Pioneering in Pokhara, Nepal: The Story of Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge

Words Laura Field
Date

Historically a commercial hub connecting India and Tibet, Pokhara evolved to be a metropolitan city with far more to offer than just trade.

Tucked into the Himalayas and sitting on the picturesque Phewa Lake, Pokhara let nature lead the way. The name for Nepal’s second largest city comes from the Nepali word “Pokhari” meaning “pond” so it’s no surprise that natural formations are Pokhara’s greatest protagonist.

Today the city is also the gateway for adventure seekers and mountaineers to the spectacular Annapurna Himal part of the central Himalaya. As of January 2023, Pokhara has an international airport although despite its increasing popularity as a destination for global travelers, the city still maintains its charm.

Not only a city, Pokhara is also a valley (one of a series through the Himalaya, known as doons). Perched 1,000 feet above Pokhara Valley lies the ultimate Himalayan retreat, Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge. With a mountainous backdrop that blends reality with the illusion of a crisp, acrylic painting, the lodge consists of clusters of cottages that resemble a traditional Nepali village. The ideal escape pre- and post-hike or simply a perch from which to take in Nepal’s spectacular landscapes, Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge has long been a pioneer and champion of regenerative travel.

The Origins of Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge

The idea for Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge came about a long time ago. In the mid-80s there was a growing demand for adventure-based tourism in the Himalayas. Not only that, there seemed to be a gap between intensive and extensive trekking expeditions and more restful stays where guests could partake in day walks focusing on wildlife and conservation activities while returning to the comforts of a luxurious lodge at the end of each day.

And so the initial idea for Tiger Mountain was born. However, ideas take time and constant commitment to come to fruition and finding the right spot of land to create such a unique lodge took a while. Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge finally opened its doors in October 1998 after ten years of ruminating and concept development.

From the outset, there was a focus on making Tiger Mountain an environmentally responsible lodge and one that inherently respected the place and culture of its setting. Marcus Cotton, Co-owner and Managing Director of Tiger Mountain, recalls the shifting of language and labels over the years from eco to responsible to sustainable and now to regenerative. This is thanks to the ever-evolving nature of tourism that cares about people and place; the wording might change over time but the intentions remain the same. “A lot of what we were doing was regenerative 25 years ago,” Cotton remarks.

The catalyst for placing Pokhara Valley firmly on the trekking map? Col. Jimmy Roberts, founder of Nepal’s first trekking company, Mountain Travel Nepal. Later Prince Charles (as he then was) and an entourage of 90 camp followers set out on a trek in the Himalayas in 1980, just before he was engaged to Princess Diana. Later the BBC came along to follow his trek route and so began a trail that today is still known as the Royal Trek.

 Mountain Travel Nepal (the company that organized Prince Charles’s trek) was inundated with demand from global travelers wanting to embark on the same trekking route as the Prince of Wales. Cotton shares that to start with, Mountain Travel Nepal rented the site where the lodge is now and they got to work on meeting all the demand.

Later the land was purchased from local owners (some of whom still work at the lodge) and the process of upgrading from tents started. Expert naturalist guides and a network of day hikes around the lodge were added alongside comfortable rooms instead of the earlier tents and the transition from a trekking night stop to a focused lodge was underway.

To add to Tiger Mountain’s fame-related tales, Sir Edmund Hillary, the New Zealand mountaineer and explorer renowned for being the first person (along with Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay) to summit Mount Everest, opened Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge in October 1998. A long-time fan of Nepal and grateful for the life-changing experience the country had offered him, Sir Ed (as he was universally known) gladly inaugurated Tiger Mountain to encourage guests to experience the unique Himalayan landscapes from the reassuring comfort of responsible style.

The Valley That’s Lived a Thousand Lives

More than just a postcard-idyll destination, Pokhara Valley is an example of resilience and regeneration. Nature is certainly the protagonist in this part of the world but this also entails dealing with occasions when nature throws all its force at a place. From severe earthquakes to pandemics, Pokhara and Tiger Mountain have always had to create systems to cope with whatever comes their way.

Pioneer of tourism in Nepal and co-founder of Tiger Mountain, Jim Edwards once said that to understand tourism in the country, it was necessary to take the biblical notion of seven fat years followed by seven lean years and turn it on its head. He said that in Nepal, often it’s 13 lean years followed by one fat year that makes up for it all, emotionally as well as economically.

