A November 2001 trip
to Pokhara by Ozzy-Dave
Quote: Pokhara is Nepal’s oasis. Saluted by weary trekkers and embraced by jaded travellers, this peaceful, atmospheric, lakeside town serves a menu of leisure activities and meditative diversions to a backdrop of the world’s highest mountains. Here, the days can easily roll into weeks …
Against a canvas of 26,000-foot mountains, you’ll hear plenty of Bob Marley; smell acres of ganja; taste everything except dal bhat; and enjoy extraordinary cultural diversity.
1. Slip off your shoes in one of Pokhara’s hilltop monasteries and join the locals in a celebration of Buddha.2. Visit with the Tibetans in Tashi Palkheil village, and discover life as a refugee.3. Reach for the sky on one of many walks in the neighbouring district, where the legendary Annapurna range dominates the horizon.4. Row, row, row your boat across peaceful Phewa Tal, Nepal’s second largest lake, and visit some of the rural villages, swim, or simply drift to the symphony of silence.5. Go feral in a Disneyland of Himalayan and Tibetan handicrafts, antiques and mementos from a myriad of traders that line the lake, then visit downtown Pokhara for a feast of sight and sound from the city markets.
Although lacking the historical riches of other Nepalese destinations, Pokhara and its surrounding area offers visitors cultural and scenic diversity in laid-back surroundings that nourish the soul. There’s plenty to do or nothing to do.
Want to read more about this fascinating country? Check out:Kathmandu and its elusive freaksWalking in the Kathmandu Valley orNepal’s Wild Kingdom
ACCOMMODATION:The village sprawls for several kilometres along Phewa Tal, from drab Damside in the south to action central in laissez-faire Lakeside, where a procession of cafes, restaurants, and shops tempt passers-by. Lakeside is where you need to be. Hundreds of well-priced guesthouses and small hotels litter the adjacent lanes, and there’s something here for everyone. Even in peak season, there is no need to book ahead – there are plenty of rooms to go around.
BUDGET:We lived well for US a day. That bought us a room and cooked breakfast in an exceptional lakeside guesthouse with rooftop views of the Annapurna, all our meals, local transport and entertainment, and enough left over to explore the shops and markets.
On the local front, being spread out, you’ll need the occasional taxi to negotiate Pokhara’s sights. They’re cheap enough – 150rp will get you anywhere - but always bargain a price first.
There are also public buses, but I never managed to understand the system or find a schedule. I likened them to overcrowded, smoke-belching, kamikaze circuses that aimlessly trawl the district for thrill seekers. We caught two. One we rode for free because we had to get on the roof (there was no room inside) and nobody bothered to collect a fare; the other had a hole in the floor through which we could examine the rear axle as we travelled, so we got off and caught a taxi!
Perhaps the best (and safest) form of transport is the boats. Hire them by the hour (150rp) or day (500rp) to explore the lake.
Reach for the skyThis morning, like every other for the last three days, I woke at 5am. This time I wasn’t disappointed. Rose-coloured light teased the shutters to our room, promising that elusive, memorable sunrise.
Camera in hand and loaded with new film, I hurdled the stairs to the rooftop two at a time to be greeted with the best kind of smile. The entire eastern Annapurna range emerged from its slumber as the rising sun glowed salmon, kissing the peaks with the light of a new day. And not a cloud in sight.
Pun Hill Guesthouse sits near the end of a narrow lane called Peaceful Road in Lakeside East, just south of the Royal Palace. It’s far enough from the main drag to feel rural, but still convenient to the action of the lakeside strip. But more importantly, it provides unobscured views of the nearby Himalayan giants.
Many first-time visitors don’t realise that Lakeside East gets the best views. Further north in Lakeside West and North, a high ridge blocks the view of these majestic sentinels.
Hostess with the mostestBhim Kumari runs the guesthouse with the help of her two school-age children and a young woman called Sangita who woos all the male visitors with her stunning smile and a Caribbean-like accent. Her husband is an ex-Gurkha soldier who finds it difficult to get work.
In the darkness of each morning, Bhim rises to turn on the hot water and help Sangita prepare a smorgasbord of delicacies for their guests. Tibetan breads, pastries, cereals, and cooked breakfasts are served in a sunny room in the back garden.
Bhim’s graciousness is beautiful, her friendliness infectious. She takes us shopping in Pokhara’s bazaar; comes walking to nearby Saragkot; even drives us to a hilltop monastery we are keen to visit. It’s appropriate that on our last night, a group of us treat her family to a wonderful cultural performance and fine Indian food at the Hungry Eye restaurant in Lakeside West.
