The phrase “we’re not in Kansas anymore” rang true as we stepped out into the streets of Kathmandu, Nepal. For over a month we had been in English speaking, developed countries – and we quickly learned that Nepal was a whole new ballgame.
The adventure began as we boarded our Air Asia flight in Kuala Lampur with a group of 200 Nepali male factory workers traveling together on a company-sponsored trip. It seemed none of the men had flown before, and we spent the 4-hour flight sitting amongst loud, cross-plane conversations, making it into the background of countless selfies, constantly getting leaned on to get a view out the window, and listening to flight attendants repeatedly yell at everyone to “sit down!”.
The chaos of the flight only forebode the madness that is Kathmandu. It is a small miracle that we survived more than three days in the city – motorcycles and cars honked as they came within inches of our bodies from every direction (on what we were sure were pedestrian-only, or at least one-way, streets), dogs barked, vendors and tour-guides tried any and all ways to shamelessly con us and win our business, electric wires criss-crossed overhead, and omnipresent piles of rubble & rubbish continually tripped us (making us wonder whether so much trash is a mainstay or a result of last year’s devastating earthquake). In all, Kathmandu is a loud, crowded, hectic, dirty, wild, fascinating city.
In the streets of the central area of Thamel, we stumbled upon a Hindu shrine or Buddhist stupa every few steps. Our friend Max who we had met in New Zealand met us on our second day in the city, and together we toured many of these shrines, as well as Kathmandu’s central Durbar Square, Boudhanath Stupa and Pashupatinath, the world’s second-largest Hindu temple situated alongside the Bagmati River (where most Nepalis are publicly cremated when they die… as we witnessed). The shrines and temples were beautiful but often crumbling as a result of last year’s earthquake – to which the government has slowly responded (though earthquakes are also a part of the region’s history and many shrines had already been rehabilitated in 1934 after another earthquake).
Unfortunately, our time in Kathmandu was tainted by the fact that we fell for a scam. Our new BFF (and future enemy) Raju picked us up on the streets of Thamel admiring nearby shrines by wooing us with his local knowledge and his “desire to practice his English”. After a genuinely fun and interesting day of showing us around the city and inviting us into his home for lunch, he refused to accept any money. We insisted that he take a modest tip (at least for his time, bus fares, and lunch) at which point he offered that, if anything, we could just buy a shoebox complete with cobbler equipment which he had lost in the earthquake. Alie became skeptical and suggested we give our tip (a generous $30 – $10 each) and leave, but the boys were eager to help restore our new friend’s livelihood. Raju guided us through a crumbling neighborhood to a supplier with a shoebox for a mere $150(!). Raju bargained the man down to a lower price, albeit one that was still ~2x the average weekly Nepali salary, and Max and Michael agreed to pay. We walked away with Raju and his “brand new” cobbler box – aka falling apart and used – exchanged our goodbyes and headed back to the hotel. Alie immediately googled and found that this “shoebox” was a timeless and classic Kathmandu scam. Needless to say, we all felt completely betrayed and taken advantage of (and, well, stupid). Although Raju provided us with a decent history & tour of Kathmandu, we felt cheated. Moping and exchanging stories with other travelers, we realized that this was in fact a proper welcome to Kathmandu, shared in some form or another by most foreign visitors.
Exhausted from three days in the hectic city and with Raju haunting our dreams, we hurried out of Kathmandu to the lakeside city of Pokhara for a much-needed yoga & meditation retreat. For three days, we sat in a Buddhist Meditation Center learning about Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, meditating on happiness & suffering and stretching out our travel-tight bodies during yoga.
Thankfully, we left the retreat feeling fresh & calm, laughing about Kathmandu and Raju (not to say that we will be back anytime soon…).
Things To Do:
- Our favorite part of Kathmandu was simply taking in daily life while meandering the hectic streets. After a while (aka one day), this can be overwhelming, but it’s fun to stumble upon delicious food carts, the city’s many religious shrines and stupas, and shops.
- While a guide can be helpful to understand the city’s shrines & stupas, it’s not necessary to hire one. Eventually we learned that all of the shrines were pretty similar, so we were OK simply admiring them rather than hearing the backstory of each one.
- Both Durbar Square and the Hindu Temple, Pashupatinath, are interesting historical sites. The temple is much more peaceful, as we found Durbar Square both lacking the typical peaceful atmosphere associated with a World Heritage site (it is crowded with locals who use it as a passageway and homeless who take refuge in the shade) and unfortunately a mess due to last year’s earthquake.
Getting There / Away: Kathmandu is the only international airport in Nepal. Once in Nepal you can take extremely cheap (extremely long, extremely uncomfortable) buses almost anywhere in the country.
Accommodations: Thamel is the main tourist neighborhood and provides ample hostels & hotels. Though Thamel can be totally overwhelming, we stayed at Elbrus Home which, despite being at the north tip of Thamel, offered a quiet oasis among the city’s chaos, as well as an insanely delicious and filling breakfast. Somehow this place provided a more comfortable accommodation than any of the New Zealand hostels we stayed in despite being a fifth of the price.
Days Stayed/Recommended: We stayed 3 days visiting Kathmandu plus several days connecting through other cities. We found Kathmandu overwhelming and would probably recommend planning to stay only 1-2 days unless you find yourself enjoying the chaos.
- The Nepali staple is Dahl Bat – an unlimited serving of rice, lentils, and often a vegetable side. Quality ranges but overall it is solid.
- Our favorite Nepali street food is momos – essentially dumplings with a variety of fillings. Our favorite were chicken and buffalo (they don’t eat cow in this Hindi country so buff isn’t beef misspelled – it is in fact buffalo!).
- Om Lumbini Hygenic Food Corner. We ducked into this hole in the wall in Thamel when caught in a monsoon and were pleasantly surprised. Don’t let the odd name fool you – we ate here three nights in a row, dining on delicious and cheap Nepali and Indian cuisine.
- Green Organc Cafe has a solid menu of Western and Nepali food in a lovely atmosphere. Quite the retreat in the middle of Thamel.