In the low light, we sit on the floor, the plastic mat sticking to the backs of our thighs in the early evening heat. We hunch over our thin chopping boards, slicing clove after clove of garlic. My back twinges and I think, for the thousandth time in the past 24 hours, how easy I have it back home. Here, in this host family in Panauti, everything is just that little bit harder.
Tucked away in a valley at the confluence of two sacred rivers, Panauti is a serene and holy Nepalese town filled with temples. Most travellers visit just for the day, rushing through on their way to Pokhara for trekking. But I'm travelling with Crooked Compass who, specialising in off-the-beaten-track adventures, have specifically designed an itinerary that doesn't involve trekking so we can really penetrate the cultural side of the country. And what better way to do that than to organise for us to spend two nights with host families through Panauti Community Homestay, an empowering women's initiative giving travellers the opportunity to experience the life of a Nepalese village family first-hand.
The home I'm staying in is humble, with doorways you have to squat to get through, ladders where stairs would usually be, no glass in the windows, and the occasional pigeon or mouse popping in to say hello.
It's definitely not for everyone. But for the duration of my stay it's filled with smiles, laughter and the mouth-watering scents of Newari cuisine. For those really wanting to wriggle under the skin of this town, staying here is a wonderful opportunity.
My host "dad" Ram Shrestha, a devout Hindu, has shown me around the serene old quarter, where we explored the ornate riverside temples, roamed the dusty ochre-hued laneways, and climbed to a lookout at the town's outskirts to watch the sunset. I've chatted with the Shresthas' 18-year-old daughter Linda about her dreams of studying in California, and watched their nine-year-old Luniwa sing and dance to Bollywood tunes. Now, I'm helping my "mum" Rajani prepare dinner. Once we've finished chopping it's time to fry fresh dosas, saute vegies in cumin, turmeric and chilli, and stir soupy lentil dal.
Crowded around the small plastic dining table I mimic the Shresthas as they use their hands to eat. Squelching rice into a ball with my right hand, I mop the ball into the soupy vegetables and stuff the whole business into my mouth. There are giggles as food slips between my fingers and slops back onto my plate. Nepal's famously potent "raksi'' rice wine flows and we chat into the night.
At one point, the Shresthas bring out a stack of photos of Luniwa's "sun wedding". There, spread across the table, are images of a seven-year-old Luniwa clad in the traditional Nepalese wedding garb of a bright red sari and heavy gold jewellery, with a terrified expression on her face. And no wonder. In broken English, Ram explains this coming-of-age ritual for Nepalese Newari (the indigenous inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley) communities, in which girls between seven and 13 are married to the "sun god" in a 12-day ceremony. For the first 11 days Luniwa was kept in a dark room, away from sunlight and any male contact to purify her before her "marriage".
It's a fascinating ceremony, if not a little confronting by my Western standards. But it's nothing in comparison with what lies in store the next evening.
After bidding our Nepalese families and serene Panauti farewell, we make our way back into the honk and blare of Kathmandu. At the outskirts of the city we reach the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Pashupatinath temple, Nepal's most sacred site comprising 400-odd shrines on the banks of the sacred Bagmati River. We stand on the dusty stone steps leading to the river and watch sadhus, or mystics, wrapped in tangerine robes with long beards wander by, while across the river four large funeral pyres burn.
"We Hindus believe the soul is indestructible," says our Crooked Compass guide, pointing to the pyres. "Death is just the end of our physical bodies, but the soul continues its journey and is reincarnated in another form. Burning the body rids the soul of any attachment to the body it was in."
We continue walking by the river, accompanied by a couple of rogue cows until we reach the site of the nightly aarti ceremony, Arya Ghat, the most widely used cremation site in Nepal. Once we've found a seat, the sun has set and the stars have happened, it begins.
On our side of the river the ceremony takes place, with three turmeric-robed Hindu priests performing their choreographed ceremony of offering oil lamps, flowers and incense to the river, while the public behind them sing, dance and clap their hands. On the other side of the river the corpses are lined up. Some are wrapped in sheets, others are exposed as they're blessed by their loved ones before being placed on the fire and engulfed by flames.
