Tightly packed streets, blaring horns, endless swarms of rickshaws and shady touts. These are some of the more obvious elements of Kathmandu’s backpacker ghetto, the Thamel. But, looking beyond these irksome bothers, one will notice brightly colored prayer flags strung between overhead rooftops, pastel windows and doors adorning ancient walls, monkeys playing on far off buildings in the hazy afternoon sun, and golden stupas with painted eyes rising above the chaos. The Thamel is loud, crowded, and dirty, but it is also incredibly convenient as a home base for exploring the city. Most things are accessible by foot, or an inexpensive cab ride. Places to sleep are easy to come by, most with free wifi. Cheap and delicious food abounds, including NRS150 (< $2US) falafel gyros and yak cheese sandwiches. A quick trip out of the district can bring you to the relative calm of the suburbs, or the surprising grandeur (again, relative) of the CBD. Or, in another direction, it will bring you to the breathtaking poverty of the slums, or to the misery of a destroyed river, complete with burning sewage and partially submerged dead cattle. The air quality is awful, and it only takes about an hour of being in the city before you start noticing black things coming out of your nose. Kathmandu is a fascinating place, and deserves a few days of exploration before or after your trek, but don’t stick around for much longer unless you’re after a souvenir respiratory infection.
- Swayambhunath – Also nicknamed ‘The Monkey Temple’. A grand stupa on top of a hill overlooking the city. Lots of interesting wares being peddled, and a cheeky troupe of monkeys to keep your entertained. A nice 20-minute walk from the Thamel leading from the old city, over a nasty river, and through the wide lanes of the suburbs.
- Garden of Dreams – A surreal escape from the insanity of the city. Beautiful and extravagant gardens complete with a tiered lawn with mats and pillows for naps or reading. Relax and stroll amongst white stone pillars, lush grass lawns, and babbling fountains. Get there before the bar opens up during the evening time, unless you like your nap in the grass set to aggressively loud Katy Perry and Ke$ha songs.
- OR2K – Vegetarian restaurant that serves the best food in Kathmandu. Fresh, flavorful, and homemade. Kind of an irritating faux-hippy scene at night, but great for long lunches. Delicious fresh baked breads, goat cheese pizzas, voluptuous salads and a great Mediterranean platter. Free wifi!
At first glance, Kathmandu is complete chaos. There are street children hungrily licking the walls, eying you through the windows of the grocery store. There are the hoarse whispers of, “Want something?” from bleary eyed hash sellers. And there is the constant bombardment of noises: motorbike horns, dog barks, and the omnipresent hocking of phlegm. But on that first night at around 8pm, when suddenly the streets go dark and eerily quiet, and you realize that the city has gone to sleep, Kathmandu’s charm starts to reveal itself. It’s a quirky city, with four-feet-tall lady cops lugging around huge bamboo canes, threatening disarmament by cuteness more than intimidation. After several tries, the man who is always outside the guesthouse will stop trying to sell you Tiger Balm and nail clippers and just nod, “Namaste.” The proximity to everything makes seeking out oases quite easy, and there is a dazzling array of excellent food to be found. It would be easy to chock Kathmandu up to just noisy, dirty, and chaotic, but if you’re willing to dig a little deeper, there’s a bit more to discover. Just don’t expect too much, make sure to choose a guesthouse off the main drag, and by God, wear a handkerchief around your nose and mouth while walking on the streets. Trust me, the person still coughing a month later.
- Chikusa – Hands down best breakfast in Kathmandu. And among the cheapest, as well. This tiny café is staffed by five rather sullen young men who are there everyday, in the same clothes as the day before. But after our second, third, fourth visits, they would break out in grins and start writing our orders down before we could verbalize that, yes, we wanted the masala omelette and french toast, again. We eventually returned enough times to try other dishes, but everything was so delicious that it was hard to stray. Also, it’s one of the only places to find real coffee for those who tire quickly of Nescafe.
- Shree-Lal House of Vegetarian – Not only is the Indian food delicious, but the young man in the baseball cap who takes your order might just be the sweetest young man in Kathmandu. This judgment is based solely on his smile and quiet demeanor, but I’m pretty confident I’m right. The restaurant is found about a hundred feet down a dark, dank hallway and has the mood of being underground. But the rather drab setting is immediately remediated by the perfectly spiced shahi paneer, the freshly baked roti, and belly bursting thalis. The hot lemon with honey is the perfect antidote for an afternoon spent inhaling Kathmandu’s pollution.
- Rooftops – Pretty much every guesthouse winds up innumerable stories of rooms to open up to a rooftop garden. Some are equipped with chairs, and others are assuming you won’t venture up there. But you really should. The constant noise and bombardment of the Thamel sheds away to a new world filled with the soft whispers of prayer flags and a constant onslaught of birds flying overhead. The peace found on these rooftops will keep you going in Kathmandu.