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A trekkers' paradise, Nepal combines Himalayan views, golden temples, charming hill villages and jungle wildlife watching to offer one of the world's great travel destinations.
The Nepal Himalaya is the ultimate goal for mountain lovers. Some of the Himalaya’s most iconic and accessible hiking is on offer here, with rugged trails to Everest, the Annapurnas and beyond. Nowhere else can you trek for days in incredible mountain scenery, secure in the knowledge that a hot meal, cosy lodge and warm slice of apple pie await you at the end of the day.
Then there's the adrenaline kick of rafting a roaring Nepali river or bungee jumping into a yawning Himalayan gorge. Canyoning, climbing, kayaking, paragliding and mountain biking all offer a rush against the backdrop of some of the world’s most dramatic landscapes.
Medieval Cities & Sacred Sites
Other travellers prefer to see Nepal at a more refined pace, admiring the peaks over a sunset gin and tonic from a Himalayan viewpoint, strolling through the medieval city squares of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, and joining Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims on a spiritual stroll around centuries-old stupas and monasteries. Even after the 2015 earthquake, Nepal remains the cultural powerhouse of the Himalaya; the Kathmandu Valley in particular offers an unrivalled collection of world-class palaces, hidden backstreet shrines and sublime temple art. Nepal is also a great place to learn about everything from Tibetan Buddhism to how to make the best momos (dumplings).
There are few countries in the world that are as well set up for independent travel as Nepal. Wandering the trekking shops, bakeries and pizzerias of Thamel and Pokhara, it’s easy to feel that you have somehow landed in a kind of backpacker Disneyland. Out in the countryside lies a quite different Nepal, where traditional mountain life continues at a slower pace, and a million potential adventures glimmer on the mountain horizons. The biggest problem you might face in Nepal is just how to fit everything in, which is one reason why many people return here over and over again.
South of Nepal's mountains lies something completely different: a chain of wild and woolly national parks, where nature buffs scan the subtropical treetops for exotic bird species and comb the jungles for rhinos, tigers and crocodiles. Choose from a luxury safari lodge in central Chitwan or go exploring on a wilder trip to remote Bardia or Koshi Tappu, stopping en route to visit the birthplace of Buddha on the steamy plains near Lumbini. Whether you cross the country by mountain bike, motorbike, raft or tourist bus, Nepal offers an astonishingly diverse array of attractions and landscapes.
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The spiritual heart of Lumbini, Maya Devi Temple marks the spot where Queen Maya Devi gave birth to Siddhartha Gautama in around 563BC. In the adjoining sacred garden you’ll find the pillar of Ashoka, ancient ruins of stupas, and maroon- and saffron-robed monks congregating under a sprawling Bodhi (pipal) tree decorated with prayer flags. Buy your entrance ticket 50m north of the gate to the Sacred Garden, and remove your shoes at the gate. Excavations carried out in 1992 revealed a succession of ruins dating back at least 2200 years, including a commemorative stone on a brick plinth, matching the description of a stone laid down by Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC. There are plans to raise a grand monument on the site, but for now a sturdy brick pavilion protects the temple ruins. You can walk around the ruins on a raised boardwalk. The focal point for pilgrims is a sandstone carving of the birth of the Buddha, reputedly left here by the Malla king, Ripu Malla, in the 14th century, when Maya Devi was worshipped as an incarnation of the Hindu mother goddess. The carving has been worn almost flat by centuries of veneration, but you can just discern the shape of Maya Devi grasping a tree branch and giving birth to the Buddha, with Indra and Brahma looking on. Directly beneath this is a marker stone encased within bulletproof glass, which pinpoints the spot where the Buddha was born. The sacred pond beside the temple is believed to be where Maya Devi bathed before giving birth to the Buddha. Dotted around the grounds are the ruined foundations of a number of brick stupas and monasteries dating from the 2nd century BC to the 9th century AD.
