My online research on the best treks in Nepal were telling me that the Manaslu Circuit is like how the Annapurna Circuit was 10 years ago. Meaning, the circuit that takes you around the Manaslu massif still has a lot of the charm and authenticity that has been lost in the somewhat over-touristed Annapurna area.
However, after having trekked both circuits, I wouldn’t say that the Manaslu Circuit is the Annapurna Circuit of the past. These are two fundamentally different routes, with differences in culture, comfort and mountain views, as well as the overall vibe of the route. Here are some of the similarities and differences between the two.
Accessibility and lodging
A jeep road has been built on the Annapurna Circuit up to Manang (3500 m). This makes it much easier to get there, and you can even skip parts of the trail by taking a jeep instead of walking. On the other side of the Thorong La, there’s an airport in Jomsom, with regular flights (weather dependent) to and from Pokhara. This gives quick access to the Mustang area of the circuit without the need to trek for days, so is a great option for travelers short on time. On the down side, the jeep road takes away a lot of the charm of trekking the lower parts of the circuit.
There is a plan to make a road into the Manaslu area as well, but for now, the road only goes as far as Soti Khola. You still have 4 to 6 days of trek (depending on your fitness level) to get to Sama Gaon (3500 m). This means that you cannot cut any trekking days, and you must allow a minimum of 12/13 days for the Manaslu Circuit, from Kathmandu to Kathmandu.
The Manaslu region is also a restricted area, so you need more expensive permits, as well as a guide and a party of at least two people.
As it is much less accessible, lodging is more basic in the Manaslu region than in the Annapurna region. Expect simple accommodation and food, sometimes with no blankets (taking your own warm sleeping bag is a must). WiFi is available but doesn’t work in many places. However, the people are friendly and welcoming, and don’t see so many tourists.
On the Annapurna circuit you can find very good lodging, with attached bathrooms, a gas hot shower and WiFi almost everywhere. Since transportation is available higher up, you can expect to get better and more varied food. Blankets are available everywhere. If you want a more comfortable trek that’s more easily accessible, the Annapurna Circuit is for you. If you prefer a more remote, off-the-beaten-path route and are willing to go through more hassle to get there, opt for the Manaslu Circuit.
Nature and views
The Annapurna Circuit is famous for having all types of relief and vegetation: jungle forest in the lower parts, glaciers and an alpine environment higher up, the arid Lower Mustang area, and then jungle again. A good part of the Annapurna Circuit is in the rainshadow of the Himalaya, making it accessible during monsoon season.
The Manaslu Circuit is somewhat similar in that you’ll see various types of scenery: jungle forests, canyons and waterfalls, alpine glaciated trails, and wide valleys. However, the area receives more precipitation so you are more likely to find snow on the trail. This results in some beautiful forests at 3500 metres, which you will not see in the Annapurnas.
The Annapurna Circuit follows much of the Marsyangdi River Valley, and it’s a much wider valley than that of the Budhi River on the east side of the Manaslu Circuit. The nature is spectacular on the Manaslu side, with deep canyons with walls that almost touch, as well as high mountains right next to you.
The Larkya La (5160 m.) is also more impressive, though less high, than the Thorong La (5416 m.). The walk on the glacier moraine is right next to the giant Larke peaks, and is often covered with snow. The descent from the pass is steep and can be very tricky in snow and ice (rope may even be required). It’s definitely more technical than the descent from Thorong La to Muktinath.
If you prefer high mountains and dramatic nature, definitely choose Manaslu. If you like large, lush valleys, arid areas or want an easier trek that’s possible in the monsoon season, go for the Annapurna Circuit.
Culture and local life
There are quaint, colorful villages in the Annapurna region. You will see many stupas and get the chance to witness village life, listen to the local people’s stories, and will be immersed in Manangi culture, which is unique to the area. Braga is one of the oldest monasteries in the area, and filled with many Buddha statues. Muktinath is well known for its Vishnu temple, respected by both Hindus and Buddhists. It is one of the world’s highest temples (3700 m) and has 108 springs (a number of great significance in Hindu philosophy).
While you have a few notable gompas on the way to the Larke Pass, these are nothing close to what you will find in the Annapurna area. The gompas and stupas are fewer and less elaborate. In Lho there is a large gompa that dominates the village, where children get their education. But, I found the spiritual representation to be much stronger in Annapurna than in Manaslu. I also felt that the villages are much simpler, smaller, and less prosperous than those in the Annapurna Valley. However, you can still observe people going about their daily activities, running around after the yaks and tending wheat.
Which circuit to choose?
Which circuit you choose really depends on your time, interests, and preferred comfort level. If scenery, dramatic glaciers, the proximity of high peaks, and taking the route less travelled are more important to you then you should definitely choose the Manaslu Circuit. If you’re more interested in local culture, you have less time, or if you want to be able to trek independently and more comfortably, then take the path more travelled and pick the Annapurna Circuit.