We spent one month in Nepal - relaxing in the foothills of Kathmandu Valley, trekking through the Himalayas, and fighting our way through the bustling traffic of the cities. It’s a truly beautiful, spiritual country, and here are a few of our favorite things we had the pleasure to experience during our time there.
Places to Go
• Nagarkot and/or Bhaktapur. These are some day trips - or longer - from Kathmandu worth checking out. Bhaktapur is a former capital of Nepal, and is now known for its temples and craft work - definitely a very animated and energetic place, and less touristy than Kathmandu. Nagarkot has more of a rural feel to it, and is known for its sunrise views of the Himalayas - we spent ten days in Nagarkot, relaxing and hiking, and it’s truly a beautiful place to explore the countryside nestled into the foothills of the mountains. (Bonus if you visit either of these cities: you can take a ride on a public bus. It’s really an experience in itself - extremely crowded, people hanging off the sides of the doors, Nepali music blasting on the radio.)
• Everest Base Camp. This is one on a lot of people’s bucket lists, including ours. It’s a strenuous trek full of ups and downs, but the mountain landscapes and untouched scenery is otherworldly, and the feeling of accomplishment when you finally get to Base Camp makes it all worthwhile. The days are long and the altitude is high, though - Peter and I both ended up getting pretty ill during the journey. If there’s one thing I’d recommend, it’s that you should be aware of how your body to reacts to high altitudes - you wouldn’t want to end up getting a helicopter down, like we did! For a full summary of our trip and more tips, check out our Everest post here.
• Kathmandu Durbar Square. Durbar Square is an incredibly chaotic, energetic, and lively place, filled with tons of markets and vendors and side streets to explore. It’s home to many traditional temples, beautiful courtyards, interesting architecture, shrines, and tons of history. It’s also, in my opinion, one of the best places in Kathmandu to people-watch.
• Swayambhunath and/or Boudhanath Stupas. Stupas are hemispherical, Buddhist structures that are used as places of meditation, and can be found throughout Nepal. On virtually all of them, you will find painted on a pair of “Buddha eyes”, which symbolize wisdom, compassion, and the all-seeing ability and enlightenment of the Buddha. Two of the most popular stupas in Nepal are Swayambhunath and Boudhanath in Kathmandu. Swayambhunath is located on top of a large hill, so be prepared to climb some steps, but the journey is worth it for a beautiful panoramic view of Kathmandu and a chance to see the stupa up close. Just beware of the monkeys though - they’re everywhere surrounding the area, and they are adorable, but they’ll steal your stuff (Peter almost had his water bottle swiped!) Boudhanath is one of the largest stupas in the world, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Around either stupa, be sure to walk in a clockwise direction (and an odd rather than even number of times), and spin the prayer wheels as you go - doing so is said to increase your wisdom, compassion, and bodhichitta ("enlightenment-mind"). You can also chant this common mantra as you go, which invokes benevolent blessings from the gods: “Om mani padme hum” (sanskrit: ॐ मणिपद्मे हूँ).” Reciting the mantra as you spin the prayer wheels is said to have the same effect as repeating the mantra as many times as the wheel spins.
Things To Do
• Go trekking. There are so many beautiful mountains in Nepal, and going on a multi-day trek was a truly amazing way to experience that landscape in a new way. It felt so much more immersive than just going on a day trip, we really felt like we were getting deep into the Himalayas, and it was fun (albeit tough) to rough it in the little teahouses along the way. We went to Everest Base Camp, but if you don’t have the time or desire to do that one, there are myriad others to choose from. We met several people who were on their way to do the Annapurna circuit in Pokhara - the entire circuit usually takes 15-20 days, but can easily be shortened to fit your abilities/time constraints. There are also several great treks in Chitwan National Park, another place that we sadly did not have time to visit, but hope to some day!
• Eat with your hands. This is one of those things that I’d been wanting to do forever, a simple thing that is so commonplace for people in Nepal/India/surrounding areas, but so foreign to me. Traditionally, the five fingers represent the five elements, so using them to eat is a fuller and more spiritual way to experience your food. It was pretty strange to do at first but once I got used to it I actually preferred it - at Pramila’s, the other foreigners reverted to using silverware, so Pramila would wink at me as we were the only two eating with our hands. There is a technique to it, though, so if you don’t want to look like a total amateur here are some tips -
Use only your right hand to touch the food.
