Go to Manali but stay in Vashisht
Manali is a famous name in India, a touristy ski resort in the winter and beautiful scene to lounge in during the summer. You’ll hear talk of scenic views, peaceful vibes, lush forests, tantalizing waterfalls and meditative temples. But you’d hear wrong.
Almost none of those places are actually in Manali. Manali, like many India cities, is loud, narrow, claustrophobic, dusty and sometimes dirty. When you arrive, that’s the scene you’re likely to see, but don’t let it rattle you. All the great things you heard about are in very close vicinity, but your first move needs to be to get out.
If you plan on getting a motorbike though, do so before leaving Manali. Just like Vietnam is full of Honda Win’s, India is all about the Royal Enfields, making them easy to fix if every anything goes wrong. They are strong and range between 350cc and 500cc. Either one will get you across the rough, narrow, unpaved roads connecting many Indian cities, but opt for the 500 if you plan on loading a buddy on the back. I found a great place to get one, close to the traffic circle taking you out of the city, called Enfield Bike Tours Manali. I was even able to arrange someone coming to pick it from Dharamsala so I could drive it there and drop it off.
Once your transportation is figured out, motorbike, taxi or tuk tuk, choose where you want to stay. There are two villages that can offer a peaceful place to rest your head, all while enjoying all the promised local amenities.
As the name implies, Old Manali is an offshoot of Manali. It is significantly less cluttered and more peaceful, a good place to find some quiet while exploring the area or waiting for your trek. It consists of a single main road that spirals up the hill, with guesthouses, shops, cafes, bars and restaurants lining either side. Most are obviously geared towards Westerners, with signs advertising karaoke and open mics. They can be fun, but are not really an Indian experience.
It’s a good home away from home, that’s still a lot like home and won’t make you step out too much out of your comfort zone. Despite it’s upwards nature, Old Manali doesn’t really get any great views of the surrounding valley unless you really get up the hill. It’s a bit of a hike, but it’ll also get cheaper and more authentic the more you get up there.
For a stay with a more local vibe though, take the extra mile to Vashisht.
As soon as I turned my bike off the short highway connecting Manali to Vashisht, the initial shock of “This is nothing of what I was promised” started wearing off. The more I climbed, the quieter, calmer, and more peaceful the atmosphere became. Traffic slowed to single, occasional motorbikes on an otherwise mostly walking main street, the view of the valley below grew before my eyes and everyone was harmoniously going about their business.
There are plenty of homestays and guesthouses so walk around and find something that you like. I stayed at the Vashisht Homestay, on the valley side of the road, which offered a great backdrop to wake up to. The people I met in the area were all very pleasant and my homestay was no different. Breakfast was included but I often woke up too early to partake, so she was kind enough to provide snacks and even dinner in place of it.
Working around Manali
Both Vashisht and Old Manali had great restaurants and cafes, the former having a more chill vibe with a stronger authentic Indian twist. I never felt rushed to leave at any of them, and often they didn’t even pressure me to order something after I sat down. Food was always great in both places.
Vashisht, being higher up and on the valley, always had the better views. In fact, the only time I opted to go to Old Manali was when the power was out in Vashisht for 3 days (told you it’s more authentic), and I wasn’t disappointed.
There are some charming places with happy vibes. Dylan’s, for example, was the kind of carefree place where you could see the people you met in the past few days walking in or around, or easily meet new ones.
Wifi, however, was a constant struggle in both places. It was very unreliable and each cafe had it’s good days and bad days. If you rely on wifi in any way though, I would strongly recommend a SIM card. I was able to get a 3GB package that included international calls for the equivalent of $10. Be prepared with a passport photo and bring your passport. I know it sounds weird, it caught be by surprise too, but that’s how it is in India. Everything a foreigner does and buys requires at least a passport photocopy.
What to do around Manali
Check out the Manali Market
As many markets in India, it will feature shops with all kinds of knickknacks, most of which are useless souvenirs that you’ll likely throw out before you give them to anyone. That being said, it’s a great place to keep in mind when looking for something useful, such as a SIM card, or some interesting local street food. It’s a comforting sight to see the locals buying it too. Also got my motorbike bungee cords from here and a bandana to cover my face from dust before setting out.
At the end of the Vashisht road is a little courtyard, surrounded by a couple of restaurants with little guesthouses overlooking below. To the right, you might notice villages washing laundry, shoes, or even themselves under taps of continuously flowing water, and if you approach, you’ll notice that it’s steaming hot. That is indeed a holy hotspring that’s ducted into town from the source higher up the overarching mountain.
