Why Pokhara is Nepal’s tourism capital

My bags came in through a window at Pokhara’s tiny airport, I identified, claimed them and traipsed out in under five minutes of landing. I’d even touched down earlier, due to a couple of empty seats on an earlier flight from Kathmandu. Throw in the mountaintops I could see from the airport – and you could pretty much say I was in heaven.

If tourist reviews and Wikipedia pages are to be believed – Pokhara, the tourism capital of Nepal pretty much is heaven. A 30-min flight from Kathmandu, it’s home to a nest of lakes and offers views of the Annapurna mountain range on a clear day, not to mention, is the base for trekkers on the Annapurna Circuit. What Pokhara also has is lakefront cafes, endless rows of shops selling everything from tourist memorabilia (hi, prayer flags, come home with me) to climbing gear, world-class continental food to suit its largely European tourists and little spots for some R&R.

I almost didn’t get to any of it though. A seven-minute drive away from the airport, and a two-minute walk from the main street, The Temple Tree Resort and Spa with a mountain-facing pool, bar and spa, did all it could to keep me in the hotel. And so did its super hospitable staff. My first day passed in a blur as I made the most of the *tropical day-time weather in the pool with a piña colada and bundled up at night, but the next day it was time to explore Pokhara’s many many tourist spots.

When in Rome…
I’m not a devout practicing Hindu, but one of the ways I feel connected to a place I’m visiting is by doing local things, so I headed to the famous Bindhyabasini Temple – one of the oldest in Nepal. The little temples were pretty but I preferred gazing at the panoramic Himalayan views from the courtyard. Keeping in vein with the suddenly spiritual vein of the trip, my next stop was the Gupteshwar Mahadev Cave – where a huge stalagmite is worshipped as a Shiv Ling. As much as rock formations fascinate, it was the story of the Davis falls that intrigued me – the water forms an underground tunnel after reaching the bottom, virtually disappearing. Back in 1961, a Swiss couple called Davi went swimming here but the woman drowned in a pit because of the overflow and stories say her father wished to name it “Davi’s falls” after her.  And it was here that I stumbled upon a wishing pond, where even a cynical heart like mine was tempted to toss a coin in and wish for the best. After a visit to the Seti River Gorge, my patience with tourist traps had waned and I sought refuge at Caffe Italiano – its outdoor seating, and park view was the perfect setting for the world-class pizzas that warmed my heart after a day of mingling with way too many tourists and is ideal for those with a slightly Western palate. My last stop for the day was Basundhara Park, a pleasant little patch of green which was barely occupied – leaving me and my new puppy friend in peace.

Uphill girl
Looking to escape the crowds, I made friends with a server at the hotel who volunteered to take me up to the World Peace Pagoda (constructed by Buddhist monks from the Japanese Nipponzan Myohoji organisation). On foot. We set out the next day at about 7:30 am, walked down to Phewa Lake, took a short boat ride and started our hike up to the pagoda that is at an altitude of nearly 1,000 meters

​The nearly 45-minute super uphill hike blessed me with views of the lake, Sarangkot Mountain, a few frightening missteps, and a tan that I’m still living with – but the views of the gorgeous white pagoda, the whistling wind and the flower-filled courtyard made it well-worth the trip. I came home with a happy heart and rosy-cheeked from the rays of sun – feeling more like a swiss maiden in my floral dress than a girl who’d just hiked up to a pagoda in Nepal. While the trail is fairly simple, it’s safest to hike with a local who knows the area well – or you know, just drive up. I did get lucky – Pokhara is known for its daily rain – but while I made it to my pagoda pretty much dry, rain played spoilsport for the three days I was there, and I couldn’t make it to Sarangkot for sunrise or sunset, a half hour’s drive away from Pokhara, for the panoramic views of the Annapurna Himalayan peaks – but the day I woke up for my trek, the sun shone long enough for me to sneak a peek, at the peaks in the distance. And that was more than enough for this mountain lover.

Food factory
The rest of my short time was spent sauntering around the main street, strolling in and out of the shops and popping in for a snack whenever my heart desired. With its range of low key cafes and creperies (think the chilled, stoner vibe of cafes in India’s Himachal Pradesh – Manali, Kasol, before they got over populated) and local shops, it felt super familiar to someone who’s spent many a holiday up in North India, where the hill towns have a similar feel. The food in Pokhara however? World class! Nepali Kitchen, across from my hotel had the freshest momos I’ve eaten, and I was served the Nepali Thaali by the shyest, sweetest young server. Med5 with its sun-strewn interiors and views of the lake was a perfect spot for brunch and post-trek, I made the most of its extensive menu – from momos to pizzas, and even the best burgers, this side of the border.  Another great spot for a meal is Moondance Restaurant, dimly lit and full of secluded corner tables, its Chinese fare was quite a good break from all the continental food I’d been consuming. And with that my three days in the lake city came to an end.

