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The Spiritual Capital of India – Varanasi

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By Telma | 24 January 2017 | India | Travel Guides

“Brace yourself. You’re about to enter one of the most blindingly colourful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth.”

~ Lonely Planet

If there is a city that inspires love and hate at the same time, that will be Varanasi.
In India, where some of the most important religions were founded, Varanasi is one of the most sacred in the world. Known as “the spiritual capital of India” it is regarded as one of Hinduism’s seven holy cities. Hindu pilgrims believe that visiting this holy city and bathing in the Ganges River’s sacred waters will purify their souls. Everyday men in underpants, women in saris, children and the elderly go to these Ghats (stone-paved cremation platforms with steps leading down to the water) and bathe in the holy water to wash away their sins or to attend cremation ceremonies. From dawn to dusk spiritual practices take place in public, in devotion of their Goddess – Ganga. Thousands chanting Mantras, bathing into the icy-cold water, every day, every hour as they “free themselves from the cycle of death and rebirth”. These rituals, the river, smells, cows, goats, dogs and people, all at once around the Ghats can be overwhelming, to say the least!
But Varanasi isn’t only one of the oldest and most religious cities in the world, it is without doubt a city that captivates you, that leaves you speechless. Varanasi is an experience.

things to do varanasi

varanasi everyday

ganges river varanasi

sadhu varanasi

About Varanasi

Arriving in Varanasi and looking around, our first impression wasn’t great, in all honesty. Is this a “Holy city” or a “Chaotic mess”? We have seen dirt, experienced crowded places and unpleasant smells lingering around but Varanasi it’s on another level. This is real!
From the first step outside the Guesthouse to returning back, it was a constant struggle with things, animals, people! Touts following us trying to sell anything and everything to the point they would grab our arms to get our attention. Sadhus (Holy Man) trying to shake our hands and touch our heads, shouting in the end because they were actually demanding money. Rickshaw and Tuk Tuk drivers wouldn’t leave us alone and literally followed us everywhere. Children begging for money, no I am not talking about one child at a time, I mean 8-10 children surrounding us at once. The stray dogs it’s heartbreaking! We lost count how many there are roaming around; broken legs or legless, covered in wounds, skinny, starving…So sad to a westerner’s thinking.
And last but not least…let’s talk about the cows. They are everywhere! Ok, it’s fine, they are cute and harmless. But there were roads that it was impossible NOT to step on cow’s dung. I mean seriously? No, I am not exaggerating. Perhaps I can show a few pictures…

holy cow varanasi

cows everywhere varanasi

india sacred cows

Besides all the madness Varanasi has its good points: interesting people, great vegetarian/vegan food, amazing history sites and a relaxed pace of life. No wonder there are so many westerners. After all, Varanasi might be the place to be.

Top Things To Do in Varanasi

Walking around the Old City

Ditch Google Maps. Get lost and enjoy the experience! Yummy street food, some of the coolest, trendiest cafés in town, vegetable markets, street vendors, hidden temples, thousands of people, rickshaws, cows, goats, chickens, dogs… the list goes on.

people streets of varanasi

what to do varanasi

travel guide varanasi

Visit the River Ganges Ghats

There are 80+ Ghats bordering the river and most were built 1700 AD. Yes Varanasi is an old city, dating back 3000 years ago. So how can anyone not feel the goose bumps while there?!
Anyway a good start would be from Assi Ghat all the way down to Manikarnika Ghat. Some are busier than others, due to its religious practices and number of attendees.

varanasi people at the river

Here are the most important Ghats in Varanasi:

Assi Ghat – A place of worshiping Lord Shiva, pilgrims bathe here before any rituals take place. As its location is at the far extreme south of the river, the area is less crowded.
Chet Singh Ghat – The old Fort represents more of a historical symbol than a cremation site itself. Maharaja Chet Singh built the fort during the 18th century battle with the British.
Darbhanga Ghat – The Royal family of Bihar built the palace early 1900s. The Ghat is amongst the favourites in Varanasi due to its architecture.
Scindhia Ghat – There is a partially submerged Shiva Temple at the water’s edge. Some cremations happen here during the day.
Dasaswamedh Ghat – This is the main Ghat and ultimately the oldest and holiest of all. It’s where the Ganga Aarti ceremony takes place every evening.
Manikarnika Ghat – Here is where it all happens! The busiest Ghat in Varanasi. According to one of the locals “up to 100 bodies are cremated here every day”.

assi ghat

chet singh ghat

ghat to visit varanasi

varanasi ceremony ghat

cremations varanasi

things to do varanasi

Boat Tour on the Ganges River

Hold your breath! You will be haggling a lot for this boat ride! Be smart, if you have time (and patience), ask around first and see what these men have on offer. Some might be knowledgeable of the Ghats, others not so much. And that is why time is needed here, so you can get a glimpse of what they know. Our boat ride, along with our friend Peter, was at Rs100/USD1.50/GBP1.20 each.
Now, were we 100% satisfied with the service? Not bad, but could have been better because we agreed one hour and only made it to Dasaswamedh Ghat within 45 minutes. Also, the man refused to carry on, saying he had to row back and it would take time. At the end he demanded a tip… me being me, I laughed and walked off. Obviously!

boat ganges river

Attend the Aarti Ceremony

Every day, regardless of the weather, the Aarti Ceremony takes place at sunset (7pm in the summer, 6pm in the winter) at Dasaswamedh Ghat. The flow of pilgrims, Sadhus, Priests, beggars, homeless and flower sellers, is enchanting. Oh, and the cows, of course!
It is a spectacular, must-see ceremony with a lot of meaning in a spiritual context and for non-Hindus it is still a fascinating ritual to be able to witness.
The ceremony is a devotion for the Goddess Ganges, Lord Shiva and symbolizes the five elements: Akash (Space); Vayu (Wind); Agni (Fire); Jal (Water); Prithvi (Earth). A group of young pandits (Hindu Priests) perform the highly-choreographed ceremony using fire, water, incense, and many other elements. During the ritual, there is music and dancing in circular movements that represent the presence of the Gods in everyone’s life.
The ceremony lasts for one hour and cannot be missed!

