For the first two months of our travels, things didn’t change a whole lot from place to place. Or as they say throughout southeast Asia – same same. Yes, Malaysia was a bit more modern than Thailand (like a rich uncle), but we could still tell we were in southeast Asia. When we landed in Nepal, however, we could immediately tell we were in a different country. Nepal had a level of chaos and grunge that we haven’t seen since we traveled to Cairo, Egypt right after college.
First of all, there was the airport. Actually, before the airport was the plane ride. On this plane, there were probably 4 females (all of which were western). There may have been another 5 western males. The remainder were Nepali men. We learned in Malaysia that a lot of Nepali men leave Nepal to work in other countries to make a better living and support their families. This was especially evident on the flight – it appeared that young, Nepali men were returning home. It also appeared that for a lot of these people, it was probably one of the first times (or second given the fact we were returning to Nepal) they had flown. It was both frustrating and endearing. On the frustrating end, they either had no idea about airplane etiquette or just didn’t care. Stewardesses were yelling at people to buckle up and to turn their phones off when we were about to take off (in fact, one stewardess smacked a man upside the head for not getting off his phone). On the endearing end, I have never seen so many people looking out an airplane window as we were taking off. The aisle and middle seat people would be leaning over the window seat person to get a glimpse.
Then there was the airport in Kathmandu. There were seemingly random checkpoints that you had to go through (to leave the airport?). People were everywhere. No one seemed to know what was going on. We finally made it to baggage claim. And waited. And waited. And waited. After 2 hours (which we heard was long even for Nepal), we finally got our bags. Another interesting tidbit, there were probably 100 TVs on the baggage carousel. My interpretation – these men were returning home from working in Malaysia and were bringing TVs home as I would imagine they are more difficult to come by in Nepal.
Okay, we have our bags now. We leave the airport and are mobbed by touts. We had organized a pickup from our hotel, so we look around for our names. We finally found them… but the person with our card seemed to have a learning disability. He led us to another person (the actual driver). All this time, we are still being trailed by 2-3 Nepali men trying to carry our bags, etc. We finally got to the car and of course everyone wanted a tip. Most of the time, we don’t know how to deal with situations like this. We like giving to those who need, but we’re wary of handing out money to people who are just plain begging. I don’t think I’ve heard of an example where that kind of money giving has really helped anyone in a long-term situation. So, we didn’t give anyone money. But, it was surprising to us that a hotel pick up would allow that kind of behavior (he was just waiting patiently in the front seat of the car while we tried to get into the backseat with the touts asking for “one dollar, one dollar”). During our time in Nepal, this seemed normal. Anyone you’ve hired (guides, taxi drivers, etc.) seem fine letting other people approach you for money. It seems that they want to help their fellow citizens if they can.
One we got out of the airport area, we were able to see more of Kathmandu. The roads are paved, but they are usually pothole ridden. There is also fine sandy dirt everywhere.. the kind that billows into the air the second there is a light breeze or a car drives by. So, that’s to say, is that it is pretty dusty all the time. Most streets are trash filled, and piles of burning garbage are not uncommon (but this is true in most developing countries). One of my personal favorite things were cows laying in the middle of the roads with cars and bikes zooming around them. Not just side roads, but there were cows in the middle of the major roads – Kathmandu highways so to speak. Traffic laws are nonexistent with everyone fending for themselves. There aren’t any street lights (in the capital city of 1 million people) probably due to power cuts, instead there are police officers at the major intersections sort of directing traffic (but no one really seems to listen to them anyways).
We stayed in Thamel, the touristy section of the city. The streets were narrow with cars and bikes roaring down them while honking incessantly. There are no sidewalks, so all pedestrians, cars, and motorcycles are sharing the same 10 foot (maybe) roadway. There were touts every few feet trying to sell you singing bowls, tiger balm, tiny wooden chess sets, and anything else you could ever want. There were shops full of fake trekking gear spilling out their front doors and the most delicious cheap bakeries. And there was something just amazing about it. The chaos, the noise, the buzzing sense of excitement of all those people about to start on their trek. I’m definitely romanticizing it to some degree.. we’re still talking about one of the poorest countries in the world with a hugely corrupt government.. but something about it stays with you and is already calling me to go back.
We flew. We didn’t really have any other options since we’d have to enter India in some way to go over land, and we don’t have an Indian visa. Air Asia offered the cheapest flights (per usual) but we had to go through Kuala Lumpur (per usual).
