Perched between the mighty empires of India and China, Nepal is a mystical land of towering peaks that has attracted great sages, Buddhist and Hindu pilgrims as well as adventure seekers and mountaineers for centuries.
Once a thriving Himalayan kingdom, vast parts of Nepal have remained unscathed by modern Nepal’s economic ambitions and exude a sense of a place that is frozen in time.
Home to the world’s highest peak – Mount Everest – Nepal is on many travellers’ bucket list. Whether you are a serious mountaineer looking to conquer the thrilling trails of Everest and Upper Mustang or a gentle hiker drawn to the lush scenery and beautiful rural communities of the lower Annapurna region, Nepal is the ultimate mountain country.
Beyond the massifs, there is plenty more to explore from Kathmandu Valley’s incredibly rich cultural heritage and active adventures such as white water rafting, cycling, paragliding and wellness retreats to thrilling safaris in the lush jungles and grass plains of the Terai region in the foothills of Himalaya looking for rare animals and birds including Asian elephants, tigers and one-horned rhinos. Nepal, in my opinion, is one of Indian subcontinent’s most overlooked travel destinations that is worthy of much keener interest.
I have compiled a list of some of my favourite experiences and places across Nepal that showcase its incredible richness and diversity.
Seeing Mount Everest at close quarters is a once-in-a-lifetime-experience that, for many, is the primary reason for visiting Nepal. One doesn’t have to attempt to summit the peak for this, as there is a much more convenient alternative that is suitable for travellers of all ages and fitness levels. Accompanied by an expert Sherpa summiteer, one is taken on a thrilling helicopter ride hovering up the valleys of the Khumbu region surrounded by the awe-inspiring snow-capped Himalayan peaks.
Weather-permitting, one could make a brief stop at Kala Patthar, located at an altitude of 5,644 metres, to take in the most astounding views of Mount Everest. Cap this incredible experience with an exclusive champagne breakfast at the highest mountain lodge in the world listening to the fascinating mountaineering stories shared by your experienced Sherpa guide. It’s an experience that will remain entrenched in your memory forever.
You might have heard of Godmen, shamans and various types of religious and spiritual leaders, but have you ever heard of a Living Goddess? One of Nepal’s most unique and ancient traditions is of worshipping a Living Goddess - known as Kumari - a young pre-pubescent girl who is believed to be the reincarnation of Hindu goddess Durga representing the divine female energy.
Dressed in festive red clothes and adorned with glittering jewellery, heavy eye make-up and a striking “third eye” on the brow, the Kumari is the most revered religious figure in Nepal. Catching a glimpse of the Kumari is believed to be an exceptionally auspicious and rare privilege, as the locals believe that her power is so strong that even a brief glimpse can bring good fortune.
Whilst in the ancient capital of Patan, you could enjoy this rare privilege at the current Kumari’s residence and then indulge in a fascinating discussion with an ex-Kumari to learn more about this sacred ancient tradition and also the challenges faced by these young girls when they have to return to ordinary life after their tenure finishes and the special power and privileges are passed on to their younger successor. It’s a truly fascinating and intriguing aspect of Nepali culture and society.
Nepal’s Annapurna and Everest regions are renowned world-over for their astounding scenery. Trekking and walking in this region is one of the finest and unmissable experiences of a holiday in Nepal. My favourite region is the lower Annapurna, which is filled with lush mountains and valleys, quaint villages and idyllic farmlands.
Trails are relatively easy and lodging facilities are excellent thanks to a series of extremely comfortable and intimate mountain lodges offering warm and highly personalised service and wholesome local food. From short trails that can be covered in just two to three days to extended treks taking up to a week or even longer, trekking programmes can be completely customised based on one’s fitness level and interests.
One of my fondest memories of Nepal is of three little school kids and their pet dog Moti who followed us from their village for almost 45 minutes on our trek. They were so curious to know everything about India and London and kept giggling at every little joke of mine...such pure and innocent experiences have become rather precious in popular tourist destinations where majority of locals are driven by commercial interests.
Nights at these remote mountain lodges are very special, especially for stargazers and night photography enthusiasts, as I have never seen such jaw-droppingly spectacular night skies anywhere else.
Nepal’s dramatic scenery and rugged terrain lend themselves beautifully to extreme adventures. These include:
Nepal’s rich lowland Terai region extending into India is home to magnificent and rare wildlife. The one-horned rhinoceros is perhaps the most famous species seen in the jungles of Nepal and other mammals include tigers, elephants, leopards, hyenas, sloth bears and a huge variety of deer and antelopes. Terai’s tall grass makes sightings of tigers quite challenging, but other animals, especially rhinos and elephants are commonly seen.
The high-altitude regions of Himalayas are home to the most endangered and elusive animals such as the red –panda, snow leopard and Himalayan Tahr. The Chitwan National Park, however, is one of my favourite lowland sanctuaries in the country. There are so many amazing activities available here with fabulous animal and bird sightings including:
Pure mountain air and water, minimal pollution and rich organic produce make Nepal one of the finest wellness and mindfulness destinations in the subcontinent. It is therefore not surprising that the Himalayas have attracted yogis for time immemorial in pursuit of enlightenment of body, mind and soul.
My favourite retreat is Dwarika’s Resort in Dhulikhel, which epitomises the principles of the ancient philosophy of Yoga. It’s the sort of a place where one can be as active or inactive as one wishes. In the vicinity, one could explore leisurely nature trails, organic farms, undertake pottery and art classes learn to cook traditional Nepali cuisine, take a 3-hour hike to a Tibetan monastery or concentrate on Yoga, meditation and Ayurveda.
I would highly recommend trying the traditional singing bowl meditation therapy, which assists in equalising one’s internal equilibrium. This is a 12th century Tibetan Buddhist tradition that is supposed to have long-term physical and mental health benefits.
In accordance with their core ethos, the resort is actively involved in philanthropy and supports the local community and ecology. Post-earthquake, they have re-built the entire village for some 300 people including a local school and a small clinic. It is located on a 22-acre estate of pine and sal forest and Itchi trees with wonderful yellow and cream flowers. In spring, one could also see stunning rhododendrons.
Most of the property is solar powered and waste paper and weed are used to produce briquettes for burning. On a clear day the views over the central Himalayas, including Everest, are breath-taking.
Due to decades of political complexities and competition from its influential neighbours, Nepal has remained a poor and vastly under-developed country and its rural communities remain hugely vulnerable. There are some fantastic and most genuine grassroots level philanthropic projects that can easily be incorporated as part of a holiday in Nepal for those who are interested in active engagement.
There are two initiatives that I am particularly fond of:
Images kindly provided courtesy of:
The Dwarkia’s Group of hotels, Barahi Jungle Lodge, Right4Children.