The Spiritual Capital of India – Varanasi

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By Telma | 24 January 2017 | India | Travel Guides

“Brace yourself. You’re about to enter one of the most blindingly colourful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth.”

~ Lonely Planet

If there is a city that inspires love and hate at the same time, that will be Varanasi.
In India, where some of the most important religions were founded, Varanasi is one of the most sacred in the world. Known as “the spiritual capital of India” it is regarded as one of Hinduism’s seven holy cities. Hindu pilgrims believe that visiting this holy city and bathing in the Ganges River’s sacred waters will purify their souls. Everyday men in underpants, women in saris, children and the elderly go to these Ghats (stone-paved cremation platforms with steps leading down to the water) and bathe in the holy water to wash away their sins or to attend cremation ceremonies. From dawn to dusk spiritual practices take place in public, in devotion of their Goddess – Ganga. Thousands chanting Mantras, bathing into the icy-cold water, every day, every hour as they “free themselves from the cycle of death and rebirth”. These rituals, the river, smells, cows, goats, dogs and people, all at once around the Ghats can be overwhelming, to say the least!
But Varanasi isn’t only one of the oldest and most religious cities in the world, it is without doubt a city that captivates you, that leaves you speechless. Varanasi is an experience.

things to do varanasi

varanasi everyday

ganges river varanasi

sadhu varanasi

About Varanasi

Arriving in Varanasi and looking around, our first impression wasn’t great, in all honesty. Is this a “Holy city” or a “Chaotic mess”? We have seen dirt, experienced crowded places and unpleasant smells lingering around but Varanasi it’s on another level. This is real!
From the first step outside the Guesthouse to returning back, it was a constant struggle with things, animals, people! Touts following us trying to sell anything and everything to the point they would grab our arms to get our attention. Sadhus (Holy Man) trying to shake our hands and touch our heads, shouting in the end because they were actually demanding money. Rickshaw and Tuk Tuk drivers wouldn’t leave us alone and literally followed us everywhere. Children begging for money, no I am not talking about one child at a time, I mean 8-10 children surrounding us at once. The stray dogs it’s heartbreaking! We lost count how many there are roaming around; broken legs or legless, covered in wounds, skinny, starving…So sad to a westerner’s thinking.
And last but not least…let’s talk about the cows. They are everywhere! Ok, it’s fine, they are cute and harmless. But there were roads that it was impossible NOT to step on cow’s dung. I mean seriously? No, I am not exaggerating. Perhaps I can show a few pictures…

holy cow varanasi

cows everywhere varanasi

india sacred cows

Besides all the madness Varanasi has its good points: interesting people, great vegetarian/vegan food, amazing history sites and a relaxed pace of life. No wonder there are so many westerners. After all, Varanasi might be the place to be.

Top Things To Do in Varanasi

Walking around the Old City

Ditch Google Maps. Get lost and enjoy the experience! Yummy street food, some of the coolest, trendiest cafés in town, vegetable markets, street vendors, hidden temples, thousands of people, rickshaws, cows, goats, chickens, dogs… the list goes on.

people streets of varanasi

what to do varanasi

travel guide varanasi

Visit the River Ganges Ghats

There are 80+ Ghats bordering the river and most were built 1700 AD. Yes Varanasi is an old city, dating back 3000 years ago. So how can anyone not feel the goose bumps while there?!
Anyway a good start would be from Assi Ghat all the way down to Manikarnika Ghat. Some are busier than others, due to its religious practices and number of attendees.

varanasi people at the river

Here are the most important Ghats in Varanasi:

Assi Ghat – A place of worshiping Lord Shiva, pilgrims bathe here before any rituals take place. As its location is at the far extreme south of the river, the area is less crowded.
Chet Singh Ghat – The old Fort represents more of a historical symbol than a cremation site itself. Maharaja Chet Singh built the fort during the 18th century battle with the British.
Darbhanga Ghat – The Royal family of Bihar built the palace early 1900s. The Ghat is amongst the favourites in Varanasi due to its architecture.
Scindhia Ghat – There is a partially submerged Shiva Temple at the water’s edge. Some cremations happen here during the day.
Dasaswamedh Ghat – This is the main Ghat and ultimately the oldest and holiest of all. It’s where the Ganga Aarti ceremony takes place every evening.
Manikarnika Ghat – Here is where it all happens! The busiest Ghat in Varanasi. According to one of the locals “up to 100 bodies are cremated here every day”.

assi ghat

chet singh ghat

ghat to visit varanasi

varanasi ceremony ghat

cremations varanasi

things to do varanasi

Boat Tour on the Ganges River

Hold your breath! You will be haggling a lot for this boat ride! Be smart, if you have time (and patience), ask around first and see what these men have on offer. Some might be knowledgeable of the Ghats, others not so much. And that is why time is needed here, so you can get a glimpse of what they know. Our boat ride, along with our friend Peter, was at Rs100/USD1.50/GBP1.20 each.
Now, were we 100% satisfied with the service? Not bad, but could have been better because we agreed one hour and only made it to Dasaswamedh Ghat within 45 minutes. Also, the man refused to carry on, saying he had to row back and it would take time. At the end he demanded a tip… me being me, I laughed and walked off. Obviously!