evening ceremony varanasi

evening ceremony varanasi

Travel Tips for Varanasi

  • Don’t be fooled, man will try and get you on a rickshaw for twice the money or will convince you to hire him as a Guide for the day. Always ask the host at the hostel/guesthouse for recommendations.
  • Don’t lose your appetite. For us, the street food in Varanasi wasn’t very appealing to say the least, but don’t worry there are some options. Check the list of Restaurants in Varanasi. Aum Café located in Assi Ghat was our favourite!
  • Say NO more often. People will grab your hands, arms and chase you. It’s exhausting. Be prepared for the odd man shouting back because you ignored him. Don’t be embarrassed ad walk away.
  • Observe the everyday life and immerse yourself in Varanasi!

varanasi cremation ghats

boat at varanasi

varanasi itinerary

varanasi ghats and people

holy man of varanasi

varanasi people

So after all, you must be thinking “I would have left straight away!” But you know, this is it, this is part of India. This is why there is no other place like Varanasi; its uniqueness makes it one of a kind. Thousands come for “soul searching”, for its spiritual practices, a “once in a lifetime experience”. Although we both don’t share the spiritual connection, we did “enjoy” the chaos.
There is a love-hate relationship towards Varanasi amongst travellers, and I don’t blame people for it. In all honesty isn’t the most pleasant place to be. And one massive piece of advice, for people that are planning a visit to India, DO NOT start in Varanasi. I feel not many will be able to cope with it.
After all, who said people come to India for a holiday? You don’t see India, you experience India.

Thanks to our friend Peter we had delicious meals in Varanasi! His recommendations were spot on! While in Varanasi we spent a lot of time together. And it was such a pleasure to be surrounded by good energy. We met him in Kathmandu, a few weeks after coming back from Everest Base Camp. And by the look of it, we will meet many times more in India. Cheers buddy!

Is Varanasi on your travel list? Let us know in the comments below.

india varanasi

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Agra Travel Guide – Beyond the Taj Mahal

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By Telma | 10 January 2017 | India | Travel Guides

Visiting Agra is like stepping down from a time machine. The city located on the banks of the river Yamuna has many splendid Mughal-era buildings, dating back the 15th and 16th century. Early morning, a very slow start: vendors setting up their shops, dogs and cows hunting for the first meal of the day, rickshaw drivers gather and the streets start filling up with people and cars. Just another day in Agra.
Understanding the lifestyle and the everyday life is not easy for a westerner; life here is different, but its people are proud of their roots. Even though for us, it is like living hundreds of years back in time.
Once in Agra, the most visited city in India, we already knew that one of Agra’s points of interest was the Taj Mahal, but surely there was more to explore. The city has amazing sites; a splendid fort, fascinating tombs, beautiful gardens, the bustling of the local vendors and its people, make it a very exciting city to explore and worth spending a few days wandering around. Agra, as many other Indian tourist destinations, must be taken with a pinch of salt. It’s busy, loud, not so clean, too many rickshaws, everyone wants to take a picture with you and the constant pestering of children offering to be a guide for the day or insisting that you visit their uncle’ shop! All of this is a huge culture shock and can be tiring and stressful if you are not prepared for it. But not enough to forget the magical attractions of the city.

agra travel guide

The obsession of visiting the Taj Mahal draws people from all over the world and regardless of all the hype, the monument really does live it up to its fame. People often visit for the day, coming from Delhi on a tourist bus. After being here, we cannot believe that people chose a day-trip. Not only is it a very rushed visit but also because by the time they arrive at the 
Taj Mahal it’s nearly impossible to take good pictures, appreciate it and make the most of it. As early at 10 am, there are already endless queues. If you can, extend your trip.

However, there is a world beyond the Taj Mahal. Let us convince you to to stay longer with our Agra Travel Guide.

agra points of interest

people of agra

everyday india

Agra Travel Guide: Why Agra is not only about the Taj Mahal

Things To Do in Agra

The history of Agra is complex, it’s easy to shut your eyes and imagine the emperors, the battles, the palaces, its princes and princesses; it’s a fairy-tale city. Not wanting to waste any time, we started exploring this little gem.

Beyond the Taj Mahal located in the city-center are Itimad-ud-Daulah and Agra Fort (UNESCO World Heritage site). To the west Akbar’s Mausoleum and a little further, on the other side of the river, Mehtab Bagh.

Itimad-ud-Daulah

baby taj mahal

agra baby taj mahal

day trip baby taj mahal

baby taj looks like

places to visit agra

what to visit agra

Also known as Baby Taj, is considered the first Mughal structure in India built out of white marble. Apparently, it was built as a draft for the construction of the Taj Mahal.
The mausoleum was commissioned by Nur Jahan for her father who was honored with the title of Itmau-ud-Daula (Pillar of the state). It’s quite a small site to visit, but worth it for its architecture.
Entry Fee: Rs200/USD$3/£2.50

Agra Fort

places of interest agra

agra tourism

inside the red fort

Located on the banks of the river Yamuna was built in the 15th Century by Emperor Akbar and was the main residence of many emperors of the Mughal Dynasty. Also, known as the Red Fort, beyond its walls are palaces, both in red sandstone and white marble, all added by the Emperor’s grandson, Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal). Due to its structure the fort is described as a walled palatial city as it had later become a palace. It’s an impressive site to visit!
Entry Fee: Rs500/USD$7/£5

