It is true that most people come to Nepal to trek in the Himalayas. Whether it’s the scenic and culturally diverse Annapurna Circuit Trek or the iconic Everest Base Camp Trek, even those who would not class themselves as ‘trekkers’ love to get into the mountains!
But what if you want something a bit unusual and different? For example, did you know Nepal has many National Parks? Some are in the hills and mountains, accessible only by trekking there. Others are easy to reach from Kathmandu. Chitwan National Park is the easiest to reach and best know. Bardia National Park takes a little longer to get to but in our opinion is well worth it! And did you know there is honey hunting in Nepal? While I’m not going to suggest you climb up a cliff face while being bombed by hundreds of angry bees, I am going to suggest some other unusual trips for you here.
The Millennium Homestay Trek – Perhaps the Best Homestay Ever!
I personally love the extremes of a 4-star hotel and the homely friendly touch of a homestay! I’m not really into those 2 or 3-star hotels. It’s full on luxury or deep personal connections that work for me! So I want to introduce you to the Millennium Homestay Trek which takes you to villages in the Annapurnas, not far from Pokhara, yet which are not on the main trekking routes. On this trek you get the best of both worlds – you get to stay in comfortable hotels in Kathmandu and Pokhara and get to stay in the homes of some of the most friendly people in the world and learn about their culture. While I always say, never trek alone from the safety point of view, in the case of this trek it would be impossible to visit these lovely homestay families without going through a travel agent such as Swotah Travel and Adventure who know the families and communities involved personally.
What to expect from the Millennium Homestay Trek
Let’s imagine you book the whole package – that’s 13 days from arrival in Nepal to departure. But if you are staying longer or arriving earlier can be factored in too.
After arriving in Kathmandu and enjoying a culture tour of the main historic sites in this ancient city, the adventure takes you about 7 hours drive out of the Kathmandu Valley to the lake town of Pokhara. Pokhara is a gateway to treks such as the Annapurna Circuit Trek and Annapurna Base Camp Trek and also a gateway to Mustang.
Pokhara has such a relaxed atmosphere, particularly around Lakeside where most of the tourist hotels are. There are many restaurants, shops, and bars to keep you entertained! And there is the beautiful Fewa Lake to gaze at while sipping coffee. Or to go boating on! After the trek itself, there is a day for sightseeing and shopping. You could even visit the International Mountain Museum which highlights not only mountaineering but mountain peoples and their lifestyles. You will be able to recognise some of those kitchen and work tools from your trek!
The homestay part starts with a drive to our first host’s home in Bankewa Village. From there you get to enjoy 6 trekking days and 6 overnight stays in real homes, and ends with a trip to a Tibetan Refugee Camp before heading back to Pokhara and ultimately to Kathmandu.
Let me give you some more details:
1. What is the accommodation like?
The homes you will be staying in belong mostly to farmers. They will be made of stone and wood. Overall accommodation will be simple. While your room will definitely not have an attached bathroom, there will be a toilet and you can ‘shower’ via a bucket of hot water. Most likely the toilet and washing facilities are separate from the house itself, in keeping with the local style. But you are here for something unusual and different! Each sleeping room will have 2 beds with clean bedding. If it is possible you may be able to get a room for yourself (single occupancy). There is no extra charge for his. Some travel companies will provide you with your own sleeping bag as not all home owners have extra bedding, particularly in the colder seasons. And then you can also rest easy knowing your sleeping bag has been freshly laundered.
2. What will I get to eat?
There are no menus. Just like if you had visitors to your home, your hosts will make the best traditional meals they can. Dal bhat is the ubiquitous meal in Nepal. It is basically vegetable curry, lentil soup and rice. For breakfast you may be given eggs and fruit may be available. Remembering that fruit is not widely eaten in Nepal but more of a festive delight or an offering to the gods. It would be a good idea to bring some snacks with you such as chocolate and energy bars.
With regards to drinking water, I suggest you bring a filter bottle or some purifying tablets with you and fill up at the local pump or tap.
3. Is trekking difficult?
This is considered an easy trek. But having said that, this is the Himalayas so there are definitely ups and downs! Some parts are steep and have steps to negotiate. With the lovely early morning dew, care should be taken as paths can be slippery then. Definitely bring your walking/ trekking boots. Trekking poles will help with balance and are really good if you have any knee issues. Since this trek never goes above 1,709m there is no danger of altitude-related illness. And it is definitely easier to hike at lower altitudes than higher up!
