Nepal, home to temples, holy men, culture and history. For the most part, Nepal was closed off to foreigners until the 1950’s when the country slowly began opening its borders to tourists. Nepal is a beautiful country and offers everything from Jungles with subtropical weather to Mount Everest the highest point on earth.
Kathmandu is the capitol. Mention Kathmandu today and most people in Western countries still think of it as a mystical land. In the 1960’s Kathmandu became a stop on the hippie trail that extended from Europe through Turkey and down to India. Visions of scenes from Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark come to mind. In reality, Nepal is still a land full of culture, history and yes, a little mystery.
In April 2015 a massive earthquake hit and destroyed or damaged many of the temples and old buildings. Kathmandu is still trying to recover from a devastating event that killed almost 9,000 people and injured close to 22,000. Tourism is a main source of income for Nepal and is back on the rise since the earthquake. While some places in Kathmandu still need to be repaired there is a lot to see and do in this beautiful country.
Nepal is a land of contrasts. From an elevation of 193 feet to the highest point on earth, Nepal is home to jungles with Bengal Tigers, elephants and rhinoceros and Mount Everest, the highest point on earth. Nepal is also the birthplace of Buddha and has thousands of Hindu and Buddhist temples.
For people who expect multi lane highways, on time public transportation, clean, manicured streets and traveling in style, you are better off somewhere else. For those that enjoy seeing new and interesting places then Nepal needs to be on your bucket list. Nepal is one of the poorest countries in Asia with an average of $729 GDP per capita, compared to Singapore with an average of $52,960 but don’t let that stop you from visiting. There are basic hostels where backpackers flock to, home stays in various villages, 5 star hotels and cultural hotels like Kantipur Temple House, where I stayed.
Kantipur Temple House was the brainchild of owner Bharat Kumar Basnet, who decided to open an eco-friendly hotel that embodies the architecture of an ancient temple. Everything at the hotel is geared towards being eco responsible. There are no plastic bottles or air conditioning and hot water is provided by solar heating. Before you think that you cannot live without air conditioning let me tell you that when I was there it was extremely hot outside during the day but comfortable in the hotel. At night it was cool and comfortable in the rooms and if you need a fan they will happily provide you one. The food is fantastic, organic and locally sourced. The hotel serves both traditional Nepali food and western food.
The owner told me he built the building and his business based on sustainable tourism and is a well respected environmental activist in Nepal. He also owns a travel company and the Bhojan Griha restaurant in Kathmandu serving authentic organic Nepalese food with local folk dances and songs in a 150-year-old building that once belonged to the Royal Priest of the King.
Kathmandu is a city of colors, but then again, the whole country is. Take a walk on the streets near Durbar Square and you will see a city teaming with activity. Pedestrians, motorcycles, bicycle taxis, shops selling everything from handmade scarfs to spices and more.
The city is a chaotic, crowded orchestra of mayhem. It is also polluted with bad air quality and trash in the streets but turn a corner and you will see a small shrine or temple, a holy man walking the street or someone offering marijuana. Marijuana has been illegal in Nepal since the 1970’s but is readily available and from what I have heard is not that big of a deal to most. I didn’t partake but I did see it growing wild on the side of the road in a town outside Kathmandu.
The Kathmandu valley is home to Durbar Square where the royal palaces are, along with many Hindu Temples, Buddhist Stupas and other buildings. Unfortunately, many of these were either damaged or completely destroyed in the earthquake of 2015.
Kathmandu valley is also home to the rich cultural city of Patan or Lalitpur which is separated from the city of Kathmandu by the Bagmati River and Bhaktapur, an ancient city about 8 miles from Kathmandu city.
The Buddhist Stupa, Boudhanath is one of the largest Stupas in the world and located in Kathmandu as is Swayambhu, an ancient architecture founded around the beginning of the 5th century and also known as the Monkey Temple because of all the monkeys roaming the grounds and making it their home.
Two other UNESCO sites are in Kathmandu, the Hindu temples of Changu Narayan, considered to be the oldest temple in Nepal and Pashupatinath, where daily cremations are conducted on the banks of the Bagmati River.
