Pokhara, Nepal: The gateway to the Himalayas

Paddleboards are nowhere near as heavy as they look – which is a good thing, because I've been carrying mine quite a distance.

In the steamy early-morning light, the city of Pokhara​ glistens behind me. Ahead of me, a mist rises off the surface of Phewa Taal​ (Lake Phewa). Surrounded by jungle-clad hills and guarded by distant towering Himalayan giants, Phewa Taal is the spiritual heart of the city.

Exploring the lake by paddleboard has been a goal of mine since I arrived in town, and I'm so happy to have found the tools of the adventure that I don't mind lugging the board a few hundred metres.

When I arrive at the water's edge, the hard yakka continues: there are at least 20,000 water hyacinths between me and clear water. They ripple like an ever-moving barrier between the shore and the clear green depths of the lake's centre.

I've been watching boats tangle with them all morning, and I know their pretty looks are not to be trusted. They clutch at anything that passes among them, forming clumps that trail along behind unwitting paddleboaters and novice paddleboarders such as myself.

I lay the board down and give it a shove while jumping, with all the elegance of an elephant seal, on to the deck. I cling to the board with one hand and fend off the clutching hyacinths with the other as I float toward the tantalising clear water in the middle of the lake. Miraculously, I still have my paddle when I escape the greenery, my board leaving a wake of naked water that slowly closes up as the hyacinths resume their guardianship of the bank. To heck with how I'm going to get back out of the water; the next challenge is to find my feet.

I do so with remarkable ease and, at once, I'm in a dream. The day is almost unbearably humid. It's high summer and the brooding skies only occasionally show glimpses of the enormous mountains. In the thick tropical air, the day has the mesmerising quality of a twilight that stretches all the way from dawn until the spell is broken by the ubiquitous afternoon downpour.

As the gateway to the Himalayas, Pokhara is an adventure sports playground. From paddleboards to paragliders, mountain biking to whitewater rafting, Pokhara is the place to begin your adventure. The touristy suburb of Lakeside, now over my left shoulder, is a heady mix of nightspots, restaurants and souvenir shops, more charming than Kathmandu's Thamel district and almost as abundant in Nepalese wares. Here, tourists stroll the dusty streets, where restaurants and their patrons do nightly battle with hordes of mosquitoes, and stalls sell everything from knick-knacks to corn cobs roasted over coals in their jackets.

I point the board away from Lakeside and make for the island shrine of Tal Barahi. The legend goes that Lake Phewa was once a verdant valley where inhabitants lived in the lap of luxury. When a wandering beggar came to town, the inhabitants turned away in disdain, and the destitute figure received charity from just one woman. When the vagrant warned the woman of a coming flood, she fled with her family to higher ground, where they watched in horror as the beggar revealed herself to be the goddess Barahi Bhagwati and flooded the valley in revenge. The survivors erected the island shrine in honour of the goddess and established the lakeside settlement of Pokhara.

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The shrine is an overrated concrete island, where tourists routinely part with wads of cash to brave the monkeys and take in the unimaginative modern temple. I circumnavigate the island, waving and chatting to others on a variety of watercraft, from rowboats to canopied punts with softly gurgling inboard motors.

The far side of the lake is a jungle that tumbles down steep slopes to the water, topped by the World Peace Stupa, a white concrete edifice commanding excellent views of the expanding city. From the hilltop, Pokhara bears a disheartening resemblance to Kathmandu. Pollution and poor waste management are becoming issues here, too, and it's not difficult to imagine a day when Pokhara will become as grungy and dilapidated as Nepal's capital. But today, the tropical forest, electrified by cicadas and so green it hurts the eyes, is a reminder of the stunning natural beauty of the region around Pokhara.

Pokhara is the jumping-off point for many treks that take tourists into the heart of the Annapurna Conservation Area, a network of national parks and protected forests where eco-tourism drives a strict conservation program. As I dig my paddle into the waters of the lake on the way back to town, my memory is awash with the scenes of moss-laden vines, towering rhododendrons and cascading waterfalls that made up the last few days of my three-week trek around the famed Annapurna Circuit. 

See interactive map of the Annapurna Circuit

The hyacinths prove no match for my now slightly advanced paddleboard skills, and I bump into the bank with relative ease on my return. Heaving the board up the bank, I manage to drag it back to the shop without dropping it on my foot. The chap from the shop is nowhere to be found. I call out. No reply.

After 15 minutes, I finally give up, prop the gear against a wall, and wander back to my hotel, marvelling that a shop full of such expensive equipment would be left totally unattended in the middle of the day.

But as I look at the few Western tourists I pass on the way home, I see that the slightly dazed feeling I had on the lake is written all over their faces, too. Of course, they wouldn't steal from Pokhara – she has them caught in her spell, too.

See also: Explore Nepal's Annapurna circuit with our interactive trekking guide

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

www.welcomenepal.com.

www.smartraveller.gov.au/countries/nepal.

GETTING THERE

Thai Airways, Singapore Airlines, Etihad, Qatar Airways, China Southern and China Eastern all operate between Sydney or Melbourne and Kathmandu. Visas are available for Australian citizens on arrival.

STAYING THERE

Hotel Travel Inn, Da Yatra Street, Lake Side, Pokhara, a short stroll from Lake Phewa, is a pleasant, centrally located hotel with outstanding staff and excellent rates. Rooms start at 2100 Nepalese rupees ($26) a night.

DINING THERE

Lakeside's many restaurants take bookings, but strolling along the bustling pathway on the bank and letting your nose lead the way is part of the adventure. Before heading out in the morning, treat yourself to stunning views and locally grown coffee at trendy Himalayan Java Coffee, Centrepoint Halan Chowk; see www.himalayanjava.com.

SEE + DO

Boat and paddleboard hire is best arranged with the staff at local shops, where you can put your bargaining skills into practice. Boat operators proudly display their vessels from dawn until dusk at the pier opposite Tal Barahi, while paddleboard shops are dotted along Lakeside Road and the foreshore pathway. The paddleboarding pictured here is operated by Stand Up Nepal Paddleboarding on the Phewa Lake in Pokhara; see www.himalayanyogini.com.

Denby Weller travelled at his own expense.

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