where the mountains echo

rebuild

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rani sunrise 1
rani lake sunrise
rani annapurna
rani anna 2

perched on a hilltop overlooking the lakeside city of pokhara and with front row views of the annapurna mountain range, you won’t find a more restful getaway than raniban retreat.

rani overview
rani entrance
rani overview 2
rani terrace
rani sky moon

how long does it take to climb 500 steps? for the active, a mere 10 minutes should do it but if you’re one of the porters at raniban retreat, that would be about five minutes too long – and that’s with luggage in hand or on their backs. they will relief you of your bags and sprint up the manmade stone stairs in no time, but you still need to haul yourself up to the top before you can check into one of their 10 cosy lodges.

it can be a daunting hike for the not-so-fit but the views on your way up make it worth the huffing and puffing: all of pokhara, the third largest city in nepal and the gateway for trekkers heading onto the popular annapurna circuit, lay beneath, its picturesque phewa lake a slate of inviting emerald dotted with tiny boats and kayaks.

look towards the right, along the same winding rocky road that leads to the foot of raniban and the resort’s closest neighbour, the only other landmark in the secluded area, comes into view. the world peace pagoda is a buddhist stupa built by japanese monks devoted to promoting a life of non-violence and is one of 80 that have been erected around the world since the end of world war ii.

rani pagoda
rani yoga
rani mountains
rani fields terrace
rani tree
rani sunset

those who venture here to visit the pagoda could easily miss raniban or not even realise its existence; no signboards point to it and from the road, the retreat is barely visible. it is this privacy and solitude that raniban’s guests seek, away and above the dusty and often noisy surrounds of pokhara. then there’s the obvious reward once you reach the hilltop resort that sits at 420 metres above phewa lake – breathtaking, uninterrupted views of the annapurna mountain range that’s home to some of nepal’s and the world’s highest summits.

depending on the weather, they may tease you from behind thick mists or heavy clouds, affording just hints of their majesty. when the shroud lifts, the range stands proudly in its full glory. this massif of the himalayas is characterised by a number of mountains that exceed the 7,000 metres in height, although the most well-known in this part of nepal, the machhapuchhre, falls just short of that mark. meaning fish tail in nepali for the shape formed by its double summit and nicknamed the matterhorn of nepal, it is worshipped by locals and considered sacred to the hindu god shiva.

rani mono 1
rani mono 2
rani birds on tree

to see the annapurna range at its best, awake before sunrise and wait for the first rays of light. in these early hours, the clear skies form a clean backdrop against which every craggy point and snow-capped peak is sharply defined. watch as the sky transforms from moody gray to pale ambers and soft pinks while wisps of clouds streak across. below, the town’s blockish buildings reveal themselves in uniform white squares crowding around the lake, the epitome of calm and silence.

the view grows on you; each time you look at it, the mountains appear change slightly as light hits the different parts. book a stay at one of the three bamboo-roofed lodges directly facing the mountains and you would want to spend hours just resting in bed, with the doors open, and feast on the inspiring landscape. if there’s any reason to drag yourself away from that, it would be to saunter to the spa – you did climb 500 steps, after all – and surrender to an hour or more of relaxing therapy.

rani food 1
rani brekkie
rani coke
rani pakoda

what better way to work up an appetite for an authentic nepalese meal? you have to try the dhal bhat, a platter of steamed white rice with small side servings of vegetables, lentil soup and curries. the resort may have just one restaurant, but the versatile kitchen team – staffed by locals from the nearby villages – can whip up a good variety of nepali, western, chinese and indian cuisine.

this here is a getaway in itself, the kind of place where doing nothing is everything

some of the vegetables are harvested from the resort’s own organic patch – they’ve also started cultivating coffee – and raniban makes it a point to use local ingredients as much as possible, sourced from the nearby communities. their community contribution doesn’t stop there; the resort conducts free medical checks for the villagers and is hosting an exhibition and sales of straw art at its reception, with proceeds going towards funding more free cancer screenings.

just outside the reception, the outdoor terrace is where guests like to converge for a drink and savour hot, freshly prepared food. during the day, the mountains, lakes and villages provide plenty of natural distractions. after sundown, everything fades into the night and pokhara lights up like a million fireflies.

to say that you will be on a mountain high is an understatement. this here is a getaway in itself, the kind of place where doing nothing is everything.

