Kathmandu: Durbar Squares, Buddhist Stupas and Vibrant People
As the sun rises over Kathmandu, the sounds of prayers and chanting mingle with the musical notes of puja bells. Soon taxi horns add to the early sounds before Radio Nepal welcomes the new day at 6 o’clock AM.
Visitors who want to look beyond the most obvious tourist destinations will enjoy the everyday energy of busy marketplaces and bazaars. Hindu temples and Buddhist stupas add points of interest to a stroll through the city. As you walk among the residents and other people from far and wide, your exploration may lead you down a quaint alleyway to buildings and courtyards that look like they came from years long past. Experience a vast array of sights, sounds, and intriguing odors as you are greeted with smiles on every side.
As the day goes on, the bustle intensifies as shoppers flock to Kathmandu’s open-air bazaars and shops. Stroll along in the flow of pedestrians and see what goods might catch your eye: porcelain bowls, brass pans, cloth or sewn saris in red, gold, and turquoise, orbs of brown soap, flowers in garlands and wreaths. Walk on to market stalls offering everything for the kitchen from rich golden turmeric, rainbows of lentils, and freshly butchered goat and other meats. The scents that fill your nose are a complex blend of butcher shop blood, the fresh tang of citrus fruits, flowers, and the mass of humanity around you. Above all, temple bells toll out and invite the faithful to pause and pray. Those too intent on shopping or business offer a reverent forehead touch as they rush on.
Beyond the shopping district lies Thamel, the tourist quarter, with merchants and guides catering to those arrived from faraway lands. Sellers add their voices to the sound of popular 1960s music from restaurants as they invite you to check out their wares by calling “Bags! Carpets! Cheap prices!” loudly. Signs outside eateries promise delicious breakfasts, local dishes like moussaka, and ones from far away like French onion soup. Purveyors of services both useful and fun call out, “Massage?” “Money exchange – best rates!” and “Smoke?” in attempts to lure you into their shops.
Kathmandu holds within its boundaries a complex cornucopia of different times, peoples, and experiences. In these few blocks, experience contrasts unbelievably diverse. Outside a Durbar Marg luxury hotel, shepherds drive their flocks. Ancient buildings of brick and tile hold TV antennas aloft. Streets crowded with late-model cars also hold complacent cows happily chewing cud and scurrying porters. Traditionally-garbed women thresh grain right down the street from blue-jean-wearing punks.
Kathmandu’s Layout and Geography
The original cities that make up the valley – Patan, Bhaktapur, and Kathmandu – were supposedly laid out on purpose to coincide with sacred symbols of wheel, conch shell, and Manjushri’s sword respectively. These days, that idea has dwindled to mere legend as no trace of the shapes remain in the sprawling combination of the cities. Although the Vishnumati and Bagmati Rivers still form natural boundaries, many changes have taken place. What was once called Timmale is now Thamel. It, along with the combined sprawl of Kathmandu and Patan all attract global tourists interested in history, art, and culture.
Upper and Lower Kathmandu
Kathmandu itself was founded at the juncture of the Vishnumati and Bagmati Rivers on a high piece of fertile land that could be defended more easily from outside attackers. The southern part is also called lower Kathmandu, while the northern is referred to as upper Kathmandu. These parts of the same region lived in conflict with each other for quite a while. An annual tradition pitted inhabitants against each other during Kumar Sasti, which is a festival day celebrating the warrior god. A stone-throwing fight occurred every year. If one side was able to wound an enemy, they would capture him, drag him away, and use him as a temple sacrifice. It was not until a British man watching the event was hit by a stone that the tradition was ended in the 1870s.
Makhan Tol in Durbar Square marks the spot where upper and lower Kathmandu divide. Visitors frequently go north of the square to explore, shop, and see sights in the popular commercial districts of Asan Tol, Chhetrapait, Indra Chowk, and Thamel. The southern side of Durbar Square extends into residential area occupied by Newar Jyapu peasants.
Even though Kathmandu is now the largest it has ever been, travelers find it easy to walk anywhere in it they want. The most-frequently visited areas take up approximately 5km square. The Vishnumati River forms the western boundary, Tundihel and Kanti Path the border to the east, the Bagmati River on the southern edge, and Thahiti on the northern side.
