Old Manali VS Kasol VS Dharamkot: Which Hippy Tourist Town in India is Right for You?
How happy are high, Hamlet reading hippies on holiday in Himachal Pradesh? That’s just one of many deep, existential questions you’ll find yourself mulling over while hanging out in one of north India’s hippy enclaves. But which one is best? I boldly went where dozens, possibly hundreds, of travel bloggers have already been in an attempt to find out.
I arrived in Dharamkot armed with some valuable inside knowledge in the form of James, an Australian artist I’d met on the bus who has been visiting India on and off for the last couple of decades. We then met another Australian (I can’t recall his name) and spent many an hour hanging out on the deck outside our rooms. From there we could see a constant stream of people eating and drinking in the restaurant downstairs or simply passing by us on the rocky path below. We met some colorful characters up there, including a middle aged local man who was involved in one of the most awkward conversations I’ve ever heard. It went something like this.
Local guy (I can’t remember his name): “Hi, I saw you in the restaurant before”
Young, blonde European woman: “I don’t understand”
LG: “Before, in the restaurant, I was watching you”
LG: “You were writing something…are you a writer?”
LG: “I was just watching you write and was wondering what it was”
YBEW: “Umm it’s my diary, I need to go now”
He seemed really creepy at first but he turned out to be alright — his “talking to women” technique could use a lot of work though.
Everybody seems to be either constantly stoned and / or obsessed with doing yoga / some form of new age healing in Dharamkot. The Dalai Lama’s residence is a short walk away in McLeod Ganj and spiritual travellers are drawn to him like magnets to metal (or is it metal to magnets?). I was pretty lazy in Dharamkot, but I did manage to hike to a waterfall outside of town. It was a pleasant, and in some places treacherous, walk but the word waterfall may have been mistranslated. It’s basically a few pools full of clear green water — it’s actually really nice but don’t go there expecting thunderous cascades.
Getting there / Where to Stay
You can get to Mcleod Ganj from Delhi on an overnight bus. It takes around 12 hours and is pretty comfortable (I did this journey in the opposite direction, from Mcleod Ganj to Delhi). I arrived in McLeod Ganj from Kasol on a minibus which took around 8 hours. From McLeod Ganj it’s a short rickshaw ride to Dharamkhot. I stayed at Sanjay’s Milkyway Guesthouse and paid 500 INR (thanks to James who knew the owner), other people paid more though. It’s a great place to stay and the staff treat you like long lost friends.
While waiting for the bus to Kasol I got talking to Mike, a young guy from Hyderabad who was quite unlike any other Indian I’ve met. He’s the kind of guy that strikes up a conversation with almost everyone he passes by, which contrasted with my more introverted style. He had an interesting stoner / spiritual philosopher / young guy chasing chicks vibe going on. We hung out for a few days and saw a bit of the countryside around Kasol, which I’d describe as being quite pretty in a low key way.
Kasol is charas (hash) central and is heavily inhabited by Israelis. It’s a decent place to spend a few days and you’re guaranteed to meet interesting people. There are also lots of parties in the countryside during high season. I didn’t go to any but if you’re into getting stoned / taking acid with lots of strangers in the middle of nowhere they could be worth checking out.
Getting there / Where to stay
I travelled to Kasol from Manali. First I took a bus to Kullu (or maybe Bhunter, I can’t quite remember) and from there it was another short bus ride to Kasol. If you’re coming from Delhi you’ll need to take a bus to Bhunter and change to Kasol bound bus. I stayed in three different guesthouses in Kasol and can’t remember any of their names. Accommodation in Kasol is overpriced for the region — head slightly out of town to find better value guesthouses.
Old Manali was my least favourite of the three Indian hippy tourist towns that I visited. I arrived from Spiti after an exhausting few weeks in the mountains and barely left the hotel for the first few days, preferring instead to rest and catch up on blog work. I did eventually have a look around but I didn’t see anything special, which is probably best explained by the fact that I took a grand total of one photo during my time there. It’s a nice enough town though and there are good bars and restaurants scattered around. It’s the biggest and least intimate of the three hippy towns I visited, but my lack of enthusiasm about the town is probably due to the exhaustion I was recovering from at the time.
Getting there / where to stay
I travelled the long way from Spiti (through Reckong Peo and Ranpur) and ended up standing up on a packed bus for 5 hours (and then sitting on half a seat for a few more hours). I wouldn’t recommend it! If you wait until the Kunzum Pass is open you can travel between Spiti and Manali in a fairly straightforward fashion — I’m sure the roads are winding and treacherous though. I stayed at Tourist Nest Guesthouse in Old Manali and I highly recommend it. It had a nice little private deck out the front and was pretty cheap at 500 INR for a single room.
So, which hippy tourist town in India is right for you? Well, seeing as I’ve almost certainly never met you it’s quite hard to tell. If you’re anything like me you should go for Dharamkot — it’s a nice size, there is good (but not great) scenery nearby and it attracts an eclectic crowd of travellers. If you’re looking for truly stunning scenery and a more local flavour skip them all and head to Kinnaur and Spiti.