The crowds, pollution and frantic speed of everything just hit me hard after having spent a month, working at a peaceful rafting camp up in the Indian Himalayas. But if you can brave all of this and look past it, this dense medieval city which has chaos and sophistication all wrapped into one is sure to charm you.
My advice to fellow budget travellers is that don’t live in Thamel which is the tourist ghetto and is Nepal’s answer to Bangkok’s crazy Khao San Road. I would even go as far as saying that don’t even live in Kathmandu but in nearby peaceful Bhaktapur or Boudha and make day trips into Kathmandu. But if you must live here I would suggest living in Jhochhe i.e. Freak Street right next to Kathmandu’s main Durbar Square. I would recommend the poky but clean Little Wings or the oldest running institution Annapurna Lodge for those on a tight budget like me.
TIP: Try to get a room away from the main street or carry ear plugs while staying in Kathmandu.
Thamel has scores of the typical touristy restaurants that serve anything from pasta to falafel but Freak Street has more of the authentic Nepali grub. Try the local Lumbini restaurant for Nepal’s national dish Daal-Bhat (lentils with rice) and Snowman Bakery for its delicious apple pie. I loved living at Freak Street because I would have my morning chai at one of the many temples at the main square and then eat the famous thick creamy Bhaktapur yoghurt out of a clay pot.
TIP: Use the pots later to put candles in. There are frequent power outages in Nepal.
I would spend most of my days sitting at the nearby square admiring the architecture, sights and sounds of this unique city. The area is studded with dozens of splendid temples and monuments, the Royal Palace, Kumari Chowk (home of a living goddess), traditional craftsmen shops, flower stores and more. The red brick temples and ornate wood work panels are divine. It is the first time I had seen pagoda style Hindu temples. Nepal is the world’s only Hindu kingdom but there is a strong overlapping between Hindu and Buddhist practices. The religious rituals in Nepal are quite elaborate. There is a puja almost every day, in one or the other temple with people lighting butter lamps, smearing themselves with vermillion, rice and flowers and ringing the dozen or more temple bells.
All around the square there are narrow alley ways teeming with humans, animals, cars, rickshaws and everything else you can dream of making it a dense experience. The walk from Freak Street at the south of the square to Thamel in the north takes you through various markets selling brass, antiques handmade paper, incense sticks, dentures and some bizarre local stuff: horses tail anyone? Kathmandu has some amazing antique shopping if you are good at bargaining and know a thing or two about antiques. Thamel is a good place to look for cheap trekking gear, funky hemp and felt merchandise and silver jewellery.
TIP: Thamel also has some excellent bakeries and you can get bread at half price, past 8pm at most of them.
Shopping is great around Indrachowk as well for those looking for a bargain. A street in the market that was frequented by me was “Pote Bazaar” aka bead street. This narrow lane with its dazzling array of beads in every colour and shape is a must for those who like pretty things. Nepali women wear red or green beads with a golden pendant as a sign of marriage. If you can’t find it ask any women where it is by pointing at her beads and she will gladly take you there.
TIP: Meet Abbas at stall B4. He is a lovely young chap who is very helpful with picking the right beads.
I decided that I was spending too much time at the square when all the locals knew me by first name and wanting a change of scene headed to Pashupatinath, Nepal’s holiest Hindu pilgrimage site. The holy Bagmati River runs through the elaborate temple complex which also has cremation grounds. If you walk slightly further up the east bank of the river you come across a much quieter enclave of tomb like structures which are actually Shiva shrines in a peaceful forest setting.
TIP: Watch out for the pesky monkeys here.
From here I walked down to Boudha (or Boudhanath) one of the world’s largest stupas and one of the most important Buddhist monuments. Like numerous other stupas in Nepal, I found it very unique that Buddha’s eyes are painted in blue on all four corners of the top section of the temple giving me a sense that he was watching over me at all times. Tibetan prayer flags and sweet smelling incense fills the air around the Boudha neighbourhood which has several Tibetan monasteries, shops and restaurants.
TIP: Boudha is best to visit early in the morning or late in the evening when you can see maroon robed monks chanting and spinning prayer wheels.
From Freak Street another walk you can do is to Swayambhu. This ancient Newar Buddhist stupa with some interesting Hindu shrines around is set on top of a hill and has quite a view of the Kathmandu valley. The architecture of the stupa follows a complex representation of Buddha’s teachings. You will find young and old alike walking around the dome, spinning the prayer wheels and chanting prayers. Each temple in Kathmandu has a fascinating story and it is worth getting a book giving a history and detailed explanation of the place.
TIP: A lovely book store in Thamel is Pilgrims which also has a quiet cafe at the back away from the madness of this area.
A must visit during your stay in Kathmandu is to the exotic old city of Patan. Spend a day ambling around the Durbar square and narrow streets of the oldest city in Kathmandu valley. The main square of Patan is very similar to that of Kathmandu but less touristy and richer in detail and architecture. Take notice of the ornately carved wooden doors with massive locks and beautifully decorated windows. Patan’s museum set in a splendid renovated section of the royal palace is worth visiting to understand better the history of the city and there is a great coffee shop at the museum as well. Outside of the square there are several other temples and monuments to explore by foot. Do check out the Mahabudda temple a smaller version of the famous Mahabodhi temple in India, made up of thousands of Buddha statues.
In total I spent about two weeks roaming in and around the complex city of Kathmandu and there was so much more that I would have liked to see. But as my Nepali friends would say to me “bistaarai bistaarai” meaning “slowly slowly.” At the end of the day I was quite happy with my slow pace to enjoy this city full of beauty, history, and extremely friendly people. It is quite unfortunate, though that the valley is developing at a frenetic pace and this tends to mask the natural intrinsic beauty of Nepal. Bistaarai bistaarai is what I would like to tell them!
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Picture by Sana Rizvi