 

 > raniban retreat is at world peace pagoda, pokhara, nepal tel +977 61 692 136 http://raniban.com/

 


 

 

 

 

 

a home - and a family - away from home

help rebuild nepal

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dusk was settling over the rolling patches of green and yellow in the village of langol, the cloudless blue skies that had hung over earlier in the day slowly giving way to a soft peachy glow that was fading into greys. in the garden, babu raja maharjan and his wife belku were snipping away at the hedges that front their house. a neighbour was resting on their porch, minding her cows grazing in the field just beyond and where two teams of village kids were battling it out in a lively football game. i breathed in crisp air while taking in the bucolic scene and couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that this idyllic hamlet is a mere stone’s throw away from the dust-spewing streets of kathmandu but appears to exist on a different realm altogether.

the distance between nepal’s capital and the ancient city of kirtipur – which sits in kathmandu valley, where langol is located – is no more than 10km, but the journey can take nearly 30 minutes by car. my taxi first had to wind through the traffic-clogged streets of kathmandu, where harried drivers and impatient motorcyclists jostle for right of way with each other and the occasional (and presumably lost) cow before turning into kirtipur. from a distance, the city centre resembles a colourful lego town, formed by stacked buildings in every colour. like kathmandu, kirtipur’s main roads are flanked by shops peddling various trades, the facades of small sundry shops painted in the colours and logos of the international consumer goods brands that pay them for the advertising space; pepsi and coca-cola are among the biggest spenders.

we passed this and went ‘off road’ – off the tarred roads, that is, and trundled over sandy, gravelly paths into the heart of kirtipur where langol lays. immediately, the pace slowed down as expansive grasslands and grazing cattle take the place of buildings and cars. in fact, ours was the only vehicle winding through the single road. blockish houses of exposed bricks dot the landscape sporadically; the unfinished aesthetic is a norm here as a paint job is costly and not everyone can afford it. most homes are constant works in progress that are extended, built up and beautified bit by bit. what they lack in colour is made up for by the natural greens and yellows of the barley and wheat fields that surround them and stretch to the horizon. here, the sky is the skyline.

it’s certainly a rejuvenating change of scene after several days in congested thamel, where one’s senses are constantly bombarded by myriad distractions. as charming as it was, my soul was craving to see more of the land itself and immerse in the essence of local life. what better way to experience that than through a homestay – to live with a local family and see nepal through their eyes?

...the natural greens and yellows of the barley and wheat fields that surround them and stretch to the horizon. here, the sky is the skyline

babu’s homestay nepal came highly recommended on tripadvisor, having been awarded their certificate of excellence for two consecutive years now and topped their list of b&b’s in the kathmandu valley last year. a few emails was all it took to sort everything out between babu and i, including flight reservations for the subsequent portion of my travel, and all done without my having to pay a single rupee upfront. not that i had met or known babu prior to that; it was all based on trust, good will and as they always say in nepal, “namaste” which means ‘the good in me sees the good in you’.

i certainly saw, felt, heard and ate plenty of good in my four days with this hospitable family, who had begun opening up their simple but cosy home to staying guests since 2004. it started when babu, a certified trekking guide, led a group of swedish tourists on outdoor excursions and one of them, gunilla petersson, returned to stay with the family for four months. she cherished the experience so much that she began recommending it to her friends. it grew from there and soon, babu’s homestay nepal began attracting tourists from all over.

the youthful-looking father of two – he and belku have two teenage children, son aayush and daughter ruja – still leads trekking trips and walking tours, and also enlists the help of other guides. the maharjans speak good english so communication is fluid and they share their lives openly; ask babu how he and belku met, and you will be regaled with a romantic story of two childhood sweethearts who fought to stay together.

while belku is the mistress of the house who keeps things in tip-top condition, the whole family pitches in to see to guests’ needs. the kitchen, however, is belku’s domain and she whips up the most satisfying traditional nepalese delights such as dhal bhat (rice with a variety of meat and vegetable dishes), vegetable pakoras (fritters) and a variety of potato dishes. the maharjans have a small vegetable patch at the back of their house with herbs growing randomly, and harvest what they can for the meals they serve their guests. everything else is sourced from within the village; the produce are all organic and the dairy goods are as fresh as milking it yourself.

