Panauti Homestay: A deep crevasse into Nepalese culture
Several days after arriving in Nepal, I headed to the rural hillside village of Panauti, along with several other bloggers in the country for a travel conference. Rather than lodging at a hotel or guesthouse, we opted to stay with locals. Panauti has a Community Homestay program where visitors can live like the locals…staying, interacting and eating in their homes. There is no better way to understand a place than to engage with locals. There are currently fifteen homes run by a group of women who have been trained in the basics of hospitality.
I will admit, I had some trepidations about this endeavor of staying with locals in such a poor country/community, but it was without question the highlight of my trip to Nepal. I will be honest, the accommodations are very simple and were not the most comfortable or refined, but then again, travel should not be about comfort, but rather the experiences we glean and the stories we can later tell.
Panauti consists of a variety of Buddhist and Hindu religious monuments and is considered to be one of the area’s most important medieval sites. Located about 1.5 hours (just 20 miles) southeast of the capital city of Kathmandu, Panauti is a laid back, semi rural village that is beginning to attract tourists for its historic sites and cultural charm.
Many of the hosts spoke some English, but not mine. Thankfully, I was paired with my travel blogger friend, Archana from Travel See Write, who speaks Hindi, which most Nepali people understand. With our luggage in tow, we made our way down the narrow road that winds through the village until we came upon our host’s home. I carried our luggage up three flights of stairs to the top floor where two guest rooms were located. The first two floors are bedrooms and living quarters for the family. The guest rooms were modestly decorated with rudimentary twin beds in each. In between the two rooms was a common bathroom with western toilet. Each room had a small terrace that overlooked the village, which consisted of sporadically placed buildings and lots of farm land. From what I could tell, much of the land was devoted to growing and cultivating potatoes.
After getting settled, our host soon had lunch ready for us. We ate in the dimly lit kitchen, most of the light seemed to pass through the open front door. Our host cooked lunch over a wood stove and prepared some sort of lentil patty with garlic and ginger vegetables which was accompanied by some white rice. It was actually quite good, probably further enhanced by the fact that I was famished.
Once lunch was finished, Archana and I, and a couple of other travel bloggers met with a local tour guide, a young woman working her way through school who had a breadth of knowledge of her community. She was so passionate about her village and all the history that surrounded us that we tried to listen intently, but the photo opportunities often consumed our attention. Panauti enthralled the photographer in all of us. Around every corner was a photo waiting to be captured in time.
When we saw photo opportunities, we would ask our local tour guide if she could grease the wheels for us by speaking in her native tongue. For example, I saw several people in a field working and thought there might be some good shots, so our tour guide asked the folks if they would mind if we took some photos. Come to find out, they were on a lunch break from harvesting potatoes. Most were women working the fields, but then there was a man placing them into a burlap sack readying them for transport. All of this work was being done by hand, no machines, which just seemed so 1800s to me. The scene provided some nice photos and video footage.
Panauti was once a major trading center with its own royal palace, but today the small village has a bustling new quarter and a tranquil old quarter. Most of the town’s few visitors come on day trips, but I would recommend staying a night or two to really take in the charm and varying sights. As well as its ornate temples, the village has some striking Rana-era mansions (mid-1800s to mid-1900s when the government was controlled by the Rana family), some being recently restored.
As we made our way through the old quarter of town, we came across the Indreshwar Mahadev Temple, a three-story pagoda built in the 13th century. Our local guide was telling us that some believe that the structure is all original, never having been destroyed or rebuilt. If this is true she said, it would be the oldest surviving pagoda in Nepal.
Beyond the Temple walls we came across a two-story building where I heard music emanating. I asked our local guide what was going on in there and she said, “Want to go in?” “Yes!” I enthusiastically answered. We crossed the threshold of a small narrow door that led up a steep set of crickety stairs. When we reached the second floor, we saw a group of half a dozen men playing local instruments while sitting on some traditional area rugs. As soon as they saw us, they kindly invited us to sit with them. It was a magical moment sitting there listening to these men play and sing with such passion, it felt like a spiritual refuge of sorts. The bloggers and I were eyeing each other as if to communicate our contentment at this unmanufactured authentic experience. These are the monuments and stories we yearn to share with our readers and followers.
As we sat in enjoyment of the music surrounding us, we saw a group of men at the other end of the 2nd floor space huddled in a circle passing around the largest joint I had ever seen. As we got up to leave they invited us over to join them, but time was running short and we had to politely decline. Shortly thereafter, we were walking along the hillside banks of a shallow river running through town when I stopped in my tracks. I noticed marijuana growing wild in large quantity, so it was no wonder these men could afford to roll such a large joint.
After leaving the shanty we stumbled across a couple of men stacking a large pile of wood, which I was informed was a nightly ritual. Each evening a pile of wood is burned, and if there is a death in the village, the body is burned and the ashes sent downstream. It was a searing reminder of how differently things are done in other parts of the world.
Dusk was upon us and our tour guide was trying to hurry us along as our Homestay hosts would have dinner ready for us. And, there was some sort of dance going on later that evening she thought we might like to attend. Just as we were making progress and heading in the right direction, our guide asked if we would like to see a great view of Panauti. None of us wanted the day to end, so we were all in agreement that we should delay getting back to our respected homes just a bit longer. We crossed what appeared to be a very sketchy pedestrian bridge and were now on the other side of the river, the one in which ashes of the deceased float down. We worked our way up this hillside, all of us huffing and puffing, until finally we came to the perfect spot to sit and take in the majestic views of old town Panauti. As the sun faded beyond the mountains that flanked the community, the beautiful view was the perfect end to our tour.
Our solace of the tour was interrupted as we had to walk through the busy part of town, where merchants, food vendors and other purveyors lined the streets. Once we got through this center of town we were not far from our homes in which we were staying. When Archana and I arrived, we were pleasantly greeted by our host who prepared some freshly brewed tea along with some light snacks before dinner. It was now dark and a light cool breeze made its way through our rooms, making it quite pleasant.
The daughter of our host (who speaks really good English) came upstairs to introduce herself. She was a lovely young woman perhaps around 18 years of age. She was very inquisitive, asking all about ourselves and what we did as travel bloggers. Soon, our host graced us with her presence again, this time presenting us with our dinner. It was nothing fancy, but was tasty nonetheless.
After dinner we walked through town where a community dance was behind hosted. As soon as we arrived I could see how small the venue was. I was still feeling the effects of jet lag, so I didn’t stay long before walking back to my home for the evening. Archana was not far behind. We talked for a short while before retiring to our respective rooms. We had to get up very early the next day for a long journey to our next destination of Chitwan.
My time in Panauti was one I will not soon forget. The charm of the village, to the amazingly friendly and generous people left an endearing and indelible mark. One of the things I really enjoyed about Panauti is that it’s not yet a tourist destination, not by a long shot. These are the type of places I like to discover and share with my readers. I predict that in the coming years you will be seeing many more stories and social media posts from this part of Nepal. Trekking is the most well known activity in Nepal, but with these types of experiences like the one in Panauti, I think more people will be visiting the country for its cultural attractions as well.
If you’ve ever been to Panauti, Nepal, please leave a comment below and share your experience. If you’d like to visit Panauti and would like to try a homestay like I did, visit: https://www.communityhomestay.com Rates are just $25/night and come with three meals and a tour. If you’d like to see more photos of Panauti, click here.