Nepal – 5 Overlooked Destinations

As many visitors to Nepal dedicate much of their trip to the tourist hubs of Kathmandu, Pokhara and Himalayan trekking, I wanted to share some overlooked destinations. I spent nearly three months in this amazing country (on a tight budget), and so had time to follow up on tips from locals and ex-pats of extra things to check out in Nepal. This led me to alternative locations that I wouldn’t have otherwise found, or perhaps bothered with. They are either culturally interesting, or offer a different experience to other parts of Nepal. Most of these spots aren’t too hard to get to, so be sure to factor them into your trip if you have the time!

1 – Bandipur

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Sunrise at Bandipur: the faint ridgeline at the far top left is the Himalayas.

Nepal’s “lowlands” have some famous sunrise spots for epic views of the Himalayan mountains, such as Pokhara and Bhaktapur, but the quaint hilltop town of Bandipur has possibly the best. A steep twenty minute pre-dawn climb from the town center may leave you out of breath, but the view is definitely worth it – a 360 degree panorama over the lowlands, hills, mountains and finally the epic Himalayas towering beyond. It’s one of the best places in Nepal to get a sense of the mind boggling magnitude of the Himalayas thanks to the vast scale on offer here. If you’re lucky you’ll also get a sea of cloud covering the valley floors making for a really magical experience. Even if you’re too tired to catch the sunrise, the views around Bandipur are stunning at any time of the day – with the Himalayas clearly visible when its not too hazy or cloudy.

Bandipur is very laid back compared to Nepal’s other towns. Incredibly for this country, and props to the Bandipur council – traffic is banned in the town center making this a peaceful place. This combined with attractive guest houses, winding paved streets, bright colours and a street cafe/restaurant culture makes it feel very Mediterranean. Other things to do around Bandipur include mid-level forest and hill walks, mountain biking, cheap paragliding, and an adventurous cave tour. But really, the best thing about Bandipur is that its the perfect place to wind down for a few days and relax after the madness of Nepal’s cities, or to recover from a strenuous mountain trek. There’s a range of accommodation here, from super cheap guest houses to high end hotels. Infrequent tourist buses run here from the major tourist hubs, or you can make your way to the town of Dumre on the main road, and catch a local bus or jeep from there. Be warned, the narrow winding mountain road up to Bandipur is not for the faint-hearted (but it is at least sealed) – featuring low barriers and sheer cliff drops on one side – welcome to Nepal! Trust me though, the views once you get there are worth it!

2 – Chitwan National Park

Cute baby rhino having a snooze at Chitwan National Park. This infant was rescued after being orphaned when a tiger attacked and killed its mother, it managed to escape with minor wounds to its face. It seemed very content in the lodge garden!

With Nepal best known for the Himalayas, most people are pretty skeptical when you tell them that you can go on safari in Nepal. But sure enough, a lengthy bus ride down to Chitwan in the south reveals a completely different geography – a flat landscape of farmland which fleshes out with jungle and grassland as you approach the very touristy hub of Chitwan village. There’s a bunch of safari activities to do here – from elephant treks to bush walking, canoe rides and jeep tours. Aside from the likely chance of spotting wild rhinos, there’s a host of wildlife in this park you may spot including wild elephants, monkeys and boar. Going deeper into the park is usually needed to stand a chance of seeing the elusive sloth bears and Begnal tigers – good luck! If you can’t afford an expensive safari, don’t worry – I did one of the cheap package deals, starting with a peaceful misty sunrise river canoe trip, followed by a an adrenaline-pumping bush walk where you may come face to face with wild rhinos, elephants, wild pigs and other bush life. At lunch there was elephant washing in the river with their mahmouts (handlers) – which is great fun – but take a towel! The afternoon activity was an elephant jungle trek where we got really close to the wild rhinos, who were unphased by the horde of tourist-loaded elephants surrounding them. Be sure to take some bottom padding as the wooden elephant seating platforms are rock hard – super uncomfortable!

At the end of the day you can enjoy a cheap beer down at the river’s beach and watch the sunset over the grassland with the Himalayas in the distance. At night, the Tharu cultural dance show is also a good watch, showcasing traditional dances with energetic music and amazing costumes. Chitwan may be a very touristy spot but it’s definitely worth visiting for the wildlife and a completely different experience to the rest of Nepal.

3 – Kiritipur

De-husking rice in the streets of Kiritipur

De-husking rice in the streets of Kiritipur

This little hill town, only half an hour from Kathmandu, is a charming place to explore and surprisingly tourist-free. When we visited in low season, we didn’t see a single foreigner! There’s a few nice temples and shrines in Kiritipur, but the main reason to visit is its colourful architecture, narrow winding streets and friendly locals. Its a great place to see a slightly more sedate and genuine Nepalese lifestyle away from Kathmandu, yet is only a stone throw away from the city.

