Our pickup truck bumped and jostled down the unpaved path, the driver weaving around the deep pits and pot-holes by rote, each piece of this desert clearly as familiar to him as the lines on his darkly tanned hands. For twenty-five minutes we plodded a slow path through stark and open plains, the raw and honest surrounding beauty of Jordan’s Dana Biosphere Reserve.
With a minimum of movements, our Bedouin driver gestured deep into the Feynan Valley and with squinted eyes I was able to make out a desert colored structure sitting at the base of the valley and blending in naturally with the miles of pale orange sands surrounding our truck.
My love for the Diva Cup means it’s time to share how I handle my period on the road, and why you should just about any female should consider using a menstrual cup, too. In fact, every traveling lady should read this post, even if they eventually decide not to try a cup right now (so why not forward it your travel-loving female friends when you’re done reading).
I first discovered the universe of alternative menstrual products in the throes of planning my yearlong round the world trip. My cousin implored me to buy a Diva Cup and never look back. I was skeptical. I had assumed that I would just use tampons on the road, since that’s what I had used for years. But her endorsement was enthusiastic and her reasoning sound. She said it is the best way to handle your period while you travel. She also warned I needed to start using it months before my first trip—she was right on both accounts.
The Initial Verdict?
[quote style="boxed" float="right"]The Diva Cup is the most useful thing I pack when I travel. It gives me the confidence to go straight from a long bus ride to an epic hiking adventures. It never leaks. I’m never forced to schlep bags of tampons. It just works.[/quote]The Diva Cup is one of the most useful things I took on my trip around the world.
I bought one from my local health food store. Then, I had a rough start to using the menstrual cup and almost gave up entirely. Within just one period, I had figured it out. It started working after I spent a couple of days practicing. Since then, nearly a decade later, I’ve never looked back to the days of schlepping around pads and tampons.
What is a Menstrual Cup?
A menstrual cup is an eco-friendly “natural feminine hygiene alternative” that sits inside (like a tampon, but lower) and collects your menstrual fluid. Basically, these cups are medical-grade silicone, each about the size of a shot glass. When a menstrual cup is inserted correctly, the rim of the cup forms a seal against your vaginal canal. Once sealed, it takes care of business. The menstrual fluid flows into the cup, then you just pull it gently and dump the liquid into the toilet or sink. These cups fully replace tampons and pads. In fact, I have never bought a package of pads since I switched over. Well… except that one time when my best friend’s dog ate my Diva Cup. Keep ’em tucked somewhere safe!
The Diva Cup, specifically, falls under the larger umbrella of silicone menstrual cups (yup, there are several different brands of these things). Every menstrual cup brand represents a different aspect of sizing, shape, and color, but they all work the same way.
How Does a Menstrual Cup Work?
At its most basic, each menstrual cup is a small rounded cup made of pliable, foldable, and soft medical-grade silicon. The cup holds about an ounce of liquid—more or less depending on the brand and size that you select. It’s about the size of a shot glass. The premise of the entire thing is that you fold the cup in half and insert it much like you would a tampon. Once inserted, the cup opens into the full circle again and then forms a seal. With a tampon, the cotton absorbs the blood. In this case, the seal insures that your blood is collected in the cup (which again, is about the size of a shot glass, so you are simply collecting it in there like you would a small flexible cup).
Then you tug the base of the cup while you are over a toilet, then you tip the cup into the toilet and flush. You wipe or rinse it out and reinsert. In this way, you actually have only one thing that you need. You don’t need a new pad or tampon, and you don’t have something to dispose of afterwards. Your period is disposed of into the toilet.
So, lots of women are different shapes and sizes, but the nature of the silicon means that the various brands tend to work for most women. Some cups have a wider circular rim to ensure that you can form a strong seal if you’ve had birthed a child. Some cups are shorter for women with shorter vaginal canals. But generally, they all tend to be very similar in size, shape, and they all work on the same exact premise of creating a seal so that the blood flows into the cup and can then be dumped into a toilet or down a sink.
If you need more information, the buying instructions for the Diva Cup outline the nitty-gritty details on if you need the A or B size, it has pictures of the cup, and instructions too. And stick around to the the end of the post where I share the hilarious and helpful reviews women have posted, as well as outline the other brands that work well for women of differing statures.
Review: 5 Reasons I love the Diva Cup for Traveling
1. It can be worn for 10 to 12 hours at a time. Traveling on a budget and in developing countries meant a lot of time on public transportation, with my Diva Cup I was safe for the never-ending 10+ hour bus rides. And when I was trekking, the last thing I wanted to do was deal with tampons during all-day treks—hooray for my Diva Cup! Unlike reports, you can actually get TSS from a menstrual cup, but it’s incredibly rare. Most menstrual cup brands are safe to have in for up to 12 hours (unless I am on very tail end of my period, however, I never leave it in for more than 10).
2. You can wear it before your period. If I knew that I might start my period in the middle of a 10+ hour bus ride, I could use my Diva Cup before my period even started because it’s not drying like a tampon (and drying out can be a big issue with those, so menstrual cups are just nicer for your vagina). Bottom line, it saved me from potentially embarrassing situations on treks like bleeding through clothes or wild animals finding my bloody materials.
3. It’s designed for any activity. The site touts that you can do any of the following: swimming, aerobics, cycling, traveling, dancing, hiking, biking, running, camping. You can. Each and everyone without a worry. It liberated me from trying to plan major outdoor activities on non-period days—I knew I could head out on a six-hour bike ride without searching for a bathroom or wondering all day if I was leaking.
4. You never have to buy other hygiene products. I read horror stories about the availability of menstrual products before leaving on my round the world trip—some women even resort to bringing a full supply for their travels (hard to do when you’re on the road for a year!). This is the only thing I had to bring (well, soap too) and I knew I was never going to find myself hunting for sanitary products in a remote village in Nepal. (And note that you can find Kotex or Always in many/most major hub cities, so no need to pack a year’s supply either way!)
5. It’s green travel and oh-so good for the environment. So many of the countries I visited don’t have effective waste management systems in place; it made me feel good to not contribute to that problem. One memorable time that sticks with me was a nine hour boat on the Mekong River in Laos—after diligently placing all trash in the marked bags all day, including tampons (since the toilets have you do your business directly into the river… #facepalm), locals dumped every trash bag over the side of the boat 30 minutes before we reached Luang Prabang. Or that time camping in a National Park in Asia when locals burned our trash each evening. In the west, we sometimes overlook that pads and tampons are hard to dispose of properly outside of our own infrastructure. For travelers, a menstrual cup allows you to lighten your eco-footprint just a tad—your period business won’t linger in faraway rivers and forests long after you leave. It’s reusable for a decade (unless your dog eats it) and there is nothing else you have to buy to use with it. Plus the non-BPA medical-grade silicone is far safer for your lady-parts than the surfactants, adhesives, and additives used in tampons and pads.