Right next to those taps is a modest temple, one that you might normally enter on a lazy afternoon, look around for a few minutes, put your shoes back on and go have some curry. You would, that is, if these taps and this temple weren’t connected. Before being pipped to the outside though, the holy hot water is brought into a basin in the temple, and it’s the best place to relax in the entire village. So keep your shoes off, and bring a bathing suit.
I went there on my first day, at midday, and it very quickly helped me recover from a grueling overnight 14-hour rough, bumpy, windy, overcramped van ride from Leh during which sleep was very sporadic. I entered the basin slowly as it was very hot, and carefully so as to not disturb the others that were also enjoying the spiritual peace of the place. Eventually, I managed to submerge my entire body and felt a deep meditative relaxation come over me.
I went to the temple everyday after that, but never at midday, opting instead to use it to start my day in the morning, or close it out at night. It both cases, it was really nice getting in when it was a little chilly outside. It always gave me what I needed, a boost of energy to start my day, or a soothing rest to ease me into bed. I especially liked it at night, where the darkness really let you settle into your senses and feel the warmth engulf you.
Bring soap, you’ll have to wash on site before getting in.
Just follow the path, keep going straight, and you’ll find it. It’s that simple, but so dazzling once you get there. Past the temple, the Vashisht road eventually turns into a village path and starts spiralling through cottages full of farm animals up the mountain and into a forest. Continue on the path and you’ll pass a tea house on the left. Once you get to the waterfall, if you’re brave enough to bathe in the glacial Himalayan water (it won’t kill you), hit that little tea house in the woods for a warm cup of chai to bring you back, or dip into the temple’s hot springs on the way back into town.
The waterfall really is a majestic sight. It falls deep between some cliffs, away from the path, but it is fully visible. If your balance is on point, you can use the various stones and boulders in the stream to hop closer to the drop zone and truly get a great view. It’s the kind of waterfall you can gaze and only stop when you forcibly tare your eyes away.
The best part is that it’s only the beginning. If you cross the stream and continue on the path, it’ll start slopping even higher, eventually leading to a second, even more graceful waterfall, which feeds the first one. And if you really want to find your zen, accept the spray and the mud and approach it. You’ll notice a cave directly behind the sheet of water. Once you see it, it’s impossible to not go in. Watch the slippery hill while you do so, and sit there until you get your fill.
It was getting dark by the time we got there. The sky was a deep aqua blue, further coloured by the plunging water. We were literally looking at the moon through a waterfall! The only thing that got us out of there was the knowledge that the slippery path would be very hard to manage in the pitch black.
Indulge in yoga and the local herbs
Ok, so this is not for everyone, but is a part of the local culture. The locals have been cultivating and smoking using a traditional pipe called a chillum for their ceremonies for a very long time. Both chillums and herbs are easy to find in cafes and tea shops, such as the one on the path to the waterfall. Hindu monks, also called Sadhus, commonly use it in their rituals. The chillum is a 3 holed pipe that’s shared among the group, gathered in a circle, with each person placing a piece of cloth over the mouthpiece before using it.
While looking for a yoga studio, I stumbled upon a Rudraksha shop run by a yogi and a sadhu. Rudraksha is a holy seed of the Elaeocarpus ganitrus tree. They are often strung together in a mala (necklage), containing 108 + 1 beeds (the extra being for the guru), but can also be used to make various pieces of jewelry or clothing. They are said, among other things, to bring fortune during travel and were work by Indian nomads that were never meant to lay their heads in the same place twice. The Sadhu in the shop, for example, had a very extravagant hat made out of it.
Needless to say, they were well equipped with the art of the chillum, and combining it with yoga was quite an unwinding trip. Adding to it was the fact that we didn’t practice in their shop, but rather on their roof, overlooking valley below and the sunset.
Hang in the cafes
It’s all in the vibes. The mood was always so relaxed and the people (locals and travelers) so friendly, that just being in a cafe was a pleasant activity. There were games, teas, and views, and always someone to chat with. Plenty of stories to exchange and ideas to share, both wishful plans and concrete itineraries.
The place is almost entirely alcohol free, but you don’t feel its absence. People go to bed early and wake up with the sun.
I was often in bed before 11, with plenty of time to chill and read, and woke up before 7. Everything was so relaxed that it was all the sleep I needed and made for long days with plenty of time for activities. My nights often consisted of a cup of chai and a chess game. And they were perfect.