A Little Volunteering… Teaching English at a Monastery & VSSN Nepal Review

My volunteer travels in Nepal started with sightseeing around the Kathmandu Valley. I loved this part. Sightseeing gave my me a jump-start of sorts into the Nepali Buddhist culture into which my cousin and I were immersing ourselves for two months. We toured Kathmandu for a few days and we took a crash-course in Nepali language.

After those orientation days, the plan was to head into the Kathmandu Valley to our volunteer placements at two Buddhist monasteries in a little village in a rural part of the valley. It’s about this point that we saw the cracks in volunteer placement company we used used. Volunteering in Nepal was a long-time goal for my cousin in particular, and we had used a middleman for ease and for local knowledge. Turns out that doesn’t always work out so well!

Pharping monastery, nepal
The sun shining on the valley around Pharping, Nepal, which is about an hour outside of Kathmandu

Update: This article was gently critical when I first posted about VSSN Nepal, and it was a story, not a review of the company. Basically the story recounted the joys with the monks and our placement, but also a few of the issues we’d had. Unfortunately, they didn’t like my feedback. It got nasty via email. In good faith, I can’t recommend VSSN (Volunteer Services and Support Nepal) to future volunteers.

Here’s the deal, I don’t like to dwell on the bad, so bear with me. After sharing on ALA that I liked neither the money trail nor the facilitation aspect of VSSN Nepal, I left it at that and wrote about what I did like about volunteering. I wrote several positive posts about my volunteering time in the country. A  year after I left Nepal, however, various people representing the company and using VSSN email addresses started an aggressive email and commenting campaign on my website, forcing me to close the comment and eventually block IP addresses because of the hate and vitriol. Nasty things were said by both sides and eventually the founder stopped whoever was initiating the issues.

My goal was never to annihilate their business, so even after the heated and nasty exchanges, I left this blog post how it was back in 2008—gently critical but no mention of the more recent issues. Then, three years later and after no changes or contact from me, someone representing the volunteer organization sent me a series of snarky, aggressive, and attacking emails.

Volunteer Services and Support Nepal (VSSN) was frustrated by my criticism, I get it. But their approach showcased a serious lack of professionalism, which was my initial assessment and primary critique. At the height of the email attacks, I got nasty and ended up cussing in all caps in response. It was not my finest moment. After stressing over what to do, I left this post on my website. They are unprofessional. I offered to forget all of this and take down this blog post in exchange for an honest and professional apology; I was called a liar and Matrika told me he would never apologize for the very real issues that cropped up in our program, and he never explained why his uncle’s orphanage received an unverified donation on my behalf instead of the monastery.

I give up. The company consistently tried to make me feel like I was a bad person for sharing my personal volunteer experience on my website. My VSSN review boils down to this: They are unprofessional and they have never accounted for why zero percent of my volunteer fee went to the monastery that hosted me. That’s what sticks out most in the years since I volunteered; my presence was a burden to the very people I aimed to support. I thought they were receiving money to cover my food, but the placement company didn’t share that fee with them.

Below are a few other issues if you care to continue, and I also share tips for what to ask before you volunteer with a company. At the end of the day, I loved teaching the young monks English in Nepal. For years now, I continue to support the monastery and I follow the progress of the students. And I also loved my time traveling across Nepal.

So, read on, or skip to the volunteer experience posts. At the end of this post I share information on ideas for arranging independent volunteer experiences

What Went Wrong? My VSSN Nepal Review

The rest of this blog is a recap of what went right and wrong with our organization, it’s a review of Volunteer Service and Support Nepal (VSSN). This represents my personal experience with the company, no more, no less. VSSN Nepal denied that anything went wrong with our program, but out of the seven other volunteers I met during my month, scarcely one person was completely satisfied with their experience.

The good? I loved my language lessons and the two sisters who taught me basic Nepalithey were sweet women and they took me sightseeing around Kathmandu, gave some history, and a fun few days of orientation. The women are locals, and demonstrate that VSSN is supporting the local community through employment.

The bad? The facilitation side of our VSSN volunteer program went into the gutter the moment the cab dropped us off in the small town of Pharping. To my mind, facilitation on the ground is a key reason to pay the fee.

Pharping is a small Newari village with not a whole lot going onwhich is lovely, really. The pace of life slowed once we left Kathmandu city. Tibetan Buddhist monasteries dot the hillside around town. It is quaint, quiet, cool; a respite from the bustle of Kathmandu.

monastery english nepal
Tibetan Monastery viewable from the classrooms and volunteer dorms at my monastery in Pharping, Nepal

The owner of VSSN, Matrika, came with us for the hour-long trip to Pharping. He settled us into our rooms—clean and serviceable—and shared information about our placement at the two monasteries where my cousin and I would spend nearly four weeks teaching. After a bit of soup and tea, Matrika told us that while he was returning to Kathmandu, a new, third person would arrive in the morning to escort us to our two monasteries (my cousin at one, and me at another).

At this point, we had learned that two other women (another American and a South African) were already staying at the guesthouse and that each of the girls were placed at the two different monasteries: Manjushri Di-Chen Learning Center and Arya Tara.

We had two choices at this point, one of us would walk for 45 minutes to the girls monastery, Arya Tara, and teach English to the young nuns. The other would work at the boys monastery, Manjushri Di-Chen, a short walk up a steep hill. My cousin chose the nuns and I opted for the monks; then we said our adieus to Matrika.

Small Nepali Hut
A small hut lining the road on my cousin’s walk to her monastery outside of Pharping

Volunteer Placement Confusion

That night, we ate dinner with the two other women, Cara and Louise, and they gave us the scoop on the situationthe girl’s monastery was on holiday for three weeks and the boys’ monastery already had two English teacher volunteers for the small handful of classes.

Louise was concerned with the situation because there was no need for me at the boys’ monastery. In fact, the facilitator at my monastery, Lobsang, hadn’t been informed that I was arriving. Helen was similarly confused: If the monastery is on vacation for three of the four weeks we are here, what will she do every day?

The Guesthose Gang
The four of us lived at the guesthouse and loved spending time together, though each of our monasteries did offer as-good or better volunteer accommodation

Then the women at the guesthouse shared that they felt trapped in the village with few food options. We were forced to eat at the monastery since the town offered just one sporadically open restaurant. And they were weary of the food. My approach to travel is to maintain respect and even bend my vegetarianism if culturally necessary. The program description explained that three complete meals every day were included. Even under generous assumptions, that did not pan out. The women had been eating from a single pot of lentils (unseasoned and simply boiled), for a week. By comparison, friends who were also volunteering through VSSN but living at a local homestay said the local families used the food stipend—which goes a very long way in a country as poor as Nepal—to prepare local vegetables, offer fruit a few times a week, and add a tad variety.

I went to bed that night confused about what was going to happen the next day. After we finished our breakfast, my cousin and I anticipated meeting Barbajuan, the owner of the guesthouse and a relative of Matrika. Matrika had indicated that this man would escort us to the monasteries and help ensure the placement went smoothly.

Amrit! View of Pharping from Balcony at our guesthouse.

Instead, Amrit, a lovable and truly sweet man running the guesthouse (and a friend to this day) followed Barbajuan’s orders and instructed my cousin and me to tag along behind Louise and Cara to our respective monasteries.

Louise and Cara were awesome throughout everything; it was not their job to act as our tour guides for the day, but they both played an integral role in helping us figure out how to make a good experience out of the situation for the following four weeks. Lobsang, the man running my monastery, was kind and helpful when I showed up, even though he was also confused about my presence.

