Nepal is, of course, most famous for the treks in the Himalayas (especially the famous base camp trek). Therefore, Kathmandu is the main gateway to all the natural wonders Nepal has in its offer. But the capital city itself is also worth a visit - fascinating, full of contrast, similar to Indian cities but with an original touch of incredible, unique architecture and complicated history. It is especially good to travel to this city now, to help the economy, when it's rising from the devastating earthquake in 2015. We went to Nepal right before, at the end of March 2015. In the photos below, you can see all the monuments in their original state, virtually days before the disaster.
Visiting Kathmandu - first impressions
If you're from the west, you need to prepare yourself mentally before traveling to Kathmandu in the same way you prepare yourself for India (check my post about it here). The contrast, poverty and pollution is rampant and clearly obvious between the beautifully restored monuments - world class architectural gems - durbar squares and the rest of neglected streets. The tangles of thousands of wires hang above your head and the noise of motorcycles and rickshaws can be intimidating. But the local people, in spite of the living conditions are very welcoming, the prices are low and, incredibly, there are way fewer con artists than in South East Asia. Also, the air, despite smog, is clearer than in India or SE Asia - due to the high altitude and presence of the Himalayas which allow extra ventilation.
Getting around Kathmandu
Kathmandu is incredibly hectic and it's extremely easy to get lost. And, to see all the amazing attractions I've described here, walking around is not an option, unfortunately. If you wish to use the local public transport, you'd better have a local to help you with the stops as they are quite arbitrary. If there's no locals with you, you can get one at the tour office - he will become your guide and also explain the most important history facts and legends. It's not expensive at all, especially when there's more of you traveling. Go to a few tourist agencies, ask, compare and bargain. Take a look at the map - I've marked the places described and shown on the photos below.
What to see in Kathmandu
Thamel (1 on the map) is a busy and hectic touristic area full of narrow streets and tour offices - usually most of the visitors coming to Kathmandu stay here. If you're interested to browse through some tours and excursions, it's a perfect place. The accommodation and food is very affordable and Thamel retained the original, authentic filling. For me, although far more neglected, it was way better than the tourist streets in Thailand, for example.
Temples In Kathmandu
Kathmandu is full of temples (stupas), there are hundreds of them and to visit all, you'd have to spend probably a few months there. Here are the biggest and most impressive ones:
Swayambhu Stupa (2 on the map), dating back to the 5th century AD is one of the most sacred places for Buddists. You can see many people performing religious rites that seem quite mysterious for those who are unaware of what's going on. The temple is decorated with many golden ornaments, bells and other smaller shrines. The whole site is extremely impressive - it also offers the beautiful views over the city and parts of Kathmandu Valley. Be careful with the monkeys - they can grab your things (especially sunglasses) and run away. In fact, "Monkey Temple" is the second name for Swayambhu Stupa. Don't tease them as they are considered holy.
Boudhanath Stupa (3 on the map), dating back to the 14th century AD is one of the holiest sites for Tibetan Buddhists. The round base represents the whole world and the golden pyramid on top symbolizes the ladder to enlightenment. Similarly to other temples of this kind, Buddha's Eyes look in all four directions. Also, note the beautiful prayer wheels around - if you turn them and pray, it'll supposedly make your wishes come true.
Around the temple, there's a huge, round plaza surrounded by extremely beautiful, decorated buildings. It was one of our favorite sites in Kathmandu!
Pashupatinath Temple (4 on the map)- from the 14th century AD - is a Hindu Temple, visited by millions of pilgrims every year. It's a huge complex of temples and shrines - and very impressive too. The temple is located on the banks of the river Bagmati and is treated a site of religious cremation - you can see the bodies being burned down on ritual stakes - it's quite a disturbing view, to be honest, from an outsider's point of view...
There are many mystical "sadhu" on the site - the holy men, who willingly pose for photographs with the tourists (of course for a fee!)
There are multiple complicated mythical legends associated with the temple, check all of them on the wikipedia page, if you're interested.
Durbar Squares in Kathmandu
Durbar Squares (part of UNESCO heritage) are the three main plazas (or courtyards) of the palaces belonging to the old rulers of Nepal. They are the most breathtaking parts of the city with sublime, sophisticated architecture. I can't say which one I liked the most as all of them seem so unique and magnificent. They are absolutely beautiful, however, for a foreign tourist, there's a fee of around 10 USD to enter each of them.
Durbar Squares also have a darker side - they are the place of sacrificial animal slaughter that, supposedly, is going to bring luck to the worshipers.
The famous Durbar Squares suffered enormous damage during the earthquake and are now being restored. Their beauty and grandeur, however is still there for you to be admired.
Kathmandu Durbar Square (5 on the map) - located right in the center of Kathmandu, a short walk from Thamel. It used to be the seat of the ancient rulers in Nepal and the royal palace was built on the site. It's an important place until today where all the national ceremonies take place.
The square is filled with statues, three-leveled temples and controversial, for some, "camasutra" reliefs. Ancient people were way more liberal, I suppose. It is also a site of an interesting tradition - a girl who is chosen to become a Hindu mother goddess, appears for a short while for a fee at the window of the palace.
The most impressive temples are: Trailokya Mohan Narayan Temple, Indrapur Temple and Vishnu Temple right in the middle of the square.
Patan Durbar Square (6 on the map) - located in the south of Kathmandu, in the district of Lalitpur. It used to be one of the oldest Buddhist centers. Patan boasts the most beautiful examples of Newa architecture - typical, unique style of the people living in Kathmandu Valley. It's so amazing - you'll be enchanted by those magnificent buildings. We sat in a restaurant on the top floor and admired the whole scene as if we were on a different planet.
The most beautiful temple in Patan Durbar Square is Krishna Madir - it's probably the most impressive of all temples within Durbar Squares, however, when we visited Patan, it was completely covered due to renovation works. You must see it when you're in Kathmandu.
Bhaktapur Durbar Square (7 on the map) - situated 15 km south of Kathmandu, in the beautiful Kathmandu Valley, it's the largest and most grandeur of the Durbar Squares - consists of a grid of five squares adjacent to one another with multiple temples.
Bhaktapur is perfect to visit for a day trip when combined with the beautiful village of Nagarkot where you can enjoy a stay with a local Napalese family and at sunrise, admire the beautiful Himalayas.
I have described how to reach the Bhaktapur Square from Kathmandu and the visit to Nagargot in detail here in this post.
The other, non-touristic side of Kathmandu
While traveling through the Nepalese capital, I also tried to experience and take photos of the ordinary, day to day life as well as the streets and houses to show the stark contrast between the beautifully maintained monuments and the non-touristic areas. The less popular side of Kathmandu is not so cheerful - the pollution is clearly visible, the air - full of dust making it difficult to breathe and the rivers are thick with sewage waste and filled with plastic garbage. It's sad that people still have to put up with such conditions, in our modern age.
Kathmandu will open your eyes and make you feel more grateful for everything that you have. We might not be aware, but here in the west, we are the few percent of lucky people living cozy, comfortable lives and yet we still come up with some trivial, unimportant problems as if they were a matter of life and death.
If you liked this article, you can also download it via the GPSmyCity app - you will be able to gain access to the guide, which will direct you to all the attractions described above, even if you're offline. Download it here.
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