It costs HOW much?Before I divulge the bottom line, a bit more about the Pun Hill Guesthouse. It has nine rooms, all on the upper floor (the family lives on the ground floor), and all except one has an ensuite bathroom.
Each room is large and spotlessly clean – as are the bathrooms – and they all have access to a wide balcony at the rear of the property with lovely rural and killer mountain views. There are real pillows, real mattresses, and--get this--electric blankets!
So, how much? An ensuite room costs 1000Rp (US$15) and our lone shared-bathroom sanctuary costs a whopping 700Rp (US$10). Oh, and did I mention the price includes breakfast? All you can eat and anything you can eat. And the hospitality’s free.
No wonder Bhim doesn’t need to advertise.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on September 9, 2003
Pun Hill Guesthouse
It’s his fourth visit to Nepal and our first, and the topic turns to worthwhile local diversions."The Peace Pagoda is visible from the end of the road," he points."It’s a good walk to the top and the views will be excellent today. You know, it took ‘em 50 years to build that thing."
The pagoda was the brainchild of a disillusioned Japanese man, Nishidathsu Fuji, whose mission to spread the word of peace brought him to the birthplace of Buddhism in Lumbini before he secured a location (and funding) for his stupa – a forested hilltop overlooking Pokhara.
Petty bickering and political infighting plagued the project, but in 1993 Fuji’s vision prevailed.
Row your boatAt Lakeside, several boats are moored near a small temple. "The red ones cost more," we’re told, but the charade unfolds and 400rp for the day is agreed.
Karen quickly loses interest in rowing and I’m elected navigator and engine.
We approach an island with a temple dedicated to one of Vishnu’s many incarnations. Like many Hindu shrines, colour abounds, but this one is different. It’s covered in guano. Hundreds of nesting boxes crowd the shore, apparently used by countless homing pigeons, but no one seems to know why.
At the other side of the lake is the Typical Restaurant (don’t you love originality?) and a sign marking the trail up to the pagoda.
Best hash in PokharaStone stairs lead through temperate forest on a steep climb. We puff and pant, struggling with the incline, while a line of barefooted women pass, lugging sacks of grain and chatting as they go – probably about red-faced Westerners and their pathetic work ethic. They’d be right.
Near the top, a small chorten occupies a flat ridge. Two Germans lie on the rocks, admiring Pokhara, almost 1,000 feet below. But they are much higher than 1,000 feet. The smell is sweet and familiar as smoke drifts my way.
An elderly man appears from bushes near the chorten, hobbling, his skin pulled tight and his eyes dancing."You want hash? Best in Pokhara. Make you strong," he beamed. "Me strong man. I go to top every day, then up and down many times to do business."
"Yeah, right," I thought, dismissing this wizened dope baron.
At the top, four bronze Buddhas greet the four cardinals of the earth in a dedication to peace. They preside over a 35-metre gleaming white stupa that commands unobscured views over the valley and mountains. A tour guide regales his charges and I tell him about the old man.
"Ahh, the Marijuana Man," he nods. "A legend. Paralysed down one side, you know. Spends all day tending his crops. Up and down, up and down. Then he rows to town to buy medicine.""Must be the best hash in all of Pokhara!"
"Yeah," was all I could offer, "So I heard."
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on September 9, 2003
The Peace Pagoda and the Marijuana Man
Above Phew Tal
SOS Children’s Villages was founded in 1968 by an Austrian man, Hermann Gmeiner, to improve social infrastructure and facilities in needy areas and to realise his dream: that one day all the world’s children would have a home.
We visited two villages in Nepal: one in Sanothimi, near Bhaktapur in the Kathmandu Valley, and this one in Pokhara. It was an emotional experience, one best left to a simple extract from our diary.
A Diary Extract ...
Today we visited Pokhara’s SOS Tibetan children’s village with our two new friends – Michael from the guesthouse and Yhamo, a lovely Tibetan woman we met in town. Apparently, it’s Nepal’s only vocation centre, where students learn computing, secretarial skills, carpentry, even construction of solar panels and water storage tanks for rural villages and refugee camps. I wished we could stay and learn, too.
There are a dozen houses where the orphans live, and schools for kindergarten and primary levels. The high school is two kilometres down the road, but plans are in place to resite the facilities here.
At the orphanage, we are guided by Dolma, the English teacher’s wife, and we’re ushered into the administration office where we’re offered tea (not that yak butter Tibetan stuff, thank goodness).
Dolma grew up in a Tibetan refugee camp in India, where she was educated at a Catholic school. Her sister’s fate led her to a Red Cross camp where she met and married her Swiss husband, and Dolma is now arranging for her eldest daughter to be adopted by his sister so she can relocate to Switzerland and have the benefit of a Swiss passport and education.
