Nepal I: Kathmandu



The destination of most visitors to Kathmandu is Thamel, perhaps the ultimate tourist ghetto.  Some compare it to Bangkok’s Khao San Road, but Thamel outdoes Bangkok’s area in sheer size if not intensity.  It took an early morning stroll to get a photo without a frenetic look to it.  The International Guest House was our quiet oasis on the western edge of Thamel.  It was just far enough away that, during the nightly rolling power blackouts in Kathmandu, if the lights were out in Thamel, we had power and vice versa. 

Thamel, Kathmandu                                                     Nancy at the International Guest House


Every corner of Kathmandu and the surrounding towns reveals new surprises.  It is a city of living history.  Outside Thamel there is little separation of the residents’ city from that of the tourist: they generally blend seamlessly.  This is probably a result of the large number of independent (and generally young) tourists rather than the hordes of mass packaged tourist groups who gaggle behind tour guides in much of the world.  Temples, even those in the iconic tourist sites, are places of active worship.  Temples are parts of neighbourhoods: need a place to hang your laundry?           

Temple, Pathan                                                                Prayer flags at Kathesimbhu Stupa, Kathmandu    Lions on the Akash Bhairab Temple, Kathmandu


The literature on tourism speaks of the “marking” of sites (i.e., the deliberate process of identifying significance).  Tourists necessarily rely on guidebooks, travel guides and interpretation facilities and programs—in fact along with providing the means of travel and accommodation, this is the core of the tourism industry).  Without marking, tourists do not find what is deemed interesting, and even if a site is visited quickly lose interest.  A case in point: a lump of wood on an otherwise nondescript intersection of two unremarkable streets south of Thamel.  The lump might attract the attention of the casual passer-by simply because it is covered by thousands of coins nailed into the wood.  But why are tourists here?  Some tour groups do come by and hear the story and the Lonely Planet’s Nepal guide’s Walking Tour 1 directs one here.  Many of the surrounding storefronts are dentists and nailing a coin into the wood is supposed to cure toothaches—an amusing enough anecdote.  But without the marking there is no “site” nor “sight”.

Toothache offerings


An even better case: in Lonely Planet’s Greece an eccentric’s junk-filled front yard is listed in the “Points of Interest”.  Visit the Acropolis, the National Archaeological Museum, the Ancient Agora, and, oh yes, Tom’s garden.

Tom's Recycled Garden in Athens, Greece


The most important of the historic areas of Kathmandu is the royal Durbar Square.  This is the site of the old Royal Palace.  Actually, during the time we were in Kathmandu the new Royal Palace was being transformed into an “old” palace as well.  In what all seemed to see as a surprising result, the Maoists, who had but recently abandoned their insurgency which had begun in 1996 and acceded to the democratic process, won effective control of the Nepalese government in elections in April with 220 of 601 seats in the Constituent Assembly.  The first parliamentary session of took place when we there, accompanied by a show of military presence in the streets, demonstrations and even some small explosions (which fortunately injured few).  The Parliament placed a 15 day deadline for the King to vacate the palace ending the 239-year-old monarchy.


Most of the buildings and temples in Durbar Square date from the zenith of Nepalese Newali architecture, the Malla dynasty, although the southwest wing of the Royal Palace is an unfortunate legacy of some Europhile influence.

Shiva-Parvati Temple, Durbar Square, Kathmandu


The Kumari Bahal in Durbar Square is the home of the Kumari—a young girl who acts as the city’s living goddess until she reaches puberty and reverts to mortality.

Carved windows in courtyard of Kumari Bahal, Durbar Square, Kathmandu


The dramatic stone figure of Kala Bhairav—the fearsome manifestation of Shiva—is a striking part of the square.

Kal Bhairav, Durbar Square, Kathmandu


To the west of Thamel lies the Swayambhunath temple, about a 30 minute hike.  The photo does not to justice to the height nor steepness of the staircase to the top of the hill—the stairs increased in gradient to almost 1:1 near the summit.                           

Steps leading to Swayambhunath temple, Kathmandu             Stupa at Swayambhunath temple, Kathmandu


Patan is separated from Kathmandu proper by the Bagmati River.  We didn’t have a map or guide to Patan, but did have a general sense of the way: somewhere to the south.   It did turn out to be a fairly easy one-and-a-half hour walk from Thamel and the central city is small enough that we could rely on serendipity to discover, what was to us, hidden Patan.  The core of the city has a series of interlinked squares and courtyards, many with tanks, monasteries, temples and stupas.  One tiny square is almost entirely occupied by the Mahabouddha Temple (the Temple of a Thousand Buddhas) covered with tiny terracotta images of Buddah.  As with many structures in the Kathmandu valley this temple suffered badly from the devastating 1934 earthquake and had to be rebuilt.   

Water tank in Patan                                                      Mahabouhhha Temple, Patan                           Lion at Swoyambhu Stupa, Patan


All paths eventually must lead to the central Durbar Square, the site of the Royal Palace. The concentration of spectacular temples is nowhere greater.  As with Durbar Square in Kathmandu this architecture is largely a product of the 14th to 17th century Malla dynasty reflecting both the local Newari culture as well as Indian influences. Parts of the Royal Palace have been turned into the Patan Museum—reputably one of the finest museums on the entire subcontinent.  I sat “reputedly” because the power was off for the whole four hours we were in Patan.             

Durbar Square, Patan; the Royal Palace to the right                 Durbar Square, Patan with the contrast between Nawari (wood and brick) and Indian (stone) architectural styles

Garuda in Durbar Square facing the Krishna Mandir temple, Patan


Wandering the streets (serendipity is enhanced without a map or guide), we came across the Rato Machhendranath chariot.  Rato Machhendranath is the god of rain and abundance.  Every year just prior to the arrival of the monsoon rains, his image is taken from the temple south of Durbar Square and placed in a towering chariot.  Over the period of a month the chariot is rolled through the city each evening.  One can imagine the logistics involved with moving the top-heavy chariot on wooden wheels through the throngs with the web of overhead wires.  

Chariot of the Rato Machhendranath Festival, Patan


I don’t want to leave too romantic an image of Kathmandu.  It is a huge city in a poor country.  It suffers all the difficulties of like cities elsewhere.  The lingering cold I carried back from the Annapurna trek meant I could not fully experience the ubiquitous fecal odour.  Air quality is poor, traffic occasionally a horror, noise is palpable, services are problematic (rolling blackouts neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood occurred nightly), waste and litter were everywhere, and the less said about the rivers, the better.  

Electrical snarl south of Thamel, Kathmandu               Tributary to Vishnumati River, Kathmandu


But we can’t wait to get back.