It was pretty out of the blue that I got invited to attend the Himalayan Travel Mart in Nepal this May as I had applied months ago and honestly forgotten all about it. But that's part of my job, and the exciting part was that it also came with a pre-conference tour which was going to show me the most beautiful places of Nepal.
In my mind, Nepal was all about the Himalayas. Everest and Annapurna base camp, lots of ice and snow and rocks, and being incredibly cold. After only barely making it up Table Mountain in Capte Town at the beginning of the year I knew I was in no shape and form to manage that, and so I was very relieved that we could choose from a variety of trips, some which focused more on what to do in Nepal beyond trekking.
I was delighted to realize that the country has a lot to offer even for those who are not into hiking and there are many places to visit in Nepal for people, like me, who are scared of the cold.
Where to go? Let me show you...
The most beautiful places of Nepal
Okay, to be honest, calling Kathmandu one of the beautiful places of Nepal is not quite right and not very fair to all the other wonderful places. But chances are you have arrived here by plane, and there are some cool things to do in Kathmandu so you may as well stay for a couple of days.
After the Kathmandu earthquake in 2015, quite a few parts of the city are still in shambles. I hate to say it but Kathmandu ain't the prettiest, and the air pollution is terrible. I usually roll my eyes at people wearing a mask in Asian cities, but here I was very tempted to get one myself. Also, good shoes are must because you will walk over a lot of rubble and uneven ground.
Places to visit in Kathmandu include the Boudhanath Stupa, the hip Thamel district, and the Pashupatinath Temple. I opted out of the latter because this temple is known for its Hindu cremations. To be honest, after my experience in Varanasi I was curious to see another example of this ritual but decided against it. Yet, it seems too intimate and also too gruesome at the same time, and I didn't want to be part again as a mere spectator. I do admire the Hindus' connection and acceptance of death but considering that I just buried an uncle who got cremated it felt too close to home. I am not judging anyone who is curious - I still am too! - but this time it was a no from me.
A big fat yes was, of course, a visit to the Swayambhunath Temple, the monkey temple. I can never resist monkey business, and no Kathmandu sightseeing tour would be complete without. Luckily they were a lot better behaved than the ones in Bali. The stupa on top is quite beautiful and turning the prayer wheels at the temple is a must do in Nepal even for visitors. Also, you have a fantastic view over the city from here and don't worry - while it is apparently 300 steps to the top, they are not steep and easy to manage (in fact, I doubt it is 300 - I didn't count, but it did not feel like 300).
One of my favorite things to do in Nepal was my food tour with Backstreet Acadamy. Not only because it gives you a real inside into Nepali and Newari cuisine but also because you get to explore the heart of Kathmandu, the Thamil district with its narrow maze of roads, the Ason square, and the markets. Of course, you can explore this area on your own, but personally, I liked having a guide showing me around. Again - good shoes are a must, many roads are currently being redone and are quite... rough.
Where to stay in Kathmandu?
There are plenty of hotels in Kathmandu, Nepal for all types of travelers and budgets. I stayed at the Traditional Comfort Boutique Hotel which was beside its obscure location at the end of a somewhat deserted road a real gem. The rooms are beautifully designed, the wifi is good as is the food (and you will never get room service as cheaply as here!), and they have a grand roof terrace overlooking the city which is perfect for a beer or two.
Chitwan National Park
As I mentioned, I naively imaged Nepal to be a country made out of snow and ice. Silly me, I know. So you can imagine my surprise when we arrived at the Chitwan Nationa Park, and temperatures were scorching hot, and there were banana trees and coconuts everywhere.
Chitwan is in the south of Nepal bordering to India and is best known for its national park and rhino population.
There are quite a few Chitwan National Park hotels, but we stayed at the Barauli Community Homestay which was lovely. You get your own little cottage and can book various activities throughout your stay: local dances, bicycle tours to the river, boat tours to find crocodiles, and of course Chitwan jungle safaris.
The safaris are conducted with big jeeps and take you deep into the Nepal jungle in search of rhinos, deer, monkeys, and birds. Only if you get very lucky, you will see a tiger or a leopard but don't count on it. They are elusive at the best of times, and this area is mainly known for its rhino population which is heavily protected by the local military and has been steadily growing for the past few decades.
Don't miss out on an evening stroll through the surrounding villages and don't forget your camera. I hate the cheesy comparison, but Nepali villages look like they have jumped straight out of a movie set they are so picturesque!
Unfortunately, some of the best hotels in Chitwan still carry out elephant rides - needless to say, I would strongly advise you to avoid those.
You can find more info about the Barauli Community Homestay here. It is the ideal accommodation for groups but also solo travelers.
Lumbini is said to be one of the most beautiful places in Nepal - in a spiritual sense that is. The Lumbini Garden is home to the Maya Devi Temple, said to be the birthplace of Lord Buddha, making this one of the holiest sites for Buddhists.
You can visit the inside of the temple and see the Birth Stone which is supposed to mark the exact spot where he was born, and outside you can join the monks and pilgrims under the Bodhi tree for a chant. If you are into history and culture I definitely recommend to hire a guide who can explain all the historical and spiritual details behind the Lumbini Garden and to take you from A to B. While the area around the Maya Devi Temple is easily covered by foot, the rest of the complex is enormous, and you will want a tuk-tuk to take you around.