Despite its small size, navigating the maze of small street and alleys can confuse people who do not live there. The city authorities have plans to create an organized system of street addresses, but most locations have no numbers or names to help. If you ask someone for the location of a point of interest, they may respond with the tol or neighborhood name and a general direction. The neighborhoods themselves are unmarked and boundaries only for local people to understand. You may also be told to take a left at a particular shrine, a right at a local stupa, and go straight past a particular noticeable garbage dump till you reach your destination. With a good sense of adventure and patience, visitors can find their way around.
Wander through the old city to find neighborhoods with unique and whimsical names for suburbs such as Kalimati (Black Dirt), Sorha Khuttapati (Sixteen-legged Resthouse), Gyaneshwar (Wise Lord), Baneshwar (Forest Lord), and Batas Putali (32 Butterflies). The older neighborhood Nag Sala (Kingdom of the Naga) has now become Naxal. So many names for parts of the city and streets within it can make for confusing navigation. Street numbers are not common.
While finding a specific location can create a challenge, the alleys, courtyards, hidden shrines, and buildings tucked tightly together off the main roads are a joy to discover. Although the Schneider map of Kathmandu can help you find shrines, stupas, and chaitya of interest, you can wander without a map too. The overall area is rather small and visible landmarks and known streets are always just a short walk away.
The two main streets in Kathmandu are the Durbar Marg, considered the premier street, and the Kanti Path to the west. The former holds many travel agencies and expensive hotels. The latter starts in the north at Maharajgunj and Lazimpat embassy properties and stretches south to the Patan bridge. In the block of space between these top streets, you can see the Tundikhel parade grounds that are a fine demonstration of old Raj traditions. Other points of interest nearby include the city bus depot and the city’s major post office. Stroll a few minutes away to New Road, enjoy the shops, and then head directly to Durbar Square to see the sights.
The Tribhuvan International Airport is the only entrance for international visitors who travel by air. Located conveniently just 5km east of the city, travelers usually opt to stay in the city center itself. From the Arrivals desk, you can hire a taxi who will carry you and your luggage to popular hotels and destinations. The set price at the current time is Rs800 or US$7.30. Independent taxi drivers are available at discounted rates, but visitors should beware for serviceable vehicles and trustworthy drivers.
The center of Kathmandu Durbar Square and the Old Town district is best experienced on foot. Points of interest are close together and the streets are safe as long as you dodge traffic and motorbikes carefully. The city center offers minibus service, but these fill up with locals quickly and do not have any clear indication of their destinations. Instead of signage, the drivers call out where they are going. For visitors, this mode of transportation can lead to confusion and ending up somewhere you did not intend to go.
For those who choose not to walk everywhere and for day trips to temples, shrines, and other locations outside of the city center, taxis are a good choice. Most taxi drivers know sufficient English to understand where you want to go, tell you about the best hotels and restaurants, and also haggle over the price of the trip.
Best Visiting Times
The best times to visit Kathmandu depend largely on your comfort and what you wish to see. The June to September monsoon season is sultry and hot with frequent rainstorms. Pollution is at a minimum and the foliage and flowers of the region bloom everywhere. From October to November combine some of the heat of summer with evenings comfortably warm. The monsoon rains retreat leaving the air clearer and less dusty. The December and January months are cooler with late night temperatures never dropping below 1C. Sunny days provide excellent views of the Himalayan mountain peaks while occasional rain invites visitors to pursue indoor activities. Spring comes in February and March with comfortable temperatures.
How Long to Stay
If you only want to see the most famous tourist destinations, two or three days will suffice. However, the richness of the area means that seven days or more would not be wasted if you wish to explore the entirety of Kathmandu.
The museums you find in Kathmandu itself are quite out-of-date and under-funded. Consider short treks to Patan and Bhaktapur to visit their museums instead. The Patan Museum is one you should not miss. It features exhibits full of intriguing information about Nepali life, arts and crafts of the area, religion, and history. The museum’s garden café is a favorite stop for refreshments.