Note: This post is longer and more descriptive/detailed than my usual posts. For general Nepal travel tips, scroll to the bottom.
“Most foreigners are familiar with the Sherpas only through their fame as load bearers and guides for mountaineering expeditions, yet such work is a recent and superficial aspect of their culture. When we put aside our glimpse of Sherpas as servants, we can penetrate to more subtle levels of their experience.” -Hugh R. Down, The Rhythms of a Himalayan Village
Reading those words within the first pages of the photo-book The Rhythms of a Himalayan Village en-route to Nepal in November 2019 really set the tone for what would become one of the most surreal trips I have taken in my life. For one, I was one of the foreigners mentioned in that quote, and my understandings of Nepal were limited to the 2015 Earthquake, Lukla Airport (one of the world’s most dangerous airports), Mt. Everest, Sherpas, Dr. Strange and momos (the amazing Nepali/Tibetan dumplings). But in my 6 short days in Nepal, I discovered that the true magic of this country is within the mountainous regions and the Sherpa people who are truly one with their natural surroundings and culture.
I can tell you that Nepal did not disappoint. I went in having some expectations of the things I was familiar with but having no expectations at all about the things I came here to learn more about. Nepal is a special place. A trip is worth it. However, getting to and from, in and around requires a lot of planing, patience and flexibility as everything here depends on weather conditions, especially with the flights since all of Nepal is virtual flying. Don’t come here just to see the backpackers area and key sites of Kathmandu or to visit Lukla and base camp or Everest. Hiking and mountaineering is only a part of what makes a trip to Nepal so incredible. Set aside some time to discover the rainforests in the south, or venture deep into Sherpa lands surrounding Lukla and the Everest trails to discover the true essence of Nepali people and culture.
Back in February 2019 I booked a sale fare on Qatar Airways, roundtrip from Montreal to Bangkok for $2000 in Q Suites to position myself in the region. After many iterations of what would be my thanksgiving trip to Asia, I finally settled on Nepal. My brother-in-law would join as well. In researching itineraries and what to do, I reached out to a bespoke travel company we had worked with before to see if they do Nepal. They did not do any Nepal itineraries, but they referred me to a local Nepali-American owned bespoke company called Beyul Experiences. I reached out to the founder Ang and so began our communication to create an incredible but short 6 day journey through Nepal.
The Journey with Beyul Experiences
Through Beyul Experiences you will get to stay at and experience the Happy House in Phaplu, Nepal. Its hard to put into exact words the experience at Happy House, but it is definitely homey, cozy, luxurious, local and magical all at the same time, oh and yes it does make you happy! One of the best articles out there on Happy House is one from Conde Nast Traveler. We were very fortunate and Ang was extremely accommodating and flexible because normally the minimum group size is 7 people with a minimum of 10 day journey with Beyul, once every season (April-June, and October-November) they open a week up for smaller group mixed bookings. Ang was able to accommodate just the two of us for 6 days as we so happened to book the window in between two groups. But having stayed at Happy House, I understand Ang’s approach, he wants Happy House to be your home, he wants your journey to be one with your family/ friends and to really have a personal experience. Ang and his team become an extended part of your family by the end of your stay. Further, by having it all people you know in your group, the communal spaces at Happy House really becomes a home away from home. More on Happy House later, but if anything this is why its called Happy House:
Sir Edmund Hillary was based out of Ang’s family’s home for a few months during his first summit to Everest in the 1950s. When he was at the house he proclaimed that his favorite place on Earth was his “happy house in the Himalayas” which referred to this house and so they used the name since then.
Day 1 Arrival and Kathmandu
The trip began in Kathmandu, as do all journeys in Nepal because it is the only international gateway. The airport is overcapacity with its tiny international terminal, single runway and ramshackle operations. Nepal aviation is all virtual flying, as such it is a tad riskier to fly in, out and through Nepal but also because of this flights are often delayed and circle above Kathmandu due to high traffic at the airport.
Much like India, Kathmandu is an attack on the senses and pure organized chaos at its best. No traffic lights, just some traffic cops guiding the traffic through the traffic circles. No clear rules of the road. Dust, pollution, honks beeps, plumes of smoke here and there, 3 generations of women hand-in-hand crossing the streets evoking the scene in Mulan where grandma blindly crosses the road to test lucky cricket, but this time the cars and bikes and rickshaws dodge the ladies smoothly. Low-rise buildings mainly made of terracotta bricks, electrical wires hanging precariously in the air. Smells of exhaust mixed with spices and herbs coming from kitchens and incense/ burning juniper from the temples and shrines. Part of the pollution and dust comes from India, construction post-earthquake and road work but fast and poor construction leads to potholes as well. And my nose clogging up immediately from breathing in the dust. But within this chaos, is a sanctuary, the Dwarika’s Hotel Kathmandu. Which is where we stayed on our first and final night in Nepal.
Dwarika’s is a fantastic hotel in Kathmandu that offers a variety of amenities, nice breakfast, great and cheap spa, and large rooms that do as its founder hoped the property would, pay homage and bring to visitors the former beauty of Ancient Newari architecture and heritage that was once at the brink of extinction.
After settling in, we headed out for a half-day exploration of Kathmandu. The traffic was insane because Hindus the world over were descending on Kathmandu for an important festival, I believe a tomb-sweeping one of sorts, at the sacred Hindu Pashupatinath Temple. Since our driver couldnt reach us, we agreed it would be best to walk the streets of Kathmandu and try to hail a taxi. Thank God Ang was with us to navigate the streets, cross the roads and hail a reluctant taxi, who we paid extra to zip us through back alleys to avoid traffic to finally arrive at Boudha Stupa. A serene, Buddhist stupa located in the heart of the city. Once you walk into the square its hard not to get sucked into the crowd of visitors, devotees and monks/nuns walking in circles (at least 5 times) around the stupa whilst hearing the recorded chants/ prayers being sold in the souvenir shops around. The stupa itself is massive and very beautiful, especially in the golden light of sunset. After circling the stupa, we headed to a rooftop bar/restaurant around the square for dinner with views at Roadhouse Cafe Boudha.
