Most visitors to Nepal spend some time exploring Kathmandu and a few of the surrounding valley towns; they chill out in Pokhara and some hit the mountains for days or weeks at a time. Chitwan National Park and Lumbini in the Terai region also receive their fair share of visitors. Beyond that, the rest of the country remains fairly off-the-beaten track.
Gorkha and Tansen are two gems that, whilst easily accessible, do not attract the tourist numbers that they deserve. This, however, is a good thing for those of us that revel in exploring places away from the masses and discovering how the local ways of life still prevail.
Let me tell you about Gorkha and Tansen and why you should put them on your next Nepal itinerary.
Gorkha (Elevation: 1135m)
Gorkha can be visited on route from Kathmandu to Pokhara; it lies 24km north of Abu Khaireni, a small settlement on the Prithvi Highway. The quaint hilltop town is famous as the birthplace of Prithvi Narayan Shah, who unified the rival Nepali kingdoms into a single cohesive nation in 1769; the Shah dynasty ended in 2008 with the dishonourable retirement of Gyanendra Shah.
In 2015, Gorkha made international headlines when it became the epicentre of the worst earthquake to hit the country in almost a century. Many buildings, however, survived the quake and today, though repairs are ongoing, there is still much to enjoy in this traditional town. For Newari people Gorkha is an important pilgrimage destination, regarding the Shahs as living incarnations of Vishnu.
What to See in Gorkha
The town’s main attraction, Gorkha Durbar, is a fort, palace and temple all in one; though the main structure survived the 2015 earthquake, damage was extensive and repairs continue.
The Durbar was the birthplace of Prithvi Narayan Shah in 1723, when Gorkha was a minor feudal kingdom. After gaining the throne, the shah worked his way around the Kathmandu Valley, pacifying rival kingdoms and creating an extensive empire. The complex perches on a ridge high above Gorkha and, on clear days, offers spectacular views over the Trisuli Valley to the soaring peaks of the Annapurna, Manaslu and Ganesh Himalaya.
When we visited in October 2018, the durbar was open though the area near the Kalika Temple was partly inaccessible due to repair work. The temple was built in the 17th Century and is covered in carvings of peacocks, demons and servants; only Brahmin priests and the king are permitted to enter.
The east wing of the complex contains the former palace of Prithvi Narayan Shah, the Dhuni Pati, covered in more elaborate carvings. Nearby lies the Mausoleum of Guru Gorakhnath, a saint who acted as a spiritual guide for the young shah.
Leaving via the north gate, you’ll pass the former Royal Guest House and, just down from here, a brightly painted Hanuman statue. Stone steps nearby lead up to a Chautara (resting platform), containing a set of stone footprints, attributed variously to Sita, Rama, Gorakhnath and Guru Padmasambhava. The views from this exposed rocky bluff are definitely worth the climb up!
To reach the durbar, you can climb 1500 exhausting stone steps from town or, alternatively, take the roadway by foot or taxi; the road winds up to a car park just below the northern gate.
Gorkha Old Town
With cobbled stone streets and traditionally built homes and shop houses, Gorkha’s old town makes an enigmatic place to wander. There are a few temples dotted around, including the two-tiered Vishnu Temple, a squat white temple with a Nandi statue outside dedicated to Mahadev (Shiva) and a small white shikhara temple by the tank, sacred to Ganesh.
A little further up the road lies a small square, where you can find a miniature pagoda temple dedicated to Bhimsen, the Newari god of trade and commerce. The steps up to the durbar start from beside this temple.
Directly opposite the pagoda temple in the old town’s square you’ll find Gorkha Museum, housed inside a Newari-style palace built in 1835. The Tallo Durbar is a stunning building with an internal courtyard and some finely carved woodwork, housing a small but interesting collection of exhibits. The museum is set in 3.5 hectares of garden, which is nice for a quiet stroll.
Note that it’s open 10:30am – 2:30pm on a Monday and until 3:30pm Wednesday to Sunday (November to January; until 4:30pm February to October). Foreign visitors pay Rs 50 entrance fee plus Rs 200 for a camera.
Why Visit Gorkha?
Gorkha is a timeless Newari town, set on a hilltop above the Prithvi Highway. It has historical connections, a fascinating old town and offers the chance to find off-the-beaten-track Nepal. With few foreign visitors you’re guaranteed a warm welcome.
Gorkha is also famous as the place where the Gurkha Battalion in the British Army originated and where the annual Dasain festival officially begins, with a procession to Kathmandu.
Furthermore, it’s possible to trek in the Himalayan foothills around Gorkha; a guide can lead you through little-traversed countryside, staying at homestays on route. Enquire at travel agencies in the capital or at the tourist information centre in town.