boat ganges river

Attend the Aarti Ceremony

Every day, regardless of the weather, the Aarti Ceremony takes place at sunset (7pm in the summer, 6pm in the winter) at Dasaswamedh Ghat. The flow of pilgrims, Sadhus, Priests, beggars, homeless and flower sellers, is enchanting. Oh, and the cows, of course!
It is a spectacular, must-see ceremony with a lot of meaning in a spiritual context and for non-Hindus it is still a fascinating ritual to be able to witness.
The ceremony is a devotion for the Goddess Ganges, Lord Shiva and symbolizes the five elements: Akash (Space); Vayu (Wind); Agni (Fire); Jal (Water); Prithvi (Earth). A group of young pandits (Hindu Priests) perform the highly-choreographed ceremony using fire, water, incense, and many other elements. During the ritual, there is music and dancing in circular movements that represent the presence of the Gods in everyone’s life.
The ceremony lasts for one hour and cannot be missed!

evening ceremony varanasi

evening ceremony varanasi

Travel Tips for Varanasi

  • Don’t be fooled, man will try and get you on a rickshaw for twice the money or will convince you to hire him as a Guide for the day. Always ask the host at the hostel/guesthouse for recommendations.
  • Don’t lose your appetite. For us, the street food in Varanasi wasn’t very appealing to say the least, but don’t worry there are some options. Check the list of Restaurants in Varanasi. Aum Café located in Assi Ghat was our favourite!
  • Say NO more often. People will grab your hands, arms and chase you. It’s exhausting. Be prepared for the odd man shouting back because you ignored him. Don’t be embarrassed ad walk away.
  • Observe the everyday life and immerse yourself in Varanasi!

varanasi cremation ghats

boat at varanasi

varanasi itinerary

varanasi ghats and people

holy man of varanasi

varanasi people

So after all, you must be thinking “I would have left straight away!” But you know, this is it, this is part of India. This is why there is no other place like Varanasi; its uniqueness makes it one of a kind. Thousands come for “soul searching”, for its spiritual practices, a “once in a lifetime experience”. Although we both don’t share the spiritual connection, we did “enjoy” the chaos.
There is a love-hate relationship towards Varanasi amongst travellers, and I don’t blame people for it. In all honesty isn’t the most pleasant place to be. And one massive piece of advice, for people that are planning a visit to India, DO NOT start in Varanasi. I feel not many will be able to cope with it.
After all, who said people come to India for a holiday? You don’t see India, you experience India.

Thanks to our friend Peter we had delicious meals in Varanasi! His recommendations were spot on! While in Varanasi we spent a lot of time together. And it was such a pleasure to be surrounded by good energy. We met him in Kathmandu, a few weeks after coming back from Everest Base Camp. And by the look of it, we will meet many times more in India. Cheers buddy!

Is Varanasi on your travel list? Let us know in the comments below.

india varanasi

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Agra Travel Guide – Beyond the Taj Mahal

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By Telma | 10 January 2017 | India | Travel Guides

Visiting Agra is like stepping down from a time machine. The city located on the banks of the river Yamuna has many splendid Mughal-era buildings, dating back the 15th and 16th century. Early morning, a very slow start: vendors setting up their shops, dogs and cows hunting for the first meal of the day, rickshaw drivers gather and the streets start filling up with people and cars. Just another day in Agra.
Understanding the lifestyle and the everyday life is not easy for a westerner; life here is different, but its people are proud of their roots. Even though for us, it is like living hundreds of years back in time.
Once in Agra, the most visited city in India, we already knew that one of Agra’s points of interest was the Taj Mahal, but surely there was more to explore. The city has amazing sites; a splendid fort, fascinating tombs, beautiful gardens, the bustling of the local vendors and its people, make it a very exciting city to explore and worth spending a few days wandering around. Agra, as many other Indian tourist destinations, must be taken with a pinch of salt. It’s busy, loud, not so clean, too many rickshaws, everyone wants to take a picture with you and the constant pestering of children offering to be a guide for the day or insisting that you visit their uncle’ shop! All of this is a huge culture shock and can be tiring and stressful if you are not prepared for it. But not enough to forget the magical attractions of the city.

agra travel guide

The obsession of visiting the Taj Mahal draws people from all over the world and regardless of all the hype, the monument really does live it up to its fame. People often visit for the day, coming from Delhi on a tourist bus. After being here, we cannot believe that people chose a day-trip. Not only is it a very rushed visit but also because by the time they arrive at the 
Taj Mahal it’s nearly impossible to take good pictures, appreciate it and make the most of it. As early at 10 am, there are already endless queues. If you can, extend your trip.

However, there is a world beyond the Taj Mahal. Let us convince you to to stay longer with our Agra Travel Guide.

agra points of interest

people of agra

everyday india

Agra Travel Guide: Why Agra is not only about the Taj Mahal

Things To Do in Agra

The history of Agra is complex, it’s easy to shut your eyes and imagine the emperors, the battles, the palaces, its princes and princesses; it’s a fairy-tale city. Not wanting to waste any time, we started exploring this little gem.

