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home > recommended index > recommended himachal > old manali

Recommended places - Old Manali / Manali (HP)

This page is the full entry for the village of Old Manali in the state of Himachal Pradesh, offering a description and some practical information on local accommodation, transport and grub for backpackers and budget travellers.

To see an index of all places we cover within the state go to the Himachal Pradesh state listing. The recommended index has a full list of the other Indian states and places reviewed on this site.

Click here for a description of the rationale behind the recommended section (pops up in a new window).

 Old Manali
recommended recommended graphic
 state: Himachal Pradesh location: 550 km north of Delhi
 info date: May 2004 size: town of 6,500, village of 3000 people
 season: May - Oct transport: bus
 hotels: many good for: everyone

manali - recommended places in himachal pradeshManali has always been one of North India's top backpacker destinations since travellers started coming to the subcontinent in the 1960s, and a great favourite with Indian holidaymakers since the troubles in Kashmir started in the late 80s. The superb mountain scenery makes it popular with trekkers, both for the short local trekking routes such as that to Melana over the Chandrakhani pass or to Bhrigu lake far above Vashsist, and as a jumping off point for trips further afield into the Lahaul and Spiti regions, Zanskar or Ladakh to the North.

Manali's reputation as a wild party town also famous for cheap local charas (hashish) has drawn party heads from across the world in numbers that increase drastically every year, with Old Manali packed to the hilt for most of May and June. Its place near the top of the Israeli travellers checklist of 'must visit' places in India has assured it a certain infamy; parts of Old Manali village are known cynically as the West Bank or Gaza Strip during the peak months of May and June, and the dominating presence of the often cliquey Israelis puts off many Europeans, some of whom quickly leave to find a more peaceful and friendly atmosphere elsewhere.

Manali's phenomenal success has also been its downfall; it has gained financially from the huge tourist growth, but lost to a large extent the attributes of peace and beauty that made it famous in the first place. A lack of planning and non existent building laws mean that the main town has gone from being a small market town to a vicious and unattractive sprawl of concrete that is positively claustrophobic in high season. In a bare ten years, the once idyllic area below Old Manali village has gone from having six simple cafes and 20 or 30 small guest houses, to 50 or 60 restaurants and 150 or so guesthouses and large hotels, some with 20 or 30 rooms. The village itself has largely retained its character, but the road up from from the bridge which once looked onto open fields by the river is now a solid wall of concrete boxes housing Kashmiri carpet and souvenir peddlers, travel agents, money changers and some of the 20 or so "German bakeries" and 30 + Internet cafes.

Manali's reputation for drugs has gone beyond charas and acid, and almost any drug found in Europe will be openly available in some of the cafes. Heroin trading has brought its usual consequences with a major increase in addiction among local people and Nepali immigrants, an increase in crime, and more recently the murder of a backpacker related to heroin use.

The famous full moon parties used to be held miles from anywhere, arranged by DJs and with few facilities beyond a chai wallah and an erratic generator. Now the party scene has gone fully commercial, with local organisers arranging party sites within convenient walking distance from the village; convenient for the police as well as party goers, but rather inconvenient for the villagers who have to sleep with the noise close by on occasion. Buses have even been laid on for those too dumb or lazy to find their own way when the party is close to a road. Entrance is charged at 100 - 200 Rs, and partygoers can easily be outnumbered by hordes of traders running impromptu stalls selling overpriced beer, water, cigarettes and sweets. Increased zealousness by the police means that the advertised "3 day parties" barely make it beyond 24 hours on a good day.

A combination of warped economic logic, the Israeli factor and its popularity have pushed restaurant prices from budget to expensive, and in a reversal from a few years ago, the average restaurant in Old Manali can be substantially more expensive than the more upscale places in the main town. However prices for accomodation are around the same or less in real terms, given the reduction in value of the rupee against western currencies.

If this all sounds stunningly negative and that Manali is to be avoided at all costs, well, no; there is more to it than that. There must be because the two of us have spent much of our time in India staying in old Manali, albeit not in the area halfway up the hill to the village which often resembles a post apocalyptic faux-hippie Benidorm with bad "attitood" during the season. The area of the village that is overcrowded and badly planned is fairly small, and a short walk into the orchards or along the river and you'd scarcely know you were close to the largest informal construction site in the Himalaya. From a guest house roof in the village you will still see astonishing scenery, from the snow capped peaks toward Rohtang pass to the green of the pine forests in Dhungri.

