Manali is a picturesque small town in the Kullu Valley, in the Indian state of Himanchal Pradesh. It attracts a lot of Indian and foreign tourists, particularly in the summer months. I visited Manali in June 2005 because it is on the way to Ladakh. When rest of the India is buckling under heat wave, Manali is cool and pleasant and therein lays its charm.
There is a rail link from Delhi to a place called Jogindernagar and after that, one has to travel 92 km by bus to reach Manali. We tried this in the year 2002, while trying to reach Bhunter. The train runs on narrow gage. But in summer months, they are horribly crowded. It also moves only by divine intervention. I remember we abandoned the train at Kangra and continued by bus.
By bus, Manali is 16 hours from Delhi. Both government and private operators offer bus services. Government buses are cheap but slightly uncomfortable. Private buses (2X2) are more costly and the seats recline but many of them are in bad shape. Only the Volvo Goldline AC buses look in proper shape but they cost twice the amount of the non AC 2X2 private buses.
Manali is full of hotels of all size and shape. As soon as the bus stops at Manali, brokers of all kind descend upon the travelers. One can take their help to find a hotel or walk in any that strikes your fancy and ask for a room. The places that we stayed at are nothing to write home about.
There are many things to do at Manali but we have sampled only a few. Here are some of the attractions that we visited.
Hidimba is a character out of the famous epic Mahabharata and there is a temple devoted to her. One can take a taxi to the place but one can as easily walk up there. The way is through pine forest and as you come near the temple, you will find people trying to sell all kind of things. I remember an opportunity to get photographed with a Yak or wear a python around my neck! I declined both. The temple in itself is a curious wood building adorned with animal horns and is worth a visit. Remember you are required to remove your shoes to visit Hindu temples.
The Gadhan Thekchoking Gompa: Situated right in the middle of the city is this peaceful Buddhist architecture. It has the ‘wheels of life’ all around it and beautiful paintings and statue of Lord Buddha inside. One can voluntarily donate some money (even small amounts as Rupees 5 are welcome) that is used for maintaining the Gompa. I enjoyed this serene and beautiful place.
The main market in Manali is situated along The Mall Road. It gets crowded in the evenings in the summer months. One can buy shawls, Kullu caps, shirts or other stuff in this area. I found that prices here are lower than Ladakh. There are many eating joints along this road and one can try these places. Many hotels are also on this road. The busiest part of the town where one can take a stroll but it will not be leisurely. It could be more enjoyable in the off-season months.
Paragliding, river rafting, trekking routes and many other things can be tried in Manali but I have no personal experience of it.
The Rohtang Pass (a little more than 50 km from Manali) lies on the way to Leh. When we had started for Leh at 2 am and when we reached there an hour later, the place was bewitching. As far as the eye could see, there was snow and silence. I passed through it again while coming back from Leh. This time it was 11.00 am in the morning and as far as the eye could see there were vehicles parked all over the place and temporary tents selling food have sprung up everywhere.
What I do not like about Manali: The place is too crowded for words in the summer months and it makes it impossible to do anything leisurely.
The second thing that completely put me off Manali is the amount of litter strewn everywhere. For this I have to blame us only, the Indian tourists. We Indians take a lot of pride in keeping our houses spotlessly clean but when it comes to streets, we litter with glee. How many times you will see people sitting in a swank car eating potato chips. A little while later the empty packet of chips will be thrown in the beautiful surroundings without a thought. Imagine what will happen to a place that attracts throngs of people? It becomes dirty like anything and yet people will keep on throwing things without a thought. This was the biggest put off for me in Manali.
Those who are trying to go on trekking routes from Manali have to visit it. So, do the people who want to go to beautiful Leh or Lahul and Spiti. There is no avoiding Manali for them. And they will have to go in season only as the routes to other places are open only during those months.