In April 2015, Nepal hit global headlines when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake devastated the country, killing almost 9000 people. Two years on, Nepal continues to recover, but it remains as fantastic a destination as ever.
As the gateway to the Himalayas, it’s home to eight of the world’s ten tallest peaks and arguably the finest mountain trekking in the world – and visiting is one of the best things you can do to help the country get back on its feet. Here’s everything you need to know to plan your trip.
Is Nepal still one of Asia‘s most magical destinations?
Absolutely. Kathmandu remains an intoxicating travel experience, and the majority of Nepal’s other most-visited tourist sites were largely undamaged by the earthquake. The country’s popular Everest and Annapurna trekking routes remain open for business, and its national parks are still fantastic options for off-the-beaten-track jungle adventures.
How badly damaged was Kathmandu?
Severe damage was sustained throughout central Nepal, with entire villages flattened. From the point of view of foreign tourists, though, the most visible damage occurred in the capital, Kathmandu.
In the city’s UNESCO-listed Durbar Square, several beautiful Newar temples and palaces – many of them hundreds of years old – were pulled apart by the earthquake. The empty plinths here symbolise centuries of history lost.
But Kathmandu remains a deeply evocative city, and the area is home to some of the foremost religious sites in Nepal. Boudha is the site of a bustling Tibetan Buddhist community and one of the world’s largest stupas; the unblinking eyes of the Buddha gaze over the Kathmandu Valley from its golden spire.
For Hindus, cremation on the riverbank ghats at Pashupatinath marks the most auspicious passage into the next life; it’s a beautiful, unsettling place.
And beyond the city?
Patan, a former independent city-state which now blends into the wider Kathmandu conurbation, has an impressive Durbar Square of its own. Smaller in scale than its Kathmandu equivalent, it exhibits an even more refined brand of Newar artistry. The large royal palace is surrounded by ornately carved temples depicting scenes from the Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and Ramayana; the three-tiered Krishna temple is particularly impressive.
Just north of Durbar Square, the gleaming, twelfth-century Golden Temple is a must-see. Patan lost a couple of temples to the earthquake, but restoration work is going well.
The tourist area of Thamel, meanwhile, remains one of the most backpacker-friendly enclaves you’ll find anywhere on Earth. With hotels to suit every budget and a bewildering array of restaurants representing virtually every cuisine you could think of, this is a brilliant place to begin and end your Nepalese adventure.
What about the mountains? Can I still go trekking?
On Mount Everest, the earthquake triggered an avalanche which killed at least 20 people, marking the deadliest day in the mountain’s history. Many traditional lodges in the area were also damaged. But the route’s popularity with tourists meant that repairs got underway quickly, and the trek is as accessible – and spectacular – as ever.
The beautiful lakeside town of Pokhara, the jumping-off point for trekking the Annapurna Circuit, sustained little in the way of damage and is one of the country’s undisputed highlights. Even if you’re not trekking, it’s worth the journey here for the magnificent views of the fishtail-shaped mountain Machhapuchhare and the surrounding Annapurna range, and the chilled-out backpacker scene strung along the serene shores of Phewa Tal.
Paragliding from nearby Sarangkot, with the mountains in the background and huge Himalayan vultures soaring around you, is an unforgettable experience.
So the mountains are open for business. Where else should I go?
While the Himalayas form an impenetrable northern border with China, Nepal’s southern boundary with India was long marked by thick, malarial jungle. The disease was brought under control in the 1950s, and today, much of the area is national parkland, home to some of the world’s most fascinating and endangered wildlife.
In particular, tourists make the half-day bus trip from Kathmandu to Chitwan National Park for jungle safaris and the chance to catch a glimpse of a Bengal tiger in the wild – you need to be lucky, but it’s an experience you’ll never forget. Even if the big cats are a no-show, you’re likely to spot the (even more endangered) Indian rhinoceros, sloth bears and macaques among numerous other critters.
Chitwan’s popularity used to push intrepid travellers to the quieter Bardia National Park, which is far out of the way in western Nepal. Since the earthquake, though, plummeting tourist numbers mean the crowds are less of an issue – although you are more likely to spot tigers at Bardia. Go now and see for yourself.