The scenery is lovely and there is the Millennium Cave carved over time by nature, with unique underground waterfalls. There is an ancient temple, monasteries and a historical fort to explore. Covering more than 30 traditional villages, belonging to 10 ethnic groups there is a lot to see and experience. Being this is the mid-hills the temperature will be warm and vegetation lush. Naturally, there are mountains – from the Kanjirowa to Ganesh Himal forming the backdrop to the trek.
4. Why do this homestay trek and not a normal trek?
In one word – the people! You will discover that people throughout Nepal are extremely friendly and helpful. And that goes for lodge owners on normal treks too. But on a normal trek lodge owners are extremely busy dealing with lots of different groups. On this trek, it is usual to have less people in a group. And in these times of COVID Swotah Travel and Adventure intends to keep its trekking groups down to an even smaller number.
As you are visiting someone’s home it’s a great idea to bring small gifts for the woman of the house and for any small children. Towels, inexpensive Pashmina shawls, hot chocolate and wooden toys go down very well. No plastic, please! If you can bring something from your home town, even better!
Because you are staying in local communities, the people are more than pleased, and very enthusiastic, to show and teach you something of their culture through dances, performances, food and a lot of laughter. You can even meet a shaman and have a private session with him. What you experience on each trip will depend on the season you go – will there be harvesting to do, will there be local festivals to experience, or a wedding to attend? You can ask your operator at the time of booking.
5. When is the best time to do this trek?
The best season to visit Nepal is generally spring and autumn. Because this is a low altitude trek you have much more flexibility time wise and it is possible to do this trek in the winter also. In fact, winters are lovely as the weather is still warm in this area, and the mountain views are particularly clear. And don’t worry, there is no snow! I would suggest avoiding the monsoon (July and August) as it will be wet and there will be leeches on the trails!
The Millennium Homestay Trek supports a local school, annually providing scholarships to the most unprivileged students. This is done based on the recommendations of the teacher. Swotah Travel, in addition to scholarships, and as part of their corporate social responsibility, also provide lunches for children and teachers in different schools throughout the country. By booking this trek, you will be helping us to help the children of Nepal, who in turn will help their families in the future.
**The Millennium Homestay Trek is definitely something unusual and so very worthwhile doing. It gives you a very different perspective of the hill peoples living in Nepal and will give you a great appreciation of their way of life.
From People to Animals
As well as the mountains and peoples of Nepal I love the wildlife. And who doesn’t love animals? If you are trekking in the mountains you will come across places like the Makalu Barun National Park, Sagarmatha National Park and Langtang National Park etc. In these hilly places, you may be lucky to spot animals such as the Snow Leopard and alpine/ mountain deer, goats and birdlife. But if you want to see the ‘big three’ tiger, elephant and rhino, or if you don’t want to trek, there are a number of national parks in the flat plains in the south of the country.
The most well know of the Terai (that lowland region) national parks is Chitwan National Park. Only a few hours drive or a few minutes flight from Kathmandu, this park has been a centre for wildlife lovers for decades.
But I would like to introduce you to another, less well-known park – Bardia National Park.
1. Why Bardia?
When I first came to Nepal in 1990 I visited Chitwan National Park, like so many others before me. But it was in the spring of 1991 that I visited Bardia National Park and fell in love. In those days the road from the highway to the Thakadwara (the main village of the area) was just being built so it was a 12 km walk over the fields to reach the Park HQ. There were only two accommodation options available – and interestingly they both fell into my preference range – Tiger Tops (expensive and exclusive) and a homestay. We actually decided to camp in the Park HQ land instead, with the Wardens permission of course. That trip was the first time I saw both the Royal Bengal Tiger and the Gangetic Dolphin. It was also the first time I rode an elephant. Today I suggest you don’t ride an elephant as elephant rides are now big no-nos.
I actually returned to Bardia in 1995 to 2000 to live and run my own safari lodge! But aside from my personal experience, you should go to Bardia as it still remains the best place to see tigers and the only place to see Gangetic Dolphins in Nepal. There are also wild elephants and a host of the ‘usual’ wildlife and an amazing array of over 400 species of native and migratory birds!
2. How to get there?
Getting there still remains a bit of a challenge. But thankfully you won’t have to hike over the fields! Situated in the Far West of the country, the nearest airport is Nepalganj. It takes around 1.5 hours to fly from Kathmandu to Nepalganj then another 2 hours to drive to the park (or 4 hours on the rickety bus circa 1992 when it started running!).
