#19: Touchdown Nepal
Exploring the best of Newari culture through offbeat travel experiences.
The first time I visited Nepal was in 2013. I scored cheap flight tickets and that was reason enough to make a trip. It was a short visit and much of it turned out to be a disaster, but that’s a story for another day.
Last month, I had the opportunity to travel to Nepal for a longer, more intentional visit. I couldn’t go on a Himalayan trek, but I was keen to explore the cultural side of the country. I usually plan my travels myself but over the years I’ve realized that in places like Northeast India - and now Nepal - it’s sometimes better to outsource the itinerary and bookings to local sustainable tourism companies that know the place, culture, and people well and can curate unique, offbeat experiences that aren’t easy for first-time travelers to figure out by themselves.
The Community Homestay Network (CHN) is a social enterprise that supports a network of homestays run by local women and families across Nepal. Their homestay model provides hosts with an additional source of income and the opportunity to meet travelers from around the world, while travelers get a taste of the local way of life. The best part is that 80% of the revenue goes directly to the community and is used for family and household expenses, education, personal development, community activities, and community development.
I’m glad CHN curated my Nepal itinerary because I couldn’t have asked for a better one!
A taste of Newari culture in Patan
My mother joined me on my nine-day trip and our first stop was Patan. From the moment we arrived, it was love at first sight. Unlike Thamel, which reminded me of Delhi’s Paharganj on my last trip, Patan has an old-world charm that is hard to miss. Intricately carved wooden windows on old heritage buildings adorn the narrow alleys leading to Patan Durbar Square — making it an ideal neighborhood to explore on foot and start our sojourn.
The Kathmandu Valley has three Durbar Squares belonging to the three Newar kingdoms that ruled Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur before unification. All three are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and faced significant damage during the 2015 earthquake and are still under mend.
Patan Durbar Square is located in Lalitpur and is known for its stunning Newar architecture. It is one of the oldest Buddhist cities with both Hindu and Buddhist influences and contains 136 bahals or courtyards and 55 major temples. It is also home to the ancient royal palace of the Malla dynasty that ruled Lalitpur.
Walking through the bustling streets of Patan is an experience in itself, with small temples at every chowk, streetside shops selling wooden souvenirs and thangkas, and local kirana shops where you can buy titora (dried/candied fruit).
We stayed at Traditional Stay, a boutique hotel located half an hour from the airport, and a mere five-minute walk from Patan Durbar Square. With friendly staff, excellent service, delicious Nepali food, and within walking distance from most places in the neighborhood, including the Golden Temple, it was a delight to stay there.
Due to the municipal elections taking place the weekend we arrived, the streets of Patan were deserted and saved us the trouble of navigating through traffic and crowds. My former colleague and friend from Nepal, B, took us around the various neighborhoods, each distinct in its own way, with people (and dogs) peeking out of their tiny wooden windows to observe life outside. While Patan is where most of the Newari community lives, some families reside in other parts of the valley and have slight variations in dialect.
The food in Patan is a delight, and thanks to Google, I found a streetside momo place called ‘Try Again Mo:mo’ that served delicious buff momos with jhol (peanut-sesame sauce). We also had a scrumptious chicken thali at Mustang Thakali which was recommended to me by a contact on Instagram.
Date with the rhinos and the Tharu community
The next leg of our journey entailed catching a flight to Bharatpur to spend two days at a community homestay run by members of the Tharu tribe. The homestay model is slightly different here, with one-room mud cottages built for guests within the village. Each cottage is maintained by a member of the community.
Barauli Community Homestay is located near Chitwan National Park and surrounded by mustard fields that were in full bloom, making up for what I missed in Punjab. The cottages were basic yet very neat, and being located within the village, made us feel like we were living with the community.
Initiatives like this can sometimes go awry, as I have experienced in Sapa, Vietnam, where village homestays felt more like poverty tourism. It’s also not as curated as some village homestays in India that are designed to look and feel like a village home but don’t entail living with the local community.
The rather bumpy drive from the airport to the homestay was tiring, especially because I was on my period, but the journey was worth the destination. We got ample time to bask in the winter sun and soak in the sights of the golden sarson ke khet that felt straight out of a scene in DDLJ. The evening was spent sipping on masala chai by the Narayani river and watching the glorious sunset, followed by a cooking session with a kind Tharu lady at her home. We cooked fish, chicken, dal, saag, rice, and mixed vegetables in the local style of preparation, and everything tasted delicious!
