Nepal: A truthful trip in the world’s least developed nation
People always rave about Nepal. I’ve met many people who say it’s their favourite destination in the entire world. People who return time after time and never tire of Nepal. Having heard all of these avid fans, I decided I too wanted to see what the fuss was about. Having booked the tickets only a week before departure, I gave little thought to what I would do once I got there; I just knew that I wanted to go. Traditionally Nepal is known for its amazing treks and hikes. If you’re a traveler that is looking for something less active, you maybe inclined to skip out on Nepal as a destination altogether. However, it’s entirely possible to enjoy the country without a trekking shoe in sight.
But first lets have a quick PPG (Panda’s Progressive Geography) lesson about this country.
This landlocked country is found in the heart of the Himalayas in southern Asia. The country has eight of the world’s ten tallest mountains within its borders (India and China are neighbours), including the world’s tallest mountain, Everest.
Although Hinduism is the main religion, Nepal is thought to be the birthplace of Buddha.
As of 2008, the former Kingdom of Nepal is a representative democracy. The president of Nepal serves as chief of state, while the prime minister is head of government. Despite its tourism and energy-production potential, Nepal remains one of the world’s poorest countries. The civil war between Maoist rebels and the government, which began in 1996 and ended in 2007, severely reduced Nepal’s tourism industry. The currency in Nepal is the Nepalese rupee and the official language is Nepali but most people who deal with tourists speak English.
Having traveled to India a few times as well Nairobi, Cairo & New Delhi, I didn’t think any city could be more chaotic. I was wrong.
Kathmandu is the craziest city I’ve ever been in. With roads that have never seen repairs after the 2015 earthquakes, there are potholes everywhere, loosely defined sidewalks and an abundance of goats, cows and chicken. You may not even realise you’re in a capital city when you’re in Kathmandu because it feels more like a large, polluted village. That’s not to say it is without it’s very own of narrow roads, magical temples and tiny food restaurants.
While there are a multitude of sites to see in Kathmandu, I’m not a fan of monkeys, cremations or having one temple blur into another so I chose 2 and visited both within a day.
Durbar Katmandu Sqaure (Bastanapur) is basically a large square in the heart of Kathmandu that is surrounded by ancient Newari architecture, high temples, busy shrines and an old royal palace. There are two other Durbar Squares (Bhaktapur & Patan) and I have regret that I chose to visit the one in the city (for convenience) rather than the further ones. I visited at 8am on a Saturday morning and the place was teeming with artists, worshipers and shoppers from the nearby market.
Looking the way I do prevented me from having to pay the 1000 rupee ($10) entrance fee which I would’ve been most annoyed about paying considering that the area is essentially a collection of ruins.
In 2015, a strong earthquake struck Kathmandu and many structures have either never been repaired, rebuilt or are currently undergoing construction. Its a shame as I could see that this would be an amazing place to visit if it was taken care of but… it isn’t and does not look like it will be anytime soon.
I believe that the other Durbar Squares are far better to visit and are actually worth the entrance fee.
Boudhanath Stupa was a true gem in the chaos of Kathmandu. It was only 6km from my hotel to the Stupa but that drive took 34 minutes! The Stupa itself is a great white structure with many brightly colored prayer flags, around which tourists can wander.
The air is filled with Tibetan music from the shops around the Stupa selling prayer beads, incense sticks, prayer flags and religious music. The streets are filled with pilgrims, tourists, monks and Dharma students from around the world.
I was particularly interested in seeing monks wearing sneakers and using their iPhones. I quite like this blend of tradition and modernity. There are also a lot of shops selling handicrafts, paintings, jewellery books on Buddhist principles and philosophies. There is something special about this place, a magic that cannot be captured by pictures or words.
All in all, while I was enchanted by the chaos in Kathmandu, I couldn’t see myself spending more than 2-3 days there. It’s takes AGES to cover short distances due to traffic and poor infrastructure and there is a perpetual low hanging air envelope of dust.
Note: If you are looking for a place to stay in Kathmandu, I highly recommend Kasthamandap Boutique Hotel. I’m not affiliated with them in any way, I just loved staying there!
