Around the World in 93 Days – a Trip to Kathmandu
Joe and Moi are two British travelers on a 93-day round the world adventure - here they share their adventures in Nepal and their trip to Kathmandu.
As we are on a whistle-stop tour around the world, it was soon time to move on from India. Next stop Nepal.
You need a Visa to get into Nepal which you can apply for in the UK or just get one on arrival. People say you should get it up front but we didn't find it that much of a big deal. Each VISA costs $25 and you will need a passport photo of yourself.
After the madness of India, Nepal seemed really laid back. People drove carefully, on the right side of the road too (which interestingly is the same as in the UK), and everyone seemed to be smiling.
I hadn't realised that Nepal is actually up on a plateau, with India to the South, and China to the North. Consequently, the culture and the people, seem to be a mix of both cultures.
As the capital of Nepal, the population of Kathmandu is about 1.6 million. Nepal is self-sustained as far as food goes, there is not a shortage of food to go round, but there is a shortage of money. Also, at the moment Nepal is suffering a fuel crisis. There is not enough hydro-electric power and so daily power cuts are common, with the power off for as much as 14 hours a day. But when we drove up to our hotel, that there were thousands of fairy lights all the way up the drive. Hotels are not included in the power cuts, said our guide. Tourism is important to Nepal. Still though, could do without the fairy lights really.
As we only had 6 days planned in Nepal, we'd made the decision that we would
remain in Kathmandu. There's loads to see here, plus we'd booked a flight round the Himalayas, and we wanted some chill time, so we didn't want to do too much.
One thing we learned while we there is that Kathmandu is actually one of three royal cities next to each other in the Kathmandu valley, the other two being Bhaktapur and Patan. Each city was built in a different era, each ruled by a different king, and each has copied from the others. Consequently, each city has a Durbar Square, with each square containing a palace and many amazing temples reflecting a heady mixture of Hinduism and Buddhist cultures. The three cities were eventually unified under the same ruler as part of Nepal in the 18th century.
In addition, Kathmandhu has two famous Buddhist sites that we were keen to see. One of them - Swayambuhnath - aka the Monkey Temple - is high up on a hill overlooking Kathmandu, the other, Boudhnath, the largest Buddhist stupa in Nepal (and second largest in the world, a pilgrimage site for many Buddhists) is down in the city in Boudhnath village.
First stop was Swayambuhnath, or the Monkey Temple. The reason it is called the Monkey Temple is immediately apparent on arrival, the place is teeming with monkeys who are allowed to roam free around the temple complex. After a short walk up the rising path flanked by market stalls you reach the top and are immediately greeted by the huge stupa with the distinctive pairs of Buddha's eyes looking out over the four cardinal points (Buddha sees all). As well as the main stupa, there are a variety of smaller buildings. Some are Hindu temples, one is a monastery, some are shops, other small stupas are also dotted around, there's a veritable village community up here.
And to top it all, there is a fantastic panoramic view of the city of Kathmandu. We could have spent all morning up there as there's quite a bit to see and do.
The shops offer the usual variety of souvenirs, both religious and non-religious and you get the usual patter. I don't know how many times we heard that we were “the first customer of the day" and so they were giving us “very cheap price" (it is auspicious for the traders to make sales early as it bodes well for trade for the rest of the day. Consequently, the earlier you are, the more likely you are to find a bargain).
Next on the list was Durbar Square in Kathmandu. This is an amazing place with various different pagoda-like temples, mainly Hindu, and other buildings such as the old Royal Palace of Kathmandu. The temples and buildings in Durbar Square have all been renovated at some time or other and none of the original structures remain, but this doesn't detract from the overall beauty of the place.
Of particular interest was the Temple to the Living Goddess or Kumari. This is the tradition of worshipping young female girls as manifestations of the divine female energy in Hindu religious traditions. The girls are chosen by the priesthood at an early age and have to demonstrate 32 “perfections". Their astrology chart has to be favourable and the have to pass a number of tests before being chosen. One of these is to go into a temple alone where priests will dress up in horrific masks and try and scare her. To pass the test, the little girl has to stay for two hours in the temple and demonstrate her courage !!
The lucky winner then gets to live in the Temple to the Living Goddess with her friends (not her family). She is not allowed out of the temple except on special occasions (of which there are 9 a year) where she is dressed up in all her finery and paraded round for the public to see. Once she reaches puberty, she then leaves the Temple of the living Goddess and returns to normal life while another Kumari is chosen.
Durbar Square itself is split into two main parts, a large open square which features many market traders selling all sorts of religious and not so religious paraphernalia, and then another smaller square where most of the temples are. This is a common meeting point for Nepalese (and non-Nepalese) and while the square is busy, there is a chilled laid-back atmosphere.
Also off Durbar Square, and of interest to some, is Freaky Street. In the 60s there was a large influx of hippies and Freaky Street was where the head shops and cafes were. There's not so many hippies there these days, but there are still a few head shops and cafes along this street.
The next day we had a flight to the Himalayas booked. This has got to be right up there as one of the most amazing life experiences we've had.
We were both a little nervous and I couldn't help thinking of that film – Alive – where they crash in the mountains and end up having to eat each other. Consequently, I was eyeing up my fellow passengers with a view out working out who might be the tastiest.
The plane was a small 16 seater twin prop with single seats in 8 rows with one side, two pilots and one hostess. Happily, my fears were unfounded as the flight was very smooth. Everybody gets a chance to go in the cockpit and get a pilot's eye view of Mount Everest which is just amazing. We were blown away. You really must make sure you get to do this if you are planning a trip to Nepal. All in all, the flight lasted an hour and was over all too soon.
Later that day, we went to Boudhnath Stupa. This is a huge Buddhist Stupa (containing Buddha's relics) situated in a sort of circular village consisting of various shops, cafes and stalls (and a monastery). It's quite strange having a huge religious site surrounded entirely by touristy shops. Consequently, you get a varied type of clientele !! Even though Nepal is a chilled place and has a
low crime rate, there is still the occasional undesirable and we noticed a few hoodies that seemed to be overly interested in various tourists. (I figured there are three types of people here – Buddhist followers who go to pray, Buddhist hoodies who go to prey and Buddhist tourists who go to pay). This didn't put us off though, these are the exception that proves the rule and the place is safe with a great atmosphere.
The next day we visited Patan and Bhaktapur, and yes, you guessed it, Durbar Square. You could see the same themes echoed in the architecture and the layout of the buildings. Beautiful temples and pagodas. Out of the three cities, Bhaktapur is the one that retains some of the oldest structures and there's loads of beautiful detailed wood carvings wherever you look. There's a fantastic five story pagoda temple that dominates the square and we spent the afternoon in nearby pagoda-like café overlooking the whole vista drinking tea (very English).
Also of interest in Bhaktapur was potters square, where there are thousands of pots drying out in the sun in various stages of their lifecycle while potters are busy throwing pots on small hand driven wheels.
All too soon, it was time to leave. Due to our whistle-stop timetable, we'd made the management decision that we wouldn't venture further than Kathmandu and we feel that we really do want to return in the not too distant future and explore some of the other parts of Nepal.
The one thing I would say is, if you are planning a trip to Nepal, make sure you book a Himalayan flight. You won't be disappointed.
Next stop – Cambodia.
This was a guest post by Joe and Moi Hyde, two British travelers who have wanted to go round the world all their lives but had put it off for one reason or another. Now they are taking their great adventure and are on the third week of their trip. You can keep abreast of their travels via their blog: www.mytb.org/on-the-blog.
Photo credit: Photo #1 by Tripper Susan C.