The highlight of our stay though was a half-day open jeep safari through the national park. The route is scenic, crossing water bodies, and trees of all shapes, shades, and sizes. We spotted lots of rhinos, a crocodile, spotter deer, barking deer, wild boar, kingfisher, eagles, and a variety of birds.
In the evening, women of the Tharu tribe put up a cultural program featuring their tribal dance - performed with sticks during weddings and harvest season, while the men played the instruments.
Learning Paubha Painting in Patan
After Barauli, we were back in Patan, this time to stay with a host family at their home. We were greeted by Sulav, Teesta, and their parents. It was wonderful to be able to interact with the family over mouth-watering homecooked meals made by Ujwala ji and learn about their daily life in Patan. I also got to learn Paubha painting from their uncle, Ujay Bajracharya, who is a renowned Paubha artist in Nepal.
I used to paint a lot when I was younger and it felt amazing to hold a brush and play with colors again! There’s only so much one can learn about a new painting technique in a couple of hours, but even getting a sense of the basics was insightful and fun. More about this in issue #20 of my newsletter.
Exploring Bhaktapur and Panauti on foot
Bhaktapur, the "City of Devotees," is also known for Newar traditions, food, and artisans, and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Nepal. It’s a place I really wanted to visit on my last trip but couldn’t, so I’m glad I made it there this time. The Bhaktapur Durbar Square is similar to the one in Patan, except that the temples are more massive. There are several smaller squares or chowks and the one with pottery shops was particularly beautiful. Like Patan, the area is best explored on foot and the local mitho doi (similar to Bengali mishti doi, or sweet curd) is a must-try!
From Bhaktapur, we proceeded to Panauti, with the cityscape giving way to the hilly countryside. Our homestay in Panauti was close to the old town and surrounded by rice and potato farms and orange trees. Our host family was a lovely family of five, and Ashish, our host’s nephew, was kind enough to take us around the town. We explored a few temples, walked around the market and alleys, and even made a day trip to Namobuddha Monastery, located atop a hill and offering exceptional views of the snow peaks.
We got to eat traditional food like sel roti and learned how to make momos from scratch! Even though I’ve made them before in Ladakh and Sikkim, carving them in the right shape was difficult. My mother and I were so bad at it that we started making momos in the shape of gujjias, much to the amusement of our hosts, who asked us to teach them the pattern!
Learning Ranjana Lipi - the ancient script of the Newars
After our stay in Panauti, it was time to head back to Patan to attend a Ranjana Lipi workshop conducted by members of the Kirtipur Community Homestay. This was an interesting experience because it was attended by mostly local Newari people who were curious to learn more about their native language. It was my first time learning this script, and although it is similar to Devanagiri, it is also quite unique. More about this in issue #20 of my newsletter.
Back to Kathmandu
Our nine-day trip came to an end in Kathmandu and this time we stayed at Traditional Comfort which was closer to the Pashupatinath temple, Boudhanath Stupa, and other popular tourist spots. We only had a few hours to explore these places, but they were well worth it and I wished I had more time at Boudha. We also got to visit AVATA Wellness - a sister company of CHN - where we tried aerial yoga and sound bath meditation (more on my blog).
One of the reasons our entire trip was seamless was because of the excellent coordination between CHN and Royal Mountain Travel, and the experience reiterated the importance of sustainable tourism practices that empower local communities while providing authentic experiences to travelers.
Nepal is a great place to visit in several seasons - November-December being ideal for cultural explorations, as the days are sunny and the evenings slightly cold. The daal bhaat, jhol momos, and thakali thalis keep you warm and satisfied, while the people are more than happy to let you into their lives. The most unexpected discovery for us was meeting Allu Arjun fans wherever we went! Despite hailing from Telangana, my mother and I are not Tollywood buffs, so it was fascinating to witness the craze for Telugu movies and actors among Nepali people, especially youngsters.
Nine days passed by too quickly, but I am grateful I got to do this trip with my mother - our third trip together after Arunachal and the Rann of Kutch. It gave us everything we seek from travel: human connection, new landscapes, great food, and a lot of learning.
(Note: Most of the stays and experiences mentioned in this post were sponsored by the organizers. Much gratitude for their kindness and hospitality. The views expressed are entirely my own.)