The expanse of apple orchards a few minutes walk below the village have no road and almost no guest houses, and the grassy areas under the trees are a peaceful place to pass the afternoon, with little interruption other than a villager collecting grass. After the orchards is the main Beas river, and a walk along the banks will take you to the Solang Valley via the beautiful and undeveloped villages and of Goshal, Shenag and Burua with their traditional stone and wood houses, and which probably resemble the Old Manali of 30 years ago.

A walk through the protected Deodar forest in Dhungri and past the pagoda style Hadimba temple takes you onto a dirt track that passes through the equally quiet villages that sit on the hillside above Manali town some of which have small guest houses or rent rooms to backpackers. The track and the villages have superb views onto the opposite bank of the Beas, and the peaks around the Chandrakhani pass, usually still snow capped until late June.

The opposite bank (illogically known locally as the left bank) and its villages are far quieter than the main road side, and a short ride from Manali by bus or bike. The road in the direction of Naggar has about 2 dozen villages stretching up onto the hillside from the road, with the view to the right, toward the Beas, dominated in places by the vibrant green patchwork of rice fields 100 metres or so below.

After the Rohtang pass opens in June, Old Manali becomes a little quieter and the demographic changes as European and Antipodean trekkers arrive for a few days before heading to the major trekking areas. Although the Monsoon in the Kulu Valley can be extremely heavy on occasion, with violent localised cloudbursts, the weather is usually OK through July and August, with a couple of days of rain followed by warm days of bright sunshine and clear blue skies. Probably the nicest time of year is September to early October, when the monsoon rains have receded and the valley explodes with greenery under the clear Autumn skies, and the bizarre - and incredibly loud - sound of ciccadas fills the air around sunset.

The Kulu valley is also famous for its festivals; colourful events attended by villagers as well as tourists. The Dhungri festival held in mid May at the Pagoda temple in Dhungri forest is the best known. Several God idols from different villages are brought to the temple preceded by the fanfare of their village bands, and are presided over by Hadimba Mata, the Chief of the valleys gods. Many other villages hold their festivals around the same time. Although smaller, these village events have a more relaxed atmosphere and are usually less crowded. Goshal village is unusual in that its festival is held after the monsoon.

For all the negative aspects of Manali's overdevelopment, the nature of the place is such that it strikes an acceptable - if occasionally uneasy - balance between being a remote Himalayan paradise and one of the major backpacker destinations in North India. Future development may tip the balance for the worse, but for now the visitor can choose for themselves whether to stay at the periphery for a peaceful stay or wade into the hedonistic party scene for which Manali has become famous.

 guest house
/ hotel:

Old Manali is packed with hotels and guesthouses of all price ranges from 30 - 500Rs, the decision is more about the location. If you want to stay in the party zone, it is to be found in the 3 and 4 storey hotels up from the Shiva Garden Cafe and centred around the nice looking Dragon guest house "complex". One or two of the older and quieter places such as Himalaya cottage are out next to the Manalsu river on the path past Rock Top Villas, and there are one or two more older places past the right turn to the Manu Temple at the end of the main road up the hill. Inside the village, below the temple a few smaller places are spread out among the houses away from the road.

The quieter end of town is found by turning right after crossing Old Manali Bridge, and following the path round the side of the Clubhouse. Above the clubhouse and ideal for a small group planning a stay of a month or more would be the spectacular Cairn Lodge, an unusual 'flat' with 3 wood panelled bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room with open fireplace. The owner, Mohan, can be contacted through the HPMC wine shop next to the bridge.

Continuing further along the cliff top path (in the direction of the main river) you come to Manali's finest budget accommodation; Apple View guest house; a small, friendly place set at the edge of the apple orchards and run by the helpful (and occasionally idiosyncratic!) Rabet-Ram and his family. Shared bathrooms only (very clean) and a bargain at 125Rs for a double.

