When I first arrived in the Nepali capital of Kathmandu, I didn’t know if I would love it or hate it. I’ll admit my first impression was of a chaotic, polluted city. Combine this with the airline losing my bag, and my introduction to Nepal wasn’t off to a good start.
The crazy streets of Kathmandu were cluttered with cars, rickshaws and motorbikes weaving along the narrow streets, horns blared frighteningly close, people wore face masks so they wouldn’t breathe in so much of the polluted air, and trekking store after trekking store merged as one and it was hard to keep your bearings.
But once I got to know the city better, I was able to look past the smog, and find intricate temples; hidden cafes serving delicious banana lassi and piping hot masala tea; and a city welcoming back tourists wholeheartedly after a devastating earthquake.
To my surprise, I fell in love with Kathmandu and Nepal, and I’m already planning my return. The Thamel area, the temples, the people, the shopping, the food, and the infectious energy of a country that embraces the beauty of nature.
Kathmandu is where every hiker starts their journey into the Nepali mountains – whether it be the Annapurna Circuit, Everest or something in between. But before you start your trek, here’s four things you must see in Kathmandu before you head out on your next adventure.
The Thamel Neigbourhood
Most likely you’ll be staying in Thamel during your stay in Kathmandu, or you’ll head there to shop for hiking gear or souvenirs.
The streets of Thamel are full of hiking gear shops; cafes on every corner and down every alleyway serving traditional and Western cuisine; and shops selling handicrafts, tea, yak wool blankets and pashminas.
I wandered through the Thamel area multiple times a day and always found something new. I’m not one for shopping when I travel because I can’t carry much more weight, but here I bought a number of small things ranging from bracelets to masala teabags so I could have a little bit of Nepal when I return home.
Night time is when the Thamel area really becomes a bustling mecca. People are out getting dinner, seeking hiking gear for budget prices, and the streets are bursting with people and motorbikes.
I loved trying a new café each time I ate out in Kathmandu. My favourites were Hello Kitty, Phat Kath and OR2K.
Swayambhunath or the Monkey Temple is a Buddhist temple set high on a hill above Kathmandu.
You can walk there in about 30 minutes from Thamel but I’ll warn you that it does involve a few stairs.
As you walk up to the temple, you’ll see where it gets its nickname from as dozens of wild monkeys jump from statue to statue and run up the stairs.
As you reach the top of the stairway, you’ll be met with a white tower (stupa) painted with the eyes of the Buddha. You’ll then be greeted by the smell of incense as this is one of the places in Kathmandu where locals come to pray.
It’s customary to then walk clockwise around the prayer wheels at the base of the stupa. The detail embossed into each building and structure within Swayambhunath is beautiful, and you’ll be sure spend some time wandering around, breathing in the incense and taking lots of photos. Make sure you take in the view of Kathmandu below from the top of the temple stairway. Entry to Swayambhunath is $A2.50.
Garden of Dreams
The Garden of Dreams is located in the Thamel area on Tredevi Sadak near the North Face store. It’s filled with fountains, flowers, and beautiful pathways, and is the perfect place to escape the hectic streets of Kathmandu for a few hours.
You can wander around the garden, take a seat and catch up on some reading, or also enjoy a coffee or tea at the garden’s café.
Entry into the garden is $A2.50. The garden is open from 9am to 10pm.
Durbar Square would certainly have been a sight to behold in its heyday. These days Durbar Square is still a beautiful part of Kathmandu but the devastating earthquake in April 2015 took its toll. Many of the square’s buildings remain off limits, some are supported by scaffolds, and some were reduced to rubble.
Durbar Square is located outside the old Royal Palace and is Kathmandu’s best example of traditional buildings with many of the temples dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries.
It was sad to walk around Durbar Square and see the earthquake’s effects but you just had to look harder for the beauty. There were people praying, locals chatting on the tower terraces, and I loved the red fringed buildings populating the square.
Durbar Square is located about a 30 minute walk from Thamel. Entry to the site is $A12.50 which includes entry into the old Royal Palace.
On my way to Durbar Square, I found one of the most beautiful temples I’d seen in Kathmandu hidden down a side street.
I don’t know its name but there are many temples like this throughout the city. I just loved the detail and seeing people go about their prayer routine. I took a lot of photos here. There’s a lot of hidden gems like this scattered through Kathmandu – I found quite a few temples near Durbar Square.
Take the time to wander Kathmandu and you’ll find temples, unique souvenirs, and trendy cafes. You’ll be sure to want to visit again one day soon.
Things You Should Know:
- Many nationalities can get a 15 day visa on arrival at Kathmandu Airport for $US25. Cash payment can be made in a number of currencies including US and Australian Dollars, and Euros. Arriving with your own passport photo will save you time on arrival by not having to deal with the long lines at the visa on arrival machines – you can just fill out the form, attach your photo and pay your money.
- The streets of Kathmandu are very polluted. You may want to invest in a face mask to breathe a little easier. You won’t be the only one.
- The local currency is the Nepalese Rupee. 100 Nepalese Rupees equals about $A1.20. Nepal is mostly a cash society. Only some of the trekking stores will accept cards but you will be charged a 4% bank fee of the total price.
- Some of Kathmandu’s ATMs have withdrawals limits of $US100. The most consistent ATM I found that allowed me to get money out each time was the Nabil Bank ATMs.
- While there are a sea of hiking stores in the Thamel neighbourhood – everything is a copy of the real thing – but that means you can get items very cheap, however the quality is lower. But these stores are good to get items like clothing, however I would stick to the real thing for shoes. Thamel also is home to official North Face and Mountain Hardwear stores if you want quality products.
- It’s very easy to hire sleeping bags and walking poles in Thamel. Prices start from $A1.25 a day for sleeping bags.
- While earthquake damage is still evident throughout Kathmandu, accommodation providers are operating as normal. Not all places have 24 hour hot water though (a fact which predates the earthquake) so read the reviews if hot water is essential. I found it was hit and miss at hostels – I never got hot water at night but had a 50 per cent chance of getting hot water in the morning as long as I was up early!