We dance, we sing, we laugh, we cry. I walk away with a distinct sense of the fragility of life, and the thought that when it comes to an end, it should be celebrated exactly like this.
The fragility of life is on our minds again the following day as we visit Bungamati and Khokana, medieval Newari villages about half an hour from Kathmandu. As we explore the villages by foot we witness the devastation of last year's earthquake, which killed over 8000 people and left millions homeless. Among ochre-hued brick buildings strung with drying chillies and garlic lie piles of rubble. Some homes have collapsed completely; others have vicious cracks snaking up their facades. In between are small temporary aluminium houses locals must live in until the government rebuilds their homes.
Nepal's history is rife with these sorts of hardships – civil war, poverty, fuel shortages, border clashes and natural disasters. Yet everywhere we go the locals seem optimistic. Given the estimates that tourism, the lifeblood of the Nepalese economy, is down by 70 per cent this year, I'd expected beggars and desperate faces. But I see only smiles and offerings of pressed-palm namastes.
Perhaps this positive attitude stems from the Buddhist ideal of non-attachment, I think the next day as we arrive at the Neydo Buddhist Monastery in Patan, an hour's drive from Kathmandu, where we're spending a day in the life of the monastics. While only 10 per cent of Nepalese people are Buddhist, over 80 per cent are Hindus who share the Buddhist belief of detachment from suffering.
"Nothing is forever; everything is just for the time being," says a young monk we chat to in the afternoon sunshine. A group of six monks sit before us, explaining their philosophy of non-attachment. They tell us that boys as young as five can enter this monastery, where 120 monks now live. While many are orphans, others choose to come as teenagers to learn Buddhist philosophy and to take up the monastic life, which means saying goodbye to their families. Seen as the ultimate display of "non-attachment", this takes a monk one step closer to becoming free from desire, believed in Buddhism to be the root of all suffering.
"Do you still have desires?", I ask one of the monks.
"Yes, everybody does!", he replies with a laugh. "But I am trying something. For example, if I want to buy a pen I like very much I think, 'if you get this pen, what will you do? You will be happy for one day, two days, three days, but after that it's just like before'."
I wish my desires were as modest as a pen, but I get his point. And I'm still pondering this notion of non-attachment as we head to the main temple for the nightly puja, or ceremony, held in the main temple.
At the front of the cavernous hall sits a huge gold Buddha statue, which the monks shuffle by in their rustling robes. They take their seats on the floor in front of low wooden benches and begin to chant for the protection for all sentient beings. The hall fills with sound – the droning of Tibetan horns, the clanging of cymbals, the slow tolling of drums and the deep wail of their chanting. I'm lost in this world of incense and chant and gong, floating free in this place of waking dream.
Korean Air flies daily from Sydney and Brisbane via Seoul and connects with a three-times weekly service to Kathmandu. See www.koreanair.com
Crooked Compass' 11-day Soul of Nepal itinerary is $3157 per person twin share. 2017 departures begin on August 20 and operate once a month through September, October and November. Crooked Compass also offers private tailor-made itineraries. Phone 1 300 855 790; see www.crooked-compass.com
Nina Karnikowski travelled courtesy of Crooked Compass and Korean Air.
FIVE CLASSIC NEPAL EXPERIENCES
Trekking is a way of life in Nepal, the home of the Sherpa. Choose between the two main regions, Annapurna and Everest, or the lesser known areas of Upper Mustang and Manaslu.
CHITWAN NATIONAL PARK
Chitwan covers 930 square kilometres of tall grasslands and forests that are home to rhinos, tigers, leopards, elephants, sloth bears and more. The park's resorts are great places to relax after days of trekking.
Relaxing by Phewa Lake, hiking up to the World Peace Pagoda, taking a yoga class or paragliding – whatever you do in Pokhara, it's going to be Zen.
EVEREST SCENIC FLIGHT
For pinch-me views, take an early morning scenic flight to Everest from Kathmandu. If you're cashed up, take a helicopter to get even closer to those magical peaks. See mountainflights.com
Head to Bhaktapur for some of Nepal's best medieval art and architecture, temples, hidden courtyards and famous Potters' Square, filled with wizened potters and hundreds of clay pots drying in the sun.