Nepal Travel Guide
Nepal is one of Asia’s outstanding travel destinations. In many ways it’s an ideal place for senior travellers, with its beguiling mix of the world’s highest mountains, centuries-old temples and wonderful wildlife reserves.
It’s been luring visitors ever since it started opening its doors to tourism in the 1950s. While it’s much busier, noisier and more polluted these days, it retains much of the magic that enchanted visitors decades ago.
It has seen difficult times along the way. The Maoist rebellion from 1996 to 2006 turned swathes of the country into a bloody war zone and hit tourism hard. The political changes that followed led to the abolition of the monarchy in 2008. A huge earthquake in April 2015 killed nearly 9,000 people and destroyed or damaged many magnificent temples.
But the tourism industry is flourishing again now. Nepal hopes to attract 1 million visitors for the first time in 2018. The country is one of Asia’s poorest and tourism is a vital source of income.
There are many activities to keep older travellers busy, from trekking and wildlife-spotting to taking in the temples and exploring colourful back alleys. Its mix of Hindu and Buddhist traditions will delight seniors who delve into its culture and history. And there are festivals of one kind or another every month of the year.
The capital Kathmandu is a kaleidoscope of sights and sounds. In many ways it has the drawbacks of any big Asian city – the traffic jams and pollution – but it remains an endlessly fascinating place, if sometime a little maddening.
Travellers have a choice of staying at one of the many hotels in Thamel, the main tourist area, or elsewhere in the city. Some of the better hotels outside Thamel have large grounds and will suit senior travellers in need of rest and relaxation. But Thamel has its advantages too; it’s chock-a-block with good places to shop and eat.
Nepalese food is spicy, not unlike North Indian but with touches all its own. The Nepalese dumpling, momo, is a speciality and comes in both meat and vegetarian versions. Seniors in search of less spicy food are spoiled for choice, particularly in Thamel, with its many different kinds of eatery.
Visitors will want to set aside plenty of time to explore Kathmandu’s famous temples. They can take an organised tour or use taxis or rickshaws, which are easy to flag down.
Each visitor will have his or her own favourite temple. Among the most fascinating is the Boudhanath Stupa, the country’s largest Buddhist shrine. It’s the centre of Tibetan culture in Kathmandu and has the all-seeing eye of Buddha gazing out on all four sides.
Other top sights are the hilltop Swayambhunath Temple, also known as the Monkey Temple, and the Pashupatinath Temple, where Hindus are cremated beside the Bagmati River.
Durbar Square is a must too, to get a sense of Nepal’s culture and heritage. There’s an entrance fee and the square is crowded with tourists and souvenir sellers, but the old temples and palaces make it all worthwhile. Sadly, many of them were extensively damaged in the 2015 earthquake. Restoration work is continuing slowly and it will be many years before they return to anything like their former splendour.
Just off Durbar Square is Jhochhen Tole. It was known in the 1960s and early 70s as Freak Street because of all the young travellers who hung out here to buy and smoke cannabis. The drug has been outlawed since 1974 but the street is still worth a visit, with its mix of restaurants and souvenir shops.
Patan, across the Bagmati River from Kathmandu, is officially a separate city but has become a continuation of Kathmandu’s urban sprawl. Its Durbar Square is, if anything, even more impressive than Kathmandu’s. Despite the earthquake damage, the temples in the square remain among the finest in the country. Sitting in one of the rooftop cafés that overlook the square is an absorbing way to spend some time. And the winding alleys nearby are fun to explore.
Seniors who want to get up into the hills may like the cable car that takes visitors to a point close to the top of Chandragiri Hill, on Kathmandu’s western outskirts. From there they can climb to the top for views of the Himalayas. The cable car is among the city’s newer attractions, having opened in 2016.
Like any big city, Kathmandu can be exhausting at times. If senior visitors need a quiet spot to escape to, the Garden of Dreams is a great place to head for. Conveniently, it’s right on the edge of Thamel. It has pavilions, fountains and pergolas, as well as trees, flowers and well-maintained lawns.
Trips from Kathmandu
An hour-long Everest mountain flight is a memorable way to see the world’s highest mountain (known as Sagarmatha in Nepal) and its neighbouring peaks. However, flights can be delayed or cancelled at short notice if the weather is poor.
Bhaktapur is the third city in the Kathmandu Valley. It was once Nepal’s capital and its spacious Durbar Square contains temples as impressive as those in Kathmandu and Patan. Some were badly damaged in the earthquake but others remain superbly intact. Tours from Kathmandu are easily arranged.
Bhaktapur is on the way to the mountain village of Nagarkot, 32 kilometres (20 miles) east of Kathmandu. The two can be combined in a day trip or an overnight stay in Nagarkot. On a clear day, the village offers fine views of the Himalayas; many visitors rise early to watch the sun rise over the mountains.
