I was peed on by a monkey. My boyfriend was dragged by a donkey. We woke up in a bedroom with a half-inch of ice created by our own breath covering the window, and the only exaggeration there is the word “bedroom,” which implies a semi-insulated space.
After a daily dosage of upward of six cups of sweet masala chai, there’s a very good chance that I’m now a Type 2 diabetic. But despite its impoverished and frenetic lunacy, Nepal is just one of those countries that makes you want to beg your boss for more vacation days.
Each town is wildly different from the next, each view so much more stunning than the last, that you’ll never feel like you’ve seen enough until you’ve see it all. But if you plan carefully, two weeks in Nepal can let you see a lot: its vibrant capital city, its breathtaking wildlife and, of course, its Himalayan mountain ranges, the greatest in the world.
Nepal isn’t an easy place to visit, but it’s a rewarding one. That’s certainly what I told myself while I was wiping off the monkey pee.
Part One: Kathmandu
In a competition with snowcapped peaks, a dirty and smelly city will never win – and Kathmandu is definitely dirty and smelly. In a competition with other cities though, while Kathmandu might lose on the clean air and reliable electricity indexes, it surges ahead on friendliness, gritty beauty and exuberantly unrestrained incense burning.
Still, many people only use Kathmandu as a transit hub for trekking. They’re missing out on some of the world’s most flavorful vegetarian food, vendor-packed laneways strung with translucent, multicolored flags, piles of yak wool blankets lining the streets, and – best of all – an endless supply of the region’s greatest natural resource: fried momo. Spend at least a few days getting to know the city before you go meet the rest of Nepal.
Places to Go
You can’t go to Kathmandu without going to Thamel neighborhood. Really, you can’t – packed with hotels and restaurants, Thamel is almost definitely where you’ll have to stay. But that’s great, because it’s a vibrant and central quarter of the city.
Thamel is where you’ll buy the carved figure of a miniature elephant that you’ll suddenly realize you’ve always needed, where you’ll touch so many lovely pashmina shawls fluttering from shops into the streets that your boyfriend will have to remind you that all the colors feel the same, and where you’ll tell countless rickshaw drivers that no, you don’t need a ride, and countless figures emerging from the shadows that no, you don’t need drugs.
Once you tire of the busy streets – and they are tiring – you can head toward a busy square. You’ll find Kathmandu Durbar Square just outside of Thamel, a plaza parked in front of a royal palace that now serves as a museum. The plaza is home to spectacular architecture, hidden courtyards, gaping tourists and pigeons. Many, many pigeons.
If you really need to get away from it all, go above it all. The Monkey Temple towers over Kathmandu. It’s not a temple that worships monkeys; it’s a temple that monkeys have taken over so determinedly that they outnumber worshippers. Sitting on a hill that looks beyond the city’s colorful sprawl until the view is cut off by the magnificent Himalayas, the Monkey Temple looks gorgeous from below, but everything else in Kathmandu looks incredible from it.
But one of the most interesting places in Kathmandu isn’t technically in the city at all. Patan is a separate city, but just barely; it’s right next door to Kathmandu, and in the short cab ride between them, you won’t even notice that you’re leaving one municipality and entering another. You’ll be glad you did though. Quieter and better preserved than Kathmandu Durbar Square, but just as fascinating, Patan Durbar Square and its surrounding area features towering palaces and temples, traditional pottery and metalwork, and Buddhist and Hindu shrines packed into every nook, cranny and secret courtyard. Don’t miss it.
Places to Eat and Drink
While you won’t want to drink the water in Nepal, you can’t miss out on the food. If you’re unsure what to order, you’ll almost never go wrong with dhal. If you’re feeling slightly bolder, try ordering Nepali thali platter, a mixture of the restaurant’s daily curries.
After bravely venturing into hole-in-the-wall joints that will surprise you with either their amazingness or their disgustingness, the city has a few tried-and-true cafes, restaurants and bars that won’t disappoint.
In the morning, head to Phat Kath cafe. Phat Kath is the nerve center of Nepal’s hippy culture, which is the nerve center of the globe’s hippy culture; that gives Phat Kath the special distinction of being either the coolest or the most irritating place on the planet, depending on your stance on hemp. If you’re not into hippies, go anyway. Its killer breakfast makes up for the fact that you may have to eat it while sitting on a rug on the floor of what resembles an open-concept tree house.
If you’re craving something hip and contemporary, Himalayan Java is Nepal’s first specialty coffee chain. Its best location is on the pedestrian street about 50 meters from Thamel’s main junction, though there are locations throughout Kathmandu. Bring your laptop and your finest fleece – this is where the cool kids do their homework.
For dinner, go to The Third Eye Indian Restaurant. Order the garlic naan and the paneer butter masala. Then resign yourself to the fact that you’ll never be able to enjoy food as much again.
