A jaded traveler? Cynical from the gap between agent promise and on-the-ground reality? Yawned out by same old, same old? This is your lucky day! If you must choose one country to visit in South Asia, it just has to be Nepal. Lodged between the Tibetan plateau and the plains of India, it is not only home to 8 of the world's highest mountains, but also to one of the most diverse assortment of ethnic groups still practicing their complex patterns of customs and beliefs.
For years, though, the world's view of Nepal has been dominated by Mt. Everest and its shoulders, and the extraordinary human courage of men like Edmund Hillary, Norgay Tenzing Sherpa and their inheritors who reached the tip of this world's highest mountain and reached out to touch the sky. For many, the legendary Gorkhas and their military heroics, battling for Britain and Empire and "Boys Own " legends call visions of the 19th and 20th centuries most historic battles.
Recently, Nepal has again captivated the world's attention with the takeover of the government by a Maoists-led coalition and the demise of the world's only Royal Hindu kingdom. Under the new leadership, Nepal is trying to gain greater stability and economic development and begin again to build windows for the world to gaze in wonder. Now is the time to visit. It's not as if we ever really forgot Nepal, but fewer came over the last decade. With hostilities over, the great trekking wave is building again and the interest in Buddha, his birthplace and vision, is winding up once more. But, right now, there are still no massive crowds. The unique mix of mountains and culture, history, music and mysticism are all here waiting for you.
Plan for a longer trip. Longer is better so you can trek to some of the most beautiful points of the Himalayas and experience the life of some of the distant tribes. There are so many places offering magical topography, each one showcasing unique villages, costumes and pieces of history and there are so many pilgrimages to make especially for Buddhists and Hindus. You can indulge your self with the scenery or partake of the rural life of some of the most unique tribes in the valleys.
Prepare your documents. You need to have a valid passport and recent visa photographs. You can download the application form from the government web site or get a copy from your airline staff prior to landing. All nationals except that of India are required to have a visa. If there is a Nepal embassy close to you, you are better off getting your visa before your trip. This will lessen the stress of entering another country with customs and immigration and luggage to deal with. Although you can easily get a visa at the entry points, head for Katmandu, the capital city. You can then quickly register your stay with your embassies or consular offices. As well, you can talk to other tourists who are just back from their treks and get a much better picture of the inventory of options open.
In Kathmandu, stay close to Thamel. Although a product of adventure tourism, it is so full of restaurants, stores, tour operators and tourists that you can easily find information you need for your own trip. The best hotel close to the area, if you are lucky enough to get a reservation, is The Courtyard. It offers all the comforts of very good accommodation and some of the rooms have been beautifully renovated with local collectables. And the big courtyard in front is a welcome haven after hours of hustle and bustle in Thamel. It has the most cozy library beside the bar where you can enjoy a drink, meet fellow guests and read some of the owners' well-chosen books. It's hard to believe that this was once a Newari house. While in Katmandu, visit the Durbar square as well as the ones in Patan and Bhaktapur, and learn more about one of Nepal's peoples, the Newaris and the traditional Newari life, crafts and arts. At the end of the day, head for Thamel House and enjoy traditional Newari food, music and dance. Make sure you try the Newari rice wine. Visit Bhaktapur, a few kilometers away and see another cultural site, the Changu Naryan Temple, an open-air museum of stone sculpture. While in Katmandu, visit the other cultural sites, Swayambhunath and Bodhnath Buddhist stupas and Pashupatinath, the most holy Hindu site in Nepal. Another great world heritage cultural site in Nepal is Lumbini (outside Kathmandu), the birthplace of Buddha.
Go for a trek. You don't have to be fitness nut to do the short and easy treks, some of which are available just an hour or two from Katmandu and Pokhara. However, many popular treks take at least a week and the best time is from October to May. There are treks for everyone. But, remember, even when it is tailored for your capabilities, trekking is tiring and you are at an altitude so pacing yourself is vital. Once on the trail, you are a long haul from medical help. Make sure you have a map, compass, emergency rations, clothing and equipment to deal with weather variations and for first timers, an experienced reliable guide. A good hotel like The Courtyard will know guides who can be trusted. In most of the popular treks like the Everest and Annapurna, there are teahouses every hour or two that offer cold drinks and meals. There are porters to do the heavy lifting such as tents and food. Villagers across trekking areas have also created thousands of chautaras, shaded stone platforms where trekkers can rest their feet and suck air!
Visit one of Nepal's natural world heritage sites. Choose the one closest to your trekking plan. There is the Sagamartha National Park centered around Mt. Everest and the tiger-inhabited jungles of Royal Chitwan National Park. For bird enthusiasts, head to the floodplains and grasslands of the Sapt Kosi River, the Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve. This roof of the world just boils over with adventure possibilities, most quite accessible by the less nimble and more vintage traveler.
Try river rafting and kayaking. With its diverse topography and subtropical climate, Nepal offers fantastic river runs with huge white sandy beaches for camping. These spots are at their best from September to early December and March to early June. Consult the safety guide and book trips only with experienced, skilled and well-equipped agencies. Once again, your hotel and just back trekkers can really help out in this. You'll find lots of them walking around Thamel in Kathmandu. Trips down the Sun Kosi and Karnali rivers are favorites for those who want adventure. The Sun Kosi (River of Gold) trip is the longest offered in Nepal, around 270km. The Karnali is Nepal's longest and largest river, remote with huge rapids but also some of the prettiest canyons and jungle scenery. You can of course bring your own kayak and it seems Qatar Airways is one airline that will find space.
Go mountain biking. Nepal's many trails offer all kinds of biking adventures from easy mountain trails to utter insanity on wheels. You can easily bring your own bike as part of your luggage so check with your airline. Make sure to bring spare parts, as they might not be available locally.
Have a Nepali Massage. Once again, get advice. While there is the standard range of regular kneaders, some of the specialists learned their trade on whupped-out yaks and trashed trekkers with whipsaws for muscles and yoghurt for brains.
Learn a few things. You can enroll in yoga and meditation courses. There are so many centers that offer courses depending on what you want. In Pokhara, there are centers around the lake that offer daily, 3-day or 6-day sessions. Or you can learn to play the sarangi, four stringed instrument played with a bow often played in the streets of Thamel, or the madal (drum), basuri (flute) and a four string guitar, the arbaj. Or, head to Patan and learn how to paint a thangka or carve Newari style.
Go shopping. Nepal is a shopper's paradise especially for pashmina and other wool products, Newari wood carvings, paintings, puppets, beads and silver jewelry, thangkas and other Tibetan crafts.
These are only a few of the things you can enjoy in Nepal. 15 days is way, way too short. Remember, if you ever ironed Nepal flat, it would be the size of Europe and each hill hides another adventure. From 17 to 70, it is all here for you, inexpensive, accessible and just waiting.