Nepal for Non-Trekkers: What to Do in Kathmandu
Nepal is known throughout the world for its mountainous terrain. It shares a stake in the world’s tallest peak, Mt. Everest, and has, in total, eight mountains taller than 26,000 feet. It’s a number sure to excite any and all adventurers, and it’s why many travelers only skim the surface of the capital, Kathmandu, as they pass through in route to outdoor launching pads like Pokhara or Lukla in the Himalayas.
But non-trekkers need not ignore or be intimidated by Nepal. The Kathmandu Valley boasts a remarkable seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites that headline a long list of cultural, historical, and religious spectacles – no hiking boots required.
Highlighting the Kathmandu Valley’s seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites are three preserved former kingdoms: Hanuman Dhoka, also known as Durbar Square in downtown Kathmandu; Patan, technically its own city, just across the river from Kathmandu, and Bhaktapur City, the 15th century capital of Nepal and the largest of the three former Newar kingdoms of the Kathmandu Valley.
All three feature breathtaking Newar architecture and are brought to life by a knowledgeable guide who can explain the significance of buildings, temples, and squares. Hire an accredited one from Friendly Planet to learn about ancient rituals and current customs.
Stupas and Temples:
Visiting these former Kingdoms will shed light on the immense role that religion has played in Nepalese culture. Further exploration will reveal that things haven’t changed much. One of most sacred Hindu temples in Nepal, the Pashupatinath Temple, is known for its “ghats” – riverside platforms where public cremation still occurs today. Boudhanath Stupa, one of the world’s largest stupas, is brimming with local flair in the early-morning prayer hours from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Feel free to join in with others and walk around the stupa, a ceremonial act considered to be a meditative practice for the locals. Or, simply find a place to sit and take this ritual, one unlike anything that exists in Western cultures.
Photo via Wikipedia
The most intriguing religious aspect of Nepal is one that separates it from every other nation in the world. The Nepalese worship five living goddesses, individually referred to as a “Kumari.” Selected at a young age by a process that dates back centuries and equates to a modern day pageant, the girls are revered in modern society as a living goddess and serve as such until they reach puberty. Only locals can meet a Kumari in person, but foreigners can get a glimpse by visiting the temples they call home. The Kumari’s home in Kathmandu is the Kumari Ghar, also known as the Temple of the Living Goddess, in Durbar Square. Foreigners can go inside the courtyard and stand below a window where the Kumari often appears. A guide comes in handy here to fill you in on all the details of the Kumari and her temple.
Chess player turned local guide Rajir Shrestha summed it up to me very well: “An American wants a cheeseburger. A Nepali wants a Momo.” Momos are small dumplings filled with meat, veggies, or cheese and served with chutney or hot sauce on the side. Cheap ($1-$3 an order) and available everywhere in street carts and restaurants like the Bakery Cafe, each local has their own opinion about where to find the best, so be sure to ask around and try as many as you can.
Photo via Wikipedia
Dal Bhat is the other local favorite, and it’s perhaps even more of a staple than Momos, eaten on a daily basis for lunch and/or dinner. It’s a very simple dish of rice and lentil stew. Locals will mix them together and eat it with their hands, and you should, too, for the full experience.
When you’re ready to treat yourself, carve out a night at Krishnarpan, where you can experience the many layers and terrains of Nepali cuisine. In a feast that can range from six to twenty courses, each small plate is inspired by a particular community or region of Nepal. Dishes like Puri (deep-fried soft flour bread), Kukhura Ko Masu (curry chicken in Nepalese spices), Eskush Ra Bhatamas Ko Ledo (sweet-gourd and soybean curry in gravy), Dal Jhaneko (flash-friend lentils in Himalayan herbs), and Sikarni (yogurt flavored with cinnamon) are just a small sampling of the experience. Prepare to sit on plush pillows and enjoy this meal on the floor.
For a great take-home gift, hit the local markets and pick up some pink Himalayan rock salt for a dollar a kilogram – unbelievably cheap compared to what it costs in the U.S.
READ MORE: Make Your Nepal Trip Meaningful
Where to Stay:
Whenever an old building was brought down in Nepal in the 1950s, Dwarika’s Hotel Founder Dwarika Das Shrestha would buy the wood-carved windows, doors, and pillars and incorporate them into his hotel. At that time, people discouraged this practice, seeing the concept of constructing with repurposed materials as a sign of continued poverty. Luckily, Das Shrestha saw it as preservation and an appreciation of culture.
Photo courtesy of Dwarika's Hotel
The result today is Kathmandu’s most detailed, intimate hotel that overflows with glimpses of old-school Nepal using traditional terracotta designs that date back to the Kathmandu Valley during the 15th century. The rooms feature brick walls, tile floors, and bold-colored Nepalese accents. Designed as a large rectangle with a castle-worthy interior courtyard containing gardens, pools, large trees, and restaurants, stepping through the front entrance is a transformational experience.
Or, if you want to live closer to the local people, you can experience true culture by staying at a Buddhist monastery. The Kopan Monastery, for example, has rooms from $4 a night and allows you to stay amongst the monks and witness their way of daily life.
As with most impoverished countries, nightlife for most locals is limited to a couple beers with a couple buddies out front of the corner store or in the back of a machine shop. But if you’re keen on mingling with other foreigners, make your way to Thamel, the backpacker area of town where the majority of travelers make camp. Its streets are filled with small hotels, souvenir shops, tour operators, restaurants, and bars.
Rajir Shrestha, the local chess player and part-time guide, encourages visitors to spend time at the Ason Market. Tourist-catered areas like Thamel provide useful services, but it’s not where daily life takes place for the Nepalese.
“At the Ason Market, we can see all the ways the local people live,” Shrestha said. “The hustle and bustle gives us an idea about the market place during medieval time. We see people selling all types of ingredients used for religious and ritual activities, fresh vegetables, fruits, dry fishes, dry meats, shops selling typical Nepalese clothes and people using old houses and also the temples as shops. This is where you will get a feeling of what it’s like for people in Kathmandu.”
More by Will McGough
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