This is the city in Nepal I’ve dreamed of visiting ever since I first heard of it. A hippie hideaway beside a peaceful lake, breathtaking views of four of the world’s highest, snow-covered peaks in the distance, the exotic outpost from where most adventures in Nepal begin. I imagined that there’d be only a few types of visitors here – hard-core trekkers gathering supplies and gear for the next remote mountain excursion, or eco-tour / NGO types here to enjoy or preserve the pristine scenery. And perhaps a few society dropouts such as myself, here to spend a few days soaking up the vibe, maybe hike out a day or two to get a closer look at those massive mountains.
Perhaps it’s best not to set ones expectations too high – disappointment is sure to follow.
My initial impressions were favorable, especially compared to the Thamel tourist slum I’d just arrived from. Pokhara has actual paved streets, not muddy paths, and they are FAR less trafficked. I see yaks, cows, goats, and chickens wandering along the lanes with the cars and bikes, definitely giving the town an outpost feel. The houses and hotels here are in good repair and decorated with colorful tile and paint, a far cry from the crumbling plaster and exposed brick of Kathmandu.
My guesthouse, Peace Eye, one of the oldest in town, is pleasant as well – a stone and timber structure with a garden entrance and polite staff, set on a quiet street with a dozen other hotels and guesthouses. As it starts to rain just as I check in, I have my dinner a few yards away. It’s a mom and pop place where 2-3 massive pots of curries are simmered for hours, and only served after 7 pm. So far, it seems to be what I had in mind.
The next day – not so much.
A morning walk around the lake, Phewa Tal, reveals that it is incredibly polluted. The lake is not glacier fed, as I’d imagined, at least not directly. It is a greenish-brown, with a muddy delta visible on the opposite shore. The dozens of rowboat rental concessions along the edges let abandoned, rusty boats sink where they lie, so there are huge chunks of wood and iron jutting out of the shallows. There’s a path that runs along the eastern length of the lake, where tourists have thrown down tons of the detritus of modern life – plastic bottles, foil and plastic wrappers, styrofoam food containers and such. Not exactly pristine, to say the least.
Worst of all, there’s no panoramic view; a thick haze leaves only the nearest hills visible from the lake.
There are dozens of charming bars and restaurants facing the water, some of the bamboo and thatched roof variety, others more upscale. Any one of them would be a great place to take in the mountain views should they decide to appear. A block up from the shore is the main tourist drag, Ratnapuri, with hundreds more pubs and restaurants, many with cozy roof gardens. And of course the requisite travel agencies, trekking outfitters, and souvenir shops. Here, groups of Asian package tourists bargain hard for yak blankets and cashmere sweaters, and eat the same food they’d eat at home. (Although a ‘Xian Specialty’ restaurant had no liang pi and no rou jia mor – not even a da pan ji – and I suspect the owner was only pretending to understand Chinese).
I don’t want to paint a grim picture – but I think too many travel sites do exactly the opposite – they make things sound better / grander / more exotic than they really are, as their living depends upon doing so. Other than the rubbish everywhere (and I do mean EVERYWHERE), Pokhara’s not horrible – it’s just nothing special. It’s certainly not exotic. Just as the road from Kathmandu reminded me of West Virginia, Pokhara reminds me of Gatlinburg, Tennessee – if Gatlinburg had neglected to clean the streets for half a decade and were sitting next to a dirty lake.
Pokhara looks decidedly better at night, when much of the rubbish is hidden, and soft lights of roof-garden pubs lend atmosphere. But there’s nothing distinctly ‘Nepali’ about any of them, especially not the prices. There’s no street food available, where one can enjoy local fare at local prices. Instead it’s hamburgers and pizzas and $5 beers. Most establishments have also discovered the automatic 10-15% service fee, even if they’ve not really learned much about providing service. Simple fried noodles or dumplings are available almost everywhere in Asia for a couple of dollars – except Tokyo and Pokhara. In fact, prices for just about everything but lodging are 50-100% higher than the most recent guidebook listings.
Evenings are when the touts make their day’s wages, so there’s a bit of a gauntlet to run – not nearly as bad as India, but persistent. In fact even the friendly staff at my guesthouse apply a consistent soft-sell, suggesting tours and guides and shows when I’m just trying to eat my morning muesli. (Topped with homemade yogurt and honey – it is a treat, as is the standard Nepali breakfast of curried potatoes and masala omelette).
Some areas of the main strip are dark and dodgy-looking at night – I’ve wandered the streets late, but kept my wits about me. I’d suggest going with a group if you plan on making a night of it. Get sloppy drunk only at your own hotel, where the stairs are the only danger you’ll need to navigate.
So, thus far, Pokhara is a mixed bag. I’ve said before that some places are best visited in spring and summer (many parts of Europe, for example), and others, like my old home Beijing, are best in cooler weather. Pokhara may be a winter place. It’s my own fault for arriving when the views are less than optimal – October and November are said to be stunning. March and April are supposed to be second-best (and I’m here mid-April), but the haze that usually arrives in May has settled in early this year I’m told, and looks like rains are coming early as well. So blame global climate change for that one.
And I know you’re thinking it’s poor form to grouse about prices when Nepal is still recovering from a massive earthquake back in 2015. But prices in Pokhara, which was nearly unscathed, are the ones that have shot up, while in Kathmandu, where much of the carnage occurred, prices are mostly unchanged. (The entrance fee to Durbar Square has doubled, to 1000 NPR, as so many structures are in dire need of repair – happy to pay). I’m guessing the flood of afore-mentioned UN and NGO workers who came for earthquake relief brought along their fat expense accounts, and the shops and eateries adjusted their prices accordingly. I’m pretty sure no local is paying four bucks for a plate of momos .
I haven’t been trekking or even for a hike yet, which aside from the views, is the main reason for coming here. So I’ll reserve judgement for now – let you know in a couple of days.
For the best experience in Pokhara, stay in the southeast corner of the section of town known as Lakeside – which, as luck would have it, is closest to the tourist bus stop – you can walk it. Specifically Pokhara 6, running parallel to Pragati Marta, is a great find. The Peace Eye, with rooms from $6 to $25 is located here, as are Orchid, Tara, Buttercup, Pacific, Shanti, and a host of others in the same price range – book them on agoda.com. Restaurants are more reasonable here, and the food and service more authentic. In fact, the further away you get from the lake, the more likely you’ll be paying local prices. Don’t book any tour or trek without shopping around a bit – your hotel staff are nice, but if they book you’ll be paying them a commission.
And if it’s views you want, come in the autumn – and keep your eyes off the ground.