“My friend, Nepal only has one thing to offer… mountains!”
Well – perhaps my taxi driver from Kathmandu airport was being just a little deprecating about his country, but he did seem to have a point.
For many a visitor, Nepal is unmistakably about the Himalayas. It’s obvious from the moment you set foot.
As I drove into Kathmandu, I saw more tourists wearing trekking boots than flip-flops or sandals (although maybe the mud had something to do with this…). And finding a trekking gear store or trekking tour operator in these parts seemed about as difficult as finding a casino in Vegas. They’re everywhere.
Of course, there may also be plenty of Hindu and Buddhist temples to see, traditional villages to visit, and rhinos and tigers to chase (specifically in Chitwan National Park), but Nepal’s snowy peaks are clearly what brings many people here in the first place.
The epic mountain landscapes didn’t disappoint, though there were other aspects of Nepal I also liked almost just as much.
I spent just over 2 weeks in Nepal, with an itinerary including the cities of Kathmandu and Pokhara, plus a week-long trek into the Annapurna region. While this trips was far from exhaustive, Nepal instantly shot into my personal list of top travel destinations.
Depending on how you look at it, Kathmandu either has little going on… or it has everything going on.
It’s a sprawling, dusty, and chaotic city. Even so, from a tourist point of view, it can seem at first like it doesn’t have that many things to see.
The ancient shrines and stupas around Durbar square are the main cultural attraction, and while still worth a visit, they were sadly also heavily damaged in the 2015 earthquake. The stupa of Swayambhunath, also known as the Monkey Temple, lies about 30 minutes from the center and offers great hilltop views of the city. But besides this, there is arguably not a ton of typical sightseeing to be done.
Nevertheless, to me Kathmandu was an exhilarating place. I fell in love with its chaos from the moment I arrived.
Practically any street scene feels like an establishing shot from a movie. You’ll see people selling fruit on the corners, porters carrying huge sacks of goods, monks on their way to prayer, cows milling about without a care in the world, and colourfully painted rickshaws zipping past.
I delighted in exploring Kathmandu without any real goal in mind. I recommend diving into the areas south and west of Durbar in particular, but the best way to bathe in all the sensory overload is to simply head into any street that seems interesting to you. When you hit a crossing, go down the next street that seems interesting. Me and my friend happily spent a whole day just doing this.
Admittedly, I’ve built up some tolerance for chaotic cities in developing countries, and it does seem that Kathmandu is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of place. I spoke to some people who weren’t such fans and stayed only on one street in the tourist district of Tamel (and once taking a taxi to Durbar square). I think they were seriously missing out.
While Kathmandu is quite the beehive—and you’re bound to only see just a sliver of it—I think there is still an odd sense of calm amid all the chaos. Nepali drivers don’t seem to honk as excessively as in other Asian countries, street vendors were surprisingly respectful to tourists, and the city even gets rather quiet at night.
Every travel blogger seems to hate Kathmandu. Call me crazy, but I loved the place…
The backpacker and tourist district of Thamel is where you might almost inevitably end up. It’s a warren of neon signs, souvenir and trekking gear shops, restaurants, massage parlors, and surely an Irish pub or two. It’s not the most authentic place, but it does make for a decent base.
If you want to stay just outside of this typical tourist ghetto, the neighborhood of Paknajol (northwest of Thamel) is very nice. It feels a bit more residential, but it’s not far from the shops and restaurants in Thamel.
A wonderful thing to do in Thamel is to find one of the rooftop garden restaurants, offering views of the streets below as well as the city canopy. There are a bunch of them around the central junction on Thamel Marg [location].
I stayed at Potala Hotel inside Thamel, which came recommended by various travel guides, though it was honestly a bit of a dark hovel with terrible breakfast. I also stayed at Kathmandu Garden House, just north of Thamel, and I totally loved this guesthouse. It’s on a little back street, has a wonderful quiet garden, a large traveller’s library, and good cheap rooms.
While I didn’t get a chance to go, the ancient city of Bhaktapur is the most popular day-trip from Kathmandu.
On a two week trip, I recommend staying in Kathmandu for 2 days at the start of your itinerary, plus another day at the end.
Pokhara is quite a deceptive place.
When you drive through it or if you view it from a hilltop, it’s obviously a large city. The chaos in downtown might even rival that of Kathmandu.
But if you stay in the tourist district of Lakeside, you could be forgiven for thinking Pokhara is just a small and peaceful village.
With its fresh air, tree-lined streets, and wide open views of Lake Phewa (and, on a clear day, views of the snow-capped mountains of Annapurna), Pokhara certainly has a way of calming your nerves.
A beautiful place in its own right, Pokhara also acts as a gateway to the Annapurna mountain range. If you plan to go trekking, this is where you will most likely depart from.
It’s also a popular place from which to go rafting or paragliding. I booked a tandem paraglide with Sky Sports Paragliding, which was very enjoyable. You jump off one of the hills surrounding Pokhara, glide over some hillside forests, then down towards Lake Phewa, and finally land near the buffalo-strewn swamplands on the other side of the lake. Once again, on a clear day, you’ll be able to see the epic Himalayan peaks in the distance.
The nightlife is fairly sedate thanks to a 11pm bar curfew, though the liveliest place seemed to the somewhat hidden Busy Bee Cafe. It has an open beer garden-type area, plus a small and sweaty dancefloor filled with Nepalis and tourists alike.
