what to do in kathmandu valley
It was naive of me to think that I would step out of the plane onto snow capped mountains. Oxygen tank and all—I was ready to cross the gaping crevasse between the airport and the hotel. Instead: dirt roads, homelessness, and lots of cows.
I had two days in the capital prior to commencing the trek. While obvious to some, it is important to remember to plan your itinerary and pack accordingly. It is impossible to appreciate any city in the world in two days. Regardless, here are five things worth ticking off in Kathmandu.
1. kathmandu city
Choreographed disarray. Honk for ‘move,’ ‘thank you,’ or to insult someones mother. Nabin is our driver for the day.
“I can do whatever I want on these roads,” he boasts, as he swerves into the incoming lane. “No worries. No danger in my city. You’re lives are safe with me,” he laughs, but Michael is in the back, holding on for his.
Every colour of the prayer flag flashes past: earth, fire, air, cow, water, another cow. We stop at a traffic jam. Children knock on our windows selling, begging. Nabin locks the door.
Houses on top of shops on top of houses line the city and crowd around temples. One modern building—Kathmandu’s first shopping complex—but the escalators don’t work. “This is Nepal.”
We are interrupted by a high-beam flashing dead ahead. A car plays chicken but ‘chickens’ in the last few meters. It honks. Was that a thank you, or did he just call my Mum fat?
For those planning to embark on mountain treks, Kathmandu has everything to offer: trekking gear, tour guides, toiletries and food. Check out our article Packing for Everest: Base Camp for a complete list of what to bring. In the day time there are plenty of tourist attractions (see below) and market stalls; the night-life is affordable, and surprisingly modern. We stayed at the Kathmandu Guest House in Thamel. I would recommend this as a good area. It is accessible and convenient. The neighbourhood consists of endless stores selling trekking gear and traditional clothing and more food than you will have space for. Bargaining is part of the experience so never settle for asking price. However, respect the shopkeepers and understand that this is how they make a living.
A city frozen in time. School kids gossip, flirt, and finish their homework on the rooftops of fifteenth century architecture. Mobile network billboards appose a temple built for King Yakshya Malla in 1427 AD.
Bhaktapur is to Kathmandu as Kyoto is to Tokyo. Five hundred years ago, the ancient capital of Nepal; now a humble walled city without any public toilets. You could spend a whole day in this city—we did, because we got lost—meeting locals and admiring the architecture. Around every corner: a market stall, fruit cart, or art class. Locals go about their daily lives in amongst earthy temples of brick and wood. Bhaktapur is free from the commercialism of Kathmandu City. With it’s restriction of vehicles within the city, it serves as refuge from the hustle and bustle of the capital.
Bhaktapur is situated 13km from Kathmandu city. We had a driver who was scheduled to pick us up at the end of the day. You’ll need a good few hours here to take it all in. Expect to pay around 600-800 NPR for the ride in.
Its very hard to find a public toilet anywhere so go at the entrance. Oh, and look up at the designs on the temple roofs. Take notes. Try on your lover.
Edit: Bhaktapur was heavily damaged by the earthquake of April 25th, 2015. Unfortunately, many temples and buildings have collapsed. I understand that there is now an entry fee of 1500 NPR to fund restoration and rebuilding following the 2015 earthquakes.
3. Boudhanath Stupa
Nabin’s favourite spot to take a girl. Oh—and also Nepal’s largest Stupa. Scattered across the city, these dome-shaped monuments serve as a place for meditation, and contain the relics and remains of Buddhist monks and nuns. Pilgrims and pigeons decorate one of the holiest sites in Nepal, chanting mantras in their respective languages. Thick incense floods the air; “Om Mani Padme Hum” on repeat—and it’s catchy as hell.
There is a small entry fee of 150 NPR to visit the site. Plenty to see and do around the monument while inside the walls. Take the clockwise route, and spin the prayer wheels in this same direction.
Once again, another UNESCO World Heritage Site affected by the disaster of April 2015. We are unsure of the current situation, but from news reports, it looks like it was not heavily damaged.
The banks of the Bagmati River: Billowing smoke carries departing souls from one life to the next. Ten-year-old boys wade alongside through murky water, fishing for money and valuables intended for the deceased. A sombre mood is conflicted with colourful temples and religious rituals—a reminder that death is as much a celebration as it is a cause to mourn. The deity-incarnation namesake temple is one of the most prominent Hindu temples in the Valley, and is only a short drive from the city centre.
Non-Hindus are not permitted to enter the temple itself, but you are allowed to walk around the area to observe the cremations. There are good viewing from the balconies. Admission to this area is 1000 NPR. Look out for the ambulance sending in the newly deceased.
Expect to be swarmed by ‘tourist guides’ offering their services. We chose not to pay for this, so I cannot comment on the validity of it. To be safe, organise it from the official booth.
With the holy men, confirm if you must pay, and how much, before taking photos to avoid conflict. Finally, respect this place of mourning. When in doubt, do not take photos.
A steep staircase, never-ending. Monkeys jeering from the sidelines as pilgrims huff and puff towards the temple in the sky. A prayer wheel chimes in the distance. I think to myself: How do the monkeys know this is the monkey temple? Buddha watches carefully; his eyes do not tell.
Swayambhunath dates back to the 5th century and remains an important religious site for practising Buddhists. Its main stupa, filled with ancient artefacts, sits against a panoramic backdrop of the valley.
The stairs can be quite challenging for people who are unfit. There is an alternative car access road if you do not want to walk. Don’t feed the monkeys