Beyond the Taj Mahal located in the city-center are Itimad-ud-Daulah and Agra Fort (UNESCO World Heritage site). To the west Akbar’s Mausoleum and a little further, on the other side of the river, Mehtab Bagh.

Itimad-ud-Daulah

baby taj mahal

agra baby taj mahal

day trip baby taj mahal

baby taj looks like

places to visit agra

what to visit agra

Also known as Baby Taj, is considered the first Mughal structure in India built out of white marble. Apparently, it was built as a draft for the construction of the Taj Mahal.
The mausoleum was commissioned by Nur Jahan for her father who was honored with the title of Itmau-ud-Daula (Pillar of the state). It’s quite a small site to visit, but worth it for its architecture.
Entry Fee: Rs200/USD$3/£2.50

Agra Fort

places of interest agra

agra tourism

inside the red fort

Located on the banks of the river Yamuna was built in the 15th Century by Emperor Akbar and was the main residence of many emperors of the Mughal Dynasty. Also, known as the Red Fort, beyond its walls are palaces, both in red sandstone and white marble, all added by the Emperor’s grandson, Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal). Due to its structure the fort is described as a walled palatial city as it had later become a palace. It’s an impressive site to visit!
Entry Fee: Rs500/USD$7/£5

Inside the fort, these are a few places that caught our eye:

agra palaces

Khas Mahal – white marble palace

red fort palace

Diwan-i-Aam – used as communications ground between the public and the aristocracy

places to visit agra

Musamman Burj – octagonal tower with a balcony facing the Taj Mahal (where Shah Jahan spent his last 8 years imprisoned looking at the Taj Mahal in memory of his beloved wife)

Akbar’s Mausoleum is the tomb of Akbar, The Great Emperor of the Mughal Dynasty. Built by himself while still alive, Akbar could not complete the entire work, leaving his son with the responsibility to make it the final resting place for the greatest emperor of the Mughal rule. The red sandstone mausoleum is a beautifully carved four-tiered building and its upper chamber is made of white marble. The three-storey minarets at each corner are also built of red sandstone with white-marble geometric patterns.
A curiosity regarding the tomb, is that contrary to other Muslim structures, the mausoleum is turned towards the rising sun and not towards Mecca.
Entry Fee: Rs200/USD$3/£2.50

interesting places agra

visiting agra palaces

places to visit agra

interesting places to visit india

Mehtab Bagh or “moonlit garden” is situated to the north of the Taj Mahal across the river Yamuna. The garden was an integral part of the Taj Mahal complex comprising of the mausoleum (Taj Mahal) set in a charbagh (a Persian-style garden layout). The aim of the garden was to provide a tranquil and magical setting to view the Taj Mahal in moonlight across the river. We decided to go only because we had seen beautiful pictures of the Taj Mahal across the river, but this is just an ordinary garden. Worth it if you are into photography.
Entry Fee: Rs200/USD$3/£2.50

beyond taj mahal

Last but not least…

Visiting the Taj Mahal

Of course, once in Agra, we could not ignore a visit to the famous Taj Mahal.
Built stone by stone with a story of eternal love, the Taj Mahal is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. People from all the world visit the mausoleum of white-ivory-marble, built between 1631 and 1648. And the truth is, the monument simply captivates you. Taj Mahal, one of its kind in the world is a monumental labour of love from the Emperor Shah Jahan for his beloved wife, who died giving birth to their 14th child. This enchanting mausoleum took 22 years to complete with the help of an estimated 20,000 workers. Taj Mahal is “the jewel of Muslim art in India’, as per UNESCO and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage. The details of the structure are enough to leave you speechless.
Entry Fee: RS1000/USD$14/£11

taj mahal agra

Best Time to Visit the Taj Mahal

We were intrigued by its beauty but the weather in Northern India in December is not at its best and at 8am the fog partially covered the monument. And by that time, the site was crowded. Not a good start! But there was nothing we could have done. Arriving at the opening time of 6am, would have been a waste of time because the fog is dense and sometimes impossible to see anything as far as 50 metres. We walked around taking as many pictures as we could, filmed our Christmas Message video, appreciated the architecture and wondered around the mausoleum for a few hours. By 11am, it was “impossible” to walk around due to the number of people.
The best time would be October-November (after the monsoon) and just before it gets really hot, February-March.

taj mahal best pictures

best tips for taj mahal

taj mahal visit tips

best time to visit taj mahal

Agra has a rich heritage, culturally and architecturally. But, as any other Indian city, it has its downside. Often seen by the western world as the “not-so-nice-India. Poverty, litter, dust and smells are real, and enough for anyone to hate the city. No road signs, cows, monkeys, goats, rickshaws, cars, buses, children begging….it’s chaos. But all runs smoothly, for them!! Don’t be too hasty, beyond the negatives it is really a fascinating city. The only way to enjoy is to see beyond the dirt, and immerse yourself in the rich cultural side of the city.
Coming to Agra is to understand and accept that people live differently, they have their own ways. We are there for a mere few days or in many situations just for a few hours. While there we made the most of it: walked around, talked to people, took pictures, slowed down and observed the daily life. The results were fascinating, we got amazing pictures out of it.
The monuments, the palaces and the strong religious influence in Agra is enough to leave you with a taste of what the Indian life was like a few centuries ago.

people of india

Special Thanks:

We would like to thank my dear friend Rahul Jain and his wife Priya for driving us to Agra and organising some of the sightseeing. Thank-You brother for being a great friend and welcoming us in your family home.