The Swayambhunath Stupa is one of the crowning glories of Kathmandu Valley architecture. This perfectly proportioned monument rises through a whitewashed dome to a gilded spire, from where four iconic faces of the Buddha stare out across the valley in the cardinal directions. The site was shaken severely by the 2015 earthquake, but the main stupa sustained only superficial damage. The entire structure of the stupa is deeply symbolic: the white dome represents the earth, while the 13-tiered, tower-like structure at the top symbolises the 13 stages to nirvana. The nose-like squiggle below the piercing eyes is actually the Nepali number ek (one), signifying unity, and above is a third eye signifying the all-seeing insight of the Buddha. The base of the central stupa is ringed by prayer wheels embossed with the sacred mantra om mani padme hum (‘hail to the jewel in the lotus’). Pilgrims circuiting the stupa spin each one as they pass by. Fluttering above the stupa are thousands of prayer flags, with similar mantras, which are said to be carried to heaven by the Wind Horse. Set in ornate plinths around the base of the stupa are statues representing the five Dhyani Buddhas – Vairocana, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, Amoghasiddhi and Aksobhya – and their consorts. These deities represent the five qualities of Buddhist wisdom.
Located outside the main compound, but easily accessible by bike, the impressive gleaming-white World Peace Pagoda, one of the world's greatest stupas, was constructed by Japanese Buddhists at a cost of US$1 million. The shining golden statue depicts the Buddha in the posture he assumed when he was born. Near the base of the stupa is the grave of a Japanese monk murdered by anti-Buddhist extremists during the construction of the monument.
With strong touches of Angkor Wat, this colourful fantasy due for completion in 2018 is already one of the most fascinating temples in Lumbini. The temple is surrounded by a square railing topped off by four 50m green snakes whose tails entwine at the corners. The compound itself has a vast outer wall decorated with intricate designs.
Close to the north end of the pond, this stunning and imposing wat (Thai-style monastery) is built from gleaming white marble. The blue-roofed meditation centre next door is another fine piece of architecture. Arguably the greatest compound in the monastic zone.
This elegant monastery is one of the most impressive structures at Lumbini. Reached through a gateway flanked by dogs of Fo, the elegant pagoda-style monastery looks like a small Forbidden City. Its perfectly manicured internal courtyard is an oasis of peace.
Kathmandu's royal palace, known as the Hanuman Dhoka, was originally founded during the Licchavi period (4th to 8th centuries AD), but the compound was expanded considerably by King Pratap Malla in the 17th century. Sadly, the sprawling palace was hit hard by the 2015 earthquake and damage was extensive. At the time of research, the main Nasal Chowk courtyard was open and the Tribhuvan Museum was close to reopening, with other buildings closed for reconstruction. Even from the outside, the palace is impressive. Hanuman’s assistance to the noble Rama during the exciting events of the Ramayana has led to the monkey god’s appearance guarding many important entrances. Here, cloaked in red and sheltered by an umbrella, a Hanuman statue marks the dhoka (entrance) to the Hanuman Dhoka and has even given the palace its name. The statue dates from 1672; the god’s face has long disappeared under a coating of orange vermillion paste applied by generations of devotees. Standards bearing the double-triangle flag of Nepal flank the statue, while on each side of the palace gate are gaudy stone lions, one ridden by Shiva, the other by his wife Parvati. Above the gate a brightly painted niche is illustrated with a central figure of a ferocious Tantric version of Krishna. On the left side is the gentler Hindu Krishna in his traditional blue colour accompanied by two of his gopi (milkmaids). On the other side are King Pratap Malla and his queen. The Hanuman Dhoka originally housed 35 courtyards (chowks), but the 1934 earthquake reduced the palace to today’s 10 chowks. Nasal Chowk Your main taste of the royal palace will be this handsome courtyard inside the main entrance. Nasal Chowk was constructed in the Malla period, but many of the buildings around the square are later Rana constructions. During the Rana period, Nasal Chowk was used for coronations, a practice that continued until as recently as 2001 with the crowning of King Gyanendra here. The former coronation