UPDATED AS OF JUNE, 2012
This handbook is designed to help anyone who wants to visit the place on this planet that has most captured my heart, Pokhara, Nepal. Having spent three months in Nepal in late 2010, much of the time in Pokhara, and returning for long-term stays over the following two years, I came to know the town quite well and wanted to share with other Nepal-bound travelers my tips for everything from the best hotels and restaurants, to the not-to-be missed sights, and even the best place to get a haircut:
CELL/MOBILE PHONE SERVICE:
If you have an unlocked smart phone you can purchase a Nepal sim card for 300 Nepali Rupees (NRS), which is about $4 USD. This price includes 50 NRS of “talk time” which is charged at various prices, according to the type of phone you are calling (landline or cell). When you need more credit, simply buy a recharge card at any store that displays the purple NCell sign, scratch off the strip on the back of the card and follow the directions. A local number is invaluable, among other things, for calling an honest taxi driver with whom you’ve established a relationship or getting in touch with other travelers who also have local numbers to team up for tours or trekking. I never travel for any length in a country without a local phone number, especially considering the cheap price. For three months in Nepal, my total cost will be about $5. If you have an iPhone, you may want to refer to my previous article: Traveling Internationally with an iPhone without Incurring High Cell Phone Bills. Nepal’s international country code is 977.
There is no such thing as a pedestrian right-of-way in Nepal; be alert at all times when walking in or crossing streets, however walking around Pokhara is much more pleasant than Kathmandu, as sidewalks are available in much of Lakeside and the traffic is much less. Additionally, the main street in Lakeside has recently been turned into a pedestrian mall every Saturday from 5 to 11 p.m.
There are no public toilets in the Lakeside area of Pokhara, so you will have to rely on restaurants and hotels/guest houses. Many places now have western toilets, though in many places you will still find squat toilets. Hoard napkins, you will need them as toilet paper, but as in most places throughout Asia, if there is a trash bin in the stall it generally means you should deposit used paper in the bin rather than the toilet.
Many hotels are now buying five-gallon bottles of purified water and allowing guests to refill their bottles either for free or for a price that is much less than buying a new bottle. This water is perfectly safe to drink and travelers should not hesitate to refill their bottles from it. You will also be doing your part to help save Pokhara’s lovely lake, which suffers from the plastic trash that is so ubiquitous around Asia.
MUST SEE SIGHTS:
Hike to the top of Sarangkot pre-dawn to see sun come up over the Annapurna Himalayas. You’ll take a taxi to the starting point in pre-dawn hours and upon arrival, it is likely that a “guide” will jump into your taxi and attempt to charge a fee to lead you up the mountain. Tell him, unequivocally, that you do not need a guide. Just steps from the taxi stop, on the right hand side of the road, are steps leading to the top of the mountain. You can’t get lost, since there are lots of other people also making the trek. Just keep going up, and make sure you carry a flashlight. The walk up takes 45 minutes to an hour, and the view of the sun coming up over the mountain is spectacular.
Hike or take taxi to the World Peace Pagoda for a spectacular view of Phewa Lake and Pokhara, framed by the distant Himalayas
Take a boat to Barahi Temple in the middle of Lake Phewa
Attend a Puja ceremony at Jangchub Choeling Buddhist Monastery, in the Tashi Palkiel Tibetan Refugee Settlement on the backside of Sarangkot, held at twice each day, at 6 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.
OTHER INTERESTING THINGS TO DO:
Gurkha Memorial Museum
International Mountaineering Museum
Shopping in the Old Bazaar
Visit one of the Tibetan refugee camps and spend time with the locals, perhaps a storyteller who can tell what it was like to come to Nepal during the years when China invaded Tibet, arrange for a healing ceremony with a Tibetan Shaman, attend Tibetan folk dancing performances, or learn about Tibetan Thangka painting.
Walk to the head of or entirely around Phewa Lake
Go paragliding from the top of Sarangkot, landing at the edge of Phewa Lake
Take the bus to Naudanda and hike back down to Phewa Lake
Whitewater rafting through the Upper or Lower Seti Gorges
Trekking possibilities abound, ranging from 2-3 days to the longer 14-21 day Annapurna Circuit Trek
Devi’s Waterfall, but only in the summer during the monsoon season, when the water is high
Blue Planet Lodge, owners Sabine and Ram Chandra Sharma. Located on Durbar Marg, Lane 1, just past the Hotel Barahi on Barahi Path. Just a seven minute walk to the main road in Lakeside, the lovely tourist district of Pokhara that borders Phewa Lake. Because the property is on a back lane off the main road, it is extremely quiet; the only sounds are of chirping birds and happy guests. Of all the guest houses I have tried in Pokhara, this is the cleanest and most modern, with the most comfortable beds in town. Rooms have private western-style bathrooms with 24-hour hot water, in-room free wifi, and a delicious breakfast is included. Prices start at 2,000 Nepali Rupees (about $24 USD) per night and include the 13% government tax (be sure to ask at other places if the price includes tax so as to compare apples with apples). An additional 10% service charge is added on top of the room rate. Ask for special quotes for long-term stays, which are much reduced. Blue Planet even has an apartment, complete with a fully stocked kitchen for those who wish to save on meals, priced at 4,500 NRS (about $60 per night). Contact Sabine and Ram by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (0)61 465706 (Telephone), 98462 57389 (Ram’s cell phone), or 98560 25441 (Sabine’s cell phone). Country code is +977.
