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City of Spirits | A Guide to Kathmandu, Nepal

April 3, 2018

by Annapurna Mellor

Nepal may be a country of mountains, but it can often be hard to make them out on the horizon from the countries capital Kathmandu. Truth is, you’re much more likely to spot Everest from an embroidered t-shirt design in the tourist hub of Thamel than from any viewpoint in the city. Dust swirls through the air and traffic roars through the streets, obscuring the horizon line into a mild foggy haze. Many tourists make a be-line for the mountains, yet Kathmandu has so much to offer – and is one of the best places in the country to observe a spiritual, cultural, and slowly modernising Nepal. From the backstreet markets of the old city, to the cities incredible temples and monasteries and its irresistible food scene – this is a city which, providing you can put up with the smog and manic roads, grows on you by the day and perhaps just as much as Nepal’s incredible nature, leaves a lasting impression on you of a country of so many personalities, colours, and spirits.

Thamel

It’s most likely that your trip to Kathmandu will begin in Thamel – Kathmandu’s tourist hub and the home of the majority of the cities hotels. The streets of Thamel are narrow (some traffic free) and covered in rainbow souvenir shops and momo restaurants. Most of the hotels exist hidden down back alleyways or on streets away from the main congestion of shopping and eateries. Love it or hate it, it’s hard not to admit that Thamel is a very convenient place to be a tourist. You can stock up on trekking gear or Tibetan crafts, eat well and stay in a decent room for a few dollars. Often the area can feel somewhat separated from the ‘real’ Kathmandu – and indeed you see very few Nepali’s here apart from the shopkeepers who attempt to drag you into buying a vast collection of Yak wool scarves.

We recommend staying at Yala Peak Hotel, a budget option with all the comforts you need – hot showers, a chill out balcony space, free safe drinking water plus incredibly friendly and helpful staff. Another good option in the same price bracket is Hotel Himalayan Yoga, which also has free yoga classes on the roof each morning for guests.

Eating can take many forms in Thamel – start with Nepali cuisine, you are in Nepal after all. Head to Veg Momo Restaurant for an incredible Daal Bhat and a selection of momos which include paneer and mushroom varieties. If you’re keen to try Tibetan, you can’t go wrong with Yangling, who now have two branches in Thamel. They do a delicious bowl of Thenduk (Tibetan thick pasta) soup and all for very reasonable prices. If you fancy something a little more fiery, Western Tandoori, perhaps one of Thamel’s best hidden gems dishes up cheap as chips Indian dishes with fresh from the tandoor naan bread. If you’ve just come from travelling in India, this place will bring back many memories of a classic Indian backstreet treat.

If you’re craving another kind of cuisine, you’re in luck, as just about every variety of food from around the world exists on the streets of Thamel. Or2k is another favourite of ours – a chilled out Middle Eastern restaurant serving falafel places and Turkish salads while you sit on floor cushions in their cosy restaurant. If you go, you must try the Hot Chocolate Pudding for dessert. For breakfast, you can’t go wrong with the lovely garden at Rosemary’s Kitchen – where they serve set breakfasts which are guaranteed to fill you up.

Readers Tips: The Cafe with No Name – ‘Lovely Spot for a beer and snack, with super friendly staff and live music. They are also a social enterprise, so it’s a win-win for everyone!’ @lauracpower

Thamel has little in the way of sights, although you could wander around the streets for hours finding new backstreet eateries and unique souvenir shops. The Garden of Dreams, located on the edge of the district is one of the only attractions. The area is a small, quiet, European style park which is a peaceful getaway from the busy streets of Kathmandu. There’s also a pleasant (if slightly overpriced) cafe in the garden which is a lovely place to grab a tea and escape the chaotic city for a while.

Readers Tips: Astrek Climbing Wall – A really great place to hang out with some friendly locals and tourists. They also offer guided climbs in the nearby area and serve up Belgian beers – Dan at Poco Pilgrims.

Durbar Square and Asan Tole

One of the great things about Thamel is that much of Kathmandu’s old city is within walking distance. From Thamel, walk towards the Dharmadhaatu Stupa and you’ll soon be walking through the market streets of Asan, an area congregated around the Asan Tole Square. The area is a vibrant mesh of all the things that I love about Kathmandu – street life, shops selling everything from spices to red saris and dodgy dental care. On your way, make sure to stop off at the Kaathe Swyambhu Shee – a hidden miniature version of Swayanbhunath hidden in a square just off one of the main market streets.  While wandering, stop for a chai or two and see if you can spot a pan of steaming momos down a back alleyway. This area is best explored in the morning before it gets too hectic, and the best way to approach it is just to wander around – you’ll spot plenty of hidden gems and get a true sense of how the streets of Kathmandu run.