DOWNSIDES OF USING MENSTRUAL CUPS: I love this product and I have no shame in touting the fabulous qualities of the product. But, be warned, there is a learning curve to using the Diva Cup. It took me until my third period of using it to have no leaking and messiness… and I cursed it the whole time during my first two months. This hilarious Hairpin article is a good read. Or you can check out the many, many thousands of often frank and sometimes wince-worthy reviews on Amazon. Though it was rough going at first, now I’m converted. I truly, wholly believe that menstrual cups are one of the best investments for female travelers.
How to Use Your Cup (Washing, Inserting, Etc)
Try it out before your trip! You’ll be thankful that you’re in your own clean bathroom while you discover the learning curve.
Bring a mild soap. I brought a small container plain, unscented liquid soap for use as a body wash and a cup wash. You can buy a mild wash from the company itself or handy sanitary wipes, too. Be sure to have a cleaning routine down pat before you leave. Generally, I only use a wipe at the end before storing it for the next few weeks (unless in a place with no potable water). And know that using anything but mild products and water might degrade the silicone, so it’s better to just wipe with toilet paper and use water until you get back to your mild soap if you’re out and about.
It’s not for the squeamish. You do have to get a little more “invasive” than you do with tampons if you catch my drift. You will be all up in your own business, to be frank. But you’ll also learn to understand your cycle better and get pretty good at using the cup without much issue.
That “twist” the instructions mention is the most important part of the process—that’s what ensures you have a good seal. That, and the holes at the top of your cup—you have to ensure they are clean between uses (just squeezing around the rim while under water cleans them out easily).
When they tell you it sits lower than a tampon, it’s SO true. Really low, make sure it pops open, then twist — it’s like magic. But, you definitely have to practice before it becomes second nature.
Buy at your local co-op or natural foods store instead, or online—at last check Diva Cups (and other brands) sell for less than $35, which is far less than the close to $200 annually women spend on feminine hygiene products.
After using a menstrual cup for a decade now, I swear by it. It shortened my period from eight days to four, and lessened my cramping/PMS symptoms to a number of hours now, not days. It’s worth the awkward transition and it’s just plain healthier for your body. I’ll never go back to pads and tampons. [/threecol_two]
Diva Cups are brilliant and anyone comfortable with their body should give it a try. But beyond anyone, I consider it essential for women travelers, truly :-)
And don’t take my word for it—look around online. There many women have gone on the record about their love (and learning curve) with menstrual cups. And very important is that once you get a Diva Cup, check out these links below for extra tips from women who have figured it out, they’re normally right on with their suggestions and the cup comes with some very explicit tips and pictorial instructions too! There are tricks to help it work better, and some brands are better for petite women.
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Best Menstrual Cup Brands & Resources
The major contenders you should consider are the Diva Cup or the Lunette. Consensus seems to say that the Lunette works well for petite women and/or those with a short vaginal canal or low cervix. I am tall with a long vaginal canal and have tried other brands, but I stick with the Diva Cup. (I do carry the Lily compact as a backup because it collapses down tiny. I have the larger size in both cups since I am over 30 and each brand respectively recommends the size 2/B ).
The Best Menstrual Cups: Not sure about which one is right for you? Not all of us know if we have a long or short vaginal canal, so this post breaks down the options and which works for different women.
Menstrual Cup Info: Heaps of additional information to help you decide which cup might be a good fit for your body type.
How to Insert a Diva Cup: This video is no-nonsense and very helpful for someone just learning to use it. She demonstrates the different types of folds. I use the C-fold and have never needed lubricant (and note that oil-based lubricants are straight-up bad for the cup’s silicone), but if it’s water-based and safe for the silicone, it might ease the transition until you get the hang of inserting it.
An Ode to the Diva Cup: A hilarious article on the Hairpin with some advice and tips in the article, as well as the comments. I cried tears of laughter at her recounting of her conversion to menstrual cups—I have had those convos too. [/box]
Shoot me an email if you have any other questions, or better yet, leave a comment. And if you’ve tried the Diva Cup, share your experience in the comments! If you haven’t tried it yet, just go poke around the Diva Cup page, read the reviews, see what it’s all about.
If there is ever anything that I can do to help, please do reach out on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and let’s talk about how we can make your travel dream a reality.
The sun warmed our skin just as it warmed the grapes and olives on the gnarled tree branches we passed as we biked through the Tuscan countryside. Our wine tour was among my favorite experiences on my round the world trip. Priced higher than many activities at Euro 60 for the day, it allowed the chance to leave Florence and spend a day among the rolling hills and beautiful wineries. We had spent our first days in Florence at the Boboli Gardens, and absorbing art and culture at the Uffizi and the Accademia. We had picked a great hostel in the city; it was affordable and central. Since we hadn’t splashed out on our own place, we found a beautiful biking tour that would spend a full day biking on a loupe on the country roads outside of Florence, stopping at notable wineries and giving us breads, fresh olive oil, and other treats.
[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"] A shady Tuscan lane in the out in the gorgeous countryside.[/caption]
Is the Van Ever Coming Coming?
My best friend Jenn had joined me from the trip, and my cousin was still traveling with me, so the three of us woke early and hoofed it to the outskirts of Florence to meet our tour leader for the day. Jenn’s not a morning person, so she was bleary-eyed while we wandered confusingly for a bit and rubber-necked from a curb. We had been told that a van would meet us at this rendezvous point. We found several other confused Americans waiting for the vehicle, and concluded we had all found the right spot, we had just arrived too earlier.
A few minutes later, and a large van scooped us from the curb for a short drive away from the bustle and chaos of city life, and into the heart of Italy’s wine country.
Our tour company was run by an American expat who has lived in Italy for decades, and it’s funny how at home I felt on the tour. It was a gorgeous experience, and one that an Italian might have run differently, but I found it met and exceeded all of my expectations. The tour company provided us with well-maintained ten-speed bicycles, a sturdy bike helmet, and a water bottle. Our route would take us through 12 miles of sloping hills, so the water bottle was an important detail we were grateful for in the heat of the day.
[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"] Biking through Tuscany, Italy with Jenn and my cousin.[/caption]
A Tuscan Wine Tour & Intriguing Statues!
Once we were kitted and fitted four our bikes, we started out for our Tuscan wine adventure. It started quickly! Just ten minutes after pedaling out of the bike shop, we stopped at the ritzy Villa Mangiacane Winery. After a tour of the grounds, we stopped in the tasting room for a sampling, too. Tasty!
The property is stunningly pretty. It has a five-star hotel on the premises, and perfectly manicured grounds. As we walked through the property, we discovered a number of beautiful sculptures and paintings scattered throughout the winery — the naked ladies statues were added for an artsy European calendar that was photographed on the estate.
Normally, I would have assumed that a wine tasting at a winery of this caliber is out of my budget. I would have never known to visit if I hadn’t booked the tour. And I was so glad to have visited! Although the estate produces just a few wines, they are delicious. The red Estate Wine was gorgeous and flavorful; it didn’t have the strong burn of alcohol that I find common in the cheap wines I can most often afford. The rose wine was light and sweeter; it was my favorite of the two. Our table also had a complimentary sampling of the house olive oil and crusty soft Italian bread.
