Experience traditional Nepalese activities with your family!
Nepal is a mystical country encircled by glacier-encrusted Himalayan Mountains to the north and lush tropical lowlands to the south. From tasty local fare to effervescent lunar festivals, the Nepalese have a multitude of cultural traditions that your family can experience. One unique aspect of Nepal is how minute it is compared to massive neighboring countries like China and India. Families exploring Nepal will be able to soak in a wealth of cultural and ecological diversity, but won’t have to devastate their travel budget on intra-national airfare and waste precious moments on everlasting bus rides. Moreover, Nepal’s physical position between China, a predominantly Buddhist nation; Tibet, a locale with an esoteric culture now spreading south; and India, a country with a majority of Hindus, creates a vibrant melting pot in the band of land called Nepal. Dive in and enjoy the vast array of traditional Nepalese experiences with your family!
Since the Chinese occupation of Tibet began in the 1950s, Nepal has become the home of many Tibetan refugees who practice Buddhism. Thus, although the majority of native Nepalis are Hindu, the country is also a hotspot for Buddhist practitioners. One of the backbones of Buddhism is meditation, so make room for some much-needed quiet time during your exploration in Nepal and cultivate some mindfulness. Mindfulness practices can benefit everyone in your family!
Where to go:
Kathmandu: Kopan Monastery, perched high up on a hill overlooking the bustling Kathmandu valley, specializes in making Buddhism accessible for Westerners. The center educates many aspiring Tibetan monks, but there are also plenty of Western monks and nuns who facilitate affordable Buddhist courses lasting anywhere from a few hours to several months. Check the schedule to see what introspective opportunities are unfolding while you’re in Kathmandu.
Pokhara: The Ganden Yiga Chozin Buddhist Centre offers three-day residential retreats beginning most Fridays as well as daily yoga and meditation classes. Once you have mastered the basics, find a serene spot on the banks of Phewa Lake and get enlightened already!
Nepal has one main dish and locals eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. “Dal bhat” translates to “lentils and rice,” but the meal often comes with much more than that. Expect fragrant basmati rice, a turmeric-infused lentil soup, spicy pickled mango, a choice of meat (mutton, chicken, or buffalo) for the omnivores, and curried potatoes. Order mild versions to make the meals more kid-friendly. Traditional eateries often serve all-you-can-eat dal bhat, so go hungry. Soon, you’ll recognize the kitschy “Dal Bhat Power 24-Hour” t-shirts around town and actually know what they mean! If your family needs a break from dal bhat, find Indian fare to switch it up.
Where to go:
Kathmandu: The capital is teeming with dal bhat restaurants—you’ll have no trouble finding this dish. Venture outside of Thamel (the touristy hideaway in Kathmandu) to find more authentic versions.
Pokhara: The best dal bhat spots in Pokhara require you to order dinner in the morning, as they spend all day preparing the food. Poke your head into unmarked storefronts around Phewa Lake and see if they offer meals. Not every restaurant is publicized—often the best eateries are the holes-in-the-wall you won’t find online, so go explore! Just make sure you know your order in Nepali.
Nepalis celebrate so many festivals that it is almost impossible to venture there without coinciding with an extravagant celebration of some sort. Check the lunar calendar for Holi in particular, the Festival of Colors, which marks the beginning of spring and is especially exciting for kids. Sometime in late February or early March, revelers stock up on plastic bags filled with vibrantly-colored powder and promptly empty them on each other. The scene promptly dissolves into people swarming in clouds of indigo, aquamarine, and tangerine clouds accompanied by the latest Bollywood tunes. Do your kids want a superb offensive strategy? Sprinkle some powder into water bottles and douse your targets, and then throw more powder. It’s like tarring and feathering, but with rainbows! Be sure to bring clothes for your family that you don’t mind having involuntarily tie-dyed.
Where to go:
Kathmandu: It is virtually impossible to avoid Holi anywhere in Nepal, but the celebrations in Kathmandu are especially lively. Be sure to stock up on powders, as locals often pursue tourists in particular. Water balloons make for especially lethal artillery—and what children don’t love them?
Pokhara: Find a place to perch somewhere on Lakeside to watch the revelry unfold before you. There are good spots where you can finagle a bird’s-eye view and dump powder on those unsuspecting below!
Life in the Himalayas
Nepal is home to Sagarmatha, meaning “Forehead in the Sky”—but your family might know this famous peak as Mount Everest. As the home of the world’s loftiest peaks, mountaineering and trekking have become embedded in Nepali life. The people who live in the Himalayas are called Sherpas, and most have some Tibetan ancestry. The relaxed pace of life in these mountainous regions starkly contrasts the congestion of cities like Kathmandu. Head to the hills for stunning vistas, belly-warming thukpa (noodle soup—great for kids!), and perhaps even a yeti sighting. Don’t forget a few strands of colorful prayer flags to offer to the mountain spirits for protection as you hike over alpine passes.