After dinner we returned to Dwarika’s where I decided to go for a last minute massage, the 1.5 hour massage was fantastic and at $50, it was a great deal.
Day 2: Happy House and Phaplu
The next morning we woke up and had a nice breakfast at Dwarika’s, it is a mix of a la carte and buffet and includes variety of both Wester and Nepali options, including Yak cheese and Neplai Chai. Afterwards we met up with Ang and our driver at the lobby to head to the airport.
Kathmandu Airport has a separate domestic terminal with a modern enough looking exterior but it is worlds apart inside. The check-in area and process is haphazard. We snaked through the crowds and counters to the pre-departure lounge where helicopter check-ins took place in the airline’s offices. You can book scheduled or chartered helicopter rides. They weigh all passengers, luggage and cargo to ensure the helicopter wont be overweight but also to gauge fuel. This is where we quickly learned that in Nepal almost nothing is on time as it just all depends on a large number of things. Our helicopter was still on its way in from Lukla so we were a tad behind schedule. Nonetheless we waited in the second floor “cafe”. The domestic terminal is barely lit and offers basic concessions and small stores and is overcrowded with local and tourists alike. Soon we got our boarding pass, went through security screenings (in Nepal there are separate men’s and women’s lanes) and proceeded to a van outside. After a spectacular drive across the tarmac and runway to the other side of the airport, we arrived at the heliport just as our helicopter arrived from the mountains.
We learned that our pilot of Altitude Air is one of the few certified high altitude rescue helicopter pilots in Nepal. Our Airbus helicopter had a maximum altitude of 23,000 feet, and our pilot has done rescue missions near this altitude! Suffice to say this guy was amazing and really quite passionate about his job.
After refueling and reloading we were ready for takeoff. It was cool to see Kathmandu from the helicopter but it was until the smog and city were behind us and the mountains and clouds were ahead of us that things started to sink in that this was a magical place. The whole 45 minute flight I had the Avatar soundtrack in my head, while not the inspiration source, flying in a helicopter through the Himalayan mountains certainly felt like I was flying in Pandora, and this would be even more so during our Everest fly-by a few days later. After passing through a turbulent area we came over a ridge and into the Phaplu valley area with the airport in sight. After a right bank we made our approach and landed at the Phaplu airport helipad with the Happy House staff there awaiting us. Hopping off the helicopter and the air was noticeably fresher, cleaner, thinner and colder. We were given Khata, a Tibetan prayer scarf usually given to visitors or worshipers. And our bags were taken and soon we were off walking towards Happy House.
Base camp culture was only established in 1974 after Lukla airport was constructed by Sir Edmund Hillary. Before then few people summited Everest of traversed the highest peaks, only some people used to go up for herds or on their way to Tibet for trade route. Once trekking began, Phupla/Chiwong, the heart and center of culture for the Sherpa people, became the historic base and start of the Everest treks, a journey that took months.
Happy House is a short 5-10 minute walk from the airport. Along the way you pass local houses, mom pop shops, the few other hostels and guest houses in the region and a handful of restaurant and bars. The houses here are not made from terracotta bricks but a combination of wood, stones and mud. Soon to our left appeared a large property surrounded by stone wall and then a beautiful stone and painted wood paneled gate leading to a tree and prayer flag lined pathway. We had arrived at Happy House, our all-inclusive home away from home the in the land of the Sherpas.
The trees and flags rustled and fluttered with the wind as we entered this sanctuary. Happy House itself is built and designed in a traditional Nepali/Tibetan architecture style. It has around 12 rooms, including a massive penthouse suite. A sauna, spa, gardens, a separate yoga pavilion and outdoor equipment shed (including mountain bikes), oh and its own private helipad up on the hillside. The interiors are a harmonic mix of traditional Nepali design with western furniture pieces left behind by the countless explorers and mountaineers who have passed through Happy House on their Everest expeditions when Phaplu was the gateway to Everest. The main dining/ living room area is walled and ceiling-ed with painted murals much like you’d find in temples or other homes with wooded floors and wooden furniture, this is the main communal space that one spends most time in during a stay here. Armchairs are draped with soft Hermes cashmere blankets while the couches along the wall are lined with Hermes throws. Bringing together a wonderfully luxurious, yet warm, homey and local aesthetic. The library in the corner has a more dark wood toned Western aesthetic but with framed maps and Thankas and full of books and films as well as board games and small historic explorations tools including a writing desk used by Sir Guido Manzino of Lake Como on his Everest expedition. Each room has a slightly different aesthetic, some have a darker wood tone others have a lighter wood tone. All have king sized beds, private bathrooms, a work desk and chair and armchair. All come with an array of amenities in the room and bathroom. At night, a mattress warmer is turned on to keep your bed nice and toasty as there is no heating or AC system at happy house, so yes you gotta either wait for the morning when the water has well heated overnight or brave a slight cold shower in the evenings. But this minor inconvenience does not change the experience of Happy House.