As a stop-gap for the situation, he instructed me to shadow Louise for the week-and-a-half left that she had for volunteering. Once Louise left, I would take over her classes. My cousin was equally unexpected and even less unnecessary at her monastery. She and Cara and decided to walk to their monasteries every day anyhow and play with the handful of girls who did not go home for break; they taught them Spanish, Latin salsa, and other fun games and dances.

Both of us made the absolute best out of the situation but it was not ideal for anyone. I addressed many grievances with Matrika as soon as they cropped up. Matrika responded positively to our polite request for food diversity, or even just access to the kitchen, which we weren’t allowed to use. And the food got better. He told us he couldn’t change the situation at the monasteries, but didn’t apologize that they were on break and also full of other volunteers.

As a placement organization, he dropped the ball by not communicating our arrival to either monastery.

The thing is, I had an open volunteer time-frame. My yearlong round the world trip meant that if he had informed me and my cousin of the situation, we would have simply volunteered three weeks later. We had planned to trek in the Himalayas and also explore other parts of Nepal, so we were beyond flexible on the timing. We could have avoided this situation Matrika and VSSN had maintained open communication channels. VSSN didn’t have it figured out; they were disorganized and they had no record of our past emails, past communiqués, aor our submitted application detailing when we planned to volunteer. They had simply forgotten about us until we arrived, then tossed us into a rural village.

In the years since volunteering in Nepal, I have volunteered in many other places—Guatemala, Mexico, Thailand—and in each case, things like this happen. But they usually happen because I volunteer independently. When my plans fall through, I roll with it. But when I pay money for someone smooth those rough edges, there’s at least a small expectation that some facilitation will occur.

The Green Kathmandu Valley
It’s a sheer drop off of the road into the very green Kathmandu Valley.

So What Can You Do To Volunteer in Nepal?

My time at the monastery ended on a positive note because of the interactions with the children. It’s hard to go wrong once you actually get to volunteering. VSSN had little to do with what I loved about my experience. Since then, I’ve learned that going through a third party isn’t always necessary. My monastery has a website and it allows volunteers to book their time through them directly (there is a contact email on their site, please navigate there and contact them directly).

I loved teaching English at the monastery and I highly recommend this place to volunteers looking to teach English in Nepal, particularly since you can live right at the monastery while you volunteer. My cousin’s woman’s monastery, Arya Tara is less connected online, so it’s hard to volunteer there. But she had a fantastic time with the nuns even though she was not able to formally teach them; she did mini-lessons every day and formed some tight bonds with many of the girls.

More recently, a traveler emailed me asking to share her story about arranging a DIY volunteer experience teaching monks in Nepal—she details how she managed it and how it all worked out.

If you’re willing to brave some of the details yourself then consider the advantages of booking directly with the monastery! I loved every moment teaching my young monks. There is a lot of need in Nepal, especially in the wake of the earthquake, so it would behoove those interested to really research where your skills best fit. Sometimes tourism is the best answer, but other times you can find great-fit volunteer experiences too.

This entire experience was my first lesson in the importance of thorough research; volunteer organizations charge anywhere from $500 to $2500 to arrange programs. In some cases this is necessary because of remote locations and specific types of volunteering—medical volunteering costs more. In other circumstances, if you know what type of volunteering you want to do it pays to read other travel blogs and stories from other RTW travelers. Do your homework and it’s possible to avoid using a middleman.

Nepali Nuns from Arya Tara
Nepali Nuns at the Arya Tara monastery outside of Kathmandu/Pharping.

So, Should You Use VSSN to Volunteer in Nepal?

It was my sheer lack of knowledge that put me in my predicament. Even though we emailed past VSSN volunteers and received positive reviews, it was just an unlucky set of events. For a little perspective, at the time that I’m writing this, the amount of money I could have saved by going through the monastery directly is about US $510. The monastery charged roughly $150+ a month for housing and three meals a day; VSSN Nepal was significantly more than that.

Even all of the confusion wouldn’t have prompted me to share the issues online, but it galled me to learn (on my last day) that VSSN did not donate any of my volunteering fee to my monastery. The monastery fed me lunch every single day and received no food stipend from my donation, despite language on the website and from Matrika indicating that $100 of my fee would go toward the local project hosting me. Instead, I’m told that he donated my fee to his uncle’s orphanage a few towns over, which I never visited. I cannot know their intentions with that aboutface on the donation, but I do know it’s murky ethically.

If you are going to use VSSN—because they are nice enough people and they do offer some facilitation—I simply suggest that you account for the fact that they don’t spread your volunteer fee into the local areas. Once on the ground, you have the opportunity to infuse money directly into rural communities. This is the most powerful form of support possible for volunteers. Consider the fee that you pay VSSN is only for facilitation on getting to the placement—donate to your organization independently of Matrika and his company. It’s the only way that you will truly know that your presence at the—hospital, school, monastery, etc—isn’t negatively impacting its financial stability.

Playing Simon Says
Playing a game of Simon Says after our lessons to reinforce some new concepts! :)

Quick Tips: Things to Know Before You Volunteer

Additional Research Links

Questions to Ask Your Volunteer Company

  • The paper trail. Honest organizations will fully itemize their annual expenses and clearly tell you how much of your fee is going to the volunteer project itself. Volunteering is about service, so I encourage you to find a non-profit, not a for-profit company whenever possible, unless you can volunteer directly with the school, monastery, or project.
  • What is included in the volunteer fee. Ask questions about your lodging, the type of food (western or local).
  • Point of contact. Who will be your contact person and can you get in touch with them at all times.
  • How many in-country details are provided? If it’s independent, will they help you get to the volunteer site? (In many cases, yes!).
  • Endorsements and accreditation. Find out if the NGO or organization has proven itself to any of the standards organizations.
  • Email past volunteers and Google the organization. They will never give you the email address of someone like me, who had a negative experience, so use the internet to research thoroughly. One negative review can be a fluke, but look around. Ask volunteers about their daily lives at the placement and what didn’t meet their expectations.
  • Is the company working with your placement? The best volunteer projects are community-led and the organization has a close relationship with the placement schools, monasteries, and hospitals to be sure the volunteers are needed and working on worthwhile projects. Some for-profit companies are only interested in the volunteer fees, not helping volunteers work toward the good and betterment of a community
  • A complete list of questions to ask your volunteer or placement company.

So much good luck! Consider checking out Grassroots Volunteering; I launched this database to counter the issues and lack of transparency in international volunteering. This site is free and open-source; it’s the culmination of hundreds of travelers from around the world submitting volunteer projects they’ve found on their wanders. It’s a database of low-cost independent volunteering opportunities all over the world. :)

A Little Culture… Exploring Kathmandu’s Stupas, Temples, and Culture

A travel guide on what to see and do in #Kathmandu, Nepal. #traveltips

The early morning light glinted off buildings of Kathmandu as our plane circled the Kathmandu Valley waiting to land. After two months exploring India, I moved into Nepal (full Nepal travel guide here) to spend nine weeks taking a much slower pace to life and travels as I explored everything there is do in Kathmandu, in the wider Kathmandu Valley, and further afield in Chitwan National Park, Pokhara, and other areas. In India, I met my cousin in Mumbai and then rode the trains north for two months. It was a lot of energy to move that fast and far. But, oh the sites we saw. India is a gorgeous country and Nepal—in the foothills of the Himalayas—has continued that theme. The big part of my travels through Nepal is volunteering at a monastery in the Kathmandu Valley. Beyond that, I used my free weekends to explore everything Kathmandu has to offer.

