed boatloads of white water rafters (maybe next trip!) before arriving at Tikkidunga. Here we left the car and then trekked through Nayapurl, Hele and Ulleri, staying at the cute little Laxmi Lodge, before attacking the day of steps that led to Ghorepani. After a distinctly unamusing number of steps (3,200 to be precise) and through spells of rain and hail, we were very happy to reach the fire at SuGreen View Guesthouse and partake in a hot chocolate with rum. The highlight of the trek was getting up and tackling the final climb up Poon Hill for sunrise and it was definitely worth the hardship, emerging from forests of brightly coloured rhododendrons and sweet-smelling magnolia to see the snowy mountaintops bathed in the pink light of dawn was magical.

8. Pokhara – the base for most treks in the Annapurnas. Pokhara was a great place to rest our weary limbs, with lovely cafes and highly recommended German bakeries, a good selection of shops selling handicrafts and jewellery, and some great cheap restaurants. The town centres around a picturesque lake (best enjoyed from a little boat at sunset with a couple of chilled Everests!) The highlights for me however were paragliding with eagles thanks to Sunrise Paragliding, and the trek recovery day we spent at an ashram. Swami Gopal was a real character and my friend and I spent a day at the Osho Meditation & Healing Temple practicing sound meditation, vipanyasia meditation, ashtanga yoga, prayama breathing and dance meditation, drinking Ayurvedic tea,and all finished off with a good massage.

9. Royal Chitwan National Park – a world heritage site known for its work  in protecting rhinos, tigers and crocodiles. The few days we spent here were possibly the best of the entire trip, and I would highly recommend Island Jungle Resort. This was the only budget friendly accommodation available actually on the island and within the park itself. To access the resort we had to cross by canoe in a beautifully peaceful, idyllic and serene setting. We spent most of our time here in the jungle with a mixture of elephant safaris, jungle walks, canoe safaris, 4×4 safaris and nature walks, and were lucky enough to catch sight of the elusive sloth bear, as well as the rare gharial crocodile and numerous rhinos (coming up close to them on foot certainly makes your pulse race, as does watching two rhinos fight from the back of an elephant!) The time in between excursions was spent lying around next to the river reading and relaxing, except for the daily elephant bathtime, which was one of my most treasured memories ever – climbing onto the back of my favourite elephant while he played in the river and then sprayed me with his trunk! We also got to meet the local Taru people here who treated us to a traditional stick dance.

It’s incredible to think that we covered all of these areas of Nepal – each destination an experience in itself – all within two weeks. Although we didn’t feel too rushed during the trip, I am looking forward to going back next month, and I’m certain it wont be for the last time.