After settling in, lunch was served outside in the gardens by the entry walkway. During the day on a clear sky day the temperature can be quite warm, but once the sun sets or if cloudy and shady it plummets. Lunch consisted of Yak butter tea, a Himalayan staple that is warm fatty and thick, rice and lentils, and a variety of stir fry local vegetables mostly grown in the region, and all very fresh and exceptionally sweet. The villages and people up here are all mostly self-sufficient and live off of their lands and what nature provides, which given the difficulty for resources to reach them, it is no surprise. There was also salad and a variety of pickles and fresh garlic (known to help thicken the blood at high attitude), oh and an incredible house chili made by Ang’s own aunt. Lunch was followed by a quick property tour and historic walkthrough by Ang who informed us that when he chose to return to Nepal to start Beyul, Happy House was in near disrepair, so they basically tore down the entire original house and rebuilt it ground up, but kept it much to the original form and added the spa/ sauna.
Next up was a late afternoon hike in the area with our guides Choring and Rupshing and Happy House’s main dog. Our first stop up the steep hills behind the house was the Zeke O’Connor Phaplu School, privately funded by a Canadian who was friends with Sir Edmund Hillary and the foundation is part of the larger Sir Edmund Hillary Trust, which Hillary established to help the local community establish infrastructure and services in Phaplu. In Nepal education is free at public schools for grades 7-12 then most folks take exam and go to university in larger cities. For Government public universities there is a small admissions fee to pay. Here at the Phaplu school the students studied a diverse range of subjects including biology, physics, chemistry, math, English, Nepali, and social studies. As we shuffled through each classroom, in what felt like a showcase of us as tourists as it was a showcase of the local students to us, one 10th grader introduced himself and welcomed us and said he wanted to be a chemical engineer and attend Cal tech and asked if Cal Tech is hard to get into. It was actually great to see that education is quite similar worldwide, and that these students high up in remote Nepal have the same aspiration as quite possibly some student living on a farm in rural America eyeing Cal Tech as well. However, not all schools in Nepal teach such advanced things, it is in large due to Phaplu school’s private fund that they are able to provide such range of subjects. However, it was curious to note that most of the students seemed to be self-teaching and studying while the teachers, none of whom are from the mountainous regions and once had aspirations of their own, just sat outside their office.
After talking to the teachers, visiting the classrooms and labs, we proceeded back down the mountain and through some farmlands towards the Sir Edmund Hillary hospital. Along the way, and as was the case with the rest of our hikes, we past houses where the house dog would bark at us strange foreigners and try to pick a fight with the Happy House dog. Or just past a herd of chickens and chicks, a roaster cock-a-doodling even though it was afternoon, cows just chilling and kids running around or making their way home from school. A few of the house matriarchs or younger kids would peep out at the bark of their dogs and eye us with curiosity. Throughout our days of hiking and passing through villages, I noticed that the Sherpa people in the area all had this peaceful/ content look/ emotion to them. There was no anger, suffering, discontent or “you’re not welcome here” sort of atmosphere at all. It felt as though despite people not having much they didnt seem to be suffering and they were definitely one with Earth it feels. I will expand a little on this later.
The original hospital built by Hillary still stands and is now government run. It has all the basics (lab, procedure room, x Ray room…etc.) but for serious operations they need to SOS helicopter to Kathmandu. Across the way is a privately owned hospital with a delivery Ward, the only one in the area, and pharmacy (shared with public hospital) and dentist. Healthcare is mostly free in Nepal for basics.
Following our 2.5 hour afternoon excursion through the local landscape and infrastructure we returned to Happy House to warm up by the fireplace and enjoy some hors d’oeuvres, beer or wine. The staff also offered to fire up the sauna or asked if we wanted a massage. Ang also presented us with some Beyul Experiences gifts, a hand stitched t-shirt with a map of key Nepali sites, a monogramed hat, some homemade Himalayan coffee lip balm, prayer beads, and a Nepali paper notebook. What a thoughtful personal touch!
With pre-dinner drinks, food and fire, we chatted with Ang’s friend who was there to volunteer and teach at the school and Ang to learn more about the history and culture of Phaplu, Sherpas and Happy House. Wherein we learned why Ang chose to name his company Beyul. Beyul: means sacred sites that will reveal itself when the world becomes too corrupt for religious / self contemplation / for spiritual practice/self, it will reveal itself to true spiritual practitioners. We learned a lot more but some I feel you should await your chance to learn if you get to experience Happy House with Ang and Beyul, but one somber fact we learned was that the single biggest battle of the Nepali Civil War happened only 15 minutes from the house.
As the good conversation and wine flowed to the crackling fire, dinner was soon ready. We moved to the long central dining table for a meal of vegetable soup, handmade steamed and fried momo served with tomato chutney and chili yogurt sauce and an orange sponge cake. Delicious.
Soon it was time for a shower and bed. After the fairly cold shower, climbing into the thick blanket and heated mattress was simply divine.
Day 3: Trekking Day 1 and Ratnange Ridge Campsite
The next morning we woke up, packed our bags for our overnight camping excursion and then proceeded to the second floor balcony for breakfast. It was a clear sky day, but windy, which we later would learn meant that Ang could not fly out of Phaplu as he had planned, which is a common occurrence. Much like the other meals, breakfast was a feast! Banana, oats, granola, dried fruits, cereal, milk, spreads were all laid out on the table. Yak tea, fresh squeeze juice and water were all offered. Bread was brought out, we were served fresh cooked bacon and asked if we wanted a Masala omelette, which is to die for.
After a hearty breakfast it was time to set off on our trek with Choring, Rupshing, and Mingma, our fearless guides for the next couple days. Mingma also happens to be the Happy House chef! Most of them Sherpas themselves. Throughout our time trekking with them it was simply amazing to see them agilely navigate the Himalayan mountains and paths without missing a step (ok maybe once or twice) and basically without losing a single breath, while we were huffing and puffing. They were also just such nice people and any one of them super knowledgable about their culture, history and surroundings and pointed things out that we didnt even notice!