breakfast is a wholesome spread of toast, free-range eggs cooked any way you like, farm-fresh milk and fresh yogurt with a variety of seasonal fruits. for dinner, belku makes practically everything from scratch and cooks with the ease and instincts of someone who has clearly been doing – and loving – it for a long time. it’s a joy to watch her at her stove, often with several pots, pans and a pressure cooker bubbling and sizzling away at the same time. with her trusty platter of masala (spice mix) in one hand, she seasons, stirs and fries while appetising aromas whirl around the pink-walled kitchen. it’s my favourite portion of their home: this is where i not only get to savour beautiful food prepared with love, but also help out while learning about the different ingredients and pairings from a willing teacher – just as i used to at home, watching my late grandmother and my mother prepare the family’s favourite food. the kitchen is also the gathering point for everyone in the house, as its residents get to know each other over hearty meals.

the line-up of people changes nearly every day as visitors arrive and leave after varying lengths of stay. one night at dinner, i joined a pair of jovial french grandparents and their three grandchildren as they recounted their three-hour queue for visa-on-arrival at the tribhuvan international airport. but the well-travelled couple have seen it all, this being their second time in nepal. they told me about their maiden visit to nepal in the 1970s, when tourism was just budding and facilities were almost non-existent. they returned this time to show the young offsprings how different life is on another side of the world. in fact, every year during the school holidays, the couple whisk different grandchildren off on such mind-opening trips.

appetising aromas whirl around the pink-walled kitchen. it’s my favourite portion of their home

another night, i dined with a sprightly belgian couple in their 60s, hugo and francine, who had just returned after a five-day trekking trip that took them through remote villages, valleys and pine forests. it’s a trail that babu had mapped out from his intricate knowledge of the land around his village and provides an intimate look at what he calls ‘unseen nepal’. exhausted but in high spirits, hugo and francine recounted their adventure while i silently cringed because at half their age, i can muster neither the will nor stamina for it!

i opted for the village tour instead, led by babu’s ex-schoolmate nama. we set off after breakfast on my second morning there and walked at a leisurely pace as i took in the serene surrounds, stopping occasionally to say hello to the friendly villagers, who were dressed up in their finest as it’s the newari new year. most of the villagers here are newars (including babu and nama), one of nepal’s biggest ethnic groups.

a bubbly lady stopped us and blessed us by marking our foreheads with a red tika (a paste usually made of ash or clay, and coloured) each. at a small hill where a gigantic tree stands overlooking kathmandu valley, we met a group of ladies clad in similar orange and red parsi – similar to indian sarees – on their way home after prayers at the temple. young children would run up and ask “hello, do you have sweets?” while flashing me their saccharine smiles, thanking me politely before running off happily with the little chocolate bars i handed out. english is not taught at the local schools but there are a number of private institutions, funded by ngos or foreign corporations, which use the language as their medium. forward-thinking parents like babu and nama toil to send their children to such academies, so it is not surprising to find many young nepalese speaking good english.

i asked nama how the newars typically celebrate new year and in answer, he led me to chobar, another village in the valley that’s known for a breathtaking gorge that one can view from a suspended bridge. the crowds were clearly in a festive mood as they made their way to a nearby hill, the perfect vantage point to take in all of kathmandu valley. it’s also a popular picnic spot where families gather to feast, their colourful outfits popping against the natural sand-and-grass backdrop. we walked past a group dancing by their car, from which loud music was blaring, and they invited us to join them. as is customary on that day, they offered us drinks before we say goodbye.

this is the nepal that i had hoped to see, and babu had more to offer me. the next morning, we took a short stroll from his home – and what i have come to think of as mine – to a similar house two minutes away which his grandfather built decades ago. it’s where he and his siblings were born and grew up in. babu’s parents and a brother still live here and if needed, there’s a room to spare for his homestay guests. unlike babu’s house, which is considerably modern and spacious, his family home sports newari architecture with low ceilings, tight corners, steep wooden staircases and walls of clay. it’s cosy and cooling, with the aura of time having stood still.

i got another sense of authentic, traditional nepali life as we headed back to babu’s house. the entire household was outside the house – shopping.  they crowded around a young seller who had his wares bound by thick ropes tied to two ends of a long stick that he balances on one shoulder as he makes house calls across the villages. belku was checking out a large cooking pot, hugo wanted some cups and another guest was eyeing a small pressure cooker.

it was a joyous scene filled with laughter, banter and bargaining and it summed up my first homestay experience so perfectly. this is what a home feels like and at babu’s, i feel like i have also found a family away from home.