Accommodation in Gorkha
Gorkha offers a couple of hotels and guesthouses and a few local places to eat. We stayed at Café de Gorkha Chautari, a decent budget choice on the road up to the durbar.
Rooms are comfortable, though could be cleaner; we would recommend this place for its wonderful location, with stunning views towards Manaslu, and the tasty food that is available. With garden seating round the back, eating outside during the day is especially pleasant.
To reach Gorkha, you can take any Pokhara or Kathmandu bound bus, depending on which direction you are coming from, to Abu Khaireni. From there local buses leave frequently for the short journey up to town.
There are also direct buses and micro-buses from/to both Pokhara (5 hours) and Kathmandu (4-5 hours), until about 2pm. If you’re leaving later in the day, get to Abu Khaireni and change there.
Tansen (Elevation: 1372m)
Tansen, or Palpa as it is also known, is a wonderful Newari town perched high above the Kali Gandaki River on the road between Pokhara and Butwal. Attracting just a handful of independent travellers, Tansen has a distinct medieval feel with steep cobblestone streets and traditional wooden houses with intricately carved windows.
The town has a rich history; it was the capital of the Magar kingdom of Tanahun, which until the rise of the Shahs, was one of the most powerful kingdoms in Nepal. In the 18th Century, the power of the Magars declined and the town became a Newari trading post on the trade route between India and Tibet.
We stayed four nights in Tansen, though could happily have stayed longer. With wonderful homestay options, beautiful surrounding countryside to explore and an authenticity that is ever more difficult to find, Tansen really is one of Nepal’s most underrated gems.
What to See and Do in/around Tansen
Main Square (Sitalpati)
Tansen’s main square is dominated by, and named after, the octagonal Sitalpati Pavilion, which, in bygone days, was used for public functions; today it’s a meeting spot for locals to sit and have a chat.
On one corner of the square lies the small two-tiered Bhimsen Mandir, sacred to the Newari god of trade and commerce. Nearby, you’ll see several shops selling dhaka, the fabric used for making traditional Nepali jackets and cloth hats; there’s also a karuwa factory where you can see Tansen’s famous brass jugs being made.
Accessed through the grand gateway known as Baggi Dhoka (Mul Dhoka) at the southern end of Sitalpati, Tansen Durbar was restored after having been destroyed in one of the Maoist insurgency’s fiercest battles. The building was originally constructed for the provincial governor in 1927; in more recent times it served as the district administration headquarters.
Today it has been revamped and houses a local culture and history museum; when we stopped by in October 2018 it hadn’t yet opened so we were only able to admire the grand red-and-white building from the outside.
Amar Narayan Mandir
The three-tiered pagoda-style Amar Narayan Mandir was built in 1807 by Amar Singh Thapa, the first governor of Tansen, and is considered to be one of the most beautiful temples outside the Kathmandu Valley.
There are intricately carved wooden deities and erotic scenes on the roof struts; the patron deity is Vishnu, who is honoured by devotees every evening by the lighting of butter lamps. Nearby is the similar but smaller Mahadev Mandir, sacred to Shiva.
Situated on the east bank of the Kali Gandaki, the beautiful Ranighat Durbar is the most famous sight near Tansen and is locally referred to as ‘Nepal’s Taj Mahal.’
The palace was built in 1896 by Khadga Shamsher Rana in memory of his beloved wife, Tej Kumari. Khadga, who was an ambitious politician, was exiled from Kathmandu for plotting against the government; after another failed attempt to seize power in 1921 he was exiled to India. Following his departure, the building was stripped of its valuables and left to slowly decay on the banks of the river.
Thanks to recent renovations, the durbar has been given a new lease of life, its exterior magnificently restored; the inside, however, remains an empty shell. Isolated in a forested river valley, the palace has a spectacular location. It’s possible not only to explore inside and around the grounds, but also to view it from a hanging suspension bridge nearby, which is perhaps the best vantage point.
It’s a long walk down to Ranighat from Tansen; the road is now sealed the whole way but it still takes about three hours. The return journey takes a little longer, the route being steep in places as it winds through small countryside villages. There are a few eating options along the road, where you can stop for lunch, as well as basic accommodation at Ranighat if you decide to spend the night.
Local transport leaves once a day from Tansen and returns from near the durbar the following morning; hiring a taxi for the trip is also an option. If you’re planning to walk the return trip in one day, we recommend starting early and taking a torch in case you get caught out after sunset. We were lucky to hitch a ride when we were about halfway back, saving us a fair few uphill kilometres!
Directly north of town, Shreenagar Danda is a 1600m-high forested hill that has a renovated Viewing Tower, offering a stunning mountain panorama on clear days. Depending on where you’re staying in Tansen, the hike up takes anywhere from 20 minutes to one hour.