A colorfully painted military tow truck passed us by and another was parked along the way as cadets were either gathering supplies or helping a local home out. We then passed local construction workers putting on the finishing touches of a small and newly restored monastery. Then we heard some loud banging/ pounding noises and Mingma lead us down a path into a small village where in various shacks men, apparently of the lowest caste in Nepal, were making copper symbol musical instruments. Shortly after we took a small water break.
Onwards our hike continued. The wind, the flags flapping , the copper instruments being made, chicken/rooster caling, kids running/crying/laughing. Cows mooing. The occasional propeller or reverse thrust of planes, the trees and leaves rustling. The crunch of dried leaves and rocks or softness of the muddy path.
After more inclines we turned a corner and a stupa and lines and lines of fluttering flags appeared, our guides told us to turn around and there perfectly framed between trees, smaller mountains/hills and behind the stupa were three snow-capped mountains. We had arrived at Mendokpake Nampol Choling Monastery.
Behind us was the original monastery structure that was now the leaning monastery as the primarily wooden structure was damaged during the Earthquake. Thanks to private donors, a new one was built adjacent.
We arrived just as the monks were preparing to eat lunch and were invited in to join. Since we were fully from breakfast and already had lunch plans, we declined food but accepted some hot tea/coffee. Joining the monks, we too filed into the narrow naturally lit dining hall, where the monks aged from 5 years to teenagers sat across and alongside us, and ate in silence as we awkwardly ate/drank and looked at each other. Of course said hi, and asked some questions, and learned that they rotate between various duties throughout the monastery and that in Nepal its a mix between those who voluntarily join or that come for education/ as a means. After a lovely refreshment break thanks to the generosity of the monks, we continued upwards.
Honestly hiking through Nepal requires clothing for all temperatures. On a clear day the sun was beating hot yet the piercing cold and wind would hit you like a train in the shade or open plateaus. But occasionally there was a gentle and welcoming breeze. However, even though all this, the over all sensation as the air continued to thin and temperatures both climbed and dropped, was a calm serenity.
2.5 hours later we arrived at a plateau where we would have lunch from the Solu Restaurant & Cafe, a restaurant and mom-pop shop housed in a courtyard of a former carpet weaving craftsman village near the Delekling Tibetan Settlement in Chailsa. The traditional art has since all but died, only a handful of people in the region know how to sew and continue to sew, in fact behind the kitchen of Solu’s neighboring cafe was a loom. We sat outside in the middle of the courtyard, lunch consisted of coca-cola (refreshing even in the Himalayas), canned tuna, cheese, potato, potato soup and a doughy bun like thing finished with apple sponge cake. The dogs eyed our food hangrily as we sat and ate on a mat on the grassy floor.
Down the sandy path from lunch was the Thubten Sheup Ling Monastery and School, a privately funded monastery and school, mainly for Tibetan refugees living in the area. Unfortunately it was lecture time and we were unable to get a glimpse inside the school or say hi to the students. Onwards we went then.
We arrived at Guru Lhakhang monastery shortly after. The tall and burly head monk came to unlock the doors and allow us in to see the inside and explain a little bit of the historic significance of the monastery and its relation to the 4 sects of Tibetan buddhism and one of the most important Rimpoches in Nepal.
After another 2-2.5 hour hike we arrived at a dusty plateau, the clouds were now below us and formed a fluffy white sea, we were fast approaching 10000 feet. Mingma, Rupsing and Choring then pointed out that we could see Everest in the distance. It was extremely small and due to perspective and distance, it appears shorter than its neighbors. Mingma said we were nearing our campsite at the top of Ratnange Ridge.
Passing through some bushes, a money wall/prayer wall (stones and prayer flags), an odd concrete artwork, and an abandoned observation tower we arrived at a hilltop. From there we saw a yurt with its piping chimney peep out from below. We had arrived.
Camp was at 3200 meters or just around 10000 feet. We dropped our day pack off in our tents and found our overnight bags already delivered at the yurt. The campsite revolves around the central yurt which serves as the dining room, hang out room (it has a fireplace after all), massage room and well as it turned out that evening, the communal sleeping space on windy nights. Tents are set up along the hillside surrounding the yurt, and there is a bathroom tent with biodegradable toilet paper and a full western sitting toilet….just no flush…instead a deep hole. No showers though. Tents come with a small light, giant mattress, heated sleeping bag stuffed with a cashmere Hermes blanket and large soft pillow. Basic, yet luxurious at the same time. Not quite full on glamping but also not your average camping experience. Note: the entire campsite is built and deconstructed every season, as it is on public land.
We settled in, changed out of our sweat drenched hiking clothes into our thermals and multiple layers of jackets as it was extremely windy. The sun had begun to set as we arrived and our first activity on site was enjoy the spectacular sunset above the sea of clouds. One side was cloudless and one side was a fluffy undulating sea of white. The horizon slowly glowed yellow, then orange/red then pink. What was remarkable was that Everest remained lit in pink while its neighbors slowly went dark, this was when you could witness the true heigh and scale of Everest as it took on the last rays of daylight.
Stars sharply lit up the pitch black night sky, and one could also see the milky way.
Joining us that evening was Ang’s cousin, Tashi, and his girlfriend. We hungout and chatted into the night and by the fireplace. The routine here was the same as at Happy House, pre-dinner snacks and wine. Followed by a full dinner, yes wine/beer/water/ yak tea all on offer. Mingma went from our guide to chef, and cooked up a storm, creamy asparagus and green onion soup, pasta super al-dente as its hard to boil water at 10000 feet, and finished with a giant marshmallow to roast. Sadly the extreme high winds prevented us from doing an outdoor bonfire, which was the plan. The campsite is on public land so setting it on fire would not be great (we would learn that that night’s winds was one of the strongest of the season/ that some of the staff had ever experienced). As such we roasted our marshmallows over the yurt’s fireplace, it was fantastic.
