I recently had the unusual privilege of staying for a few days at The British Gurkhas Army Camp in Pokhara, Nepal. A friend from Uni, Sophie, is an Officer in the British Army and had spent 18 months posted there. The first female Officer to be posted there, no less!
My friend Katie and I had been very kindly invited to a “dining-in” event, which is a formal evening-do to welcome a new Officer and his wife to camp.
After five days hiking up to Annapurna Base Camp, we wanted to get back to Pokhara especially for the evening, and I am so glad that we did!
Getting ready for the dining-in
Entering camp, we met Sophie at the gate, who was saluted by the guards there, which was the first taste of military formality we experienced. She whisked us off to her friends Bri and Sandy’s house to get ready for the evening.
Before I knew it, I had a G&T in hand, and was being wrapped in a sari by one of the Gurkha Officers’ wives. Bri and Soph generously let us choose one of their Nepali outfits to wear. I chose a gorgeous royal blue sari, with a gold and burgundy trim, teamed with a burgundy ‘choli’ – a cropped top worn underneath. After completing the outfit with big, bright costume jewellery and bindis, we headed over to The Officers Mess. The ‘mess’ is the dining and social area for the Officers on camp (in case you’re like me and have no military knowledge whatsoever!).
Walking in, I felt excited but also slightly out of my comfort zone, as I had no idea what to expect. Everyone was dressed to impress; the male Officers were in full three-piece suits or military jackets. The ladies were all in beautiful saris or lehengas (long skirt) and cholis, looking amazing.
Soph handed us a G&T and introduced us to some Gurkha Officers right away. Everyone was so welcoming and friendly, we were soon at ease (no pun intended!). Some of them had lived in the UK and spoke with a more “proper” English accent than me.
Katie and I were obviously a source of intrigue, people asked who we were and what we were doing there. Most presumed we were also Officers, but alas no, just “Pukka Civvies” a.k.a. ‘alright civilians’, was how we were referred to!
It was fascinating finding out more about their lives in Nepal, as well as their wives who were all so lovely. They live on camp too with their families. A lot of Gurkhas come from poor hill tribes, who are hardened enough to pass the gruelling training regime to get in. Becoming a Gurkha is a huge accomplishment, and an honour for them and their families, as they receive a British salary, pension and can then live in the UK. The best soldiers can then be promoted through the ranks up to Officer.
The Gurkha brigade have their own military piper (every British Army regiment does), so it was fun to chat to the piper who was dressed in full Scottish highland regalia. He very much enjoyed the fact that we both lived in Scotland.
There were about 50 people in total and we sat down to a lovely 4-course dinner. The very British menu of prawn cocktail, roast chicken, chocolate tart and cheese went down a treat with us after the Annapurna trek! We weren’t allowed to take photos because it was a formal event. I was told off for taking one, and felt so bad!
Everything felt quite alien to Katie and I, but we had a great time chatting with a retired Gurkha Officer. There were toasts and speeches – to the officer being welcomed into camp, and to a high ranking Officer who was leaving to return to the UK. Next was a toast to the queen, then to us as guests – what an honour!
Dancing the night away
After dinner, the real fun began! Back in the bar, Nepali music was being blasted out and the dancing commenced! It was like a school disco; everyone was stood in a circle dancing with one person being dragged into the middle every now and again to show off their best moves. None of the formalities were there anymore.
Officer Soph was leading the way, lunging all over the place. Katie started doing the highland jig at one point, which everyone loved. The whole thing was absolutely hilarious. By about 1am we were all done in!
The morning after the night before
To help our recovery, we headed into Pokhara for brunch at The Rosemary Kitchen for a very yummy eggs benedict and a debrief of the night before. They had a lovely garden which was a great place to drink coffee – highly recommended if you ever visit.
The rest of the day was spent back at camp making a chocolate cake, and of course, this was washed down with a cup of tea on British Camp… how very… British!
Life on camp
Walking around camp felt quite surreal; everything felt British but yet we were in the middle of the mountains in Nepal. Recruitment season had just finished so there weren’t many people around.
We met a few other Officers over the next few days. It was really interesting finding out about life as an Officer in general, and especially in the Gurkha brigade. It was the first time I’d spoken properly with people in the army, so I was fascinated to find out how things worked. I was surprised to find how many formalities were still in place.
One evening, we drank a traditional Nepali drink called Tongba, which is an alcoholic drink made from fermented millet grain. It was served topped up with hot water in a metal jar with a metal straw. It tasted quite sour and strong, but surprisingly enjoyable. We were sat in someone’s front room, and enjoyed some traditional snacks too. Not something many tourists get to experience!
The Gurkha Doko Challenge
One morning, Bri kindly took us for a hike up the Doko Trail (yep, suckers for punishment, our legs had not been worked hard enough in the Himalayas clearly). This is the route that Gurkha recruits have to run up with 25kg of sand in a Doko (a wicker basket with a strap that goes over their heads) in under 40 minutes. If they don’t complete this, they do not make the cut for the Army. It’s over a 400m climb up. We were only walking up and took over an hour to do it and it was tough!
Thanks to our hosts for a special few days
The few days on camp was honestly one of the most unusual and interesting experiences I’ve ever had, and I am so grateful to Sophie and Katie. Finishing our hike in the Himalayas and then attending a formal British army dinner, in Nepal whilst wearing a sari, all in one day. You don’t get much more surreal than that! I felt like I’d been in a parallel universe.
Huge thanks to Sophie, firstly for inviting me to stay on camp, but also answering my endless questions, making me feel so welcome, looking after us, providing us with saris and bindis, G&Ts and cups of tea. Also a massive thank you to her friend Will for providing us with a room to stay. And to Bri and Sandy for their hospitality, and especially to Bri for taking us on the Doko trail hike.
What’s been the most unusual and interesting experience you’ve had whilst travelling? Let me know in the comments below!