Walk South and you’ll soon find yourself at Durbar Square –  the historic centre of Kathmandu. The entrance fee for foreigners is 1000 Rupees ($10), which seems high but it does go to restoring and maintaining the ancient buildings. Despite the damage in the 2015 earthquake the square still boasts some of Kathmandu’s most impressive traditional architecture, and you’re bound to be in awe walking through the three-story temples and palaces of this place. One of the buildings, Kumari Bahal, is home to the Kathmandu Kumari, a young girl who is worshipped as a living goddess. If you want to spot her, it’s best between 9 am and 11 am, but the building is beautiful to observe at any time. If you want to read more about Nepal’s Kumari tradition, I recommend checking out the book ‘The Living Goddess’ by Isabella Tree.

If you are interested in the hippie movement in Kathmandu, Freak Street is just around the corner from Durbar Square. When hippies came from Europe in the 1960’s and 70’s, Freak Street was often their end destination. Nowadays, it’s not quite as hippy-ish as I imagine it was in it’s hay-day – but there’s still an interesting mix of shops and cafes here.

Readers Tips: ‘Snowman Café – ‘I was just going about my day when a local man at my hostel convinced me to get on the back of his motorbike and get some cake with him. What ensued was a wild ride through the backstreets of Kathmandu, with a man I didn’t know, no helmet, almost toppling over when we hit loose rocks, almost killing people at every turn. I kept thinking ‘is it worth it? Some cake in exchange for my life?’

Well yes, turns out it was. I would happily give my life for the delicious chocolate cake I gobbled down when I finally arrived at Snowman Cafe. Step back in time when you cross the threshold and say hello to the 1960’s when the cafe was first opened, sit in a rickety chair upstairs and let the craziness of Kathmandu fade away with the first bite of whatever treat you choose.’ Louise Coghill

How to Get There: The best way to get to Durbar Square from Thamel is on foot. It takes around 15 minutes, although you’ll probably get so absorbed in the streets between that it will likely take a little longer. A taxi will cost around 200 rupees ($2).

Swayambhunath Stupa (Monkey Temple)

Another place within walking distance of Thamel and a must see no matter where you are staying in the city, is Swayambhunath Stupa, more commonly just called Monkey Temple. The Stupa sits on a hill high above the Kathmandu Valley. You have to climb 365 steps to reach the stupa, but the views from the top and the stupa itself is more than worth the effort. The monument is white with a tiered golden top and the all-knowing eyes of the Buddha painted into it, looking out over the Kathmandu Valley.

Next to the Buddhist stupa is a collection of Hindu statues and temples which are most likely full of locals lighting candles. The complex is large and worth exploring, with smaller stupas, and a small monastery along the pathways on the hillside. Shops selling Buddhist pendents and prayer wheels break up the route, as do a number of rooftop cafes, with breathtaking views of the stupa and valleys around. Come at sunset and you’ll be delighted by a pink sky over the expanse of Kathmandu city below.

How to Get There: You can walk from Thamel to Swayambhunath in around 40 minutes. It is a pleasant walk passing over a river and then climbing to reach the temple. Use Google Maps to help you navigate, or just ask locals who will help you along the way. A taxi from Thamel should cost 300 Rupees ($3). The entrance fee for foreigners is 200 Rupees ($2).

Pashupatinath Temple

While Buddhism might seem to be more prominent in Kathmandu, Hinduism is actually the most popular religion in Nepal. The most important Hindu spot in the city is Pashupatinath Temple which you might spot when you first arrive and drive from the airport into the city. Much like Varanasi in India, Pashupatinath is a place of death, and cremations of bodies are happening most of the day. Much of the temple complex is closed to non-Hindu’s, but you can still engage with the many babas who live here and view the funeral action from an area across the river where tourists are welcome.

How to Get There: A taxi from Thamel to Pashupatinath should cost 500 Rupees ($5). Entrance fee for foreigners is 1000 Rupees ($10).

Boudhanath Stupa 

The stupa at Boudhanath has existed for centuries, but it wasn’t until the Chinese invasion of Tibet and the fleeing of many Tibetans to Nepal that it became a major home of Tibetans in exile and Tibetan Buddhism. The area around the stupa is now home to around 50 Tibetan Gompas, one of the largest being Kopan Monastery, which sits grandly on the hill above Boudhanath. The ancient stupa is a huge one – sitting 36 metres above the skyline. Day in, day out, it sees hundreds of Tibetans, Nepali’s, Buddhists from around the globe and tourists come to visit and circumambulate the stupa. You’ll spot women in traditional Tibetan dress turning handheld prayer wheels and monks in deep red robes walk around the great monument. The buildings around the stupa house souvenir shops selling Tibetan handicrafts, but wander down the backstreets of the area and you’ll find a more local scene – with shops selling monks robes, prayer beads and Laping – a cold mung bean soup served as street food.

If you are interested in exploring the nearby monasteries – many accept foreign visitors into their Gompas. Kopan Monastery accepts visitors from 9-5 each day, with daily Dharma talks at 10:30 am. You can also study for longer at the monastery, as they offer 10-day Beginner Buddhism and Meditation courses for foreigners. I attended one of these courses a few years ago and would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in Tibetan Buddhism and meditation. See more about Kopan here.