Inside the fort, these are a few places that caught our eye:

agra palaces

Khas Mahal – white marble palace

red fort palace

Diwan-i-Aam – used as communications ground between the public and the aristocracy

places to visit agra

Musamman Burj – octagonal tower with a balcony facing the Taj Mahal (where Shah Jahan spent his last 8 years imprisoned looking at the Taj Mahal in memory of his beloved wife)

Akbar’s Mausoleum is the tomb of Akbar, The Great Emperor of the Mughal Dynasty. Built by himself while still alive, Akbar could not complete the entire work, leaving his son with the responsibility to make it the final resting place for the greatest emperor of the Mughal rule. The red sandstone mausoleum is a beautifully carved four-tiered building and its upper chamber is made of white marble. The three-storey minarets at each corner are also built of red sandstone with white-marble geometric patterns.
A curiosity regarding the tomb, is that contrary to other Muslim structures, the mausoleum is turned towards the rising sun and not towards Mecca.
Entry Fee: Rs200/USD$3/£2.50

interesting places agra

visiting agra palaces

places to visit agra

interesting places to visit india

Mehtab Bagh or “moonlit garden” is situated to the north of the Taj Mahal across the river Yamuna. The garden was an integral part of the Taj Mahal complex comprising of the mausoleum (Taj Mahal) set in a charbagh (a Persian-style garden layout). The aim of the garden was to provide a tranquil and magical setting to view the Taj Mahal in moonlight across the river. We decided to go only because we had seen beautiful pictures of the Taj Mahal across the river, but this is just an ordinary garden. Worth it if you are into photography.
Entry Fee: Rs200/USD$3/£2.50

beyond taj mahal

Last but not least…

Visiting the Taj Mahal

Of course, once in Agra, we could not ignore a visit to the famous Taj Mahal.
Built stone by stone with a story of eternal love, the Taj Mahal is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. People from all the world visit the mausoleum of white-ivory-marble, built between 1631 and 1648. And the truth is, the monument simply captivates you. Taj Mahal, one of its kind in the world is a monumental labour of love from the Emperor Shah Jahan for his beloved wife, who died giving birth to their 14th child. This enchanting mausoleum took 22 years to complete with the help of an estimated 20,000 workers. Taj Mahal is “the jewel of Muslim art in India’, as per UNESCO and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage. The details of the structure are enough to leave you speechless.
Entry Fee: RS1000/USD$14/£11

taj mahal agra

Best Time to Visit the Taj Mahal

We were intrigued by its beauty but the weather in Northern India in December is not at its best and at 8am the fog partially covered the monument. And by that time, the site was crowded. Not a good start! But there was nothing we could have done. Arriving at the opening time of 6am, would have been a waste of time because the fog is dense and sometimes impossible to see anything as far as 50 metres. We walked around taking as many pictures as we could, filmed our Christmas Message video, appreciated the architecture and wondered around the mausoleum for a few hours. By 11am, it was “impossible” to walk around due to the number of people.
The best time would be October-November (after the monsoon) and just before it gets really hot, February-March.

taj mahal best pictures

best tips for taj mahal

taj mahal visit tips

best time to visit taj mahal

Agra has a rich heritage, culturally and architecturally. But, as any other Indian city, it has its downside. Often seen by the western world as the “not-so-nice-India. Poverty, litter, dust and smells are real, and enough for anyone to hate the city. No road signs, cows, monkeys, goats, rickshaws, cars, buses, children begging….it’s chaos. But all runs smoothly, for them!! Don’t be too hasty, beyond the negatives it is really a fascinating city. The only way to enjoy is to see beyond the dirt, and immerse yourself in the rich cultural side of the city.
Coming to Agra is to understand and accept that people live differently, they have their own ways. We are there for a mere few days or in many situations just for a few hours. While there we made the most of it: walked around, talked to people, took pictures, slowed down and observed the daily life. The results were fascinating, we got amazing pictures out of it.
The monuments, the palaces and the strong religious influence in Agra is enough to leave you with a taste of what the Indian life was like a few centuries ago.

people of india

Special Thanks:

We would like to thank my dear friend Rahul Jain and his wife Priya for driving us to Agra and organising some of the sightseeing. Thank-You brother for being a great friend and welcoming us in your family home.

Is the Taj Mahal on your bucket list?

taj mahal guide

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Nepal: A Traveller’s Guide

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By Telma | 1 December 2016 | Nepal | Travel Guides

Surrounded by land between India and Tibet, Nepal is a unique, eclectic brew of her neighboring cultures. The land is a dividing line between ancient, historic, civilization and cultures that in their mystery and passion are often associated with a more spiritual way of life and therefore alluring to many travelers seeking an alternative lifestyle and inner contemplation. At the same time the diversity of ethnic groups within Nepal is often complicated for a westerner to understand before they immerse themselves in the sensual experience that is Nepal. It is a staggeringly beautiful country with mountain, jungle, country, and urban landscapes to explore, all in rich techni-color to delight and enrich the soul.
The history of Nepal makes it a unique place that draws visitors from all over the world every year. Often people assume that Nepal is just an extended part of India, but it’s not. Nepali are very proud of their culture, diversity, its people, heritage sites, religions and its unique attractions. Nepal is best known for having the world’s largest mountain range; the Himalayas. This range provides eight of the ten world’s tallest mountains and the highest peak in the world, Mt. Everest reaching 8848 meters high. Other unique treasures are the biggest pilgrimage Buddhist Stupa, Kumari– The Living Goddess and Lumbini – birthplace of the Buddha.

nepal tourist attractions

General Information for First Time Travellers in Nepal

Places of Worship: Always walk clockwise around the Buddhist stupas, shrines and mani walls. Remove shoes before entering a Buddhist or Hindu temple/sanctuary. In some Hindu temples people cannot enter using any leather goods, or as a non-Hindu entering will not be possible at all.

