Kathmandu, du, du, find a buddha hug a tree

Posted: December 21, 2010 in Nepal
Tags: , , , ,

We arrived in bustling Kathmandu after the most painful flight of the travels so far. Our flight from Cairo touched down in Doha at 21.30 and then we had to tough it out in the airport ‘quiet room’ until 04.45 for our connecting flight to Nepal. Hours entombed with a throng of sick people, topped up with turgid plane food, meant we landed in Kathmandu exhausted and my stomach was twinging like a trapped nerve. Luckily my plane grump was tempered by the jaw dropping back drop of the snow-capped Himalaya as we approached Nepal.

The Monkey Temple

Swayambhunath is one of the must-see sights of Kathmandu. Set atop a hill on the western edge of the city, the golden gilted white stupa shines out across the valley. It is known as the Monkey Temple because troops of rhesus macques roam everywhere and fight tirelessly with the dogs.

According to legend, the valley surrounding the hill was once a lake and the hill rose spontaneously from the waters, hence the name ‘swayambhu’ which means ‘self-arisen’. During the 14th century AD Mughal invaders from Bengal broke open the stupa in search of gold but it has since been restored and now forms part of the one of the UNESCO sites in Nepal.

The walk to the temple took us through the back streets of Thamel, the standard backpacker district that is adorned with markets, tour agencies and street sellers of every imaginable ilk. Like Cairo, Kathmandu is a seething mess of noise and dirt but the narrow winding alleys make for a perilous journey by foot.

The views from the top of the temple are fantastic and you can see across the whole of Kathmandu. Alas, like most tourist destinations, the tranquility of a Buddhist shrine has been replaced by the incessant noise of trade. To your left you will see Buddhists performing traditional incantations at a shrine whilst on your right somebody tries to sell you an authentic prayer wheel made in the factories of China. Worth visiting? Yes. Underwhelming experience? Yes.


In my humble opinion this is more impressive than Swayambhunath because of the size of the stupa. Part of the same UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is surrounded by the city. We arrived at prayer time which was unforgettable – from the base you can see endless rows of Buddhists in their traditional red robes reading and chanting from their prayer books whilst the monks beat out their hypnotic chanting from a loud speaker system.

The first stupa was built around 600AD when the Tibetan king, Songsten Gampo, converted to Buddhism. It was built according to legend as penance for killing his father, just another one of those family spats. The whitewashed dome gleams in the afternoon sun and thousands of prayer flags adorn masts and lines that are attached to the central stupa. It is a truly peaceful experience and we had a chilled afternoon soaking the atmosphere and listening to the prayers.

Durbar Square

We wanted to experience the city as we had with Cairo, so headed out on Monday on the ‘South from Thamel to Durbar Square’ circuit that is detailed in the Lonely Planet. It’s actually quite a nice walk, albeit one interspersed with car horns and exhaust fog. The walk winds through the market streets of Thamel, the busy tourist district full of hippies and colourful bazaars, and then south into the lanes that lead to the popular Durbar Square.

Every 100m you pass a shrine, either Hindu or Buddhist, and if lucky you can find people in prayer. Unlike the rather dour rituals of Christianity, Hindu and Buddhist shrines and temples are adorned with colour and the leftover offerings from previous visitors. These guys know how to have fun whilst praying.

The noise and energy of Kathmandu is evident on the walk. The streets are quite literally alive and you often walk right past an important temple or landmark, distracted by the assault on the senses. The end point of the walk is Durbar Square where the city’s kings were once crowned and from where they ruled. The square remains the traditional heart of the city with spectacular buildings. The Kumari Devi, a real living goddess, lives in the building known as the Kumari Bahal, right beside the square. Follow the link for the crazy story behind this piece of popular culture.


Momos are the signature dish of Kathmandu, alongside dhaal baat, a lentils and rice extravaganza. They are steamed dumplings filled with either vegetables or meat and cooked with a potent blend of spices – mainly garlic, chilli and your body weight in ginger. For less than 1GBP you get a plate of 8 and they are delicious. I tucked in like a pig in…..

As much as the temple viewing and momo eating were fun, Kathmandu was too noisy for my liking, so we were glad to make an early retreat to the countryside. And so we got up early once more and boarded the 7am bus on Tuesday to Sauraha for our escape to the chilled rhythm of the Chitwan National Park.

love james & muneeza x

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