Huffing and puffing, stumbling over ditches and up narrow paths in the dark at 5am in Nepal, I think to myself, “This sunrise better be worth it!” I clutch my guide Arjun Bhattarai’s sleeve as my foot slips yet again on the rocky path leading up to a viewing deck at Sarangkot.
This is a popular spot for mountain views in Pokhara, which is about five hours’ drive from the capital, Kathmandu. Pokhara allows unobstructed views of the majestic Himalayan mountains amidst which Nepal lies, and it’s also a gateway to the country’s most popular trails for trekking, rafting and exploring.
At 800m above sea level, the air is pleasantly cool, even chilly in the early morning. Already half the chairs are taken up when we reach the viewing platform that extends over the valley. We eagerly accept cups of hot masala tea, as camera tripods are set up, then sit and wait impatiently for nature’s showcase to begin.
And what a show it is!
A faint orange glow slowly illuminates the horizon, revealing layers of misty mountains. A ball of light casts the snowy peaks of the Annapurna range in dusty pink before fiery gold lights the sky, bringing to life the entire Pokhara valley spread at our feet.
The phrase “birth of a new place” takes on a new meaning here. Spectacular, even spiritual for some, witnessing the beginning of a brand new day this close to the Himalayas is out of this world.
A sense of kinship towards all mankind is palpable. We feel rejuvenated and never more alive despite the bone-rattling five-hour trip from Kathmandu and only four hours of sleep.
If there’s only one reason to visit Nepal, witnessing this glorious sunrise would be it.
Call of adventure
With a group of media members from Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, we are on a whirlwind tour of some of Nepal’s most amazing attractions in a trip organised in conjunction with AirAsia X’s (AAX) new route to Kathmandu.
Within a month of its launch in July, the route’s full capacity had the airline increasing flights to three times weekly.
After all, Nepal’s tourism potential is immense given what the landlocked country has to offer, everything from snowy peaks and mountaintop monasteries to remote villages and medieval cities.
Nepal is also an important site for pilgrimages, as it contains hundreds of temples; what’s more, the Buddha’s birthplace is in Lumbini, southern Nepal, and is a huge pilgrim draw.
There’s no shortage of itineraries for thrill seekers either, ranging from trekking some of the world’s most challenging and best mountain trails to white water rafting and paragliding.
Says AAX chief executive officer Azran Osman-Rani who accompanied us on the tour, “This land is steeped in culture, tradition and languages and there is a sense of spirituality in some places; combine that with breathtaking landscapes where you can feel, or literally stand, on top of the world, and it adds up to Nepal being truly a traveller’s dream.”
Incentive Tours & Travels Pvt Ltd, Nepal’s largest private tour operator with a 25-year track record, is AAX’s exclusive partner and offers a variety of tours.
“Over 60% of our guests opt for adventure travel,” says its executive chairman, Hari Man Lama. “We’re excited to welcome more guests from Asia and Australia and we’ve already seen an upswing in arrivals. A new international airport is being built in Lumbini and the government is taking an active role in providing facilities for Muslim travellers as well.”
Bordering China and India, Nepal rises from the Terai, the sweltering southern plains of the Ganges River, up to the Himalayan range with its peak of Mt Everest at 8,850m.
That range is, arguably, what makes Nepal renowned for adventure travel, as it contains eight out of 10 of the world’s tallest mountains.
Following the wave of hardcore climbers in the middle of the last century came the hippies in search of alternative experiences; and then the mainstream tourists began arriving, discovering what the hippies’ had learnt: that there is great reward in trekking between remote mountain villages and experiencing rural life that seems to have remained untouched for centuries.
Taking in the culture
After a quick breakfast at the Hotel Trek-O-Tel located beside the Phewa Tal (Lake), we are off to explore the shimmering, tranquil lake set against a backdrop of the Annapurna mountains. Colourful boats row us to Tal Barahi, an 18th century Hindu temple on a little tree-shrouded island in the middle of the lake.
It’s a relaxing way to travel especially given our earlier ride atop an elephant the day before at the Royal Chitwan National Park, since 1984 designated a World Heritage Site by Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation).
Abundant wildlife thrives in the park. In the past, trigger happy maharajas and visiting royals, including Britain’s King George V, killed hundreds of Bengal tigers and rhinos.
Thankfully, Chitwan became Nepal’s first national park in 1973 and from then on, the only shooting allowed has been by photographers and filmmakers.
The park now boasts over 500 rhinos, tigers, Indian bison, elephants and bird species.
Elephants provide a unique way for us to experience our safari. A phanit, or driver, sits astride the animal’s neck while, on the animal’s back, we park ourselves on a wooden crate-like seat with legs hanging out. With a slow, steady gait, the elephant makes its way through dense forests where we have to watch out for overhanging branches that occasionally threaten to sweep across our faces.