Dessert was quickly followed by a true Sherpa/ Nepali tradition: warm Raksi. Raksi is a millet/rice liquor, usually home brewed. We had the fortune of having Tashi’s mother’s home brew, a 25 year aged peach infused Raksi. It is strong, but boy does it warm you right up. Followed by a spoonful of local Wild Cliff Raw honey to help with sleep and altitude sickness. Alcohol was flowing and so was conversation as my energy level dwindled. We learned that Mingma’s brother was captured by the Maoists during the ciil war and managed to escape and ran for 10 hours before arriving to safety. Tashi’s girlfriend studied religion and as such was able to enlighten us more on the Nepali language, religion and some more subtle things about the culture. For example in the West and even in some Asian cultures, crows are seen as evil or bad, crows in hinduism and Buddhism are seen as holy, as they guide souls to samsara and Nirvana. All the while the wind continued to pick up and the yurt, while strong and stable, very well felt like it would blow away.
Soon our eyes could not remain open, we retired to our tents. It was not exactly the most restful night. The bedding was warm and comfortable but the extreme winds flapped the tent and I was certain I would fly away. Mingma came by a few minutes later to see if we were all right and if we wanted to move into the Yurt with nearly everyone else, the exhaustion, warmth of my sleeping bag and laziness just kept me from going, same with my bother-in-law. By 2am the winds had subsided and I dozed off.
Day 4 Hiking day 2 and Chiwong Monastery
At around 4:30/5AM my alarm went off, it was time to get up for sunrise. It was still mostly pitch black when I crawled out of my tent. But a small layer of orange light was beginning to crack through the horizon. Mountain and hilltops peeped through the thin layer of clouds still swimming about, the majority of clouds had been blown away.
The sky turned into a canvas as its layers of colors changed between shades of yellow, orange, red, blue and purple. As the sun finally rose above the highest peaks, the entire ridge was lit up in a golden hue. Soon Mingma brought out hot towels for us and some warm yak butter tea, perfect to enjoy the sunrise with.
Camp slowly woke up to the new sunny clear sky day. The dining table and camp chairs were then brought out and breakfast was set up along the ridge for a truly memorable breakfast out in the open-air with Everest and its buddies in the background. Breakfast up here was largely the same as down at Happy House, with the addition of some hot porridge instead of yogurt, which was much welcome in the wind. Still some killer masala omelette to be had!
As we finished up breakfast, the remainder of the staff began taking down the yurt as we were the last campers of the season on the ridge. While it takes minute to bring the yurt down, it takes nearly 5 hours and a full crew to build it!
After filling up on breakfast we took a small hike with Tashi to a nearby holy rock formation. A Naga’s (dragon) head, the tail is said to protrude out the other side of the ridge. Here blessings and prayer flags are offered and draped over the Naga, we also enjoyed some freshly brewed tea here before it was time for us to begin our hike back down.
Today’s hike was far steeper, less on trails and more deep in the trees. Lots of branches and loose rocks too. Definitely a bit more challenging than the prior day. Thankfully we had Mingma and Rupsing. They pointed out to us some wild-chicken traps that apparently arent exactly legal. And a few times Mingma tried to call out for some birds and deer. We did not however spot wild bears or any large wild animals. Throughout our occasional breather/water breaks, our surroundings was one of pure dead silence, only some birds chirping an occasional glimpse or rustle of a wild animal running away and some deer poop. Granted occasionally the silence was disturbed of the noise of turboprop planes flying ahead. After about a 1.5 hour steep downhill hike through the forest of mushy and dry crunchy leaves, slippery rocks/branches we arrived at the bottom to a small valley house a few empty cow pens and the sounds of the nearby river. It was amazing to watch Mingma and Rupsing meander through the forest with agility and ease. Of course they had done it many times already but nonetheless you could tell they knew their homeland well, even if Mingma now lives in Kathmandu.
Following a short hydration break we began the uphill portion of the hike towards Chiwong Monastery. The first thing was crossing the river, which was gently flowing and very clear and clean. The only animal we came across was a hybrid cow and yak breed, Cows are low altitude and Yaks given their larger build/shorter legs and thicker skin/hair are high altitude. These hybrid species were super gentle and calm, and simple scooted to the side to let us pass, one had to be encouraged to do so by Mingma and Rupsing. But they were so beautiful and just minding their own business.
While this part of the day’s hike was mostly on a trail, it was quite steep, and at times slippery. Once again, it was a clear sky day, so the sun beat down in the open but under the shade it was cold and windy.
That moment you think you want to give up and ask how much longer to go, we stop at an opening and see where we started and how far we’ve come, which was encouraging as we had descended from a height of 3200M to 2600M and were back on up to a height of 2800M. At the next opening the monastery is in close sight and we are just 10 min away, making faster time than anticipated.
Just before noon we arrived at the monastery and welcomed by a vicious barking house dog. Later we learned that the night before the dog’s buddy had been killed by a wild Leopard, so the barking and on edge was warranted. After taking in the panoramic views of Phaplu in the valley below, we walked in where we sat down by the kitchen and awaited Nawang Samphel Lama. He is a very peaceful and cheerful/wise looking.
It is a well funded monastery and the vibes feel very good and peaceful, he welcomed us by draping us with an orange Khata. We were offered some yak tea/ water as we sat and took in the surroundings, our guides chatted with the Lama and some monks were preparing lunch in the kitchen while others were finishing their morning studies and getting ready in their dorms up on the hill behind the main hall.