Greetings: People are not thanked as often as in the Western world. Don’t be surprised if you never hear “Thank you”, “Please” or “Excuse me”. But learning the basics would be hugely appreciated:
Hello, Goodbye: Namaste
Thank you: Dhanyebaad
I’m sorry, excuse me: Maph garnus

Shopping: Haggling is very common amongst the travellers but try to be fair. It should never be a cause of an argument. If not happy with the price, just walk away. Remember that Rs20/USD$0.20/GBP£0.15 for Nepali people can make a huge difference, but when converted onto our own currency might add up just a few cents.

Health: Travellers’ diarrhoea often happens when travelling in Nepal. But majority people get an upset stomach. Don’t be paranoid and enjoy the local food. Don’t drink tap water, avoid ice cubes and brush your teeth with bottled water.
Hiring a Guide in Nepal is very common as this is a great way of getting to know the ins and outs of places. Also there is no shame on hiring a Porter either as having someone to carry your backpack while trekking is actually helping towards their family, as Porters are some of the poorest in Nepal.

Packing for Nepal: Pack light. Depending on the season and the activities, bringing a pair of trekking boots it is a good option. If visiting during the colder months (November to February), the temperatures in Kathmandu are just above zero degrees, so thermal layers are recommended. An umbrella or raincoat is a must during the rainy season (June to September).

Begging is sensitive matter and it’s very common in Nepal, especially around the main religious temples and shrines. It is heartbreaking and impossible to ignore and Westerners are expected to give money. From my experience, I never give money, because I don’t think it will solve anything, actually I feel that giving money to beggars will only encourage it. There are a lot of homeless people around town, when the time was right we would usually approach and ask if they wanted to eat. So buying food instead of giving money was an option. (Not to be confused with the women who are clutching one or two children and ask you to buy food at a designated store of their choice. This is a scam.)

Outdoor Activities & Trekking: Never short of options, Nepal offers a wide range of experiences – nature tours, pilgrim tours, white-water-rafting, kayaking, canoeing, jungle safaris, paragliding, bungee jumping, zip-lining, mountain biking, and the list goes on; seriously you name it! The country has it all.
When it comes to trekking options, the list is endless too, from expeditions to high altitude treks, or simple easy treks.

Overall costs: The life in Nepal is minimalist. Although ideal but not always feasible, travelling on a shoestring budget, sleeping in shared dorms and surviving on a Nepali diet, people can easily live on Rs500-800 a day, including meals and accommodation. But this is not for everyone.
The “tourist prices” are disputable, often the prices of accommodation are the same as a meal and the same as the local bus on journeys for over 6 hours. There isn’t much discrepancy.
Average costs between Rs500-Rs800/USD$8/GBP£7.50.

street sellers of Nepal

Do I need a Visa to Visit Nepal?

Rules have changed over the years and now people can simply get a visa-on-arrival (VOA) at the airport. Visa requirements are to have a valid visa for 6 months or more; 1 passport picture (white/light background).

At Tribhuvan International Airport, Kathmandu, upon arrival tourists can get the following visas:
15 days – USD$25
30 days – USD$40
90 days – USD$100

Although it says that payments can only be accepted in cash (US Dollars, Euro, Pound Sterling, Nepal Rupees, etc), we paid our visas by card.

street seller nepal

When is the best time to visit Nepal?

The best time to visit Nepal is between September to November and March to May. The weather is changing dramatically, so it’s becoming difficult to predict, but people who visit outside the seasons still have a great time. Nepal has a typical monsoonal two-season year. There is the dry season from October to May and the wet season from June to September. The best time to go trekking is from late September to December, when the weather is clear and dry; and from March to May, during Spring when flowers are in bloom.
When we arrived, late September, it was raining on and off, but had a few warm days. Towards the end of November it was getting cold, I mean really cold. Around 6-8 degrees during the evenings and nights.
Who would have thought!

Personal Note: Before travelling to Nepal it’s always good to know the dates of any Festivals as the whole infrastructure of the country can be affected! Offices, shops and restaurants might be closed, there will be shortage of transportation and buses can be booked-up. So planning in advance is encouraged to avoid disappointment and frustration in finding your bus is not going to be arriving! Travelling in Nepal during Dasain (also known as Dashera), can be a little tricky. This is Nepal’s biggest annual festival, stretching for over fifteen days. Cities will be quieter than usual as people are away with their families. The best way to describe it is to compare it to the Christmas period in the western world.

The People of Nepal

The population of Nepal is extremely diverse and highly complex. With over 26 million people, Nepal is made up of over 125 different caste/ethnic groups. Meeting them all is nearly impossible, but while in Kathmandu, Pokhara, Lumbini and our trek to Everest Base Camp we came across a few.
From left to right:
Top: Sadhu, Tamang, Terai
Bottom: Female Porter, Newari, Sherpa

nepal and its people

Places to Visit in Nepal

Nepal is well known for its trekking routes and highest mountains peaks, but don’t be too hasty. The country has a lot more to offer. Don’t leave without exploring…

Kathmandu
Visit the UNESCO World Heritage sites, historical monuments, local markets, traditional villages and get to know the locals.

