Just Back: Nepal, the Himalayas and Beyond

The soaring Himalayas draw visitors to Nepal for trekking adventures to the mountains like the Everest and the Annapurna range made famous by legendary explorers. While adventures on foot shouldn’t be discounted, I was excited to embark on a different kind of journey: To explore the rural and less-visited parts of the country and experience Nepali culture by connecting with locals. At Epic Road, we create custom trips that blend luxury and adventure with immersive and impactful experiences meant to elevate consciousness of world issues. I was excited to be invited on a FAM trip focused on just that, alongside other like-minded travel advisors.

Our adventures began with two days in Kathmandu. After settling into the lovely Traditional Comfort Hotel, we explored the city with our expert guide, Puskar, who accompanied us for the duration of our trip. We visited several Holy sites, the first of which was Swayambhunath, a Buddhist pilgrimage site also known as the “Monkey Temple” where a beautiful stupa bedecked with prayer flags sits perched on top of a hill, offering incredible views of the city. We also went to Pashupatinath, a huge Hindu temple complex and UNESCO World Heritage site located on the banks of the Bagmati River. 

Later, at Boudhanath Stupa, the skies opened up and down came the rains! But the 30-minute downpour opened a window into daily life in Nepal and I witnessed many acts of generosity and kindness: A family seeking cover under a tiny awning pulled three of us up to join them; a shop owner offered his only chair to one of the advisors on our trip who was separated from the rest of the group; locals linked arms and laughed as they splashed across the puddles, never minding their soaking feet. I thought it’s no wonder this is a city that has proven so resilient following a major earthquake in 2015 that leveled many of Kathmandu’s most famous buildings and affected tourism all over the country. The physical evidence is there, too — in Kathmandu Durbar Square, there is a fair amount of construction underway as they work to rebuild the historic buildings that toppled during the quake. Durbar Square is also where we caught a glimpse of the waving Kumari, a young girl  who serves in the traditional — and somewhat mystical — role of Nepal’s living goddess. 

We capped off our time in Kathmandu with an incredible multi-course dinner at Krishnarpan, a traditional Nepali restaurant inside Kathmandu’s most luxurious hotel, the beautiful Dwarika’s.

Polly Witker got henna tattoos painted on her hand during her stay with a local family in Panauti.

On the third day, we hit the road and headed east to the greater Kathmandu Valley to a rural village called Panauti to have our first experience with Community Homestay, an initiative from Royal Mountain Travel that empowers women to build their own businesses and generates sustainable economic opportunity for local and indigenous communities, while giving travelers the kind of authentic experience that can only be had by staying and breaking bread with a local family. 

The women of Panauti’s Community Homestay greeted us by garlanding us and by applying tikas on our foreheads. Another member of our group, Caitlin, and I were handed over to the Sainju family. For lunch, our host mother, Parvati, made a delicious traditional Newar thali, made up of rice, curries and condiments. After lunch, Parvati’s daughter painted beautiful henna tattoos on our hands, and then mother and daughter showed us around the village. In the evening, we sat with all three generations of women in the family, laughing together as they offered us some delicate glass bangles as gifts that didn’t quite fit over our not-so-delicate hands! We made dinner together and were served homemade rice wine, made by Parvati’s mother. Spending time with these warm, smart, funny, strong women was such a special experience — one that I am sure will remain on my shortlist of favorite immersive travel experiences. 

We left Panauti the next morning for a half-day hike to Sanga, passing breathtaking vertical gorges and lush rice terraces. I had not been prepared for the beauty of Nepal’s countryside. In the afternoon, we explored Bhaktapur on foot, sampling street food, browsing in artisan shops and wandering down quiet alleyways. Puskar led us down one such alley where a septuagenarian potter spun a huge wheel with a stick, creating perfect cylindrical “piggy” banks that he sells for the equivalent of about $3. If they weren’t too large and delicate for luggage, I would have tried to bring a few home with me as gifts. Bhaktapur is a UNESCO World Heritage site with several well-preserved ancient structures, including the Nyatapola temple with its spectacular display of workmanship visible in the pairs of carved animal statues that stand on its steps. 