Apart from visiting nearby temples and boating on the lake, Pokhara is filled with all manner of yoga, meditation and massage retreats, which might be particularly tempting after returning from an exhausting trek.
On a two week trip, I recommend staying 1 day in Pokhara before trekking, plus 2 days after. (I stayed 3 days, which included a rainy day / sick day.)
Trekking up to Annapurna Base Camp was truly a peak experience.
That is to say, there were a lot of impressive mountain peaks, but also the whole trek was totally magnificent. For me it was right up there with seeing the vast Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia or the thunderous waterfalls of Iguazu in Brazil — just one of those awe-inspiring experiences you’re going to remember forever.
Part of my enjoyment of the trek may have stemmed from doing it in the off-season. I did the trek just before monsoon season, just as some of the guesthouses were beginning to close down. It was a risk, as the weather could have been bad, but I got lucky and got the best of both worlds: great weather, and a wonderful trek free of any major crowds.
The first third or so of the trek takes you through rural lands, past rivers and waterfalls, and up to a small settlement called Chomrong. From there, another third takes you through beautiful fern- and moss covered forests. The last third is all about wide open expanses, gnarly massifs, and finally a climb up to 4130m to the base camp at Annapurna, one of the world’s tallest mountains.
There, surrounded in 360 degrees by ten epic peaks, you can’t help but be deeply affected by the geological awesomeness of it all. Your mind wanders uncontrollably to the crushing of tectonic plates over the ages. It’s breathtaking.
When I got to viewing point at Annapurna Base Camp, after days of intense trekking, me and my travel buddy were even lucky enough to be the only people on site. For this reason, I can recommend trekking independently, and doing it in the quieter times of the year.
(I did it end of May – early June which may have been a little dangerously close to the monsoon season, which usually kicks off mid-June. Perhaps early May or late April is a safer bet.)
The Annapurna Base Camp trek is a great choice for a two-week trip to Nepal, as it can be done in around 7 days or so. The length of the trek does depend on your fitness level and where you choose to start your trek. It’s not an easy trek, and you need either a good fitness level or strong perseverance to make it to the top.
Tour operators try to sell you guided Annapurna Base Camp treks, but you don’t really need a guide. I did this trek independently, which saved me a lot of money, gave me much more flexibility and a chance to avoid large groups at the viewing point. If you do want a guided experience (which, again, is really not necessary!), then be sure to book locally as this will likely be cheaper than anything you can book online ahead of your trip.
It’s wise to allocate at least 8 or 9 days for this trek, by keeping some days free at the end of your itinerary. If you manage to do ABC in 7 days, then great, you’ll have extra time to spend in Pokhara or elsewhere. But if you end up being a bit slower, you’ll still be able to give yourself the extra time.
How to get around
The infrastructure in Nepal… well, it leaves a lot to be desired, so sometimes you need to be a bit patient.
I like to travel overland so I travelled by bus. Numerous so-called “tourist buses” connect the cities, though they are not just for tourists (it’s just what intercity buses are called in Nepal). While the roads are bad, if you leave Kathmandu at 7 am you can still be in Pokhara by mid-afternoon.
If pressed for time you can fly between major points. Yeti Air, Tara Air and Buddha Air are some of the domestic carriers.
Where to stay
The basic travel costs in Nepal are among the lowest in the world. The local currency is the Nepalese rupee, and at the moment 100 rupee is about equal to one US dollar. Basic private rooms start at $10, a decent evening meal might cost $4 – $6, and a bus between Kathmandu and Pokhara will cost under $10. However, expect sports or adventure activities such as rafting or paragliding to be priced at international levels.
Trekking in Annapurna
Guided trekking could be a major cost, especially if you book this online ahead of your trip. (This will almost certainly be more expensive than booking something locally during your trip.) The Annapurna Base Camp trek also can be done independently, which is much cheaper and gives you more freedom. See my guide to trekking to Annapurna Base Camp.
Impressions of Nepal
I loved Nepal for the culture, nature, and for its food as well.
I got seriously into the momos — steamed dumplings with delicious fillings, which are Nepal’s main snack food.
Also, I’m going to commit a cardinal sin of travel writing by saying the people in Nepal are absolutely wonderful. I know it’s such a cliché, but with Nepal I can say it with hand on heart. I totally dig the Nepalese temperament and attitude.
It may just have been my subjective experience, but seemingly everywhere you go you’ll be greeted with good vibes and a warm namaste. Give someone a tip and they’ll come back to tell you that you’ve paid them too much. Salesmen or taxi drivers will advertise on the street, but it usually takes no more than a “no thank you” for them to leave you alone. People don’t invade your personal space.
Considering how different this can be in other parts of Asia, the relaxed nature of the Nepalese was almost jarring.
After hiking Annapurna, me and my friend were overrun by taxi drivers wanting to take us to Pokhara, but all it took for them to disperse was saying “please, we want to have a drink first, we’ll decide on a taxi later”. Good luck doing that in Vietnam.
All in all, my visit to Nepal was one of my favorite travel experiences. My two weeks felt more like four weeks, such is the nature of travel stretching your perception of time. It was such a delight that I’m determined to come back to see more.