platform stands in the centre of the courtyard, while the damaged Basantapur (Kathmandu) Tower looms over the southern end of the courtyard. Beyond the door is the large Narsingha Statue, Vishnu in his man-lion incarnation, in the act of disembowelling a demon. The stone image was erected by Pratap Malla in 1673 and the inscription on the pedestal explains that he placed it here for fear that he had offended Vishnu by dancing in a Narsingha costume. The Kabindrapur Temple in Durbar Sq was built for the same reason. Next is the Sisha Baithak ( Audience Chamber) of the Malla kings. The open verandah houses the Malla throne and contains portraits of the Shah kings. At the northeastern corner of Nasal Chowk stands the damaged Panch Mukhi Hanuman Temple, with its five circular roofs. Each of the valley towns has a five-storey temple, although it is the great Nyatapola Temple of Bhaktapur that is by far the best known. Hanuman is worshipped in the temple in Kathmandu, but only the priests may enter. In Nepali nasal means ‘dancing one’, and Nasal Chowk takes its name from the Dancing Shiva statue hidden in the whitewashed chamber on the northeastern side of the square. On display along the east side of the courtyard are the palanquins used to carry Queen Aishwarya during her wedding to Birendra in 1970 and later to transport her body to her cremation in 2001. Also displayed here is the royal throne. Tribhuvan Museum The palace wing to the west of Nasal Chowk, overlooking the main Durbar Sq area, was constructed by the Ranas in the middle to late part of the 19th century after they wrested power from the royal Shah dynasty. Ironically, it later became a museum celebrating King Tribhuvan (r 1911–55) and his successful revolt against their regime, along with memorials to Kings Mahendra (r 1955–72) and Birendra (r 1972–2001). Sadly, this wing of the palace bore the brunt of the damage in the 2015 earthquake. The museum was due to open in 2018, though it is unclear at this stage whether such unusual treasures as the king’s favourite stuffed bird and his Land Rover, with the scars of an attempted assassination, survived the disaster. Rising above the museum is the nine-storey Basantapur (Kathmandu) Tower (1770), which once stood like a beacon at the end of Freak St. Unfortunately, the upper tiers collapsed during the earthquake and the tower is closed to visitors while it is repaired with Chinese assistance. Lohan Chowk & Mul Chowk These two courtyards are currently under renovation but should eventually reopen. The first square you reach after the Tribhuvan Museum is Lohan Chowk. This courtyard was formerly ringed by four red-coloured towers constructed by King Prithvi Narayan Shah, representing the four ancient cities of the valley. The upper parts of the Basantapur (Kathmandu) Tower and Bhaktapur Tower (Lakshmi Bilas) collapsed in 2015, but the Kirtipur Tower and Patan (Lalitpur) Tower (known more evocatively as the Bilas Mandir, or House of Pleasure) are still standing. North of Lohan Chowk, Mul Chowk was completely dedicated to religious functions within the palace and is configured like a vihara, with a two-storey building surrounding the courtyard. Mul Chowk is dedicated to Taleju Bhawani, the royal goddess of the Mallas, and sacrifices are made to her in the centre of the courtyard during the Dasain festival. Non-Hindus are not allowed in the square, but you can get views from the doorway in the northeastern corner of Nasal Chowk. Mohankali Chowk & Sundari Chowk On the northern side of Nasal Chowk, a beautifully carved doorway leads to the Malla kings’ private quarters, which rank as the oldest parts of Hanuman Dhoka. This area was also damaged and reconstruction may take some years. Until then, both courtyards remain closed. The first courtyard is Mohankali (Mohan) Chowk, which dates from 1649. At one time, a Malla king had to be born here to be eligible to wear the crown. (The last Malla king, Jaya Prakash Malla, had great difficulties during his reign, even though he was the legitimate heir, because he was born elsewhere.) Impressive wood carvings line the wall alcoves, many of them depicting the exploits of young Krishna, and the central hiti (water reservoir) is the palace's finest. Pride of place in the intimate black-and-white Sundari Chowk behind is the ritual bathing pool with its Lichhavi-era carving of Krishna subduing the coils of the Kaliya serpent, hewn from a single block of stone in the 6th century. The Malla kings would ritually bathe each morning at the golden waterspout, whose waters allegedly flow from Budhanilkantha in the north of the valley.
