The spiritual power of Nepal: shrines and temples, trekking expeditions, incredible wildlife and, of course, gay Kathmandu

The Shangri La of every trekker’s wildest fantasies, Nepal has the power to transport its lucky visitors to new realms, starting in medieval temple cities and rising into the Himalayan mountain wilderness. There are spiritual intrigues too; of Princes turned messiahs and prehistoric sacred sites where gilded temples now sit benignly among hillside villages. While Kathmandu holds attention with its energetic streets filled with friendly vendors and death-wish rickshaws, it’s rural Nepal that captures the heart. From the epic peaks of Annapurna to the Bengal Tiger kingdoms of Chitwan, your Nepal trip is set to leave you completely enthralled.

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Khumjung | Photo: Toomas Tartes

LGBT Nepal

An ancient land of Buddhist values having recently shaken off the bounds of its monarchy, Nepal now stands as the most progressive nation in South Asia when it comes to LGBT rights. The Nepalese Constitution recognises these as fundamental human rights and protections have been introduced to safeguard against discrimination, in addition to giving LGBT people the right to self-identify and have safe access to public services. The culture of ‘hijra’ – the name given to gender non-conforming people – is long-established but gay marriage remains under consideration by the government.

In spite of its liberal side, Nepal is still defined by its traditions and there is social pressure among locals to follow hetero lifestyles, with discrimination facing those who don’t conform. As a result, gay Nepal is relatively reserved and the small gay scene that does exist is particularly vulnerable to harassment and scandal.

Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu | Photo: Fares Nimri

When to visit Nepal

Fall and winter stands as the best time to visit Nepal, with the months between October and December offering clear skies and dry weather. Later in winter, throughout January and February, the temperature drops a little lower, especially at night, if you don’t mind a little chill, however, you’ll be rewarded with substantially fewer crowds on key trekking trails. Come April, blossom season hits and Nepal’s many rhododendrons burst into colour, followed by monsoon season soon after in June with high humidity and cloud cover obscuring the best mountain views. At any time of year, however, there’s sure to be a celebration of some kind or even a sacred pilgrimage to join.

Best places to visit in Nepal

You may initially assume otherwise but Nepal goes beyond its trekking credentials and offers way, way more than stunning mountains ridges to clamber up. If Everest, Annapurna and Langtang don’t hold any attraction, Nepalese culture may also lure you, particularly to the famed city of Kathmandu, a place steeped in sacred and historic attractions within range of outlying adventures. Those coming for spiritual awakening can bed down in Buddhist temple retreats or remote mountain homestays or, otherwise, make base in the big cities before venturing out to wildlife sanctuaries such as the Chitwan National Park which combines both animals with immense forest wilderness. Pokhara is another popular area within reach of Kathmandu, a lakeside town with a number of connecting hiking routes. Though the 2015 earthquake severely impacted a number of historical treasures in Kathmandu, restoration is well underway, working to make the region once again safe and accessible to travellers.

Photo: Sebastian Pena Lambarri

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Welcome to the beating heart of Nepal and the spiritual heart of South Asia, a blood-pumping affair of intoxicating spices and crazy traffic filling all routes in and out of Kathmandu old town where ancient legends wax lyrical and medieval temples loom

1. Kathmandú

Welcome to the beating heart of Nepal and the spiritual heart of South Asia, a blood-pumping affair of intoxicating spices and crazy traffic filling all routes in and out of Kathmandu old town where ancient legends wax lyrical and medieval temples loom. Though the central district of Thamel can take some getting used to, with its pushy touts and maddening chaos, settle in for the ride in order to uncover the city’s artistic heritage by way of wooden carved houses, metal sculpture and busty stupas heaving high above the skyline.

Based on what once was a mammoth lake covering the floor of the valley, Kathmandu has many more ancient secrets to tell. On UNESCO-listed Durbar Square lie the ruins of the old palace, with a number of handcrafted pagodas rippling out from there. Just a short distance away, find the Living Goddess’ residence parallel to the bohemian Freak Street, a once-famed tourist area now succeeded by Thamel, the main centre for backpacking in Nepal. For all your travel amenities, Thamel is the place, packed too with hotels of all budgets, live music bars, massage parlours, clubs and more. It’s here – all within one square kilometre – where you can also fill up on cuisine from any corner of the globe, before mapping your way to the nearby religious sites of Boudha, Pashupatinath and Swayambhu, weaving in and out of lively markets and the frequent ceremonial processions that take over the streets.

