The first time I visited Nepal was in July 1999. I had gone to Thailand to manage a bar on an island in Koh Samet, on Thailand’s east coast. My sister and her husband at that time worked for DFID (Department For International Development – a UK Government AID organization), and they had been posted to Nepal for two years with their young family.
My Thailand bar venture went ‘tits-up’ before it had even got started (long story – you can read about it here), and so – with my island dream in tatters, I headed for the vibrant holiday resort of Pattaya (Sin City) to drown my sorrows. Unawares to me at the time, my sister and her family had booked a holiday in Pattaya for July. I had no intention of going home (Scotland) anytime soon, and so I booked a flight to Nepal and flew back with them to Kathmandu when their holiday was over.
When we arrived in Kathmandu, my sister’s driver was waiting for us at the airport. DB – the driver, brushed all the waiting taxi drivers aside with a few sharp, Nepali words and led us to the Jeep that he used for chauffeuring my sister around in. I felt like a diplomat as I clambered aboard; DB – as I was soon to discover, was a friendly, knowledgeable local, and a good ambassador for Nepal.
Despite a good first impression of the Nepali people (courtesy of DB), my first impression of Kathmandu was one of shock. I stared from the window of the jeep at the dirty, crumbling city and couldn’t believe my eyes. I was expecting ‘Shangri La’ – not the second most polluted place on earth after Bangladesh. Old battered, worn-out buses and cars pumped out black exhaust fumes into the already noxious air – people wearing face masks stared at us with inquisitive eyes from the back of tightly-packed tuk-tuk-type vehicles called tempos. When we arrived at my sister’s house on the outskirts of Kathmandu, I wondered if I had made a mistake in leaving behind ‘Amazing Thailand’ to come here – ‘Pollution Central…’
However… I had always been taught to ‘never judge a book by its cover.’ And for Kathmandu, this is a good adage…
Kathmandu is home to over 1 million souls. Its residents are mainly poor people who smile with their eyes, despite having nothing. Most of them are Hindu, although many are Buddhist, and if you can look past the poverty, and the lepers, and the child beggars, you’ll find that Kathmandu is as interesting a city as any city gets, maybe even more so than most…
It was monsoon season on that first trip – not good for hiking or trekking, so I stuck to the Kathmandu Valley and got chauffeured around all the notable tourist attractions by DB. I spent a month in Nepal before flying back to Thailand and didn’t see one snow-capped, Himalayan peak the whole time I was there, because of the low cloud cover and humidity.
In October 2012, I resolved to make up for that by returning to Nepal to trek the Annapurna Circuit – a 150 mile (17 day) trek that takes you into the heart of the Annapurna mountain range and up to an elevation of 5416m (17,769 feet), as you cross the ‘Thorong La Pass’.
On my return to Nepal, I was pleased to see that Kathmandu had hardly changed. My cousin Stephen – a first-timer to Asia, was blown away by Kathmandu – in the same way, that I had been more than 12 years before.
By 2012, my sister was long gone, and so we headed for Thamel – the backpacker/hippy/tourist hub of Kathmandu and checked into the Hotel Buddha, a decent hotel that had been recommended to me by a friend.
The district of Thamel is a maze of narrow alleys and busy backstreets – made up mainly of guesthouses, restaurants, internet cafes, and mountain gear shops. Rickshaws rattle along the cobbles tooting their homemade (plastic bottle) horns; street hustlers and shop owners vie for your Rupees at every turn.
Thamel is the first stop off point for most tourists to the country and is centrally located for Durbar Square (a UNESCO World Heritage site, restored after the 2015 earthquake). Swayambhunath, or ‘Monkey Temple’ (another UNESCO World Heritage site) is also only a short walk from Thamel, as is the Royal Palace, where colonies of flying foxes (fruit bats) roost in the trees by day and fill the skies above Thamel by night.
This October (2017) – I will be returning to Nepal to trek to the Everest Base camp (EBC). I am very much looking forward to the trek, and to the challenge it presents – but I am also looking forward to visiting Kathmandu again, and to exploring the labyrinth of backstreets and alleyways that make up the vibrant district of Thamel.
The following is a list of UNESCO World Heritage sites that are located in the Kathmandu Valley.
Author: Raymond Carroll (Raymond Carroll is a travel blogger/writer)