Is the Taj Mahal on your bucket list?

taj mahal guide

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Nepal: A Traveller’s Guide

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By Telma | 1 December 2016 | Nepal | Travel Guides

Surrounded by land between India and Tibet, Nepal is a unique, eclectic brew of her neighboring cultures. The land is a dividing line between ancient, historic, civilization and cultures that in their mystery and passion are often associated with a more spiritual way of life and therefore alluring to many travelers seeking an alternative lifestyle and inner contemplation. At the same time the diversity of ethnic groups within Nepal is often complicated for a westerner to understand before they immerse themselves in the sensual experience that is Nepal. It is a staggeringly beautiful country with mountain, jungle, country, and urban landscapes to explore, all in rich techni-color to delight and enrich the soul.
The history of Nepal makes it a unique place that draws visitors from all over the world every year. Often people assume that Nepal is just an extended part of India, but it’s not. Nepali are very proud of their culture, diversity, its people, heritage sites, religions and its unique attractions. Nepal is best known for having the world’s largest mountain range; the Himalayas. This range provides eight of the ten world’s tallest mountains and the highest peak in the world, Mt. Everest reaching 8848 meters high. Other unique treasures are the biggest pilgrimage Buddhist Stupa, Kumari– The Living Goddess and Lumbini – birthplace of the Buddha.

nepal tourist attractions

General Information for First Time Travellers in Nepal

Places of Worship: Always walk clockwise around the Buddhist stupas, shrines and mani walls. Remove shoes before entering a Buddhist or Hindu temple/sanctuary. In some Hindu temples people cannot enter using any leather goods, or as a non-Hindu entering will not be possible at all.

Greetings: People are not thanked as often as in the Western world. Don’t be surprised if you never hear “Thank you”, “Please” or “Excuse me”. But learning the basics would be hugely appreciated:
Hello, Goodbye: Namaste
Thank you: Dhanyebaad
I’m sorry, excuse me: Maph garnus

Shopping: Haggling is very common amongst the travellers but try to be fair. It should never be a cause of an argument. If not happy with the price, just walk away. Remember that Rs20/USD$0.20/GBP£0.15 for Nepali people can make a huge difference, but when converted onto our own currency might add up just a few cents.

Health: Travellers’ diarrhoea often happens when travelling in Nepal. But majority people get an upset stomach. Don’t be paranoid and enjoy the local food. Don’t drink tap water, avoid ice cubes and brush your teeth with bottled water.
Hiring a Guide in Nepal is very common as this is a great way of getting to know the ins and outs of places. Also there is no shame on hiring a Porter either as having someone to carry your backpack while trekking is actually helping towards their family, as Porters are some of the poorest in Nepal.

Packing for Nepal: Pack light. Depending on the season and the activities, bringing a pair of trekking boots it is a good option. If visiting during the colder months (November to February), the temperatures in Kathmandu are just above zero degrees, so thermal layers are recommended. An umbrella or raincoat is a must during the rainy season (June to September).

Begging is sensitive matter and it’s very common in Nepal, especially around the main religious temples and shrines. It is heartbreaking and impossible to ignore and Westerners are expected to give money. From my experience, I never give money, because I don’t think it will solve anything, actually I feel that giving money to beggars will only encourage it. There are a lot of homeless people around town, when the time was right we would usually approach and ask if they wanted to eat. So buying food instead of giving money was an option. (Not to be confused with the women who are clutching one or two children and ask you to buy food at a designated store of their choice. This is a scam.)

Outdoor Activities & Trekking: Never short of options, Nepal offers a wide range of experiences – nature tours, pilgrim tours, white-water-rafting, kayaking, canoeing, jungle safaris, paragliding, bungee jumping, zip-lining, mountain biking, and the list goes on; seriously you name it! The country has it all.
When it comes to trekking options, the list is endless too, from expeditions to high altitude treks, or simple easy treks.

Overall costs: The life in Nepal is minimalist. Although ideal but not always feasible, travelling on a shoestring budget, sleeping in shared dorms and surviving on a Nepali diet, people can easily live on Rs500-800 a day, including meals and accommodation. But this is not for everyone.
The “tourist prices” are disputable, often the prices of accommodation are the same as a meal and the same as the local bus on journeys for over 6 hours. There isn’t much discrepancy.
Average costs between Rs500-Rs800/USD$8/GBP£7.50.

street sellers of Nepal

Do I need a Visa to Visit Nepal?

Rules have changed over the years and now people can simply get a visa-on-arrival (VOA) at the airport. Visa requirements are to have a valid visa for 6 months or more; 1 passport picture (white/light background).

At Tribhuvan International Airport, Kathmandu, upon arrival tourists can get the following visas:
15 days – USD$25
30 days – USD$40
90 days – USD$100

Although it says that payments can only be accepted in cash (US Dollars, Euro, Pound Sterling, Nepal Rupees, etc), we paid our visas by card.

street seller nepal

When is the best time to visit Nepal?