Everyone that goes to Nepal raves about Pokhara and once you arrive there, it’s not hard to see why. Lush greenery, hugged by welcoming mountains and balanced with a serene lake make Pokhara a must see of any Nepali trip and serves as a soothing balm after anxiety ridden days in Kathmandu. If you’re into extreme sports then Pokhara would be your best place to do it with activities like paragliding, canyoning etc. Since my budget didn’t stretch that far this time round, I focused on cheaper activities like visiting the Shanti Stupa:
You can hike up to this temple (takes about 2-3 hours) or get dropped off at the bottom in a taxi (best for lazy pandas) and then climb the stairs for 40 minutes. It gives you gorgeous views like this…
I also visited Davis Falls which was something I would recommend only if you have nothing else to do. While it is a lovely waterfall, it is protected by a huge metal fence with bars so tall that you feel like you’re in an outdoor jail. If you go in rainy season, the waterfall will be flowing strongly like this:
I’ve heard that in winter (low rainfall), the waterfall is a mere trickle. There is a cave nearby that everyone persuades you to visit for different views of the waterfall but don’t waste your time if you go in summer. Its dark, claustrophobic and in rainy season, you will be covered in water as you walk through. There is nothing to see in this cave when you go in the rainy season.
The other highly recommended thing to do in Pokhara is to watch some gorgeous sunsets over the lake.
On the whole I was impressed by the natural beauty of Pokhara, the quaint cafes and ease of the entire area which serves purely as a haven for tourism. I suppose in a way this was also a cause for my dislike with most restaurants offering primarily western cuisine to cater to blander palates than mine and of course every peaceful walk was punctuated by shouts of “taxi?” thanks to over zealous touts. Pokhara on Friday and Saturdays is exceptionally crowded with locals and it’s easy to get caught up in crowds. At first I thought there must be a concert or rally going on but actually, it was just a normal amount of locals coming to watch the sunset!
As an afterthought to my trip I added in some time in Nagarkot, the balcony to the Himalayas. Boasting spectacular views, Nagarkot seemed like a must see item to add to my Nepal itinerary. However it was not without its challenges. Firstly, it isn’t mentioned anywhere that you need to pay a 200/300 rupee just to enter the area of Nagarkot. It’s 200 rupees for citizens of neighbouring countries and 300 for the rest of the world. Secondly the drive from Kathmandu to Nagarkot was honestly one of the worst drives I’ve ever had to endure in my life simply because it was 2 hours of a potholes, gravel, steep inclines in a poorly equipped car and the narrowest roads over ever seen full of sharp curves and blind spots. While I wasn’t driving, it was still a hair raising experience that actually caused me physical pain and when I got out of the car in Nagarkot, felt slightly nauseous.
You are however rewarded with stunning views in most accommodation options in the area and the serenity I felt there was unparalleled to anywhere else I’ve ever been.
Although peaceful, other than hiking, there isn’t much else to do in Nagarkot so you should bring a lot of books and make sure you’re staying in a comfortable place because you won’t really be leaving it. I used my time here to really sample Nepalese cusine while I enjoyed the feeling of dining in the clouds!
It takes 2 hours to travel the 34kms from Tribhuvan International Airport to Nagarkot so you can imagine the state of the roads and landscape. In addition to travel time you should also factor that it costs roughly 3000 rupees there and 3000 rupees back which is pretty high by Nepali standards. Accommodation in the area is also on the costly side making Nagarkot a splurge in an otherwise low budget trip.
I usually know how I feel about a country after a few days there and I certainly know once I’ve departed the place. But with Nepal I still feel conflicted, torn between love for the unique charm and unparalleled beauty of a place yet also dislike for the fact that it’s physically exhausting and mentally draining. I can see the potential in this country but simultaneously I can see the government’s apathy in improving the infrastructure which would make life easier for locals and tourists alike. Nepal is absolutely worth a visit but I would not recommend it as a relaxing holiday destination; rather its all one big adventure!
Is Nepal worth a trip on its own?
Oh absolutely. I would’ve loved to stay in Pokhara and Nagarkot for a few more days and head to other regions. I believe the culture and landscapes in Nepal make it worth a stand alone trip.
How long should I go for?
A minimum of 10 days would be ideal.
Should I purchase a SIM card?
No not at all. I felt that the internet at hotels and restaurants was the strongest in Nepal out of all my destinations. I was able to make voice and video calls with no problems!
Did you apply for a visa beforehand?
No I did not. I paid $30 for a visa on arrival which is available for a long list of nationalities including South Africans. You will use a machine that will note down your details and take a picture of you before you pay the visa fee at the currency counter. There is no ATM there but you can exchange money. The visa fee can be paid in most major currencies including ALL of the gulf currencies. You will then pass through passport control which will take ages because they write all your details by hand in a large book!!
Have you ever been to Nepal? What was your experience like? OR is Nepal on your wish list? Let me know in the comments below!