My 30-minute flight back may have been delayed by five (excruciating) hours, I didn’t see everything I wanted to see in Pokhara, I didn’t get to do all the things I wanted to – but I did meet a sweet boy who juggles work and college, who took me on a trek, the day of his exam (he made it in time); I did see my beautiful mountains even if not as close as I wished, and I did get the time to sit back, relax and watch the sun set in one of the prettiest, most hospitable places I’ve been to recently. The birds chirped, and I smiled. And for now, that is more than enough. Until we meet again, then, Pokhara.

Fact file
Location: Pokhara, Nepal
Getting there: Direct flights from Kathmandu (30-minute flight), driving distance from Ktm 204Kms approx
Best time to visit: September – November
Visit: Sarangkot, Tal Varahi Temple, Rupa Tal, Barahi Temple, International Mountain Museum
To do: Trek to Annapurna and Ghandruk from Pokhara, Paragliding, Skydiving, Ultra-light Flying, Rafting

*The city has a humid subtropical climate, the elevation makes the temperature moderate. It rains frequently through the year

 

Day trips from Chiangmai

The scent of delicately basted meat being grilled over charcoal fire and the sharp, intoxicating trail of freshly brewed coffee is hard to ignore – old city Chiangmai is littered with meat stalls and petite coffee houses. I like low-key holidays with long lunches and easy living as much as the next girl… so days strolling through the old city and evening bazaars were perfect. But just outside the city lie wonders of a different kind, and I put my explorer shoes on (Dora, who?) and headed out.

Up, up and away
Endless views of Chiangmai city (if the sky is clear), a national park to trek through and of course, the Wat Phra Doi Suthep, to appease your inner devotee. The Doi Suthep mountain is 40kms from the city and worth making a day-trip for. My companion and I picked a bike, but make sure you invest in a heavy-duty bike that can handle the winding uphill roads, because ours started over heating after about 20 minutes on the highway.

The weather is pleasant in Chiangmai in January when we visited (and tends to get cooler as you get higher), so make sure you’re well covered. Head to the Bhubing Palace first, if you’re a botany or flower enthusiast – it’s all about the well-manicured gardens, stopping to smell the roses and appreciating the finery that you’ll probably never have. The next stop was of course the Wat Phra Doi Suthep, which I found way too crowded to enjoy. The views from the wat are sublime (they’d better be, after the endless stairs you have to climb up to get there) but the temple itself was too crowded to buckle down and enjoy the space.

That’s why our next stop was the (shockingly) isolated Monta Than Waterfall at the Doi Suthep National park that is en-route the wat. Quiet, remote and cut off from the cacophony at the wat and the touristy rush in Chiangmai city, we loved the 40-50 min trek that brought us right back to the waterfall we started at. Carry a swimsuit and a change of clothes if you intend to take a dip and snacks to make a day out of it (no alcohol is allowed at the park). Tents pitched a few metres from the waterfall are where you can camp out if you choose to stay overnight. (Check details in advance on the park’s website)

 Doi Inthano(t)

The highest mountain in Thailand. The popular Kew Mae Pan that offers endless views, the promise of waterfalls, cloud forest and a vigorous workout. We were super excited about our day trip to Doi Inthanon. About 104kms away from Chiangmai city, the day trip seemed doable on paper.

However, we stopped midway to the destination because our bike was overheating, and we realised belatedly that we needed a much more powerful (read reliable) vehicle for the long/uphill journey. Don’t make the same mistake we did and rent an able car or engage a city tour group to organise your trip – you’ll find agents scattered all over the old city. There are a couple of hotels around the park (still quite far) and you can camp overnight, so make sure to plan your day trip as soon as you land in the city, so you have enough time to plan correctly. While we were disappointed at this development, we stopped over at the Grand Canyon Water Park where you can drown your sorrows in food, drink, zip-lining and other water-based adventures. It’s no Doi Inthanon, but for us eternal children, there’s no place more fun than one you can cannonball into the water at! A word to the wise, while Chiangmai old city’s incredible food, exciting night life, endless bazaars and touristy vibe might tempt you to sleep in and saunter around at leisure, give the great outdoors a chance, set the alarm earlier than you’d like to… and we’re promising rewards of the best kind. Sunrises, sunsets, waterfalls gushing, viewing points with soul-stirring coffee, the wind in your hair and lots, lots more. Get set, go.

We recommend planning these day trips on weekdays as weekends at any of the above involve dealing with long queues and large crowds (both locals + tourists) 

Fact file
Location
: Chiang Mai City, Chiang Mai Province, Thailand
Getting there: Easily accessible via road and rail (Approx 685 kms from Bangkok, overnight bus and train, booked prior to travel is your best bet – you can get tickets on the day of travel, if you are lucky) and air (closest airport: Chiang Mai International Airport CNX)
Best time to visit: October – April
Other attractions: Elephant sanctuaries (Elephant Nature Park; Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary; Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand), San Kamphaeng Hot Springs

Read more on our adventures in our complete guide to Chiang Mai

Trek to the highest point at SGNP, Mumbai

Like human version of sardines squashed in a can, Mumbai’s crowded streets are overflowing to the brim. The high-rises far outnumber the trees, or so it appears. And while forced interactions on streets, chosen communications in person or frivolous contact via social media may lead us to believe we’re connected, loneliness isn’t too far even in this age of over-communication.