The best time to visit Nepal is between September to November and March to May. The weather is changing dramatically, so it’s becoming difficult to predict, but people who visit outside the seasons still have a great time. Nepal has a typical monsoonal two-season year. There is the dry season from October to May and the wet season from June to September. The best time to go trekking is from late September to December, when the weather is clear and dry; and from March to May, during Spring when flowers are in bloom.
When we arrived, late September, it was raining on and off, but had a few warm days. Towards the end of November it was getting cold, I mean really cold. Around 6-8 degrees during the evenings and nights.
Who would have thought!

Personal Note: Before travelling to Nepal it’s always good to know the dates of any Festivals as the whole infrastructure of the country can be affected! Offices, shops and restaurants might be closed, there will be shortage of transportation and buses can be booked-up. So planning in advance is encouraged to avoid disappointment and frustration in finding your bus is not going to be arriving! Travelling in Nepal during Dasain (also known as Dashera), can be a little tricky. This is Nepal’s biggest annual festival, stretching for over fifteen days. Cities will be quieter than usual as people are away with their families. The best way to describe it is to compare it to the Christmas period in the western world.

The People of Nepal

The population of Nepal is extremely diverse and highly complex. With over 26 million people, Nepal is made up of over 125 different caste/ethnic groups. Meeting them all is nearly impossible, but while in Kathmandu, Pokhara, Lumbini and our trek to Everest Base Camp we came across a few.
From left to right:
Top: Sadhu, Tamang, Terai
Bottom: Female Porter, Newari, Sherpa

nepal and its people

Places to Visit in Nepal

Nepal is well known for its trekking routes and highest mountains peaks, but don’t be too hasty. The country has a lot more to offer. Don’t leave without exploring…

Kathmandu
Visit the UNESCO World Heritage sites, historical monuments, local markets, traditional villages and get to know the locals.

  • Kathmandu Durbar Square
  • Thamel
  • Swayambhunath Stupa
  • Pashupatinath
  • Bhaktapur
  • Taumadhi Tole
  • Dattatraya Square

people at Durbar Square in Kathmandu

Pokhara
Pokhara is located 200km (125 mi) west from Kathmandu. Its spectacular scenery, healthy food choices, laid-back atmosphere and close-up mountain views, has everything an adventurous soul can wish for.

backpacking pokhara travel

Lumbini
Lumbini is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is believed to be the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama, known as Lord Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. Lumbini is the first place to be visited by those embarking on a Buddhist pilgrimage tour. A visit to Maya Devi Temple, the birth spot of the Buddha, is a must-see. Other wonderful monuments are the World Peace Pagoda and several Monasteries that have been built in the area as an homage to Lord Buddha.

temple in Lumbini Maya Devi

Check our articles Exploring Kathmandu: A Chaotic Little Adventure and Pokhara: A Relaxed Pace of Life for more inspiration.

Trekking to Everest Base Camp

Nepal has innumerable trekking trails, enough for everyone’s age, fitness levels and pockets. People often choose to trek around Annapurna Mountain Range, which is incredibly beautiful and easily accessed by Pokhara.
But we discovered that trekking to Everest Base Camp isn’t just a Himalayan adventure but a cultural experience. The history behind the conquest of the highest mountain in the world, its unique people and traditions, the journey and the landing one of the most dangerous airports in the world, was enough for us to accept the challenge, often dreamed by many.
Whichever trekking route people chose; they will not be disappointed with the best views of the Himalayas.

Check our post here on Trekking to Everest Base Camp Independently.

the himalayas to everest base camp

Without a doubt, Nepal is a land of everlasting fascination for ancient history, a variety of unique cultures and people, breathtaking scenery and some of the best walking trails in the world.
Our time in Nepal was remarkable from the people we met to the cultural experiences that we gained. The plan was to visit for one month but we fell in love with the country very quickly and stayed for nearly three months.

Nepal “once is not enough” – Naturally Nepal

Have we convinced you to visit Nepal yet?

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Let us inspire you to explore the world through the sharing of our experiences, stories, videos and useful tips. Click here to know more about our journey.

Pokhara: A Relaxed Pace of Life

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By Telma | 28 October 2016 | Nepal | Travel Guides

Pokhara has everything an adventurous soul can wish for; spectacular scenery, nature walks, plenty of healthy food choices, a laid-back atmosphere, great outdoor activities and close-up mountain views. Completely different from the hectic bustle of Kathmandu, Pokhara has a more relaxed pace of life.
Most travellers tend to stay around South Lakeside, also known as Pokhara Bazaar. Undoubtedly a popular tourist spot, it follows a peculiar logic: the more people stay there, the more Pokhara Bazaar turns itself into what foreigners want it to be. It is very central for those wanting to eat good food. Go for short day treks or just relax by Phewa Lake. The lakeside location and the starting point for some of the famous treks towards the Himalaya Mountain Range makes Pokhara a “tourist’s paradise”.