Under the Tuscan Sun: Our Wine Tour
After touring the grounds — and with a tiny, lovely wine buzz from the estate’s generous samples — we pedaled back into the country lanes of Tuscany and continued to the next stop. Just as imagined, Tuscany is gorgeous. It’s everything you see in the movies and the photographs. As a romance-movie aficionado, visions of Under the Tuscan Sun filled my head as I biked my way through large wineries and quaint estates. The acres of olive groves give the rolling hills a muted green color, the neat rows of grape trees create symmetrical patterns on the hilltops. And being summer in Italy, the golden sun glinted over leaves and kissed the budding grapes and olives.
The bike tour was structured but not rigid. Our guide, Jillian, would announce our next stop, and then give us leave to explore the countryside at our own pace. We could amble through the country lanes, or fly down the hills, or take a gentle speed instead. With gorgeous views and sweeping vistas, we only had to pay enough attention that we didn’t get lost in all that beauty!
We rode for a bit of time until we reached our lunch spot, a gorgeous Italian cafe called Cantinetta del Nonno. This is another area where I rarely splurge on each course. When I studied abroad in Italy, I often met with friends from my university and indulged in the long lunches. As a budget backpacker, I’ve been more frugal. This meal, however, shaped up as completely memorable. We started with glasses of red wine and we nibbled on balsamic vinaigrette, oil, and bread. Three courses followed, a tasty salad, a main dish, and panna cotta for dessert, which is among my favorite desserts of all time! At the end, we sipped coffees and enjoyed the slow leisurely Italian style lunch, which had Jenn almost nodding off for a siesta by the end! At that point, none of us were quite sure how we would continue another two to three hours on the bike!
[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"] The rolling Tuscan hillside with olive trees and wine vineyards, Italy[/caption]
[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"] An old church, just off the lane, as we biked through Tuscany.[/caption]
I am a Turtle! AKA How to Bike Uphill Full from lunch, we could only hope that Jillian’s assurance of a gentle ride would bear out. She had assured us that we would have time to digest before hitting the hardest part of the bike ride — two kilometers up a steep hill. With the promise of a leisurely ride, our group spaced out and began exploring independently. There is so much beauty in nature, and it was charming to pedal through the rolling hills and muted-green landscape. The fresh air blowing over my skin on the breeze. I found my own groove and then got lost in the experience of biking through the countryside and taking in all the sights and smells.
Eventually, however, we reached the hill. I don’t enjoy steep inclines, it makes my lungs burn no matter how fit I am. But the hill had to be conquered, so I applied the same strategy I have used in long distance hikes: “Be the turtle.” As the adage says, slow and steady wins the race and there no prize waiting for the first one up the hill. Which is never me. Instead, I am a turtle. This mantra got me up the 3,200 meters of my Himalayan trek, and it served me well here too. With only the briefest pause for walking, which allowed me a moment to even out my breath, I pedaled to the top and hydrated in a tiny gazebo while the others made the steep climb.
[caption id="" align="alignright" width="263"] Getting a gelato fix after our bike ride![/caption]
Oh Gelato, How I Love Thee Once the group reassembled at the top of the hill, Jillian gave us one last surprise — a trip to the gelatería! We were all thrilled with the prospect of creamy, ice-cold gelato after the long, hot bike ride.
After our tasty treat, we had just a breezy, ten-minute bike ride back to the bike shop. From there, they drove us back to town. The owner of the property — a dashing older Italian man with very little English — gave the three of us a lift back to town because the van was too full to hold the whole group. We pulled out of the driveway in his beautiful Mercedes, all of the windows down, hair blowing in the breeze and he pumped Guns and Roses until it pulsed through the car. Then we flew through the winding roads on our way back into town. Kinda perfect.
Quick Tips: Traveling in Tuscany
Where: The Dany House Hostel in Florence is highly ranked and a good option for a base in the city. I used Florence as my gateway to exploring Tuscany. But there are other hostels and guesthouses actually within the Tuscan countryside, and you could do a search using the map feature to discover one right among the rolling hills!
Plan: We used a guidebook Jenn had brought from the States; the Rick Steves Florence & Tuscany has a good deal of history and walking tours and is perfect if you’re headed just to the Florence and Tuscany region, otherwise I prefer the general Rick Steves Italy. Although the Lonely Planet is the best for budget travelers, usually, the European guides form Rick Steves have better details for tours and culture and such.
When: It’s always a good time to go to Italy! Tuscany was gorgeous in the spring, and I’ve also traveled there in late June, and I loved baking in the warm heat with a glass of wine and pretty vineyards.
How: The bike tour I used is no longer in operation, so your best bet is asking at your guesthouse or reading reviews on TripAdvisor. They are all fairly similar, but some will pick you up from your hotel, and give a few little extras (more wine and gelato!), so shop around.
Colorful houses drip from cliffs and hang over the sea. Sunlight sparkles in the ocean and across the gentle curve of sandy white beaches. The five towns comprising Cinque Terre are among the most photogenic of Italy’s coastal cities. Even more, Cinque Terre is one of the most popular and iconic of Italy’s towns. While Rome and Venice are known the world over for ancient history and modern culture, Cinque Terre is among the next most popular destinations travelers consider when planning a trip to Italy. And for good reason — the region is stunning. It’s worthy of the acclaim. Years ago, I intended to visit while living and studying in Italy. Life got in the way during that last visit, so I was determined to see this region for myself.
The signature activity in Cinque Terre is a five-hour hike that hugs the coastline. It starts at the water’s edge, scales the side of mountains to reach cliffs hanging over the sea, and then drops back to sea level. Throughout the hike, you pass through five small towns — hence the name, which translates to five lands. Cinque Terre is unapologetically spectacular. I met a backpacker at one of the hostels who scoffed at our plans because it’s so touristy. And yet, they are the one that deserves scorn because there is just no reason to skip something that beautiful just because others also recognize the beauty and want to visit, too.
There are many ways to do the hike, we found budget accommodation in Riomaggiore, so we started there. No matter which section you choose, there just isn’t a poor choice — the entire hike is stunning. The path snakes along the edge of the cliffs. Each time you round a bend, a new vista awaits, with views that leave your mouth agape for a love of the beauty.
While the natural beauty is one reason to do the hike, the towns are also beyond charming. Suddenly the hiking paths veer from the trees and coastline and weave into one of the five towns. We would emerge from the path, panting, and suddenly the trees cleared and we found a tightly-packed Italian town filled with colorful, stacked houses. Being on the coast, the towns also had tiny harbors and inlets for sunbathing and for docking the small boats that bobbed gently.
There is just something compelling about Italian architecture — it’s not so much the style of the houses, but rather the colors. It’s exactly what you imagine the Mediterranean looks like from the photos! And while cookie-cutter suburbs in the U.S. attempt to replicate the aesthetic, there is no contest to see the architecture and culture woven into the landscape. Without the sparkling blue sea, the rolling grape fields, and the lilt of the Italian language, it loses that je ne sais quoi.