Our elephants halt for a drink in the middle of a river before trundling up the muddy slopes towards long grass and thick undergrowth. We don’t have much hope of catching a glimpse of the elusive tigers but, happily, we come across a pair of sleeping one-horned rhinos.
They continue dozing despite the circus surrounding them, with jostling tourists, camera shutters clicking and elephants breaking branches off trees to feed themselves. Obviously a pair of celebrity rhinos quite accustomed to all the media attention!
We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit a traditional Tharu village. The Tharus are an indigenous ethnic group from the Terai. Traditionally hunter-gatherers, they are people of the forest where they live in harmony with nature.
At night, the Westwood Hotel brings in Tharu dancers to perform fascinating whirling stick dances that are a part of the tribe’s courtship rituals and harvest celebrations.
Much of the rural areas are home to farming communities growing wheat, corn, jute and mustard plants, whose vivid yellow blooms can sometimes blanket entire fields. Children play happily on bamboo swings that are especially popular during the Dashain festivities, a 15-day long celebration of the goddess Durga that takes place in October.
At the charming Dhulikhel Mountain Resort, we take in stunning views while sipping hot masala tea.
The rows of brilliant chrysanthemums and scarlet poinsettias bring to mind Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands – though the snow-crowned mountains in the background quickly remind us just where we are!
As lovely as it is in November, though, the monsoon months in the middle of the year bring out a rainbow of wildflowers to carpet the red earth.
A highlight of any visit to Nepal are the preserved ancient cities in the Kathmandu Valley, some of which are World Heritage-listed sites.
Located in the foothills of the Himalayas, the Kathmandu Valley is dense with holy places for Buddhists and Hindus, from the sleeping Vishnu of Budhanilkantha to the giant stupa of Boudha, an important place for Tibetan Buddhism.
The Kathmandu Valley World Heritage property comprises seven monument zones: the Durbar Squares, or urban centres, in the cities of Kathmandu (specifically, the Hanuman Dhoka complex of royal structures), Patan and Bhaktapur; the Buddhist stupas of Swayambhu and Bauddhanath; and the Hindu temples of Pashupati and Changu Narayan.
Part of the Unesco inscription regarding the valley reads: “The seven monument ensembles represent an exceptional testimony to the traditional civilisation of the Kathmandu Valley.
“The cultural traditions of the multi ethnic people who settled in this remote Himalayan valley over the past two millennia, referred to as the Newars, is manifested in the unique urban society which boasts one of the most highly developed craftsmanship of brick, stone, timber and bronze in the world.
“The coexistence and amalgamation of Hinduism and Buddhism with animist rituals and Tantrism is considered unique.”
The valley’s remarkable cities with their ornate palaces, superbly crafted pagodas and monumental stupas are testimony to the artistic genius of the Newar craftsmen, the original inhabitants of the valley, whose skills were championed by the Malla kings (rulers from the 12th to 18th centuries) and appreciated even by the Mongol rulers of 18th century China.
We arrive at the medieval city of Patan at dusk. Officially known as Lalitpur, it is about 5km south-east of Kathmandu. The City of the Arts, as it is dubbed, is renowned as home to some of Nepal’s finest craftsmen who preserve ancient techniques such as repoussé (a metalworking technique that forms images in relief) and a lost wax process used to produce exquisite sculptures.
The city takes on a mystical aura with its tapestry of narrow, winding alleys, pink brick buildings and an abundance of Hindu temples, Buddhist monasteries, and monuments. Elderly tourists we meet exclaim that nothing seems to have changed in this timeless city since they visited in the 1970s when they were travelling the hippie trail.
The Patan Durbar Square is the heart of the old city. Once the residence of Patan kings, the square is today a fascinating hub of graceful multi-tiered pagodas encircled by exquisitely preserved temples and palaces. The stunning detail of the buildings is a testament to Newari architectural skills that were at their pinnacle during the reign of the Malla kings.
The square remains the city’s heart with narrow alleyways leading off it to wind their way around tightly wedged artisans’ workshops, stores, temples and beautiful pagodas.
What’s unique about Patan’s architecture is that it is not reflective of one single period; rather, it’s a combination of different styles built over the centuries that create a fascinating visual feast. And in recent years, more local people have started adaptive restoration of these old houses.
All too soon we hear our guide Arjun’s call to “Jaam (let’s go)!”
When it comes to Nepal, that catchphrase, “So much to see, so little time” certainly holds true. Nepal calls for a next visit, maybe even several visits, for like many who have been enchanted by this country, we want to come back again.
AirAsia X flies three times weekly from Malaysia to Kathmandu. The route is serviced by the airline’s new fleet of Airbus A330-300s that holds 12 premium flatbeds and 365 economy seats.
Incentive Tours & Travels Pvt Ltd is the appointed sales agent for AirAsia X’s Nepal route, offering packages ranging from trekking in the Himalayas to cultural, religious or honeymoon tours and incentives.