Photo: Bimal Ranabhat

Photo: Bibek Thakuri

2. Bhaktapur

One of Nepal’s three ‘Royal Cities’, Bhaktapur is perhaps the most convenient, beside the capital in Kathmandu Valley, on an old trade route to Tibet. Bhaktapur differs slightly from the other two Royal Cities in that it is home to a primarily Hindu population, a fact reflected in the colourful cultural life surrounding the city’s major squares. Durbar Square (sharing its name with a palace in the capital) is Bhaktapur’s main offering though sadly hit hard by the 2015 earthquake. Despite reconstruction and repair causing a little disorder, this is still one of the best places to visit in Kathmandu with most of the temples remaining intact and much else to see. As well as fine temple architecture, roam the centre’s narrow alleyways to find courtyards filled with artisan craft workshops dealing in textiles, wood and clay, together with friendly locals who meet to bathe and socialise.

Nyatapola Temple, Bhaktapur | Photo: Pritush Munankarmi

3.  Boudhanath Stupa

Another fine historical spot on our Kathmandu itinerary is Boudhanath Stupa, proudly standing as the largest stupa of its kind dating back to sometime in the 6th century. Similarly linked to Tibet on the old trade route, the Boudhanath Stupa is a UNESCO World Heritage Site famed for its symbolism of the five elements each attributed to the five Buddhas. Standing upon huge stone steps shaped like mandalas, the pyramid tower known locally as ‘Chorten Chenpo’ has remained a place of worship for thousands of years. In recent years, however, following an influx of refugees from China in the 1950s, the Great Stupa has become even more important, now the global centre for Tibetan Buddhism influencing the founding of many temples and devotional sites across the surrounding region.

4. Pokhara

A scenic city on the lips of any serious hiker who travels to Nepal is the city of Pokhara. This tranquil hub lies in the foothills of some of the world’s grandest mountains and has become the gateway of choice for those trekking in the Himalayas towards the peaks of Dhaulagiri, Manaslu and Annapurna. Though on paper Pokhara is Nepal’s second-largest city after Kathmandu, when you arrive you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find a slow-paced centre with clean air and nature all around. Whether coming from the capital city or returning from days of intense hiking, Pokhara’s lakeside is the ultimate place to dump your bags and breathe a sigh of relieve, revelling in the relaxing atmosphere and home comforts available. Wander along the lakefront, lined with hotels, restaurants and shops, enjoying a front-row view of snow-capped mountains from any angle. Stick around in Pokhara for a day or two to experience its best adventures; paragliding and white-water rafting being the two most popular activities, followed by the rather more docile Gurkha soldier museum.

Pokhara | Photo: Madhushree Narayan

5. Trekking in the Annapurna Region

From Pokhara, it’s likely you’ll be strapping on some boots to take on the climb of your life. With hikes in the Annapurna Region ranging from a few days to a few weeks, there’s something for every Nepal itinerary, following one of three main routes that intersect. Opt to tackle a small portion of one route or a variation of all three, following the well-marked trails yourself for shorter treks or hiring a knowledgeable guide to cover more treacherous terrain. Complete the entire Annapurna range in just 21 days along the popular ‘Apple Pie Circuit’, a route named for the teahouses which serve trekkers along the way with many variations of fried apple pie. Other hiking packages may also cover the trek to Poon Hill (3,210 meters), one of the best Nepal destinations for sunrise views over Dhaulagiri peak and several other peaks that carve jagged lines across the horizon.

In just five days of hiking from the subtropical Pokhara Valley trekkers can reach the dry air of Annapurna Sanctuary, though Muktinath before it is also an equally worthy endpoint. The Muktinath route runs through the Kali Gandaki Valley and spans seven days, with options to pass north into the fascinating village of Mustang, a traditional area showcasing the unique lifestyles, customs and cuisines at large on the Tibetan plateau. Get more insight about trekking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, here.

Annapurna | Photo: Tobse Fritz

6. Chitwan National Park

Protecting an area of more than 932 square kilometres, spanning forest, marshland and grassland, the Chitwan National Park is a definite must-visit while in Nepal, even if only to glimpse its magnificent wildlife roam wild. As well as 500 species of bird, Chitwan residents include deers, monkeys, rhinos and even a few leopards, elephants and sloth bears. The rajah of the park however is the royal Bengal Tiger, which single-handedly (paw-edly?) draws visitors from across the globe. The elephants here are domesticated and although animal rights concerns now limit interactions, elephant treks and jungle tours are still offered (though frowned upon by many).

