Back in March 2015, Jon and I took the plunge at the last minute to go backpacking around Nepal for almost three weeks. Six months prior we were researching and discussing which country to visit and by chance Jon stumbled upon an article about Nepal and said “how about here?” I was dubious since I didn’t know much about Nepal and I was drawn more to India but the more photos I saw I realised that this place is kind of magical. We were so last minute it was literally days before our leave date that we booked our flights! Talk about spur of the moment! We literally went to Nepal with no plan, only one hotel booked for our stay in Kathmandu and with the intention to backpack to other locations, holy smokes!
We flew with AirIndia and I highly recommend them, they are safe, reasonable price and you travel on a big, comfy plane. We landed in India for a few hours before catching another shorter flight to Nepal. New Delhi’s ariport is astoundingly beautiful & elegant, so much more glamorous than the airports in the UK (Narrow minded Brits would be shocked to know this, thinking India’s airport must be feral and made out of straw). They even have a gorgeous bohemian and Indian inspired gift shop with musicians playing music in the back, I was literally in heaven in this shop, I didn’t want to leave.
Landing in Nepal, it was a massive culture shock times a thousand. Jon and I starred at our new environment, looked at each other and thought “Well this is a mistake, how are we going to enjoy this? Better yet, how are we going to survive this?!” Chaotic is an understatement.
The moment we left the airport we were bombarded (no joke) by a massive group of men claiming to be taxi drivers wanting to take us to our hotel “for good price”. Looking like two lost deer’s in headlights a seasoned Israeli traveler came to our rescue, this guy came out of nowhere and pretty much took charge. Like us he was also tired, hungry and needed a shower; he was also extremely funny and due to his tiredness appeared slightly drunk when bartering with the drivers whilst holding his cigarette “No man, you are pissing me off, this is not good price.” He’d casually say, I wish I had gotten a photo of this scene, the hilarity of it perked us up. In the end our hotel pick up eventually arrived and as a thank you we gave the Israeli a lift into Thamel. If it is your first time visiting Nepal or if your traveling is not advanced I do recommend (if you can) asking for an airport pick up through your hotel, it’s safer, faster & cheap because the moment you leave the airport you are so sleepy, all you are going to want to do is get to your hotel room rather than have 10 to 20 Nepalese men in your face attempting to get you in their taxi. By the way, this happens everywhere and you get used to it, it’s completely harmless (the Nepalese are a gentle people) so you don’t feel like you are in danger but it does feel like a Saturday afternoon in primark-uncomfortable, loud and annoying.
Once settled in our hotel we had a power nap, it just happened suddenly, like our minds and bodies shut down and we fell asleep for about two hours. Luckily this really helped us recharge and within 15 minutes we were out on the streets of Thamel. We were also fortunate not to succumb to jet-lag either. Once wandering around the streets of Thamel we were mesmerized by it’s wild beauty, everywhere you stood was a photo opportunity and because we arrived two weeks before the tourist season hit, it was largely just us and the locals. Interacting with the locals is easy, they speak good (sometimes broken) English and they are largely polite. Due to Nepal having a mixture of Hindu & Buddhist influence and their belief in the four goals of Hindu life these people are very rarely rude and they are extremely gentle, their roads are deranged, their traffic system is frenzied and their automobiles are noisy but the people are absolutely lovely. Bartering with them is interesting and it is quite difficult to haggle for local price but if you walk away they get upset they have offended you, some have ran after us with “OK, OK, take it for this price” not realizing that actually you just don’t want the item anymore, even though you politely decline they are a persistent lot but we never felt threatened.
Thamel is a backpacker’s dream because you are surrounded by so much culture and you don’t need to prebook a hotel, most seasoned travelers walk into Thamel with nowhere booked to stay and you can find hundreds of hotels and hostels at varying prices as easy as walking into your local kiosk and finding your favourite bar of chocolate. Kathmandu Guesthouse is a popular choice and it’s a great hotel to mention to a taxi driver to drop you off in Thamel as it’s a widely known ‘landmark’ to them. We stayed at Pilgrim’s Guesthouse for about 5 nights, it is cheaper than Kathmandu Guesthouse and has a lovely courtyard garden/eating area and it is situated slightly further back from the main road meaning less noise which is a blessing in Thamel since this place is just as noisy at night too.
