Nepal is a small but surprising destination at the foot of the Himalayas – it’s a real gem for culture buffs and action seekers alike. Nepal has so much to offer the adventure traveller: trekking, rafting, safaris, scenic flights to Everest, paragliding, horse-riding, kayaking, cycling, boating, abseiling, bird-watching, volunteer work, yoga and meditation. But if you really want to see Nepal and you love mountain views and culture but don’t want to spend your time doing anything too strenuous – as it is a holiday after all! – you can still have a fantastic Nepal trip that does not involve climbing any mountains or reaching any extreme altitudes. Here are our tips for seeing another side of beautiful Nepal…
Getting to Nepal
Unless you live in certain parts of the world, such as Delhi or the Middle East, there are no direct flights to Nepal so it is often a long, overnight flight to Kathmandu. So on your first night you will probably be up in the air! Or, for those who are on a tight budget and don’t mind the long journey and potential discomfort involved you can start your trip in India as it is possible to go overland from Varanasi and Darjeeling too.
Nepal’s capital city is packed with atmospheric and ancient sites. It’s certainly worth setting a few days aside in Kathmandu so you can take it all in before you head into Kathmandu Valley.
Over 500 years old, Boudhanath Stupa continues to draw a large number of pilgrims and refugees from Tibet. It’s also one of the most important religious sites in Nepal as well as being one of the largest Buddhist stupas in the world. The Stupa has since been restored and re-opened after it was affected by an earthquake that struck the Kathmandu Valley in April 2015.
It stands in the middle of a large square enclosed by a circular village, which is home to many Tibetan refugees (most of them priests) and aptly named “Little Tibet”. Most of the Tibetans make a living selling souvenirs to tourists, though they also sell tsampa, butter, tea and prayer beads. You’ll need to pay a small admission fee for the square. You can climb the stupa and walk round the square, following the pilgrims in their clockwise circles. The rooftop cafes around the square are great vantage point from which to observe the on-going activity.
The enormous white dome is regularly repainted and then covered in bucket loads of saffron-coloured paint, making the dome resemble a lotus flower. The dome is topped by a square towers from which the eyes of Buddha gazes out in all four directions. The stupa is adorned with hundreds of colourful prayer flags and the walls around the stupa are line with small prayer wheels. Tibetans always circle the stupa in clockwise direction, spinning the prayer wheels and chanting prayers as they walk round.
The name Kathmandu is derived from Kasthamandap, the Nepalese word for ‘wooden house’. Kasthamandap is also the name of a temple in the central square of Kathmandu, Durbar Square. Legend has it that the temple was built from the wood of one single tree. Durbar is also a Nepalese word, meaning ‘palace’. Clustered around the square are several historic temples, the ancient royal palace Hanuman Dhoka and a beautifully carved wooden building known as the Kumari Bahal, home of the Kumari or the living goddess. There is a small admission fee for Durbar Square.
Take an auto-rickshaw from your hotel to the Pashupatinath temple on the eastern outskirts of Kathmandu. You’ll be dropped off at the entrance where you’ll need to pay your admission fee. Here, you can stroll past the string of souvenir stalls until you reach the Bagmati River. Just like the Ganges in India, this is a sacred Hindu river. Devotees believe that a ritual bathing or even cremation in this river will break the cycle of samsara (or rebirth) and take them to the afterlife. The river is heavily polluted though that doesn’t seem to stop the devotees from taking a dip or even drinking from it.
Due to its location on the holy Bagmati, Pashupatinath is the most important and holiest Hindu temple in Nepal. Devotees come here to worship Shiva in his incarnation as Pashupati, the lord of all beasts. Pashupati is the official patron of Nepal and is consequently mentioned in royal speeches, peace treaties and vows. On special occasions the king will visit the temple to seek the blessing of Pashupati. Non-Hindus are not allowed in the temple complex but from the hill across from the temple you will have a good view of the ghats, where the ritual bathing and cremations take place. Surprisingly it is acceptable to take photos here unlike the cremation Ghats in Varanasi where you are welcome to observe but taking pictures is not permitted.
Take a seat on one of the steps across from the burning ghats for all to observe the rituals. The burning ghats on the other side of the bridge, directly in front of the temple are reserved for the elite Nepalis and the royal family only. Ceremonial music is played just as newly laid log fire is lit, creating a lot of smoke most of which is likely to drift your way. The ceremony is performed by the male family members of the deceased, all dressed in white (white is the colour of mourning). The body, wrapped in orange cloths is laid on a bamboo stretcher and carried to a slope on the river bank so that the feet just touch the water. The stretcher is then carried back to the steps where the sons and other family members light candles, lay orange cloths over the body and scatter flower petals and coins. The women, all wearing their hair down, pay their last respects to the deceased, scatter flowers and lay cloths over the body which is then discreetly undressed beneath the layers of cloth.
At the top of the steps many sadhus, or holy men, sit. Several of them live here and smoke copious amounts of ganja (marijuana). Sadhus are Hindus who have renounced the caste system and their normal lives, choosing instead to roam the country on a spiritual quest and survive on begging. They’re often a sight to behold; dressed in orange robes or sometimes completely naked and covered in the ashes from the cremation ghats and often complemented by body painting, dreadlocks and beads.