This unique Buddhist monastery is just north of Durbar Sq. It was allegedly founded in the 12th century, and it has existed in its current form since 1409. The temple gets its name from the gilded metal plates that cover most of its frontage and it is one of the most beautiful in Patan. Entry is via an ornate narrow stone doorway to the east, or a wooden doorway to the west from one of the interlinked courtyards on the north side of Nakabhil. Entering from the east, note the gaudy lions and the 1886 signature of Krishnabir, the master stonemason who sculpted the fine doorway with its frieze of Buddhist deities. This second doorway leads to the main courtyard of the Golden Temple; shoes and leather articles must be removed to enter the lower courtyard. The main priest of the temple is a young boy under the age of 12, who serves for 30 days before handing the job over to another young boy. The temple itself is a magnificent example of courtyard temple architecture. Two elephant statues guard the doorway and the facade is covered by a host of gleaming Buddhist figures. Inside the main shrine is a beautiful statue of Sakyamuni (no photos allowed). To the left of the courtyard is a statue of Green Tara and in the right corner is a statue of the Bodhisattva Vajrasattva wearing an impressive silver-and-gold cape. Both are inside inner shrines. Facing the main temple is a smaller shrine containing a ‘self-arisen’ (swayambhu) chaitya. The four corners of the courtyard have statues of four Lokeshvaras (incarnations of Avalokiteshvara) and four monkeys, which hold out jackfruits as an offering. A stairway leads to an upper-floor chapel dedicated to a white eight-armed Avalokiteshvara, lined with Tibetan-style frescoes including a wheel of life. Finally, as you leave the temple at the eastern exit, look up to see an embossed mandala mounted on the ceiling. Outside of winter, look for the tortoises pottering around the compound – these are the temple guardians. It’s worth ducking south towards Durbar Sq to see the small, two-tiered Uma Maheshwar Temple and the handsome stone Gauri Shankar Temple, in the Indian shikhara style. Across the road, the Buddhist Maru Mandapa Mahavihar is set in a small courtyard.
The magnificent Golden Gate is a visual highlight of Durbar Sq. Set into a bright red gatehouse surrounded by white palace walls, the fabulous golden portal boasts some of Nepal's finest repoussé metalwork. The gilded torana features a fabulous Garuda wrestling with a number of supernatural serpents, while below is a four-headed and 10-armed figure of the goddess Taleju Bhawani, the family deity of the Malla kings. Construction of the gate began during the reign of King Bhupatindra Malla (r 1696–1722), and the project was completed by his successor, Jaya Ranjit Malla, in 1754. The death of Jaya Ranjit Malla marked the end of the Malla dynasty and the end of the golden age of Newari architecture in Nepal. The gate opens to the inner courtyards of the Royal Palace, a once vast compound until the 1934 earthquake levelled all but a handful of its 99 courtyards. More walls toppled during the 2015 earthquake. To the right of the Golden Gate is the 55 Window Palace, which, you guessed it, has 55 intricate wooden windows stretching along its upper level. As you enter the palace complex, hidden behind grills in the darkness on either side of the inner gate is a pair of enormous war drums, which were used to rouse the city in the event of attack. From here you’ll pass the two statues of traditionally dressed guards standing either side of an ornate door, brought here from Rajasthan. Continuing on you’ll reach the main entrance to Mul Chowk, the oldest part of the palace and the site of Taleju Temple, built in 1553. Damaged in the quake but not destroyed, it is one of the most sacred temples in Bhaktapur. Only Hindus can enter, but you can peer in and admire its entrance, which is fronted by magnificent woodcarvings. Photography is prohibited. Continuing on around the corner from Mul Chowk is the Naga Pokhari, a 17th-century water tank used for the ritual immersion of the idol of Taleju. The pool is encircled by a writhing stone cobra and other serpents rise up in the middle and at the end of the tank, where water pours from a magnificent dhara (spout) in the form of a goat being eaten by a makara.