Just reserve at least one night for a traditional Nepali feast. And bring an empty stomach – the feast at Dwarika’s serves up to 22 courses.
For evening drinks, New Orleans Wine Bar is worth the bit of alleyway digging that you’ll have to do to find it. Cozy and candlelit, it’s the only bar I’ve ever been where I’ve come for the wine and stayed for the live music. (Usually, wine is enough to cover both the coming and the staying.) Here, the drinks and the music are equally fantastic.
Whatever you eat, be sure to eat it with your right hand only; touching food with your left hand is a big faux pas in Nepal.
Places to Stay:
The air conditioning won’t work when it’s hot and the heat won’t work when it’s cold – that’s true of most places in Nepal. Don’t expect anything that entails an uninterrupted stream of electricity. But you can expect that the rooms will be clean and that, wherever you stay, the front desk will be as helpful as any at a five-star hotel.
If it’s a five-star hotel you’re looking for, Kathmandu has a couple of those, such as the Hyatt Regency, which sits in a grassy grove beside the Boudnath Stupa. That grassy grove is especially helpful if you want to momentarily forget that you’re in Kathmandu.
Or, hole up in something that’s both cozier and more beautiful than a five-star hotel: Traditional Homes Swotha, a bed and breakfast. Its warmly rustic rooms are less than $100, but you’d never pay that price for such beautiful design anywhere but in Nepal.
For less well-heeled travelers, Trekkers Home is one of the best cheap hotels in the city at about $30 a night. Hotel Encounter Nepal is a step or two up from that, and you may find that it’s worth double the price of Trekkers Home, which is what you’ll pay.
Part Two: ?Chitwan National Park
Chitwan will forever change the term “National Park” from a place your parents made you go as a 12-year-old when you would have preferred to play pirates (just me?), to an experience that you’ll never forget. But during the brutally hair-raising seven-hour bus ride from Kathmandu, you’ll probably ask “Are we there yet?” more times than you ever did as a child.
Upon arrival in Sauraha, you’ll be eternally grateful for the clean air and reprieve from car sickness. And – provided you’re not impaled by a rhino – it all gets better from there.
You can explore the jungle in four ways: a walk, an elephant safari, a river safari or a Jeep safari. Some safaris are safer than others, and some are more ethical.
We took a canoe down the river, coming within feet of crocodiles, monkeys and water buffalo. After we disembarked, our guide laughed about how crocodiles sometimes jump in the canoe with tourists and try to bite them – we didn’t take the canoe back. The same guide told us about how a few of his guests were almost trampled to death by a stampeding elephant on a jungle walk and how a sloth bear partially destroyed his leg – we didn’t take the walk. And several of Nepal’s leading animal rights experts told us that most domesticated elephants in Nepal are abused – no one should take an elephant safari.
That leaves the skittish and morally squeamish tourist with the Jeep safari. If that’s all you do in Chitwan National Park, you won’t be disappointed. Unless you get peed on by a monkey; then you might be a bit disappointed.
Guaranteed Animal Encounters:
While it’s very likely that you’ll have animal sightings on your safari, there are a few places you can go in Chitwan where animal sightings are guaranteed.
Crocodile Breeding Center: Gharial crocodiles are endangered, but you’d never know it by a visit to Chitwan’s very well-populated breeding center. And while crocodiles aren’t exactly cuddly, you’d never know that by how closely they pile themselves on top of each other in threes and fours.
The inhabitants of Chitwan’s breeding center are both gross and hilarious: gross because, well, look at them; hilarious because of their tendency to sun themselves by the pool, until just one of them exhibits even the slightest movement and they all throw themselves over the side like lemmings off a cliff. You won’t need long here (not to be a crocodile racist, but they all look the same). Still, it’s worth a quick – gross and hilarious – visit.
Biodiversity Conservation Center: Most domesticated elephants in Nepal are treated very badly, but one organization in Chitwan National Park is trying to change the lives of these remarkably sensitive and empathetic animals. While most elephant trainers abuse their charges with fire and sharp hooks to assert dominance over them, the trainers at the Biodiversity Conservation Center use positive reinforcement methods.
They reward elephants for good behavior instead of frightening them into submission, and they keep them enclosed in large fenced-in areas, not chained up to wooden posts.
Visit the elephants before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m. and see up-close for yourself how magnificent they are when treated with respect. One of the older elephants at the center is so gentle and content that it’s allowed to roam free – it always comes back home.
Elephant bathing: In Chitwan, you can pay to bathe in the river with elephants who spend their days (when they’re not chained up) hauling tourist groups on their backs either on safari or in the water. Instead of encouraging the abuse by bathing with them, walk to the river between noon and 2 p.m.
There, without paying a cent and probably only accompanied by local women scrubbing their saris along the banks, you’ll see something you’ll never forget: Led by their trainers, elephants wade into the river where they submerge themselves, roll one way and then the other, and burst up above the surface again, pushing out streams of water from their trunks.
