Both are classic Himalayan treks, both are “circuits”, both are challenging, both are spectacular, both involve crossing a 5,000+m pass, and both in recent years have seen the encroachment of dirt roads.
These two circuit treks have “prima facie” a lot in common. But, they also have some differences too.
So, which to choose? The Annapurna Circuit Trek or the Manaslu Circuit Trek?
The BIG DIFFERENCE between the two is the volume of trekkers.
For many years now the Annapurna Circuit has been one of the most popular treks in Nepal (the other being the Everest Base Camp Trek). It’s “sorta kinda” world famous, it’s there on many people’s “bucket list” and is often marketed as the “best trek in Nepal”, which we disagree with anyway, but that’s another story (see our Top 5 Treks in Nepal article).
But, it’s true to say that the Annapurna Circuit is a well worn trail. And with good reason. Like most things that are popular, they are popular because they are good!
What about “the Kali Gandaki road”?
Well, the classic Annapurna Circuit is trekking up the Marsyangdi Valley to Manang, over the Thorung La (5416m) to Jomsom via Muktinath and then down the Kali Gandaki Valley. From here some choose to trek out by staying in the Kali Gandaki and exiting at Beni, some add the uphill climb to Poon Hill and then exit via the Modi Khola Valley.
Several years ago a dirt road was constructed all the way up the Kali Gandaki Valley to Jomsom and indeed as far as Lo Manthang in Upper Mustang (see our Into the Forbidden Kingdom of Mustang – A Himalayan Road Trip Adventure article).
There then followed a bit of an outcry that the Annapurna Circuit was now “ruined” as a result of there now being this “road”.
So, let’s get things straight. This “road of sorts” has not ruined (in our opinion) the Annapurna Circuit. The road is not a motorway, or even a trunk road for a start. It’s basically a single track dirt road. Of course vehicles use it, that’s what roads are for, but it’s not exactly busy.
We mountain biked this road all the way down from Jomsom fairly recently (and a lot of fun it was too) and encountering a vehicle was rare…..more like an event!
Also in order to keep the trek as “real” as possible, other trails are used. Sure, there are times when you’ve got to trek on the road, but the hiking descent of the Kali Gandaki is far from ruined. The scenery is as spectacular as ever for a start.
Hiking between Annapurna and Dhaulagiri (both 8,000+m peaks) is still pretty special.
But, if you have your doubts, you can always skip the Kali Gandaki descent and fly back to Pokhara from Jomsom– see our “Best of the Annapurna Circuit Trek”, which does exactly that.
Or you could spice things up a little (variety is said to be the spice of life), and just as we did, turn the Annapurna Circuit into a multi-activity adventure and turn the road into an adventure opportunity. Trek over the Thorung La to Jomsom, bike down and then raft out. (See our Ultimate Annapurna Adventure).
What about the Manang road?
Well, yes….there is now a dirt road that reaches all the way to Manang.
So, the reality is that the Annapurna Circuit has experienced a “road pincer movement”, with only the 3 day trek from Manang to Muktinath (via the Thorung La) being the only section where there isn’t a road. In fact the road from Muktinath down to Kagbeni has a metalled surface.
But as with the Kali Gandaki descent, the Marsyangdi ascent isn’t ruined. There are other trails, but again some sections of the road can’t be avoided. Again we’re not talking about a busy road either…..its not like everyone in Nepal actually has a vehicle for starters!
At the time of writing both roads don’t seem to have had a detrimental affect on the sheer volume of people still wanting to trek the Annapurna Circuit. It’s as popular, spectacular (and as challenging) as ever. In fact, there’s the suggestion that numbers are actually increasing. So maybe the presence of a road has had the opposite effect…..a comfort back up?
What has most certainly not changed is the challenge of crossing the 5416m Thorung La, one of the highest trekking passes in the world and one that still remains the crux of the entire trek i.e. if you can’t cross it you’ve gotta go back.
Although we said at the very beginning that both the Manaslu Circuit have things in common, we also said that the number of trekkers on the Manaslu Circuit is far less too.