Before volunteering, the organization helped me tour the major sites and learn the landscape of the city. Holy smokes there is a lot of history in Kathmandu! There are truly so many things to do and sights to visit that even my six weeks of weekends exploring haven’t been enough. Of note though: Spend time in Kathmandu and you will become nonchalant about the sheer craziness of traffic in South Asia. When I landed in Bangkok all of those months ago, the chaos and noise overwhelmed me—I understood so little of how it flowed. Now, however, there are rules to the chaos and underlying codes of conduct that were so foreign. My volunteer organization had arranged a taxi to whisk me into Thamel, the backpacker area of Kathmandu and the place from which I began learning this new country. Because my cousin and I paid for an all-inclusive volunteer program, the hotel and accommodations for four weeks are mostly covered, except for our weekend excursions, when we tested out the best hotels in Kathmandu and beyond to find comfortable and convenient places to stay.

Even better, as I spent the days exploring the squares and stupas of Nepal, I also spent four days in a Nepali language bootcamp. These lessons gave me a crash course in the most basic verbs and commands that I will need when working at the monastery and navigating the country.

Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu, one of the most popular things to do in the city.
Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu, one of the most popular things to do in the city.

What to Expect in Kathmandu

Our first three days were jam packed and organized around our two-hour Nepali lessons. After morning lessons, we visited the major tourist spots in Kathmandu. One of the first things I loved about Nepal is the pace. Nepal shares some cultural nuances with its southern neighbor, India, but without the intensity. The Nepali people are fun and friendly, and each shop was delighted to help me practice my new Nepali. The only comparison I can think of is the difference between Laos and Vietnam.

One of the best bonuses, is the casual acceptance of tourism. India is huge, and there are some cities off the beaten path that rarely see tourism. This isn’t the case for Nepal. Because of the number of travelers hiking the Annapurna Circuit and Everest, foreigners are often given no more than a passing glance. In India, that wasn’t the case. From Gandhi’s ashram to the Taj Mahal, the men and women stared, touched, and followed me. Nepal is a welcome change of pace for any traveler who is also arriving from India!

Each section of town has a different vibe, so that’s the first thing you should know when exploring and picking a place to stay. While many backpackers stay in Thamel (and this is where I passed much of my time since our volunteer office was located in Thamel), other travelers choose to stay deeper in the heart of Kathmandu, where the major historic sites are within walking distance.

Best Things to Do in Kathmandu

what is worth seeing in Kathmandu

My Nepali language teachers acted as my tour guide, they were sister pair, Pramila and Urmila. Together, the sisters structured my days to see the best things in Kathmandu each afternoon. The goal was to have us understand the culture, history, and language before heading deeper into the rural areas of the Kathmandu Valley. On this round the world trip, I’ve made a point to collect UNESCO World Heritage sites—these are spots that are natural or manmade sites provide an important contribution to the world’s history and development. The Kathmandu Valley is home to seven UNESCO sites: Hanuman Dhoka, Patan and Bhaktapur, Swayambhunath and Boudhanath, and Pashupati and Changu Narayan.

Hanuman Dhoka (Durbar Square)

This a large square that sits opposite the series of temples and buildings that were once used by royalty. This area was built throughout a large swath of Nepal’s history, developing between the 12th and 18th centuries. Durbar Square functioned as the seat of royalty for thousands of years — the nation’s kings were crowned here and ruled from these former palaces. Three separate squares are known collectively as Durbar Square, but each used to serve a different function. Now, some palaces and buildings serve as museums, others were rebuilt in the 20th century. Through it all, you can explore the square and make a scavenger hunt of finding the many images of Hanuman, the monkey god.

Although much of the square is still filled with history and beauty, many major structures were reduced to rubble during the devastating, tragic 2015 earthquake that struck the Kathmandu Valley. But there is still so much history and beauty to see. If you have the time, I recommend packing a lunch from your favorite cafe, then sit on the steps like the locals watch the pigeons, people, and sadhus wander the square.

Hanuman Dhoka (Durbar Square)

temples in durbar square kathmandu

What to do in Hanuman Dhoka

Kumari Living Goddess *taken by Flickr user bipin_ss1

The Kumari Ghar

The part of the square I found most fascinating is the set of elaborately carved doors on the Kumari Ghar. The Royal Kumari of Kathmandu is a living goddess and it’s worth researching to see if you’ll be in Kathmandu during one of her handful of appearances.

The story of the Kumari leaves me equal parts fascinated and baffled. The Kumari is believed to literally be a living incarnation of the Goddess Devi. This living goddess lives in the temple from the time she is selected as the next incarnation of Devi. Each new Kumari is chosen as a three- to five-year-old from group of girls who share similar characteristics.  To become the next embodiment of the Goddess, the girls have to meet a slew of restrictions that range from the date, hour, and minute of their birth to physical features like eye shape, skin color, and voice.

When a new Kumari is needed (when the current Kumari first menstruates), the handful of young girls that meet the tight restrictions are then put through one further test to decide which one is the actual incarnation of the Hindu Goddess Devi (the universal goddess). Each child is locked in a dark room where they hear scary noises and see flickering lights and watch gruesome animal heads and scary scenes. The theory is that the little girl who shows no fear—or the least amount of fear—must be the Goddess.

That chosen one is then taken to live in the Kumari Ghar with her family. She is only allowed to leave the temple 13 times a year for religious festivals. As a westerner, this entire story struck me as stranger than fiction when Pramila shared the history and details. It’s a unique and small part of the city’s quirkiness, culture, and history, and it’s worth reading up on the Kumari if you’re interested. One former Kumari wrote a memoir about what it was like to grow up under all of that attention and power. That book is hard to find, however, so your best bet for more history on the Kumari is The Living Goddess, a fascinating, painstakingly researched account of the history of the Kumari. It’s recent, and it serves as an anthropological study of the interplay between this goddess and the Nepali religion.

history of the kumari ghar, kathmandu

Swayambhunath (Monkey Temple)

On our afternoon sightseeing in Kathmandu, Pramila and her sister brought me to Swayambhunath, which is also known as Monkey Temple because of the hundreds of monkeys living in the surrounding trees. Like Durbar Square, the Monkey Temple is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As one of the holiest sites in Nepal, the Swayambhunath complex is just beautiful. The Stupa is set high up on a hill (pilgrims and visitors ascend 365 steps to get to the top). From there, the Stupa stands tall and proud overlooking the Kathmandu Valley. Once you stumble up the last of the 365 steps, a massive gleaming white dome looms ahead. From the center of the dome blooms a spire. On all four sides of the spire is the painted image of the wise and all-seeing eyes of Lord Buddha (the middle symbol is the third eye). When you visit, be aware that the monkeys will aggressively steal food from your hands!

Swayambhunath (Monkey Temple)

Flags at Swayambhunath

Boudhanath Stupa

Boudhanath is also a UNESCO site and is thought to be the largest Stupa in existence, and it’s the largest spherical stupa in Nepal. Although Boudhanath was damaged during the 2015 earthquake, restoration efforts quickly restored this structure to its previous glory and stature. Boudhanath is the center of Buddhism and the stupa is simply enormous. The Buddha eyes also peer from this stupa and look outward, watching over the Kathmandu Valley. This stupa is located in a popular area of the city. Boudhanath was one on the ancient trade route between Tibet and India, and as the Tibetans fled their country in the 1950s, many followed that same route and decided to make a home near this holy spot. And this stupa is so important that it is said to entomb Kassapa Buddha, the 27th of the 29 named Buddhas.

Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu

Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu

Pashupatinath Temple

This is a sacred site for the Hindu and it’s not to be taken on a lark. As a Westerner, consider observing the temple from the other side of the Bagmati River. Also a UNESCO site, the position across the river allows you to respectfully watch from above as they regularly perform ritual cremations in the ghats on the river’s edge. Pashupatinath is a sprawling complex as well, so the bird’s eye view on the temples and ashrams is unique to other temples you will visit in Kathmandu. But it’s all worth seeing up close to, so eventually head across the river to see the images and structures.