Hotel Temple Villa is a short walk down the first side street south of Standard Chartered Bank, on the north end of Lakeside, in a quiet, safe location just a block from the lake. Set back from the road and surrounded by manicured gardens, this combination private home/hotel offer rooms ranging from dorm-type accommodations with shared toilet to spacious private rooms with ensuite bathrooms. Unlike many of the standard Nepali hotels that are furnished with beds that are hard as a rock, Temple Villa has comfortable beds and upscale linens. Guests have access to a rooftop deck as well as several balconies tucked between the rooms, and a lounge area offers TV with remote control. Free wi-fi is included (although it can be spotty, as the router is not always on when the power is out). Prices begin at 700 Rupees. Contact Bikash: Lakeside-6; Telephone 061-462203; cell 98462-94602; email email@example.com
Karma Guest House, located on a side street in Gaurighat, on the south end of Lakeside. Family run, nice folks. Really high speed Internet included in the nightly price of 350-400 Rupees ($5-6 USD) per night and if you ask nice the owner will bring an Ethernet cable right into your room. The rooms are spacious and clean, with private baths and 24-hour hot water, but no TV, and the first floor rooms tend to be musty smelling. If you really need the Internet, opt for a first floor room, otherwise take the second floor room. Nice quiet location on a side street, across from the lake and surrounded by good restaurants, sturdy bars on the windows. Owner Chandra Pun; telephone 61-462850; cell 98460-49867; email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Olive Cafe: Near the center of town on the main road in Lakeside. Not only do they have great food, they have the best Internet in town and they will let you sit for hours and work online if you eat there. The prices are a bit on the high side, but the quality of the food is excellent (best hummus wrap in town and good vegetarian options). Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with fresh baked pastries every morning and homemade desserts every day including heavenly chocolate croissants.
Moondance: On the corner of Barahi Path and the main street of Lakeside, on the south end of town. One of the few restaurants in town that has a menu that deviates from the boring Chinese, Nepali, Indian fare served by everyone else. Their food is delicious, if a bit pricey, but they have the only decent pizza in town and fast, reliable wifi. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Zinnia Fans: On the north end of Lakeside in Hallan Chowk. Delicious food and excellent prices. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Try the Eggplant Moussaka. Owner Minraj will take good care of you and always has a smile on his face.
Pema Tibetan Restaurant: On Barahi Path near the Barahi Hotel in the center of Lakeside. Tiny restaurant with excellent traditional Tibetan food for budget prices.
Asian Tea Room: Located down a narrow alley just south Thic Thak Restaurant, in the center of Lakeside. Great food at amazingly cheap prices. Try the chowmein for 70 Rupees ($1) or the Rosti (boiled potatoes, chopped up with vegetables, spices, and cheese, and fried into a thick potato pancake) for slightly more. Delicious! And the owners are really lovely people.
Pokhara Kitchen & Restaurant: On the north end of Lakeside near Hallan Chowk. Look for a narrow walkway between buildings just south of Standard Chartered Bank. The family run restaurant serves mostly locals but welcomes tourists. They serve only the traditional Nepali set (dahl bhat, curd, curry, pickle, and papad) or an Indian set. Your plate will be refilled as many times as you wish for the 170 Rupee price (about $2.50 USD). Wash your hands at the outdoor sink before sitting down. Although they will bring you a spoon if you wish, they will be delighted if you try eating with your hands in true Nepali/Indian fashion.
Chulo Restaurant: I am totally spoiled by the cooking of my adopted Nepali family, so I am very critical of restaurants that purport to serve traditional Nepali food. The newly opened Chulo Restaurant, however, makes the grade and then some. Their traditional Thakali dal bhat is delicious and authentic, and priced at only 190 NRS, while other places charge from 350 to 750! The Thakali plate includes a heap of rice (dal), lentils (bhat), two curry vegetables, one of the many varieties of green cooked spinach (saag), a pickled chutney or sauce (achar), sweet curd, and a large Papad – a thin wheat wafer fried in oil. Best of all, they follow the Nepali tradition of adding more and more food to your plate until you can’t eat another bite. Located on the main street in Lakeside, near the Boomerang Bakery.
