In my mind, I’ve always known that Nepal is a diverse country. However, I’ve only known people who have travelled to Nepal to trek to Everest base camp or who lived in Kathmandu for work or volunteer projects. I know there are mountains and valleys, big cities and remote villages, but Everest (and trekking) was still the only thing I could think of to ‘do’ in Nepal. That is before I went there myself.
Now, having spent 10 days in this unique, beautiful and welcoming country, I have experienced that Nepal is so much more than Everest. It’s not just for trekkers! Believe me, a trekker I am not.
I assumed that Kathmandu would be a large, hectic city. I had expectations that traffic would be bad, but having just arrived from Delhi, it couldn’t be THAT bad, right?
There are 29 million people in Nepal and one million live in the capital of Kathmandu. When you have that many people in a city, it is simply a given that the streets will be packed. There were cars and buses, motorbikes, people, dogs and the occasional cow wandering through the streets. Traffic moved at a snail’s pace and came to a standstill regularly. While motorcycles zipped in between traffic and people meandered in all directions, cars and buses simply couldn’t maneuver effectively around each other. Often this was because motorbikes had crammed themselves in the tiny spaces between cars.
I’ve seen a lot of bad traffic in my travels, including Delhi, India where the traffic was the worst I had ever encountered. Nepal was somehow different though. Almost instantly you realize that Nepalis are patient and kind. They beep to communicate rather than out of anger. They are careful not to run over dogs and pedestrians. They don’t road rage, yell or get frustrated, they just move forward little by little. This is vastly different from what I experienced in Delhi and was quite a welcome change. In Delhi, I felt like people in traffic hated everything. In Nepal, I felt like people in traffic were calm and it was just part of their daily commute.
It took about an hour from the airport to my hotel, a total of 6.2 kms. Yes, you read that right. And so began this beautiful adventure into the patient chaos of Kathmandu.
Inside the city centre in the district of Thamel, the streets are narrow and winding and the buildings tall, blocking most of the sunlight from getting down to street level. Cars bump and crawl along in both directions, often on a street made for one vehicle, likely a horse and cart, after all the city was built over 1000 years ago.
Thamel is a hot spot for tourists, offering various types of accommodation, all of the services you need from ATMs to restaurants, souvenirs to top-quality trekking gear. It’s easy enough to get around here on your own if you have a good sense of direction and don’t mind getting lost in the winding streets without posted names. You can spend hours meandering through the narrow streets filled with prayer flags, decorative lights and (mostly) helpful storefront staff.
I was pleasantly surprised that once inside my hotel, on the other side of the lobby was a delightful courtyard garden. Other than the occasional car horn, you could completely forget about the chaos just 100 meters away. It was tranquil and just what I needed after the disorganization of the airport and the chaos of the traffic. It was a little reprieve from the real world outside. It was a moment of silence in an otherwise boisterous world.
First up for us was a day exploring Kathmandu and getting familiar with Buddhist culture. We headed off through the narrow, chaotic streets to the beautiful Boudhanath Stupa, the best known and most important pilgrimage for Buddhists around the world and is a safe place for Tibetans to practice their religion freely. Many have immigrated to this area as they were ostracized from their own country.
The Stupa and surroundings are a large, circular complex surrounded by historic buildings, temples, monasteries and now, a variety of souvenir shops. Marked by the famous Buddha eyes on all four sides of the temple, we were reminded that Buddha is always watching and encouraging us to make the right choices. Locals and tourists alike, wander clockwise around the complex spinning hundreds of prayer wheels that line the outside of the building. It is said that those who fully circle the complex with a pure heart create good karma, resulting in the fulfillment of all their wishes. Whether you believe in it or not, isn’t it nice to think that pure hearts and good karma exist in this world?
As we made our way around looking at the different prayer wheels and sculptures, we stopped to visit the Tibetan monastery (Guru Lhakhang Gompa), an important place of worship for pilgrims and visited inside to view the intricate design. No photos allowed inside.
