Home to 5 million of the 26-million population, Kathmandu is the cultural and economic heart of the country and it is from here that most Nepal holidays begin. In contrast to the serenity of the countryside, Kathmandu’s streets are narrow, chaotic and noisy with rickshaws jostling with motorbikes and the occasional sacred cow holding up the traffic, oblivious to the pandemonium around it.
Among the most popular sites in Kathmandu is the Swayambhu golden stupa set high above the city, complete with its troop of wild monkeys (hence the nickname of Monkey Temple). Here you can witness ancient rituals and watch the glorious sunset. Just to the west of the stupa there are three massive Buddha statues, each about 20 metres tall, that are worth a short detour.
Another highlight is the lovely Swapra Bagaicha, or Garden of Dreams, a haven of peace just minutes from Kathmandu’s busy city streets. The Narayanhiti Place Museum with its iconic 1970s furnishings and fascinating memorabilia from the old Nepal, is another popular place to visit. Sadly the World Heritage Site of Durbar Square was badly damaged in the earthquake but fortunately much of the city was unscathed and rebuilding here is ongoing.
Food on Nepal holidays
As for Nepalese food, it is generally fresh, healthy, largely traditional and still widely based on the country’s exceptional ethnic diversity. Asian themes abound, with Nepalese favourites including Momos (Tibetan style dumplings filled with spices, various meats or vegetables) and the staple dish of dal bhat, a thick lentil soup served on rice with curried vegetables. In Kathmandu however there are plenty of European influences to make you feel at home, with restaurants serving excellent pizza as well as India and Thai restaurants.
Nepal’s geographical regions
Nepal is divided into three geographical regions, the Himalayan region, Mid-hills region and Terai (flat land). It has been an attractive destination down the ages because of its climate and location, and the resulting cultural and religious mix is exceptionally diverse. The two great faiths of Hinduism and Buddhism co-exist in harmony and often share places of worship. The temple of Muktinath for example, in the Himalayan district of Mustang, is venerated by both. Buddha’s birthplace is actually in Lumbini, in the Nepali Terai province of Rupandehi, and is one of Buddhism’s most sacred destinations.
The Kathmandu Valley is the most developed and highly populated part of the country. It includes the districts of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan, or Lalitpur, which together make up the political and economic hub of Nepal. The valley is a World Heritage Site, lying at the very heart of ancient Asian civilisations and offers a rich culture and unique architecture. The civilisation created here by the Newars, around 300 years BC, is still very much alive and there remains a fantastic amount to see.
Kathmandu Valley’s famous Seven Monument Zones are made up of the districts’ major central areas, or Durbars, and four magnificent religious areas, Swayanbhu, with the oldest Buddhist stupas (shrine) in the Valley, Boudhanath, with the largest Buddhist stupa in Nepal, Pashupatinath, the holiest temple for Hindus and Changu Narayan, which includes a traditional Newar settlement.
Trekking holidays in Nepal
Trekking in Nepal is all about the journey and soaking up the magnificent views as you go, especially the incredible sunrises if you are early risers. With half-day hikes from Kathmandu, three to four day treks in the Annapurna Conservation Area or the more challenging Langtang region and routes to Annapurna and Everest Basecamps, there really is something very special for everyone who enjoys walking in spectacular mountain scenery.
The Annapurna region is one of the most visited trekking areas in the Himalayas. Visitors either fly or take the bumpy road from Kathmandu to Pokhara from where the regions treks begin. Set beside picturesque Phewa Lake, Pokhara is the place to stock up with provisions. Non-trekking activities include visiting the World Peace Pagoda, boating on the lake and a trip to the village of Sarangkot for great views of the Annapurna Himalaya. There is also excellent paragliding from here.
The Annapurna and Everest regions are famous for their Teahouses, which are found dotted along the popular trekking routes. These are small, friendly village hotels that provide tasty local meals and a bed for the night. Most have separate rooms, basic flush loos and a dining area around a warm toasty stove where trekkers gather to share their day’s experiences. In the Annapurna region, the farming village of Ghandruk is a picturesque stopping off point. It’s the second largest Gurung village in Nepal with wonderful views of the Himalayas. The 4-5 day trek that takes in Ghorepani and Poon Hill as well as Ghandruk takes you up to about 3,200 metres, avoiding any altitude sickness, and has a truly magnificent sunrise view of the entire Annapurna range.
Everest trekking includes one of the world’s great classics, Everest Base Camp, which is accessed from Lukla, in the magnificent Sagamartha National Park, a World Heritage Site. Even if you only get as far as Namche Bazaar, the major staging place on the route to Everest, the views are unforgettable. Sagamartha is the Nepali name for Everest, which is located in the park. Most people fly in from Kathmandu to begin their trek, but the road trips are spectacular, if a little slow.
Chitwan and Bardia National Parks
On Nepal’s southern border, Chitwan National Park is reputedly the best-preserved area in Asia and a World Heritage Site of 360 square miles. The lush sub-tropical forest and grassland are home to at least 70 mammals and 550 resident bird species, including the elusive Bengal tiger, leopard and dozens of rare and endangered birds. You will see most of the rest however, like the one horned rhino, deer, monkeys, elephants, gaurs, the world’s largest wild cattle and the region’s famous sloth bears.
You can stay in busy, bustling Sauraha or at a luxury lodge on the edge of the park. The Parsa and Valmiki reserves are adjacent and with Chitwan they form this region’s Tiger Conservation Unit, a project dedicated to the protection of these magnificent and highly endangered beasts.
Further north Terai National Park is an untouched haven for over 50 mammal and 400 bird species and the choice of wildlife buffs. Among many other exotic species you will be stalking swamp deer, Gangetic dolphins, various crocodiles, White-rumped vultures, Bar-headed geese and the Saurua crane.