I've been asked to begin doing my Top Highlights for some of my favorite spots in the world; so I'm beginning with Nepal, where I spent three months and consider one of my favorite places in the world. While it's pretty impossible to narrow down the top splendors to just 10, here's a solid list for your upcoming adventure.
1. Trek in the Everest and Annapurna regions. If you go to Nepal and don’t go backpacking from teahouse to teahouse, you will miss out on something so special and extraordinary and unique to Nepal and Nepal alone. You get up close and personal with the most famous mountains in the world. You spend your days in the wilderness, around waterfalls and wildlife and glaciers and hidden hot springs, and you spend your nights with steaming cups of hot chocolate and chai and you exchange stories with travelers from around the globe. Stay at teahouses where your bed will cost anywhere from $.50 cents to $5 a night, and eat at small houses where locals will boast menus featuring anything from fried noodles to apple pie. It’s a quirky and beautiful backcountry experience unlike anywhere else in the world that I've ever been. Some of the top treks in these regions are the Everest Base Camp Trek, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Annapurna Circuit, and Poon Hill Trek. (Any of those last three can be combined for a mega-trek, too).
2. Get your fill of the local cuisine: stuff yourself with momos (dumplings filled with anything from meat to cheese to veggies to chocolate), dal bhat (a meal consisting of steamed rice, lentil soup, vegetables, pickles, and a small yogurt or curry sauce), tongba (warm millet beer), apple pie in a teahouse (well, an attempt at apple pie), spicy chai (my favorite chai in all of Nepal is at David's Restaurant in Lakeside, Pokhara; find it on the street that the North Face Inn is on), fruit sold from the street-side vendors, mango and banana lassi, heaps fried noodles and black tea at chaat houses, and a massive post-trekking celebratory breakfast of croissants and donuts at any bakery in Kathmandu.
3. Go paragliding over Pokhara. Enough said.
4. Spend at least one night/two days on a whitewater rafting/kayaking trip, though I recommend at least 3 nights to really feel remote and enjoy the wildlife and remote campsites. The rivers are surprisingly warm year round, and nothing beats how good freshly popped popcorn tastes when cooked over a campfire on a sandy shore of a Himalayan river, then falling asleep in your tent listening to the rapids and the wind. I mean, really.
5. Visit Boudhanath, the world’s largest Buddhist stupa. Located in Kathmandu and relatively untouched by the earthquake earlier this year, monks continue to make their walk around the spectacular holy site as they spin the prayer wheels underneath a canopy of prayer flags. The site in and of itself is overwhelming moving, with a mix of incense smoke and flocks of pigeons and the chanting and humming of drums and the monks.
6. See the sunrise from Sarangkot, the highest point in Pokhara. Leave your hostel at 3 AM to head to the base of the hill. There’s a viewing platform at the top, but because it is often pack with tourists (especially during the high season), I recommend making a detour on any small trail from the main path to go sit by yourself on a flower terrace away from the crowds. When I did this, it was dead quiet; just me, a thermos of black tea I carried from my hostel, a couple other people who had the same idea, and the sun’s light reflecting off the glacier massifs of Macchapucchre and the staggering peaks of Annapurna range. (Plus, Sarangkot is dotted with charming villages with a spectacular mountain backdrop that you can only see if you make the climb up).
7. Rent a motorcycle or motor-scooter in Pokhara. Use it to explore, just carry a map with you. Drive around the fields of wildflowers, hidden lakes, bat caves, and Tibetan refugee camps. It’s something like $7 per day. Just be warned that Nepal is notorious for its awful road conditions and reckless drivers; while I didn't have a problem and neither did any of my friends who did the same, just be extremely careful and diligent and avoid steep roads with switchbacks.
8. Spend a solid day or two in Bhaktapur, Kathmandu’s ancient city. Bhaktapur was one of the most damaged areas of Kathmandu, yet as of June 15 this year, the town is open for visitors and is begging for tourism. Apparently, today it resembles how it was before tourism began booming in the area, and its inhabitants have flocked back to revitalize the area. Let yourself get lost in the medieval town (it’s pretty easy to, actually, thanks to its winding streets and curved alleyways). The squares are breathtaking, and every ancient brick street is alive with buffalo and markets and shaded by towering monasteries and temples, slowly being rebuilt to their splendor. And nearby there’s Nagarkot, a small village which is famous for its sunrise views of Everest, which is now open again for visitors and could use any tourism it can get.
9. Explore Chitwan in the south in all its humid jungle glory. Buses arrive and depart daily in Chitwan from Kathmandu, Pokhara, and Lumbini. The most popular attraction in Chitwan is the two hour elephant ride, and while I do not condone that (as it’s extremely controversial regarding their abuse, and you can play with the elephants in the river for free without exploiting/harming them), the jungle Jeep safari is a must do (I saw a leopard, rhinos, and many people see tigers!). Plus, it doesn’t hurt to end the day with an ice cold beer at sunset on the banks of the Chitwan river.
10. Look out for festivals, and align your trip with them. Holi (the festival of color) is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so if you can aim to be in Nepal during that time, it's an opportunity you should jump on. I will never forget how special of an experience it was to participate in such a beautiful holiday with so much history, joy, and, of course, color.