Solitude, on the other hand, is far more difficult to achieve as we solder on in our desperate attempt to be more, achieve more and feel more connected 24/7. But there are places in the city, certain experiences, that are just a car ride away—reminding you that walking the tightrope between loneliness and solitude – and disconnecting might be the best way to connect with the most important person in your life – you. And one of those places is Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai.

SGNP, Mumbai
The starting point of our trek at SGNP, Mumbai

The terrain: Formerly known as Borivali National Park, it is 104km large protected area in the northern part of Mumbai city. Being one of the major national parks existing within a metropolis (India’s most populous) limit makes it one of the most visited parks in the world. And 27 years after living in the city, I finally traipsed down there. Resplendent in flora and fauna, it’s home to Vihar and Tulsi Lake, more than 1,300 plant species, a range of reptiles, wild mammals that include hare, hyena, spotted deer, the lone sambar and even the infamous leopard while bird watchers can find everything from the Whitebellied Sea Eagles to the Paradise Flycatcher. That’s right, fellow Mumbai citizens, you don’t have to fly to Gir or Ranthambore to get a whiff of nature. Or trek to Kheerganga to get your juices flowing. All you have to do is find a trek, book said trek, book a guide and get on your merry way (early in the am if you’d like to miss the waterfall loving, transparent t-shirt wearing crowds).

SGNP, Mumbai
Heart shaped leaves seen on our trek at SGNP, Mumbai

The trek: While there are a number of trek routes within the park, we decided to aim for the top. A trek that went from the historic Kanheri Caves all the way to the highest point in the park. According to our enthusiastic guide Jagdish Vakale, (biology professor for 11th-12th graders, so much adept at dealing with teenagers with short attention spans and a propensity for silly questions, or 20-something year olds who refuse to grow up and spend the trek comparing hiking stick lengths) these Buddhist carved caves are allegedly the largest in the world to be carved out of a single block of stone. This group of caves and rock-cut monuments contain Buddhist sculptures and relief carvings, paintings and inscriptions, dating from the 1st century BCE to the 10th century CE. From the caves, the top is an easy 2hour walk uphill, where you’re likely to stumble upon all variety of spiders, anthills, birds, the odd monkey and a somewhat uneasy sense that no matter where you going you’re being watched by the predatory leopard. While a bit slippery in the rain, the clouds rolling in every few feet make the uphill walk easier. Once at the top, you climb a watchtower and marvel at the sublime view of the two lakes and the silent stillness of being surrounded by foliage while in the maximum city of Mumbai.

SGNP, Mumbai
A moment of solitude at SGNP, Mumbai

The taleteller: Trails can be found via the SGNP website, and guides can be booked via the NIC (Nature Information Center). Since we trekked in the monsoon, a busy period, we booked a guide in advance (recommended) and got lucky with Mr Vakale. A father who worked in the forest department meant he had fostered 26 cats, 6 owls, one cuckoo and a leopard cub named Krishna (who lived with them for a year and a half) that loved dairy milk chocolates and was petrified of one of the older cats. Vakale also spent a few years tracking leopards within the park, and spoke of the wild cats as a friendly neighbourhood puppy, trekked in slippers and mimicked bird calls so adeptly that the birds were fooled enough to reply. While Mumbai is well-known for its chaotic night life and endless range of city-related activities (monuments, heritage walks, bar crawls, the famed human-traffic), there is a whole new world closer to city limits — while from the second highest point you can still see high rises emerging from the clouds, if you turn your head to the other side, you’ll find endless skies and the kind of stillness that hills tucked far away from humanity offer up. A testimony, perhaps to Mumbai’s dichotomy – and the promise than no matter how well you think you know the city, if you let it – it will surprise you, and envelop you in that solitude you so desperately seek.

Fact file

  • Getting there: car, bus or train ride to Borivali
  • Kanheri Caves are a substantial walk up from the main gate (approx. 6km), so you can rent a car from the NIC office, catch a BEST bus or cycle your way up and down from the caves.
  • Summer isn’t ideal to trek in, as it gets terribly hot. The monsoon season (June-Sept) will give you misty clouds to trek in while Mumbai’s short, mild winter (Nov-Jan) is ideal to trek in
  • Make sure to carry a change of clothes, a rain-cover for your bag and be prepared for no phone coverage for most of the trek
  • The NIC organises nature trails, bird-watching excursions, butterfly watch, treks and overnight camps led by experts, so reach out to them in advance to select a trek. Book a week in advance – approximate rates are INR 300/person

This article is part of our series on Mumbai. Follow the link to read on our winter visitors: the flamingos