Dolma’s mother carried her out of Tibet during the invasion of the Chinese when she was two years old. For weeks, they walked across the mountains at night, hiding from the Chinese during the day until they arrived in Bhutan. Talking about it still clearly revives memories better forgotten.
She says that Chinese aircraft would scour known routes in the daylight, shooting at the travellers. Many died on the way; many more lost fingers and toes to frostbite. Her eyes glaze over and she appears to slip into a melancholy reverie as she talks, her voice declining to little more than a whisper.
Dolma is 44, the same age as Karen. Same planet, but a way different world. I can’t believe people can treat each other so badly, and we’re both consumed by honest and raw emotion. I can see it in Karen’s eyes.
The children here are obviously loved and happy. Pictures of the Dalai Lama and pop stars litter the walls. Colourful spreads cover the beds. Dolma says that because of the interest in Tibet now, the children have benefited by generous donations from the West.
It’s places like this that restore a dangerously eroded perspective that poisons me.
SOS Children's Village - Chhorepatan
Leave your shoes at the door
Nyeshang Korti Monastery occupies a hilltop east of the main centre. On most days around 4pm, the monastery gathers for prayers and we are invited into the temple to sit with the monks as they chant.
Wide smiles greet us and, barefoot, we step through the orange-curtained door. Intricate patterns of flowers decorate the walls and colourful brocade ties spill from the ceiling, tumbling down carved columns. Incense wafts through the gompa as the monks chant. Cymbals crash, bells ring, drums thunder, and a pair of boys struggle to breathe life into two enormous Tibetan horns.
Two other boys kneeling behind them pass notes to each other in some bizarre re-enactment of my school days. The boys on the horns find their form and we jump, much to the amusement of the congregation. Right now it’s easy to imagine that the snowy peaks of Tibet lurk behind the orange curtain.
The Tashi Palkhiel Tibetan Refugee Settlement overlooks the Seti River in the foothills northwest of Pokhara and is crammed with a myriad of lanes and alleys where hundreds of families attempt to preserve their culture in exile.
Many aid agencies have contributed resources, and there is now a school, clinic, handicraft centre and thriving sense of community spirit.
But it still feels like a refugee camp.
We chat with some monks sweeping a monastery courtyard and they invite us into the gompa. Sky burials are performed on the hill here and there is a wonderful collection of prayer stone cairns.
Outside the settlement, the flood plains are green with millet, and we wait for a bus with five Tibetan teenagers. They are crazy about cricket, basketball, and Western music – especially Madonna – and all hope to go "home to Tibet" one day. A homeland they have never seen.
At around 5,300 feet, Sarangkot is probably the best hike around Pokhara. Some of the guidebooks will tell you to walk up all the way from town. Rubbish – get a taxi. For 300Rp you can save hours (and blisters), and get there before the mountains disappear behind clouds.
From the end of the road it takes an hour to reach the top, with panoramic views of the Annapurnas to the north, the sacred peak of Machhapuchhare dominating. To the south is the expanse of Phewa Tal.
Chaiya shops and the occasional food stall punctuate a parade of small villages, and the three-hour journey down provides a fascinating glimpse of rural life, including the opportunity to buy anything from pineapples to pencils.
As we approach the bottom, two parachutists land in a maze of rice paddies. A woman washes clothes in a nearby creek while a cow dies near the lake and a man lies drunk on the roadside, unaware of the 10-tonne Indian lorry passing within a few feet. That’s Nepal, all right. Total confrontation.
The Nepal I Love
Various locations in the town district
Wednesday morning was fine and cool. The sun emerged from behind the Annapurna mountain giants with authority, casting a warm glow over Pokhara. Today we'd travel to Bhaktapur, near Kathmandu, to stay with friends before leaving Nepal. It would be an eventful journey.
Nepal is a land of contrasts with a range of transport options to match. We had
travelled in buses with holes in the floor, in dugout canoes, on elephants, in rickshaws, and in
tiny three-wheeled minibuses that sound like lawnmowers. But today Nepal would find a
new experience for us - a parting gesture, a memento.
At the bus park, people milled around a collection of stalls supplying travellers with
delicious coffee, chaiya (sweet milk tea), fresh fruit, and hot breakfast food. We bought
some bananas and oranges and sat with other passengers around an open fire with a cup of
chaiya, waiting for our boarding instructions.
THE NEWSPAPER MYSTERY
A group of boys stowed the bags and by 7:30 we were ready to go. They
worked deftly, with the skill of craftsmen. Every square foot of roof space and every square
inch of vacant seat space were used. I noticed a copy of the Kathmandu Post near the driver's
seat and reached to pick it up.