Chiwong Monastery where monks and nuns live together, which is uncommon. One of its missions is to preserve Buddhism in Nepal and itself is a monastery of one of the greatest Buddhist Masters in Nepal, Torche Rimpoche. Torche Rimpocher passed away in 2015 and his reincarnation was just found, a 2 year old. His past incarnation liberated tibet from illusions. Chiwong Monastery was built by Ang’s great great Grandfather, who was also the Royal Warden of the region. He had lost all 4 sons, and so later in his life he felt he needed to devote to Buddhism as he may have done something wrong as such the Lama family and Chiwong Monastery go way back.
Nawang Samphel Lama soon rang the lunch bell and the monks descended upon the canteen for lunch. We walked past the kitchen into the dining room. Lunch was lentil soup, rice, stir fry potatoes with homemade chili sauce. Simple but flavorful and so very fresh. Before food was eaten, Nawang Samphel Lama lead the room in a prayer. Once again there was a large age range of monks. Afterwards we were shown the main prayer/meditation hall where the back wall was lined with hundreds of mantras/texts. There was also a drastic temperature drop when one stepped into the hall. We then resided to the rooftop for some views, as Mingma caught up with Nawang Samphel Lama and showed him photos on his iPhone.
My brother-in-law decided to hike back down to Happy House with Mingma as I stayed behind with Rupsing hoping to catch a glimpse of the afternoon meditation/prayer session. This normally takes place right after lunch but it was exam season so the monks were given time to study.
It was a slow 2 hour wait till the 3PM start time, but it was a peaceful calm slow wait, which allowed me to just empty my thoughts and take in my surroundings. Soon enough, the doors of the main hall reopened and the monks slowly came in. I did not take pictures or videos as I wanted to take it in and also felt as the only visitor, that doing so would be a little rude. The process began with monks settling into their designated seats, the younger ones poured water and hot tea for elder monks. Nawang Samphel Lama came in, settled in, another younger monk lit some candles and poured offering water. Then Nawang Samphel Lama lead the meditation and prayers. I had read in the Rhythm of the Himalayas that Tibetan/ Nepali music can sound like chaotic and un-harmonic to the unfamiliar naked ear, which is true. But as I closed my eyes and focused in on each element of sound I heard from the chanting to the instruments, I began to hear the flow and rhythm within the surface level unharmonious chaos. And ultimately it is peaceful and soothing. I could not stay for the entire session as we had to start our hike back to Happy House to arrive before it got dark. I ducked out and found Rupsing and we proceeded to hike back down.
The clouds had begun to roll in and the temperature began to drop significantly as we hiked back to Happy House. It also got a lot more humid causing a damp cold to ensue. We passed more villages an farmlands and saw many a children running through paths on their way back from school while I walked on cautiously, they clearly know the way well.
After about 1.5 hours or so we arrived back at Happy House just as the sun set. The power had just gone out so wifi was down and candles had been lit. Unfortunately this mean no sauna, but I did do a short massage in the candlelight. Followed by the usual Happy House evening routine of finger food, wine/beer by the fire place with the last supper to follow. Dinner tonight started with Sherpa stew with buffalo meat and veggies, very warm and hearty, followed by Chicken Biriyani and ending with an amazing molten chocolate cake.
After some more fireside conversations, it was time for bed.
Day 5 Everest Fly-By, Lukla Airport and Kathmandu
A 7AM breakfast awaited us, with the usual items, and this morning we also enjoyed some Nepali crepes and of course one last masala omelette. I had to mull over a decision as to whether we would fly out of Lukla as planned or take the helicopter that was bringing us there and flying by Everest to take us back to Kathmandu. Again, it was a lot of risk assessment, and we had to factor in: weather delays and cancels, cost, safety and time. As of the morning Lukla weather was looking decent and the airport was open to traffic as such up until we left Happy House I was set on flying out of Lukla to experience the most dangerous airport in the world, that would later change.
After breakfast we gathered our belongings and hiked up the hill behind the house to the private helipad where the same pilot of Altitude air and his helicopter awaited us. We lifted off and bid farewell to the place we came to know as our home in the Himalayas as we set course through peaks and valleys towards Lukla. We even flew by Chiwong monastery. Soon a small village sitting on a protruding plateau coming out the side of a mountain appears, this was Lukla, and one could spot the Lukla airport landing strip. We came in to the newly built helipad, a few meters away from the airstrip to prevent further disasters from happening (many a times planes crashed into helicopters as the old pad was right by the runway). On the spectacular descent we saw a few planes land and takeoff.
Given weight and balance issues, we unloaded some fuel and cargo and Ang got off as well to take of some logistics and get some updated information regarding my flight. I greatly appreciate Ang’s honesty yet commitment to trying to let me fulfill my aviation dreams in at least flying out of the airport. More on that later.
After securing our weight and balance, we were ready for takeoff for one of the most surreal parts of the entire trip: Everest fly by.
The flight towards Everest was indeed dramatic. Ever-changing landscapes and elevations and various high-mountain monasteries and villages (some that exist and survive only for trekkers). In fact, during the low season, guest houses/ hotels often trade year-on-year to see who will stay open for the few who do still venture on the base camp trek (no summiting, but a handful still do the trek). Soon lush mountainsides and valleys gave way to brown and barren landscapes and snow capped tops as well as incredibly turquoise lakes. Given the prime weather conditions, we took a passage that is very rarely taken by any helicopter or hikers, we banked left, and soon enough the pilot notified us to look left. Sure enough Everest appeared between two mountains with snow blowing off its top. Truly an Avatar moment for me. This is the rare front-on view of Everest one often sees in post-cards.