For a small admission fee or as part of a tour bundle, travel through Chitwan by safari, sloping upwards of 100 meters in an area of tropical climate unlike anywhere else in Nepal. As well as land critters, watch out along the rivers and streams to spot elusive dolphins and crocodiles, before moving back to on-site lodges by jeep or on foot. One of most famous places to visit in Nepal actually lies just north of Chitwan – there you’ll find Bandipur Nepal, home of the native Newari people and all manner of wild cats within Bandipur National Park.

Photo: Jesse Schoff

Chitwan National Park | Photo: Kedar Bhusal

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Besides Annapurna, Langtang is another of Nepal’s best trekking regions, featuring a winning combination of old monasteries and Sherpa villages among magnificent high passes and panoramic mountain views

7. Trekking in the Langtang Region

Besides Annapurna, Langtang is another of Nepal’s best trekking regions, featuring a winning combination of old monasteries and Sherpa villages among magnificent high passes and panoramic mountain views. Langtang is one of the lesser-visited regions within the nation, meaning that the hiking trails here are generally less crowded than those closer to Kathmandu. For those seeking remote mountain solace, travel seven to eight hours by jeep or bus from the capital to land within reach of Langtang National Park, an area mapping the valleys at the base of central Himalaya, with trails beginning in either Dhunche or Syabrubensi.

The trekking routes here are rather less taxing than those of Annapurna, with the added advantage of passing through various traditional and ethnic villages en route to the peak of Langtang-Lirung (7,245). Though journeys to the peak could take a couple of weeks, other shorter multi-day trails include the Langtang Valley Trek, Tamang Heritage Trek, Gosaikunda trek and Helambu trek, each offering an up-close look at rural Buddhist culture as well as diverse flora and fauna in amongst small glaciers and virgin forest.

Langtang National Park | Photo: Laurentiu Morariu

Photo: Grisha Grishkoff

8. Swayambhunath

Moving westwards and skywards from Kathmandu, adventurers will eventually come to the hilltop temple of Swayambhunath, home to the region’s second most important shrine after Boudanath. High up within the Kathmandu Valley, Swayanbhunath is also known as Monkey Temple, in a nod to the resident monkeys who moved in years ago. Though the monkeys will do their best to distract you, don’t forget to spend time walking through the temple complex here, marvelling at the centrepiece stupa, a piece painted with the eyes of the omnipresent god dating back to the fifth century. Previous to the construction of the temple, the site remained a sacred spot, said to be the centre of a prehistoric cult. Today Swayambhunath is a place of importance both for the Vajrayana Buddhists of northern Nepal and Tibet as well as the Newari Buddhists of Kathmandu Valley.

9. Lumbini

The birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama, the historic Buddha, Lumbini takes its deserved place as Buddhism’s most important pilgrimage town, visited by Buddhist pilgrims from across the globe on endeavours to retrace Buddha’s footsteps and see for themselves the ancient stone carving which marks his birth in 623 B.C. The surrounding archaeological area is also a sight to behold, once a teeming monastic complex lost to history for thousands of years before being uncovered in 1896. Today the ruins mark the past while more modern stupas, monasteries and temples rise fast in the area surrounding the modest Maya Devi Temple, said to be the actual spot where Buddha was born.

Situated off the main tourist track, on a detour from Pokhara to Chitwan, Lumbini is without the amenities of other key tourist spots, focusing more on religious enlightenment and contemplation. The new Siddharthangar Airport built nearby, however, is sure to raise Lumbini’s profile, as well as the neighbouring town of Tilaurakot where Prince Siddhartha is said to have spent his years of lavishness before embarking on the road to enlightenment.

Photo: Kabita Darlami

10. Everest & the Trek to Base Camp

The crowning glory of Nepal tops both our list and that of the world’s highest peaks, rising a tremendous 8,848 metres – the summit of Mount Everest. Though of course, this one is not for everyone, there are a number of less lofty trails en route to the big one, providing an easier way to say ‘I climbed Everest’. Though technically cheating, most hikers who come here simply trek various routes to Everest Base Camp, a spot overlooked by the distant peak and the starting point of all serious Everest hikes.

Not without its fair share of drama, having lived through the 2015 earthquake, frequent avalanches and a number of climber disputes and deaths, Everest remains a global symbol of achievement though the scenery is not as stunning as either Annapurna or Langtang. If you do decide to confront Everest, consider booking a local or Western-based tour to pick you up in Kathmandu and pair you with your very own guide on hikes of varying difficulty towards Base Camp. Passing up the hike, Everest is also often visible from the hill town of Nagarkot near Kathmandu, for a rather more leisurely experience.

Everest Base Camp Trekking Route | Photo: Martin Jernberg

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