Gokarna Forest Resort warns guests about the monkeys. Don't leave windows open, we're told, because if a monkey climbs in all hell breaks loose.
I arrive late at night when the long-limbed troublemakers are nowhere to be seen. I spot them the next morning as I linger over The Himalayan Times, coffee and chole (spicy chickpeas) on the verandah. Uniformed guards wander around the open courtyard armed with slingshots. It soon dawns that they are on monkey patrol. Whenever a monkey sidles too close to the hotel, a guard raises a slingshot and off it scampers before a shot's even taken. During my five nights at the resort, I never witness a direct hit. Clearly word has gone around that those slingshots are bad news.
Gokarna, formerly a Le Meridien resort, is part of the Yeti Group portfolio that includes Yeti Airlines, Tara Air, Yeti Mountain Home trekking lodges and adventure and touring companies. Tashi Tenzing, grandson of Mount Everest pioneer Tenzing Norgay, is connected to the group through marriage. Photos of both men's Mount Everest summits hang on the walls of the 100-room resort, which sprawls over 185 hectares of the 300-hectare Gokarna Forest, the former hunting grounds of Nepalese royalty.
It is said leopards still roam the forest, but if you head out with a guide ($12-$30 for one to four hours, unguided walks not permitted), you are most likely to encounter the ubiquitous monkeys, skittish spotted deer grazing on the 18-hole golf course and, if you're unlucky, bloodthirsty leeches. The forest also contains seven temples and shrines – the holiest is tiny Bandevi Temple, a shrine to the goddess of forests, above the sixth fairway.
Everything about the resort is tasteful, restrained and luxurious. In short, it's everything Kathmandu is not. I adore the exotic objets d'art filling the corridors and walls, the huge bowls cradling meticulous floating flower arrangements, and the towering chir pines and gnarled mango trees that lend a mysterious air. Most of all, I love the spaciousness of my rooms. My first room, before I head off on a Himalayan trek led by Tashi Tenzing, overlooks a courtyard containing two deer. There's also a tiled tub that could host a pool party for 10. My post-trek room with a regular tub overlooks the breakfast buffet. From there, I spot a monkey nicking a bread roll and scampering to the roof to devour it.
Further along the riverbank, a covered body lies near the water's edge with its feet sticking out.
My trekking group connects. We bounce into Kathmandu to see four of its World Heritage-listed monument zones. Our first stop is the great Boudhanath Stupa, draped with prayer flags and loops of marigolds, and surrounded by rooftop cafes. We circle clockwise, then it's off to the Pashupatinath Temple precinct, Nepal's most sacred Hindu shrine. Non-Hindus can't enter the temple itself, so we cross the holy Bagmati River to view the funeral pyres.
Further along the riverbank, a covered body lies near the water's edge with its feet sticking out. The 10-year-old with us is agog. We are all intrigued by the painted sadhus (holy men) in ancient doorways. For a donation of about 57 cents we are allowed to take photos or pose with them. I squeeze in among a lively bunch: one is reading the paper and another is rocking dark sunglasses. "Ready?" asks my photographer. "Cheese!" they respond in unison, like the professional posers they are.
We head to Patan's Durbar Square, filled with exquisite, centuries-old architecture, and lunch at the Patan Museum Cafe where the food (Nepalese, Western and Chinese) doesn't match the ambience of the leafy courtyard setting.
Finally, we climb a hill west of the city to Swayambhunath Temple, also known as Monkey Temple. Here, as I gaze out across the valley, I finally grasp the scale of Kathmandu and how much humanity is squeezed into its pot-holed streets. Now I understand why it takes so long to get anywhere.
We return to the resort for Everest beers in the 8848 Mt Bar, which has the added attractions of free Wi-Fi and a hot-snacks menu for those who don't want the dinner buffet or Thai and Chinese at the clubhouse.
My group treks and returns to Gokarna with the kind of bond that can only be forged over 50 kilometres of communal sweating. One of us knows Kathmandu well from previous visits. He is appointed leader of our own bespoke tour. We hop on the free resort shuttle that drops guests opposite the Garden of Dreams (I save the serene neo-classical gardens for a solo visit another day), and trail through the alleyways of touristy Thamel, which is quieter than usual thanks to a religious holiday.
We shop for souvenirs at Amrita Craft's upstairs showroom, buy bead necklaces strung to order while wrapped around the maker's big toe, tuck into black lentils and rice at Festive Fare Restaurant with lofty views over Kathmandu's Durbar Square, and poke around the iconic Kathmandu Guest House and nearby bookshops. At Chikusa coffee shop, we relax over freshly brewed milk masala tea (about 73¢), garnished with saffron threads and served in blue-and-white china cups.
For something completely different, we pop into the Hotel Utse to suck the hot Tibetan millet beer known as tongba (about $1.95) through a metal straw. Other tourists photograph us tackling the strange brew, which we pair with a plate of momos (steamed dumplings).
Back at Gokarna, monkey business is finally shattering the serenity. At reception, a hysterical guest reports a monkey raid: besides the mess, the sweets she brought for conference guests are gone. Somewhere, on a rooftop above us, a sneaky monkey must be on a super-sized sugar high.
Katrina Lobley travelled courtesy of Aurora Expeditions and China Southern Airlines.
China Southern Airlines flies to Kathmandu via Guangzhou twice daily from Sydney and 10 times a week from Melbourne. See csair.com.au.
Gokarna Forest Resort is 10 kilometres north-east of Kathmandu airport on the outskirts of the city. Double rooms start from $193 a night.