But Pokhara it’s not a reflection of Nepal or Nepali life at all and for us, for that reason, Pokhara lost some of its magic. It might have very little traffic and great restaurants offering a huge range of world foods (except for dal bhat!) but it’s not Nepal. Pokhara is famous for the lakeside location and its proximity to the mountains but it lacks on great historical or cultural sites. It is a tourist area, made for tourists only.
Nepal has an amazing variety of cast/ethic groups, and there is nothing better than walking around town checking out different traditional costumes, trying to figure out where people come from: “Oh that is a Sherpa!”, “Maybe that one is a Tamang”, and so on. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen here. Coming from Kathmandu, we were both in shock over how different the city was.

phewa lake pokhara

Pokhara Travel Guide

Phewa Lake
This Lake has three different names: Phewa Lake, Phewa Tal or Fewa Lake. At the beginning it was very confusing, to the point that we actually thought there was three different lakes! It is really a nice area to spend an afternoon. There are cute little cafes around the area located at the lakeside so people can sit down, read a book, listen to music or just stare at the lake and enjoy a freshly squeezed orange juice. Surely life cannot get better than that! Also Phewa Lake is full of rowing boots and canoes. Ready not just for the tourists but also for the locals. If the weather is good the lake and its surroundings are beautiful and tranquil. We weren’t so lucky as the weather was cloudy for the duration of our stay. Apparently the views of the Annapurna Mountain Range are breathtaking.
Cost: The rowing boat for one hour with a boatman is Rs500/USD$5/GBP£4, without is Rs450/USD$4/GBP£3.50. Just for Rs50 extra we could both relax, take pictures, film and enjoy the scenery.

At the center of the lake there is temple called Taal Barahi which is located on a little island, just 5 minutes away by boat. The two-storied pagoda is the most important religious Hindu temple in Pokhara.

lake pokhara

Hindu temple in Pokhara

World Peace Stupa – A Day Hike

We could have walked, in preparation for our trek to Everest Base Camp but we decided to hire a bike instead. There were bikes being hired for Rs800 which we obviously didn’t go for. So after a few shops and our negotiating skills, we hired two bikes for the whole day (7 hours) at Rs600/USD$5/GBP£4. A much more acceptable price! On the way there are no directions whatever to where the Stupa is located. But because it is located up on a hill we could guess the way there. Not wanting to take the bikes all the way up the hill, we weren’t sure what to do with them, until we asked if the shop owner would look after them for us. The lady agreed and at the end we gave her a tip, as token of her willingness.
The bike journey is only about 25-30 minutes but the hike to the stupa is about 45 minutes. However, it took us nearly 1.5 hours because we walked very slowly and stopped several times in order to take pictures, enjoy the views, and talk to the locals.
The views from the top are incredible but we couldn’t see the Himalayas, which was a shame. The weather was nice. On the south side clear blue sky but the north side was cloudy. The Stupa is beautiful and it was worth the long walk.

There a few ways to get to the Monastery, from the Lakeside area:
Local bus – Rs15/USD$0.15/GBP£0.11 per person
Hiring a bike – Rs300/USD$3/GBP£2.50 up to 6-8 hours
Walking – It’s a day hike

nepal prayer flags

pokhara things to do

We stopped for lunch at Elite Café, located just before the stupa, and let me tell you the view is amazing as for the food…no comment! Very disappointing. The funny part is, on the wall there is a letter to all customers requesting to save food. It suggests that if you are not very hungry customers should inform the staff so the portion can be served smaller. But the food is so bad that the problem is not leaving food on the plate, the issue is actually eating it! Now that was a waste of food at Rs750/USD$7/GBP£5.50!

After the World Peace Stupa we cycled to Davis’ Fall. Entry Rs30/USD$0.30/GBP£0.25. There isn’t much to see there. It’s just a powerful waterfall whose name was given after a Swiss women, named Mrs Davis, fell to her death into the waterfall in 1960. On the opposite side of the road, there is *Cave. Which the locals were telling us to visit. It wasn’t until we came out of it that we realised that we hadn’t paid for the ticket. In our view, unless you are Hindu, the cave is not really worth it. We couldn’t really understand what was going on and why there was a temple inside the cave as there is no information given to tourists. But I guess it is because it’s not for tourists. We were the only ones!
*Back at the guesthouse we searched upon the site, and the cave is called Gupteshwor Mahadeve Gupha, “a cave-shrine dedicated to Shankhar. Enshrined in a large womblike chamber, the black Shankhar figure is a natural rock form dolled up with a carved Naga (snake) crown.” – The Rough Guide to Nepal

devi fall pokhara

hindu temple pokhara

Along the way we experienced the craziness of Nepali drivers and came across cows…a lot of them! It’s funny to see how the drivers react to cows differently to people or vehicles. Rule number one is to take over no matter what or who is in the way. When a cow is crossing the road, everything and everyone stops and waits patiently for the cow to cross because they are sacred animals in the national religion.