These days there is a wide selection of accommodation available, from hotels and lodges to homestays. And yes, Tiger Tops is still there if you want to go for jungle luxury and have the money to afford it! The average lodge is very comfortable and some retain the traditional Tharu style of a thatched roof and hand-drawn wall paintings. Menus are varied and fresh and you won’t go hungry!
Activities include a jungle safari walk. Don’t worry, with an experienced guide it is quite safe! If you don’t want to walk or want to cover more ground, jeep safaris are available. Bird watching tours can take place morning and evening and of course, a trip to the river to see the rare and elusive dolphins is a highlight to any visit. Nothing is guaranteed of course. Unfortunately, animal spotting in the wild is not like a visit to the zoo! But Bardia rarely disappoints on the animal front though and even if you don’t see any of the iconic mammals there are still plenty of deer, monkeys and birds to entertain. Not to mention the unique experience of being in the jungle! And a Tharu culture dance.
**Bardia National Park is on our list of our favourite places for its diversity of wildlife and because there are still relatively less tourists there.
Humla Limi Valley Trek
The wonderful thing about Nepal is you can link so many trips/ activities together. All you need is the time. So here is my idea of a wonderful link to visiting Bardia National Park. Or of course, you can do each separately on two different trips to Nepal or at two different times.
Limi Valley is situated in Humla District which is high above Bardia National Park. But both trips start at Nepalganj! And since Nepalganj is not a tourist destination for anything other than Bardia National Park and trekking in Humla, Jumla and Mugu, why not make it a once-in-a-lifetime, month-long adventure!
1. What is different about the Limi Valley Trek?
Humla itself is a little-visited area of Nepal and remains quite pristine and untouched. The Limi Valley only opened up to foreign trekkers as recently as 2002 and even then, very few have actually been there. This is a Restricted Area and as such requires a Restricted Area Permit and the annual number of trekkers is kept to a limit. Limi is a remote valley up near the Tibetan border and the people you will see follow a Tibetan Buddhist way of life. In fact, a lot of Nepali citizens now living in Humla came with their parents or grandparents when they fled from Tibet in 1959.
Combining Tibetan culture, exotic wildlife including the Snow Leopard and wild yak, and fabulous mountains you will follow the ancient salt trading route and old, still used although now the Chinese have made it more difficult, the pilgrimage route to Mount Kailash in Tibet.
This is a camping trek which simply adds to the excitement, peace and tranquillity. But more than that it offers you a glimpse into Tibetan lifestyle without having to actually go to Tibet. Imagine prayer flags fluttering in the wind, mani stone walls (stone walls with carved prayers), prayer wheels and the ancient, over 1,000-year-old Rinzing Ling Gompa.
1. How to get there?
Fly to Nepalganj from Kathmandu where you will have to stay overnight to get an early morning flight to Simikot. And just hope the weather is favourable. Once I got all the way to being able to see Simikot from the plane when we turned around as visibility was poor! But in the Himalayas, that’s a common occurrence and just adds to the adventure. And that is also why we say give a little leeway after your trek before your international flight!
From Simikot (headquarter town of Humla) start walking! I would like to add that the first few days of this trek remind me so much of Scotland! If you imagine you are standing at sea level (not over 2,000m) and that the mountains you are gazing at are actually hills! Vegetation and weather are pretty similar at the start too. I'm remembering being drenched by the rain then being dried very quickly by the high winds! Once you get up near the valley itself, the landscape changes and becomes dry and definitely more Tibetan than Scottish!
2. Is it a difficult trek?
This is definitely a demanding trek and you are at altitudes up to 5,000m. Care must be taken regarding altitude though. Please research and ask your travel company about that. There are a couple of long 7 to 8 hour days. But most are in the 5 to 6 hours and 6 to 7 hours range. As the trek takes almost 3 weeks, just the length of time itself can be tiring. But it can also be inspiring and wonderful!
3. What about the facilities?
This is a camping trek. Which usually means a two-man tent to sleep in and a dining tent to eat in and toilet tents for …well you get it! Food will be freshly-prepared daily. The porters and staff normally go ahead of the trekkers to set up camp so it is ready when you arrive at the camping place. Sitting around the campfire under the stars each night is magical!
**The Limi Valley Trek is on our list of favourite places because even when compared other treks off the beaten track such as the Mardi Himal Trek or the Dhaulagiri Circuit Trek the possibility of meeting other trekking groups is low. The fact you have to take two flights to get there and sleep in tents just adds to the overall expedition feel and excitement! And as I said earlier, you can combine it with a trip to Bardia National Park!