Kathmandu – where do I even begin. The city having a rich cultural heritage. The city that has seen so much, been through so much, and yet, it stands, like a worn out old man with wrinkles all over his face that speak not of the storms that he has been through, but of the calm and shine after each storm, of coming out even stronger than before, of conquering fears and surviving through years of torture and suffering.
When we planned our vacation to Nepal, we initially didn’t plan to stop over at Kathmandu, because a simple google search revealed that there is not much natural beauty to witness around this city, something which I really needed given our hectic lives back in Karachi, Pakistan. But nevertheless, we decided to give it a chance, to open our minds and hearts by accepting the place for what it’s truly worth. And while there are really no natural views around this city, we were amazed to discover the story of Nepal through its rich culture, its astounding heritage sites, and most importantly, by the fact that despite major upheavals, this city still exists, and people go around their daily tasks with a smile like nothing really shook their world from the inside out.
In 2001, seven members of the Nepalese Royal Family were shot dead by Prince Dipendra of Nepal. The dead included the King and the Queen. In 2008, a Nepalese Civil War broke out overthrowing the last Indian Monarchy in the world. In 2015, a deadly earthquake struck Nepal killing almost 9,000 people and injuring nearly 22,000.
Due to these events, Nepal is a country in recovery mode, yet the people are courteous as ever, with an ever-smiling attitude.
Arriving in Kathmandu
If you’re travelling from Pakistan, like I did, you won’t be lucky enough to find a direct flight to Kathmandu. So you’ll need to book some other carrier. PIA used to fly directly to Kathmandu, but not anymore. So you are left with Qatar Airways and Fly Dubai that fly via Doha and Dubai respectively from Karachi, so you could book a flight through either one of them. In my opinion, fares over Qatar Airways are quite high, so Fly Dubai is a cheaper and budget-friendly option. Because the tickets are cheap on Fly Dubai, therefore you might have to pay additionally if you wish to avail meals, wifi (which was non-existent during my entire round trip flight), in-flight entertainment and sometimes baggage too (depending on what ticket you purchase). But if you are looking for comfort and ease of travel, then you can pay a little more and book via Qatar Airways. Disclaimer: I am only ‘assuming’ that Qatar Airways would give you a peaceful journey as I have no experience of flying with them. If you go for Fly Dubai, that is okay too.
Also Tribhuvan Intl. Airport at Kathmandu is not as glamorous. There are not many food options around, we spotted a restaurant before checking in, but once you are through to the Departure Lounge, you are left with barely any food outlet. There are small shops outside the departure lounge from where you could get some chips and coke perhaps 😀 Better yet, travel on a full tummy.
Where to Stay
Most hotels in Kathmandu are located around Thamel area. You can check TripAdvisor for the most accurate reviews. I don’t think there are any properties worth your money near the airport, so it’s better to live out of Thamel which is the most touristy area in Kathmandu. Thamel is filled with mid-priced and budget-friendly hotels, restaurants and cafes, and several shops selling local goods. I would recommend Hotel Friend’s Home and Maya Boutique Hotel. Both are very convenient with respect to location, value of money and comfort. See the full review here.
Attractions in Kathmandu
If the world is a book, then Kathmandu would be the chapter on culture, history, art and architecture. The place is filled with temples and stupas, and each place you visit would have an aura of religious harmony with people praying to whichever god they believe in. Being a secular country, Nepal has a majority of Hinduism and Buddhism. You can easily do a day tour of the whole Kathmandu City and frankly, in my opinion, this is enough, unless you want to spend more time diving deep into history or taking post-card-worthy photographs. Following are some places that are the most popular tourist destinations in Kathmandu:
1) Swayambhunath Stupa (Monkey Temple)
- The Place: Swayambhunath is a religious monument built on top of a hill. Just about 15-20 minute drive from Thamel, this place can give you a bird’s eye view of the city. Unfortunately, there was a lot of haze when we visited, so we couldn’t really see much from the top.
You can just hang out here for a bit, look around, watch people praying, etc. There is a cafe-cum-coffee shop inside too, so you can grab a bite or wander around some local souvenir shops. This place is called the ‘Monkey Temple‘ because of the several monkeys that freely roam around the premises.
- How to get here: Via taxi would be the easiest.
- Entry Fee: NPR 50 for members of SAARC Countries. NPR 200 for rest of the world.
2) Patan Durbar Square
- The Place: Patan, also known as Lalitpur, is the city of fine arts, located about 8 KMs south of central Kathmandu. The city is home to approximately 200,000 people most of them being engaged in trades related to art, handicrafts and cottage industries. The city is surrounded by four main stupas that were built by the Emperor Ashoka when he visited Kathmandu about 2,250 years ago.
Patan Durbar Square, located in the heart of this city, is the most popular tourist attraction. I’ve always remarked to everyone I know that this place would be a heaven for Art and Architecture students and professionals, given the fact that the city is full of ancient monuments, temples and shrines most noticeable for their craftsmanship. There are many restaurants and cafes inside to relax, and also a museum to explore.
- How to get here: Via taxi.
- Entry Fee: NPR 250 for members of SAARC Countries. NPR 1000 for rest of the world.
3) Pashupatinath Temple
- The Place: Located on the outskirts of Kathmandu, this temple has a certain aura of death. Hundreds and thousands of elderly Hindu followers come here to spend the last weeks of the life and eventually be cremated on the banks of Bagmati River. Tourists and other people gather around to watch the cremation ceremonies. Although, the main temple is only accessible to Hindus, other areas are open to foreigners as well.
I can’t really say much about this place because I did not visit it due to its somewhat morbid nature, although I am sure it would have been an experience to have.
- How to get here: On most websites, it is advised to visit via taxi costing around USD 15.
- Entry Fee: NPR 1000 for foreigners.
5) Garden of Dreams
- The Place: To take a break from all the temples, visit the Garden of Dreams, located opposite to the SAARC Secretariat in Thamel. This garden was build by Field Marshal Kaiser Shumser Rana in the early 1920s and it features a unique combination of pavilions, verandahs, fountains and sitting areas.
Although only half of the original garden exists now, this site was restored from 2000-2007 with the help of the Austrian government. For me, this place was a breath of fresh air in the middle of a generally over-crowded city. A great place to relax and chit chat with friends alongside a cup of garma garam Nepalese Masala Chai and hot fudge brownies while surrounded by a mix of colourful fauna!
- How to get here: If living in Thamel, then on foot depending on proximity, or by taxi.
- Entry Fee: NPR 200 for all foreigners.
6) Narayanhithi Palace Museum
- The Place: Former home to the monarchs of Nepal, the Narayanhithi Palace has now been turned into a museum after the royal massacre and demise of the monarchy. The place is now open to tourists and each site where the massacre took place has been marked for display. As someone mentioned that the place has been actually frozen in time and maybe that is its appeal.
- How to get here: I guess you must have learnt by now: Via taxi 🙂
- Entry Fee: NPR 250 for members of SAARC countries. NPR 500 for rest of the world.
Other interesting places to see: Boudhanath Stupa, National Art Museum Bakhtapur, Patan Museum, Nagarkot.
But Keep in Mind…
- Like any other South Asian city, Kathmandu is popular for its traffic too. So better keep some margin in managing your time when travelling.
- Somehow, there is a lot of air pollution in Kathmandu, so keep some pollution masks in handy when commuting here and there. In fact, the general population wears masks all the time on the roads.
- Shopping in Kathmandu, especially Thamel, is costly for tourists. I was told that you could bargain a lot with the shopkeepers there, but in my experience, they really don’t listen to you when it comes to bargaining. But I would still recommend that you try 😀
- If you plan to catch a local flight to any other city like Pokhara, then expect delays. Lots of delays. For some reason, (bad weather or good weather), flights get delayed and it’s normal. So if you have a connecting flight that you want to catch, you better keep a good margin of time in between flights so as to avoid missing your flight.
- Nepal is not a honeymoon destination. Unless, of course, you are Dora the explorer kind. My idea of a honeymoon is to sit quietly in nature’s cradle disconnected from the world and reallyyyyy chill out. In Nepal, you don’t get to do that as then you would be wasting your time and the wonderful opportunity to learn about culture and heritage!
- Visa for Nepal is on-arrival and free on first entry only for members of SAARC countries.
- At many sites, you would bump into local tour guides offering you to show around the area for some amount of money. I would recommend that you book such tours via your hotel (if you trust them enough), because I don’t know, going around the whole place with someone you have just met, is an idea pretty scary to me.
- Lastly, enjoy your time. Walk around, be active, eat all the delicious food available locally and do not panic if you’re stuck somewhere in a traffic jam! 🙂