Trekking in Pokhara

International Mountain Museum

We had debated whether to visit the museum or not, but now looking back I am so happy we did. This is the only mountain museum of its kind in the world. Not only its purpose is to exhibit Nepal’s mountain range, its people, culture, flora and fauna, but also has a record of the mountaineering history, techniques and equipment over the years. It is really a great way of getting to know more about Annapurna and Everest Regions.
Cost: Rs400 per person

pokhara points of interest

General Information about Pokhara

Kathmandu to Pokhara by bus

In Kathmandu we purchased our tickets for Rs800/USD$8/GBP£7.50 per person, just a few days before departure. The distance covered is only 200 km (124 mi) and yet it took us nearly 8 hours to arrive in Pokhara. It’s a long, tiring, smelly, dusty journey. Surely we could have flown there and saved the hardships of the journey, the ticket costs under USD100 and we would have reached Pokhara in less than 45 minutes but that isn’t part of the adventure, so we caught the bus instead! The views are superb; the bus goes through Nepal’s Middle Hills and for most of the way the road follows the rivers. At the bottom of deep valleys there are rock gorges and river rapids, tiered rice terraces and local villages dotted over the hills.

travel nepal by bus

Food options in Pokhara

Coming from Kathmandu, where we stayed for nearly three weeks, Pokhara’s variety of foods was a delight! The food is divine and never short of options. We spent our days eating vegetarian and organic meals. Too good to be true – the healthy options come at a price. Because it is a tourist area the food standards are high and so are the prices. The food is way more expensive than other places in Nepal. Meals range from Rs600-Rs700/USD$7/GBP£6.50. Not all restaurants charge the 13% tax adding extra on the bill but the 10% service charge is definitely added onto the bill. In Pokhara Bazaar, the only place that offers cheap food and where we found the budget travellers, is a cool café selling wraps: Rs265/USD$2.5/GBP£2 for a chicken wrap and Rs245 for a falafel wrap.

food in pokhara

Accommodation in Pokhara

Finding a room in Pokhara it’s so easy because guesthouses are everywhere. From the tourist bus park to where we found accommodation, we probably came across twenty guesthouses and surely there are many more. When heading to Pokhara we wouldn’t recommend booking in advance. There is plenty of choice out there and prices are negotiable. If like us, you are just popping in and out for a good deal, you will surely get it. There is accommodation for everyone’s pockets; from Rs250/USD$2.50/GBP£2 for a bed in a dormitory (up to 8-10 beds), to private rooms at hotels for Rs2000-3000 a night. Not wanting to splurge but looking for a private room with private toilet, we found a guesthouse just 10 minutes’ walk from the lake, and paid Rs400/USD$4/GBP£3.50 each per night. The guesthouse wasn’t perfect but for that amount of money we couldn’t really argue. By ‘perfect’ I mean people staying up until late at night and listening to loud music. Thomas slept like a baby! but I had to put up with it. The fact is, you get what you pay for. The food was more expensive in Pokhara than in Kathmandu but the accommodation was cheaper. So we compromised on that.

Supporting the Deaf Community

Helping Hands, Fair Trade Shop – provides training and employment opportunities for Deaf and Blind people in Nepal. At Helping Hands Handicrafts employees weave and knit scarfs, blankets, hats, ponchos, etc. All from 100% natural pashmina, cashmere, silk and wool. At Helping Hands SPA employees are trained in all types of massages and SPA treatments. Not only this is a great way of helping and supporting the local community but also the opportunity to meet fellow Deaf people. They are located in Pokhara Bazaar, Lakeside.
Website: www.yeshelpinghands.com
Facebook: pokharahelpinghands

And that was our stay in Pokhara!
We are not into tourist areas because we believe that experiencing a place must be done through the eyes of locals. But we had a good time. We relaxed and indulged in fresh juices and organic food. Staying for only four days was enough for us. Our days were spent going for long walks, exploring a little of the few tourist attractions and around Phewa Lake. It is very beautiful and tranquil.
Although the weather was amazing, we didn’t get a chance to see the 8000-metre peaks of the Annapurna Range looming over the horizon, from the lake, because it was very cloudy. Our stay in Pokhara was short but we did everything we wanted too.
On the last day we caught the bus to Lumbini, while walking to the bus station, we saw our first and last glimpse of the Himalayas.
It had to be on the last day!

Annapurna Pokhara

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We are Thomas and Telma – the writers, photographers, videographers and founders of Blank Canvas Voyage.

Let us inspire you to explore the world through the sharing of our experiences, stories, videos and useful tips. Click here to know more about our journey.

5 Day Itinerary for Hong Kong

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By Telma and Thomas | 5 September 2016 | Hong Kong | Travel Guides

Creating a 5 Day Itinerary for Hong Kong was easy as we knew that staying longer would give us the opportunity to explore Hong Kong better. Majority of Hong Kong city guides suggests the most touristic parts of the city, leaving a lot of beautiful and interesting places out.
I (Telma) was lucky to have suggestions and advices of my two good friends, Jacky and Kit. Jacky is Hong Kong Chinese, having moved to London for over 18 years ago, Kit is a “BBC”, British Born Chinese, and visits Hong Kong regularly for work. So I knew I was in good hands! 
Their guidance helped us a lot because Hong Kong is a very big city, and not wanting to waste any time during our nine days’ stay, we wanted to make the most of it.
If you would like to know how to get started, read our Hong Kong Travel Guide on a Budget.
English is widely spoken, but we didn’t expect everyone to speak. There were times we had to rely solely on body language, sign language, miming and pointing. And Thomas is very good at it. It actually amazes me how well he can communicate when we are surrounded by people that do not speak our language! That’s just amazing, right? Oh the perks of knowing Sign Language!
So, we had an itinerary, a map, a local SIM card and we were ready to rock and roll!

