You don’t have to be an avid follower of the news to know that Nepal has had a tough time of things since the earthquake in 2015. The country is still recovering and tourism will undoubtedly continue to play a big part in the recovery process. So the good news is that Nepal, including Kathmandu, is well and truly open for business! As the capital Kathmandu is the beating heart of Nepal; and the gateway for trips in to the Himalayas. But it’s not just a stepping off point; it’s a fantastic destination in its own right that provides an initial foray in to the religion, culture and history that Nepal has to offer. So, if you’re planning an expedition in Nepal then you should definitely take the opportunity to spend a couple of days in Kathmandu. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.
Being a mere 6km from the very center of Kathmandu, Tribhuvan International Airport is possibly one of the closest airports to a major city that you’ll likely experience. It is a fairly small airport and can be chaotic after a long flight. If you’re planning to get a visa upon arrival then I would advise that you come armed with three things: one passport-sized photo, one pen and enough US dollars to pay for the visa. In theory there are visa application booths which will take your photo and provide you with a printed application to take to the immigration desk. In practice 50% of the machines are broken and you might end up standing in line waiting for ‘hell to freeze over’ instead of being out exploring the sights of Kathmandu. To avoid queuing for the ‘red tape extravaganza,’ walk straight past the machines (and angry mob), pay for your visa at the payment desk and walk straight to an immigration booth. There you can ask for a paper form. Fill it out and hand it over to an immigration officer with your passport size photo. Doing it this way could potentially save you a lot of time and heartache!
As the airport is close to town, getting from ‘a’ to ‘b’ is fairly painless. The easiest option is to arrange a hotel transfer; most hotels offer them and many are free (or near enough). You’ll no doubt experience the prevalence of hotel transfers when you come out of the arrivals hall and are met with a solid wall of people with name boards screaming at you! Taxis are a similarly easy option. There are pre-paid taxi desks just after you leave the luggage hall. Regular taxis are also available and are cheaper but a pre-paid taxi takes out the hassle of negotiation if you don’t fancy it after a long flight. The last resort, and lowest cost, is the bus. It’s technically possible to take a bus but the stop is outside the airport gate (a five minute walk from the terminal building) and the buses don’t really operate on a fixed schedule – so it’s a bit of a crap shoot but admittedly a great way to get up close and personal with the local population.
There’s no denying that the 2015 earthquake had a devastating effect on both the people and infrastructure of Kathmandu. Having first visited before the earthquake it became immediately clear when I went back that the air quality is no longer as good, the road and sewerage infrastructure has got worse and many of the major tourist sights remain in a state of earthquake damage rehabilitation. However, none of that detracts from the excitement and buzz of the city and the resilience of its people. If photography is your thing, and you like to plan beforehand, just make sure you do your research on the current rehabilitation status of the sights to avoid disappointment as some of them are still shrouded behind scaffolding. If you’re looking for any more reasons to visit then make sure to read THIS article before you book.
Kathmandu lies in the Kathmandu valley. The valley is a bit of a metropolis and actually also incorporates the cities of Patan and Bhakpatur; both of which also have a huge amount to offer visitors. All three cities can easily be covered from the same base hotel in Kathmandu City but in this particular post I’ll just cover Kathmandu (that’s probably a good indication of how much there is to see and do across Kathmandu Valley). More posts on Patan and Bhakpatur are on their way as well.
I’m not normally a fan of wearing pollution masks; quite frankly I think they look a little bit silly, are uncomfortable and hot. However, I strongly advise that you take a pollution mask to Kathmandu. I’d heard a couple of horror stories before we left and turns out they weren’t an exaggeration (THIS story changed in particular my opinion on taking the plunge and buying a mask). When it’s hot and there hasn’t been any rain the conditions get particularly bad on the roads. So whilst I still think they look silly, are uncomfortable and hot at least I didn’t cough up a dust brick! My wife and I both opted for the Respro Ultra-Light mask (particularly given the high temperatures in Kathmandu). I’ve included in the link to their website in the additional resources below.