The burning ghats at Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu

Holy ghats burn at Kathmandu's Pashupatinath Temple

All of these sites are right in the Kathmandu Valley and are believed to relate not only to the formation and development of the Valley, but each one is directly tied to the country’s Buddhist and Hindu spirituality. The mix of religions in this part of the world is unique and quite harmonious.

One of the temple complexes that I visited featured a stupa, a Hindu structure, and even some influences from nearby India. Three types of architecture and multiple religious beliefs all shared the same place and all of the worshippers commingle without conflict. It’s a fascinating mix of cultures and religions that inhabits every heartbeat of Nepali culture and society.

Prayer wheels spinning in Kathmandu

Prayer flags from the view at Swayambhunath temple

And one gorgeous nuance to the entire experience of sightseeing in Kathmandu is the presence of Tibetan prayer flags. The lines of flags cascade like colorful waterfalls from temple peaks and treetops. There is a good reason these flags start in high places, too. Each flag on the string contains a full mantra. When the wind blows through the prayer flags it carries the mantra throughout the world bringing peace and harmony. I just love this idea. The concept is simple and the faith behind these prayer flags makes it all the more beautiful. Likewise, the Tibetan prayer wheels inside the various temples run on a similar concept. Inscribed on each prayer wheel is a series of mantras and prayers. When you spin all of the prayer wheels in succession, you are sending one complete prayer into world. I love the universality of many of these beliefs. The religion aims at gently spreading peace throughout the world as well as using their prayer and spirituality to better their own lives, too.

Quick Travel Planning Tips for Kathmandu

Visas & Getting There

If you’re in India, airlines fly many times a day between Delhi and Kathmandu — this is definitely the easiest way to enter. There are overland options too, but Nepal is mountainous and not every border crossing will effectively carry you to Kathmandu. For visas, entering Kathmandu is mostly easy —  it’s visa-on-arrival for US citizens.  The ATMS are one catch, however, because the airport ATM is never working. I had learned my lesson about carrying backup travel cash in Laos, so I always  and always carried cash stashed away in different spots in my packs. On arrival, I had US $60 in cash, but the three-month visa cost $100 US. Since the ATM was broken, that presented an interesting issue. I ended up bumming money off of a couple of people nearby who I then met up with in Thamel to return their funds!

Nepal Travel Guide: Everything you need to know to plan a trip to #Nepal. Includes #traveltips, Nepal trip itineraries, and more.

Plan Your Trip Online

I have a full Nepal Travel Guide on the site. This page details sights, history and culture, recommended reading, and everything essential that you should know before you go.

Best Guidebook

I like using Lonely Planets mostly because I am super familiar with the layouts, they have a good transportation section, and what they lack in history and insight I can easily find online!

Stay in a Nice Spot

I use Booking.com for the vast majority of my international travel. Consider Hotel Mums Home on a budget, Hotel Tibet for midrange, and Hotel Yak & Yeti for a nice place from which to organize your search.

Airbnb is also popular in Kathmandu in particular, so you should sign up for an account and view those options, too.

Don’t forget to book your travel insurance for Nepal—a great policy provides coverage in case of medical emergencies, lost luggage, adventure sports rides, and more. I’ve used World Nomads since 2008 and highly recommend it!

A Little Introspection… What it’s Like to Take a Vipassana Meditation Course

I’m on other side of my ten-day Vipassana meditation course. It was intense. Looking back, I still can’t pinpoint why I decided to take this spiritual boot-camp, of sorts. For that’s what Vipassana meditation is for those who undertake the ten day course. Before my vipassana, I had never meditated in earnest—a few short sessions here or there. Others talk about the benefits of meditation in their lives, so I was curious but not well-versed.

And maybe I enrolled in a Vipassana meditation course exactly because I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I signed up. I had read one woman’s hilarious and intriguing recounting of the course in her memoir and from there I knew that it was something I wanted to incorporate into my round the world trip.

But the details of the Vipassana course, and what it would take for me to complete more than 100 hours in meditation—well that realization only bubbled to the surface as I signed the contract that first day at the Vipassana center. I scribbled my John Hancock on the line and agreed to stay for the entire ten-day course. A Vipassana contract also outlines the many restrictions that go along with the course, including “Noble Silence” and no writing. I joked with myself—in my head of course—that I had volunteered for solitary confinement. Ten-day Vipassana meditations are rigorous courses on the mental level, rather than the physical level. I had hiked through the Annapurna Circuit of the Himalayas the week before my Vipassana course. I was strong. I was confident. I totally cracked on Day Four. But I stayed, and I learned. And I’m glad for it. Let’s journey back across those 11 days at the Vipassana center outside of Pokhara, Nepal.

The Women's section of the Yard - What a View!

The Basics: Rules and Schedule at a Vipassana Meditation Course

The Rules:

All ten-day Vipassana courses follow the same set of rules. Abiding by these rules is a hard and fast requirement of taking a course. The rules read benign enough at first, but which rule challenges each of us depends on our own unique personalities and mental resistance.

Participants sign a contract stating they will stay for the entire course. “Noble Silence” means no spoken or nonverbal communication with anyone except the server and teacher. Noble Silence also means no reading and writing; these are considered both a form of communication, and a meditative activity. Since communication and outside meditation techniques are verboten, you will need to abstain from both of these things as a part of your Noble Silence. There are also Five Precepts to which all abide: No killing of any living creature. No lying. No stealing. No sexual activity. No intoxicants. And finally, participants are asked to suspend all religious practices such as prayers, mantras, and rituals.

Food is restricted. Former students take lemon water at the evening tea break—new students receive a small dish of fruit or puffed rice, and milk tea. Although they prefer you to abide by these, they can often accommodate some health issues. I requested an additional snack to handle my hypoglycemia; they obliged by serving me milk and biscuits at 9:00pm.

The Schedule:

4:00am                           Wake Up Bell
4:30 – 6:30am               Meditation
6:30 – 8:00am               Breakfast
8:00 – 11:00am              Mediation
11:00 – 1:00pm              Lunch and teacher interviews
1:00 – 5:00pm                Meditation
5:00 – 6:00pm               Tea-break
6:00 – 7:00pm               Meditation
7:00 – 8:15pm                Video teachings with Goenka
8:15 – 9:00pm                Meditation
9:30pm                           Lights out

vipassana meditation beginners

Vipassana Meditation Course Journal

Arrival Day

What a gorgeous spot for a Vipassana meditation center. Even after spending last week hiking around the Himalayas, the nature here still wows me. Taxi driver drama filled ensued on the drive out to the center—he wanted to charge us more than our agreed price, which I had verified was a fair rate for the journey. I’m rarely agitated by the daily travel dramas like that, but I was worried that I would miss the orientation and be booted from the entire course before it had even started.

We made it in time. My cousin, friend, and I all shared the cab since we were traveling together—once they heard that I was taking the course they signed up as well. And we plopped our butts into the seats surrounded by about two dozen other people. I’ve heard that some classes have a few hundred students, but our center doesn’t look like it’s capable of holding that many. So it’s just this ragtag group: A handful of other foreigners, and then a large contingent of Nepali and Indian participants too. I’m not sure what I expected, but since the materials on the website were all in English, I suppose I thought there would be more Westerners representing.

The Teacher took control once we had all arrived and began to explain more about the course expectations and what we were looking at for the next ten days of our lives. Ten days had sounded short a year ago, when I decided that I would take a Vipassana course. I had sat in my bedroom dreaming about my yearlong trip around the world. “Why not attend a Vipassana course,” I had thought on a lark.

Now, we have just 45 minutes until Noble Silence begins. Like looking down the barrel of a shotgun, I am staring into the abyss of my innermost thoughts, fears, and feelings. I’m wigging out. I fear the unknown and uncertainty of these coming days.

