Try this: Head out from New Delhi, the capital of India, at the crack of dawn in your car, cross into Nepal at midday, and go in to the Shuklaphanta National Park for a safari in your own car the same afternoon. That is how close Nepal is. I know it because I have done it.
A road trip to Nepal is one of the best things you can gift yourself. Read on to plan a trip of your own – or tune in to the video.
A road trip across Nepal has been rated as amongst the #100GreatJourneys on the planet by me. Click here to read more.
Border crossing to take your car into Nepal
If you are an Indian citizen driving a car registered in your name, driving into Nepal is a breeze. There are many land border crossings into Nepal. The closest from New Delhi is Banbassa in the Himlayan state of Uttarakhand on the Indian side. You cross into Mahendranagar on the Nepal side – the Shuklaphanta National Park is located in the vicinity.
Other popular points are Sonauli, ahead of Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, and Kakarbhitta near Siliguri in West Bengal.
Documents required to drive to Nepal
If you are an Indian citizen in a car registered in your name in India, then you don’t need much. Carry the originals and a few copies of your car registration, insurance and driving licence. Although they do not ask for it usually, it’s a good idea to carry a few passport size photos.
At the border on the Nepal side, you have to buy a permit costing about Rs. 200 per day. A word of caution: Plan how long your trip would be in Nepal, and pay for those many days and maybe a day or two extra. You cannot drive with an expired permit – and places to extend the same are not easy to find. Cops check the permit regularly when they see an Indian car, and you may have to pay heavy penalties for an invalid permit. The maximum duration for a single visit is 30 days.
Indian citizens require a valid Photo ID – can be your driving licence, Voter ID, Aadhaar card, or even a passport. No visa is required and a passport is not mandatory. For non-Indians, a visa and other documents may be required. The Nepalese consulate or embassy in your country would be able to advise you.
Places to drive to in Nepal
I spent about a month road-tripping across Nepal – and still felt I could have spent much more time. There is an attraction waiting every few hours: wildlife, rivers, lakes, temples, festivals, people, history, architecture, mountains, artists, coffee – it’s all there. This is an overview of what I covered and recommend.
SHUKLAPHANTA NATIONAL PARK
My first stop was Mahendranagar, close to the reserve, just across the border from India. The 305 sq. kms. reserve is home to about 24 mammal species and 350 bird species. Animal sightings are not so common but the jungle is a delight to be in anyway. Additional excursions include a walk across the Dodhara Chandani pedestrian suspension bridge, one of the longest in Asia at 1.45 miles (2.3 km) connecting far-flung villages across the Mahakali river, and off-roading to the relatively obscure Lake Betkot with blue and green waters dedicated to Hindu God Shiva.
BARDIA NATIONAL PARK
Bardia is natural heritage along the Karnali river we all have to treasure. For long, it was a hunting ground for Nepal’s royal family and their rich and powerful friends; it was declared a national park in 1988. Spread over 968 sq. kms. (100,000 hectares), it is home to 53 species of mammals including the Royal Bengal Tiger and the one-horned rhinoceros and over 400 species of birds and several varieties of reptiles and water animals.
Lumbini, a UNESCO World Heritage Site,is believed to be the birthplace of the Buddha in 623 B.C. The central attraction is the sacred garden with its Maya Devi Temple named after Buddha’s mother Queen Mahamaya or Maya Devi; a pillar has been erected by King Ashoka to mark this sacred spot.There are ancient excavations inside including a marker stone depicting the exact spot where the Buddha was born and a bas-relief of Mayadevi.The Sacred Garden is a massive complex with elaborate monasteries built by many countries including Germany, China, Thailand, Myanmar, South Korea, Nepal and India. Hop on to cycle-rickshaws to navigate the town.