"No, no," was the response. "I am reading. Then my friend is reading."
The paper was whisked away.
"I wonder what all that was about," I said to Karen.
"He probably hasn't read it yet. Maybe he'll let you read it later."
We rolled out of town to a clear sky, our driver enthusiastically punishing the gears. He
was the picture of concentration, complete with beanie and bandana face mask as
protection from the dust of the dry season and highway traffic fumes. I noticed none of the
driver's friends were interested in reading the paper.
In seven hours we would travel 200 kilometres along the Prithvi Highway from Pokhara
to Kathmandu. The road crosses Nepal's Middle Hills with views of deep valleys and
terraced hillsides, often following major rivers that provide the country with a quarter of its
power through hydroelectricity and tourists with serious rapids.
Roadside shantytowns punctuate the journey, populated by opportunists looking to
exploit the passing trade. Around halfway there is a turnoff to Gorkha. This hillside town
with its incredible palace and temples was home to King Prithvi Narayan Shah in the 18th
During a period of 30 years this extraordinary man unified a country of disjointed
principalities without resorting to violence. He created a state able to resist colonial armies
that conquered almost every other Asian country, a state defended by the now legendary
Gorkha (Gurkha) soldiers.
THINGS GET WORRYING
Three hours into the trip we passed the Gorka turnoff and conversation had ceased as passengers slept, read, and munched trail food. Sagging seats were packed with clothes as relief against the road's imperfections.
At the junction town of Mugling, the Marsyangdi and Trisuli rivers join to form the
Narayani, a tributary of the holy Ganges. Another road turns south toward the fertile plains
of the Terai, home to the Royal Chitwan National Park. We continued east, climbing
toward the rim of the Kathmandu Valley. Then things got worrying.
Road conditions improve, apparently signalling a need to travel at speeds far in excess of
what most observers would call safe. The contours of the road do not improve. We are
climbing rapidly and there are many blind corners - with many steep embankments and many fleeting views of deep valleys.
Passengers previously preoccupied with sleeping and reading were now alert and preoccupied with looking out the window. And it was not just our driver we were worried about. Punctuating our view of precipitous gorges and hillsides out the side windows were
views out the front window of rapidly approaching trucks and buses. It appears the game
of "chicken" was invented in Nepal.
We passed a truck on its side and another on its roof. No one seemed concerned.
Apparently it was common along this road. Outside our window, at the bottom of a deep
canyon, the whitewater rapids of the Trisuli River rushed toward their destiny with the
Ganges. We would both rather be whitewater rafting.
Then the bus stopped.
WHO IS THIS MASKED MAN?
Although pleased to have relief from the roller-coaster ride, we were curious about why we'd stopped. Someone spotted the driver at the back of the bus. He was jumping excitedly, waving his arms around and pointing. He was shouting for us to join him.
We filed off the bus, making our way cautiously toward the masked man and his friends.
The driver beckoned as his friends peered over the edge of the cliff.
"Look, look," the driver laughed, pointing again, this time to the bottom of the gorge. "Tuesday's bus!"
He laughed louder now, almost maniacally, and his friends joined him in some bizarre
epitaph to the twisted wreck of yesterday's bus in the valley hundreds of feet below us.
That's right. Yesterday's bus!
Nobody spoke. Maybe the mask wasn't for protection against the elements. Maybe it
was a disguise. Maybe this guy was a Maoist extremist and he didn't want to be identified.
Maybe he was just crazy. Whatever he was, he was back in the bus, and the engine roared
to life as he prepared to continue our voyage of discovery. Strangely, we all boarded
the bus and sat down like schoolchildren threatened with detention if we didn't behave.
THE NEWSPAPER MYSTERY SOLVED
Ten minutes later we stopped at a roadside restaurant to stretch our legs and break the trip. We returned to the bus ahead of the other passengers, and I decided to read the newspaper I had earlier been denied. And there it was, on the second page.
The story explained that several people had been injured the day before, some critically, in a serious bus accident fuelled by "unnecessarily aggressive driving" outside of Mugling on the main Pokhara-Kathmandu highway.
"Maybe he didn't want us reading it and worrying," I reasoned.
"Maybe he didn't want us spoiling his surprise," said Karen.
We made it to Kathmandu, and to our friends in Bhaktapur. There were no further
incidents, and we recalled our tale around the dinner table, laughing at events that only
hours before had us secretly praying for a reprieve.
I'm certain that somewhere in Nepal there is a bus named after every day of the week.