Dhulikhel, another mountain resort town east of Kathmandu, also has great panoramic views of the mountains.
As long as senior travellers are reasonably fit and don’t have any serious health issues, trekking in Nepal offers plenty of opportunity. Many trekkers these days are over 60. Some trekking companies put together itineraries specifically with seniors in mind.
Some older travellers will feel strong enough to tackle a long trek such as Everest Base Camp, which can take 10 to 15 days. But for many, a shorter trek is a better option, and there are also day hikes outside Kathmandu and Pokhara that offer easier walking. Most day hikes from Kathmandu start with a drive out of town, followed by a climb to a hillside village or shrine.
For seniors who want to trek for a few days, it makes good sense to join a group with a guide and porters rather than going on their own. One of the keys to successful trekking is to take one’s time and not push oneself too hard. Should they suffer a minor health problem along the way - a twisted ankle or a stomach bug – there’s flexibility even in a group. A porter can be designated to remain with a trekker who has fallen behind or needs to walk more slowly.
One of the most popular short treks, and one that may appeal to seniors, is from Pokhara to Ghorepani and Poon Hill in the Annapurna foothills. It takes around five days and, because of its popularity, the facilities along the way are better than most.
Short and longer treks can also be done from both Nagarkot and Dhulikhel.
Nepal’s second largest city, Pokhara, lies about 200 kilometres northwest of Kathmandu. The journey by bus can take six or seven hours and, while it’s an interesting journey, senior travellers may prefer to fly.
Pokhara is geared strongly towards tourism, with a wide range of hotels and restaurants. It has grown rapidly in the last few decades, and now has a population of around 200 000. But it retains a laid-back atmosphere and seniors will find it a relaxing place to chill for a few days.
At the right time of year, the views of the nearby Annapurna mountains are truly spectacular. The city is the centre of a major trekking region. It’s the starting and ending point of the famous Annapurna Circuit, a trek of two weeks or more through the Annapurna range. Many easier treks are available too.
Pokhara is built alongside Nepal’s second-largest lake, Phewa Tal. A trip on the lake, with the boatman doing all the hard work, is an idyllic way to spend an hour or two. It’s also fun simply to walk near the lake and enjoy the views across the water to the green hills on the far side.
From the top of these hills are excellent views of the lake and city, with the mountains beyond. A popular place to spend time is the World Peace Pagoda, built by monks from a Japanese Buddhist order on a ridge above the lake. Visitors can reach it by car followed by a short climb.
Nepal’s national parks and their wildlife safaris are a major tourist draw. They’re found in the lowland Terai region that runs across the south of the country, with its forests and grassy plains. Chitwan National Park, west of Kathmandu, is the most famous. It’s one of the best places in Asia for viewing wildlife, with nearly 70 species of wild mammals, including rhinos, elephants and, for lucky visitors, tigers.
Accommodation is available both inside and just outside the park, including jungle camps. Activities include jungle walks and safaris on elephant back.
For intrepid seniors, Bardia National Park is a comparable park in Nepal’s far west. It’s larger, less accessible and less developed than Chitwan – points in its favour, some would argue. It has a similar range of wild mammals and offers similar experiences.
Visitors can combine a stay here with a day’s rafting on the nearby Karnali River (also called the Ghaghara), Nepal’s longest. The easiest way to get to Bardia is to fly from Kathmandu to Nepalgunj near the park.
Best months to visit Nepal
The months of October to December are a perfect time to visit Nepal. It’s generally dry and the skies are mostly clear, offering spectacular views. The two main trekking seasons are from March to May and October to the end of November. December and January are colder but the air is still clear and the trekking trails are less crowded. The spring season – March and April – is also pleasant.
The weather is warm and humid from May through to August, and from around June the monsoon clouds obscure the mountain views. Kathmandu is at its least pleasant during these summer months, and trekking isn’t the same without the wonderful mountain panoramas.
The cooler months are considered the best time to visit Chitwan and Bardia, although the nights can be bitterly cold.
The coldest month in Kathmandu is January, with temperatures ranging from 2 to 18°C. June is hottest, with temperatures from 20 to 29°C. July and August see the most rain.
Currency and exchange rates
Nepal’s currency is the Nepalese rupee. It’s divided into 100 paisa. All major foreign currencies are easily exchanged, including the US dollar, the Euro and the currencies of neighbouring China and India. There are many banks and money changers in Thamel and elsewhere in Kathmandu.
Credit cards are readily accepted although many shops and tour companies add a service charge to card transactions.
Visitors who go trekking should take enough cash with them to meet all their needs, as money changers are hard to find in remote areas.
Header image: Bikalpa Pokhrel