Busy Bee: Lakefront In the center of Lakeside on the main road, this restaurant has good food at an affordable price, plus live music most nights until 11 p.m. Free wifi.
With taxi drivers, negotiate hard, as you will be quoted the tourist price that is often twice that charged to locals. Agree on a price before you get in the taxi.
Taxi to the tourist bus park should cost 150 Rupees.
Prices to go to Sarangkot at dawn are all over the board, but if you keep asking and negotiate you can find a driver to take you, wait for you to climb to the top and watch the sunrise, and then deliver you back to town for between 800-1,000 Rupees ($10-12.50 USD).
Same goes for the trip to the International Peace Pagoda on the other side of the lake. Ask around for a driver who will take you for 800-1,000 Rupees. They will take you as far as he road goes and you must do the final 15-20 minutes on foot.
TAKE THE LOCAL BUS
Save the pricey taxi fare and hop on a local bus. You will be crowded, crammed in, and jostled, but it’s lots of fun. The locals will be delighted but curious that you are riding the bus (few westerners do) so expect more than a few stares. The buses are old rattletrap white and blue affairs and you can flag them down by the side of the road in most places (there are some established bus stops). If you are going from Lakeside to the market at Mahendrapul, stand on the southbound side of the street at the intersection of Lakeside Marg and Barahi Path. When you climb on board, grab a seat if you can. The conductor will come by later to collect the fare. Currently, the fare for the ride from Lakeside to Mahendrapul is 18 NRS (~23 cents) each way. The bus stops for a bit at Birauta Chowk (intersection) and again at Pritivhi Chowk to take on passengers, then continues on to the market, with the first stop at Chipledhungga and the second at Mahendrapul. If you need to get off and it’s crowded, bang on the roof two times, or just yell out Maah jan-chuu (I go). If you’re really unsure of where you need to get off, ask the conductor to help; most speak basic English and you just need to say Mahendrapul. Once you get the hang of it, you can take the local buses almost anywhere for mere pennies.
The Internet connections around town mostly come through Nepal Telecom, which has traditionally provided lower bandwidth and slow speeds, however the service does seem to be improving. If traveling with a laptop and you plan to be in Nepal for any length of time, consider purchasing an NCell USB card that connects through the cellular network. The speed is relatively fast and the connection is available in most places around the country. One time charge of 2,850 Rupees ( about $36 USD) for the device, and then you buy a package of 500, 1,000, or 1,500 Mb, which must be used within a month. Price for the 1,000 Mb package id 1,050 Rupees ($13 USD). If used up before a month, the card can be recharged at stores all around town. Be advised that in the fall and winter months, power outages can occur up to 16 hours per day, and Internet may not be available during those hours unless you find a hotel, restaurant, or Internet cafe that has hooked up the Internet to their generator (most businesses have generators).
The best broadband connection at an Internet Cafe is at The Hub Cyber Cafe, located on the main street of Lakeside, between Barahi and Hallan Chowks. They have relatively new equipment (PC’s) but do have wifi and can set you up with your laptop if you prefer, for a slightly discounted rate.
For Ayurvedic Massage in Pokhara, Annapurna Yoga Ashram and Yogi’s Ayurveda Health Care Center can’t be beat. Located on Barahi Path, across the street from the Barahi Hotel, in Barahi Chowk in the center of Lakeside. An hour-long Ayurvedic massage with Shiatsu Accupressure is 1,000 Rupees, or slightly more than $12.50 USD. Tip at your discretion, but 100 Rupees is sufficient. A wonderful combination is the Ashram’s Ayurvedic Massage, followed by a one-hour steam bath infused with local herbs in their brand new facility.
The best Yoga in Nepal, in my opinion, is offered by Yoga Master Narayan Prasad Dhakal, owner of Annapurna Yoga Ashram and Yogi’s Ayurveda Health Center. Located on Barahi Path, across the street from the Barahi Hotel, in Barahi Chowk in the center of Lakeside, Pokhara. Offering 1.5 hour Hatha Yoga classes each day at 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. for 700 Nepali Rupees ($8.50 USD). Private instruction available for 1,000 NRS. Specializing in therapeutic Yoga, Narayan is one of the best Yoga teachers I have ever worked with. The center also offers Yogic Trekking, Spiritual Hiking, Meditation, Honey Therapy, Water Treatments, Mud Baths, Colonic Therapy, Detox Program, Reiki, Ayurvedic Massage, Steam baths in a brand new steam room and much more. It is also possible to arrange a combination home stay and Yoga/meditation or detox program with the family, during which you will enjoy home cooked Yogic food, prepared with fresh, seasonal, organic ingredients, many of which come from the family’s garden.