  • Kathmandu Durbar Square
  • Thamel
  • Swayambhunath Stupa
  • Pashupatinath
  • Bhaktapur
  • Taumadhi Tole
  • Dattatraya Square

people at Durbar Square in Kathmandu

Pokhara
Pokhara is located 200km (125 mi) west from Kathmandu. Its spectacular scenery, healthy food choices, laid-back atmosphere and close-up mountain views, has everything an adventurous soul can wish for.

backpacking pokhara travel

Lumbini
Lumbini is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is believed to be the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama, known as Lord Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. Lumbini is the first place to be visited by those embarking on a Buddhist pilgrimage tour. A visit to Maya Devi Temple, the birth spot of the Buddha, is a must-see. Other wonderful monuments are the World Peace Pagoda and several Monasteries that have been built in the area as an homage to Lord Buddha.

temple in Lumbini Maya Devi

Check our articles Exploring Kathmandu: A Chaotic Little Adventure and Pokhara: A Relaxed Pace of Life for more inspiration.

Trekking to Everest Base Camp

Nepal has innumerable trekking trails, enough for everyone’s age, fitness levels and pockets. People often choose to trek around Annapurna Mountain Range, which is incredibly beautiful and easily accessed by Pokhara.
But we discovered that trekking to Everest Base Camp isn’t just a Himalayan adventure but a cultural experience. The history behind the conquest of the highest mountain in the world, its unique people and traditions, the journey and the landing one of the most dangerous airports in the world, was enough for us to accept the challenge, often dreamed by many.
Whichever trekking route people chose; they will not be disappointed with the best views of the Himalayas.

Check our post here on Trekking to Everest Base Camp Independently.

the himalayas to everest base camp

Without a doubt, Nepal is a land of everlasting fascination for ancient history, a variety of unique cultures and people, breathtaking scenery and some of the best walking trails in the world.
Our time in Nepal was remarkable from the people we met to the cultural experiences that we gained. The plan was to visit for one month but we fell in love with the country very quickly and stayed for nearly three months.

Nepal “once is not enough” – Naturally Nepal

Have we convinced you to visit Nepal yet?

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We are Thomas and Telma – the writers, photographers, videographers and founders of Blank Canvas Voyage.

Let us inspire you to explore the world through the sharing of our experiences, stories, videos and useful tips. Click here to know more about our journey.

Kathmandu Travel Guide: A Chaotic Little Adventure

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By Telma | 18 November 2016 | Nepal | Travel Guides

Travelling in Kathmandu, can be a wonderful yet exhausting experience. And the truth is, people will either love it or hate it. Falling in love with the city was easy; the warm welcome from the locals, the smiles, the hustle and bustle was enough to get us hooked. Choosing to stay for nearly three months was without doubt, a good decision. Having Davendra & Pramila (a Deaf couple, co-owners of Kantipur Hotel) waiting for us was a bonus, as we knew that staying with them and their family, would give us the opportunity to eat traditional food, be advised on where to go and what to see and most important of all would enable us to immerse ourselves in the Nepali culture and interact with the locals.
Prior to our arrival we had no guides, maps or plans. And that is exactly how we like to travel; considering spending longer in a place, getting to know it and its people. Basically, travelling with a purpose, rather than ticking off experiences.

Note: All the information below is based on our own experiences.

Kathmandu Travel Guide

Kathmandu Valley

There are three major towns in Kathmandu Valley – Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan. Kathmandu is the capital and as expected, is the busiest of them all. Kathmandu old city is chaotic, the streets are buzzing with the sights and sounds of cars, trucks, bikes, animals and people filling the narrow streets and lanes. The background noises of bicycle bells, motorbike engines, religious music, car horns, squares packed with timeless temples and monuments, the sights, the smells of incense, spices, sewage and fumes, makes it an amazing city to visit and a thrilling worthwhile experience.

what to see in kathmandu

General Information for first time travellers to Kathmandu

The pollution and the dust in Kathmandu are high, especially during the dry season. We would always wear a face mask when walking around town. At first we thought it would look odd but soon realised that the locals also wear it.

Carrying toilet paper and baby wipes was a life saver in many situations. Only the restaurants in touristic areas will have toilet paper. To be honest the toilets are so bad that we would usually not drink water when we were out and about, so we wouldn’t need to go to the toilet!

Waking up early and leaving the hostel around 8-9am was the best time to explore Kathmandu when it was “quiet”. Traffic gets crazy as the day goes by.

There are several power cuts during the day. Some hostels will be powered with a backup generator if need be. Although they gave us a “schedule” of the power-cut times, more often than not it would happen outside those hours. The frustration was equal regarding Internet connection. It is very slow. The best thing we did was to buy a Ncell SIM card.

We were always very cautious of children around temples, we never gave them money, because we knew many others would start begging. Sadhus, known by Holy Man, demanded money when we took pictures of them or with them. Many are simply beggars and con men. A genuinely Sadhu will never ask or beg for money.

Crossing a road can be a frightening experience for a newbie. Observing how the locals did it helped enormously. In no time we were crossing the streets of Kathmandu like a PRO. Also hopping on a rickshaw was an adventure.

During our stay we never had any problems regarding safety. I (Telma) walked around town a few times on my own and felt safe. Nepali people are nice, warm and very welcoming. Yes, in tourist areas there will be people stalking you, offering to be a guide for the day and charging money if you take pictures of them. Just say “No, thank you” and walk away. Or like us, just keep walking, don’t engage with them. Always worked! They might follow you for a minute, but no longer than that.

Sightseeing in Kathmandu Valley (Kathmandu City, Patan and Bhaktapur) can be a little bit expensive these days, when starting adding the costs. After the 2015 earthquake the number of tourists visiting Nepal might have decreased but the tourist sites increased their entrance fees.