Places to Stay:
There’s only one important rule when selecting a hotel in Chitwan: Pick a place on the river. You don’t want to miss views of the hazy sunrise in the morning, the canoes and crocodiles in the afternoon, and the rhinos that may very well cross the waters and look for food around your hotel in the evening.
The aptly named Hotel River Side provides riverside views and the friendliest staff in Nepal. The showers are hot, the food is great and the tours can be customized, led by one of the most experienced guides in Suaraha. Including breakfast, it’s all under $40 a night.
More upscale options exist, including a handful of luxury lodges just outside the park. These often cater to package tours and rates include safaris, walks, cultural shows and all of your meals.
Part Three: Trekking
?I get it. We all get it. You grew up looking at your gym teacher’s posters featuring inspirational messages superimposed upon panoramic images of Mount Everest. Those guys you knew from high school hiked it, and you can’t let investment bankers show you up. You have a bucket list, and this is the only mountain on it. But forget Everest Base Camp.
According to a few guides, compared to the Annapurna Trail, the views from the Everest Camp aren’t as beautiful, the actual path isn’t as challenging, and you’ll probably get altitude sickness, which is less hardcore than it is gross. What a five-day Teahouse Trek through some of the Annapurna circuit lacks in infamy, it makes up for in varied landscapes, charming mountainside towns, and an adorably alliterative name. If you go in the spring, you get to spend a couple of days walking through pink forests of rhododendrons; in winter, you get to warm up from the cold with masala chai.
Just be careful of the animals that you’ll share the trail with: This is where, when my boyfriend’s backpack got stuck on a traveling sack of rice, he was dragged down a hillside by an oblivious – and fortunately slow-moving – donkey.
Where you’ll go:
The Ghorepani-Gandruk loop is ideal. Take a taxi from Pokhara to Nayal Pul and then follow the hordes (or ask for Birethani), then head up, up and up to Tike Dhunga for the first night. The brave might carry on the 3,200 unbroken steps to Ulleri on the first night to make for an easy second day. Then head to Ghorepani, which gives you breathtaking sunrise views. The third day can be tough, with lots of ups and downs en route to Tadapani.
On the fourth day, set out early for a short and (mostly) easy stroll to Ghandruk, with wonderful views – which you won’t care about at that point – and good restaurants – which you will care about. An hour later, waiting taxis will take you back to Pokhara. If you’re not dead and sick of stairs, add a day or two by cutting across the valley to Landruk and walking out to Dhampus.
How difficult you’ll find it:
One the one hand, this trail has been called “The Most Beautiful Walk in the World,” alluding to the fact that bona fide mountain climbing is harder.
On the other hand, when my boyfriend rented our sleeping bags, the unapologetically sexist store manager said, “I give your girlfriend two days before she cries and asks to be taken off the mountain.” I sure showed him; it was three days before I cried and asked to be taken off the mountain. To be fair, my boyfriend almost cried too, and if there had been any way to get off the mountain other than by our own two feet, by the third day he would have taken it.
Here’s the thing about the Himalayas: They’re cold. And steep. And sometimes, their coldness and steepness will make otherwise strong and rational human beings consider faking a life-threatening injury so that they can be medevaced back to a nice warm hotel room.
But there are many ways to soften the difficulty of the Annapurna Teahouse Trek – ways that don’t involve committing medical fraud. Most trekkers hire a guide, and some hire a porter, who will carry your pack to prevent you from throwing it off the side of the mountain.
Of course, you can’t control the weather. On the third day of our hike – the aforementioned day of tears and regret – the path was so cold and wet that it had frozen over. To cope with the ice on the stairs, I invented a new technique for climbing down a mountain, which involves tying a waterproof jacket around your waist and sliding down on your rear end. I call this technique, “The Worst Technique For Climbing Down A Mountain Ever Invented.” You may want to get a walking stick instead.
What you’ll need to bring:
Some people will tell you that you should probably bring a sleeping bag. Those people are dead wrong. You should definitely bring a sleeping bag. You should also bring a flashlight, a backpack, a waterproof shell (not just as a makeshift toboggan), warm clothes to trek and sleep in, a stash of high-protein snacks, a first-aid kit for when you fall, toilet paper, a canteen and a good book.
You can find all of those things – including the book – in Pokhara, your transit hub. Pokhara won’t seem like much when you first see it before the trek, but you’ll be very happy to return to its real actual beds that aren’t just razor-thin strips of foam.
Before you depart for the trek, take a day in Pokhara to get your permits sorted for the park, including a Trekkers’ Information Management Systems card ($10 with a guide and $20 without) and a permit to the Annapurna Conservation Area. All trekking agencies in Pokhara (and Kathmandu) will arrange these for you. Make sure to have at least four passport photos (plus two for the airport).