Can I handle a dozen hours a day of looking inside my own head? In ten days, will I recognize my brain? How much can I learn in ten days?

Those ten days loom on my horizon like an albatross blotting out the light from the sun. But then, ten days is also a just this small chunk of time on the continuum of my life. In any given year, ten days seems insignificant. And yet the clock is ticking toward the beginning of what promises to be the hardest voluntary experience of my life. The inability to take back this decision is rattling me. Mere minutes until Noble Silence. And so it begins.

Vipassana Day One: So Many Thoughts

The gong startled me from sleep at 4am and within the hour I learned that I had just one task for the day: Focus on the air entering and leaving my nostrils.

For ten hours and forty-five minutes I set my mind to this single goal. My mind raced with thoughts, each thought jammed and jockeying for space in my mind like rush-hour traffic squeezing into the streets of Los Angeles.

My mind wandered. As I pulled my focus to my nostril, suddenly one thought would leap from the window of my car and race through the traffic on a mad dash. I’d careen through time, passing a car filled with memories of my childhood. As I raced past another car, I glimpsed snapshots of every event large and small. Throughout the day, Teacher instructed us to simply pull our focus back to the breath each time our mind wandered.

It became one run-on sentence of a day. No periods, just a chain of thoughts that I would pull away from to refocus on my breath.

There I am eating a peanut butter sandwich at nine-years-old—man, I used to love those, with that thick, gooey feeling on the roof of my—wait! Breath, air, nostril—is that an itch on my nose—OK, whew, got rid of it, kind of like that time I had a cast on my arm… man, did that thing itch to high heaven, but I had read those horror stories of people getting gross infections and so I never—GAH, the breath, right, air coming in, air exiting slowly, too slowly: Alert the troops, Left Nostril is working overtime because Right Nostril is only taking in about 20 percent of the breath—am I getting sick or is this a normal thing that I’ve just never noticed before . . . is it even possible that Right Nostril just doesn’t show up to work every day?

And so this litany of thoughts continued. Sometimes, instead of listening to the traffic report, my brain would flip to a music station. That’d be fine if it was good music, but instead I have the Nepali trekking songs stuck in my head. I jammed out to Chhati Ma Mero while attempting to keep my focus on the breath and barely succeeding.

Near the end of Day One Vipassana vs Shannon, Teacher allowed groups of two to four people to approach and ask questions. I had some serious concerns, pressing issues of utmost importance. “Teacher, I can’t stop falling asleep, what do I do?”

Teacher responded, “Yes, you are rather fond of sleep aren’t you?”

Hah. I thought I had gotten away with it. Between bouts of song, traffic, and breath focus, I couldn’t always stop my head from doing that jerky head-bobby thing as I fought to stay awake. Teacher told to focus harder on the meditation, double down on my curiosity and attention to detail in the breath. When I did that, he said, I would stop falling asleep. Well, we shall see.

Dhamma Hall

Dining Hall

Vipassana Day Two: Goodbye Cousin of Mine

Another pre-dawn wakeup call and then hours of meditating, but this time the morning meditation included a soundtrack to supersede the one created by the Nepali trekking songs stuck in my head. Goenka’s slow, measured voice fell into the room like a trickling stream of pebbles. His voice is gravely during the changing and I’m having difficulty staying level and measured. Each time Teacher starts the recordings, I shudder a little and try to block it out while I attentively study the nasal cavity.

Oh yes, we graduated from the nostrils, and now can observe our entire nasal cavity. Left Nostril is still laboring alone, with Right Nostril not even pretending like it wants to show up to work. For hours I pulled my thoughts to the nasal cavity, using this focus and time to simply observe the breath. Nothing more, nothing less. Just the breath in my nasal cavity.

The mental traffic continues—there is no beginning or end to my thoughts, they are a stream of babble narrating my every waking, silent moment. Only upside (barely) is that my internal soundtrack changed. I fight to keep it all quiet and meditative in my head, but Madonna’s Like a Prayer sounds across my consciousness in the rhythm of my breathing.

After a full day of sitting yesterday, I am stiff and I was likely a better meditator because I was just too tired to move. Instead I plopped into my place during the evening discourse, trying not to notice that my cousin left earlier that day. She broke my Noble Silence by talking to me, but all I did was blink and sort of shrug in response when she told me that she was returning to Pokhara. I try not to dwell on the fact that she left. Part of me yearns to also go to Pokhara and gorge on food and walk the streets and chat with locals. But I want this—I want to finish this course.

Begnas Lake, Pokhara - Before a Storm
Begnas Lake, the setting for my Vipassana course and my view each day.

Vipassana Day Three: It Never Ends

The days are interminably long. Just me, in a hall, on a lake, in Nepal. All day I sit there and focus on my breath. We’ve expanded our task again: Focus on the sensations in the nose area.

Yippee. My enthusiasm wanes and I considering going on strike, just like my Right Nostril, which still isn’t functioning as an air intake hole for my face.

With my cousin gone, I wonder if I should just leave too. I’ve quit so many things in my life—dance, piano, acting. What’s another thing on the laundry list of partial accomplishments? And yet… there is progress. If I’ve done nothing else, I have mastered my ability to focus and easily stay awake. My mind is a steel trap of focus, attentiveness, and awareness.

And yet, my back pain today was intense today. It’s been a couple of years since I last threw out my back, but this could do it. I spent hours just shifting, trying to alleviate the shooting pain pulsing in my butt and back. All the while, I return to my breath. Shooting pain. Sensations in Left Nostril. Numbed ass cheek—oh right, wonder what’s going on in my nasal cavity.

It’s all fun and games over here. I am loving this, really.

Vipassana Day Four: Desperate to Leave

Like a cosmic joke, Don’t Stop Believing blared through my head. The lyrics bounced around my head, echoing in the early morning quiet. Journey was always the song I used to get pumped up for a night on the town, and now it’s like my mind decided I needed this motivation as I learn the actual Vipassana technique today.

Up until now, we were preparing our minds and bodies for the real work of Vipassana. Three times a day we will now be asked to sit perfectly still for one entire hour. We should refrain from shifting, itching, or any movement of any kind. It was torturously painful and I never made it to the hour mark before succumbing to the urge to shift and release the tension and pain in my back.

I was ready to get the hell out of here by the day’s final session, just before the evening discourse. But when I voiced my desire to leave to the woman serving our course as a volunteer, she indicated that I should talk to Teacher before making any decisions. She also added that I am in the middle of a mental surgery and it’s not safe for me to leave in the middle of the operation.

Each evening, after the final video discourse, we have the opportunity to discuss any issues or problems with Teacher. I waited my turn and then blurted out: “Goenka’s singing is slowly killing my soul.” I pleaded with him to let me go and save me from the urge to kick puppies that comes every time I hear Goenka’s voice.

Teacher, unperturbed by my outburst, asked, “So you want to join your cousin, yes?”

I sputtered, focusing on the fact that I have these violent thoughts careening through my head when I sit for the hourlong Vipassana sessions. His didn’t even pause, he just told me to get sleep, then he grinned when I dragged myself from the question cushion and crawled across the floor in dejection.

Machhapuchare Mountain

Vipassana Day Five: Resigned to Continue

I made a desperate plea to leave again today, but Teacher effectively shut down all of my arguments. I even brought the teachings of His Holiness Dalai Lama into the discussion. Ultimately, I couldn’t come up a rebuttal for his final question: “How can I say that Vipassana meditation is not for me after just four days of a ten-day course?”

Teacher pointed out that I am only partway through a process that I had committed myself to learning five days earlier. And he has a point. So I stayed. Here I am.

