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!

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Tenganan Cultural Trip – Bali

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My last trip to Bali was focused on learning more about the customs and daily life of the people of this religious island – and what better place to see this than the ancient village of Tenganan. I was eager to return to this cultural highlight after doing a photography workshop there with international photographer Suki, you can read about that trip and see the photographs from the workshop by clicking here. I was also able to put some of the portraiture skills I’d learned to good use on this second visit.

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I hired excellent driver Ketut to take me on a photography day from Ubud, who proposed the itinerary for my last day in Bali. We departed in the early morning in darkness, arriving at the tourist beach of Sanur for the sunrise – where a number of other tourists and exercising locals were already waiting to enjoy one of Bali’s classic sights. We grabbed some chilli-filled breakfast at a local stall and some strong Bali coffee to wake up in a firey fashion, before Ketut drove me to a salt farming beach further along the coast.

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Here we wandered down through a small settlement to find flattened sand on the dark beach, and an old man going back and forth between the sand “fields” and the sea, filling buckets of sea water and then sloshing them out methodically over the flattened area. The purpose of this is to saturate the sand with salt water, where it then dries. The sand is then collected and filtered to extract a second batch of salt water, which is then left to evaporate in wooden troughs, leaving behind rock salt deposits.

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It’s an old farming method which is still viable today due to the demand of salt in the country. Ketut chatted to a lady who was covering the troughs, telling me that they had experienced a poor season thanks to adverse weather – wet and cloudy conditions were thwarting the evaporation methods. On busier mornings you can find many salt farmers collecting the sea water, but close to dawn as the work is done early to avoid the harsh daylight heat.

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Our next destination was Tenganan, the culturally significant village I’d visited before. This settlement retains many old customs and buildings which have been lost elsewhere in Bali. We were lucky enough to arrive on a ceremonial day, a coming of age celebration for young men and women in the village. The following days would see a number of large ceremonies, and the streets were full of the ladies of the village making ornate decorations from palm leaf and flowers in preparation. Other villagers prepared vast amounts of food, and a pig slowly turned on a spit over open coals in the town square, smelling delicious. There weren’t many tourists today and I wandered around taking photos of the friendly villagers.

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We met a number of other Balinese photographers who had come to witness today’s initial ceremony, where the men of the village would tour the village elder’s houses on a bonding ritual involving body paint and plenty of alcohol. It was great to meet them, one guy had come all the way from Java to see the village and was lucky enough to arrive on this special day with his vintage Polaroid camera, another was a professional wedding photographer sporting a superb Lecia camera and there were a few others who were more interested in cultural learning and documentation, including a professor from Japan who has lived in the village for over 6 months, still trying to make sense of all the unique customs in Tenganan.

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The men finally appeared, in traditional dress, and went to the village leader’s house on the main street to receive a reception of food and alcohol. We were welcome to go inside and watch, a friendly gesture – the people of the village are happy to share their customs. I chatted to the wife of one of the participants, her English was good and she was able to explain to me more about the ceremony and I took some photos of her and her friend in the craft shop in the front of the compound, matching many of the other houses on the main street – Tenganan being famous for its weaving and other handicrafts.

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alanstockphotography-07766After an hour or two, the already rather inebriated men, in good spirits (boom tish) and now covered in body paint, moved on to the next elders house and we had lunch at an alley stall. It was getting quite late so I popped in to get some last photos of the men and graciously received an offer for a cup of strong rice wine, no wonder they were so merry! The Japanese professor had also been roped into the proceedings and was sporting a massive grin as they plied him with booze! I said my thanks and made my way out.

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But as I was leaving, I first spied an amazing old lady resting under one of the communal rest shelters, who was happy for me to take a photo, although she didn’t speak any English. I also ran into a man I’d met during my last visit, a friendly weaver who specialises in Tenganan’s unique double weaving technique and got a few shots before I had to leave. I also enjoyed watching the kids playing on the big traditional wooden carousel – safety standards be damned – as they swung round and round.

