by Will McGough
Last updated: 4:00 AM ET, Thu September 8, 2016
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.
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."
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