Kathmandu stands in stark contrast to the peacefulness of the Himalayan trekking getaways. It’s funny because when we first arrived to Kathmandu, we were somewhat underwhelmed by the “craziness” of it all. We’d heard it’s a chaotic melee of activity (including cows in the roads, just like India!), and it’s certainly a hectic place, but we weren’t overwhelmed in any sense of the word. I guess a month of traveling in India has the ability to make most other places seem calm. But after two weeks of trekking in the Himalayas, away from cars and many people, coming back to Kathmandu felt far more sensorially stimulating, the city more frenzied than we’d remembered, maybe even just a touch overwhelming. That said, even in our post-mountain zen we did not find the people to be aggressive or intrusive the way the hawkers can be in some frenetic Asian cities.
It’s probably for the best then, that we did the majority of our touristy sight-seeing stuff pre-trekking. Included in the price of our trek through Himalayan Glacier was a full day tour of many of Kathmandu’s highlights. Our first full day spent in town was occupied by this, as our lovely guide (Paras) showed us these fascinating sites. The Kathmandu Valley has seven groups of monuments and buildings together classified as one UNESCO World Heritage Site. We visited several of them on our day tour, including the Durbar Square of Hanuman Dhoka (the formal name for Kathmandu’s Durbar Square), the Buddhist stupas of Swayambhunath and Boudhanath, and the Hindu temple of Pashupatinath.
Durbar Square is a stunning collection of ancient buildings with some very intricate wood carving details. One of these buildings (the Kumari Ghar) is where the Kumari lives. We will borrow heavily from Wikipedia here…Kumari “is the tradition of worshiping young pre-pubescent girls as manifestations of the divine female energy or devi in Hindu religious traditions.”There are several Kumaris, but the most revered in Nepal is the Royal Kumari of Kathmandu. In a nice illustration of the religious harmony that pervades Nepal, “eligible girls are Buddhists from the Newar Shakya caste,”even though this is mostly a Hindu concept. Tourists gather in the courtyard of the Kumari Ghar, and if you are lucky (as we were) the Kumari will appear in the window for a few minutes. No photos may be taken while the Kumari is in sight. We are told that in earlier times the Kumari never returned post-pubescence to any semblance of a normal life, but these days she might go on to marry etc.
Alan rubbed his back on the post in Kasthamandap (origin of Kathmandu), which is believed to heal back pain. His condition post-trek does not fully support this theory, but perhaps it would have been worse!
We also scoped out the hippie temple where masses of hippies came to smoke hashish and hang out back in the 60’s and 70’s. There are still many foreign tourists and expats in Kathmandu and the liberal vibe is palpable, but the prevalence of stoners seems substantially reduced from the glory days.
This beautiful white building is where coronation ceremonies took place when Nepal had a monarchy.
We saw some examples of the different architectural styles present here. Our guide explained that the white, missile shaped shikhara temple is of Indian influence, but the pagoda actually originated in Nepal.
We climbed the steep, narrow wooden steps to the top of the nine floor palace. The views of the city and surroundings were excellent, and this was about the extent of our training for the trek.
Have you heard of Garuda Airlines in Indonesia? We learned while viewing this statue that Garuda is the form of transport for Vishnu.
The monkey temple is a little bit outside the main tourist area of the city, but worth the drive, if only to watch the monkeys play in (and superman jump into) the pool for a while. Does watching monkeys play ever get old? I don’t think so. While you’re there, make sure to throw a coin into the little pond and make a wish.
The views from the top of the temple were lovely, and we were surprised to find there is a whole little village up at the top. We spun the Tibetan prayer wheels, and listened to a brief talk about Thanka painting mandalas. They said some take years to paint, and the detail is so fine they need to use a brush with three hairs. Talk about patience. Perhaps most interestingly we learned that Tibetans take the bodies of the dead, chop them up and feed them to the vultures.
We were also a bit surprised to learn that there is a bomb test center nearby. This education came as a result of the first blast, so we were rather alarmed initially. We also happened to snap this photo of a napping monkey right as a bomb went off. They are so used to it they only bat one eye 😉
The Boudhanath is a large stupa lined with some shops, cafés, guesthouses and rooftop spots. For some reason it struck us as a bit Disneyland like, even though it is a major pilgrimage site.
Lastly, we went to Pashupatinath, one of the most important Shiva temples. Paras told us about the big annual festival held here (I think it is Mahashivaratri), where a lot of hashish is enjoyed by the locals. The temple itself is open only to Hindus, so non-Hindu tourists just get this epic view of bull balls.
Nearby there is a river where cremation ceremonies are conducted. Our experience here versus India’s Varanasi was more subdued as the locals in the area were much less abrasive. There were no people harassing us or trying to get our money (that said, we did have a guide with us this time). We found in interesting that there is a Nepali governmental project to move over to electric cremation as part of an effort to improve the environment.
Our non-tour-guided time in Kathmandu was largely spent in Thamel, the crowded tourist hub of restaurants, bars, gear and souvenir shops. Pre-trek, we were mostly shopping for gear in the North-Fake and others shops, post-trek meandering around to donate our used goods and admiring the trinkets on sale.
There are countless eateries and we particularly enjoyed Pumpernickel Bakery’s goat cheese sandwiches. The vibe and people watching at Or2k’s upstairs, young hippyish crowd, sit on cushions on floor restaurant was hard to beat. We also really enjoyed our welcome dinner at Nepali Chulo, where we were entertained by traditional Nepali dancing (and a man who called himself the human goat) as we tried our first tastes of Nepal’s chicken momo (like Nepal, a beautiful hybrid of Indian and Chinese influences –it’s like a Chinese dumpling stuffed with Indian curry), dhal baht and other local treats. The rice wine also flowed freely all night, poured from impressive heights down into our little dishes.
