Kathmandu is a city which has an allure of its own. It is spiritual and intense, full of contradictions, yet gives you a sense of harmony and universality. UNESCO World Heritage temples are definitely a must see when in Kathmandu whilst a chill out at the Garden of Dreams washes off the chaos of the streets just outside.
See what we were up to when we visited Kathmandu's top five jewels:
Catching a taxi from Thamel in the morning is a breeze, as there are plenty to choose from. To travel to Pashupatinath you must be prepared to pay close to the airport taxi fee as it is actually quite close to Tribhuvan International airport. Our small Maruti taxi dropped us off at what we assumed were the temple gates, so we took off and followed the crowd.
The street leading up to the temple, is full of people begging and you can observe the difference between casts. The more richly dressed people walked steadily up the path, whilst beggars of all ages lined the street competing to get the attention of passers-by. Some accentuating their ailment, some showing off their kids, and others resigned that today is not their day and sitting idly at the side of the road. We reached the gate, paid the fee and wandered aimlessly for a few minutes.
Pashupatinath is a very important holy site and temple complex. It is situated on the Bagmati holy river and is the place where many cremations take place. So as we stood dazed and unsure where to head next, we had a question for ourselves to answer “Are we really sure we want to witness cremations? Can we deal with such a sight?” Having come here without a guide, we were the only foreigners in sight and the only people holding on tight to their shoes... we felt awkward. There were procession after procession of barefoot devotees entering temples and praying. We chose to wander a bit on a less crowded path until we saw a tourist office. We really wanted to witness the spirituality of this place but we also respect devotees right for peaceful prayer without intrusion.
As we went to the tourist office to ask for directions on the areas where non Nepalis are allowed, the man in charge offered to show us around the place free of charge. He closed the office and took us along on a mystical journey through the scent of incense, the crackling sound of burning wood, the smell of burning bodies and a solemn serene atmosphere. Our guide was a good man who gave us all the insights to this place whilst never expecting to be paid for it. We still decided to give him a tip because he gave us a great service and we were not here to expect everything for free. It was definitely much better touring this place with a guide as otherwise we could not appreciate exactly how special this place truly is. All our apprehension, faded away and we are really thankful that we chose to experience it, not through sensationalism but through deep respect for Hindu believers. Definitely the highlight was watching the cremation ceremonies from the other side of the river as bodies are brought here a few hours after death, whilst some people who are in their last days of life, are in a sort of waiting house at the top of the hill. The cremation ceremony happens as the dead person’s mouth is filled with milk and water from the holy river and then the body is burnt by the male members of the family. Mourners wear white for a year. Each year the family come to the river with a cleric from the high caste to pray. For us, it is a deeply spiritual experience in the universality of life and death. We appreciated how different cultures and religions all go through grieving and pain of losing a loved one.
We also had an aha moment, when our guide explained that the typical sadhus who are seen in pictures, may not be real sadhus. Real sadhus are people who give up all their earthly possessions to live a life of meditation. The ones we usually see in pictures, are normally dressed up and pose with tourists for money. Let’s face it, they always look great in pictures with their white painted faces, saffron dresses and their red marked forehead!
Our guide from Pashupatinath showed us a shortcut for us to head off to Boudhanath from the top of the hill. Walking through sadhu quarters, we observed people going by their everyday life in the temple, cows roaming about and footpaths that do not get cleaned very frequently. Now, I must admit that cows were a thing for me. I had dreaded the moment that I was going to see a cow roaming the streets as we are used to seeing cats. But, the truth is that once I was there, it was just a part of the landscape, nothing else.
So we walked from the Hindu temple towards a Buddhist Stupa in the city where Buddhists and Hindus co-exist in peaceful harmony. Boudhanath is a great Boudha Stupa which covers approximately 6756 meters squared, made up of 9 distinct parts and surrounded by all sorts of restaurants, hotels and shops.
Upon paying the Entrance Fee, we were given a very informative leaflet. We found this very good for us to understand the importance of the site and understand the meanings behind everything you can see around.
But, having gone through the leaflet, our attention turned to appreciating the here and now. We tend to do this often when we travel. It is very easy to keep your mind busy on where you are going next or how you are going to get there and lose out on the fleeting moment. So we stood there, looking at the white washed temple against the background of a glorious day, gazing at the temple eyes that we had seen so often in pictures in a huge square full of pigeons. Feeling the cool Himalayan breeze on our faces and watching prayer flags flapping in the wind whilst listening to the chanting of “om mani padme hum”.