Different nationalities have donated Buddhist temples and monasteries that you can visit, showcasing their local architecture. Oddly enough I liked the German temple best as it has a beautiful light blue dome ceiling which is painted with frescoes on the inside and made me feel like being in an aquarium.
Lumbini can also get very hot, so I recommend you visit the complex in the early morning. We went in the afternoon, and it was 40 degrees! Not fun especially since you need to take your shoes off everywhere.
As far as hotels in Lumbini go I don't know what to tell you... I don't want to name and shame, but the hotel we stayed in was one of the ugliest I have ever seen, and you may or may not get stuck in the elevator 😉 We did visit the Tiger Palace Resort for breakfast which is outside of town and looked quite nice. Since the center of Lumbini is nothing to write home about I recommend you stay here and book yourself a taxi to see the Lumbini Garden.
Tansen, Palpa Valley
For me, Tansen was the place when I first fell in love with Nepal. That says something because we had just finished a very bumpy 5-hour bus ride!
Tanzen is a picturesque little town in the Palpa Valley, and a visit here offers a very authentic glimpse into Nepalese life. Especially since you won't find big hotels in Tansen but many homestays which are part of the Palpa Community Homestay program.
After our arrival, we were welcomed at the local temple before exploring our homes for the night and getting the 'big' tour. Put on your walking shoes because Tansen is hilly! You can visit the weavers with old jacquard looms, the local temple, and also take a hike up the hill for a sunrise view over the valley.
I was sad only to stay a night because while there might not be much to do in Tansen it is so tranquil and one of those Nepal destinations where you can just be and chill for a few days.
Pokhara is a highlight for many Nepal visitors and for good reasons. There are just so many things to do in Pokhara; you have bars and shops and cute cafes and an overall chilled backpackers vibe.
In the center of it is the Phewa Lake, one of those beautiful places of Nepal that you should enjoy in the early morning or late afternoon. You can hire a boat to take you across which I guess is somewhat romantic and always very scenic. The boats can drop you at the bottom of a short but steep hike (rocky steps only!) up to the World Peace Pagoda. The hike isn't long (our group took between 30 and 45 minutes) but it made me grateful that I didn't sign up for one of the bigger Nepal treks that were on offer.
On the top, you have a stunning view over Pokhara, the lake, and if you get lucky and it isn't cloudy Annapurna.
If you want to get even higher, you can get into a microlite, zip line the steepest and longest zipline in the world or bungee jump. Funny enough I always said I would bungee jump if it was offered to me for free. Fast forward, and I am invited to bungee jump, and I chicken out! Instead, I opted for the Zipflyer and watched the brave bungee jumpers afterward from a safe distance. Who knew you could lose your show when bungee jumping??
Adventure seems to be the name of the game in town, but another place you should see in Pokhara is the Tashiling Tibetan Refugee Camp. I was equally worried and excited when I was told we were going. Excited because my mother had asked me a lot of questions about the Tibetans in Nepal before I went and I was hoping to get some first-hand answers for her. But I was also worried because the words 'refugee camp' sounded dire and I wasn't sure how we would be perceived as tourists in Nepal to wander around such a place.
In the end, I shouldn't have worried. The camp is a well-established little community in Pokhara and has been here for over 50 years. In a way, it is a well-oiled tourist machine now with shops and vendors, but I guess people need to make a living and who am I to judge if they do that by incorporating their complicated history. To be honest, I wish we would have had a knowledgeable guide to show us around and put the story of the Tibetans in Nepal into context. So if you go on your own, make sure to stop at the exhibition hall next to the carpet shop which has boards, pictures, and information about the journey and hardships of the Tibetans who live here.
There are plenty of hotels in Pokhara, and we stayed at the Hotel Barahi. It wasn't my favorite hotel ever (you can find those here) but pleasant enough, quite central, and in short walking distance to the Phewa Lake.
Nepal is indeed a country of superlatives as you can find 8 of the eight-thousanders here. So it comes as no surprise that hiking in Nepal is so popular. But don't be fooled - even meager sounding descriptions like 'base camp' will push the average person to their limits. I wasn't going to be one of them and have instead asked some friends to give you their version of the best treks in Nepal.
And if you are not keen on hiking in Nepal at all, you could always take a scenic flight with Yeti Air to see the Himalayan mountain range from the air. Flights take an hour and leave in the morning from Kathmandu. Everybody gets a window seat and of course, free champagne - after all, you need to celebrate coming face to face with might Everest no matter how you got there.
Image by Nam from Laugh Travel Eat
Practical tips about Nepal
- You can find the Nepal visa requirements here. As a German, I got my visa on arrival for $25 which you can pay in a variety of currencies.
- Many places allow payments in US$ as well as Nepalese Rupees, but most small local shops will prefer the latter or give you change in rupees if you pay in dollars. There are a few ATMs, but not all of them work. Especially when you are traveling to remote areas, you should plan accordingly and bring enough cash.
- Wifi was surprisingly good though there are frequent power cuts all over Nepal. I got a local SIM card which you can recharge with data in plenty of little shops and kiosks.
- Getting around in Nepal is not an easy task if you are used to well-cushioned seats and good roads. Expect to spend quite some time traveling on bumpy streets; even if the distances may not seem that far, road conditions are bad. If you have to cover long distances, I recommend taking a domestic flight. If you do take a bus, make sure to take some medication if you are prone to motion sickness, brings snacks and entertainment.
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This trip was paid for by the Himalayan Travel Mart and its organizers.