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As it was my last day in Bali, I was gutted to miss out on the evenings celebrations, when the true ceremony began, and the festivities of the next few days. But one day I hope to return to this wonderful village and witness more of their unique ceremonies – if you visit Bali, be sure to visit Tenganan and be whisked back in time, and don’t be afraid to chat to the friendly villagers and learn about their special culture!

Here’s a gallery of more photos from the day, click to enlarge.

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Bali Volcano Sunrise – Mount Batur

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It’s dark and I’m standing in the streets of central Ubud. What should be a peaceful night is shattered by the incessant barking of the neighbour’s dog, who’s decided I’m a terrible threat to his territory. It makes the wait for my pickup for a sunrise trek slightly fraught, at 4 a.m. I’m not exactly corpus mentus just yet – and I’ve been attacked by dogs before in Asia. I stand my ground, knowing not to show fear – but hoping the ruckus doesn’t attract the more aggressive street dogs, and my tactic works. The little mutt eventually retreats into his garden and soon a mini bus jam-packed with tired tourists pulls up with a screech of brakes.

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Mount Agung rises out of a sea of clouds.

I’m up this early to climb Mount Batur, an active volcano near the centre of Bali, for its famous sunrise. The activity is popular with tourists from around the island, with transport coming all the way from the beaches of Kuta and beyond, so despite the early hour, there’s a stream of speeding mini buses racing along inner Bali’s narrow, twisting roads towards the base of the volcano. In classic Bali style, we drive at breakneck speeds through villages and countryside, swerving piles of building material deposited in the road, slow trucks and other tour buses – and I’m thankful for the bonus of a working seatbelt. As we ascend to the crater lake rim, we overtake an open-topped truck full of school kids, standing packed together like sardines – they must be freezing in the chilly night air. Even our veteran Balinese driver, no stranger to Bali’s mad roads, tells me it’s crazy, explaining there was an serious accident recently in similar circumstances where a truck full of kids rolled with fatal consequences. He tells me they’re also heading for the up for the trek, its a popular destination for school expeditions.

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My friends ready to start their night hike!

We pull into a large car park full of buses and taxis in the dark and I meet up with some friends. Torches are are handed out and we’re split into groups, each led by guides. There’s not much chance of getting lost though, as we set off on the sandy path out of the village there’s literally hundreds of other people going the same way – a sea of torch-lights illuminating the way ahead. The path is easy going for the first hour as we slowly ascend. I barely have time to set up my tripod on a quick rest stop before we’re off again but I do capture a rather grainy image of the rather mesmerizing stream of lights climbing to the summit.

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Hundreds of walkers ascend Mount Batur under the starlight.

From now on it’s steep going and the soft volcanic soil is loose and slippery. Conversation stalls as everyone is breathless, an half an hour of climbing later we arrive at a large rest stop with food stalls overlooking the crater and Lake Batur. It’s a great view – twilight is upon us, the horizon changing colour and town lights shimmer on the lake as the moon shines overhead. There’s just time for another few tripod shots – but unfortunately its windy making for blurry images with the long exposures, and before there’s time to correct it, we’re ushered onwards, we don’t want to miss the sunrise!

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Lake Batur at Night

The final half hour stretch is very steep and slippery, and I lose my footing in the dark a number of times, hampered by my tripod. To add insult to injury, my bag zip decides to break leaving my camera kit precariously exposed to falling out, so I wear it on my front to minimize the risk. We finally reach the bare summit, and sit out along little shelves cut out of the soil, with some mats to sit on, as the guide collects tea for us from a nearby stall. The view is already amazing – the sky is quite clear aside from a few clouds, and the awesome cloud bank below rolls over the landscape, islands of hills popping up from this woolly sea as the volcano of Mount Agung to the right towers over everything else.

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The moon bids farewell as dawn crests the horizon.

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Mount Agur

The summit gets increasingly busy as more groups arrive, mainly westerners of all types from backpackers to smartly dressed elderly groups. People take their seats and sip on coffee, dig into their breakfast or wander around taking photos as we wait for the sun to arrive. I’m mesmerised by the cloud sea, I’ve seen this phenomenon before at Mt Bromo in Java, and in the Himalayas, but it never gets old. There’s plenty of space to use the tripod, so I take advantage, unfortunately the barren summit doesn’t provide many interesting foregrounds aside from plants, and I have to be wary not to obstruct in the view for other visitors.