Soon after a few more turns, passing by some more lakes and a dried up glacier, Everest re-appeared, and this time its true scale and size revealed itself. I mouthed “holy Sh*t” as we approached. We flew towards Everest, over base camp and Khumbu Icefall, the first part and most dangerous part of the summit, banked left and landed at Kalapathhar plateau, just across the dried glacier basin from base camp. We had 10 minutes to enjoy the beauty of our surroundings before we had to get back onboard and depart. At the altitude of 5300M or 17000FT, the air was very thin and winds exceptionally strong but it was a clear and sunny day. It was surreal to be the only humans as far as the eye could see with the tallest point of Earth just in front of us. The whole thing was so fast, so surreal and magical that while I was present it honestly did not sink in what I was experiencing until much after the trip. After taking pictures and really taking in the mighty Mt. Everest and its neighboring peaks, we hopped back on board. We flew just over the dried glacier basin, to which our Pilot asked me to send my footage to Trump…haha! Soon we returned to Lukla. Instead of refuelling to take us back, our pilot received a distress call and had to go on a rescue mission first.
During the rescue mission, we walked to the runway view point of Lukla Airport. Along the way Ang informed me the flight was delayed and over all the changed logistics of flying in and out of Lukla from the Kathmandu area. Explained below in the Nepal Key Travel Pointers section. While I still held on to hope, we stopped and watched planes take off, land and refuel/ load and unload. The runway is so much steeper than I had imagined and a lot shorter, hence the danger. If the plane doesnt stop, it hits the stone wall/mountainside, further if it does get enough lift it falls off the cliff. But that is why its built on a hill, to help planes slow down and help accelerate and generate lift. To be honest just to see the airport in operation was a dream come true and it truly is insanely unreal and hairraising, standing at the observation platform was a risk itself, if a plane couldnt slow down it could easily crash into us/ parts could fly and hit/kill someone. Alas, Ang made a realistic situation assessment and called it for me, I was to take the helicopter back with the rest of the group. At the helipad we waited for our helicopter to return from its rescue mission, refuel and we boarded.
I spent the 45 minute flight back to Kathmandu mostly enjoying the scenery, this time it was a little less dramatic and a little more familiar. As Kathmandu neared, the clear air started to get smoggy, and the smells of Kathmandu filled the helicopter (the pilot kept his window open). We flew into the thick of it and saw the terracotta brick factories spewing smoke from their chimneys. The approach into Kathmandu airport was quite cool as well. We landed safely and took the van back across the runway and tarmac to the domestic terminal exit.
After checking back into Dwarika’s we headed out to lunch at Jimbu Thakali, a traditional Nepali restaurant popular with locals located in the expat area. Serving Thakali, or dal-bhat, traditional Nepali platter of curries/pickles/veggies and rice or pancakes. We ordered Nepali Blood Sausage and Potato Curry to start. I got Ghoken, Nepali pancake, with mutten curry, lentil, chili, pickles, potato, dried bitter melon, and veggies, and yogurt. Rice and veggies are refillable. I also had homemade lemon soda.
Following lunch we were whisked away to Patan Durbar Square, one of the main squares and palaces of the Newari Empire. In recent years made famous by Dr. Strange. The palace also saw itself turned into a prison and school as well. The palace and square is famed for its stunning and intricate Newari woodwork throughout the columns, windows and pillars. There is also a great little museum that traces the history of Newari empire and culture as well as the crossroads of Hinduism and Buddhism in Nepal. The whole area is mostly of historic buildings, however some owners have gotten ride of the Newari wood carved windows in favor of modern windows, which is a bit sad.
After an architecturally marvelous time at Patan Durbar Square and the historic neighborhood, we proceeded to Thamel neighborhood. Once the hippie weed-smoking capital of the world, it is now the backpackers and shopping central of Kathmandu. We walked around, popped into a few shops including a grocery store where I got myself some Himalayan coffee beans we were back at the start but with some time to spare before dinner. Thankfully tucked away at the beginning of the main street of Thamel is the Garden of Dreams, which was the home of a Rana family prime minster, this family consolidated power to themselves and made the monarchy a puppet and basically kept all of Nepal’s wealth, evident in this ostentatious garden and villa and created the Rana period in Nepal’s history. The owner of this place has a Nepali name that sounded like Kaiser but because he felt he was royalty and powerful and like European culture, he named himself Kaiser. In the 1950s, the Nepali King asked India for help to topple the Rana family, and since then India has essentially been influencing Nepal.
Dinner was at Fire and Ice Pizza, a famous and popular post-Everest-summit place to have dinner, as most summiteers and hikers can only handle so much Sherpa stew for 3 months. We had garlic bread, Nepali mozzarella pizza and spicy meat sauce pizza, and homemade pesto gnocchi, and beer. Sadly it came time to part ways with Ang after our dinner.
Upon returning to Dwarika’s, I hit up the bar to try some Nepali whisky and a cocktail. Both quite good. Night-cap consumed, it was time to pack and go to bed.
Day 6 Departure
The last morning we had breakfast and explored the hotel grounds before it was sadly time to be picked up and whisked to the airport.
Check-in and immigration was fairly straight forward. Once again there is separate men’s and women’s security line. Before that there is a Priority Pass lounge as well as a Thai Airways lounge. One thing to note is that after you pass the security screening you must get a stamp, it was unclear and haphazard as there was no clear indication of this and many went ahead only to be stopped by the officer checking that stamp before heading to the departure lounge. The departures lounge is chaotic and confusing, with gates not showing until boarding time. Boarding is a free-for-all, no scanners, just a collection of the stubs, before everyone is herded on to buses to be transported to the plane. Our flight to Bangkok was delayed as expected since our arriving flight had to circle before landing, it was a busy busy time at Kathmandu airport. Soon we were onboard and taxied out for departure. Goodbye Nepal.