Where to go:
Lukla: If you want to skip the first few days of hiking from sub-tropical Shivalaya and beeline it to the Himalayas, catch a cheap flight to Lukla, which will plop your family down right in the midst of the Himalayan foothills. This flight also makes for quite an exciting journey, as the landing strip towers over an immense canyon! From there, you can trek all the way to Mount Everest Base Camp, visiting a collection of Sherpa villages along the way.
Pokhara: The Mountain Man Museum in Pokhara is underwhelming, but it does have some intriguing scientific displays about the receding glaciers in the mountains. Many of the exhibits are kid-friendly, and offer wonderful opportunities to learn about the cultural and geographical history of the region. Pokhara is also jump-off point for most treks in the Annapurna region, which has a plethora of hikes to choose from for all ability levels. Check in with a local tour operator to ask about permits and which route is most appropriate for your family.
Another result of the burgeoning Buddhist population in Nepal is the plethora of stupas popping up all over the country. Stupas are religious sites most often shaped like mounds with a tower on top, although they come in many shapes. The most common ones you’ll see around Nepal have a round base topped with a four-sided layer, each side housing a Buddha figure. On top of that structure, thirteen gilded rings form a tall cylinder, which represent the steps on the path to enlightenment. Finally, a small golden umbrella towers over the stupa. Each of these structures is stuffed with holy relics like ashes of venerated monks, scrolls inscribed with sacred mantras, or bits and pieces of the Buddha himself. Stupas are one of the best places to experience culture, as they are often teeming with pilgrims from dawn until dusk. Walk around stupas with your family to gain merit—it is believed that circumambulating these holy spots generates endless good fortune!
Where to go:
Kathmandu: The most awe-inspiring stupas are found in Kathmandu. A favorite is the Boudha stupa, an impending white structure resting on a circular base with countless red, yellow, green, blue, and white prayer flags flying from the gilded umbrella. Don’t miss Swayambunath stupa, also known as the monkey temple, which offers a panoramic view of Kathmandu valley. Your kids can meet hordes of friendly, yet unabashed monkeys on the way—just be careful on the narrow, steep steps to the top.
One of the most peculiar aspects of Nepali culture is the Goddess Kumari, who resides in a temple made of crusty brick and carved wood in Durbar Square in Kathmandu. Hindu priests find each Kumari through a vigorous process that begins when the current goddess begins puberty. Many believe that the Kumari is a human incarnation of the Hindu goddess Durga, so priests hunt for certain physical qualities (black eyes, lithe body), and social qualifications (from a certain caste) which designate the young girl as the next possible living goddess. To confirm that the girl is truly the living version of Durga, she is shut inside a room filled with the heads of sacrificed buffaloes during the Dashain festival. If she remains calm, it is believed that she is truly the Kumari, as it is only the goddess that would be able to retain such serenity in a gory scene. Having one’s daughter indicated as the next Kumari is a high honor, so with the parents’ blessing, the new Kumari is relocated to Durbar Square and undergoes rigorous religious training. She only leaves the temple once a year, when she is carried in a palanquin throughout Durbar Square.
Where to go:
Kathmandu: Visit the home of the living goddess in Durbar Square. If you happen to be in Nepal during Inda Jatra, a festival around September, you might catch a glimpse of the goddess as she travels around Kathmandu for three days during that time. Otherwise, head to her quarters in Kathmandu between 10 AM and noon to catch a glimpse of her from her chambers. Unfortunately, much of the Square is in a state of disrepair due to the earthquakes in 2015; however, there is still plenty of original architecture to enjoy. Hire a guide for your family outside of the square for a few rupees (don’t forget to haggle!) to get the most from your visit.
Nepal has a rich military tradition of gorkhas (also spelled gurkha). Outfitted in traditional khaki outfits and brandishing the khukuri, their trademark curved knife, gorkhas are a fearsome bunch. These groups originally fought against the British invasions in the 1800s, but now they are recruited by different armies around the world for their expertise in battle. Gorkhas are known for their fearlessness: their motto is “Better to die than be a coward.” There are around 3,500 gorkhas serving in armed forces today, and battalions now belong to the British and Indian armies. Take time to learn about these warriors if your family is interested in military and political history.
Where to go:
Kathmandu: Why not make your own khukuri in true gorkha style? Although originally utilized in battle, many Nepalis now use this famous curved knife for chopping wood and digging. For $29 USD, you and your children can join a khukuri workshop through Backstreet Academy in Kathmandu and fashion your own gorkha souvenir. Just be sure to put it in your checked luggage on the way home!
Pokhara: Visit the Gorkha Memorial Museum for a heaping dose of gorkha history and paraphernalia, from photographs exhibits to uniform displays. Admission is $2 USD for adults and $1 USD for children.