Kathmandu Durbar Square: More accurately known as Hanuman-Dhoka Durbar Square (but obviously Kathmandu Durbar is less of a mouthful). Durbar square could easily occupy a full post in its own right (and I may in fact do just that at some point). It houses dozens of temples and palaces; many of which are built in the pagoda style and adorned with ridiculously intricate wooden carving. There’s an entrance fee payable when you enter the sight (USD 10 at the time of writing and it comes with a handy-dandy site map). Bearing in mind that structural rehabilitation is still ongoing after the earthquake, you’d hope that a substantial portion of the fee is going towards that cause (the facts of which I cannot prove or disprove). Once you’re past the payment booths (or even whilst you’re still trying to make a payment), you’ll probably be accosted by a local tour guide offering their services. Many of these informal guides provide a great service (and have fantastic knowledge) but a few are a little bit aggressive in their sales approach, so just watch out! The whole area is sub-divided in to two areas. The outer complex is where you can see the Kumari-Ghar (home of the living Kumari Child Goddess who appears in the interior courtyard window from time to time), Shiv- Parbati Temple and the Big Bell. The inner complex houses the palace area and its courtyards.
Swayambhunath (Monkey Temple): As the informal name would suggest you should expect to see some monkeys at Swayambhunath; they’re mostly friendly apart from one sanctimonious so-and-so who took umbrage to my paparazzi close-up shots. But more importantly, the temple is an impressive complex built on a hill with fantastic panoramic views of the entire city. On top of the hill is an impressive stupa which is one of the oldest in Nepal and is surrounded by a whole host of monasteries and shrines; including prayer wheels which surround the entire site. You can get to the top of the site (where the stupa is located) in two ways. The first is via an increasingly steep set of stone steps that seem to go on forever. We took this approach and I was admittedly a sweaty, but triumphant, mess by the time we reached the top. You will likely be directed to pay a small entrance fee to the site (small booth on the left hand side as you walk up the stairs). The alternative route can be accessed by car (but there’s still a few steps thrown in for good measure). Either way, both my wife and I were dumbfounded to see a cow at the top of the stupa steps!
Three Buddha Park: This is one of the newer temples in town and as a result doesn’t attract the same tourist crowds as some of the other major sights across Kathmandu. It’s definitely worth visiting (particularly if you’re visiting Monkey Temple as it’s just around the corner and I believe it’s actually considered as part of the Swayambhunath wider ‘complex’). As you can probably guess, the site is dominated by three massive golden Buddha statues. The center statute, Amitaba Buddha, is apparently the biggest Buddhist statue in Nepal at 67 feet high.
Boudhanath Stupa: Make sure you visit Boudhanath either early in the morning or late in the evening as the stupa buzzes with energy at either end of the day. We chose the evening so that we could watch devotees making their way around the stupa lighting candles, spinning prayer wheels and stoking the fires that had been built in the cauldrons around the Stupa. The Stupa rises out of a square in the East of Kathmandu that is surrounded by restaurants and cafes, which makes it a perfect spot to watch all of the action whilst enjoying some momo and a beer; a perfect place to finish the day. There are also a number of monasteries to visit surrounding the stupa, which is the center of Tibetan Buddhism in Nepal.
Thamel Chowk: Thamel is the main shopping district for tourists and has a heavy focus on trekking and an equally heavy focus on hard bartering (always fun). Here you’ll find everything from knock-off North Face gear, to woolen gloves, prayer flags and pretty much any delightfully tacky souvenir your heart could desire. Unless you really enjoy looking at hundreds of shops selling pretty much exactly the same thing then you probably won’t need too much time here, but it’s a good place to spend a couple hours stocking up for a trek in the Himalayas or watching the world go by in one of the many cafes and restaurants.
Pashupatinath: One of the four most sacred sites for devotees of Shiva and a UNESCO cultural heritage site, Pashupatinath is based on the banks of Bagmati River in east Kathmandu. It’s also the largest temple complex in Nepal and a highly sacred site for Hindus. The main complex (which non-Hindus can’t enter – but don’t worry you can wander the rest of the site regardless of your religion) is a pagoda style with gilded roof, silver sidings and intricate wooden carvings that is best photographed across the bridge on the opposite bank of the Bagmati. Back on the temple side of the river are a number of cremation platforms where funeral pyres are built. Pasupatinath is in fact where Hindus come to spend the last weeks of their lives before they die and are cremated on the banks of the river before their final journey on the sacred Bagmati River. Those who die here are believed to be reincarnated as humans regardless of past transgressions. Despite the sensitive nature of cremations the site is completely open to tourists and it is permissible to take photos of the cremations as they happen. Personally I felt this was in poor taste, but the sight can feel incredibly moving. More tasteful photography opportunities come in the form of Sadhus; the holy men who live on site. Just beware that if you do want to photograph the Sadhus then they’ll be expecting a few dollars in return!
Tribhuvan International Airport Website: http://www.tiairport.com.np/
Respro Ultra-Light Mask Website: http://respro.com/store/product/ultra-light
Pathupatinath Temple Website: http://www.pashupatinathtemple.org