I am struggling through it. Bad memories and past pains geyser from my subconscious during every session. The Vipassana technique is meant to relieve layers of grief and suffering we’ve built over the years. We build these layers of suffering as we pass through our lives and create attachments and aversion toward all manner of things. By practicing the technique, we learn how to peel back those layers no longer hold that suffering within us.

But it’s painful. Even the discourses offer little relief; talk of the afterlife and death remind me of the unfathomable loss of my brother four years ago. All of these hours every day. And so many days left in the course. Thoughts of Bruce fill the moments when I’m not desperately trying to scan my body and focus on the sensations. Any thoughts are better than dwelling on his death.

Vipassana Day Six: Relieving Tedium

Today we were instructed to continue observing sensations in our body, both pain and pleasure—but to cultivate a non reaction. By default, many of us observe things in our lives and immediately attach a viewpoint of craving or aversion toward that observation. But the Vipassana technique is teaching us to observe equanimity.

In practice, this means that if I observe intense pain shooting through my leg and pulsating across my butt, I should observe the sensation but not wish for it to go away—that would be showing an aversion to the pain. And if a cool breeze enters the hall and flutters my hair across my cheek, I should not wish for it to blow again, but instead observe the sensation without attaching craving to the observation.

And so, I sit. And I observe pain. And my mind drifts to visions of me starring in a kick-ass karate movie. I leap from my spot on the floor with uncanny grace. Then I serve a roundhouse kick to the ninjas surrounding the silent meditators. With their eyes closed, they are unaware of the looming danger. I alone have discovered the dire situation and I alone can save us all. Through an impressive series of flips and punches, I intimidate the ninjas and they flee, leaving the mediators in peace. And I settle back into my seat in the middle of the female side of the meditation hall. And I remember the task at hand. Oh, how could I forget it. Instead of escaping on a cloud of happy, kick-ass visualizations, I focus on my breath and the sensations in my body. Which are pain, so much mental and physical pain.

Machapuchare and Bengas Lake

Vipassana Day Seven: Not too Bad, Actually

During today’s morning Vipassana session I discovered that I no longer cringe when I hear Goenka’s singing. What once grated too heavily has become a pleasant addition to the gentle sounds of rain pattering on the meditation hall each day.

We’ve learned of Anicca these past days, the idea that everything in life is impermanent. Nothing lasts forever, no situation and no feeling. It’s because of the very fact of impermanence that we are learning to cultivate a pattern of non-reaction in our lives. If all things are transient in our lives, from pain to joy, then we should not react with craving and aversion—it’s that reaction that creates the suffering. If we crave joyous events, and they don’t happen, then we suffer. Instead, if we observe and move through the joy and pain in equal measure—observing both as impermanent experiences in our lives, we are better able to cultivate a balanced reaction to life.

Each day has bled into the next, with our schedule fixed and never-changing. And yet, life is unexpected and gifts the strangest experiences. The Spanish woman who shares my dorm room—she talks and guffaws in her sleep, which is not a part of this story, but funny nonetheless—walked in on my naked today. The lock on the shower door is faulty, so even though I had it locked, it didn’t stand up against her tugging. She was looking down brushing her teeth while I stood stark naked in the shower stall. Because of my vow of Noble Silence, I refrained from speaking and instead cleared my throat. She squealed and threw the door closed. Minutes later, when I was dry, clean, dressed, and ready to exit, I realized that she had locked the stall from the outside! With not much else to do, I knocked on the door. After about five minutes, she rushed to the shower stalls and when she opened the door we both just burst out in laughter. It all has nothing to do with Vipassana, but it was the humanest of moments in the midst of all this silent introspection.

Vipassana Day Eight: Feeling Pretty Good

Teacher’s stern face warned us today that we should work very, very seriously in these remaining days in the course. All of the students took this to heart and there is a renewed sense of focus in the meditation hall during our hourlong sittings of “strong determination,” where we try not to move for an entire hour.

I have to admit, this whole thing has gotten easier. Either that, or some part of my consciousness finally caught up with my decision to stick out this course to the end.

I find it easier to now sit for the entire hour. Finding the right sitting position has been key to making it through the sessions. If you had asked me three days ago, I would not have foreseen a day that I could sit in this hall for 11+ hours each day without desperately craving a distraction. And yet, it’s all just not so looming and huge in my head now. I’ve accepted the fact that I am here and my brain is finally focus on the task a hand.

And without the raging thoughts of desperation about leaving the course, a certain balance is creeping into my thoughts. I kinda like it! I don’t know if everyone else feels the same, but I’ve felt a lightening this past few days that have me smiling as I go about my day.

Day Nine: The Home Stretch

Today is more “very, very serious” meditation and I am containing the impulse to dance through the center. Just one more day left. I’ve grown to like the technique in these past few days, and the evening discourses offer intriguing perspectives on life, suffering, and happiness. I wish I could journal all the swirling thoughts, but it’s forbidden. They slip away on the breeze instead, as I refocus on the sensations in my body.

Noble Silence ends tomorrow in the late morning, and we will have discourse for the rest of the day. It’s hard to believe that there are a finite number of hours left in this Vipassana meditation course. I’m proud of myself for sticking it out. I’m ready to leave, but I’m also so glad that I stayed and worked through the self-doubt, the fear, and the desperation to leave.

Chatting it up on Day 10 with the Annapurnas Behind

Vipassana Day Ten: A Breath of Fresh Air

Our chatter echoed in an a strange cacophony across the lake this morning. Once we were able to break Noble Silence, our thoughts burst forth like a damn releasing its crushing load of water. Although we will still make our sittings of strong determination throughout the day, we’re also looking outward at how the technique has been used around the world to help eliminate suffering.

The documentary on implementing Vipassana meditation at Tijar Prison, one of India’s toughest prisons, proved fascinating. As a technique and tool, Vipassana focuses on a taking personal responsibility for your suffering. Implementing it in the prison was a calculated move to help the prisoners gain control over their reactions. The program at Tijar turned out to be a surprise success. Many prisoners found solace in the practice. By using this tool, they were handed a structured and specific way to deal with situations out of their control.

Vipassana Group — We Survived!

Craving and aversion are the root of personal suffering. Since nothing in this world is permanent, Vipassana meditation is a way to develop the mental control that stops suffering at its root. Learning to control your reactions to life allows you to control your personal suffering. Vipassana has given me a technique that I can hone that reprograms my default mental processes responding and reacting to the world around me. I have found value in learning the grounded theory behind Vipassana meditation, the rules of practice, and also stories of how it’s changed the lives of others.

advice for taking a vipassana course

As we chatted, we were all proud to make it through the course and to have learned this valuable tool. Where we all go from here—whether any or all of us continue practicing each day—it’s an accomplishment to have committed the ten days to learning the technique. Tonight as I journal this experience these past days, I feel lighter and able to cope with both positive and negative situations in a balanced way. I have a few more days traveling Nepal, and I hope to continue my travels with an eye toward cultivating equanimity in my life.

Considering a Vipassana meditation course? Download the Beginner’s Guide to Vipassana Meditation—it has all of the practical advice and information you need to decide if you should take a Vipassana meditation course, as well as what to do to prepare. The book is offered as a pay what you can model so it’s accessible to everyone and those who have the means can offset the price for those who do not! Also available on Amazon Kindle.

Also, this post shares my analysis from six months and eight years later, as well as other recommended readings for anyone thinking about taking a Vipassana meditation course.