Our best tip: When visiting Nepal, try and adapt to the Nepali lifestyle and its culture as soon as you arrive in Kathmandu. You will see things that you don’t agree with, that will make you upset or even disgusted. If you are not happy, leave. Simple as that. Arriving with a Western attitude is firstly, a waste of time and energy, marking you out as disrespectful. Secondly, it is simply not worth it. Don’t try and change a culture. Adapt, immerse yourself and be positive. You will enjoy the experience much more.

general information about kathmandu

How to Get Started in Kathmandu

Get a map of Kathmandu. Second-hand book stores sell maps for Rs300/USD$2.50/GBP£2.30. Or like us, just ask the receptionist at the hostel, they might have a spare one. The narrow lanes and streets are very confusing at first. It took as a few days to get around it.

Stay connected by purchasing a SIM Card from Ncell provider. The card costs Rs250/USD$2.30/GBP£1.90.
You need – a copy of your passport’s front page, the Nepali Visa and a picture. At the store, they will fill in the form for you and set up the SIM card. Data costs – 1 GB for Rs1000/USD$9.30/GBP£7.60 or 2GB for RS1600/USD$14/GBP£12.

You don’t have to hire a Guide. If you have time, explore the city by yourself. It’s a chaotic little adventure. If you don’t have time and are considering hiring a guide, I suggest asking the hostel for good references. A Guide can cost up to Rs2000/USD$18/GBP£15 a day, less than Rs1000/USD$9/GBP£7 you might as well take a guide book instead. Remember you get what you pay for.

If looking for a Deaf Guide, we suggest:

  • Suresh Shahi. Email: suresh_sh71@hotmail.com/Facebook: Suresh Deaf
    (Areas: Kathmandu Valley & Pokhara/Hiking to Annapurna)
  • Chheeri Sherpa. Email: chheeri@yahoo.com. (Areas: Hiking at the Sagarmatha National Park – Everest Region)

(Both Deaf Guides also work with Hearing people/groups.)

places to visit kathmandu

Kathmandu Transportation

You name it: taxis, rickshaws, buses, tuktuks, bicycles, motorbikes, and yet the best way to explore Kathmandu is on foot. That’s how we spent our days in Kathmandu, wandering around and getting lost.

The variety of transportation in town is overwhelming and we took it slowly by getting used to walking in town from early morning to lunch time. It is always better to experience the roads getting busier as the day goes by, rather than stepping outside for the first time at 2pm. We had to be careful when crossing the roads, there are little rules for pedestrians, or I dare to say none. Any means of transportation will take over both by the left or right side. Leaving you with no choice but actually thank the fact the beeping happens, so you know when NOT to move!

We mainly walked and caught the local buses. The fare is Rs15/USD$0.15/GBP£0.10. My advice is to have the right amount, if you hand it a Rs20 note you will not get the change back. But to be honest, please do not argue back for the sake of 5 rupees! Taxis are a rip-off and not even worth it. Get on a rickshaw and enjoy the ride! The prices will vary depending on distances, but from the old city to Thamel shouldn’t cost more than Rs250/USD$2/GBP£1.50.

busy roads in kathmandu

Accommodation in Kathmandu

The most well-known area that people choose to stay is Thamel, especially for first timers and for those who are stopping in Kathmandu for a day or so before heading to Pokhara or Lukla, to start their trekking journeys. There is accommodation for everyone’s budget, from Rs250/USD$2/GBP£1.50. for a dorm bed or private rooms for Rs800/USD$7/GBP£6.

We stayed at Hotel Kantipur located in North Thamel area called Paknajol. There are no luxuries but the staff are fantastic. Also, the co-owners of the Hostel are Deaf so that was another good reason to stay. We were welcomed with open arms and soon felt part of the family. It was a great way to get to know the locals.
Other recommendation is August Mountain Hotel for a cheaper option and faster internet. Some people avoid tourist areas, like Thamel, and a good choice is to stay around town is Jhochhe, Durbar Marg or Lazimpath.

Eating out in Kathmandu

There are restaurants serving Italian, Thai, Mexican and American food, but don’t expect it all to be authentic, only very few restaurants will serve excellent dishes. When eating local the food can be very greasy and the side effects of it will soon hit you hard, either by diarrhoea or loss of appetite! The majority of tourist restaurants, especially in Thamel, will charge 10% service charge and 13% VAT adding to the final bill. Depending on what you order and the costs, those charges can add up to Rs500/USD$4/GBP£3 extra. If you choose to eat local these charges can be avoided.

Dal Bhat is the national dish of rice, lentils and vegetables. If you are lucky to finding a restaurant who serves a good Nepali Set, the dish is just amazing. But when skimping for a cheap meal, the food can be very bland. The meal usually costs Rs400-500/USD$4/GBP£3 (vegetarian and non-vegetarian). Anything less than NPR400 I wouldn’t recommend, unless you have seen how it’s served, or have heard a recommendation from someone.

dal bhat and momo

Momo (generally speaking are dumplings) usually cost between Rs120-160/USD$1.50/GBP£1 per serve at 10 pieces (vegetarian, buffalo or chicken). You can eat it steamed or fried. Less than RS100 for momo I would be wary of the quality of the meat and its appearance (greasy). Paying RS200 or more for momo is a rip off. (although is still dirty cheap!)

If feeling a little daring with Traditional Food, we suggest Newari dishes, which consist of flattened rice, vegetables and roasted meat. Fruit can be found everywhere in Kathmandu. From bananas, apples, pears, oranges to mangos. It’s worth a try. Ask a local or at the hostel the prices per kilo. Some street sellers will try and charge you more. I had to ask the hostel staff to buy fruit because I couldn’t get fair prices. And always check the expiry date of products. We found some shops selling Snacks and Chocolates with expiry dates of one year earlier!