In general theft in Manali is not too much problem, but there are places to avoid; the infamous Shiva Ashram (a guesthouse not an ashram), found by following the path next to the clubhouse and the cheapest place in town - with the worst reputation for theft from rooms in Manali, and is a constant target of the police. Rising Moon Guest house next to the clubhouse gate has also had its share of "unexplained" thefts the extremely oily owner was mysteriously unwilling to report to the police.

In the main town the prices begin to drop immediately after the Indian tourist season ends in late June, and many trekkers prefer the central location, TVs and attached bathrooms often not offered in Old Manali, although rooms can be a bit souless and often noisy. Some of the hotels "behind" the town towards the Hadimba Temple road also offer big off season discounts and better facilities, are quieter and only a short walk from the market.

Vashist, on the other side of the Beas and a 50 Rs rickshaw ride from the bus stand, is also a popular area with backpackers, although the narrow main street is walled in with tall hotels and restaurants and tends to feel a little claustrophobic, especially at the height of the season.

/ dhaba:

If you are sick of dal/subzi/rice, an advantage of Manali's haphazard development is that there is a large choice of food from the numerous restaurants, many owned and run by Tibetans or Nepalis who learned their skills in Goa, Pokhara or Dharamsala. Due to the many Israeli travellers, there are plenty of places selling mediterranean food alongside Tibetan specialties, Italian dishes of varying interpretation, the ubiquitous "continental". Ironically, Indian food is now something of a rarity in Old Manali, and there is certainly no restaurant selling exclusively Indian food. The meat in Manali market, mostly chicken or Mutton, tends to be good as local people are big meat eaters and the animals are less scrawny and better kept than in much of India. Most restaurants have a good turnover and buy meat daily in the season.

Old Manali is chock full of restaurants of wildly varying quality, but here is a pick of our favourites :

At the top of the road to the village, just past the Manu temple turning is the Manu Cafe, probably Old Manali's oldest cafe. They have a nice patio as well as a small indoor area and sell good basic food at cheap prices. Further down, Little Tibet is on the steep part of the hill up to Old Manali does fine pasta and italian dishes including an excellent Carbonara, although they are little pricey. Next door is the Shiva Garden cafe, which sells good - and cheaper - food, and has the advantage of an excellent view from the balcony of the traditional wood and stone building. Down the hill 20 metres or so is Yangkhor who sell good quality specialty Tibetan food such as momo and thupka. Breakfast is good too, but most of their "continental" leaves something to be desired. Opposite is Cafe Manalsu, a spacious and very atmospheric place with stripped pine tables and a view onto the Manalsu river. Its run by Rajiv, who makes the place worth visiting as much as the food, and plans to have a full scale pizza oven for 2004. At the bottom of the hill next to the barbers is a small wooden chai shop; the Gaddi tea stall, who does the best tea by far in the village, and sells simple food such as momos. Its a good place to sit and chill with a river view out back and a steady influx of locals. On the left side of the road down to the clubhouse (turn right from the bridge) is the family run Tibetan Kitchen, one of Old Manali's few truly indoor restaurants, wood panelled and with an excellent menu of Tibetan food - try the Crispy chicken honey sauce. They probably also do Old Manali's best Chicken schnitzel. Il Forno, on the Hadimba Temple road past the Shingar Regency Hotel, is run by an Italian woman and does the best Pizza east of Beirut, top notch pasta dishes and wonderful Italian coffee, plus excellent italian desserts such as Tiramisu during the season. Prices are expensive at around 130 Rs for a pizza, 140 Rs for a pasta dish, but on a par with Old Manali, and the food is of far better quality.

New Manali's more upscale restaurants are primarily aimed at Indian tourists, and signboards proclaim cuisine from every corner of India including Punjabi, Gujarati and South Indian. There are also a huge number of simple Dhabas and sweetshops offering thalis and specialty sweets.