And although I have a love/hate relationship with hiking in general, Cinque Terre is so beautiful and compelling throughout the hike that I easily forgot that some sections were a bit strenuous. Once we made it through to the fourth town, we had the last and hardest part of the hike ahead of us. It would take an hour and fifteen minutes to hike between Vernazza and Monterosso. To fortify ourselves for the hike — and even though it was only 10:30am — we stopped for gelato in Vernazza.
It was the best gelato of my life.
And what’s funny is that it wasn’t even one of my favorite flavors! The day already scorching hot, so my bestie, my cousin, and I opted for an icy gelato rather than a creamy one. The limone was so divine. In fact, let’s take a moment of silence in my memory of that exquisite flavor. If you’re planning your own hike through Cinque Terre, hunt down the gelato shop in Vernazza. It’s unmissable when you first step into town. It’s directly in front of you as you when you leave the the south trail and enter town.
Fortified by the gelato, the three of us tackled the vertical part of the hike that connects Vernazza to Monterosso. This section is by far the hardest part of the hike. Jenn is very fit and even she was huffing and puffing along the route. About 40 minutes into the steep climb, I nearly lost the will to continue (it was hot!). Then, a fellow hiker from the other direction noticed my delightfully attractive splotchy red face and gave me the best news of the day — it was all downhill from there!
We nearly skipped the rest of the rest of the way. And when walking into Monterosso Bay, with its white sandy beach, we sent up squeals of glee. We stripped down to our bathing suits and jumped into the icy cold waters of the Ligurian Sea. After a hike like, that we rewarded ourselves with another gelato (nocciola, hazelnut, this time!)
With the hike finished, and having relaxed and recuperated on the beach, we used the local train to return to Riomaggiore. Thinking back on the beauty, I can’t help but just smile at the happy memories. In the years since I visited, Cinque Terre has seen untenable tourism surges. For that reason, the government plans to cut tourist numbers by more than a million annually. Research the current restrictions ahead of time, and be prepared for serious crowds, especially if there is a group tour coming through. You can buy a ticket for the hiking trail, the Cinque Terre Card, from the National Parks Service.
Quick Tips: Visiting Cinque Terre, Italy
How to Visit: This is a fast-changing situation, so research ahead of time to see if the government has yet implemented the tourism restrictions — when that happens you will have to apply months in advance for entrance to the towns.
Getting Around: The five towns are made for walking — be prepared! There are buses and the Cinque Terre Express train to connect the towns as well. These towns are built into cliffs and seaside, so expect that you will be hauling your own luggage to your accommodation! Pack wisely.
What to Do: The hike is gorgeous and some sections are very gentle inclines, others are steep. Plan on hiking, but match the sections to your fitness level. The coastal trail requires the Cinque Terre Card, and it offers free WiFi too, which is good because data is not guaranteed and internet can be pricey! There is also snorkeling and other water activities on offer, I highly recommend the kayaking as it would be my choice when/if I return! And if you aren’t up for the walk physically, there is a minibus tour with pretty views too, and allows you to still see the magical five towns.
Plan Your Trip: Although I usually use the Lonely Planet guides all over the world (and the Lonely Planet Italy could work if you prefer it), in Europe I find that the Rick Steves guides have a great mix of suggested routes and detailed culture and history sections to accompany them. For that reason, consider using the Rick Steves Italy to plan your route around Italy. Besides that, I recommend using Booking.com or Airbnb to research for affordable accommodation (both of those links offer ALA readers $25 off your first booking!).
Royal Chitwan National Park is a crowning jewel of Nepal, and it’s also one of the country’s most successful conservation projects. It’s a notable place not only in Nepal, but on the world stage, too—Chitwan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and therefore under international protection. During my month of volunteering, I had only heard good things about Chitwan from the young monks; I was eager to explore all Chitwan could offer a self-proclaimed responsible tourist like myself.
My friends and I had taken a boat through the National Park while scouting tigers in the wild, we ate delicious food, and we rounded out our weekend in Chitwan with a ride through a local Tharu village. Piling into the back of a jeep, we observed village life while the wind sent sticky heat across our skin. In addition to seeing the Terai villages, our end goal was the park’s Elephant Breeding Center, where I planned to learn more about Chitwan’s elephant tourism industry, with a real hope that I could uncover how it differed from that of Thailand’s more circus-like elephant tourism industry.
Chitwan’s Elephant Breeding Center
Elephants in Asia are a sticky subject fraught with hard questions. Is riding ethical or can they be domesticated humanely? And what role do breeding centers play in the equation? In conservation, many breeding centers effectively revive endangered populations. But the elephant population in Chitwan is not endangered, and it’s growing on its own through the park’s successful anti-poaching measures. Instead, the Breeding Center breeds elephants for use in the National Park—both for tourism and for anti-poaching patrols.
Even before arriving, I had reservations about the purpose of the breeding center—I knew I needed more information before I would fully understand the ethics of riding elephants in Nepal.
The Breeding Center in 2009 As part of my packaged tour, our guide shepherded us along to learn more and to see the newest elephants. The prize animals at the breeding center were twin baby elephants, just three months old. It seems like it’s cute, but not a big deal. According to our guide, however, these twins are the only surviving elephant twins in the park’s history. And they are just the third set to be born here, period. Twin elephants are extremely rare all over the world and have dismal survival rates. Considering the extremely long gestation time for elephants (22 months!), the momma elephant who carries the twins has a long road to travel before birth.
When we arrived, the twin elephants lopped along at a goofy pace as they followed their momma back to the breeding center—they had left with the mahouts in search of breakfast. And while I wanted to celebrate the birth of these adorable elephants, it was hard to see the mother elephant march back into the compound bound in chains. I wondered when those cute twins “need” chaining.
A few minutes later, we met another set of elephants, both about two-and-a-half years old and both were feisty! They trotted over to our group as soon as we walked into the compound. These two guys were frisky and playful. And they knew precisely what they wanted—any and all food hiding in our bags. One of them even walked straight up to me with his trunk extended and tried to taste my camera! I assured him that the crackers in the other hand were tastier, and he then pushed and nudged me until I had surrendered every single piece of my food I had hidden in pockets for them.
The Breeding Center Today Back in 2009, the number of chained elephants saddened me deeply and I wasn’t sure how the breeding center played into Chitwan’s larger conservation goals. Today, the breeding center is one of the handful of remaining places in Chitwan that still chains elephants—this practice is really changing elsewhere in the area and has seen a complete perspective shift among private tour operators and private elephant owners.
In the years since my visit, a large percentage of private tour operators have worked with elephant advocacy groups to make changes. As of 2017, many captive elephants were allowed to roam unchained and in packs, as they do in the wild—bull elephants are still chained for protection of people and other elephants, but the life of captive elephants has seen years of continual improvement.
Conservation is the key goal here, and you can tell that the tide of opinion is changing among local tour operators—they are truly willing to find creative solutions to how they can balance their twin goals of a humane life for the animals while still using tourism to further conservation. The breeding center is skippable as of 2018—I recommend using lodges and safari companies embracing the new styles of elephant tourism and conservation. The Nepalese government has been slow to embrace the changes, but ethical tourism is here to stay at Chitwan, and you can have positive, ethical elephant interactions.
