A Guide for Casual Travelers Visiting Kathmandu, Nepal
Nepal is known for trekking and expeditions in the Himalayan Mountains, including trips to Everest Base Camp. It is a great place for nature lovers who want to rough it and get away from the urban jungle. For those interested in seeing snow-capped mountains directly in front of their face, and stepping out of the comfort zone of the Western world, there are few places on this planet that will offer as much as Nepal.
But a visitor does not need to have the full inventory of mountain gear, three weeks of vacation for going deep into the mountains, or the constitution for alpine sports in order to enjoy Nepal. It is easy to visit for just a few days, take a lot of great photographs, experience the culture, and do some great shopping. This brief guide will tell you how you can enjoy yourself in Kathmandu and the surrounding valley in four or five days.
Places to Visit and Things to Do
Devote your first two days to seeing the city of Kathmandu. Lonely Planet and other guides provide walking tours, and these are useful for hitting some of the highlights without needing to hire a tour guide or wander around aimlessly. You will notice is that Nepalis live and work around ancient sites, so you will see children playing and people leaning on sixth century monuments. Historic temples and monuments are a part of their everyday lives, and are not cordoned off as they are in many other countries.
Durbar Square is the heart of historic Kathmandu, and this is where the ancient kings ruled from. Many Nepalis now trade and spend time lounging on the steps of the temples. There are a number of cafés and restaurants on rooftops around the edges that will give visitors panoramic views of the square, so having a cup of traditional Nepali tea at one of these spots is recommended. There are a number of temples and Buddhist and Hindu historic sites to the north and northeast of the square, and most of these can be seen within a three or four hour window. As you travel between these sites you will be able to peer into shop windows and see how many urban Nepalis spend their days.
A visit to Kathmandu is not complete without seeing the Buddhist temple of Swayambhunath, commonly referred to as the Monkey Temple. You can walk to the Monkey Temple in about forty minutes from the Thamel neighborhood, or you can take a taxi. Traveling from the base of the temple grounds up to the temple itself is half the journey, as there are over a hundred steps to climb, and as you move up, you will have to fend off hordes of monkeys and touts offering all kinds of goods for sale. The sellers are not very aggressive so this is not a problem, but steering clear of the monkeys is more difficult. They have gotten used to tourists and people, but keep your belongings-especially food and cameras-close to your chest as the monkeys are known to snatch them away from visitors. The colorful temple stands in the middle, with devotees making their ritual clockwise circumnavigation and offering prayers.
When you’re finished at the Monkey Temple, head over to Thamel, which is the heart of the shopping scene in Kathmandu. It is very touristy, but most of the better restaurants and shops are in the three or four long streets that make up Thamel. Many of the hotels and hostels are also in this area. If you are looking for a traditional Nepali snack or meal, look for a place that serves momos, which are dumplings filled with meat or vegetables and served with a curry dip. The buffalo momos are particularly good.
Exploring the areas outside of Kathmandu is definitely worth the effort if time permits. You don’t have to venture far to see some interesting sites. Hire a car and driver for a day for about US$40 (either through your hotel or one of the many travel agencies in Thamel) and see the surrounding towns of Patan, Bhaktapur, and Bodhnath, with the former two towns having their own unique durbar squares (durbar square essentially means the central square, so there are many durbar squares in Nepal). Similar to Kathmandu, be prepared to pay for a ticket to enter and wander around the square’s monuments. Prices will vary, with Bhaktapur being the most expensive at US$10 per person. Patan has the best durbar square in all of Nepal with its variety of temples and architecture. Bhaktapur is the best preserved historic town, so wandering through the streets here will be time well spent. Finally, Bodhnath is a beautiful temple that is a must see if you want to see pilgrims doing their devotionals, and want to take some great photos of probably the most eye-catching stupa. These three towns are about an hour apart by car, and no more than two hours outside of Kathmandu. You can take a taxi to and between all of these sites, but availability is not consistent and the few dollars you will save by not hiring a car and driver is probably not worth the trouble.
You can spend the fourth day doing an easy hike around the Kathmandu valley. One popular trekking route is to Nagarkot, which offers some stunning views of the Himalayan mountain range if the weather, mist, and clouds work in your favor and give you a clear day. The Hotel View Point is the closest to the mountain range with a good view from the roof. You can visit the restaurant for a meal and take the stairs up to the roof for a view, so you don’t necessarily have to spend the night there. The best times are typically during sunrise or sunset, but there are no guarantees. This is a popular place for a one-night stop or a day trip to see the mountain range, as there is not much else to do in Nagarkot. An organized trek through a travel agency will consist of a short one-hour drive to Changu Narayan (a temple and town), and then a three hour hike with a guide to Nagarkot. Afterwards your guide and a driver will drive you back to Kathmandu. It can all be done in a day if you start early.
Every major temple and durbar square is surrounded by vendors selling all types of paraphernalia that appeal to tourists like scarves, brass figurines, artwork such as Thangka paintings, and handmade clothing, all for low prices by Western standards. However, be prepared to bargain if you want an even better deal, as the prices vendors will initially tell you are highly inflated. A savvy shopper willing to bargain can usually get about a third off the initial price. Just be mindful of the fact that a couple of dollars will mean much more to a Nepali than it will to you.
Thamel offers the most shops in one neighborhood. In addition to the Nepali artwork and handmade clothing, you can also find all of the maps, books, trekking gear, and knockoff Western winter clothing you need in Thamel.
Be prepared for combat walking in Kathmandu. There are few sidewalks, so you will have to literally jostle with motorcycles, cars, tractors, pedestrians, and carts as you walk down every street. However, walking is really the best way to see and experience Kathmandu, so regardless of the danger, it is still recommended. Another option is to flag down a taxi. These are small Suzuki Maruti white hatchbacks. They have meters but drivers don’t like to use them, so settle on a price before you get moving. Usually a hundred rupees (a little more than a US dollar) is enough for a single trip within Kathmandu, if you bargain. Whether you are walking or taking a taxi, be patient and give yourself more time than you think you need for getting from one point to another.