On our way back to our hotel in Thamel we walked through Kathmandu’s Durbar square. Sadly, it was heavily damaged in the earthquake of 2015, reducing many of the centuries-old buildings to rubble. Today, under Unesco’s supervision, many of the buildings are being reconstructed to their former glory, but the process is slow both from a construction aspect and I’m sure, due to the strict regulations of Unesco to ensure it is rebuilt the same as it was. Most of the buildings are covered with scaffolding, so I didn’t take photos, but peeking through the construction you could see the former beauty of the intricately carved wooden buildings. 3 – 5 years from now, there’s no doubt they’ll be returned to their former glory.
We also visited the Kumari’s palace. The story goes that Goddess Taleju appeared to the king each night in human form to discuss important matters. If any other person saw her in human form, she would no longer appear. One night, the King’s wife followed him curiously as he stepped out every night after she went to bed. As she peered around the corner she saw Goddess Taleju in her human form. The Goddess was furious and instantly knew she had been seen. She disappeared forever from the King’s Palace. Later, she sent word to the King that in order to continue to worship her and partake in her guidance, the community would need to select a child to carry her spirit. This child would be the Kumari. This young child, pre-menstruation, is chosen based on specific physical attributes (long dark hair, dark eyes, long fingers, unblemished or unscarred skin), as well as personality characteristics of fearlessness. She must never have lost a drop of blood from her body or she will be considered impure. It is believed that Goddess Taleju lives inside her and worshiping her provides power and protection. Still today, the Kumari lives in the palace and appears to the people to be worshipped, randomly, providing good fortune to those who lay eyes on her. On special occasions (13 times per year) she leaves the palace in a chariot pulled by many men and she is worshipped in the streets.
The current Kumari was chosen in 2017 at just three years old. We visited her palace in Kathmandu’s Durbar square and with good fortune, she appeared while we were inside. Before she was seen, the guards demanded silence and no photos. All cameras had to be set aside and they watched like hawks to ensure no one took photos. A young girl, just five years old, appeared for about one minute to be worshipped. The crowd stood in silence and then she was gone.
It’s hard to believe this ancient tradition is still upheld and we heard from our guide that child rights activists are fighting to change the ancient tradition. They have made progress as the current Kumari has teachers who come to give her schooling. She has access to the internet, books and magazines. Her parents are allowed to visit and she has playmates, the children of her caregivers. Otherwise, she is not allowed to leave the palace except for the 13 special occasions throughout the year when she is worshipped publicly. There is pressure to end the tradition, but as it has been happening for so many years, it will take many years for the tradition to be abolished. It is hoped that this Kumari will be the final one of the tradition, once she is dethroned when menstruation starts and returns to peasant life with her family. Of course, she’ll never be a true ‘peasant’, as her family is compensated substantially during her reign as the goddess and continuing through her life.
As you can see, Kathmandu has a lot to offer for tourists interested in culture, religion and history. Along with the locations mentioned above, you can also visit the Monkey temple, the Garden of Dreams, Pashupatinath Temple (Hindu), shop for souvenirs in the local markets or you can give back and make a positive impact by visiting and supporting social enterprises such as Seven Women Kathmandu by taking a crafting or cooking class.
You’ll need to be comfortable walking in busy streets, have an open mind for new religious beliefs and patience for the chaos in order to enjoy Kathmandu. With that in mind, you’ll likely feel as if you’ve stepped back hundreds of years in time and you’ll quickly be won over by the warm, friendly people, their incredible history and beliefs, different from your own.
If you’d like to visit Nepal I highly recommend considering a small group tour. I enjoy travelling this way because it gives me a chance to meet new people from around the world, share travel stories and bond over random adventures in new places. It also gives me a sense of safety. It’s much more relaxing to enjoy the best a country has to offer with the guidance of a local guide, rather than having to figure out each of your next moves on your own!