10 ways to enjoy Nepal without stepping foot in a temple or trekking up a mountain

Take a trishaw through the old streets of Thamel — Pictures by Vivian Chong
Take a trishaw through the old streets of Thamel — Pictures by Vivian Chong

KATHMANDU, June 15 — From UNESCO-listed temples to the world’s highest summit, Nepal is blessed with many wondrous sites that draw devout pilgrims, mountain trekkers and other adventure seekers by the planeloads. For travellers who don’t necessarily want to visit a stupa or need that adrenaline rush, there are other authentic Nepali experiences to be had. Here are 10 of them:

Fly to Everest

You don’t have to break a sweat just to get up close to the breathtaking Himalaya mountain range. You just need to get up early and catch a Mount Everest Experience, or known simply as a Mountain Flight. For just under US$200 (about RM642) per person, you get a window seat on board an ATR 72 that will encircle the range at sunrise while you get trigger happy with your camera, and every passenger gets a quick peek inside the cockpit. Three different airlines — Buddha Air, Yeti Airlines and Simrik Airlines — offer this unique activity out of Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan Airport. For better rates, sign up through local travel agents.

Get up close to the breathtaking Himalaya via a Mountain Flight (left). Dhal bhat is rice served in a round platter surrounded by meat, spiced vegetables, papad (poppadom) and lentil soup (right)
Get up close to the breathtaking Himalaya via a Mountain Flight (left). Dhal bhat is rice served in a round platter surrounded by meat, spiced vegetables, papad (poppadom) and lentil soup (right)

Eat as the locals do

Nepali cuisine is limited in its repertoire but what’s available is packed with flavours and spices. The must-try dish is dhal bhat, rice (usually Basmathi) served in a round platter surrounded by tiny bowls of well-seasoned meat, spiced vegetables, papad (poppadom) and sometimes, a lentil soup. Similar to Indian thali, the dishes vary from chef to chef or day to day, so it’s not surprising that locals can eat this for all three meals each day. The other must-try is momo, dumplings traditionally filled with minced vegetables, pork, chicken or buff (buffalo) meat. They are usually steamed but are also served fried and kothey-style, which is not unlike Chinese pot stickers.

Take a trishaw ride

The Thamel — the tourist district of Kathmandu — city centre is small so it’s easy to get around on foot and you can do it at a leisurely pace, but if you feel the need for some speed, hail a trishaw. For a small fee, the trishaw puller will pedal you around in his gaily decorated three-wheelers and give you a whirlwind sightseeing tour right in the thick of busy traffic, within inches of other vehicles. You will be kept on the edge of the seat as the roads alternate between bumpy and gravelly. Hang on tight and enjoy the rush!

Surrender to a spa treatment

Spas are aplenty in Thamel, with the bigger ones usually housed in homey bungalows fitted with basic but adequate facilities. The focus is on Ayurvedic treatments such as shirodhara, at a fraction of the price you would expect to pay in Malaysia. Ask your hotel for a recommendation and to negotiate lower rates for you. Some, like Tranquility Spa (www.tranquilityspa.com.np) can even provide transfer to and from your hotel. For an invigorating Indian head massage sans ambience, look for the nearest barbershop where the multi-talented barber will knead, rub and press your scalp and neck to utter bliss.

Unique masks and handicrafts (left). Try on these colourful handmade felt shoes (right)
Unique masks and handicrafts (left). Try on these colourful handmade felt shoes (right)

Stroll the streets

Thamel’s streetscape teems with sounds, sights and scents that are a delight to get lost among. Trawl its narrow one-way streets (watch out for the endless traffic) to immerse in and absorb its essence, a chaotic assault on the senses that’s ultimately charming. Meet friendly locals with ready smiles and hand-clasped greetings of namaste; shop at stalls laden with local handicrafts; spot retro signboards bearing vintage fonts; bargain with mobile vendors who will try to sell you anything from DIY henna paint sets to miniature violin-like instruments, earnest shopkeepers trying to entice you into visiting their stores and part with your rupees.

Shop the bazaars

Souvenir stores are everywhere in Thamel, most popularly peddling pashmina shawls, thangka art, DVDs of movies and documentaries on Nepal, handmade felt accessories and apparel imported from India. For Nepali specialties, however, you need to head to the bazaars on the way to and near Kathmandu Durbar Square. Tiny shops with low doors and makeshift stalls cater to local demands for fresh produce, kitchen goods, spices – there’s a masala (spice mix) for every dish, including yogurt — and teas grown in Nepal’s eastern regions.

There’s a masala (spice mix) for every dish
There’s a masala (spice mix) for every dish

Stray off the well-trodden path

If the idea of lunching with nuns or tracing the trail of the Kumari is music to your ears, sign up with Social Tours (www.socialtours.com), an award-winning sustainable tourism company. They offer a variety of short tours and weeks-long excursions, all designed to provide memorable and unique experiences. Popular tours include the three-hour Cook Like A Local culinary course, and a day visit to Thimi to meet artisanal potters and throw your own keepsake.

Pilgrims Book House has some 250,000 books in its collection
Pilgrims Book House has some 250,000 books in its collection

Browse bookstores

Where there are backpackers, there will be bookstores and Thamel has both in abundance. From Lonely Planet guides to bestselling paperbacks, a good variety of English titles are available at reasonable prices alongside souvenirs like fridge magnets and postcards printed on handmade lokta paper. If you only have time for just one bookstore, make it Pilgrims Book House (www.pilgrimsbooks.com), a 30-year-old institution with some 250,000 books in its collection, spread out over two levels and at their online shop.

Check into a homestay

It doesn’t get more authentic than this: Stay with a local family, learn to cook Nepalese food and dine together, communal style. Hear their stories and share yours. By the time you leave, they may want to adopt you. Homestays, usually located in bucolic villages away from tourist-packed cities, are a great addition to your Nepal itinerary as they show up different facets of the country, the people and their lifestyle. Just 30 minutes from Thamel and surrounded by wheat fields, Baburaja Maharjan’s Homestay Nepal (homestay-nepal.com) comes highly recommended and is a TripAdvisor Travellers Choice 2014 winner in the B&Bs and Inns category.

Nepalese street food is often fried
Nepalese street food is often fried

Indulge in Western comforts

Gourmet coffees, French pastries and full English breakfasts are obviously not part of Nepal’s original food scene but in tourist-savvy Thamel, they have become ubiquitous and are done very well. You can easily find Illy coffees at the cafes, or try local chain Himalayan Java Coffee (www.himalayanjava.com) which uses organic, Fair Trade beans that grow in the highlands. Quaint bakeries roll out oversized breads and pastries that make for cheap and filling meals, while breakfasts can get pretty fancy with greasy fry-ups that are usually paired with homemade yogurt and potatoes cooked in a variety of ways. Some cafes take liberty with the names though; a rosti is not always what it should be – sometimes, it’s really roast potatoes.

Specialty teas from Nepal are available in tins (left). Explore the small side streets of Thamel where tasty treats await (right)
Specialty teas from Nepal are available in tins (left). Explore the small side streets of Thamel where tasty treats await (right)

Vivian Chong is a freelance writer-editor, and founder of travel & lifestyle website http://thisbunnyhops.com/

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