Should You Ride an Elephant at Chitwan National Park?
As the final activity during our tour of Chitwan, we would ride an elephant through the jungle to spot wildlife. After all of my effort in Laos to not exploit the elephants, the jungle ride defeated the purpose. Even more tricky than breeding elephants, riding them is met with a lot of opinions. In Thailand, it’s a clear no-no and not a responsible tourism practice; in short, you shouldn’t ride an elephant when traveling there.
In Nepal, however, I tend to float in the other direction, as do several prominent responsible tourism websites. In Chitwan National Park, the elephants are primarily used to allow tourists to see endangered one-horned rhinos. Additionally, park rangers use elephants to penetrate deep into the forest where they could never go by car, and where it would be dangerous to enter on foot. These anti-poaching elephant rides successfully protect the world’s remaining Royal Bengal tigers, vultures, and other critically endangered animals. For several years in a row, there wasn’t a single rhino poached. That changed in 2017, but the fact is that the elephant anti-poaching measures work. Chitwan has the lion’s share of Nepal’s more than 600+ one-horned rhino (at one time, there were fewer than 200 in the world). No system is perfect, but rhino and tiger populations are increasing in Nepal, and that’s a conservation win for the entire world.
Riding an Elephant Chitwan National Park uses elephants for two parts of its tourism industry: elephant safaris to see a one-horned rhino, and elephant baths. As of 2018, both of these activities are still offered, but there have been positive changes for government and private owned elephants.
Elephants now perform a maximum of two safaris per day, down from five. Mahouts report the animals no longer have sores on their backs and are generally happier.
Metal hooks and prods are now banned and are no longer used in most aspects of the elephant-handling process.
Many private companies now offer elephant walk-alongs rather than elephant rides.
Private companies have decreased the use of chains, instead allowing all but aggressive bull elephants to wander more freely.
With the help and influence of conservation groups and activists, private groups are looking for new ways to train elephants. Two elephants have been raised so far using rewards-based training (instead of breaking the elephant through fear and beatings)—it’s been rocky but it’s one of the few places on earth testing more harmonious ways elephants and humans can work together ethically.
Chitwan National Park offers options for tourists who want to use their tourism dollars to support businesses committed to implementing ethical, responsible tourism practices even when it’s more expensive and it bucks trends. Tourists can now vote with their dollars and help effect change that way. I understand some people boycott Chitwan altogether, but I believe tourism effects the most change when it’s used to funnel money into projects and people committed to enacting positive new policies in the world.
And if you ride an elephant, well, there is a case to me made there, as well. Elephants shuttle tourists to the rhinos, which provides invaluable funding for anti-poaching measures. I believe this is a rare instance where responsible tourism can include a ride on an elephant as a means of supporting responsible tourism—for now. Chitwan needs money and support to continue its important conservation work.
There are few alternatives to raise the profile of the one-horned Indian rhino. These rhinos are extremely dangerous on foot, and the elephant ride is one of the few ways tourists can view the rhino without risking dismemberment. And I am not exaggerating. One of the Chitwan guides had returned home from the hospital the day I visited because of a wild rhino attack. For our journey, a rhino we spotted was unperturbed by the three elephants circling him in the large, grassy area. He munched the grass for several minutes, and then he stood perfectly still, almost like he was posing for a mini photo-shoot for us (he was more tolerant than the Indian cow debacle!)
Bathing Elephants In addition to the elephant safaris, elephants participate in a bathing ritual twice a day. Back in 2009, mahouts used metal prods on the elephants, but today that practice is banned. Instead, it’s an activity that you have to decide for yourself where you stand. Perhaps you skip the elephant safari, where the saddles are often problematic for elephants, but believe this is a lower-key option. Even the most highly touted elephant sanctuaries in Thailand allow some form of elephant bathing, so consider it a halfway point in the ethical debate, and a way to see these majestic creatures in a more natural way.
Final Impressions: Chitwan National Park
It was a lovely trip and one that I highly recommend to travelers visiting Nepal. We had no major issues throughout our visit. In fact, the whole trip was documented well by one of the doctors volunteering in a community near our village of Pharping. Lip, a Malaysian doctor, was such a fun addition to our ragtag group. He took a picture of absolutely everything he encountered, meaning we were all happy to look back and remember certain moments, and add to it that he had just completed his own Vipassana Meditation course, and he was a veritable chatterbox. Fellow travelers Jess and Regina also joined our group of Pharping volunteers. Jess was spunky and fun; she had just received her certification in the US and was a newly minted doctor. Regina is Portuguese and also a doctor volunteer in the medical clinic in Chapagaon.
After these months on the road, it was fun and a relief to travel with three doctors! My cousin and I had a bevy of questions for them, naming symptoms and questions from our illnesses endured these past months on the road. Despite being sure we had issues, our doctor-friends cleared our symptoms and told us to wait it out until we rejoined the developed world in just a few weeks.
Staying Healthy As far as health concerns went throughout Chitwan, all seven of us took anti-malarial medicine because of the parks tropical climate and proximity to India. Until this point, I had opted against malaria medication, even though it was recommended for all of Southeast Asia and India. Because it was dry season in SEA, I took a calculated risk. Instead, I used strong DEET repellant and wore long pants in the evenings. And while that worked well, I figured only an idiot would refuse to take anti-malaria medication while all the doctors in the group were doing it. I already had a three-month supply from the U.S. travel clinic I visited just before my trip, so that was plenty for my cousin and I to take recommended dose of Doxycycline every day (and for four weeks afterwards).
We also all had travel insurance that would cover us if we needed immediate transport from the very remote National Park back to Kathmandu for medical treatment—this is important since there’s a lot that can go wrong in the jungle.
Exploring Chitwan was amazing. I highly recommend that fellow travelers build this into any trip to Nepal. It’s a gorgeous region of the country making important strides in conservation and environmental preservation.
Quick Tips: Visiting Chitwan National Park
What to pack. Chitwan is a wet, humid, and forested area. It’s also blazing hot and there may be power outages at night, when nary a fan or breeze moves the stagnant heat. Pack clothes for hot, sunny days during, and pack lightweight clothes that cover your limbs in the evenings to prevent mosquito bites. And absolutely pack DEET repellant, quality sunscreen, and a hat. A full travel packing list is here. And don’t forget your Nepal travel adapter so you can charge all of your electronics.
Where to stay. Most travelers stay in Sauraha. If you want to put your money where your ethics are, head to Tiger Tops Elephant Camp—a private elephant camp leading the way with the most humane and ethical elephant practices. I also recommend Eden Jungle Resort and Lodge; it was lovely and remains highly rated by other travelers in the years since my visit. If you’re feeling more spendy, then Landmark Forest Park Hotel is a great choice.
Additional reading: Throughout this piece I linked to other resources and points of view on the questions ethically supporting elephant tourism in Nepal. The best ones for those in search of additional reading include this one, this one, and this one. And it’s always good to refresh yourself on the best practices of responsible tourists.