The hilltop also has great vistas over the Kathmandu valley. To get to Kiritipur, you can catch a local bus from the main bus station in Kathmandu, or its an affordable taxi ride. You could even cycle, as some of the locals do – although you’d want a mountain bike for the steep streets. A perfect place to get a slice of “real Nepal”.

4 – Pashupatinath Temple

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This large temple complex on the outskirts of Kathmandu is often overlooked by tourists, yet is one of the most interesting Hindu temples in the country. Built on the banks of the holy Bagmati river, Pashupatinath is religiously significant and popular with worshippers. You may see cremations and funeral ceremonies by the river banks, as well as other ceremonies at this busy temple. Its a moving experience to witness the public funerals here, and if one is in progress when you arrive its important to be respectful. However, Pashupatinath isn’t all doom and gloom – there’s plenty of other things to see here – including some great old architecture and a forest path leading up to many lovely old stupas.

There’s also a large colony of the cheeky macaque monkeys here. As with all monkeys in Asia, be wary as they can be aggressive, but are fun to watch. Pashupatinath has a more serene vibe than the other Kathmandu temples and its large size makes it seem quieter – it’s a nice place to observe locals performing mediation, ceremonies and rituals. Its also relatively free of the tourist plague – a few “babus” (holy men) ply tourists for paid photographs and there’s some unsolicited guides, but generally harassment is very low and tourist numbers small. Allow an hour to explore the whole complex, plus extra time if there are ceremonies to watch. Getting here is easiest via organised tours or just grabbing a cheap taxi and exploring yourself. Taking local buses to and from this location is a bit of a nightmare, unless you have a Nepalese speaker to help.

Jomsom

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In the far north of Nepal, just miles from the Tibetan border, lies the small trekking town of Jomsom. Nestled below the Annapura Himalayas, it acts as a starting point for the epic 30 day Annapurna circuit which loops the whole mountain range, or as a base for shorter treks. However, you don’t need to be really into trekking in order to make the trip to Jomsom worthwhile – it’s worth a visit just to experience this region. The scenery in this part of Nepal is unique and stunning – a barren and rocky landscape reminiscent of Afghanistan, with strange rock formations and the Himalayas towering overhead. The people in this region have Tibetan features and the villages are very different to other parts of Nepal, buildings are painted white with flat roofs, and firewood is neatly stacked on top. Coloured prayer flags ripple in the wind, stupas and cairns sit on clifftops and woolly yaks and mules haul farm goods. Although the landscape seems barren at first glance, in fact its an orchard growing region, famous for apples and cider.

The scenery around Jomsom is very impressive, and its easy to see with some fairly easy and flat day treks from the village offering amazing views. I also recommend ascending to the village of nearby Muktinath (which also has guest houses). The journey to Muktinath reveals even more amazing views of the Himalayas on an epic scale, and also has a nice mountainside temple and handicrafts. There’s even more trekking to be done here, just be wary of altitude sickness – which we suffered from – as Mukinath is quite a bit higher than Jomsom and the trip can be done in a few hours if you use the local jeeps (which are a great way to meet the locals, if uncomfortable!) – which might not give your body time to acclimatise. Be sure to read up about altitude sickness before you go (this also applies to other trekking in the Himalayas).

Jomsom itself has some lovely guest houses, and be sure to try out the local specialities of yak cheese and yak steak – yummy! Getting to Jomsom if you’re not trekking there can be tricky – if you can afford it, and are feeling brave, opt for the rather scary flight on a tiny plane from Pokhara. Or go it alone on a long bus/jeep combo also starting from Pokhara. A few years ago, this was a long and uncomfortable two day (or longer) journey with local buses and unreliable connections on an entirely dirt road, and it seems that plans to upgrade it have not yet materialised. Don’t rely on many locals speaking English on this journey, but you may be joined by other travellers and locals are friendly and will be happy to assist if you run into trouble. The long drive is worth it though – the views on the drive up get better and better as you enter the mountains.

Get Out There!

I hope that gives you some new ideas for your trip to Nepal. I definitely recommend trying to get to some of the less touristy places like these, and also highly recommend homestays and accepting invites from locals – be sure to take up on the hospitality of these amazingly generous people (assuming you feel safe to do so) and see a bit of the “real” Nepal!

New Photo Story Documentary

The village school which takes classes for a number of the surrounding villages

Karmidanda Photo Documentary

So the link above is my first real documentary photo story – in Nepal. I am tackling my “body of work” now I have my porfolio out of the way. This is a look at the traditional mountain village of Karmidanda in Nepal where I stayed for a number of weeks. Photo stories can be presented in a number of ways – you can just have photos, you can have a bit of intro text, or it can be a whole load of writing interspersed with the photos. At the moment I’m experimenting and would be interested to know your thoughts on the intro/captions format I’ve chosen for this one.