The women of Panauti’s Community Homestay greeted the group with garlands.// Photography: Tanner Caterina Knorr

Our next stop was Neydo Monastery in Pharping, where we stayed for the night in the monastery’s guest house. We rose at dawn and walked across the dewy grass to join Neydo’s 200 resident monks for their morning chanting. Low humming sounds floating through the air reached us even before we went inside the building that was decorated with opulent gold statues and had rainbows of colors on its walls and columns. After the entrancing experience listening to the chanting, we had the opportunity to speak to one of the senior student monks, who will soon graduate then leave to share Buddhism with the world. 

We departed Pharping for a long drive to Chitwan National Park, and on the way we stopped for a lovely lunch at Summit River Lodge. This is no ordinary hotel; the only way to get there is a thrilling, Indiana Jones-style adventure where you must cross a long suspension bridge on foot and then walk along a muddy path through some sleepy jungle villages before reaching the clearing where the lodge’s stone structures and infinity pool blend perfectly into the surrounding greenery. This is an experience and an accommodation highly recommended for travelers who want a mix of luxury and adventure. 

That evening we reached Barauli, a Community Homestay location run by members of the indigenous Tharu tribe. We immersed ourselves in the Tharu community for two nights, sleeping in traditional mud huts, eating all of our meals together in the central dining hall, cycling through neighboring villages and stopping at a sanctuary for retired elephants. One of the highlights from my time in Barauli was a Jeep safari through Chitwan National Park where we saw six greater one-horned rhinos, including a mother and her calf. Chitwan is considered a major conservation success story in Asia, having recently celebrated one year with zero poaching and also for the fact that the rhino population has risen to over 600 from fewer than 100 just a few decades ago. The second highlight was a mesmerizing evening stick dance performance by the young Tharu women from the community, during which they pulled all of us up to join them for some really fun whirling and twirling. 

Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, a tourist  hot spot ravaged by a massive quake in 2015, is in the process of rebuilding.

After Barauli, we visited Lumbini, the sacred birthplace of Buddha, according to Buddhist tradition, and took a rickshaw tour of the area’s beautiful temples. Then, we drove to Pokhara to spend the next two nights at the very relaxing and regenerative Temple Tree, a quiet luxury resort that feels secluded but is, in fact, centrally located in Pokhara; it is a great place to indulge in a massage, some pool time and cocktails at its poolside bar. Pokhara is also the best place to shop for Nepalese souvenirs, such as soft cashmere scarves and brightly colored yak wool blankets. For thrill-seekers, it’s also a great place to launch a helicopter ride to Annapurna Base Camp or go paragliding with views of the Himalayas (unfortunately, we were rained out!), or take a more leisurely boat ride on beautiful Lake Phewa. 

I was very grateful for the opportunity we had to visit Tashiling Handicraft Center, a Tibetan settlement camp on the outskirts of Pokhara that is set up to welcome visitors. Tashiling also operates a small restaurant that serves soup and momos for lunch. Visitors have the opportunity to meet and watch the weavers who make carpets that are sold in the main shop, and shop for other handmade items like jewelry, artwork and blankets from resident artisans. Most importantly, there is an onsite museum that explains the history of Tashiling. It’s difficult to put into words how emotional it was to walk through the photos that tell the story of past and present Tibetan refugees in Nepal.

A quick 30-minute flight on Yeti Airlines and we were back in Kathmandu for a day of shopping in Patan for meditation bowls, or “singing bowls,” and wandering the streets of Thamel. In less than two weeks I was able to experience so many sides of Nepal — the Newars and the Tharu; the wildlife in Chitwan; adventures and indulgences. But I can’t wait to come back and develop an even deeper understanding of this fascinating country.

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