Ex-soldier dives into business and politicsDiving champion, hotelier, politician, climate activist and grandfather, Captain Poon is back on Poon Hill
Nepali soldiers in the British or Indian armies are renowned for their valour on the battlefield, but Dam Bahadur Pun’s claim to fame is being a gold-medalist springboard diver.
For a Nepali soldier from the highlands of a landlocked country, it was unusual for Pun to take to swimming. But he took to diving like a fish to water.
As a young cadet taking compulsory swimming lessons at the Indian Military Academy (IMA) in Dehradun, he became an expert and passionate diver.
Now retired at 65, ‘Captain Poon’ is an ex-soldier from the Indian Army’s Gorkha unit, a grandfather, a politician, a climate activist and owner of The Sunny Hotel Teahouse in Ghorepani. Born in Khilang where most young men aspired to be in the military, he travelled to India at age 14.
Later, as a recruit in the engineering regiment at the IMA, he was required to swim. Despite never having swum before, Pun not only mastered freestyle but also excelled in diving. Talent spotters from the Indian national swimming team took notice, and he won his first medal at the Indian National Diving Championships in Jaipur.
For the next five years, Pun won one tournament after another, collecting an impressive number of gold medals (right). He even participated in the 11th Commonwealth Games in Canada in 1978 as part of the Indian team, being the only known Nepali to have ever done so. He came 11th in the diving event.
“I still remember being incredibly nervous at the Commonwealth Games, despite having competed in many tournaments,” recalls Pun. “But my pride and my guts urged me on.”
In 1982, he participated in the Asian Games in Delhi, and improved his ranking to 5th, becoming the Indian national record holder in diving. He went on to take part in the diving event at the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul.
Pun became the national coach for the Indian Swimming Federation and a Senior Coach in the Indian Army. He finally returned to his native Nepal on retirement, and opened his lodge in the scenic trekking hub of Ghorepani.
“We started small but over time we put in continuous effort to expand the hotel, our business grew and so did the local economy,” says Pun, who is called ‘Captain Poon’ because his hotel is located just below Poon Hill. The entire area started attracting more tourists and prospered after he established The Sunny Hotel Teahouse here, becoming a local hero in the process.
Before the advent of mobile phones, Pun helped the isolated hilltop with connectivity by building a telecommunication mast so locals could get phone signals without having to trek for hours to make calls. During the insurgency, Pun mediated between the Royal Nepal Army and the Maoists to ensure that the NTC tower on the mountaintop would not be harmed in fighting.
After the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Accord, he got into politics, and was elected chair of Annapurna Rural Municipality in the 2017 election. Throughout his five-year tenure, he did not take his salary, donating it instead to women’s charities and schools in the area.
Captain Poon has now set his sights on national politics. If elected, he wants to create a new trekking route to Dhaulagiri Base Camp, avoiding new motorable roads through unexplored villages, thus generating local jobs and lifting livelihoods.
Pun is also a committed environmental activist and feels concerned about the impact of the climate crisis on the Himalaya. “The limitations of on-going conservation efforts are readily apparent, and that is very worrying,” he says. “We need immediate action to protect and conserve Nepal’s vulnerable landscape.”
Despite forays into the military, sports, business and politics, Captain Poon has no plans to slow down and is always on the lookout for the next adventure. One thing that would take him full circle would be to get back to diving.
Says Pun: “I want to build a diving school in Pokhara one day. The sport has great potential here, and we can raise a generation of talented Nepali divers.”