A Little Adventure… A Journey to Discover What It’s Like to Trek the Himalayas

Trekking in the Himalayas conjures images of beautiful, sweeping mountainscapes. It’s cupping your hand to your brow and tilting your head upward to gaze at the world’ tallest mountains. After five weeks traveling and living Nepal, most of that spent volunteering at a monastery with young monks so far, the time had come to pit myself against nature. My cousin and I teamed up with another volunteer and we signed up for a five-day trek into the mountains. We agreed that this was an ideal length of time to see beautiful mountains while also not killing ourselves from physical exertion. We booked the trek through our guesthouse, the family-run Noble Inn. This is common in Pokhara and most guesthouses have guides and tour companies with whom they work. The family running the guesthouse (which I loved) helped us pick a route that would take us to Poon Hill as our top peak. On the third day of our trek we would wake at dawn for close-up views of Annapurna South (7,273 meters) and Machapuchare (6.997 meters). Poon Hill itself is a whopping 3,210 meters — high enough to afford great views, but low enough that we wouldn’t need to acclimatize.

The three of us had never trekked in Nepal’s Himalayas. It was a bucket list item we hoped to fulfill, and with the guesthouse’s recommendations we hoped we had picked a responsible route suited to our hiking level. The Himalayas are that dreamscape, and we all hoped for beautiful vistas. The reality was different. There’s no telling the weather on any trek and we had crappy, hazy skies. But we had a grand adventure anyhow, and the mountain towns, paths, and experience still count among my favorite from these past months. I journaled every day and used that to reconstruct our five-day route. If you’re wondering if you should trek in the Himalayas, and particularly to Poon Hill, then read on as I share what it’s like every step of the way.

What is it like to trek in Nepal through the Annapurna Circuit

Day 1: Nayapul to Tikhedhunga

The day dawned cool and we were out the door early! The guesthouse is in the heart of Pokhara, what a good spot we chose. Right on time they had a taxi ready to whisk us from Pokhara to Nayapul, which was our starting point. In fact, it’s the starting point for many treks. We have a guide and porter for the next five days, Surya and Nogin Ry. They handled the logistics. The three of us, Cara, Cousin H, and I, shared a single pack so that we only had to pay for one porter. Plus, we’ll be in trekking clothes the entire time, so how much stuff do we really need? Porters carry up to 15 kilos, so that covered the three of us with us each packing a handful of clothes and toiletries.

Nogin Ry was a fun addition to our team, I’m glad we decided to use a porter. Even in the first hours we all realized he had a whip-smart sense of humor, but not in a snarky way (like mine). Having him along keeps the tone fun and light. The 45 minute taxi ride passed quickly; before long, we reached a small bridge over the river that would take us into Annapurna National Park. The only snafu was a miscommunication on timing — being Nepal, that’s often out of anyone’s control. The permit office opened late, but they eventually got around to showing up. Once we had checked in, they stamped our permits and we were on our way!

One of the funnier moments of the day was when Cara prompted Surya to tell us about the hike. He started a pretty speech about the nature, the people, and the scenery. Then Cara blurted out, “But Surya, do girls sometimes cry?”

He gave us a sideways glance. Considered for several seconds before shaking his head, “Yes Cara, sometimes they cry.”

I’m not sure the answer Cara expected; what is the appropriate follow-up. “OK, thanks Surya, glad to know I’ll be bawling soon!” Surya explained that the second trekking day is the hardest on the Poon Hill trek. We made it through the first day, so all I can do is repeat the adage in my head about the tortoise and the hare. Slow and steady gets there too. Today wasn’t so bad really, it was just scorchingly hot because we started hiking at noon (thanks to the permit situation). My cousin is from the Pacific Northwest, so she found the day particularly brutal.

should you take the poon hill trek?

villages in rural nepal while trekking Now that's a Water Buffalo with Character!

sleeping in teahouses on the poon hill trek

The hiking part of the day is good fun. Surya is a great guide. He’s teaching us Nepali as we go and he let’s me grill him on my generic, simple sentences, which I started learning at the monastery. And he also shares pieces of the catchy Nepali songs that I’ve heard tinkling repeatedly from the radios in Pharping these past many weeks. Today’s tune was Resham Firiri. It’s a folksy song about a bird that is slow and the lyrics are fairly clear. One day in, and I have the tune down, but that’s not enough — I need to understand it! So, Surya promised is slowly helping write the translation of each verse, then he helps quiz me on the vocabulary from the song. This is the most popular nationalistic song in Nepal. Our group has scored major points with the other guides as we sing/shout the chorus throughout the hours of hiking.

There was one pretty waterfall as we hiked in, but the foothills are still lowland climate and sparse. Tomorrow scares me a little, I’ll be honest. I already know that I cry when I am hiking, I am totally going to be one of those girls crying on their way up the mountain. Surya says that we have three- or four-thousands steps to ascend tomorrow. That’s a lot of steps, And I like how he says three or four thousand, as if that extra thousand that might be there is just incidental. Hah! If I get through tomorrow, nothing worse is coming — that’s a warm thought.

Day 2: Ulleri to Ghorepani

staircases on poon hill trek Oh. My. God. Intensity, thy name is trekking. It’s over. But it was terrible. In hindsight — now that my boots are laying limply at my feet and I am propped in a chair — I recognize that it could have been worse. Of course it could have been worse. We started hiking at 7 am and we hiked for a full seven hours to get to Ghorepani.

Our first four hours on the trail followed a vertical staircase cut into the mountain. It took hours and hours. Then, I saw a reprieve and nearly cried. It changed for several minutes into a flat stretch of level ground.

It was a tease.

After mere moments we started round two of the staircases. We hiked up vertical staircases for the final three hours. Although most of this area is too steep for villages, there must have been a few close. Several times locals scooted past us on the trail, no one out of breath or tired. We also passed a funeral procession. The family members took the long staircase downhill, toward Ulleri. The wailing widow followed behind the body. It was humbling to remember that there are people living and building lives in this remote area of Nepal, it’s not all about the trekking and the tourism and the “must see vistas.”

berry picking while trekking in the annapurna circuitAs for the hike itself, we climbed more than 1,200 meters straight uphill to get to Ghorepani. That’s roughly 3,900 feet! If this day was the hardest of the five then I am going to rock it for the rest of our trek. The best part of today — the esterberries! Surya pointed them out to us. He calls them esterberries but I could figure out if that is an official name (salmonberries maybe?). But they were plentiful; we found heaps of bushes of these along the way. Each time I spotted a bush, I used the picking of them as an excuse to stop hiking. But even though I was the one trailing, everyone happily picked berries and snacked on them. Since I am the slowest in the group, free-breaks without slowing down the group is a positive thing.

We also added to our repertoire of Nepali songs today. This one is a sing and echo song so it was more fun to learn as we hiked (or shout along the way, as is the case for me and my awful singing).  Oh! And how I could I forget, we should have had mountain views from our hotel room today but the haze has blocked out the mountains. We’re hoping for rain tonight since hike to the viewpoint on Poon Hill in the morning. As we wandered Ghorepani waiting for dinner, my friends and I did a silly little rain dance on the basketball court — we really want to see those mountains!

Day 3: Poon Hill to Tadapani

Our Porter on our poon hill trekMan, today was a great day all around. My favorite so far. Yesterday was the hardest and we worked our asses off! The payoff, however, was a great hotel, tasty food, and meeting our new British friend Hanna at our the teahouse’s fire pit. Oh, and the piping hot water! I was grateful for that because it is cold up here. I hadn’t planned to fully shower for our five-day hike because I didn’t expect finding hot water along the way. Having a speedy but toasty warm shower was a welcome end to the day.