Collating my photos into collections and photo stories to create a body of work is the next big phase for my photography backlog. I was lucky enough during my travels to meet a number of top tier photographers, guys who have been published in big things, newspapers and publications like National Geographic and Time. Advice that was consistent between them when they saw my photos, was that my photography style would suit grouping into stories and collections. Although due to the documentary style of many of them, and my lack of experience/emphasis on photography at the time they may not all stand alone as great photos. But together they paint a picture of a time, a place, an experience and a story. I hope to do a lot more of these in future and learn which styles of photo stories suit me better. Hopefully it will lead to more focussed projects in future shoots too. Enjoy!

Leaving Jomsom and Last Days in Nepal

View from Mustang, down the valley we would take towards Ghasa and ultimately Beni

View from Mustang, down the valley we would take towards Ghasa and ultimately Beni

04/01/13

We got up early and after a quick breakfast went onto Jomsom’s main street to catch the 8am bus, only to find it had left early. We waited 45 minutes for another one. We hopped in and paid an extortionate price to go all the way to Beni, over double what we’d paid to get up here! Despite our protests the ticket man wouldn’t budge and Sophie made him dig out past tickets to show us. It’s a set tourist price, what a joke! Anyway, as we’d been in the dark on the way up it was good to see the views, passing many barren orchards and stopping in the next little town for a while. It had a huge Tibetan temple in it, looking almost like a castle with multiple layers – it looked like photos I’d seen from Tibet.

The mighty temple at Mustang

The mighty temple at Mustang

The bus bumped its way all down the mountain over the next 8 hours. It was horrendously dusty, so bad we had to cover our faces to breath. My Kindle acquired a thick layer of dust. The ride was extremely uncomfortable, with only one short stop for lunch in the bus park in Ghasa. We were sore and thankful when we got off in Beni (where we’d started our trip) at 4pm. Immediately I started asking around for buses to Pokhara just in case we could still get one. We got lucky, there was one just leaving and we somehow got a seat despite most of the bus standing. This was another long 5 hour ride, and we were delayed waiting for some big rock trucks to unload their cargo on the way. It was dark as we crossed over the hills and in Pokhara we caught a taxi to Noble Inn in Lakeside. We were exhausted after the most uncomfortable day travelling so far, grabbed some dinner and got an early night, glad of a real hotel after the basic comforts of the mountains!

A very Tibetan looking girl watched us from the roof of this house in Mustang

A very Tibetan looking girl watched us from the roof of this house in Mustang

05/01/13 – 12/01/13

We had a day free to chill out before Sophie needed to go to Kathmandu, so we spent it relaxing by the lakeside. The next day we caught a tourist bus to Kathmandu, which took all day, checking into a hotel in Thamel. The following day Sophie’s mum Ellen arrived, they were going to do some travelling together. We went out for dinner once she’d arrived. On the way back we encountered the ladyboy prostitutes of Nepal (I had no idea there were any!), who took great delight in trying to chat us up! Sophie’s mum didn’t even realize they were boys! Apparently there was a scandal not too long ago when a prominent politician had been caught picking up ladyboys in this hot-spot.

The next few days I spent chilling out in the city whilst Sophie took her mum out to the sights. I’d already booked a flight back to Thailand so I just relaxed, caught up on the blog and met the others for meals. We enjoyed some live Nepali music in a courtyard restaurant and we discovered a good pizza place called Fire and Ice, and a really nice western-style café with sofas and great coffee which we hung out in a lot. At night it was incredibly cold, thick blankets were needed. In fact the news said it was a new low for Kathmandu in over 50 years.

Road from Mustang to Beni, pictured is one of the jeep taxis which ferry locals around the area

Road from Mustang to Beni, pictured is one of the jeep taxis which ferry locals around the area

On the last day I said my goodbyes to Sophie and her mum. They were going to go up to Karmidanda, the village up in Langtang, to stay with Jabraj, and then see more of Nepal before going to India for a month. I caught an early plane from Kathmandu airport, unfortunately not getting a chance to get rid of my Nepali money – for some reason they don’t have exchange counters once you’re through customs! And I couldn’t change it in Thailand either, grrr! Consider yourself warned!

The flight to India had some incredible views of the Himalyas (I’m sure you could see Everest too), but I was gutted because I was on the wrong side of the plane and could hardly see it. On my side were endless jungle hill ranges with seas of mist hovering below them, good, but not as great as the jagged peaks I could glimpse on the other side.

A shale field up near Jomsom

A shale field up near Jomsom

After a change-over in New Delhi, I arrived in Bangkok, Thailand at 5pm. I decided to make use of the local transport and walked to the BTS station, the “sky train” which travels on a suspended railway above the roads. It was very easy to use with computer terminals and announcements in English. In half an hour I was in the centre of Bangkok and caught a taxi through horrendous Saturday night traffic to Khao San Road. I stayed in Sawasdee, a hotel I’d frequented last time, and went out for food and drinks. It was strange to be back in Thailand, it’s so different to Nepal and even Khao San Road seemed chilled out compared to the madness of Kathmandu’s streets. This was my fourth time back in Thailand!

Looking out over a Nepali town as as I fly towards India

Looking out over a Nepali town as as I fly towards India