Sunrise Mount Batur

Mountains pop out of the cloud sea like islands.

Sunrise Mount Batur

The sun finally begins to poke out from behind the clouds and they turn out to be a blessing, forcing the light into amazing god rays shining out over the cloud sea. We’re blessed with a magnificent sunrise – and we’re quite lucky as of course it’s all weather dependent, a lot of others saw my photos and said I got a particularly good morning for it. I use the inbuilt panorama mode on my camera to try and capture the epic sense of scale, but you’d really need a GoPro or super big panorama to really do this justice. I use my wider angle lens for classic landscapes and my zoom to focus on details in the scene. After I’ve got plenty of shots, I sit back and enjoy the moment properly and just admire the view.

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Sunrise Mount Batur

The school groups we’d seen earlier finally arrive – sadly for them they’ve already missed the best bit. There’s a few scout groups and regular school kids, who seem knackered after racing up only to miss out! Once the sun’s fully up, we head back down the mountain. First we stop at some natural hot springs where a cheeky macaque monkey colony hangs out – getting fed by the tourists. As usual, they’re as crazy as ever, climbing on people, trying to steal food and there’s some cute babies clinging onto their mums. I keep my distance, having learned to respect these unpredictable imps during my travels – entertaining to watch though. Now the sun’s up, we admire the views down into the crater below as the cloud slowly rises with the heat.

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One of the school expedition’s latecomers, holding aloft the Indonesian flag.

Sunrise Mount Batur

Food stall with a pretty decent view…

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The crater below, with Lake Batur at the back.

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Mum protective of her baby, warily eyeing the tourists from a distance.

It’s a hot walk for the next few hours as we quickly descend the slippery soil path and return on a different road down the mountain, passing plantations and locals riding up in trucks – in ceremonial dress – the guide tells me that there are some shrines up Mt Batur where ceremonies are conducted. Back at the car park, we get a good view of the volcano and all fall asleep as we hurtle back to Ubud – it’s nearly midday and we’ve already been up for 8 hours. Before I part ways with my friends, they take me to a nearby pizza restaurant, Umah Pizza – what better breakfast than a tasty massive pepperoni pizza and a cocktail! I had a good nap that afternoon, I can tell you! I would love to return to focus entirely on photography, take my time, get those night shots with the tripod and scout out some better locations for the landscape – one day!

Mount Batur locals

Friendly locals pass by in trucks, heading for a ceremony up the mountain.

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Interesting hill with Mount Agung peeping out of the cloud in the background.

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A plantation, not sure of the crop as I haven’t seen these covers before. Feel free to enlighten me!

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Back at the car park, we get a good view of Mount Batur’s distinctive cone.

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Tasty and super cheap pizza at Umah Pizza, central Ubud.

If you’re interested in doing the Mount Batur climb yourself, there’s a few things to be aware of. It was a tiring morning – the final hour of the climb is demanding, it can be slippery with loose soil and rocks, and it’s steep. I would advise less fit or mobile travellers to give yourselves extra time to get up there, taking the time for plenty of rests. You can find tours for this everywhere on the island and the differences are negligible, they all use the same pool of guides from the mountain. As the guides have a stranglehold on the trip, doing it yourself is difficult as they supposedly deny take issue if you try to go it alone. But its a pretty cheap tour anyway. Be prepared for it to be very busy too and be stuck in queues ascending and descending – fortunately the summit is spacious enough to comfortably fit everyone. Take some warm clothes, it’s chilly until the sun comes up, and don’t worry too much about food and drink, if its not provided by your tour company there’s lots of sellers up the mountain to sort you out. And finally, your views will be weather dependent – I got lucky, but maybe spare yourself enough days for a few attempts if you get cloudy weather on your first try. But when it works out – its definitely worth it!

More images from the morning – click on them to enlarge:

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