From Pokhara to Bandipur, Nepal has plenty to offer the adventurer beyond Kathmandu and Himalayas
Pokhara – Lake Placid
Nepal’s second city may sit on a lake, but that’s about as far as the similarities with Chicago go. Around 200 km to the west and a world away from the frantic pace of the capital, this 'city of eight lakes' exudes a more relaxed feel, well parts of the old town do, it is Nepal’s premier tourist destination after all. Shop for religious trinkets in Tersapati, have a gander at the ornate Newari houses on the way up to Bhimsen Temple, a shrine to the Hindu goddess of commerce – not that the locals need any help selling their wares.
While you’re there, take a sneaky peek at its X-rated carvings, proving that alluring advertising is not a new concept. Finish off with a trip to the top of the hill to the Bindhya Basini Temple. If you fancy a float, hire a boat from the tourist-choked Lakeside district for a trip across Phewa Tal lake to the Tal Barahi Temple which sits on an island in its middle. The Queen’s Forest offers a great venue for a serene stroll or a picnic. The World Peace Pagoda offers great views of the Annapurna range, which are just a few miles outside of town. If the weather turns bad – the city does get over three metres of rain a year – head indoors to the International Mountain Museum or the Gurkha Museum for a bit of culture, or pop underground to the Mahendra Cave.
Lumbini – Buddhist Bethlehem
Nepal may be overwhelmingly Hindu, but it is also the birthplace of Buddhism. Around 500 BC, Siddhartha Gautama was born the son of a local chieftain under a tree in a garden in Lumbini – now the site of the Maya Devi Temple. He was brought up in the capital of the Shakya clan – from which he gets his other title Sakyamuni or 'sage of the Shakyas' – before rejecting his regal trappings and becoming a monk and wandering prophet. After the death of the Buddha, the followers of this enlightened one descended on Lumbini and erected prayer halls and stupas in his honour. Over the years, these fell into disrepair and the city was largely forgotten until the mid-1800s, when a German archaeologist uncovered holy relics and put the town back on the map. Over the last century and a half, Lumbini has been reborn as a top tier pilgrimage site and Buddhists from across Asia have built their own temples – Cambodia, Thailand, Japan and China all have monasteries – turning the now thriving city into a World Expo of enlightenment.
With considerably more than ten realms full of Buddhist holy sites, the city is also a convenient border stop on the journey to and from India and the gateway to the terai – Nepal’s tropical plains.
Bandipur – a trek back in time
It may not seem like it to visitors from the west, but a wave of modernity has swept over Nepal, carrying away many of its traditions. Culturally and architecturally, Bandipur has managed to stay just out of reach of the high tides thanks to being bypassed by a highway. This hilltop Newari township’s heyday was from the 1800s to the 1950s, when it was a commercial hub and a crossroads between the capital and Pokhara to its east and west, and Tibet and British India’s nearest rail terminal to its north and south. However, when the highways were built, they cut it off from the rest of the world, leaving it intact but left to stagnate like an oxbow lake. Although this initially saw the town fall into disrepair, it has proved to be a long term positive culturally, as it meant Bandipur stayed frozen in time, a fly trapped in amber. Its derelict buildings have now been restored and turned into shops and restaurants, and tourists now throng its narrow streets here to see what a Nepali town used to look like.
Watch the sunrise over the Himalayas at Gurungche Hill, hike through its pristine forests, linger at its ancient shrines and potter through its tiny cobbled streets. If you are feeling energetic, trek up to Tundikhel a one-time marketplace and Gurkha parade ground turned beautiful picnic spot. The Khadga Devi Temple houses a local king’s sword said to have been a gift from Shiva – one of Hinduism’s main deities – which is dusted off and put to use once a year to sacrifice a goat.
Escape underground with a hike and visit to the bat-filled Siddha Gufa cave, said to be the biggest in the country; there’s also an interesting Silkworm Farm.
Ilam – Beau-tea-ful views!
Far out on Nepal’s eastern flank lies Ilam, the country’s answer to Darjeeling, which is just a short bus ride across the Indian border. This hill town sits at the foot of Mount Kanchanjunga, the world’s third highest peak. The city’s name actually means 'winding way' in Limbu, the local lingo, and it only takes a couple of heart-stopping minutes on its roads to see why it earned the title. This part of the Mahabharata range is famous for the tea plantations which line its mist-shrouded highlands, and year-round brightly-clad workers can be seen on the hillsides tending to the crops, the traditional woven baskets slung from their forehead.
Although the climate is agreeable all year, February-April and October-December are the best times to get great mountain views. Head up to Antu Danda or Siddhi Thumka to gaze across the terai and watch the sunrise and sunset over Everest and Kanchanjunga, although the road might be a bit hazardous in the dark, so best stay in a villager’s hut. A visit to the high-altitude rhododendron forests of Chhintapu offers a chance to see red pandas and musk deer in the wild. If all that sounds a bit to energetic, head out for some floating contemplation on Mai Pokhari – a mountain lake holy to both Hindus and Buddhists – and visit its adjoining botanical gardens.