Our recommendation on good restaurants around Thamel:

  1. Electric Pagoda – Bar & Café (Sathghumti Road) and Or2K– For the best International dishes and fast wifi – service charge
  2. Yangling (is a Tibetan restaurant at the 7 Cornor Road), here you can eat the best Momo and Thenthuk (flat pasta, meat/vegetables in broth) – NO service charge
  3. North Field Café – service charge
  4. Namaste Café & Bar – service charge

the food people from kathmandu eat

What to See and Things to Do in Kathmandu

Kathmandu Durbar Square – This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one the major attractions of Kathmandu, despite some of the temples being destroyed during the 2015 earthquake and the high entrance fee. We were hugely disappointed with the fees and also because it looks like a normal square, where taxis and rickshaws are parked everywhere, there are beggars, sellers, etc. We thought the area would be protected from the chaos. Also the destruction is pretty visible, what was once a beautiful square filled with temples from the 15th century, some areas are now a pile of rubble.
The square is famous for Kumari Chowk (House of the Living Goddess).
Entry fee: Rs1000/USD$9/GBP£7 per person.

people walking at durbar square

Kathesimbhu Stupa – It’s the most popular Tibetan pilgrimage site in the old town. This is a 17th century copy of the famous Swayambhunath Stupa. The site is in between Thamel and Durbar Square, south of Thaihiti Tole.
Entry Fee: Free

kathmandu buddhist temple

Ason Tole, also known as Ason Chowk – It’s an old market square surrounded by temples and shrines. Jammed with buyers and sellers, vegetables, fruits, a variety of spices, dried food, etc. Ason Tole it’s not a tourist market but a local’s market. The three-storey Annapurna Temple can be found here. We walked past the market countless times.

market in kathmandu

Thamel – Thamel is the hustling and bustling tourist district. This area is filled with restaurants serving “international dishes”, backpackers hostels, souvenir shops, fake trekking gear, second-hand book stores and the odd man asking if you “want something?”, referring to hashish!
Shop until you drop! If like us you are on a long-term trip, there isn’t much you can buy apart from a few clothes, magnets or post cards. But if you are visiting and going back home afterwards, it’s your lucky chance to get hands on some beautifully handmade cashmere scarfs/blankets, jewellery, statuettes, carved-wood crafts, carpets, incense, oils, spices….and the list goes on. Get ready for those haggling skills, you will need it here. Some of the souvenirs are ridiculously expensive, and you will be paying the “tourist price”. Thamel is not a reflection of Nepal or Nepali culture, but is where people tend to spend majority of their time because of the variety of offer, the food and the nightlife, as there isn’t much you can do in the evenings outside Thamel.

the streets of thamel kathmandu

Swayambhunath Stupa, it’s a Buddhist temple and also known as the “Monkey Temple”, situated on the top of a hill, west of the city. Climb the full 365 steps to the top and enjoy the views of Kathmandu. As they name suggests, there are a lot of Monkeys around. Don’t be fooled, they are vicious and aggressive. We saw someone being attacked when getting close to them just to take a picture!
Entry fee: Rs200/USD$2/GBP£1.50 per person

buddhist stupa in kathmandu

Pashupatinath & Boudhanath

We visited both in one go. People either visit Pashupatinath on the way to Boudhanath or vise-versa. From Kathmandu get the number 2 blue bus from Ratna Park (near Rani Pokhari, east side of town) to Boudhanath. The bus journey is Rs15/USD$0.15/GBP£0.10 but if you hand in a Rs20 note you will not get 5 rupees’ change. It’s not worth the argument.

Boudhanath Stupa – The Great Boudha is the largest stupa in Nepal and one of the largest in the World. This pilgrimage site is very important for Buddhists. Unfortunately, during the 2015 earthquake the stupa was massively damaged, and people can no longer walk around the edge, now only from the ground. It is really a beautiful site and worth a visit. Boudhanath is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Entry fee: Rs250/USD$2.50/GBP£2 per person

Pashupatinath – Pashupatinath, located along Bagmati River, it is Nepal’s more important Hindu temple and it’s one of the most important Shiva temples on the subcontinent. The Bagmati is a holy river and it’s used as a cremation site for the Hindus. We saw two bodies being cremated at the riverside ghats (these are stone-paved cremation platforms). The smell isn’t very pleasant but I believe it is really an experience. I am not sure, but I think the price has increased lately because travellers would flock there to take pictures, treating it like a tourist site. At the end of the day it is like tourists in our country going to our cemeteries and taking pictures of our funerals… I guess we wouldn’t like it either.
Here you can find Sadhus, known as Holy Man. The Sadhus of Nepal are wandering Holy Man who have chosen to live their life apart of the edges of society to focus on their own spiritual practices.
Entry fee: Rs1000/USD$9/GBP£7 per person

nepal cremation site

Kathmandu Valley: A Day Trip

Bhaktapur

Bhaktapur is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located about 8 miles/12km from Kathmandu. The town is beautifully built in a blend of dark carved wood, pink bricks and copper. It was like stepping into a medieval town: traditional art and architecture, historical monuments and temples, people producing pottery and craft works. Bhaktapur early dates go back to the 9th century but it wasn’t until the 17th that much of the town’s architecture started taking its place.

Bhaktapur is much cleaner and less busy than Kathmandu, which was a pleasant surprise. We didn’t even wear our face masks, so that was a bonus! There are no rickshaws, less motorbikes and taxi drivers around. It was so beautiful and tranquil compared to Kathmandu that we went there twice during our stay in Nepal. It is really a fascinating little town to wander in and it’s only one hour away from Kathmandu. The lack of traffic, walking around old temples and shrines makes the perfect destination away from the chaos. Make sure it is on your itinerary. We had a very pleasant day around town, the people were warm and welcoming.
How to get Bhaktapur to Kathmandu – Get the express bus from Ratna Park (near Rani Pokhari, east side of town) direct to Bhaktapur, cost per ticket is Rs20/USD$0.18/GBP£0.15.