The best guidebook. Use the Nepal Lonely Planet to organize your wanders; it’s the one I used during my months there, and it proved useful!
Nepal Travel Guide
A guide to everything I learned while backpacking Nepal. From Kathmandu to Pokhara—and a lot in between—here’s where to go, my favorite places, and everything you should know before you go.
When I first booked my trip to spend three days at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Royal Chitwan National Park, I had visions of trekking through the jungles to spy on tigers and dodge wild rhinos. Turns out, the adventure didn’t go quite that far. I did see one of the rare one-horned rhinos, and I learned that it wasn’t the tigers and snakes to fear, but rather the park’s wild elephants. Tamed elephants appear docile at times, but our guide informed us that a wild elephant might charge you and attempt to rip your limbs apart by a particularly gruesome process of stepping on you with one giant foot foot, and then grabbing an arm with its trunk to then wrenching your body apart.
And I learned this in my first minutes in the park! Our guide had such a way with words when he delivered his welcome speech to our group as we sipped tea in the dining room and learned the outline of our three day tour. My time these past weeks in Nepal were wonderful, and that includes meeting the other volunteers in the nearby communities. Our group, which included medical volunteers at the local clinics and hospitals, decided to book an eco-friendly tour to Chitwan together. By traveling in a pack, we solidified our friendship, but we were also able to negotiate a steep discount on the transit and guide required to visit and explore. Tourism is big business in all of Nepal, and Chitwan is no exception. We arranged a full tour, including bus transport from Kathmandu to Sauraha, free pickup from the bus station outside of Sauraha and all the way to our resort. It was handy, although it’s a cinch to do independently as well (details at the bottom).
As I’ve mentioned, there are four teaching volunteers at the monasteries near Pharping, including me and my cousin. Then we met the doctor volunteers from Chapagaon when our mutual volunteer placement company (and what a debacle it proved to be!) brought the doctors into Pharping to see the monasteries and prayer rituals. The seven of us trooped south to Chitwan for a weekend of elephant safaris, jungle walks, a canoe trip, and tours through the small indigenous villages of Southern Nepal.
Chitwan’s Wildlife & Conservation Successes
Like visiting any national park, there is great potential for wildlife sightings, but no guarantees. And in the region, Chitwan is actually the best place and chance of spotting any of the most rare and interesting animals. But animals don’t much love tourists, so it takes a rare act of god to see one of the endangered bengal tigers living in the park. I have a small obsession dating back to childhood with tigers and I would love to see this majestic animal in the wild. But even more than that, I would love to see it thrive and population numbers rebound, so I wasn’t going to bemoan the animal’s survival instinct, which keeps it far from tourist paths. That said, it’s possible—rare but possible—to sight them on the daylong jeep safaris. And some travelers report more chances for a tiger spotting at Bardia National Park, instead. But also, tiger can occur, and at increasing frequency in Nepal now that numbers are rebounding, so I was cautious about seeing them, too since I was on a walking safari!
But even without the tiger spotting, the other animals are beautiful and it’s a region of Nepal unlike sightseeing in Kathmandu or the Valley, and entirely unlike the Pokhara area, too. Nepal is leading the region in conservation and in the last decade, strong anti-poaching measures have seen the populations of the tigers swell to more than 120, and the endangered one-horned rhino numbers well over 600 across the entire country. Add to that unique flora and fauna, beautiful birds, a smattering of leopards and sloth bears, and a resident population of elephants, and it’s a no-brainer to visit on any trip to Nepal. It’s hands-down the best safari experience outside of of driving around the Serengeti.
Where to Stay Near Chitwan
We had organized everything ahead of time, and as such we stayed at Eden Jungle Resort and Lodge in Sauraha, which home to all of the budget and backpacker lodging. It would have been lovely to stay at one of the more remote luxury lodges since they have deeper access to the national park and far less commercial development. With a bit of budget, I would have hands-down stayed at Landmark Forest Park Hotel, which is just outside of the backpacker area. I would have also opted for a jeep safari instead of the walking safari.
But for a backpacker budget, Eden was perfect as a spot that covered food, board, and a guide. The lovely staff fed us delicious food and the resort organized the entire weekend flawlessly. Our group had a personal guide who showed up each morning during breakfast and then traveled with us through the National Park and among the different activities. We had booked three days of sightseeing, with travel days on either side to and from Nepal. You really need at least two days to truly enjoy the nature and beauty and culture.
Exploring the Local Culture
Our arrival day in Chitwan, that afternoon we needed a low-key activity and our guide rounded us up and took us on a walk through a Tharu village. The Tharu people are an ethnic group in south-western Nepal who are native to the Terai region, which is a plain region that encompasses Chitwan, as well as other areas. Once the Park received UNESCO status and government protection and conservation, the villagers formed settlements along the border. Across decades now, the Tharu have maintained these villages and live in a remarkably similar traditional manner to their previous generations—a feat for any culture with the number of tourists that visit the park.
Many cultural anthropologist attribute the strong ties to tradition culture to the fact that Tharu never followed the larger trends in Nepal to seek work overseas. Tharu stay within their communities, rarely even venturing into other Nepali communities. Through these isolationist tendencies, they have a strong tie to the land and the customs of the ancestors. The houses of the Tharu people seemingly emerge from the ground like the stalk of a strong and abundant plat. The homes have clay walls and thatched roofs, both features that allow the homes to stay cool in the dense summer humidity.
Wildlife Safari in the National Park
We started out our first morning in Chitwan with a canoe ride and jungle walk. One of the women with us, Jess, was particularly freaked out by the prospect of a jungle walk after our guide’s pep-talk about the danger of wild elephants and rhinos, but she decided to stick out her fear and join the activities anyway. To skip the jungle walk, she would have missed the leisurely early morning canoe ride down the Rapti River, which was truly beautiful. We all boarded a wooden dugout canoe and floated along the riverbank, peering into the jungle. Then we disembarked and walked back toward town through the jungle, looking for wild animals.
Over the years, I go back and forth about bird-watching safaris. If there aren’t many birds, then my eagerness for bird spotting wears thin. On the canoe trip, there is an element of bird-watching, but it’s in such a serene and peaceful setting that it’s always engaging. Since you leave in the early morning, many animals are active and villagers are on the river, too.
And as you look into the forest, there are opportunities to spot wild elephants and rhinos. During our ride, we spotted a number of beautiful species of kingfisher birds coasting across the water, egrets waded through the shallows. We also passed by groups of local children clowning around in the river, they were entirely unconcerned with our canoe full of tourists.
Our jungle walk was peaceful and uneventful. We spotted on rhino resting among the trees. The guides do make a dramatic adventure, however. Our perhaps he truly did hear things in the jungle. It was hard to determine. But he picked up a big stick for protection and indicated that the seven of us should tighten our single-file line on the narrow paths. Either way, our guide made us acutely aware that we were in the jungle, a place a bit more dangerous strolling through New York’s Central Park. Although we didn’t spot the big game animals on the walk, we did spot fresh footprints from a leopard, several deer, and a few other animals that could probably have killed me if they ever happened upon the seven of us gently tiptoeing through the jungle.