Alan had been exceptionally lucky in terms in of getting sick in South Asia. In fact, so many times Jenni would call to check in with her parents and have the following conversation: “guess what? She’s sick again. How’s Alan? Fine.,” that they started referring to him as Superman. As luck would have it, Alan finally succumbed to a bit of illness on our very last day in South Asia, the two of us in poor health and spirits for our final days in this colorful country. It helped that our hotel had HBO and we could lay in bed and watch movies to recover. It didn’t help that with the near constant power cuts we were lucky to catch a movie in its entirety.
US citizens need a visa to enter Nepal, and this may be obtained on arrival, though doing it in advance would’ve saved us an hour at the airport. We filled out a form, then waited on a long line to pay the fee. Once you’ve paid, you need to get on another line to get your visa. The line for the 30-day visa was by far the longest. The fees are as follows, and you can pay with a credit card for $1 extra: transit for $5, 1-15 days for $25, 30 days for $40, 90 days for $100.
We bought SIM cards at NCell. You need a passport photo and a copy of your passport. It took us many attempts to locate a SIM-card retailer with both a copier and functioning electricity. The card and service are very cheap. We paid ~$11 for 1GB of fast data (which accounted for ~$7 of the cost and included unlimited slower data within that same 30 days once you’ve used your 1GB) and a bit of phone time. Local calls and calls to the US were under 3 cents/minute.
Our tour guide was Paras Mani Amgain. We liked him, and you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and +977-9841-638710.
The hospital where we went with the woman suffering altitude sickness is Swacon International Hospital Pvt. Ltd., 164 Rudreshwar Marg, Battisputali, Kathmandu, Nepal. Email email@example.com and phone +977-01-4470588. We don’t know if it’s good or not, but it’s where our tour company takes clients at least for altitude sickness.
All over Thamel are places that will do laundry for 50/kg.
There are several shipping agents in Thamel. We were surprised by how expensive it is to ship things, even if one does not care about speedy delivery. We settled on TNT located one floor down from Himalayan Glacier’s office. After packaging, our 9.3kg duffel bag was rounded up to 11kg, and it cost ~$150 to ship to the US (with a tracking number).
Transportation: The airport is about 15-45 minutes from Thamel, depending on traffic. Taxis are cheap. You can walk everywhere in Thamel.
Accommodation: Hotel Shanker is in the Lazimpat neighborhood and a 5-10 minute walk to Thamel. We had a few nights here included in our trek package. There is a nice pool and the old-world decor is charming, but we didn’t love the room (though 103 was better than 101). And WiFi costs ~$10/day and can only be used on one device at a time. The included breakfast spread was very good. For the price (it’s around $100/night), we were not terribly impressed and preferred the cheaper options available in Thamel.
Hotel Norbu Linka is in Thamel and we stayed here the night our April 3 flight to Lukla was canceled. It is pretty well-located in Thamel, the free WiFi was OK and the included breakfast was nowhere near Hotel Shanker’s but better than Hotel Access…where we stayed our last four nights. Hotel Access is right in the center of the Thamel action and next door to the legendary Kathmandu Guest House. The WiFi was OK, the staff was friendly. Power cuts were constant, though I think this is the case most places.
If you are in Kathmandu only a handful of days, and especially if you are trying to organize a trek and/or purchase gear, then staying in Thamel is probably your best bet. It is crowded and hectic, but not in a terribly aggressive or offensive kind of way. By far the greatest concentration of gear shops and tourist-oriented restaurants and bars are in Thamel. If you are here longer or just desire a more laid-back location, then you may want to stay elsewhere.
Food: Pumpernickel Bakery was our go-to spot (we probably ate 10 goat cheese sandwiches there over the course of our stay). Our welcome dinner with Himalayan Glacier was at Nepali Chulo where we had the set menu accompanied by live music and traditional dance. The food was abundant and very good. Or2K is vegetarian with floor cushions and was OK. K-too Steakhouse offers a large chateaubriand for 1160 and half pound burgers for ~700. I thought it was fairly good but Jenni was not a fan. We got large and tasty chicken wraps at the stand Chick ’N’Falafel for 230. Himalayan Java is a coffee shop that would be at home in Venice. The brew is good but the service meh. Dinner in the nice courtyard of Funky Buddha was enjoyable. Rum Doodle is a huge place with OK food. All these spots are in Thamel except for Nepali Chulo. Pizza at La Dolce Vita (across from Hotel Access) was solid.
Activities: On our city tour we covered many of the highlights, including Durbar Square; Swayambhunath (aka Monkey Temple); Boudhanath (home to a large Buddhist stupa); and Pashupatinath (an important Hindu temple of Shiva, there are also cremation ghats here). There are entrance fees for some or all of these sites but everything was included in our trek package. I would say Durbar Square is a must-see, and we enjoyed the rest but if we had to cut out one for time constraints we would probably cut Boudhanath.
There are countless day trips available to various sites and activities, including some viewpoints of the Himalayas, cycling, bungee jumping, white water rafting, etc. Also in the Kathmandu Valley are the towns of Bhaktapur and Patan.
April 1-4 and 16-21, 2014 (Tuesday-Friday and Wednesday-Monday)