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
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.
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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org/Facebook: Suresh Deaf
(Areas: Kathmandu Valley & Pokhara/Hiking to Annapurna)
- Chheeri Sherpa. Email: email@example.com. (Areas: Hiking at the Sagarmatha National Park – Everest Region)
(Both Deaf Guides also work with Hearing people/groups.)
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.
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.
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:
- Electric Pagoda – Bar & Café (Sathghumti Road) and Or2K– For the best International dishes and fast wifi – service charge
- 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
- North Field Café – service charge
- Namaste Café & Bar – service charge
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
Kathmandu Valley: A Day Trip
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
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.
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We are Thomas and Telma – the writers, photographers, videographers and founders of Blank Canvas Voyage.
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