We ventured into Kathmandu durbar square for the rest of the afternoon and before the sun went down. Kathmandu Durbar Square (Nepali: वसन्तपुर दरवार क्षेत्र, Basantapur Darbar Kshetra) in front of the old royal palace of the former Kathmandu Kingdom is one of three Durbar (royal palace) Squares in the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal, all of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Several of the buildings did collapse here during the earthquake of April 2015, Jon and I were very fortunate to have been some of the last visitors to see these breathtaking buildings and also be safely home in the UK two weeks prior to the natural disaster. Due to the earthquake damage I am unsure as to what is still standing and what has changed in terms of entry fee but Nepal is now safe again to visit. I have a love for ancient Hindu carvings and temples so I was in my element walking around this stunning site. We even ventured inside a temple dedicated to Ganesh (essentially a large rock that has naturally carved into the look of an elephant and is therefore seen as an omen of sorts) people gathered here to be blessed and pray before the rock as well as place flower offerings around it and being someone who likes to learn about another culture by doing as the locals do, I also opted to be blessed and a bindi was gently placed on my third eye.
One of the beautiful things about Thamel is that if you are brave enough to ‘get lost’ there are other smaller holy sites situated in numerous nooks and crannies and backstreet corners down windy alleys to visit other than Durbar Sqaure. Like I mentioned previously, Nepal is largely safe, there are beggars and you do have to have common sense anywhere you go in the world but you are less likely to get mugged or attacked here than you are in London and that is because of their spiritual belief in Karma amongst other beliefs about life. There is a certain charm and adventure about finding a disheveled Stupa or temple covered in pigeons, behind rusty buildings on the main streets of Thamel, here you will find stillness (other than the flapping of pigeons) and you will also walk into the local’s living quarters who don’t mind you marveling at their way of life. So do try it, don’t be afraid to walk off the the beaten path and immerse yourself in the culture away from the usual tourist attractions which are usually not that far away from the main roads anyway and if you get lost, there are so many taxis to choose from, it’s a doddle getting back to the area your hotel is situated in.
Another thing I also recommend you try is the local street vendor food (EAT THE MOMOS!) if you have had all your travel vaccinations it shouldn’t be problem eating anywhere in Nepal, again have common sense about you, if you see other backpackers and plenty of locals waiting in line to buy food then you know it’s delicious and it is safe (with restaurants use your trusty lonely planet guide for popular safe options), on the flip side just like India it is inevitable you will get ‘Delhi Belly’ here too so rather than attempting to avoid it, just go for it, your tummy may suffer for about a day but in the grand scheme of things it is better to roll with the punches and enjoy the moment than miss out. People who have a fear of everything will never know true enjoyment and therefore do not fully know what it feels like to be alive. Have your wits about you, be safe but also take calculated risks, your mind will thank you for it later because you’ll have stored some happy memories in your brain forever.
The water however should be bought with caution and don’t drink tap or running water unless you want to become very sick. When buying water, there should be an extra plastic seal around the bottle top, if there is no seal or the seal looks broken then don’t buy-some kiosks fill up old bottles with tap water to save on expenses which is dangerous for you. you should do your best to purchase iodine tablets too and pop in your first aid kit, alongside Dioralyte, Immodium & Berocca.
All in all after our first afternoon in Thamel we got over the culture shock and realized this place is astoundingly magical, although not for the faint hearted, if you are paradise loving-beach goer then Nepal is perhaps not for you but if you love a good shock, lots of colour and variety, some grit and grime and a culture seeped in ancient history and lovable communities then this place is for you. After only a few hours in Thamel we could easily navigate around the streets, although busy it can seem deceivingly like a maze you’ll be lost in forever but you won’t, within the hustle and bustle there is an undertone of peace and relaxed attitudes as locals and backpackers casually walk down the same narrow roads numerous cars and mopeds drive down. Seems crazy right? But the pedestrians in Thamel kind of dominate the roads, and because these narrow streets are so packed with automobiles they don’t go very fast, in fact most of the time you walk past traffic jams so you’ll never get knocked over.
Numerous westerners live here and I can see why, it’s cheap and surprisingly an easy way of life regardless of the noise, pollution and over population. Thamel is a gem of a place, very much so the diamond in the rough. You’ll never experience anything like it in your life, try it and you won’t be disappointed.
Tune in next week for our day trip to Patan.
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