Hong Kong Itinerary

The best way to explore Hong Kong is dividing the city in four areas. This way you can focus in each area on different days, and also spend quality time roaming around, take pictures, observe, and enjoy what this fantastic city has to offer. The four areas are:
Kowloon PeninsulaHong Kong IslandLantau IslandNew Territories

Our 5 Day Itinerary is about the best of Hong Kong by areas, how to get around and some useful tips.

things to do Hong Kong

What to See and Do in Hong Kong

Day 1 – Lantau Island

  • Ngong Ping Cable Car
  • Ngong Ping Village & Piazza
  • Po Lin Monastery
  • Big Buddha
  • Tai O Fishing Village

Visit the temple street market in Yau Ma Tei (Temple street market – only open at night – any night)

How to get there: In order to get to Lantau Island, you need to get the train to Tung Chung. Get the cable car to Ngong Ping. Make sure you arrive early to avoid the crowd and huge queues. Once you have visited all the places mentioned above, get the bus 21 down to Tai O Fishing Village. The ticket costs HKD$6/USD$0.70/GBP£0.50 and you can use the Octopus Card. At Tai O get on those little boats for HKD$25/USD$3/GBP£2, and enjoy the scenery, the houses above water and the sunset.
From Tai O, get the bus back to Tung Chung station directly and take the train to Yau Ma Tei for the temple street market. The local food includes ‘hot pot rice’, and deep fried oyster cake. Worth trying!

hong kong islands
lantau island buddha
things to do in hong kong
lantau island monastery

Day 2 – New Territories

How to get there: Start early in the morning. Get off at Sha Tin station and walk to Sha Tin Wai. We did this walk by mistake and got to see the locals dancing and exercise. Plus, the walk is very nice.
Go up the Monastery and be prepared for 430 steps in a concrete path uphill. Come back down the hill and make your way to Che Kung Temple, the museum is very close to the Temple.
Make sure you get to Diamond Hill station in plenty of time, The Nunnery closes at 4.30pm.

monastery hong kong

Day 3 – Northeast New Territories

  • Tai Mei Tuk
  • Sam Mun Tsai
  • Sam Kung Temple

How to get there: Make sure you have the morning and afternoon free for this. Get the train early morning to Tai Po Market. When you arrive get the 20C mini-bus and your last stop should be Tai Mei Tuk. Hire a bike from the village; this should cost around HKD$70/USD$9/GBP£7 for around 3-4 hours. Cycle and enjoy the scenery, the local villages, have lunch with the locals and visit the temples. Your cycling itinerary for the day should be Tai Mei Tuk – Sam Mun Tsai – Tai Mei Tuk.

outside hong kong

Day 4 – Hong Kong Island

  • Tsim Sha Tsui
  • Peak Tram
  • Victoria Peak
  • Mid-Levels Escalator
  • Lan Kwai Fong (Soho)
  • Tsim Sha Tsui – Symphony of Lights (at night)

How to get there: In the morning stop at Tsim Sha Tsui for pictures of the iconic buildings at Hong Kong Island. Here you can find Chungking Mansions, but don’t be fooled by the name. It’s just cheap accommodation, from Hostels to Guesthouses, aiming at the budget travellers.
 Get to Central Station and queue for the Peak Tram. Have lunch at The Peak. The scenery is amazing!
 Get the bus down town and experience that crazy ride going downhill.
Visit the Mid-Levels Escalators. Have a coffee or tea around Lan Kwai Fong.
Finish your day going back to Tsim Sha Tsui Waterfront (be there by 8pm for the Laser show.
 Experience the nightlife at Lan Kwai Fong (next to the mid-level escalator).

the view from Victoria Peak

Day 5 – Kowloon

  • Mong Kok
  • Sham Shui Po for Apliu Street

Tip: Spend the day exploring this area. You will find cheap markets, all sort of electronic stuff, shopping centres, street food. Walk around at night to experience the colourful billboards in every street.

famous hong kong

Hong Kong Day Trips

From the original plan, we missed out on Sai Kung Country Park and Ping Shan Heritage Trail. These places require two full days, which we didn’t have. The jet lag was an awful experience and the first two days was really hard for us. We kept postponing a few plans for the following days and ended up not having time for everything.

  • Sai Kung Country Park
  • Ping Shan Heritage Trail

How to get there: The trail is right at the edge of Hong Kong with the border of China, it will take an hour and a half to get there. People usually spend 4-5 hours hiking. A bottle of water and wearing comfortable walking/hiking footwear are a must. The area is very traditional Chinese and has the “old” Hong Kong look.

Suggestions on how to plan an itinerary for Hong Kong:

  • Plan extra time for the arrival and departure days, traffic to/from the airport can be an issue
  • Most probably you will suffer from jet lag, so don’t be hard on yourself, take a morning/afternoon off
  • Book your accommodation around Kowloon area, it’s close to everything you need and it is much cheaper than other areas in town. We always book our rooms through Airbnb. Get $25/£30 discount on your booking using our code.
    Book an extra day or two and fit the above itinerary in between
  • Visit Macau
  • Read our Hong Kong Travel Guide on a Budget

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