If your time in Boudha is more limited, enjoy the stupa views and try some Tibetan food at Tibet Kitchen – a small restaurant which sits around the stupa and serves a selection of traditional Tibetan and Bhutanese dishes. Momos, thukpas and cheese curries are all on the menu as well as salty Tibetan tea. I also recommend Happiness Vegetarian Restaurant, which serves delicious Chinese cuisine with a view.

How to Get There: A taxi from Thamel to Boudha should cost 400 Rupees ($4). The entrance fee for the stupa is also 400 Rupees.

Trips from the City

Bhaktapur 

The medieval city of Bhaktapur is my favourite place to visit in the Kathmandu Valley. The quaint, ancient streets are home to a vibrant craft culture, and you’ll find people weaving, painting and making pottery. The old squares are some of Nepal’s best examples of Newari architecture, although the city did suffer substantial damage in the 2015 earthquake. Wandering around the city streets and you’ll find temples galore, vibrant local markets and some quirky street life. Another reason to visit Bhaktapur is to try a dreamy pot of Juju Dhau, the cities famous ‘King Curd’, which is often claimed to be the best yoghurt in the world (we definitely agree!)

To see more about Bhaktapur check out some of the amazing photo essays we have published on ROAM here and here.

Information: Bhaktapur is around 15km from Kathmandu. In a taxi, it should cost you 800 ($8) rupees (one way) and take around 40 minutes. On a local bus (from the Bhaktapur bus station near to Ratna Park) it should cost around 25 rupees (25 cents) and take just over an hour. Bhaktapur is a lovely place to stay overnight, and we recommend both Hotel Vintage Home and Heart of Bhaktapur Guest House.

Nagarkot

If you only have a short time in Nepal and can’t get up into the mountains, Nagarkot is the perfect place to get a taste of what they offer without having to get too far away from Kathmandu. Located around 30km from the city, it’s far away enough to kiss the traffic and dust goodbye and enjoy some of the peace and serenity of countryside Nepal. Nagarkot is best known for its sunrise views, and indeed on a good morning you can see a wide panorama of peaks and you can even spot Everest on the horizon line. Even if you don’t see any mountains (we didn’t), it’s still a wonderfully chill place to get away from it all, do a little hiking, or relax in one of the retreat style hotels with a good book and a chai.

Information: A taxi from Kathmandu to Nagarkot takes around 1 and a half hours, and should cost 2500 rupees. Alternatively, you can take the local bus which will take over 2 hours but will cost 50 rupees. Bhaktapur is halfway to Nagarkot, and there’s both buses and taxies between the two cities. We highly recommend staying at Hotel at the End of the Universe, a hippie retreat style place just outside the main village of Nagarkot. It has great food, some very quirky rooms and a wonderful chill out balcony.

Patan

Readers Tip:Patan is a great place to visit near to Kathmandu. A small, quaint area and close to the main sights of the city. For the best brunch head to Yellow House, and Piano B is a fantastic Italian restaurant’ @laurenalliestewart

Readers Tip: @yasmingross recommends the Patan Museum. A super cute original temple building, with a courtyard, botanical gardens and a little cafe’.

Things to Know

Getting There: Kathmandu has Nepal’s only international airport, and airlines like Qatar and Emirates fly directly into Kathmandu and offer connections around the world. If you fancy more of an adventure, it’s also possible to arrive at the city from overland borders in the South and East from India.

Getting Around: One of the first things that might strike you about Kathmandu is the horrendous traffic and road conditions. For me, the worst thing about the city (and indeed about the whole of Nepal) is the road safety, and in Kathmandu, it can sometimes be overwhelming. The best way to get around the city is by walking or taxi, which is often quite reasonably priced (be prepared to bargain though!). You can also take the local bus although it can often be confusing to find the right bus you need and they are always overcrowded. Ratna Park Bus Station is around a 15-minute walk from Thamel and has buses for around Kathmandu, the surrounding valley (including Bhaktapur and Patan) and beyond.

Money & Costs: Kathmandu is a very cheap city and you can eat, stay and explore very reasonably. You’ll find money changers all around Thamel offering fixed exchange rates which are set by the government. ATM’s are also everywhere, although they often charge high fees for international cards and it can sometimes be a challenge to find one which is working. Be prepared to bargain a lot! Especially for taxi fares and souvenirs.

All photographs by Annapurna Mellor


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A Guide to Kathmandu, Nepal

Annapurna Mellor is a travel photographer, writer and co-founder of Roam Magazine. She fell in love with Asia shortly after graduating and has since spent extensive periods travelling and photographing in India, Nepal, Myanmar and many more. She shoots regularly for brands and publications and her work can be found in National Geographic Traveller Magazine, Lonely Planet, Suitcase and The Guardian. When not on the road, she is based in Manchester, UK.

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