Nepal is a country that has been on my bucket list for some time. Teja from Teja on the Horizon tells us about the 5 unexpected places to visit in Kathmandu; the capital of Nepal.
It was my first impression of Kathmandu, in a taxi fighting its way through the irritable traffic. I recalled a news article I had just read, stating that Nepal has a serious respiratory illness problem.
I could well believe it, seeing the clog of indifferently maintained vehicles slipping through narrow lanes, and the particulates in the air. It reminded me very much of Indonesia, or parts of Manila.
When I visited Nepal, I did pick up some of the must-see sights of Kathmandu.
I went to Kathmandu Durbar Square, under restoration from the 2015 earthquake. There, I waited in the little courtyard for the Kumari to appear – ever so briefly – at her filigreed casement.
I went to see the gold and white Boudhanath stupa.
And while I did not stay in Thamel itself, I went to wander around the shops lining the backpackers’ street.
And yet, the images that stayed with me of Kathmandu were not only these. Not just the places for the tourists, not just the best foot forward. I was also interested in the ordinary, the everyday – the mundane Kathmandu.
I recall the Nepali women going about their day – they wear salwar khameez in Kathmandu, with only a few in modern street clothes. The local teen girls walking back from school in uniform – white shirts and grey slacks, not skirts.
I recall the mild-tempered stray dogs that made me apprehensive at first, walking the streets alone.
Then there were the billboards and street advertising. I remember there were no beauty or whitening or body-shaping or other female insecurity products promoted. But there were many advertising education, from Montessori kindies to engineering campuses.
So here are my 5 most unexpectedly interesting things to do in Kathmandu.
1. Kathmandu graffiti art
Wandering outside the touristy areas, heading to random spots marked out on the map app on my phone, I came across a central area in the city. It was a busy public throughfare. Pedestrians passed by and traffic noise rose from the main streets around.
Here, on the buildings’ outer walls, was painted a series of graffiti art. One series appeared to be related to a school or public awareness campaign – advocating hand washing and environmentalism, among other things.
But the ones that took my interest were a different series slightly away from that. These street art were about violence against women. One in particular used negative space in a simple but effective way, to represent the hand on a woman’s throat – and the tear on her cheek.
They were gritty and spoke something honest – one of the reasons why I like discovering graffiti art in cities. They reminded me that Kathmandu is a real city with real people, with diverse and layered lives, who face social and modern life pressures like anywhere else. Not a Shangri-La for my foreign imagination.
2. Ratna Park
I stumbled upon this little green space in the midst of dusty Kathmandu, because of a change of plan. I had finished with the Durbar Square and was contemplating heading to other Kathmandu must-sees – UNESCO Site Pashupatinath perhaps, or the other one, Swayambhunath temple.
But sometimes a perverse mood strikes me and I decide to forego such eminence in favour of the mundane. I went for a city walk instead and decided to discover what Ratna Park was like.
I’ll say it outright – it’s not amazing.
It’s a perfectly adequate public park, reasonably maintained. The grass has puddles and the birds were pigeons and crows. The roses were blooming and lovely, but not as gorgeous as the Gurung gardens of Annapurna.
But it’s green and tranquil. Surrounded on all sides by the chaos and bustle of the city, it is a little haven of peace and life. And that is enough to compel me to stay there for some time.
Entry is 50 rupees for ‘Asians’ and 75 rupees for ‘foreigners’.
3. The office shops beneath the pedestrian bridge
Eventually I left the park and continued wandering semi-aimlessly. I came across the Muslim area, where there were two mosques and a learning institution. Near here, I turned a corner and made perhaps my favourite discovery.
Kathmandu is very much still a pedestrian city, despite the traffic bustle. And it actually has a decent network of overhead pedestrian bridge crossings for its busy roads. While not particularly aesthetic, they are very functional. They go as high as two levels to merge and disperse pedestrian traffic who make complicated crossings at busy interchanges. You do not have to cross the streets at right angles, waiting each time for traffic lights or going up and down stairs multiple times.
But in this one spot, I reckon due to a university nearby, there’s more. Instead of leaving the ground floor beneath the first crossing level open, a bank of printing shops lined the bend, with their backs to the road!
Little more than printers on desks, they were nearly identical to each other, doubtless the resource for desperate undergrads printing dissertations at the last minute (we all did this, right?).
Other common services offered include passport photos and translation of documents into English.
4. Indra Chowk – more local shopping than Thamel
Often times when I travel to places that haven’t yet been globalised, I get in the mood to check out the local shopping streets. Not so much because I wanted to shop, but just out of curiosity. Markets are, after all, where the people congregate for their needs.
I had all intentions to check out Durbar Marg on the other side of the main thoroughfare, but I got distracted into Indra Chowk instead. What I found was a bustling small open market area, where the adjacent shopping streets converged. A Shiva temple stood to the side (judging from the bull reposing before it).
All kinds of retail are found here. There was a wide array of local women’s dresses and fabrics, many of which were in red, because it was the run-up to Teej. If I were coming straight home from Kathmandu, I probably would have bought one – they would not be out of place in Malaysia.
Also, if you really look, and follow the signs through the narrow warrens at the backs of the main street shops, there is a hipster cycle cafe here. A few Nepali band guys were jamming while I had a late lunch there.
Don’t forget to look in the alleys branching out from the main shopping streets. I found light North Face jackets sold for just 1250 rupees in one alley. That’s even cheaper than Thamel or Pokhara bargain bins. The selection is very limited, of course, and I can’t swear that they’re genuine. But the material felt like the Gore-Tex of my own North Face jacket.
Indra Chowk is not even far from Thamel! Just a little bit more of a walk away, and you’d get to shop somewhere that’s a lot less touristy.
5. The unexpected Boudhanath
I visited Boudhanath several times. Partly it was because I stayed near there instead of Thamel, so it was convenient to re-visit.
Technically, Boudhanath is not ‘mundane Kathmandu’. A UNESCO site in its own right, the Boudha Stupa is a pilgrimage destination for Buddhists, and a Kathmandu must-see. But for this article, I don’t intend to talk about the stupa itself.
What I found unexpected about the Boudhanath area, was its Tibetan refugees.
Nepal has taken thousands of Tibetan refugees over many decades, following China’s annexation of Tibet in the middle of the last century. Many of these refugees have settled in the Boudha area. So the fact that they’re there is not the unexpected part.
For me, what I found unexpected was that it did not look like a poor area. Boudhanath is a Tibetan cultural centre, with many shops showcasing quality Tibetan art and religion. Trendy cafes interspersed among them. Dresses and glossy fabric meant for the Tibetan aprons are widely available. Women of Tibetan descent dress in their traditional clothing, in fabric much finer than the refugees I met in Pokhara. I would not at all have expected it to be a refugee congregation area.
In hindsight, this is probably because Boudhanath was already a Tibetan pilgrimage destination since a long time ago, so there may already be a Tibetan community there. So perhaps the refugees simply assimilated into that.
Mundane – but unexpectedly interesting
So there you have it! The 5 places I found unexpectedly interesting from my tour of Kathmandu, Nepal. It just goes to show that sometimes veering off the must-sees can be rewarding. After all, these are the opportunities for you to see something from your own eyes!
Planning a trip to Nepal? Read more on Nepal over on Teja on the Horizon or check out these travel guides below: