Kathmandu ushers weary travellers into the Himalayas. A patchwork of royal city-states past, Kathmandu is the perfect introduction to Nepal before you set out to trek. This is where you learn the ins and outs of Nepali cuisine (which I guarantee you’ll get tired of once trekking), witness about Hinduism and Buddhism in tandem, and experience the unique mix of cultures which defines this remote nation.
The entire valley has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it’s easy to see why. So much of the city’s history continues to thrive. Although several destroyed attractions are a constant reminder of the 2015 earthquake in which took far too many lives, the atmosphere around Kathmandu is one of resilience. The city has persevered as the vibrant hub it was destined to be.
For the overwhelming majority of visitors, the central district of Thamel will be your base in Kathmandu. The area is one of the most touristy places I’ve ever been, yet there are very few of the negative things typically associated with mass tourism. There are no scams nor people hassling you. What you get instead is an entire district pretty much dedicated to serving trekkers.
Every second shop sells climbing gear or warm clothes. These range from genuine products to high-quality imitations to poor-quality imitations. Shopkeepers are upfront about this and prices are set accordingly. Every price range is catered to and unlike many other tourist destinations, shopkeepers tend to negotiate in good faith. Down jackets, for example, are available with natural or synthetic fill at every rating, and the sellers will make sure you understand exactly what grade of product you’re purchasing.
It’s also a great place to buy a map—an essential piece of kit when setting out to trek. Make sure you find the most up-to-date edition of your route, and preferably at the largest scale possible.
Then there’s the food. While I usually try to avoid tourist restaurants and Western food as much as possible, it’ll be all you want to gorge on when you get back from trekking where the range of available meals is limited by an agreement between teahouses. Want a pizza to yourself? No problem. How about wings, or a kebab? Whatever it is you crave, you’ll find it when you get back to Thamel.
As you’d expect, there are hostels and souvenir shops everywhere, but without the aggressive touts usually associated with such places. Thamel is chill and there to serve you, making it a great place to prepare or recover.
Kathmandu is one of only a few large cities where Hinduism and Buddhism mix so prominently, with adherents of Kirat Mundhum also in the mix. Thus the city’s layout is punctuated by massive Buddhist stupas while tight laneways are dotted with Hindu shrines.
Pashupatinath Temple is the site of Kathmandu’s burning ghats. This idyllic setting is similar to its more famous counterpart in Varanasi, India, but is much less touristy. The temple complex is built beside the Bagmati River, whose water is considered holy Hindus and Buddhists alike.
On one side of the river, the mood is solemn. Funeral processions of sometimes-hysterical mourners alight at their individual platforms for final rites. This is a place to tread lightly. But on the other side, the rest of the city spectates as if it’s a footy game. Old men sit in groups and taunt the countless monkeys in the complex. Women gossip loudly. Children run around giggling. It’s a strange dichotomy, but one that’s accepted by locals nonetheless.
Perhaps the onlookers are drawn to the area’s beauty. The complex’s layout is quaint, while the architecture is some of Kathmandu’s best. Adding to this is the fact that there are no roads—no honking, no engines whirring, no traffic to avoid. We visited at dusk, then the sky’s colours matched the warm hues of the temples themselves. Smoke from the cremations dissipated over the river so that the last moments of sunlight glistened in the haze. Atmospheric is an understatement.
Back on the other side, entire families watch on as their loved ones are cremated in open air. As a Westerner, it can seem morbid for some, or cathartic for those with a fascination for death. For locals, while sad, it’s considered the end of one life, and the beginning of the next.
Out of respect, tourists are requested not to take photos of the cremations or the processions, and it’s probably better to not take any photos inside the complex at all. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take a seat on the ghats between onlookers and monkeys. Don’t be shy to watch the funerals; you’ll probably end up chatting with locals.
Overlooking the city from the west is Swayambhunath. The Buddhist stupa sits atop an enormous hill and provides panoramic views of Kathmandu. More importantly, the site itself is beautiful. Local chronicles attribute its construction to King Vṛsadeva in the 5th century, with large-scale maintenance taking place every few centuries.
The stupa is perfectly proportioned and styled along the lines of Vajrayana Buddhism, the main form of Buddhism in Nepal. Because of this, it has a decidedly Tibetan appearance for Westerners more used to the Theravada practiced in Southeast Asia.
Buddhists make up around 10% of Nepal’s population, and their traditions often draw from those of the Hindu majority. Swayambhunath is no exception, with Hindu elements scattered among the sea of Buddhist statues surrounding the enormous stupa.
Aside from the barrage of worshippers and tourists, monkeys have also overrun the site. It’s pretty cool to watch them from shrine to shrine with a backdrop of the skyline down below. Another prominent stupa is Boudhanath, one of the world’s largest, but it lacks the sweeping views of Swayambhunath.
One of the most iconic districts of Kathmandu is Durbar Square. This was the site of the former royal palace as well as numerous Hindu temples. In April, 2015, images were broadcast around the world of Durbar Square in ruins. Centuries-old temples had been reduced to rubble.
The reconstruction phase is progressing slowly, with much of the square is still destroyed beyond recognition. But it’s a significant focal point of the city worth visiting nonetheless, while the adjacent Freak Street is the old tourist district frequented the hippie overlanders of decades past.
That atmosphere at night is incongruous with that of a royal court. Young people fill hipster chai cafes that resemble exclusive bars and commuters make pit stops at candle-lit shrines. Traffic flows through the square, bringing a cacophony or horns and engines into the otherwise serene abode.
But Durbar Square (meaning “Royal Palace Square”) is just a generic name. Each of the three city-states that once occupied the Kathmandu Valley had its own square. This means there are more squares, temples and palaces to explore!
An alternative—or rather a superior option altogether—to Durbar Square in Kathmandu is Durbar Square in Patan. Patan is a medieval Newari city-state on the other side of the Bagmati River which has since fused into Kathmandu proper thanks to both cities’ sprawl. Although still damaged, the buildings in Patan’s Durbar Square are in much better condition.
The intact royal palace also is beautiful to wander around. It also houses Patan Museum, one of the best in the country. The musuem’s extensive, period halls are filled with Hindu artworks and artifacts. The explanations are all excellent, and there are several displays discussing the significant of religious themes or demonstrating the crafting techniques. I love museums and this was still one of the best I’ve ever visited in the world.
The ace up Patan’s sleeve is that the surrounding districts are all of the same era and architectural style–straight out of the 17th century. The quiet, non-touristy laneways are probably the best places to explore on foot in the Kathmandu area. It’s so easy to lose yourself in the maze or intricate wooden facades and shimmery copper workshops. You’ll pass a bunch of shrines and markets along the way, which just add to the atmosphere.
One of the struggles of Kathmandu is finding local cruising from non-touristy joints. The backstreets of Patan were the perfect place to alleviate my longing. Momos are a kind of Tibetan dumpling synonymous with the refugee population throughout Nepal. They’ve also long been associated with the Newari community of the Kathmandu valley, and are somewhat of a national dish.
Like most dumplings, momos can be steamed or fried but the steamed variety is more common. Buffalo mince is the typical filling but you can also find chicken or vegetarian momos too.
If Patan somehow wasn’t enough for you, the third former Newari city-state of Bhaktapur is just a short drive away. The old town is much larger than even Patan, encompassing several squares. Some sections of Bhaktapur escaped the earthquake relatively unscathed, but the royal palace there and its surrounds were unfortunately decimated.
Situated on a trans-Himalayan trade route since time immemorial, the town’s history is one of prosperity and colliding cultures. It’s much more touristy than Patan or the Durbar Square in Kathmandu proper, and you’ll have to pay an entrance fee to merely enter the old town. But this is just a testament to how uniformly preserved the labyrinth of laneways and squares of Bhaktapur is—rather than being home to attractions, the town is the attraction.
That’s not to say there are no sights! Following the main road eventually takes you to the Nyatapola Temple. This 5-storey pagoda is the tallest in the country, and one of the tallest buildings in general in the Kathmandu Valley. Built in 1702, it surprisingly withstood earthquakes in 1934 and 2015 when most others didn’t.
Climbing up the steps gives a great view of the rooftops and adjacent square. Down below there are smaller temples and shrines which are well-patronised by worshippers. The architecture of the temple—and the rest of Bhaktapur—is beautiful and intricate. But what sets this temple apart in particular is its form factor. Being a pyramid on top of a pyramid, this precursor to a skyscraper is the best example of a style that is unlike anywhere else in the world. It seemingly defies gravity, while the wood carvings and masonry remind you how old the structure really is.
Further into the heart of Bhaktapur is its own Durbar Square. Like in Kathmandu proper, much of the temples are in complete ruin. The palaces fared slightly better, but many are still under heavy restoration. It’s best to keep wandering, as there are several smaller squares around Bhaktapur each with its own metalwork, woodwork or pottery on display.
While fairly touristy, Bhaktapur is still a decent place to explore Nepali cuisine. Samay baji is a traditional Newari dish reserved for special occasions. But thanks to the advent of tourism it’s now available throughout the old town of Bhaktapur. The assortment includes buffalo meat, egg, potato, greens, ginger, and practically whatever else is available at the time. The centrepiece is a mound of beaten rice. It’s not only delicious in its own right but is a very welcome respite from weeks of dal bhaat and momos.
It’s so easy to rank Kathmandu’s districts by how damaged they were in the earthquake. But the reality is that the amount of damage corresponds to the amount of casualties. Yes, some tourist attractions are now gone, but the people who lived there were also killed.
On top of this, Kathmandu still has yet to fully recover. Many districts still have buildings propped up by wooden supports. It’s an impractical and possibly dangerous solution, but it’s only out of necessity to keep people’s homes and businesses structurally sound. Tourism can potentially a source of income to recover from this situation, but for it to be somewhat equitable it’s important to remember the human beings whose neighborhoods you’re visiting.
Many of the sights in Kathmandu might seem relatively repetitive. Palaces, temples and stupas all start to look the same after a while. But each of these is so deeply woven in to the city’s fabric that the only way to experience them is as parts of a greater whole. There are vibrant cultures to be witnessed and rich histories to learn about. No matter which Durbar Square you visit, you’ll want to see another. Repeat visits to sights will never gpet old. The attraction here is the city itself, and the sights are inseparable from that.