Our morning started 4:45 am so that we could make it to Poon Hill for sunrise. The hike from Ghorepani is just an hour, but like the second day, it’s a vertical trek up the side of the mountain. I didn’t make it to the top. I cried. But since we had skipped breakfast to catch the sunrise, I simply wasn’t able to climb straight uphill like that without food. I made it 75 percent of the way and then I started to pass out, so I stopped and went to the lower of the two Poon Hill viewpoints. My friends continued to the top, but I decided to watch the sunrise over the mountains from my own little perch.

meeting locals while trekking in the himalayaAfter the work to get to the top (or near the top), we were disappointed to discover that the haze had not cleared. The view was complete crapola. We could barely make out Annapurna South for a couple of minutes, then it was obscured by the haze and clouds. Cara was deeply disappointed, she had counted on that promise of spectacular views. Surya told us not to despair, we have one more day of possible mountain views if the haze clears.

Luckily for me, Poon Hill wasn’t actually our highest point on the trek, although it was our peak. As we hiked later in the day, we made it a bit higher, so I suppose I don’t feel too badly about myself for missing the morning viewpoint. After the sunrise at Poon Hill, the rest of today’s hike was mostly downhill through beautiful old-growth forests dense with damp moss and earth. The streams gurgled beside us, tinkling out music to fill the space between the snapping twigs and rustling breeze. It was the most beautiful and idyllic landscape of the trek. Not including the sunrise hike, we trekked for about six-and-half hours to make it to Tadapani.

The upside of starting our day at the crack of dawn was almost a mini day-off. We arrived around 1:30 in the afternoon and we had plenty of time to wander the mountaintop and talk our way into a game with the locals. Surya and Nogin Ry taught me how to play Cannonball — the boys at the monastery also loved this game, so I was grateful for the chance to learn. We played teams, and I sucked for the first couple of hours, but I gained Cannonball legend status when I managed to sink a near impossible shot that won the game for Surya and myself. I loved having a slow afternoon to hang out, relax, and have fun with the locals — and my Nepali is getting better!

picture of a Nepali cannonball board learning how to play cannonball

poon hill trek

Day 4: Tarapani to Tatopani

Trekking in Nepal there are locals living along the way who just go about their business.Ugh, we all hit a wall of exhaustion today. The trail descended for hours at a steep decline — this is nearly as hard as the uphill. Although it’s not as hard on the lungs and stamina, it jolts your knees and thighs as you keep balance. At the end we had a bit of steep uphill, but nothing too killer. All of these days of hiking for more than six hours each day though finally caught up with me and by the time we reached town, my legs were wobbly and unsteady.

The best part about Tatopani is the hot springs! The town is named over the hotsprings and Tatopani is a common spot on the circuit with hikers. When we arrived in town, we dropped our daybags and headed straight to the nearby hot-springs. Surya had been taunting us with the prospect of relaxing in the hot water baths, so we all trooped down to the river where the steamy water spurted from the earth.

The hot springs were even better than the three of us anticipated. The locals tell stories of healing life-threatening injuries in the hot, mineral-rich waters of Tatopani. Visiting has made me a believer. The three pools allowed us some space to spread, and each pool had little pipes coming out of the rocks before entering. Everyone took the opportunity to finally shower off the caked-on dirt from the past few days. And the setting — it’s killer. The walls of trees and mountains cocooned us from the outside world, but also served as a reminder of all that we had achieved in the preceding days.

After sitting in the hot water for an hour, however, my muscles were even more tired. I had to make an unsteady 45 minute trek back uphill and into town. But the verdict? Totally worth it.

Between the hiking and the hot water, we were all nearly comatose at dinner. I scarfed our dinner and headed to bed as soon as I could finagle. Surya suggested a “last day celebration party,” but I just wasn’t up for it. He has been so kind to us, so I felt badly about nixing it for sleep. It so peaceful out here. I rarely have quiet moments of the mind. One memory I will forever carry with me is the deep solitude and profound quiet of the Himalayas. Even without the pretty views we had hoped for, the pockets of peacefulness whisper throughout the mountains.

donkeys hauling goods on our trek

young nepali girl rural village life on the annapurna circuit

young nepali girl on our trek nepali boy

gorgeous spot on our poon hill trek

Views of the Himalayas Tatopani Hot Springs

Day 5: Tatopani to Nayapul

We are done and back at the Noble Inn! What an epic five days of adventuring through the Himalayas. It’s hard to believe that the experience is over. I thought five days was the most I could handle, but I loved the cadence of life on the trek. I could have gone for a few more days, and maybe one day I will make it back to this side of the world.  On the plus side, Surya banged on our shared room at dawn and implored us to run from our rooms to catch the distant sunrise. For the first time, the haze had cleared. The mountain peaks cut a fierce figure in the distance, pristine white tips jutting into the crisp morning sky. It was a happy way to start our last day of trekking.

Leaving Tatopani, we spent six hours hiking rapidly because we had to cover a lot of distance. It was easier than past days; 95 percent of it was either downhill or flat.

thatched roof houses in the annapurna circuit

baby animals on the trek!

My cousin hit her wall today and she asked me and Surya to stop singing Nepali songs. Surya and I had bonded over those songs and the translations these past days. I am not always a happy hiker, and Surya had the patience of a saint to help me move through the tough parts with song. But I suppose it was just too annoying for my cousin. But I did miss the music. Over the days, guides would encounter us walking from the other direction and they always grinned when they heard me attacking their folk songs with wild abandon. And the kids too. Resham Firiri is one of the nearest and dearest songs for the Nepalese people, and this one proved a hit with kids and elderly alike. But I respected my cousin’s request for quiet. But I am totally keeping that song in my repertoire for as long as we are in Nepal (and heck, maybe even longer, I’m not sure I can ever get that catchy chorus to leave my brain). With my cousin leading us down the trail, we hiked back to Pokhara instead singing everything from some Hootie and the Blowfish to Journey, and heck, who am I kidding, we even threw in a bit of Madonna for good measure. No locals joined us, but the three of us knew the songs so it was a good riot to belt them out together.

how to trek the himalayan mountains of NepalOnce we ran out of songs, we played Six Degrees. With all that hiking time today, we got good at tying Hollywood celebs to each other in three or four degrees instead of six. But as we played Six Degrees, the only one that totally stumped us was linking Michael Cera and Elizabeth Berkley. If you can do it without IMDb, then props to you, we never got there!

I am sad to say that the hiking part of the trip is over now. Once we arrived in town, we scurried in preparation for our Vipassana Meditation course. It starts tomorrow. I’ve wanted to take a Vipassana for a while now, ever since I read about it in Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure. I am relieved and nervous that it’s finally here. My cousin and Cara liked the idea of the course, but throughout the hike they instead dubbed it voluntary solitary confinement once I told them more about what’s required of us these coming ten days. After a hearty hike these past days, we are all now heading into ten days of silence.

Quick Tips for Trekking in Nepal

Where to Stay: We used the Noble Inn as our base around our hike and mediation course. It’s a family run guesthouse that we just loved to pieces and would recommend to anyone.

How to Book a Trek: Pokhara is command central for hiking activities in the Annapurna circuit. Depending on the season, you can often book a trek with just a few days notice. The big issue would be getting lodging at the more affordable tea-houses along the route. So, although you could surely secure a guide, it would be harder to take a cheap trek if you wait until the last-minute. Plan on a couple of weeks as a safe bet. We booked through our guesthouse because they offered fantastic budget options, and everything ran smoothly.

Trek with Friends: I knew my trekking partners, but other volunteers used Trekking Partners to find a like-minded soul. This can be a great way to find either one person, or a group if you’d like the security and company of a trekking buddy. The boards are very active and our friend had a wonderful experience matching up with another trekker through the site.

Plan Your Nepal Travels: What to Know & Where to Go: My full guide on what you should know before you land in Nepal, and how to plan various activity once you’re in the country. Full of practical advice and travel inspiration on the best activities for your time in Nepal.