Kathmandu, Nepal’s enormous and sprawling capital, sucks you into the vortex of its fast pace and chaotic atmosphere immediately upon entry. Swerving between revving cars and beeping motorbikes as you squeeze through the narrow streets, you will be greeted by eager street hawkers and the humming throng of people on every street, lane and corner, while your senses go into overdrive and the dust gathers pace around you… locking you into the frenetic world that is Nepal’s magnificent capital city and its gateway of tourism.
It’s likely that you will use Kathmandu as a base from which to start a trek to Everest Base camp, travel to the adventure sport playground of Pokora where the famous Annapurna trek also awaits you, or be at one with nature in Chitwan National Park. Afterall, it’s easy to become quickly frustrated by Kathmandu and seek immediate comfort in the nearby mountain ranges, stunning scenery and trekking expeditions.
But don’t be too quick to give up on Kathmandu – you have to learn to become a part of its magical mayhem – because with a bit of patience you will learn to lose yourself within it. Spend a few days there uncovering its charms rather than rapidly passing through. There’s more to it than meets the intimidated eye, and a whole adventure awaits you beyond the backpacking area of Thamel, which many rarely look beyond.
Look Up, Look Down, Look All Around
Exploring Kathmandu is like stepping back in time. Here you will find a haven of old, decaying yet decadent architecture; wonky but still stable structures; the intricate details of carved wooden doorways and window frames; shop fronts so low that you can easily miss the treasures inside; narrow streets filled with shops dedicated to specialist businesses from fabrics to dentistry and quiet courtyards where community spirit thrives.
You will soon master the main roads that lead to the bustling local markets and main open squares such as the well-known Asan Tole, India Chowk and the ancient Durbar Square – all of which you can use as main navigation points to find your way forward and, in good time, back. But the fun is in getting lost and, somehow, you will find yourself back at a key point on the map from which to start exploring again. It really is a labyrinth teeming with life, sounds, smells and colour.
Kathmandu is also known to be a treasure trove of artistic and religious deity sculptures made from wood, stone and other materials scattered around the city, many of which are easily missed if you don’t keep your eyes peeled. Some are high up on buildings or perched next to a random shop front door, others can be found at foot level, within a curb, narrow alleyway or tucked away in a remote place and the majority can be found near or within temples, stupas, shine and other respected buildings.
Finding Calm Within The Chaos
If you are one who craves complete serenity, you won’t find it here. However, beneath the layer of frenetic activity lies a simplicity of life in the in tea houses and snack shops where the shouts of street sellers and busy streets are swapped for the kind nature of the local people wanting to get to know you. Subdued backstreets and residential areas on the outskirts will throw you into the heart of local life as you wander with no direction, where the calmness of the temples and open courtyards await you before you prepare yourself for jumping back into chaos of the main lanes and markets places. Every twist and turn is a surprise and each and every day you venture out into the city you will be guaranteed to find something new.
Main Sights & Sister Cities
While I am a passionate advocator of the sporadic and unplanned wander, there are key sights to see within the city and around the outskirts. Visit Pashupatinath temple, oldest Hindu temple in Kathmandu, or the dominant Boudhanath, said to be one of the holiest sites in the country. Swayambhu, also known as monkey temple for its holy inhabitants, is set atop a hill and provides the perfect panoramic view for sunset.
If you can’t get enough of Kathmandu, visit the nearby sister cities of Patan and Bhaktipur, which are smaller and less chaotic than Kathmandu, but just as beautiful and interesting. All three have been branded under the one heading of ‘Kathmandu Valley – UNESCO World Heritage Site’ and can be accessed easily by local transport from Kathmandu, which is itself is a unique experience.
Kathmandu is as fascinating as it is frantic; as charming as it is chaotic. A melting pot of culture, history and religion, its exotic atmosphere is unique and not easily forgotten. Lose yourself within the streets of this incredible bustling city and, if you can, give it more than a two-day pass.