Nepal - Getting to know Kathmandu
That sensation of connecting with a bygone era is always close at hand in Nepal. Nowhere more so than in its capital, Kathmandu. Wander at dusk past eons-old temples in ghostly twilight, the aroma of cooking fires cloaking the air and you really feel you've travelled in time. Naked light bulbs in little shops sparkle and dazzle, kids play hide-and-seek around the narrow streets. It's spellbinding. The heightened sense of arrival starts even at touchdown. It's a swift, plunging descent to the tarmac after you crest the vast snowy peaks that fringe it on all sides. You step from the cool cocoon of your jet liner into a world of vibrant, vital noise and colour.
While for many, Kathmandu is a staging post for exploring those epic mountains or the rare wildlife in Chitwan National Park, there are plenty of beguiling sites just waiting to be explored here too. Over the years the city has spread out across the Kathmandu valley and it now encompasses three ancient kingdoms: Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, each with its unique atmosphere, and each worthy of a visit.
Buzzing temples, smoking funeral pyres, dusty museums and ornate gardens await: all wrapped in a chaotic, colourful, pungent ambiance. It's enthralling stuff and you do need go with the flow a little. Things might not always go completely to plan, but that's often when you discover the most meaningful moments. Kathmandu is the kind of place you want to get a little lost in; you just never know what's coming around the next corner.
What to do in Kathmandu
- Kathmandu's historic core is Durbar Square, home to a cacophony of sites, some still supported by scaffolding after the earthquake in 2015. Hindu and Buddhist pagodas somehow seem completely at home here next to the Neo-Classical portico of a palace built by the ruling Rana dynasty.
- Close by, the old hippy enclave of Freak Street is lined with snug coffee shops and souvenir stalls, ideal for browsing or watching the world go by. Stroll a little further and you're quickly lost in a fascinating labyrinth of lanes lined with shrines, teahouses and markets, like bustling Indrachowk bursting with shops selling bright copperware and iridescent textiles.
- A short hop in a taxi across the Bagamati River brings you to the second of the three ancient kingdoms: arty, Bohemian Patan. It has its own Durbar Square with a richly decorated wing-roofed palace and an excellent museum packed with bronzes, sculptures and ancient photos. There's a real alternative vibe to Patan which many people love. It's known for its artists and café culture and it's a great part of town to stay in.
- Reparations after earthquake damage are in full swing at ancient Bhaktapur, the third of the kingdoms. It’s a little further outside the centre and it's far smaller than Kathmandu and Patan, so it feels wonderfully intimate. Spend an afternoon just wandering its warren of narrow streets, admiring crooked old houses and lofty temples and sipping tea in cosy tea houses. Or else, base yourself here and you can soak up its unique atmosphere once the day trippers are long gone.
Helping the town recover
Even after the ravages of the 2015 earthquake, Kathmandu has lost none of its unique charm. Many historic buildings were damaged, some reduced to mournful piles of rubble, however repair and restoration work is underway at a pace. Tourist spending plays a vital role in supporting the work and providing livelihoods for locals. Now is a great time to visit!
‘Must-see’ Kathmandu temples
- For spectacular views across the city towards the snowy peaks of the Himalaya, a sunset visit to Swayambhunath - the Monkey Temple - should not be missed. Watching red-robed monks circumambulating the stupa murmuring mantras is truly spellbinding. Sadly some of the shrines were damaged by the 2015 earthquake, but the vast cone of the main stupa and, of course, those views remain.
- Join the faithful walking around serene Boudhanath temple with its huge white dome draped in a rainbow of prayer flags to the sound of blissful chanting. (Just remember to walk in a clockwise direction!) This is the most important Tibetan Buddhist monument outside Tibet. To learn a little more, visit one of the monasteries in the surrounding back streets during the noisy prayer rituals at dusk.
- For many though, it's the funeral ghats at Pashupatinath temple that are Kathmandu's most arresting experience. Located on the banks of the holy Bagmati River, it's the site of a sprawling temple complex and a series of funeral pyres where the Hindu faithful are cremated. The ritual cleansing and cremation ceremonies are on full view here, whilst mystical wise men known as sadhus, daubed in coloured dye and ash watch over the proceedings.
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All that jazz...
Music lovers on the 1970s hippy trail introduced jazz to Kathmandu. The city still hosts the only jazz festival in the Himalayan region, popularly referred to as Jazzmandu.