The “rules” for this trek are a little different. For this one you need a special permit, as the Manaslu region remains a restricted area. Indeed at one time it was completely off-limits to trekkers.
You also need a licensed guide and you can only get the special permit through a licensed trekking agency.
The agency has to obtain your permit “in person” i.e. it has to take your original passport and passport photo’s to the permit issuing office in Kathmandu (when it’s open). No scans are permissible (which you can do for Annapurna Circuit).
You’d be surprised how many people don’t make an allowance for obtaining this special permit in their plans.
So, there in itself is one reason why the Annapurna Circuit is busier. Actually two reasons…one being that you can trek the Annapurna Circuit independently (and many do), the other being that as trekking “took off” in Nepal, there was no Manaslu Circuit (it was off-limits) and thus the Annapurna Circuit became established as a trekking favourite.
It’s reckoned that tens of thousands of people trek the Annapurna Circuit each year…..only around 2,000 trek the Manaslu Circuit.
So, less trekkers means a couple of things.
The obvious (and surely a positive) is less busy trails. A greater sense of being remote and wild….a more authentic and enhanced Himalayan experience over all.
The other being a less developed trekking infrastructure.
Actually the first time we “did” the Manaslu Circuit not long after the area was opened up, there were no trekking lodges/tea houses…..it was wild camping every night. Indeed (although more expensive) some trekkers still prefer to camp on this trek.
However, there are now trekking lodges throughout this trek. Not as sophisticated as the ones in the Annapurna’s, but not as basic as they were either….and basic they most certainly were.
Just as the Annapurna Circuit has its high pass, so does the Manaslu Circuit. In this case the Larkya La – 5135m and just like the Thorung La, the Larkya La is the crux of the entire Manaslu Circuit trek. If you can’t cross the Larkya La, you’ve got no choice but to retreat from whence you came.
Although slightly lower than the Thorung La, at 5,000+m a couple of hundred metres is neither here nor there and arguably the Larkya La presents a slightly greater challenge.
The Larkya La seems to be a bit more exposed to the elements of weather too and can be snowbound completely during the winter months, or be affected more by snow storms at any time.
We’d say that the Manaslu Circuit is a tougher trek than the Annapurna Circuit, not by much though.
But, given the choice we’d always trek the Manaslu Circuit vs the Annapurna Circuit.
It just feels more authentic, wild and remote…..like Himalayan trekking should be.…a different dynamic, sensation and experience…..and in our opinion, vastly superior.
We also think the scenery is more spectacular. That’s not to say that the scenery on the Annapurna Circuit isn’t spectacular…..it’s the Himalayas, how could it possibly not be spectacular?
Perhaps what makes us feel that the scenery and the experience of the Manaslu Circuit is better than the Annapurna Circuit is better is quite simply selfish…we’re not sharing the views and the experience with hundreds of other trekkers…..less is in fact more!
That also makes the cultural experience of the Manaslu Circuit better too and surely on any Himalayan trek meeting and interacting with the locals is a fundamental part of the experience too.
With less trekkers, it’s far from touristy…..the Annapurna Circuit is also known as the “Apple Pie Trail” after all…less tourists usually means a more authentic culture, so the Manaslu region still feels culturally intact and special as a result.
Well, we did say at the outset that both circuit treks had experienced the encroachment of dirt roads.
So, the Manaslu Circuit now takes several days less than it used to as a result. In fact the “Manang road” that we mentioned in the Annapurna Circuit section has affected the Manaslu Circuit, as you would have “trekked out” on the Annapurna Circuit trail over 4 days. Now, you can just drive back to Kathmandu the moment you hit the Manang road.
The “trek in” is now a couple of days less too as a dirt road means you can reach Soti Khola in full day of driving from Kathmandu.
Still, the Manaslu Circuit has ten days of wild trekking with no road presence….the Annapurna Circuit just three.
But, maybe the Manaslu Circuit should be renamed the “Manaslu Horse-Shoe” as it’s not really a circuit anymore, but then again neither is the Annapurna Circuit.
Enjoy this three minute video of the Manaslu Circuit Trek