If you’re eating dal bhat, take a small amount each of rice/lentils/meat/vegetables from each pile and mix them together at the edge of your plate (don’t mix all of the food at once).
Use your index, middle, ring, and pink fingers to form a spoon, and try not to get food above the second knuckles of each finger.
Bring your hand to your mouth and use your thumb to push the food in - do not put your fingers in your mouth, and never lick them until the end of the meal when you’re completely finished eating.
• Haggle in Thamel. Thamel is the touristy area of Nepal, and it’s packed with vendors selling all sorts of souvenirs, handicrafts, textiles, clothes, trekking gear, woolen items, DVDs, music, and more. Shopping around is a fun way to pass the time, (we revamped our wardrobes a bit), but be sure to haggle! It’s part of the travel experience and will definitely be expected, never accept the seller’s first offer. My technique is usually to hem and haw a little, then if they don’t meet my price, start to walk out of the store - they’ll usually drop their price quite a bit once they see you leaving. The only downside is sometimes they won’t, and you’ll walk away from what you wanted, but don’t worry - there are plenty of shops selling a lot of the same things in Thamel so it’ll be easy to find what you wanted somewhere else.
Food to Eat
Honestly, the cuisine in Nepal was not our favorite. To be fair, we spent about two weeks trekking through the mountains or in a hospital bed (and I don’t think it’s fair to judge the remote mountain lodges or hospital food), but even during our several days in Kathmandu we struggled to find dishes we really loved. That being said, these few foods/restaurants stuck out during our time in Nepal.
• Dal bhat (दालभात). Dal bhat is a staple in Nepal - steamed white rice and a lentil soup called dal, usually eaten with various side dishes of meats, vegetable curries, or yogurt. You’ll be able to find it anywhere - our guide told us that 85% of Nepali people eat dal bhat for at least two meals a day, and I’m not sure where he got that statistic, but I’d definitely believe it. (There’s a common saying in Nepal: “Dal bhat power, twenty-four hour.” I was sorely tempted to buy one of the many T-shirts we saw bearing this adage). At Pramila’s, we usually had dal bhat twice a day, with vegetables picked straight from her garden, eating with our hands on a mud floor. Dal bhat is simple and rustic, classic Nepali, and a must-have while visiting.
• Yak milk/cheese. Yaks are a huge part of life in the Himalayas - they are used to carry loads up and down the mountains, their fur and pelts are used for warmth in the high altitude’s colder temperatures, and even their dung can be used for fuel. Their milk is turned into butter and cheese, or simply drank plain. I didn’t know quite what to expect when we tried this (I’d never had any milk besides cow before), but it was incredibly fatty and rich and definitely a unique taste.
• Momo. These are Nepali dumplings, very similar to Chinese or Japanese ones, but with flavors more influenced by the Indian subcontinent - specifically, a unique momo masala spice mix consisting of, among others, coriander, chili, cassia leaf, cumin, fennel, and turmeric. We made them from scratch with Pramila, she taught us how to fold them a million different ways the way her mother taught her. You’ll also see them sold in countless little stalls all throughout Nepal, the most common one we saw was “buff” (buffalo) momo, and that was probably our favorite one we had outside of Pramila’s.
• Tibetan butter tea. This is a traditional Himalayan drink made from yak butter, tea leaves, and salt. This sounds like sort of a weird combination, but it was surprisingly delicious. We had this a lot while hiking to Everest Base Camp, as it’s high in calories, warming, and is said to help with chapped lips and other pains of hiking.
• OR2K. OR2K is a very well-known Israeli vegetarian restaurant in Thamel. There is a very “Western” feel to it - the menu is completely in English, and there’s a large assortment of mediterranean dishes as well as Western foods. We went here a couple times, and each time it was absolutely packed with people - all foreigners, though, I don’t think we saw a single Nepali person in there the entire time. The food was good though, as I mentioned above we had trouble finding many dishes we really liked in Nepal, and we knew this restaurant was a safe (if not very authentic or traditional) choice.
I think we ended up having mixed feelings on Nepal. I loved the people, the mountains, the absolute chaos of Kathmandu and the beauty and serenity of the rural areas. But we both got so sick during our time there, and were really missing the amazing foods we’ve had in other countries so far. I’d still like to return to Nepal one day though - so many treks left to do, and those mountains are forever calling me back.