Our picks are; Mayur restaurant, in a small turning to the right opposite Manu Market, is one of Manali's oldest restaurants, and has a decor that resembles a provincial UK Indian restaurant circa 1980, and serves some of Manali's best Indian food at prices that are very reasonable when compared to Old Manali, as well as good western style dishes - their apple pie is especially recommended. Khyber is a beautifully decorated, wood panelled place next to the roundabout near Ram Bagh, is one of the most expensive places in town, but the Indian food is superb and the huge windows are a good spot to do a couple of hours India watching over a beer or six. Opposite and a little down from the bus stand is Chopsticks, whose menu of chinese dishes is usually good quality and comes in extremely big portions. Pork is very unusual in North India, and Chopsticks is usually very tender and extremely tasty, especially recommended being the Roast Pork Chilli. The numerous German Bakeries in Manali seem to specialise in rather stale bread, so if you want good fresh bread or cakes try Superbake in Manu Market or "Shop 10" (ask for shop 10 and ANYONE will point you in the right direction) down the first narrow lane after the HP tourism office. Manali Sweets, down the small lane opposite the bus stand, is locally acknowledged as the best Indian sweet shop in town, we especially like it for their addictive Gulab Jamun and Rasmalai, although their chai is crap. The best Chai in town is to be found in a small chai shop at the heart of Manu market, on a narrow 'crossroads' found by following the street straight up from Superbake, past the row of barbers shops into the smaller alley. Manali's finest tandoori chicken is to be found in Manu Market (left side of the main street in town), where the almost legendary Mr Singh, a huge Sikh, has a near constant queue of people during May and June outside his tiny and rather grubby shop. The profits of the shop have put his 4 daughters through a good education including university.

local interest:

traveller scene, village life, Hadimba temple, Club House, picnics in orchards, starting point for treks, local festivals, day hikes, excursions to neighbouring villages

Weather: Useful five day weather forecast and current temperatures for Manali.

Bus - There is a massive array of private bus operators running "Luxury" buses to Manali from various places, but HP tourism offers a more reliable and comfortable service with only one pick up point in Delhi (as opposed to spending 2 hours collecting passengers with the privates) if you are prepared to spend 100 Rs or so more (for Delhi). Delhi appr. 14 - 16 hours; 524 Rs with the HP Tourism bus; Dharamsala (approx 12 hours), Chandigarh (approx 10-12 hours), Shimla (approx 12 hours), Kasol (approx 4 hours), Leh (approx 36 hours). For those who like their comforts, HRTC (Himachal Pradesh Road Transport Corporation) have now introduced Super Deluxe aircon buses with onboard toilets and refreshments (and hopefully more legroom) to Manali from Delhi. The cost is around 850 Rs (May 04). There are also plenty of normal "local" Indian buses covering the same routes, usually taking longer but costing far less. There are no private buses to Kaza (approx 12 hours) from Manali, but HRTC runs 2 daily services.

Taxi - A taxi from Delhi will cost you around 4,500 - 7,000 Rs depending on your bargaining skills and the size of the vehicle. It has very little advantage unless you have a mass of luggage, except that you can obviously stop as you like to admire the scenery. Most drivers want to do the trip at night, and you'll probably have to argue a bit to get them to leave early morning so you can watch India go by.

Plane - Jagson airlines fly Delhi to Kullu (Bhuntar airport). The flight is expensive but offers spectacular views. It does have the disadvantage of very restricted luggage allowances.

related: On this site: Galleries - ManaliWinter CarnivalHadimba festivalWinter in ManaliHimachal Pradesh photo gallery
Maps - Himachal Pradesh mapKulu Valley Map
- ManaliAround ManaliDiary: apple harvest

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 name means: snowy mountain
 location: North West, Himalayas
 capital: Shimla
 population: 6.08 mil (2001)
 area: 55,673 sq km (appr 25% bigger than Switzerland)
 population density: 110 persons per sq km
 urban: less than 10%
 languages: Hindi, Pahari (incl 60 dialects)
 religion: 95.9% Hindu, 1.7% Muslim, 1.2% Buddhist (1991)
 literacy rate: 76.5% (male 85.3%, fem 67.4%) (2001)
 gender ratio: 968 fem to 1000 male (2001)
 child (0-6 yrs) gender ratio: 896 fem to 1000 male (2001)
 number of districts: 12
 number of villages: 20,118 (2001)
 highest point: 6726m (mountain Gaya)
 climate: temperate
 main income: tourism, agriculture
 main season: May - September
 tourist places: Manali, McLeod Ganj, Shimla, Kasol, Dharamshala
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