A simple guide would be to start off at Durbar Square, then Taumadhi Tole for its five-storey Nyatapola Temple, then Pottery Square for a tea break at Pottery Bar for some roof top views of the square, and finally make your way to Dattatraya Square, which is the oldest part of town.

Entry Fees for the Touristic Sites:
•   Durbar Square – Rs1500/USD$14/GBP£11 per person
•   Taumadhi Tole – Free
•   Dattatraya Square – Free
•   Pottery Square – Free

hindu culture of nepal

pottery square bhaktapur

man relaxing in nepal

People from all around the world visit Nepal and stay in Kathmandu a few days before heading to Pokhara or Lukla with plans of trekking the Annapurna Circuit or to the Everest Base Camp, but we highly recommend exploring the city a little longer. Not only because Kathmandu needs tourism but also because it is really an eye-opening experience.

If you can: stay longer, meet the locals – whether by volunteering or just talking to the staff at your accommodation; try different food; spend an afternoon observing the daily life and most of all have a positive attitude towards the culture and the people.

Kathmandu might not be for everyone, but is without a doubt a once in a lifetime experience.

Special Thanks:

We would like to thank Davendra and Pramila for their hospitality during our stay in Kathmandu. Their generosity, friendship, kind gestures, making sure we were always happy, and countless nights chatting, made our stay in Nepal much more enjoyable. Straight after meeting them we felt part of the family. We are forever grateful for everything they did for us. Other people that we would also like to thank, in no particular order are: Dipawali Sharmacharya, Kalpana Bajaracharya, Suresh Shahi, Chheeri Sherpa.

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Preparation for Everest Base Camp: The Ultimate Guide

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By Telma and Thomas | 2 November 2016 | Nepal | Travel Guides

Our ultimate guide in how to prepare for Everest Base Camp will have you covered: When is the best time to go trekking, do you actually need climbing experience, where to buy trekking gear and what are the daily costs are just a few of the things you need to be aware of before heading to the base of the highest mountain in the world.

Best Time to Trek Everest Base Camp

If you are brave enough to face the freezing nights and morning walks, choose to hike in November and you will not regret it. From day 1; all the way from Lukla to Everest Base Camp, we had the most beautiful, crystal clear weather. The views of the Himalayas are superb and would be a shame not to see it in fully.
We know people that have trekked in April/May and September/ October. While some had fantastic views, others not so great. But we had the best weather imaginable. According to travel books, the best time to go trekking is during the dry season, from October to May, and the “worst” time is from June to September, during the monsoon.

Let me break it into sections:
October and November: is the best time to go trekking for good views of the mountains but is also the busiest time. However, even trekking independently, we never had issues with accommodation.
December, January and February: Superb visibility but the freezing temperatures during the day at higher altitudes it’s not for everyone. The use of crampons in some of the passes are recommended.
March to April: This is the second-best season to go, temperatures are warmer but the chances of hazy visibility are high.
May to September – Although this is officially the lowest season to go trekking due to the heavy rains (monsoon), some trekkers choose this time of the year due to fewer people on the trails.

everest base camp travel blog

How to Prepare to Trek Everest Base Camp

Do we need to be super fit? Is training beforehand necessary? How many years of climbing experience do we need?
These were the questions we typed several times even before agreeing on trekking to Everest Base Camp. Now, after finishing it we are definitely able to answer these questions: No. No. None!
Let me explain.
Although being reasonably fit will help, people don’t have to have ran marathons and finished the Iron Man challenge! I am not into fitness at all, and definitely not into exercise, and I managed to do it.
From the teenager to the elderly, from the overweight to the super fit…we saw it all. And because we had read about it, we thought “Well, anyone else can, why can’t we?” I remember at dinner time looking around the teahouse, observing everyone and asking Thomas: “So every single person here is super fit, a marathoner or a gym fanatic?”. Nope, I don’t think so.
After all it’s not about training or actually being fit, it’s about being mentally capable of facing challenges and maybe having a Porter to carry your backpacks.
As for climbing experience, this one is a big round ZERO. Unless people are summiting different peaks like Ama Dablam, Island Peak, or obviously Mount Everest itself. Trekking to Everest Base Camp is a walk and we never had to climb at any point

preparation for everest base camp

Buying Trekking Gear in Kathmandu

Thamel
Thamel is an area west side of Kathmandu where the majority of people stay and spend time indulging in western food and buying their trekking gear. Overwhelmed with the variety on offer, searching for trekking gear can be a daunting task. Some shops sell poor quality equipment/gear and the prices are ridiculously high. Small items like water bottles, trekking socks, trekking poles, gloves, hats should range from Rs300-600 (USD$2.50-5/GBP£2-4), but there are shops charging RS1000-1500 (USD$10-12/GBP£7-10), for these. And the high prices don’t necessarily mean good quality. If looking to rent a down jacket and a sleeping bag, these should be around RS60-80 a day. It is not just having to be aware of overpricing but the fact that every shop has a different price tag, which is very frustrating and exhausting to find the best price. When we had to buy our water purification tablets, we came across 5 different prices! But funny enough during the search the prices were decreasing as we went along. Starting at Rs1000/USD$10/GBP£7, for 50 tablets to Rs250/USD$2.5/GBP£1.5, for the same brand, same package…but different shop!
And the list goes on….

As we were staying in Nepal for over a month before our trek, we followed our friend’s advice, who happens to be a Sherpa and has connections on a shop owned by a Sherpa family. The owner has been to Everest Base Camp hundreds of times as a Guide and has been as far as Camp 4, the last camp side before the Summit of Mount Everest. The shop is called Ama Dablum Trek Shop, located in Jyat