Bathing the Elephants
Among the highlights at Chitwan National Park is the chance to play with the elephants. After our jungle walk, we stopped near a cafe for drinks and a sunset on the river. Nearby, a group of elephants took their daily baths in the river, and tourists are allowed to join the mahouts, the elephant trainer. The mahout would command the elephant to tip us at various points, and to generally play around a bit in the water. After the frolicking session, we then moved into the shallow water to rub our elephant, ours was named Lakshmi. They have thick, coarse skin filled with wiry hair, and the elephants enjoy being cleaned.
It was a fun to interact with the elephants on this level, without some of the whiffs of exploitation that come with riding elephants in parts of Southeast Asia. Interacting with the elephants at all is a sticky subject and one that has few hard and fast lines. While some groups claim that elephants should never be ridden or used for tourist purposes, in Nepal, I tend to see that the National Park’s conservation efforts hinge on tourism. This tourism draw in the name of conservation isn’t present during the canned tourist experiences in Thailand. It’s complicated, but I discuss the elephant issue here, as well as the National Park’s Elephant Breeding Center that you’ll visit on many tours of the area.
Suffice to say, I write about sustainable and responsible tourism, and in my estimation there is a case to be made that elephants at Chitwan serve a needed larger conservation goal for critically endangered animals living in the park.
A Glimpse of Tharu Culture
Having toured the villages the day before, on our second day at the National Park our guide arranged for us to watch a traditional Tharu dance performed by a large group of the middle and high-school children from the community. The dancers were all male, and the Tharu young’uns spent thirty minutes shaking every limb of their bodies while dancing to beating the rhythm on their clacking sticks.
Although I was an Irish dancer for years, I recognize that I could not sustain that level of movement and dance. The dancers had skill and charisma that kept us captivated throughout the performance.
By the end of the second day, we had spotted leopard tracks, bathed elephants, spent hours peacefully spotting animals from the river, and even sipped beers as the sun set. It was a lovely way to spend the day. The next day we would set out early to visit the Elephant Breeding Center, which plays a large role in supporting the funding and tourism industry that keeps Chitwan National Park afloat.
Should You Visit Chitwan?
Tourism is the main industry supporting the park’s conservation; it’s quite literally the way that Nepal funds the rangers who protect the park from poachers. In that way, the tourism is the best way to keep the conservation happening. That said, the two- or three-day packaged tours sold from Kathmandu are canned tourist experiences. You will run through a set of activities everyone does, from a jungle walk, an elephant experience, a cultural show, etc.
Do I think you should do it? Really depends on what you are looking for in the experience. It’s well organized and tourism is big business, so you’ll do the things they promised. Because tourism is big business, the likelihood that you will see tigers (which roam at night and shy from touristy areas of the park) is very, very low. You have a great chance of seeing the rhino, and you will learn about an indigenous culture, the Tharu, who are only located in this region of Nepal. You also can easily do a route around the country that includes the park, ie. Kathmandu > Chitwan > Pokhara.
Think about your own expectations and what you want out of your travels. You will not be remotely hiking through a wild jungle, you will be learning about conservation and the park’s breeding programs, with fun activities thrown in there, too. If you are looking for wild and remote, save those expectations for your trek of the Annapurna circuit.
Travel insurance: Chitwan is in a remote area of Nepal, you need travel insurance that will cover you if you need immediate transport from the National Park back to Kathmandu for medical treatment—this is important since there’s a lot that can go wrong in the jungle.
How to Get to Chitwan. Sauraha is the town outside of Chitwan and it is from here that the vast majority of tours are run. This is where the guesthouses and resorts are too. Nicer resorts are on the outskirts of Sauraha, but all of the budget and backpacker accommodation is in this town. To get to Sauraha, buses run directly from Kathmandu and Pokhara and each take between 4-6 hours in general. Buses are prompt, so arrive with time to spare in the morning or you will miss the bus out of Thamel. Tours also pack tourists on other shuttles and they also leave in the morning. There is an airport just 10 km outside of Sauraha in Bharatpur and it’s ideal if you are feeling spendy—flights run daily from Bharatpur to both Kathmandu and Pokhara, though less frequently in low season. The Wiki Travel page for Chitwan is a good resource for updated and additional information.
The best guidebook. Use the Nepal Lonely Planet to organize your wanders, it’s the one I used during my months there, and it proved useful!
Nepal Travel Guide
A guide to everything I learned while backpacking Nepal. From Kathmandu to Pokhara—and a lot in between—here’s where to go, my favorite places, and everything you should know before you go.
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’ve moved into Nepal (full travel guide here). I plan to take a much slower pace to life and travels for the next nine weeks. 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 I can only expect that Nepal — in the foothills of the Himalayas — will continue that theme. The big part of my travels through Nepal is volunteering at a monastery in the Kathmandu Valley. Beyond that, I will use weekends to continue exploring Kathmandu.
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. And so many things to see and sights to visit. I am becoming nonchalant about the sheer craziness of traffic in South Asia. When I landed in Bangkok all of those months ago it overwhelmed me to see the chaos and noise and to understand 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 would begin 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.
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.
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.
Each section of town has a different vibe. While many backpackers stay in Thamel (and this is where I passed much of my time since the volunteer offices are located in Thamel), other travelers choose to stay deeper in the heart of Kathmandu, where the major historic sites are within walking distance.
What to See and Do 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 of 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.
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.
Swayambhunath (Monkey Temple) On our section 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 that live 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!
This is views of the Kathmandu Valley from 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 it’s 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.
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.
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.
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 Tips: Exploring Kathmandu
Visas and 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!
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!
[caption id="" align="alignright" width="326"] The views on a hike outside of McLeod Ganj, India[/caption]
The bus skirted the mountainside as my cousin and I traveled toward Dharamsala, India. In my many weeks backpacking through India, this past week had begun the tour of subgroups and other cultures strongly present within India. En route to visit Dharamsala—or, more accurately the small town of McLeod Ganj—I stopped for several nights in Amritsar to learn more about the Sikh religion, and to visit the holy Golden Temple. Amritsar is a crowded, congested city and after sitting on the shores of the Temple’s lake, I boarded a bus that would take me further into the Himalayan foothills, and into yet another culture.
Although it’s still technically India, McLeod Ganj is better known as “Little Lhasa” since it’s the seat of power for the exiled Tibetan government. To walk the streets of this small mountain town is like an exit from India. Although there are some ethnic Indians in the city, the bulk of the town is composed of Tibetan refugees. And, the His Holiness the Dalai Lama calls McLeod Ganj home.
Having spent more than a month in Rajasthan, an intensely populated area bustling with tourists and touts and people. This time in India’s far north was a chance to take a step back from the pace of my previous travels. Arriving in McLeod Ganj was a sanctuary from the sensory assault of the past weeks. The weather was cooler, the mountains misted in the mornings, and the tall peaks blotted out the sun early in the day. With a gorgeous guesthouse secured (we stayed at a great budget spot the first few nights but then moved nicer when we got sick), my cousin and I decided to camp out in McLeod Ganj for a week.