Tansen was a famous Hindustani classical singer in the court of Emperor Akbar in the 16th century, but what I savoured in this town by the same name were the touching Gandharva songs sung by Til Bahadur Gandharva at a Shiva Temple on a mound; notes from his sarangi added soul to his vocals. The temple, located in Bhairavsthan outside town, has a golden Trishul (trident – a weapon of Lord Shiva) boasted by locals to be the biggest in the world. Want a high? Ask the priests for some ganja (cannabis). I am not kidding.
Tansen itself is a pretty town, home to the culturally rich Newars, a prominent trading community. The town on a hill with its undulating cobblestoned streets and houses with exquisite doors and windows make for pretty picture postcards.
I rate Pokhara as the single best place to visit for travellers in the Indian subcontinent. 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, the setting leaves you starry-eyed. Treks on the Annapurna circuit, whitewater rafting, paragliding and other high adrenalin adventure await you here. You can put your feet up and enjoy true espressos and yummy wood fired oven pizzas in restaurants offering fine dining at reasonable prices. I could not help 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 as the rising sun lights up the area.
BANDIPUR AND GORKHA
I chanced upon Bandipur, 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. 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. The local palace is the main attraction there.
On the way to Kathmandu, I stopped for a cable car ride up to Manakamana Temple; the way below seems like a dessert bowl serving clouds with snow-capped peak jutting out of those. Whatever your religious views, go up there for wonderful panoramas.
Most visitors to Kathmandu first drive into Thamel, the ‘tourist badland’ of the capital. Much sobered down with political troubles keeping backpackers away, Thamel is still the place for the best of coffees, food and shopping in Nepal – with sex and drugs being peddled 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 dynasty king of Patan. Don’t miss the Patan Museum, with its fine displays depicting the history of the city. No less impressive is Bhaktapur with its temples and courts and a potter’s village where you can see how clay items are produced. Unfortunately, both these cities suffered extensive damages in the massive earthquake of 2015.
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 go there 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.’
CHITWAN NATIONAL PARK
Getting to the Tiger Tops resort inside Chitwan National Park turned out to be one interesting ride. Parking the car at Meghauli airport – where only charter flights land and cattle graze much of the day – I was taken in World War II period Land Rovers up to a river, crossed it in a shallow row-boat and hopped on to another vintage Land Rover (I could have chosen an elephant too). It is another matter that all lodges inside the core of the reserve have since been asked to shut down and relocate to the periphery.
If you want to go off the grid and yet enjoy some fine things in life, go to Chitwan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Explore the forest in a 4-wheel or on foot – but watch out for any grumpy rhinos. Cruise down the Rapti and Narayani rivers with crocodiles, ghariyals and birds for company – and locals fishing for dinner. End the visit with a sundowner on an island in the river.
You can drive east and go to Janakpur – believed to be the birthplace of Sita, wife of Hindu Lord Rama. But the town is also the black sheep of Nepal: it is dirty and filthy, with no decent places to stay and eat. Surprising since the rest of country, including the most impoverished of regions, manage to keep themselves clean. Perhaps being close to the Indian border (for all practical purposes, it is an Indian town – you will hardly see any Nepalis here) means the bad habits of the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have come into this town too.
If you have a fond eye for birds (the feathered type) then Koshi Tappu is where you want to be. It is a paradise for those wanting to camp close to Nature.
What are the accommodation options in Nepal?
Nepal has a place to stay for everyone. The most luxurious of places can be found in Chitwan National Park, Kathmandu and Pokhara. All these and other locations offer backpacker hostels, budget to quality hotels, camps, homestays and even caves to sleep in.
How much should you budget for a trip to Nepal?
Nepal can suit every traveller’s budget. You could manage in 10 dollars a day, and indulge with a spend of even a thousand dollars a day. It is for you to choose. Of course, the most expensive trip to Nepal is for those trying to summit the Mount Everest.
What is the best time to visit Nepal?
There is an attraction waiting in Nepal all year round. If you are visiting the plains or the lower Himalayas, avoid the summers and the monsoons; the period from autumn to spring is best. However, if you are going to higher altitudes like the Everest, Annapurna and Mustang, your window is the summer months.
Currency in Nepal
The country h