Ever since Nepal made front page news for its political troubles, it has been struck off as a holiday destination by most Indians. But surely Nepal’s charms must still be holding good? Ajay Jain hit the road in his SUV to re-discover Nepal he last visited in the 1980s as a school boy. And came back giving a thumbs up to the country.
Believe this or not: You can have breakfast in Delhi and reach in good time for dinner at either the Shuklaphanta or Bardia National Parks in Nepal. Good roads have made the subcontinent a much smaller place. You can be in a jeep or elephant safari the following morning on the trails of Rhinos, Elephants, Swamp and Spotted Deer, Crocodiles, Wild Buffaloes and (for the real lucky, does not include me) a tigress with four cubs. Follow this with a lazy day cruise on a raft down the Karnali river but, no matter what your guide promises, you will not see any Gangetic Dolphins. Human activity has killed most of them.
You can pray for their soul, and rehabilitation, at Lumbini, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the birthplace of the Buddha in 623 B.C. The central attraction is the sacred garden with its Mayadevi Temple named after Buddha’s mother Queen Mahamaya or Maya Devi; a pillar has been erected by King Ashoka to mark this sacred spot. More religion awaits at the Shiva Temple in Bhairavsthan near Tansen; locals claim the Trishul (trident) here is the biggest in the world. While you are here, don’t miss listening to touching Gandharva songs sung by Til Bahadur Gandharva; the music from his Sarangi adds more soul to his vocals. Want a high? Ask the priests for some ganja (cannabis).
If there is a perfect holiday destination, it is Pokhara. Settled around the beautiful Fewa Lake at an altitude of 3,000 feet with the 23,000 feet high Machhapuchre (Fish Tail) peak dominating the landscape, it is a picture perfect setting. Treks on the Annapurna circuit, whitewater rafting, paragliding and other high adrenalin adventure await you here. Or you can put your feet up and enjoy true espressos and yummy wood fired oven pizzas in restaurants offering fine dining at reasonable prices. Or just go shopping for the finest collection of Tibetan artefacts. Early morning is the time to hike up to the Peace Stupa for a panoramic view of Pokhara.
And then I discovered Bandipur – without doubt a lesser known gem of Nepal Tourism – when I made an unscheduled stop at what was once an important trading town; the Newars of Bhaktapur had settled here in the 1800s. A no-vehicle zone, you can amble along its streets interacting with locals including children who always seem happy. And spend the night at boutique lodges like the Old Inn. Take a hike to the Siddha Caves, supposedly the biggest in Nepal. A short drive away is Gorkha, a historical town, where the famed Gorkha soldiers come from.
It is with a sense of excitement that I drove into Thamel, the ‘tourist badland’ of Kathmandu. Much sobered down with a decade of political troubles keeping backpackers away, Thamel is still the place for the best of coffees, food and shopping in Nepal – with sex and drugs for those needing a headier cocktail. In between the fun, a visit to Patan is a must. Known as the ‘City of Fine Arts’ the structures in the Patan Darbar Square are dated 16th century onwards; most were built during the reign of King Siddhi Narsingh Malla (1618-1661 AD), the first independent Malla dynastry king of Patan. Don’t miss what must be the best curated museum in Nepal. No less impressive is Bhakthapur with its temples and courts and a potter’s village where you can see how clay items are produced.
Follow this with a visit to Pashupatinath, the most revered of temples for Lord Shiva in the world. And if you are lucky like me, you will be there on Shivaratri when a million devotees and sadhus come here to pray and fast. You can even pick up some marijuana sticks for Rs. 10 each as a ‘prasad’ or offering to Lord Shiva from these ‘holy men.’
Getting to Chitwan National Park – the ‘Royal’ prefix has been removed with the monarchy abolished – turned out to be one interesting ride. Parking the car at Meghauli airport – where only charter flights land and cattle graze mostly – I was taken on World War II period Land Rovers up to a river, crossed it in a boat and hopped on to another vintage Land Rover (I could have chosen an elephant too). I was there on eventful Valentine’s Day. A wild male tusker elephant came looking for a ‘female friend’ (to quote the staff) from amongst the lodge’s private stables; he even destroyed a few staff quarters for what seemed like fun to him. And I almost got attacked by a rhinoceros hiding in the bushes, with no love lost between us, for possibly disturbing some romantic moments. Do drop by at the Jatayu Restaurant – meant for vultures only. These endangered birds are fed carcasses here as part of conservation programs, and also enable scientists to study nature’s scavengers at close quarters.
Taking a break from driving, I decided to check out Nepal’s only railway line: from Janakpur, the birthplace of Sita, to the Indian border town of Jaynagar, 28 km away. Unfortunately, I did not have time to undertake this 3-hour one-way journey but I did check out the popular temple dedicated to Lord Rama and Sita.
If you are fond of birds, the Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve is tops for sightings – even though many have moved their habitat after the Kosi river flooding recently. The star attraction? Flying Foxes, one of the largest bats in the world, to be found in the thousands.
The adventure and fun never ends in Nepal. It is safe. And with tourism down, now is the time to pick up some bargains. When are you hitting the road?
Approximate distances / time taken
· Delhi – Shuklaphanta Wildlife Park (in Mahendranagar): 360 km / 9 hours (Add one hour to for border formalities)
· Shuklaphanta Wildlife Park – Bardia National Park: 160 km / 2:30 hrs
· Bardia – Lumbini: 340 km / 6:30 hrs
· Lumbini – Tansen: 80 km / 2:30 hrs
· Tansen – Pokhara: 130 km / 3:30 hrs
· Pokhara – Bandipur: 78 km / 2 hrs
· Bandipur – Gorkha: 50 km / 1:10 hrs
· Gorkha – Kathmandu: 150 km / 4 hrs
· Kathmandu – Chitwan National Park (Meghauli Airport): 180 km / 4:30 hrs
· Chitwan – Janakpur: 290 km / 5 hrs
· Janakpur – Koshi Tappu: 180 km / 3:30 hrs
Formalities for Indians and their personal vehicles
· There is no restriction for Indians to go to Nepal. You may be asked to produce a valid photo ID. Passport is always a safe bet to carry though not mandatory.
· You are not allowed to carry Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 currency notes into Nepal. Indian customs may create problems. But Indian currency is freely used in Nepal. 1 INR = 1.6 Nepali Rupee.
· Owners of cars have to be in the car when it crosses the border into Nepal. Carry copies of your Registration Certificate. You have to pay a fee of INR 300 for every day you intend spending in Nepal. Permit is granted for a maximum of 30 days. Do estimate how long you will be in Nepal as there are only a few places where you can extend your permit and also wastes time. The fine was driving without valid permit is about INR 1200 per day and the police may create other troubles too. Your papers will be checked very often at check posts all over Nepal.
This piece was originally written for and published in the Deccan Herald newspaper.