There are certain corners of the globe that, just by travelling to them, make you a better person. Places that still your mind, open your heart, and help you feel a bit more at peace with yo’ bad self. Nepal is one of these places. Hell, it’s the queen of these places. And not just because the Mountain Kingdom is crammed with people nicer than the Dalai Lama. Nepal is also a ginormous washing machine for the soul. Cheated on your uni French exam? Nepal is draped in fluttering prayer flags that will pray the shame away for you every time the breeze blows. Drink one too many bloody mary’s on the plane over? There are enough prayer wheels in Nepal to spin a lifetime’s worth of boozy nights away. Take your pick from a smorgasbord of temples and monasteries, light an oil lamp, burn an incense stick, meditate on a Himalayan mountain… No matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done, Nepal will send you home a better version of you. Namaste.
Crazy For Kathmandu
Your intoxicating Nepalese adventure starts in Kathmandu. Jump in a psychedelically-painted cycle rickshaw and haul ass to Kathmandu Durbar Square, filled with slap-yourself pretty Buddhist and Hindu temples, pagodas and shrines dating back to the 12th century. Many of these were damaged by Nepal’s devastating 2015 earthquake, but most have been repaired and, just by bringing your travel dosh here, you’re helping Kathmandu get back on its feet (see, you’re a better person already). Don’t miss the Temple of the Living Goddess, a three-story red-brick building where the Kumari, a ten-year-old girl who the Nepalese worship as a living goddess, lives. This girl is such a queen that her feet can’t even touch the ground, until she becomes a mere mortal again when she has her first period. Visit from 9-11am and you may get an auspicious glimpse of her heavily made-up face as she peeks out from the intricately carved windows.
Next, take a soul-cleansing clockwise whirl around Asia’s biggest stupa (Buddhist monument) Bodhnath, accompanied by hundreds of pilgrims and maroon-robed Tibetan monks. Spin a prayer wheel, chant a mantra or just let the watchful eyes of the Buddha, painted on the stupa’s gilded central tower, cast their protective gaze over you. Hopefully said gaze will guard you against Kathmandu’s omnipresent pigeons, a nightmare for the ornithophobes among us.
Absolved of your sins, head over to buzzing Thamel to spend your body weight in rupees on everything from antique coin necklaces and textiles, to Buddhist trinkets and copper plates (gifts, all gifts!). When the sun starts to set, get thee to the city’s outskirts to the UNESCO-listed Pashupatinath temple (try saying that three times fast), Nepal’s most widely used cremation site on the banks of the sacred Bagmati River. Pop a squat on the ghats (steps leading to the river) alongside the bearded mystics to watch the nightly aarti. Turmeric-robed Hindu priests offer oil lamps, flowers, incense and music to the river, as the corpses are blessed by loved ones before being engulfed by flames.
Invalid Displayed Gallery
Want to know how Nepalese families really live? Head to Panauti, a serene and temple-filled 300-year-old town set at the meeting of two sacred rivers, to do a homestay with a local family. The home you’ll stay in won’t likely be fancy (read: there may be the occasional pigeon or mouse to contend with) but it will be filled with smiles, laughter and lip-smacking grub.
Roam the dusty ochre-hued laneways of the chilled old quarter, poking your head into ornate riverside temples, namaste-ing local women clad in bejeweled saris, and trying not to step on rogue chickens. Your host family might take you for a climb to the lookout at the town’s outskirts to watch the sunset, then back home to teach you how to cook dosas and dal. You’ll eat dinner with your hands, and do your best to feign enjoyment when you’re offered Nepal’s famously potent ‘raksi’ rice wine. It tastes like petrol, but you get used to it. Before you accept a third cup though, remember the four-hour hike through the surrounding rice paddy-clad mountains you’ve planned for sunrise.
Trekking Up A Storm
“When I was trekking through the Himalayas last month…” If that’s not a phrase you desperately want to utter at your next dinner party, then shoot me. It’s bucket list stuff, right up there with seeing the Aurora Borealis or jabbing a flag in the South Pole. Start with a couple of days in the hippie lakeside town of Pokhara, a launch pad for Himalaya treks where you can shop, paraglide, do yoga and get drunk in cute riverside bars, while you decide how much energy you’ve got for your trek. If you’re lazy, opt for the three-day trek to Poon Hill (oh don’t be so childish). If you’ve got lots of Red Bull and at least a week to spare, the Annapurna Base Camp trek is all yours. Or, if you fancy yourself Sir Edmund Hillary, then by all means have a stab at the 12-day Everest Base Camp trek. But before you strap your crampons on remember three things. One: you should exercise for a couple of weeks before you head off or you’ll end up stiffer than a two-peckered billy goat. Two: you may not have envisaged yourself clad in anything but bindis and Nepalese textiles for the duration of your trip, but a bit of breathable fabric and comfugly hiking boots will go a long way up on them there sweaty trails. Three: it will not be a posh situation up there. Nope, it’ll be Maggi noodles, momos (Nepalese dumplings), and $4 a night guesthouses where the water is cold and travellers’ old bed sheets serve as curtains. But rest assured that any lack of comfort will be worth it for. Because when you see those snow-capped peaks rising out of the morning mists on the final day, you will have a sporgasm (a spiritual orgasm). And you will breathe a sigh of relief knowing that you are now, officially, a better person.
Nina Karnikowski toured with Crooked Compass.