Regal structures

Wonderland

Regal structures

The temples and courts in  Bhakthapur. Photo by author

Believe it 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 cruise on a lazy day, down the Karnali river. But, no matter what your guide promises, you will not see any gigantic dolphins. Human activity has killed most of them. 

Ideal for adrenalin junkies

You can pray for their soul and rehabilitation at Lumbini, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the place where Buddha was born, back in 623 BC. The central attraction is a 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 the touching Gandharva songs sung by Til Bahadur Gandharva (the music from his Sarangi adds more soul to his vocals).

And if you want to know the perfect holiday destination in Nepal, 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 adventures make it all the more worthwhile.

 You can enjoy true espressos and yummy wood-fired oven pizzas in restaurants offering fine dining at reasonable prices or go shopping for the finest collection of Tibetan artefacts. Also, wake up early in the morning to hike up to the Peace Stupa for a panoramic view of Pokhara.

On my trip, I also discovered Bandipur, which without doubt, is a lesser known gem of Nepal. This is 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.

Post this experience, 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.

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 date back to the 16th century; 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 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. 

Also, visit 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’. Next was the Chitwan National Park — the ‘Royal’ prefix has been removed with the monarchy abolished, which turned out to be one interesting ride.

Taste of history

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, 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 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 three-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 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?

Travel tips

*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.

*Indian currency notes of denomination of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 are not 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. The fine for driving without a valid permit is about INR 1200 per day.

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