Nepal, a landlocked nation in South Asia, lies tucked at the base of the Himalayas between China and India. Perhaps most well known for the world's highest mountain, Mount Everest, this small and diverse country offers a bevy of religious, spiritual and cultural experiences. Read on to discover the wealth of opportunities that will enrich your mind, body and spirit in beautiful Nepal.
Visit a Buddhist Monastery
In Nepal, Hinduism and Buddhism are the 2 main religions. The 2 have coexisted throughout Nepal's tumultuous past and many Hindu temples are located on the same grounds as Buddhist shrines. The intermingling of Hindu and Buddhist beliefs is mainly due to the common worship of similar deities. However, Hinduism is the main religion of Nepal and Shiva is regarded as the country's guardian deity. The Pashupatinath Temple is the largest Shiva temple in the world, located in Deopatan, a small town just northwest of Katmandu. Note to travelers: The temple is barred to non-Hindus, but a view of the inner courtyard is available from the Shleshmantak hill on the eastern bank of the Bagmati River.
Just north of the ancient Buddhist town, Boudhanath, Kopan Hill rises out of the Katmandu Valley and is visible for miles. Once home to the astrologer of the King of Nepal, this hill is now the site of the Kopan Monastery. The monastery houses over 360 monks, mainly from Nepal and Tibet, but it is also a spiritual oasis for many visitors from around the world. Kopan Monastery offers 7- and 10-day monastic courses, and day visits can also be arranged through the reception office. While at the monastery, you are expected to follow the 5 Buddhist precepts: no killing, stealing, lying, sexual conduct and no use of drugs, alcohol or tobacco. Click here for all the visitors' information at Kopan Monastery.
Attend a Religious Festival
Religion is the core of the Nepalese culture, and most celebrations are religious festivals. By participating in a Nepalese festival, you will experience the richness of its culture and the vivacity of its people. The biggest and most popular Nepalese festivals are Dashain and Tihar.
Dashain occurs during late September and early October each year and is the longest and most auspicious festival in the Nepalese calendar. The celebration is 15 days long and commemorates a great victory of the gods over a wicked demon. The first 9 days signify the battle between the goddess Durga and the demon; the tenth day exalts the slaying of the demon; the last 5 days are a joyous celebration of Durga's victory.
The festival is marked with feasting and, be forewarned, a great slaughter. It is a time of relaxation and prosperous celebration for the people of Nepal.
The Tihar Festival is also known as the Festival of Lights, so named for the hanging of oil lamps in homes and villages. It is a 5-day festival following Dashain and celebrates the Hindu goddess of fortune and wealth, Laxmi. It is a celebration of the relationship between brothers and sisters and the closeness of the familial bond. Life and prosperity are celebrated nationwide during this festival and the dancing, food and patriotism should not be missed. Click here for a listing of all the religious festivals in Nepal.
See a Buddha Stupa
The stupa is a religious monument originating from the simple mounds of mud and clay that covered the relics of Buddha. One of the most ancient religious monuments, Swayambhunath Stupa, can be seen in the Katmandu Valley. Historical records found at this now lofty and golden-spired stupa indicate that the original structure was a pilgrimage destination in the 5th century.
Worshippers at Swayambhunath include Hindus, Buddhists from northern Nepal and Tibet, and Buddhists from central and southern Nepal. Something amazing occurs each morning before dawn, when hundreds of pilgrims ascend the monument's 365 steps and begin a reverent and religious clockwise encircling of the stupa. Famous for the eyes of Buddha that seemingly observe the world from all 4 directions, this stupa can be visited daily and is located near our next landmark, Durbar Square.
Discover Durbar Square
Durbar Square is 1 of 3 durbars, or royal palaces, in the Katmandu Valley. Dating back to Licchavi times, the complex was the residence of Nepal's royal family before the construction of the Narayanhiti Palace. Housed within Durbar Square is the Hanuman Dhoka Palace complex where the coronation of the Nepalese monarch still takes place today. It also houses 2 museums, the King Tribhuvan Memorial Museum and the Mahendra Museum. A ticket to the Tribhuvan will also allow you to explore the ancient artifacts and photos at the Mahendra Museum.
At the southern end of Durbar Square, visit the Kumari Chowk -- a 3-story stone building that houses 1 of the country's more curious attractions. Inside the palace lives the Raj Kumari, a young Nepalese girl chosen as the human incarnation of the Hindu mother goddess, Durga. This young girl is worshipped during the country's many religious festivals and makes other more limited public appearances.
Explore Royal Chitwan National Park
Royal Chitwan National Park is Nepal's first and most famous national park. Situated in the Chitwan Doon, the park was created in 1973 and made the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1984. The park consists of hills, lakes and the flood plains of the Rapti, Reu and Narayani Rivers. Perhaps the park's biggest draw is that it houses one of the last populations of single-horned Asiatic rhinos, as well as serving as a refuge for the Bengal tiger.
There is an entrance fee for entering the park, but it is waved for children under 10. The park is easily accessible from Katmandu via a national highway. Highlights at the park include participating in elephant safaris, exploring the park's museum and lectures at the Sauraha Visitor Center.
Eat a Traditional Meal
As with most countries, the different flavors and cuisines in Nepal can vary depending on region, but there are certainly some constants. Daal, or lentil soup; bhat, or steamed rice; tarkari, or curried vegetables; and aachar, or pickles, can be found in most regions of Nepal. Tibetan influences increase as you go north just as Indian influences increase as you travel south. You haven't fully experienced a new culture until you've eaten at their table, so here's a short list of traditional foods that won't have you feeling like you're on Fear Factor.
Daal-Bhat: The taste of this dish can vary depending on the cook, but daal and bhat are dietary staples and are generally served in most restaurants.
Rotis: A flat pancake-like bread made of wheat or rice flour available in most restaurants. Hint: most Nepalese do not use cutlery. They eat with their right hand, and rotis can be handy in preparing bite-size tastes.
Chatamari: Chatamari is a flatbread made from rice flour served with or without toppings like meat, vegetables, eggs or sugar. This dish is a favorite among tourists who consider it akin to pizza.
Gundrook-Dheedo: A popular sugar-free dish made of wheat, maize and dried green vegetables. It is nutritious, filling and very tasty.
Lassi: Wash all your local fare down with this refreshing drink, made from yogurt and water.