I spent the flight from Delhi to Kathmandu re-reading a funny-but-dire blog post I’d saved on my phone about all the horrors of the Kathmandu Airport: How I should have gotten a visa ahead of time instead of relying on the airport machines which are always broken, how the customs and immigration lines were horrible, how airport staff were rude, and generally what a miserable time we were going to have upon landing. Meanwhile, the flight was smooth, the airplane clean and new, the staff friendly, the food good (in the realm of economy seat airplane food) and the Nepalese beer free.
Happily, upon landing, we found the airport to be just as modern, clean, and efficient. All the visa machines worked just fine. We were first to them thanks to the blogger’s accurate description of the location, so had no wait to use the machines either. In no time, we were through passport control, had collected our luggage and were in a taxi. A great start.
I chose the Ambassador Garden Home in Thamel for our first nights in the city. Thamel is tourist central in Kathmandu and, while that may be a mixed bag in many cities, it seemed to be the best option for westerners staying in Kathmandu. Restaurants and shops abound around Ambassador Garden Home and traffic is limited so that only specially-permitted taxis could drive right up to the hotel.
We were greeted with a drink on arrival at the hotel and told to wait on a couch in the small lobby which opens onto a pretty courtyard that serves as the hotel’s dining room. Check-in documents were brought to us and we were soon in our standard room. The room was comfortable, if cozy, with a view onto the courtyard and a quirky shower. The hotel covers a few floors (no elevator) and is comfortably and tastefully decorated with the feel of staying in a period manor house. A large brass padlock served to lock the door when we left. As soon as we were settled, we headed out to explore the bustling streets.
It was a less than 20-minute walk from the hotel to Kathmandu’s Durbar Square at the historic center. Years after the devastating 1915 earthquake, we saw damage everywhere. There’s a $15US entrance fee to Durbar Square (and also just to pass through unless you have a resident’s pass) and we saw no point, happy to survey the square from the main road. Here and elsewhere we wandered in Kathmandu and beyond, the destruction, pollution and poverty was shocking despite all the reading I’d done before our trip. (I recommend Little Princes, written by Conor Grennan, an American volunteer and organizer at a Nepalese orphanage where many of the “orphans” still had parents from whom they’d been separated during the civil war.) Although there is an exotic beauty to much of it, we found that every bridge we crossed assailed us with the smell of an open sewer and smoke and smog pervaded the city.
On one long walk to the hilltop Hindu “Monkey Temple” or Swayambhu Maha Chaitya, we wore surgical facemasks to block pollution in the worst stretches. Climbing the steps to the hilltop stupa, we found fresher air, colorful worshipers and lovely views of the city.
On another day, we hired a driver to take us to Pashupatinath Temple and the Boudhanath Stupa. The temple complex at Pashupatinath is vast and we’d seen smoke from there when we drove past it from the airport. Although we could not go inside the main temple, we wandered the grounds on our own (declining the offers for paid guides). A festival of some sort was going on in one area and girls gave us free boxed lunches we were welcome to share, picnic-style, with others gathered. Having just eaten, we took ours back to our driver who was happy to have them. One of the would-be guides had told us the smoke in the distance was from funerals, but we wondered if we’d understood him correctly given the size and consistency of the smoke. Sure enough, we later came upon many funeral pyres set up along the river with bodies burning and more being brought in regularly. Shrouded bodies on pallets were carried on the shoulders of mourners to the sound of a horns, deep and resonant like blowing on a conch shell. People sat on a long bench behind the pyres observing the proceedings while vendors sold drinks and snacks. Across the river, more observers sat on large bleacher-like steps. We walked to a bridge that we were told separated the common folk from the VIP’s to look down on a pyre only yards below. We could see a foot sticking out from the flame and hear the sizzle. It was disturbing and fascinating at the same time. I took video and photos, but opted not to share them here. We were the only westerners there at the time, but no one seemed to mind or find our presence odd.
We drove from Pashupatinath to Boudhanath Stupa, one of the largest spherical stupas in Nepal. The stupa sits on the northeastern outskirts of Kathmandu and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We wanted to be there at sunset to witness sunset prayers as crowds circle the massive stupa, spinning prayer wheels, making offerings or simply walking clockwise. The experience was a highlight of our stay in Kathmandu.
We found Nepalese food tasty and very similar to Indian food. Ambassador Garden Home offered good food in their courtyard dining area. We liked Fusion Himalaya Restaurant so much we ate there twice. We enjoyed chatting with the friendly owner and even tried local Divine wine that was spiced and sweet. I read rave reviews about the momos (regional dumplings popular in Northern India, Nepal and Bhutan) at Fusion Himalaya so had to try them both fried and steamed. We had a more upscale dinner at Third Eye (Indian and Continental cuisine) just down Chaksibari Marg from Ambassador Garden Home.
From Kathmandu, we headed to Dhulikel to see a little more of the Kathmandu Valley. Dhulikel and the Namobuddha Monastery are up next.