For an authentic taste of rural Nepal, stop in one of the country’s most intriguing towns, Bandipur. Not only does stopping here break up the long, exhausting drive between Pokhara and Kathmandu but you’ll also have the chance to experience a true living museum of Newari culture.
Originally a simple Magar village, Bandipur was chosen as an important stop on the trade route connecting India to Tibet in the late 18th century. Bypassed by the Prithvi Highway in the 1960s-70s, Bandipur became a ghost town. It has preserved its ethnic charm, though, and now attracts visitors and hiking enthusiasts.
The afternoon I arrived in Bandipur, I wandered its charming back streets and the ancient temple compounds that peek out from every street junction. The town center is not big, limited to a main pedestrian cobblestone street flanked by traditional merchants’ houses. It has well-preserved 18th-century row houses, some of which have been refurbished as guesthouses, and it’s maybe one of the few towns in Nepal that has a distinctly European feel due to its pedestrian zone with outdoor dining, traditional accommodation, and stylish pavement cafes.
As I was wandering around, I soon discovered the views of the blushing Himalayan range from Tundikhel (a former parade ground, now the town’s main football field) and from the Martyrs Memorial Park. While I was wondering where to go next, I noticed pilgrims hiking up and down to the Thani Mai Temple atop of Gurungche Hill.
Standing on a hilltop on the outskirts of the town, Gurungche Hill is both a sacred place with a small Hindu Temple, Thani Mai, and a lookout with panoramic views. The trail to the top is short but demanding, which is why many people miss it.
The route to the Thani Mai Temple starts near the school, at the southwestern end of Bandipur’s bazaar. It’s easy to find, even though only a very small sign marks the beginning of the trail. The blue metal handrails snaking up the abrupt hill make the path easy to follow. The hike actually has many irregular stone steps that steeply climb up to the temple in a series of tight bends. There are several benches to take a rest on the way up. The hike is suitable for kids, too.
I knew I was close to the top when I heard the pilgrims ringing up the temple’s bells. After a steep 30-minute ascent, I found myself on the top of Gurungche Hill, which certainly has some of the best 360-degree panoramic views in the country. All around, I had sweeping panoramas of both Bandipur town and the Marsyangdi Valley below, as well as the Himalaya stretching out along the horizon, including Annapurna, Dhaulagiri, and Manaslu.
The Thani Mai Temple is a small Hindu temple where the goddess of the same name is worshipped. Even though it doesn’t have any remarkable architectural features, it’s of great value from religious and cultural perspectives. Nepalis hike up here to pray to Thani Mai, meditate, pray, spin prayer wheels, light incense sticks, and ring the bells. As is customary in Nepal, colorful prayer flags are strung up around.
Watching the sunset from atop the hill left me speechless. Hiking up to the Thani Mai viewpoint before dawn or in the late evening are ideal times. Avoid going in the middle of the day, when the sun and the temperatures might be too much.
If you enjoyed the hike to Thani Mai, there are other great hikes around Bandipur. A half-day walk descends to the Siddha Gufa, the largest cave in Nepal. Another half-day hike leads to Ramkot, a traditional Magar village that still preserves some of the last surviving thatched-roof roundhouses in the region. Paragliding is also possible from a launch site near Bandipur.