It’s not just natural disasters that affect Nepal. Cotton describes a ten-year Maoist insurgency that had economic impact. “The vision that these are occasional blips in an otherwise wonderful tourist haven is not true,” he says. In a way, this is why Tiger Mountain is inherently regenerative and responsible; the lodge operates in a place that constantly has to evolve and adapt to diverse situations.

Resilience and Regeneration Go Hand in Hand

Cotton shares that 80% of the staff at the lodge are the same people that were there on the opening day in 1998. He is always encouraging the staff to be responsible in every sense of the word. The office door is always open and there is no password on the computer so that if members of the team want to look at anything related to the running of Tiger Mountain, they can—nothing is hidden. Cotton shares that “in the hills of Nepal, the reality of life is that it goes at walking pace.” This is why he always wants to kindle interest in staff members to have more than just a ‘9 to 5’ mentality; he allows people the space and time to develop, grow and learn. Recently one of the senior team tried scuba diving in Bali after a trade fair – it is all about experiences. Today the regenerative work at the lodge is led by Ishwar in addition to his work in administration and accounts.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it was the staff who sat Marcus down and suggested their pay should be temporarily reduced. They insisted that they’d seen the numbers themselves and wanted to be at the lodge for the long haul. They’d determined that the only way to keep the lodge alive, and ultimately keep their jobs in the long term, was to have their salaries cut while tourism was at a standstill in Nepal. And so their salaries were cut, the lodge survived, and staff members are now gradually being repaid the salary that they lost during that period.

He proudly states that none of the staff has been formally hotel trained but they have all simply invented the way they do things as they’ve gone along. He believes that this makes things more distinctive and special, and less formulaic.

Cotton looks at what other hotels do and usually decides to do the exact opposite in a bid not to become dull and homogenous. For example, at Tiger Mountain staff members don’t have name tags and the idea is that this will strike up conversations and create engagement between guests and the staff. “It doesn’t mean that you’re not professional, it just means that you have your own identity and style,” he insists.

Aside from the strong sense of community, Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge has zero waste going to landfill. Cotton admits that currently they’re storing plastic to avoid sending it to landfill while they work on a long term regenerative solution. He is increasingly anxious and determined that tourism must become a force for good far more than it currently is, a notion shared by everyone contributing to the regenerative travel paradigm shift. He believes that collectively, we can all work to make tourism a positive force for good for employees, guests, the host community, the local built environment and for nature.

Where Adventure Meets Calm

Pokhara is an accessible gateway to some of the world’s finest trekking in and around the Annapurna Himal. Mount Everest is, of course, beautiful but is less accessible in eastern Nepal. Pokhara is the country’s adventure capital; walks can be a one-day trek, accompanied by a picnic breakfast and lunch. Days at Tiger Mountain can include paragliding over the Pokhara Valley, an ecologically-friendly way of seeing the high Himalaya where travelers can soar alongside eagles and vultures. It’s also a silent and calming way to see the Himalayas without engine noise.

Tiger Mountain has a fantastic yoga teacher, Shyam, who comes from the high mountains just north of Annapurna 1 and delightfully joins guests at breakfast after classes. There are also meditation leaders and massage therapists so every adventure can be met by an equally soothing way to disconnect and rejuvenate.

The Tiger Mountain team is currently evolving a uniquely Nepali derivation of forest bathing known as Ban Magan (“Ban” meaning “forest” and “Magan” meaning “meditation”) which is different from the Japanese version. They are creating their own Nepali way of doing it that consists of two different routes: one can be self-guided so guests can calmly go it alone and the other is a guided, actively mind-focusing option.

Marcus also reveals that some little phone-sized bags caught his attention and he now wants to create “mobile sleeping bags” and put them in all the rooms to encourage guests to fully detach themselves from their devices. He says in recent years he’s noticed a decline in engagement among guests due to phones and other electronic devices and he’d like to change that to increase human interaction and connection. There are plenty of analog experiences to enjoy in Pokhara where digital devices aren’t necessary—perhaps that is the biggest conscious luxury of all.

Pokhara serves as an example that even when the going gets tough and we’re faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges, there’s always a way around it. There will always be another fat year on the horizon to make up for any current difficulties.

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