From Boudhanath, we grabbed the Bhaktapur public bus back to Kathmandu and headed off to Swayambhunath Temple on foot. People on the bus made sure that they gave up their seats for us. None of them could speak English but they all tried to communicate in one way or another and we could tell from the conversation that these three non-Nepalis were the talk of the town on the bus. Swayambhunath Temple (Monkey Temple) is about an hour pleasant walk away from the Bhaktapur bus stop, near Kanti Path (the main street).
Arriving near Swayambhunath, it was hard not to let our spirits dampen by the stairs at the front of the temple, but it is really worth the hike up. All the way up to the temple there were families begging and it seems that the more children they have, the better. Don’t get me wrong, we are all for helping people, but we do not consider that giving money to people begging at temple entrances is the way to go.
Unfortunately, people who beg, tend to find that visitors are softer as they are entering religious sights, so they put on a face that is too helpless to be true. When we give money it is to people who are really trying to do their best to improve their situation, even if it is horrendous singing or playing an instrument. Better still when possible we try to help out institutions who work with local people to get them out of their poor state.
So, out of breath we climbed up the Swayambhunath stairs, with a heavy feeling that if these few steps left us out of breath, let alone the trek to come. For us the temple was very crowded, as there were many tour groups going round and the temple is in re-construction after the 2015 earthquake, but the view from atop was worthwhile. We heard one of the tour guides advising his customers to take care of their belongings as the ‘children’ (presumably street children) are running around at this time of day. The atmosphere at the top was perhaps less magical than Boudhanath and Pashupatinath. In a way it was quite more touristy, however it is a place that has its own charm and is definitely not to be missed.
True to its name, monkeys roam the temple at will, cleverly watching on tourists, prying to what can be their next interesting souvenir. One could not miss out on watching the clockwise rotations of prayer wheels spinning and creating a magical atmosphere, whilst believers chant their prayers and prayer flags flap in the wind.
Garden of Dreams
The Garden of Dreams is a surreal place in the middle of Kathmandu city, just a corner away from one of the busiest roads, Kanti Path. Exactly as we had read in blogs before, it is an oasis of peace in the middle of the busy city. It is a garden built in neo-classical architecture, in total contrast with anything else in the city. For us it was a mixed feeling. We knew that we were far away from home, yet this place had the feel of a European garden, much like the ones we are used to at home. There are various pergolas and places to lounge around and enjoy some peaceful moments.
As we were walking around, thunder strikes and soon it begins pouring heavily. We took refuge as well as an apple pie and a nice cup of masala tea at the cafeteria on the garden premises. Be prepared to pay European prices in this typically rich European café. We would say it was a nice experience, watching heavy rain pour, as we sipped on our Masala tea. Rain eventually subsided and we headed back to our hotel.
We headed to another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bhaktapur Durbar Square, on a Sunday morning, taking a taxi up. As soon as we paid the entrance fee and entered the gates, we were approached by many people who offered to be our guides in the city. They had an amazingly great pick up line…. “you have just paid $15 to get in here, but you will lose the experience if you do not have someone to show you around”. We guessed they were right, so we agreed with one of the guides to take us around. Bhaktapur Durbar square is the place, we first came up close to the devastation of the 2015 earthquake. Visiting Bhaktapur makes sense, not just for appreciating the architecture, but also to make a difference by helping these people re-build this treasure and build back their lives that were shattered in a moment.
The architecture and carvings are really fascinating. The story behind one of the doors, which till today cannot be photographed, is quite interesting. After the artist finished off the masterpiece, the owners who commissioned the work, chopped off the artists arms so that he definitely cannot make a copy of the door. How is that for fair reward?!
The main sites we visited here were, Durbar Square with the Palace of fifty five windows, pottery square (though this was sleepy at the time) and Taumadhi Square, were the famous Nyatapola Temple dominates the scene. Everywhere we set sight was a rich history, some still stands whilst some devastated by the earthquake. But yet, all speaks of a people who are resilient in the face of many difficulties.
After our guide finished the tour, we took our time to wander the narrow streets and had lunch at a nice café in one of the squares. We would suggest that if time permits you spend one night in this magical part of the city, as it is peaceful and beautiful.
When we were ready from sightseeing, we headed back to Kathmandu by Taxi. Outside the gate there were a lot to choose from and we negotiated one for the price for NPR1000.
Read more about what it feels like to roam the Streets of Kathmandu.