[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"] Tibetan script on a rock in McLeod Ganj.[/caption]
[divider_flat]I had high hopes that this base would afford me the chance to hike in the mountains around the city. Unfortunately, traveler’s sickness final struck, and it alternated its victim. My cousin and I had done well for five weeks—we avoided even the whiff of sick. But the traveler’s adage proved true—it’s not a matter of if you’re going to get sick in the country, but rather when. I had traveled with a SteriPen for the past weeks in India. This little device was very handy. It saved us money and it also eliminated the assault on the environment that comes from mass consumption of bottled water in a country that has no effective waste management system. The SteriPen never failed us, but instead we were felled by the street dumplings we had craved on arrival. I deeply love Tibetan momos and the chance to eat them all day from every location seemed fortunate. But instead, those dumplings shaved several days from our time in Dharamsala.
Traveling in developing countries has challenges, and now that I am many months into traveling through Asia—first Southeast Asia and now India—I am weary of hugging more toilets. I am also not a huge fan of mega dosing on antibiotics, but it’s a given for long-term travel. Even though I had a huge course of antibiotics to overcome dysentery in Laos, I needed another course for this bout of traveler’s diarrhea. I am stepping up my caution once again. When so many weeks pass, it’s easy to let my guard down and crave fresh fruits even if I have a niggling doubt that they’ve been sterilized.
1. Visit the Tibetan Museum in McLeod Ganj
Anyhow, that took me down for the count for part of my time in McLeod Ganj. But as for actually visiting the area in and around Dharamsala—there’s a lot to offer! The main activities center on either the Tibetan aspects of the down or the hiking. My cousin and I both took this time to learn more about the situation in Tibet. Knowing only the basics about the conflict between the Tibetans and the Chinese, learning the scope of the was sobering. The Tibetan museum is a basic building and exhibits center on rooms full of pictures that tell stories about the many the Tibetan refugees crossing through the snowy mountains to find freedom. It’s harrowing, they faced frostbite, lack of food, and general poverty in their quest to live and find freedom. Once in India, the refugees struggle to rebuild their lives with the support of the Tibetan government in exile.
2. Don’t Miss Clapping Monks at the Tibetan Monastery
Near the museum is a large monastery where the Tibetan monks live. Visiting the monastery was a fantastic experience and a real highlight from my time in the city. The older monks were using the open grounds of the monastery to prepare for their final debates. If you have ever seen a roomful of monks debate, it’s not something you are likely to forget! The debating style is unique. They emphatically argue their points to the other person, then make a large slapping/clapping motion at the end to both emphasize the point and throw the focus to the next person. I wrote a bit more on that here.
It was neat to hang out in the courtyard and observe the process. It’s an open and welcoming place, so there was no pressure to do anything other than enjoy and ask the occasional question when I found an English speaker.
The Dalai Lama wasn’t feel well during my visit, so I wasn’t able to see him speak in person. The week before I arrived, the Tibetans rallied against 50 years in exile. Although the event had passed, the general tone of amplifying their message and sharing their struggles was ever-present. Tibetans are a peaceful people, but they wanted to let the world know and remember their struggles and displacement.
3. Hunt Down Tasty Momos & Salted Butter Tea
One of my favorite new finds is a tasty is a salted butter tea. Well, that and the Tibetan brown bread. Oh, and the momos, of course. In fact, all of the Tibetan food was delicious and contained a complexity of flavor within seemingly simple dishes. McLeod Ganj is small too, so no matter which guesthouse you choose, you can visit any of the restaurants on an easy walk. For the first few days, my cousin and I made a point to try a new lunch and dinner spot each day—that was essentially enough time to try them all! Once we had a few stand-out favorites, we spent the rest of the time popping around to each place, chatting with the owners, and downing delicious Tibetan eats.
With so many tasty options, we ate very well. Before a hike, my cousin and I usually packed some brown bread and snacks and hiked around the outskirts of town and into the nearby mountain towns.
4. Stop for a Photo Shoot at the Waterfall
The Tibetan community is slower paced than the rest of India, but it’s still India. On one of our hikes my cousin and I found ourselves back in the spotlight with the locals. We hiked to the small but pretty Bhagsu Waterfall outside of town and found ourselves a delightful novelty to the Indians also hiking to the waterfall. I had a mini photoshoot with a few hikers, and then laughed my way away from their group.
After the first impromptu photoshoot, I was still surprised when I was accosted for a second photoshoot with a large and boisterous family. There must have been 12 members of the family. They swarmed us, but in a much more fun and interactive way than the slow stalking at Gandhi’s Ashram when I had first arrived. Once my cousin and I agreed to take a picture with family’s children, the mother of the group decided to gather the whole family together. It was so funny. They all jostled us around so that they could be touching some part of us during the picture. After they snapped a photo on one camera, the mother would grab our arms in a death grip to hold us in place. She wanted to ensure that we didn’t flee before we had posed for a full lineup of photo in various arrangements. The family gave us a good laugh, they were genuine and friendly, but they would have never let us leave, so we did a walking backwards departure after ten minutes. There were lots of hugs, smiles, and waves until we rounded the bend and my cousin and I fast-walked out of there!
5. Learn Tibetan Cooking
With a good amount of time on our hands in McLeod Ganj, we signed up for a cooking class. I have eaten my weight in Tibetan momos these past weeks in India’s north, so I decided to learn the process with a hope that I can make them myself when I’m back home and longing for the flavors. The class was simple and a fun way to pass the afternoon. Sanji Tashee taught two classes each day with several different lessons. Now, there is a great vegetarian cooking class on offer at Lhamo’s Kitchen that comes highly recommended.
For my class, of course I only had eyes for the class that took me through the momo process from start to finish. Traditional vegetarian momos have just a handful of flavor combinations. There are: spinach and cheese; cabbage, onions and veggies; mixed vegetables.
The real treat turned out to be my favorite of the three—a chocolate momo! This is definitely not a traditional Tibetan momo, but Tashee knew his audience well. He won my undying affection with the delicious combination of cocoa, sugar, and sesame seeds all steamed in a dumpling shell. Unbelievably good.
And one of the coolest parts was learning how to roll out the momos, stuff them, and then how to fold them into pretty little dumpling shapes. Between the Laotian cooking class and now with the Tibetan momos, friends and family back home can expect a special international cuisine night when I get home.
6. Enjoy the Relaxed Pace of Life
Take time to sit and drink tea at the tiny coffee shops. Browse for souvenirs in the shops and street side stalls. Accept a cuppa chai tea when you’re invited.
In short, McLeod Ganj is not the place to stick to a frenetic pace of life. The Tibetan community brings a calming influence to the city, and a spiritual one too. Many foreigners take classes in yoga and meditation nearby. Others are there for the same reasons I found myself enjoying McLeod Ganj—simply to enjoy the pace of life. It’s a pretty little city, and one unlike anywhere else in India. In the foothills of the Himalayas, it’s the perfect spot to enjoy some hikes