Pashupatinath temple originated in the 15th century and today is a large collection of temples and shrines where holy men pose for photos, for a fee, tourists roam the grounds and people sell souvenirs all while cremation ceremonies take place and loved ones pray.
The bodies are cremated in the open air on platforms built on the stairs leading down to the Bagmati River and then the ashes are swept into the river where they flow to the Ganges.
Travel through Nepal is an adventure in itself. While you can rent a car or motorcycle I wouldn’t. The roads from town to town are crowded and in some cases, not in the best condition. You might see a vehicle passing and coming straight for you in your lane only to move back at the last moment. Curves on some of the mountain roads can result in vehicles passing within inches of each other. I took a 12 hour bus ride from one town to another and was constantly amazed at my bus drivers ability to win at the game of chicken every time.
Traveling the country by bus is a great way to see all the country has to offer. From majestic mountains to roaring rivers, Nepal is a beautiful country. Some of the mountain roads are pretty bumpy but the views make it worthwhile.
The areas around the Chitwan National Park are a stark difference from Kathmandu. The area covers over 300 square miles and is subtropical. The first national park in Nepal, it gained World Heritage status in 1984. At one time the area consisted of over 1,000 square miles and was a hunting destination for the ruling class. In the 1950’s there were over 800 Rhino’s but settlers in the area, poachers and over 70% of the jungle being cleared almost wiped out the Rhino population. By the 1960’s there were less than 100 Rhino’s in the Chitwan.
Today the park is guarded and the Rhino population has increased over 500. The area is also home to the Bengal Tiger, Elephants, Leopards, Sloth Bears, deer, monkeys and more. There are also over 500 species of birds in the Chitwan. There are several lodging opportunities in the Chitwan from luxury to budget. Most lodges also have guided safaris in the Chitwan where you can get up close to the wildlife and take photos.
One of the things you can see inside the Chitwan Park is the crocodile breeding farm. Once endangered, the farm breeds Gangetic Crocodiles, recognizable by their elongated snout. The farm raises the crocodiles and releases them into the river where some eventually find their way to the Ganges in India.
Nepal is also the birthplace of Buddhism. The town of Lumbini is the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama the Lord Buddha and a pilgrimage destination for Buddhists and Hindus from around the world. Many countries have built and occupy Buddhist Temples within the UNESCO heritage site.
Pokhara is located in central Nepal and is a gateway for hikers on the Annapurna trail. Area wise it is larger than Kathmandu and three of the worlds highest mountains are within 30 miles of the valley. It also draws tourists from all over the world for trekking, mountaineering and adventure tourism. The city is also home to the International Mountaineering Museum which honors the accomplishments of those that have scaled the world’s highest mountains.
There are over 250 hotels in the area ranging from 5 star to budget along with shops selling everything from mountaineering and outdoor clothing to hand made souvenirs. Many of the famed Gurkha soldiers come from this region and both the British and Indian armies have recruitment centers in the area.
For those that want to have the trek of a lifetime you will need to take a flight to one of the world’s scariest airports, the Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla. With one runway, which prior to 2001 wasn’t paved, it is the only way to make the trek to Mount Everest without having to hike for 5 days to get to Lukla or pay for a private helicopter. But once there you can take advantage of the many trekking companies that offer treks to the Base Camp. Check out this video.
Nepal has a long tradition of fierce fighting soldiers. Known as Gurkha’s, they serve in not only the Nepalese Army but the British army, Indian army, Gurkha Contingent Forces of Singapore and Gurkha Reserve Unit of Brunei. The Khukuri, a curved bladed knife, is their signature weapon. Used as both a tool and a weapon the Khukuri is as much a part of the Gurkha as a sword was to a Japanese Samurai.
Nepal is a beautiful country with rich traditions and a long history. The people I met were all very hospitable I can’t wait to visit and explore the country again.
I spent 10 days traveling through Nepal as part of a hosted media trip and tourism conference. Nepal Tourism and the Nepal Chapter of PATA were gracious hosts and gave us an opportunity to view this beautiful country and meet the people. Air Transportation was provided by Turkish Airlines.