Getting Local in Nepal’s Community Homestays
While luxurious hotels with all the mod-cons can be a nice way to travel, travellers interested in getting to know local people and culture can find this a limiting way of experiencing a country. If you’ve seen the inside of one generic hotel you’ve pretty much seen them all. But in Nepal, the Community Homestay programme (CommunityHomestay.com), an initiative of Royal Mountain Travel, offers an innovative and unique service for travellers wanting a comfortable place to sleep as well as local flavour, warm hospitality and the chance to see and experience things not otherwise accessible to tourists.
The flagship Community Homestay programme was established in Panauti, a charming and very well-preserved Newar town around 40 kilometres outside the Kathmandu Valley. With the success of Panauti, Community Homestay networks are now operational in Patan, Nagarkot, Nuwakot, Patlekhet, Palpa, two locations in Chitwan (Barauli and Sauraha), and along the Annapurna Community Trekking route in the mountains.
One of the main goals of the Community Homestays is the empowerment of local women. Most hosts are housewives without another independent source of income. After joining the Community Homestay networks, many of these women end up making just as much money as their husbands. Women’s financial strength and independence has been proven to be good for families and communities. The women are also given access to English language classes and other training, and their self-confidence and skills have improved through their involvement.
To establish a homestay network in any particular area, ten families or households need to collaborate. These are not just individual homes that have opened their doors to travellers, but truly collaborative community efforts that run on a roster system. Further, each community homestay collective must choose a cause to support, such as the re/building of a school or community centre, or the sponsorship of a child’s school fees. Twenty percent of proceeds must be put directly back into the community. The ‘community’ in Community Homestay is not just a name.
If every tourist to Nepal was to spend just one night at one of the nine Community Homestay venues, the effects on local families and communities would be enormous. Tourists would also leave Nepal with a greater understanding of ordinary Nepali life and culture. So, what can guests at Community Homestays expect?
Every homestay is different, as these are real homes. Some buildings are newer and on the edge of town; others may be older and located in the centre. But each home is required to meet a good standard before opening its doors to travellers, and must provide private rooms and modern bathrooms. Guest rooms are simply furnished but comfortable, with attached bathrooms with hot water.
At the Barauli and Tharu Community Homestays, in different parts of the Chitwan area, guests stay in their own huts, within the vicinity of the host’s own huts. These are built in the traditional style with mud and natural materials, but come with modern attached bathrooms.
The food will also differ across the country. While dal bhat (lentil curry and rice) is the favourite of almost all Nepali people, the way it is prepared varies, as does what accompanies it. Side dishes are usually seasonal and made with locally grown vegetables. In the Newar towns you may get a chance to try local Newari specialties. This local cuisine is full of meat curries and can be very spicy, but is unlike any other cuisine that you are likely to try, so dig in!
You will also get the chance to participate in a cooking class, joining the women in their kitchen and then eating the results afterwards. Whether you’ve never made Nepali food before or consider yourself an excellent chef, you’ll certainly learn something new from your hosts. You might come home with a new pickle recipe, or a better understanding of how to get your roti perfectly round. Your hosts will enjoy teaching you (and, if those roti aren’t so round, they’ll laugh along with you).
A major benefit of staying at a Community Homestay over a hotel is that you will get the chance to be involved in all kinds of local activities. If you’d prefer a more relaxing time, there’s no pressure to sign up for everything (although this is definitely recommended!) Activities and excursion vary depending on the location, and that’s a good reason to stay at Community Homestays throughout Nepal.
Guided walks and hiking
Several of the homestays are located within prime hiking territory. The Nagarkot Community Homestays are close to jungles and waterfalls, making for good day hikes. At Palpa Community Homestay, don’t miss the sunrise views from Shrinagar Hill. The recently opened Panauti to Sanga Community Hike is a comfortable but exhilarating day hike through Tamang villages, and is an ideal excursion to incorporate into a stay in Panauti. Even in the more urban areas like Patan (south of central Kathmandu) you will be guided through the old backstreets and hidden courtyards of the atmospheric ancient city.
If you’re looking for more of a challenge, the Annapurna Community Trek is an ideal combination of classic Nepal trekking and homely comforts. The five-day trek starts at Galeshwor—five kilometres from Beni, in the Myadgi District of the Annapurna Himalayas—and passes through Bhanskharka, Nangi, Mohare Danda and Tikot. It goes through very similar terrain as the more popular Poon Hill trek. In fact, from just below the highest point of Mohare Danda, Poon Hill is visible. But the Annapurna Community Trek has the advantage of housing trekkers entirely in homestays and community-run lodges. Even in the peak trekking season you are likely to have the trails all to yourself, which cannot be said for the better-known trekking routes around Nepal.
In the Chitwan-area homestays you will, of course, have a chance to enter the Chitwan National Park on a safari. This park has run an incredibly successful rhino conservation project, and you are practically guaranteed to see at least one of the enormous and magnificent animals in the park. Bird watchers will also be in heaven, as there are numerous species of colourful and more camouflaged birds to look out for. Jeep safaris are the safest way to get close to the rhinos. You can also go on a sunset cruise along the river, to spot the rare, thin-snouted gharial crocodile and enjoy the peaceful scenery.
Join in local festivals
Nepal has so many cultural festivals happening throughout the year, most of which are rooted in Hindu and Buddhist traditions. The best-known festivals are Tihar, Dashain and Holi, which coincide with the peak tourist seasons in autumn and spring. However, these are far from the only festivals in Nepal, and with only a little bit of planning you can coincide a stay at a Community Homestay with a fascinating festival. For example, during Teej, married women traditionally dress in red and celebrate their married life by dancing and singing together. During Buddha Jayanti, Buddhists celebrate the birth of Siddharth Gautama Buddha. Celebrating such festivals at a local household will definitely enhance the experience.
Participate in agricultural activities
As many of the homestays are located in rural or semi-rural areas surrounded by farmland, agricultural festivals are an especially important part of the annual calendar. If you happen to be in Panauti or Nuwakot during rice-planting season, you too can get knee-deep in the fields and join in the important task of planting Nepal’s staple crop. While the wet monsoon months are not peak tourist season in Nepal, they can actually be a beautiful time to visit the countryside, as the greens of the farmland will be so vibrant and lush.
There may also be the chance to milk the cows and gather firewood and fodder in some of the rural communities. Patlekhet Community Homestay is set beside an organic farm. From there you can walk to a community forest and to learn about terrace farming and the traditional agricultural systems of Nepal.
If you are interested in staying for more than just a couple of days, it’s also possible to volunteer in local schools, teaching English or other skills. Ask about this possibility when booking, so this can be arranged.
Other activities available at different locations may include bike riding, school visits and henna painting. One of the highlights of staying at a Community Homestay is that your experience will be totally unique and personalised to guests and hosts, so going in with an open mind and a sense of adventure will take you far. Your visit to a Community Homestay in Nepal may end up being the highlight of your trip.