I started the day on the kind of journey that both thrills and terrifies me.
Sitting with my back against the windscreen, I surveyed the marvellous mayhem of a Nepalese bus ride: a 3:1 passenger to seat ratio; distorted music blaring from decrepit speakers; lively grins; and, of course, a roof piled high with luggage, livestock and another dozen or so passengers.
But I was confident I’d arrive in one piece.
After all, I was on a pilgrimage of sorts – a trip to the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha.
OK, so I was unlikely to find enlightenment in one day, but I was hoping to learn a little about Buddhism and enjoy some respite after three manic months in the subcontinent.
I wasn’t disappointed on either count.
Leaving the busy market and rickshaw-lined streets behind, I find the sacred site silent, save for the fluttering of prayer flags and the occasional gleeful shout from a pilgrim excited to end their journey.
The Buddha was born a prince in 563BC but later shunned his privileged upbringing to seek enlightenment and follow a life of abstinence.
So, having swotted up on the basic Buddhism outlined in my guidebook, I set about exploring Lumbini.
First stop is the sacred pond, where Queen Mayadevi bathed before she gave birth to the baby that would be Buddha.
It seems little more than a murky pool, but those on a true pilgrimage stop to bathe here before visiting the birthplace itself.
Fearing what might happen to my digestive system if I accidentally ingest a drop of the green water, I head instead to the Ashokan Pillar.
Erected in 249BC by a Nepali king, the pillar is now home to another ritual.
Scattered around its base were some interesting offerings – coins, flower petals and the occasional clump of thick, black hair.
The devout trim their locks and leave the clippings to honour the Buddha’s decision to shave his head and shun worldly possessions.
Lacking the scissors and nerve to follow suit, I make my way to the main reason people flock to Lumbini – Mayadevi Temple.
In line with the minimalist values of Buddhism, there are no neon lights, bells or whistles.
A simple stone sits behind cloudy glass, marked with a plaque reading: ‘The exact birth-place of Buddha’.
Overhead hangs a carving depicting Queen Mayadevi clutching the tree she gave birth beneath, though the detail has been worn smooth by faithful followers running their hands over the much-adored effigy.
Suitably enlightened (about Buddhist history) and relaxed after some silent contemplation, I set out to investigate further.
The Lumbini Development Zone is enormous and to explore in any depth you really need to rent a bike or haggle for a rickshaw. Taking the lazy option, I settle into my seat, jumping out to explore the temples showcasing world Buddhism.
Don’t be deterred if you’re not in touch with your spiritual side – this isn’t just a place for budding Buddhists to get their Zen on.
The temples also appeal to buildings buffs and pretty much anyone keen on travelling.
Within three hours I sample a small slice of Thailand, China, Korea, Burma and Japan, and not just through their architecture.
As I step through each temple’s ornate doors, I hear different languages, sample traditional tea, and feel like I’m getting a small taste of each country.
Grabbing a final cup of chai in the shadow of the temple, I feel I’ve had my fill of serenity and am ready to delve back into Nepal’s hectic hustle and bustle.
The day-long respite has renewed my excitement about the rickety bus ride with its soundtrack of ancient engine snorts, deafening music and happy pilgrims shouting about their journey.
Mount Everest in Nepal
Any trip to Nepal is incomplete without a glimpse of Everest, but we can’t all afford the £25,000 and eight weeks required to clamber to its summit – not to mention the months of hardcore training.
We felt a little guilty taking the lazy route, but it wasn’t entirely without inconveniences.
We did have to drag ourselves out of bed before sunrise to jostle for an early flight from Kathmandu. Clouds notoriously descend by 8am, so flights stop at 7.30am and departures are often cancelled, with customers told to try again the following day.
Luckily we scored a place on the coveted 6am trip, and were able to enjoy the highlight of a six-month jaunt around Asia.
Deciding between the fabulously named Buddha Air and Yeti Airlines is tough, but both offer identical hour-long trips culminating in photo frenzy at Sagarmatha, as the mountain is known in Nepali.
There’s something magical about seeing the world’s highest point, its jagged white outline backed by a glorious blue sky.
And while you don’t get a shot of you and your flag at the summit, you do get a certificate claiming that though you didn’t climb Everest, you did ‘touch it with your heart’!
If Lumbini lies too far off Nepal’s beaten path, you can get your spiritual fix in postcard-perfect Pokhara.
Most people associate the lakeside town with hikes into the Annapurna range, but the short walk to the World Peace Pagoda is a worthy alternative.
Grab a colourful boat taxi from the lake’s eastern shore, and enjoy the relaxing ride leading to the start of the short but steep hike.
Tramping through shady forest, past tethered cows and grazing goats, you’ll soon feel worlds away from Pokhara’s wall-to-wall pizza and pancake joints.
Sitting in landscaped gardens, the pagoda is a modest stupa (spherical Buddhist monument) attracting a quirky mix of meditating hippies, Nepali travellers on a weekend jolly-cum-pilgrimage and snap-happy tourists enjoying the views of Annapurna.
Leave time to indulge in another form of enrichment – a hearty lunch and a beer in the family-run restaurant facing the shrine.