Kathmandu has a reputation for being hectic, loud, gritty, polluted—and while it does live up to this reputation, the first word that came to my mind when I arrived was magical. The way the smells of incense and spices mixed while walking the streets. The combination of dusty earth tones found in the architecture and dirt roads and the accents of gold and jewel tones. The smiles of the people who greet you with “Namaste” and offer you masala tea in their dimly lit shops. And above it all the colorful prayer flags, offering a constant prayer in the wind. Everything about the city captured my imagination, and while typically Nepal’s quieter cities such as Pokhara are preferred, Kathmandu remains one of my favorite places in the world.
The centrally located neighborhood, Thamel, is the main tourist area in Kathmandu and has a huge array of food, accommodations, shopping, and sightseeing options. Whether on a backpacker’s budget of $4 hostel dorms and $2 meals or a more lavish budget of luxury hotels and fine dining, Thamel has it all. The best way to take in the sights is by foot. Get lost in the intricate maze of winding streets and alleys, full of dusty trinkets, beautiful jewelry, and flowing and colorful clothing. Try the street food—momos are the best, or freshly baked aloo parattha. Stop in a quiet cafe for a pastry and cup of masala tea.
A little further outside of Thamel are the main tourist attractions: Swayambhunath, also known as the monkey temple and the highest point in Kathmandu; Boudhanath, the largest Tibetan Buddhist stupa outside of Tibet and an important place of pilgrimage; and Durbar Square, surrounded by the ancient royal palaces of the former Kathmandu Kingdom, believed to have been built in the 11th century, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Walk to them if you wish to see some of the less touristy neighborhoods, or take a taxi for a few dollars. Maybe read up on the history of these places beforehand or after, but while you are there try to absorb as much as you can of the sights and smells and energy of each place. Whether or not you understand it all—I know I didn’t—they are ancient, deeply sacred, and really do feel magical.
Nepal can be a challenging country to visit due to its poverty and underdeveloped infrastructure. A few things to consider when visiting Kathmandu:
Bring a scarf or buy a face mask—the pollution is no joke and with many of the roads being unpaved the dust is intense. There is a reason everyone gets the “Kathmandu cough”; minimize it by keeping your nose and mouth covered in particularly dusty areas.
Traffic laws are more of a suggestion, lanes barely exist, and crosswalks are even more scarce. Busy intersections are intimidating to cross, if not downright terrifying, but be bold! Follow what the locals do and be alert always.
Don’t be afraid to haggle! It’s part of the culture and expected when shopping. And always be sure to settle on a price before getting into a taxi or rickshaw. Pay attention to what others are paying, maybe shop around a little to get a sense of prices. But in it all, be kind.
Go into it with a willingness to embrace the challenge, be flexible when things don’t go as planned, and be open to the many lessons this beautiful country has to offer.
This post was authored by one of my very well-traveled friends, Emma, who is an unbelievable artist and certified yoga instructor. She spent the past year backpacking through Southeast Asia, Nepal, and India, and she is planning her next adventure back to India in the coming months. Throughout her journeys, she documents her travels through her art, some of which can be purchased here: www.emmaferncurtis.com