Pokhara is the original cultural crossroads, on the ancient trade route from the Himalaya to India, sitting roughly in the centre of Nepal. Aeroplanes landed on the town’s grass strip well before a motor road was hacked through the foothills to Kathmandu, and 1960s flower children – stripping and smoking grass around the town’s iconic lake – marked the dawn of a new era, both commercially and culturally.
Tourism is big business nowadays. Flophouses have made way for mainstream hotels, and there’s rather more on café menus than the hippie era ‘mushroom airways’ omelette. While trekking is still the prime mode of exploration around and about, microlights and similar craft provide the panoramas without the perspiration. Change is in the air in Pokhara, as in the rest of the country, following the dispersal of the Royal Family, but the magnificent horizon remains unchanged, spiked by the soaring snow-capped peaks. Small wonder that legend says these are the abode of the gods.
Where to Stay
It’s mildly ironic that Pokhara’s best hotel is actually 30 minutes drive out of town, a mini hill station by the name of Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge. Set on a ridge 300 metres above the valley, its 19 rooms look up to Dhaulagiri, Annapurna and Manaslu – each over 8,000 metres – while the whole of this boutique luxury resort runs like clockwork under the genial eye of general manager Marcus Cotton. Tiger Mountain’s expert team of wildlife guides are but one of its many plus points. If you’re not sleeping here you might like to know that Macchapucchare means Fishtail, the twin-peaked mountain (inhabited by fraternal deities) which has featured on countless postcards and which is reflected in Phewa Lake most mornings. So the Fishtail Lodge hotel is unsurprisingly renowned for its scenic location, fun to get to (on a hand-drawn raft) and underwent a desperately needed refurbishment a few years ago. A tot of rum in front of the circular roaring open fire of a winter evening warms the cockles of your soul. Rooms and dining are okay but not really a match for the external scenery.
Also Worth a Look
The voluminous environs of the Fulbari contain the best casino, thus attracting the sort of clientele you might not have had in mind when planning a trip to Pokhara. But both tables and punters are easily avoidable, and the facilities are good if not quite matched by the service. The Castle is a folly by name but not by nature, with half a dozen rooms on a hill above the lake, plus – gasp – an Irish pub. A slightly out of the way but very fun place to stay. The Shangri-la Village is away from the lake, but it’s a neat, compact resort with 65 rooms surrounded by well-kept gardens. The Pokhara Grande is another outfit that includes a casino among its offerings, but – as with the Fulbari – this can be sidestepped to enjoy its other facilities, notably the outdoor pool (though not in winter). It’s located 1.5km from the lake.
Where to Eat
Best Lunch Spots
Inevitably, Pokhara’s best restaurants are concentrated around the lake. Mike’s Restaurant is owned by a former Peace Corps volunteer and serves an international menu throughout the day; it’s right by the water and a very good lunch spot. Run with military precision by ex-serviceman Meghbahadur Gurung, The Gurkhas‘ menu is simple and covers a variety of the world’s cuisines, all at very reasonable prices. The cheesecake at Pokhara Joe’s makes this the town’s pudding club. And go to Café Concerto for pizza and homemade ice cream.
Best Supper Spots
Bistro Caroline is a surprisingly smart French brasserie with a pleasant decor and a charming garden; the wine list goes rather beyond basic red and white. Koto is another revelation – excellent Japanese cuisine, although the surroundings are a little austere. And, in the grounds of Trek-O-Tel hotel the Pokhara Thakali Kitchen serves authentic Thakali cuisine which makes extensive use of vegetables and wild herbs.
What to Order
The staple Nepalese dish, rice with lentils (dhal bhat), is a filler rather than a gourmet thriller, and the best of the country’s cuisine borrows heavily from India or Tibet, notably the latter’s dumplings or mo-mo. However, Nepalese chefs do have an extraordinary talent for mimicking foreign food, turning out pizza, brownies, Shepherd’s Pie et al with a quantity of plomb. Peero means spicy, and in Nepal spicy usually means damn hot.
Best of the Rest
Best Night on the Town
Bangkok this is not, but there is alcohol, a variety of music and perhaps a pool table or two at the following Lakeside lay-bys: Club Amsterdam (+977 61 533 427), Busy Bee (+977 61 522 640), and Moondance (+977 61 530 955), all of which are patronised by a combination of local Jack-the-Lads, expats, before-and-after trekkers, and tourists here for a night or two.
Best Recovery Plan
Kingsley Amis once wrote that the best hangover cure was to go for a spin in an aircraft with an open cockpit, naturally with an un-hungover pilot. Pokhara’s magnificent men and their flying machines include the microlight pilots at the Avia Club and the instructors at Sunrise Paragliding.
Such is Nepalese laissez-faire that Kashmiris and Tibetans oversee much of Pokhara’s mainstream shopping, both races being past masters at the age-old game of haggling. In addition to the variety of emporia strung along the lake, numerous traders set up stalls by the roadside selling everything from curios to handmade clothing. Other itinerants browse the cafés and restaurants, laying out their wares (if not told to desist) while you dine. Both new and second-hand trekking equipment is widely available (locally made – don’t be taken in by the ‘North Face’ labels), as are mountains of books in a Babel of languages. Best for clothing, table and bed linen is the Sikh-run Exclusive Textiles (Lakeside; +977 61 521 263) with a range of traditional and modern designs. The Nepalese paper, notebook, picture frames and photo albums at Western Women’s Paper Craft (Hallan Chowk; no phone) are exquisitely fashioned and made from sustainable resources.
Best Holistic Course
Swami Dhyan Sagar runs courses in yoga, meditation and holistic living for beginners and more advanced courses for those with more time. He is also an expert masseur specialising in reiki, shiatsu and hara. Book via Tiger Mountain Lodge.
Best Secret Agent
Labour intensive is the watchword here, and almost all hotels have somebody waiting in the wings who is reasonably fluent in English, geography, history etc; family ties are strong, so if they can’t answer your questions they might well ask their auntie.
The distinguished contemporary sculptor Andrew Rogers completed part of his Rhythms of Life series in the Seti Gorge near the Fulbari hotel in March 2008. The tenth segment (of 12) includes an endless knot inspired by the eight Tibetan auspicious symbols (Astamangala) spread over the gorge floor in local stone.
Take a boat across the lake and hike up through the Raniban (‘royal forest’, probably due for a name change very soon) to the Japanese World Peace Stupa. Or you could just paddle about Phewa Tal. For trekking further afield, Ker & Downey’s chain of lodges are the smartest way to go.
Gurkhas at War: The Gurkha Experience in Their Own Words, World War II to the Present by J.P.Cross and Buddhiman Gurung is the quintessential memoir of Nepal’s courageous warriors; Tony Hagan was granted the first trekking permit in the 1950s and roamed the entire country, an odyssey beautifully portrayed in his coffee-table book Nepal; and Tiger for Breakfast by Michel Peissel traces the life of Boris Lissanevitch, a White Russian ex-ballet dancer who opened the country’s first international hotel.
My World, My View: Photographs by the Girls of SOS Bahini, Pokhara, Nepal by Sue Carpenter; Gurkhas at War by J. P. Cross; A Nepalese Journey: On Foot Around the Annapurnas by Andrew Stevenson.
Despite Pokhara’s peaceable ambiance, the prospect of comparatively wealthy tourists may excite some impecunious and disenfranchised local youths. Best not to wander about alone after dark, or patronise any dodgy-seeming establishments.
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