 

for more information on babu homestay nepal, go to http://www.familyhomestaykathmandu.com/ and also https://www.facebook.com/familyhomestaykathmandu

 



 

 

10 ways to enjoy Nepal... without stepping foot in a temple or trekking up a mountain

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from unesco-listed temples to the world’s highest summit, nepal is blessed with many wondrous sites that draw devout pilgrims, mountain trekkers and other adventure seekers by the plane loads. for travellers who don’t necessarily want to visit a stupa or need that adrenaline rush, there are other authentic nepali experiences to be had. here are 10 of them.

fly to everest you don’t have to break a sweat just to get up close to the breathtaking himalaya mountain range. you just need to get up early and catch a mount everest experience, or known simply as a mountain flight. for just under usd200 per person, you get a window seat on board an atr 72 that will encircle the range at sunrise while you get trigger happy with your camera, and every passenger gets a quick peek inside the cockpit. three different airlines – buddha air, yeti airlines and simrik airlines – offer this unique activity out of kathmandu’s tribhuvan airport. for better rates, sign up through local travel agents.

 

eat as locals do nepali cuisine is limited in its repertoire but what’s available is packed with flavours and spices. the must-try dish is dhal bhat, rice (usually basmathi) served in a round platter surrounded by tiny bowls of well-seasoned meat, spiced vegetables, papad (poppadom) and sometimes, a lentil soup. similar to indian thali, the dishes vary from chef to chef or day to day, so it’s not surprising that locals can eat this for all three meals each day. the other must-try is momo, dumplings traditionally filled with minced vegetables, pork, chicken or buff (buffalo) meat. they are usually steamed but are also served fried and kothey-style, which is not unlike chinese pot stickers.

take a trishaw ride thamel’s city centre is small so it’s easy to get around on foot and you can do it at a leisurely pace, but if you feel the need for some speed, hail a trishaw. for a small fee, the trishaw puller will pedal you around in his gaily decorated three-wheelers and give you a whirlwind sightseeing tour right in the thick of busy traffic, within inches of other vehicles. you will be kept on the edge of the seat as the roads alternate between bumpy and gravelly. hang on tight and enjoy the rush!

 

surrender to a spa treatment spas are aplenty in thamel, with the bigger ones usually housed in homey bungalows fitted with basic but adequate facilities. the focus is on ayurvedic treatments such as shirodhara, at a fraction of the price you would expect to pay in malaysia. ask your hotel for a recommendation and to negotiate lower rates for you. some, like tranquility spa (www.tranquilityspa.com.np) can even provide transfer to and from your hotel. for an invigorating indian head massage sans ambience, look for the nearest barbershop where the multi-talented barber will knead, rub and press your scalp and neck to utter bliss.

stroll the streets thamel’s streetscape teems with sounds, sights and scents that are a delight to get lost among. trawl its narrow one-way streets (watch out for the endless traffic) to immerse in and absorb its essence, a chaotic assault on the senses that’s ultimately charming. meet friendly locals with ready smiles and hand-clasped greetings of namaste; shop at stalls laden with local handicrafts; spot retro signboards bearing vintage fonts; bargain with mobile vendors who will try to sell you anything from diy henna paint sets to miniature violin-like instruments, earnest shopkeepers trying to entice you into visiting their stores and part with your rupees.

shop the bazaars souvenir stores are everywhere in thamel, most popularly peddling pashmina shawls, thangka art, dvds of movies and documentaries on nepal, handmade felt accessories and apparel imported from india. for nepali specialties, however, you need to head to the bazaars on the way to and near kathmandu durbar square. tiny shops with low doors and makeshift stalls cater to local demands for fresh produce, kitchen goods, spices – there’s a masala (spice mix) for every dish, including yogurt – and teas grown in nepal’s eastern regions.

thamel’s streetscape teems with
sounds, sights and scents
that are a delight
to get lost among

 

stray off the well-trodden path if the idea of lunching with nuns or tracing the trail of the kumari is music to your ears, sign up with social tours (www.socialtours.com), an award-winning sustainable tourism company. they offer a variety of short tours and weeks-long excursions, all designed to provide memorable and unique experiences. popular tours include the three-hour cook like a local culinary course, and a day visit to thimi to meet artisanal potters and throw your own keepsake.