There are various trails leading to the crest of the hill, one of which starts near a small red-and-yellow Ganesh Temple. Upon reaching the ridge, there are paths to the left and right, leading to the view tower, a modern Buddha Statue and a large Hanuman Figure.
Other Hikes around Tansen
The area surrounding Tansen was previously all countryside and forest, offering visitors a plethora of day and overnight hikes. Unfortunately, in the last two years, roads have been rapidly developed, which whilst good for the local economy, has greatly reduced the hiking potential that Tansen once offered. Before, the only way to reach Ranighat Durbar was by trail; now the way is wholly tarmacked.
There are, however, some pleasant day hikes that you can do, such as to Bhairab Sthan Temple 9km west of Tansen. You can take an off-road trail for some of the way, though be aware that the route can be quite confusing – don’t implicitly trust what maps.me tells you! It’s more scenic than just sticking to the tarmac though. The temple courtyard contains a huge brass trident and inside there’s a silver mask of Bhairab, allegedly plundered from Kathmandu by Mukunda Sen.
We also hiked to Bagnaskot, on the ridge east of Gorkhekot, which has a small Devi temple and a stunning 360-degree hilltop viewpoint. From Bagnaskot we continued on dirt trails, beside rice fields and local houses, down to Aryabhanjyang on the Siddhartha Highway, then hitched a ride to the Tansen turn-off at Bartung. From there we caught a local bus up to town.
Other hiking options include the potter’s village of Ghorbanda and the village of Ghansal; the route to Ghansal passes several hilltop viewpoints and emerges on the highway about 3km south of Tansen.
Maps and information for Tansen and the surrounding area can be found at GETUP, a helpful tourist information office in Tansen that can also provide local guides, transport and homestay advice.
A worthwhile day trip from Tansen is to the Newari village of Ridi Bazaar, which sits at the sacred confluence of the Kali Gandaki and Ridi Khola Rivers 28km by road from Tansen.
A popular pilgrimage destination, Ridi Bazaar is home to the Rishikesh Mandir, which was founded by Mukunda Sen in the 16th Century. According to local legend, the Vishnu idol was discovered fully formed in the river and astonishingly aged from boy to man.
The temple can be found near the bus stand on the south bank of the Ridi Khola. The village is also known as a site where saligrams have been found; saligrams are the fossils of ammonites revered as symbols of Vishnu. Buses to Ridi Bazaar leave from the public bus stand in Tansen and take two hours.
Why Visit Tansen?
Tansen is a lovely Newari town, set far enough off the tourist radar that it still feels authentic and undiscovered. It makes a great place to kick back for a few days, staying in one of the town’s family-run homestays, where the food is guaranteed to be some of the best you’ll eat in Nepal!
With Himalayan views and day hikes to local villages, Tansen is a place all-to-easy to fall in love with. Indeed, it is one of the country’s gems that we wouldn’t hesitate to return to.
There are some wonderful viewpoints of Tansen itself from various perspectives; one that you shouldn’t miss is from the parade ground near the bus stand known as the Tundikhel. The picture is especially magical at sunset.
Accommodation in Tansen
There are numerous accommodation options in Tansen including a few hotels; much better though are the family-run homestays that offer a window into rural Nepali life.
The best of the lot is Horizon Homestay, one of the nicest places we’ve stayed in Nepal. Rooms are clean and comfortable, the home cooked food is delicious and the family that run the place go out of their way to make you feel at home. The dal bhat at Horizon was probably the best we’ve ever eaten, and that’s saying something as we’ve eaten a lot of it!
The homestay is located at the top-end of town, just a short walk from where paths up to Shreenagar Danda begin. It’s a bit of a hike from the bus stand, so if you’ve got heavy luggage you’ll need to take a taxi.
One of the biggest drawcards of its lofty location are the sweeping views over town, which you can sit and enjoy from the homestay’s outdoor terrace. The roads to Ranighat Durbar and the local villages are also very close by, making it easy to set off and hike of a morning. For those that like their creature comforts, hot showers and WIFI are available, as are cooking classes.
Tansen’s bus station lies at the bottom of town at the southern entrance. There are buses to Pokhara (5 hours) and buses/micro-buses to Kathmandu (11 hours). There are also regular buses south to Butwal (2.5 hours) and to Bhaiwara where you can change for Lumbini.
Local buses also head to Ridi Bazaar (2 hours) though you’ll need to start early if you plan to make it back to Tansen the same day. If you get dropped at Bartung on the highway, you’ll need to take a taxi up to Tansen or ask locally about the walking route to the Tundikhel; trying to walk up along the road will take forever!
Heading to Pokhara? Check out our Insider’s Guide!