“This is Nepal”
Some basic history and facts about modern Nepal, summary of the various conversations we had through our journey.
Nepal, has never been colonized, it was a separate small kingdoms (golden age, Himalayan silk road of trade and art and craft) until the monarchy united it, then descendants lost real power to the Rana family who proclaimed themselves as a prime minister dynasty, they made education illegal and held all the wealth. Then a king in 1950s asked India to overthrow the Rana and that’s when India started having influence over Nepal. Because of southern forests, Great Britain never conquered Nepal but made deal to recruit Ghorka kingdom soldiers to fight in British wars. Tibet once attempted to attack Nepal but failed in late 19th century.
The Monarchy collapsed following the civil war from 1996 to 2006. It started in the countryside where maoists came to rise against the Monarchy. This is a large part of why there is a large population of Nepali refugee/immigrants in the West.
Now it’s a democratic president but currently the maoists party in control. There is a President but the Prime Minister runs the show.
Nepal mainly consists of 80% Hindu, 12% Buddhist. Hindi and Buddhists get along.
Social issues: There are women politicians, and even a female president as well as Transgender politicians. LGBT awareness and acceptance increasing especially with young and in Kathmandu, however still a conservative social fabric (ie: marry within your clan).
Nepal is facing a tourism issue. The government is targeting a budget and a visit Nepal 2020 target of 2 million visitors, as of 2019 it only barely hit 1 mil. Unfortunately, hostels/lodges undercut and vie for customers, they then cut costs and increase waste and burn plastic. And 25% of tourists go for base camp. Tourist numbers go up but per person spend has gone down.
There is a huge brain drain in Nepal. Over all people in Nepal are too happy, they are content so there is no progress, no drive. The younger generation want to go out and do more, but must create their own platform. Nepali unhappy with politics, but they don’t organize or protest. Rural Neplai don’t have the skills or knowledge to find minimum wage jobs in Kathmandu. Everyone looking for fast monetary gain, not many want to spend time studying. They don’t see that a porter’s career is a flat line salary and seasonal, they see it as a easy and familiar opportunity.
Finally, a huge issue is the large number of Nepali migrant workers. Brokers and agents lie and promise on false hope, government policy makers get a cut too. The workers then suffer and must pay off loan first before they can send money back home. Recently this has been brought to international attention with the controversial Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup where over 5000 Nepali migrant workers have been killed in the construction of the stadium.
Nepal Travel Key Pointers
Know your seasons and when to go. Best summiting season to Everest is April-May for prime all around conditions, but this does not mean clear skies or clear views of Everest/ the Himalayas. Best season to travel in Nepal if intense hiking/ summiting is not your thing, is October-early December when chances for clear skies and dry days are high, albeit the occasionally windy days that could cancel/delay your flights or blow you off a mountain (didnt happen but i felt my tent truly almost did).
Know what your goals are. Nepal has a lot to offer from the high mountains of the Himalaya region to the Northeast, to the rainforests in the south, to the valleys and plains of the central/West. Each offer different things to see and experience and different cultures and peoples who roam the lands. Because of the logistics of getting around, it takes a lot of time to get to and from various places so make sure to keep that in mind, and to build buffer time in case things such as flights get delayed or cancelled.
Plenty of airlines fly to Kathmandu. From the East Coast US or Europe the best options are likely to be Turkish Airlines or Qatar Airways. From West Coast US and Asia/Australia, best option are likely to be Cathay Pacific, Thai Airways, China Southern or Korean Air (there is also Malaysia Airlines, Lion Air, Silk Air and Air China). While Kathmandu is easily doable on your own, it is highly advisable to work with some sort of travel company or local contact for any itinerary beyond. Especially to navigate the logistics and bureaucracy, and also if it involves hiking, I think it’d be ideal to not get lost…which happens even with a guide! Metered taxies are available in Kathmandu, and so are public buses/vans.
Fights to Lukla: Since Kathmandu airport is overcapacity, in recent year to minimize cancellations, delays, tourists missing their hike start times and airline losing money, the government move all Kathmandu-Lukla flying to Ramechhap Airport. As such, hikers now wake up at 1AM and must drive 4 hours to Ramechhap to catch their scheduled flight to Lukla. Kathmandu still has about 1 flight a day per carrier operated mainly for crew-change, but thats it. So keep this in mind when planning for Lukla, whether it be to experience the airport or to reach base camp for trekking.
Accommodation options are plentiful, especially hostels and guesthouses, but not many luxurious options or big international chains outside of Kathmandu.
ATMs are not that commonplace, there are a couple at the airport or I would exchange at your hotel/guesthouse. It is around 1USD to 115Nepali Rupee. Many places catering to tourists in Kathmandu accept major credit cards as well.
It has taken me months to finally complete this blog. Not only because of the amount of content but also because every time I look back at this trip the more special it becomes. The entire experience from start to finish was incredible. It was a short and packed journey into Nepal but through the personal touches and conversations and surreal experiences I felt I really got to know the place. I cannot recommend Beyul Experiences and Happy House enough. I plan to one day return and do the full minimum 10 days with Beyul.
Nepal has so much to offer. Yes, infrastructure may be lacking and traveling to and through the country requires a lot of patience, planning and flexibility but its all well worth it in the end. So much of it remains untouched and undiscovered. Are there issues the nation faces? Of course, but that doesnt mean you shouldnt visit, but I would caution on visiting in a responsible way and to research before coming.
Safe Travels and Namaste/ Tashi Dele!