The Garden of Dreams
This is a peaceful and serene garden near to the Royal Palace where locals and tourists alike can relax and dine in a lovely environment away from the busy streets of nearby Thamel. It was built in the 1920’s and the gardens and pavilions went into decline, but have now been beautifully restored and lovingly maintained with ponds, fountains and lawns, but only 3 of the original 6 pavilions remain.
This valley has an long history as the intersection of many ancient Asian civilisations, which means there’s lots to see and experience across the area.
In 1970 Bhaktapur underwent a major facelift as the result of a German-sponsored restoration project. Many buildings were done up and the narrow streets paved with flag stones. The town certainly feels like one big open air museum, particularly because the town has been largely pedestrianized. There’s so much to see in terms of medieval buildings with decorative wood carvings, it’s well worth coming back for. Entry into Bhaktapur will cost you a larger admission fee than at other sites, but you’ll be happy to hear this money goes towards restoring and maintaining the historic buildings of the town. You also receive a map of the town so you can wander round all the little streets without getting lost. Durbar Square is the oldest square in Bhaktapur. It may have lost some of its original beauty when it was largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1934, but the square was still impressive enough to feature in Bertolucci’s film Little Buddha, which was largely shot here. You can visit the ancient royal palace, the famous golden archway and many temples. Then make your way to Taumadhi Tol, the central square in Bhaktapur. This is a great place to grab some lunch on one of the roof terraces. You have a fantastic view across the square with its 30m-high Nyatapola Temple, the highest temple in Nepal. It’s built on a five-storey pedestal and the roof also has five layers. The steep steps are lined with stone guardians: firstly the brothers Jai and Patta Malla, who possessed the strength of ten men, followed by elephants, lions, griffins and other deities, each ten times stronger than the last. The line-up leads to the resident goddess of the temple.
This city is separated from Kathmandu by the Bagmati River and is the second largest town in the valley. Patan has a long Buddhist history and the four corners of the city are marked by stupas that may date back to Ashoka’s reign in 250BC. Most of the major building dates back to 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Patan’s Durbar Square is where the main concentration of temples are located, but there is also a great walking tour you can do that the local tourist board have devised from Patan Dhoka to Durbar Square. This walk takes you through a maze of inter-connecting lanes and courtyards interspersed with wells and water tanks.
Nagarkot, which lies to the north-east of Bhaktapur and approximately 30km to the east of Kathmandu, was once a military post but is now a popular destination for walkers and cyclists too. The village has a great panoramic vista of the Himalayas. It is worth staying overnight here, or for a couple of nights, to take in the amazing sweeping vista across the valley. This is particularly special at dusk and dawn when the light is changing and illuminating the valley and snow-capped peaks beyond.
Royal Chitwan National Park is situated in the sub-tropical lowlands of Nepal, known as the Terai. This is a vast area of emerald rice paddies, jungle and rural villages. This is a nice contrast to the busy city and mountain regions and offers a warmer climate. Chitwan is THE place to spot wildlife and catch a glimpse of the one-horned rhino. You’re sure to come across birdlife, deer and antelopes and look out for the crocodiles that glide through the Rapti River or sun themselves on the banks.
Pokhara is Nepal’s second city and a trekking hub for the Annapurna region, but it is still well worth a visit if you don’t fancy trekking. You can stay in lakeside accommodation and gaze at the mighty peak of Machhapuchhare reflected in the Phewa Tal Lake. You can take a boat out of the lake, visit museums, caves, waterfalls, and nearby villages or take a hike through the forest up to the World Peace Pagoda. Lots of adventure activities are on offer here and can be booked locally, such as paragliding, microlight flights, rafting etc. You can also relax in a charming café and read a good book and just soak up the atmosphere with a beer!
About halfway between Kathmandu and Pokhara, you’ll find the enchanting town of Bandipur perched on a high ridge. It is a great spot if you fancy getting away from the main trek routes. It’s the perfect place to take a breather, yet very few tourists find their way here. You can spend a couple of nights in this historic mountain village, you’ll feel as though you’ve gone back centuries in time and you’ll soon be mingling with the local Newari people. The Bindabasini Mandir temple is well worth a visit. It is the home of Bandipur’s patron goddess Durga and decorated with intricate woodwork carvings. In the evening, you can head to one of the small local restaurants in the centre, where you’ll always be served a very warm welcome. From Bandipur you can take a scenic hike to the nearby villages such as Ramkot and back again in one day. As soon as you leave Bandipur, the mountains become greener and more rugged with some steep cliffs and beautiful terraces.
Located in the South-Western Terai (lowlands) of Nepal, Lumbini is one of the most important religious sites in the world. Lumbini is to Buddhists -as Mecca is to Muslims. Lumbini is the place Lord Buddha was born under a sal tree. Lumbini is set in a rural farming region and is an interesting treasure-trove of ancient ruins and antiquities, dating back to the pre-Christian era. The site was reported to be a very beautiful garden in Buddha’s time and still retains some charm and beauty, but is largely a pilgrimage site for Buddhists from all over the globe.