browse bookstores where there are backpackers, there will be book stores and thamel has both in abundance. from lonely planet guides to bestselling paperbacks, a good variety of english titles are available at reasonable prices alongside souvenirs like fridge magnets and postcards printed on handmade lokta paper. if you have time for just one bookstore, make it pilgrims book house (www.pilgrimsbooks.com), a 30-year-old institution with some 250,000 books in its collection, spread out over two levels and at their online shop.

check into a homestay it doesn’t get more authentic than this: stay with a local family, learn to cook nepalese food and dine together, communal style. hear their stories and share yours. by the time you leave, they may want to adopt you. homestays, usually located in bucolic villages away from tourist-packed cities, are a great addition to your nepal itinerary as they show up different facets of the country, the people and their lifestyle. just 30 minutes from thamel and surrounded by wheat fields, baburaja maharjan’s homestay nepal (homestay-nepal.com) comes highly recommended and is a tripadvisor travellers choice 2014 winner in the b&bs and inns category.

indulge in western comforts gourmet coffees, french pastries and full english breakfasts are obviously not part of nepal’s original food scene but in tourist-savvy thamel, they have become ubiquitous and are done very well. you can easily find illy coffees at the cafes, or try local chain himalayan java coffee (www.himalayanjava.com) which uses organic, fair trade beans that grow in the highlands. quaint bakeries roll out oversized breads and pastries that make for cheap and filling meals, while breakfasts can get pretty fancy with greasy fry-ups that are usually paired with homemade yogurt and potatoes cooked in a variety of ways. some cafes take liberty with the names though; a rosti is not always what it should be – sometimes, it’s really roast potatoes.

this article was first published in crave, the lifestyle pullout of the sunday mail, and the malay mail online on 15 june 2014

 

 

 

finger fantastic

rebhuild

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thamel’s best anytime-snack are wok-fresh fingerchips from bk’s place

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fancy some fingerchips? sounds morbid but rest assured, no human parts are harmed in the making of them – although the occasional oil splatter can’t be avoided – as they are simply the whimsical name that nepalese have bestowed upon the humble french fries. it is not exactly clear how the moniker came about, although if you think about it, it is not an appropriate one: fries are, after all, potato chips that you pick up with your fingers in order to eat. sure, you can go all posh and stick a fork into them but part of the french fries enjoyment is the finger-licking afterwards, especially when there’s some dip leftover on your digits.

or when you're snacking on thamel’s best fingerchips, served wok-fresh and piping hot at bk’s place in thamel. it’s located on a small road off the main thoroughfare and opposite the funky buddha bar, and that’s pretty much as precise as directions can get in this crowded tourist city, where buildings have no unit number. you won’t have trouble finding it though, as it’s mighty popular and while not always crowded, draws a steady stream of customers throughout its opening hours.

... a crispy, crunchy exterior
while maintaining a powdery
finish

for 12 hours each day, this 15-year-old joint serves up fingerchips that are fried to a crispy, crunchy exterior while maintaining a powdery finish within. to complement the chips, bk’s offers nine varieties of homemade dips, of which we favoured the special (a mix of mayonnaise, ketchup and chopped onions) and pinda, a peanut sauce that’s not unlike a thick, creamy peanut butter. the chips – one portion is equivalent to about one and a half serving of mcd’s large fries, ideal for sharing between two – are cut thicker than your fast food restaurant variety and served in white paper cones. the dips, on the other hand, are served in tiny saucers made of dried saal leaves. it’s a popular type of disposable and biodegradable plateware that’s commonly used at casual eateries, street food stalls and also to hold religious offerings at temples.

altogether, bk’s presentation is honest, rustic and authentic – like its food. who doesn’t like fries, especially when they’re freshly fried upon order and is comfortingly unctuous without being cloyingly greasy? bk’s fingerchips are simple goodness that everyone enjoys and do they: their customers consume 75kg worth of potatoes each day. Besides fingerchips, its menu also includes other fried and local favourites such as momo (dumplings), samosa, chicken wings and spring rolls.


bk’s place bhagawathi marg, thamel, kathmandu, nepal opens 10am-10pm daily tel +977 1470 0502