What’s in Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur when you’re not trekking the Himalayas? Ve Handojo found out.
As we were queuing for the US$25 visa-on-arrival in Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport, we noticed that we were among the very few foreigners carrying boxy, rolling suitcases. The rest were bulked up with huge backpacks with checked-in baggage of double the size—all possibly stuffed with mountaineering gear. As typically lazy Asian boys we were not up for the challenge to trek the Himalayas, so how did we make our eight-day trip to Kathmandu and the surrounding cities worthwhile?
We were based in Kathmandu for the first two nights and and made sure we headed out to see all the sights. The main tourist area of Thamel is a mix of old and hip, thanks to the backpackers and NGO workers that keep it alive and kicking. The roads—more like alleys—are filled with blaring, white, broken old cars we call taxis, cruising amidst the dust, cafes, and shops.
The very heart of Thamel must be the Sagarmatha Bazaar in Mandala Street, a privately-owned, pedestrian-only market open until late, and home to many shops and dining places including the Himalayan Java Café (Nepal’s own coffee chain serving dark and medium roasted local beans), and Or2K, a favourite with vegetarians. To beat the dust, we spent half a day at Garden of Dreams. Built in 1920, this urban oasis is good for picnics, relaxing, doing nothing, or having a fancy lunch in the attached café. The Edwardian style mansions are combined with lush greenery, and calming ponds and fountains, although the noise from the street will make taking a quiet nap quite a challenge.
From Kathmandu, we took a short trip to the first and second biggest stupas in Nepal; Boudhanath and Swayambunath. Boudhanath is practically by the street and the stupa is indeed huge, and surrounded by many shops, cafes, and restaurants. Be there in the morning to beat the heat, and wander around the first base of the stupa to enjoy the view. Adorned with penta-coloured peace flags, this magnificent stupa is also frequented by Tibetan refugees who wear their traditional daily costumes. Wandering around the stupa, and getting lost in the alleyways brought us to some unique stores to shop for great souvenirs, “Tintin in Tibet” fridge magnets included.
A shortcut connects Boudhanath with Hyatt Regency Kathmandu. Not the only five star hotel in the city, but it’s surely the largest complex. The building incorporates Newari architecture with a more subtle approach. When we had lunch there, all the rooms, the ballrooms, the meeting rooms, and even the corridors were fully booked for a big, multinational convention. It’s a luxury side of Kathmandu, really, but without looking like a glamazon in a third world country. The hotel is set a bit apart from the crowd, thus a good night’s sleep is guaranteed.
Guest houses in Patan’s old city are usually authentic Newary houses that go up to four storeys with open-air rooftop cafes.
Swayambunath is located up in the hill, and best to visit approaching sunset. The stupa, the surrounding temples and shrines are frequented by believers and tourists alike, and Instagrammers are set at a good distance to let prayers and rituals flow peacefully. Besides the stunning stupa, there is also a beautiful and dazzling view over the city. We had coffee in one of the rooftop cafes and watched the sunset blessing the golden-tipped stupa with its shades of gold.
Kathmandu’s Durbar (palace) Square is busy with everyday trading, flocking and flying pigeons, and resting cows. In the second city where we spent three nights—Patan, or Lalitpur, a mere half-an-hour drive from Kathmandu—the square was less crowded. Durbar squares are more than just tourist attractions and mix daily life alongside foreign package tourists, pre-wedding photo shoots, and Lonely Planet victims.Click to view slideshow.
In Patan, the spacious square is surrounded with ancient Newari temples, all very well preserved down to the smallest details in the wood ornaments. Among the buildings in Patan’s durbar square is a well-worth-the-visit Patan Museum for both the artifacts and to study the magnificent architecture, which is characterized with doors and window panels made from thick wood and heavy in ornaments, red bricks, and ceilings that may go as low as 180cm. Guest houses in Patan’s old city are usually authentic Newary houses that go up to four storeys with open-air rooftop cafes.
We spent more nights in Patan than Kathmandu because this city was less chaotic, slightly less dusty, had more old buildings, but also embraces the new era. The traditional Swotha homes, for instance, interpret Newari architecture in a more contemporary style to offer lodgings for hip travellers. The café serves good pasta and a range of delicious cakes and desserts. Next to it was a little shop owned by youngsters, Melting Pot, selling “Hulk in Nepal” t-shirts, and modern style accessories.
Patan can also be the base for many activities and outings, including visiting Swayambunath and Boudhanath, and what us lazy kids did was “go to the Himalayas” by plane, taking the mountain flight. We were picked up at our hotel at 5am and taken to the airport where we boarded one of the many small planes that make the flight to the mountains. Our flight was 55 minutes long, and had 19 passengers, each having been assigned a window seat. Each of us got a minute or less to take a peak from the cockpit as the plane was passing the snowy mountains. The flight was smooth and safe, and the pictures and videos that I took got dozens of likes on Instagram. So, mission accomplished.
Our last two nights was spent in an even quieter city of Bhaktapur, in Kathmandu Valley. Bhaktapur’s durbar square was much less busy, but filled with great temples, and shrines. It’s almost side by side with the equally beautiful Taumadhi Square where Natapola—the tallest pagoda-style temple in Nepal — stands proudly. As the sky was perfect and clear blue, we could see the mountains as the background to the many historical buildings.
Bhaktapur is also home to the King of Curds, the super smooth and refreshing yoghurt. It’s practically sold everywhere, and a must-try while in Nepal. We not only had better food, we had a better coffee in Bhaktapur in a small café called Black Cup. They skillfully brew local beans, making great espresso-based drinks. And, when tired of Nepali and Tibetan cuisine, Bhaktapur has Café Beyon, a funky Korean bistro with their own organic farm in the backyard, overlooking the city below them. The bibimbap is among the best I’ve ever tried. From Bhaktapur, take a daring ride up to the hill of Nagarkot to enjoy the view. Find Hotel at The End of the Universe (yep, that’s the name!) to get some brunch.
We left Nepal with a bunch of knitwear we bought from Kumbeshwar Technical School, where proceeds of sales go for training and education for the underpriviledged, and a handmade Tibetan singing bowl from Om Handicrafts in Patan.
Above all, we left Nepal feeling impressed with the attitude of the country. While poverty is still a big issue, we met many less aggressive souvenir shopkeepers than in—dare I say—Bali. The Nepalese are natural, and genuinely hospitable folks. Guest houses are modest and cheap, but the staff exercise great hospitality that made us look past the badly-working water heaters. And it’s safe. On some of the evenings, the two of us walked past dark alleys (because of electricity cuts) feeling very secure. English is quite prominent so we hardly had problems in communication.
We flew back home to fill the doors of our fridge with more magnets, a collection of exotic pictures in our iPhones, and, most of all, a lasting impression of the lively, friendly, and happy country of Nepal.