Prices in Lakeside (the tourist area) of Pokhara are wildly inflated. I once paid 450 Nepali Rupees (almost $6 USD) in a Lakeside grocery store for a can of tomato puree when I was making a spaghetti dinner for my Nepali family (I knew it was overpriced but needed it and had no choice). A few days later I found the same can for 130 NRS (~$1.60) at the local market. The market is in Chipledungha and Mahendrapul, two side-by-side neighborhoods where store after store line the streets. SaveWays, a huge combination grocery and department store that stocks everything you could possibly need for cooking and/or setting up a household, is located near center of Mahendrapul Chowk, down a side alley; anyone can direct you to it. For electronics, furniture, fabric, linens, bedding, clothing, jewelry, kitchen supplies, shoes, appliances and such, the market is the place to shop, however souvenirs, Tibetan merchandise, and Pashmina products are much more widely found in Lakeside. The bus to the market area costs only 18 NRS (~23 cents). Most of the merchants speak some English, or if they don’t they can find someone to translate. Best of all, the prices aren’t jacked up; the price for tourists are the same as Nepalis. Very refreshing.
There are numerous book stores in Lakeside but I particularly like Blue Heaven Book Store, as they have an extensive stock of English language books that includes most of the best selling authors. Even better, they have shelf after shelf of used paperbacks that also include many best sellers and popular authors, priced at 50% of the new books. You can even bring the book back after you’ve read it and receive a credit against your next purchase. Located on Lakeside Marg (main street), just south of Hallan Chowk (across the street from Standard Charter Bank).
Although it is possible to swim in Phewa (Fewa) Lake, I do not recommend it. There are no beaches and the shoreline is full of litter, so the only way to do so is to rent a boat for a half day or full day and paddle out into the center. Alternatively, Hotel Barahi offers a day fee for non-guests who wish to use their swimming pool. Officially 500 Rupees per day, it is sometimes possible to negotiate a discount rate if you will be staying in Pokhara for a length of time and will be using the pool regularly. Your entry fee includes use of a beach towel and access to their toilet and changing facilities. Hotel Barahi is on a side street just down from Barahi Chowk, on the south side of Pokhara. The hotel is famous; anyone in town can tell you where to find it.
Tibetan Encounter arranges for groups as small as two people to visit one of the more remote Tibetan refugee camps to meet elders who fled Tibet during the 1959 war with the Chinese. Hear their stories, share a meal with a Tibetan family, and enjoy a performance of traditional Tibetan songs and dances. Owner Thupten Gyatso, who grew up in one of the refugee camps near Pokhara, can arrange half day, one and two day trips. Email Thupten at: email@example.com
Yours Laundry Service, on Barahi Path, just a short distance from the main road in Lakeside. All clothes washed and dried by Machine, and nicely folded. Owners Sita and Ram Prasad Acharya TeL; 98460-40068. They use only hygenic water and offer one-day, half-day, and three-hour service. The best deal is one day service for 100 NRS per kilogram (2.2 pounds).
Laxmi Barber Shop. At Barahi Chowk on the southern end of Lakeside, turn down the side street Barahi Path. The shop is a short way down the street on the left hand side, next to Annapurna Yoga Ashram. Owner Parma gives an excellent haircut that includes a head massage. He will tell you to pay “as you like.” I paid him 250 Rupees (about $3.50 USD), which is the going rate around town, and he seemed quite happy with that.
There are numerous places around town to enjoy live music or DJ’s and they’re not hard to find (just follow the booming beat), but I particularly liked Busy Bee (see above), Silk Road (on the north end of Lakeside past Hallan Chowk), and the Blues Club.
There are ATM’s all over town but some charge more fees than others, so make sure you are using your card in an ATM machine that is connected with your network (Cirrus, Plus, etc.), ATM’s give a much better exchange rate than using the banks or currency exchanger shops, and there are no foreign exchange fees levied by most institutions when using the ATM’s. Since the exchange rate at this writing was approximately 80-82 Nepali Rupees (NRS) for one U.S. dollar, the maximum amount that can be drawn out via ATM in any one transaction is 10,000 NRS, since the slots through which the bills are dispensed cannot handle a stack greater than this, however at some ATM machines it it is possible to make up to five withdrawals of 10,000 NRS in a single day. Standard Charter Bank at the Hallan Chowk crossroads is the most prominent bank in Lakeside but I found that they charged the highest fees. I use the ATM near Barahi Chowk, located in the same courtyard with Monsoon Restaurant.