Thamel has all sorts of budget options. You can spend $30 USD per night and get treated like a king/queen. We went more around the $15 USD per night mark, and the rooms were fine. WiFi was mediocre, hot water worked sometimes, and the power would work when there wasn’t a power cut (which ending up being about 6 hours a day of power, but more on that later). We stayed at Trekker’s Home prior to our trek. It was fine. The front desk guys were super friendly, and I especially liked that they had a station to refill our water bottle. However, we couldn’t get any hot water (even though it is advertised as having hot water). We did keep our extra bag there during the trek, however, with no issues. After the trek, we stayed at Karma Travellers Home. It didn’t feel quite as clean and open as Trekker’s Home, and the WiFi and power situation seemed worse, but it had scalding hot water.. which Sam and I needed after a 18 days with 3 showers between the two of us.
OMG ALL THE FOOD. Nepal has some really great local delights, but Thamel caters to tourists.. meaning there is a lot of western food. Sam and I had been missing western food, and we also knew we would be eating a lot of local food on the trek, so we indulged quite a bit. But, the western food in Kathmandu is super cheap and super delicious. Other places we have been (Thailand, Malaysia) also do western food, but it is usually expensive and not that great. Kathmandu OWNS western food. They have better western food than a lot of places in the west do.
OR2K – OR2K is a hippy paradise in the middle of Thamel. It’s technically a middle eastern restaurant (Israeli owned), but it has all types of food. And it’s all types of delicious. The tables are on the floor, so you sit around the tables on little pillows with your shoes off. All around you are hippy folk smoking cigarettes and dressed in harem pants and sporting dreadlocks. I loved it. I want to become one. Minus the smoking because that shit kills.
Pumpernickel Bakery – The most amazing chocolate croissant I have ever had in my life. They only make a few different baked goods, but they are amazing and fresh. But you need to go in the morning.
Hot Breads – This bakery was a little bit more hit or miss, but it was cheap enough that you could endure some misses to find the delicious baked goods. It was the best cinnamon roll we had in Nepal, and we tried many. I couldn’t find a good link for it, but it’s hard to miss. It has a big red awning and is located right in the center of Thamel. Most pastries here were around $1 USD.
Gaia Restaurant – Home of the best eggs benedict I have ever had. Just to clarify, eggs benedict is my brunch item. I order it every time we go out to brunch, so I’ve had a fair share of eggs benedict. The egg wasn’t even cooked perfectly, and it was still the best I’ve ever had.
One other tip on food in Thamel: get out of Thamel. If you just walk a little bit outside of the tourist area, you can find baked goods at 1/3 of the already cheap cost that they are in Thamel center. And they are still pretty darn tasty. We also found a food stand just off Freak Street called Jay Durga Chaat & Egg-Roll. It sold these amazing egg/potato/veggie/spicy rolls for super cheap. And it was legit street food (we gauge this by how many westerners were there.. in this case, it was just us). Anytime you eat out of the tourist area, you are taking a little bit higher risk that you may get sick.. but aren’t you travelling to experience the culture? I’d say a bit of risk is worth it.
Buy stuff for our trek. The one day we had in Thamel before we left for our trek involved us running around like chickens without heads finding all the warm clothes we would need for the trek. This was a bit harder than we thought it would be. We assumed everything would be vaying levels of cheap (with varying levels of quality), however, some things were actually really expensive. We’ll get more into this in our trekking post, but we ended up buying a “real” Nalgene water bottle for $18 USD. You could buy one without the ‘BPA free’ pledge for a few dollars, but we didn’t want to risk that. Besides, we missed having a water bottle in our travels. Buying plastic bottles every day was really getting to us.
Wander around and take it all in. We just enjoyed eating our way through Thamel and taking in all the crazy (to us) sites.
Kathmandu Durbar Square and Freak Street. The Kathamandu Durbar Square is the area around the old royal palace of the Kathmandu kingdom way back in the day. It consists of a bunch of really old buildings and temples. I’m sure someone that knows architecture well could describe it better than that, but that’s what I got out of it. There was a lot of damage here from the earthquake. Some entire structures were wiped out. I actually thought that part was really interesting to see. The most interesting building in Durbar Square, to me, was the Kumari Ghar. This building houses the Kumari, or Nepal’s child goddess. The Kumari is a young girl whom Hindus believe is the reincarnation of a goddess. To be chosen, there is an intense selection process (to be sure she actually is the goddess) of girls aged around four to six. From there on, the chosen girl is treated as a goddess by all people. Her feet are not allowed to touch the ground outside, and she stays in this house with her caretakers except when she leaves for religious ceremonies. Once in a while, she will come to the windows of the building and peer down silently at the crowd below. We were lucky enough to experience this, and we found it so eery. Once she bleeds in any way (with a maximum time being her first menstrual cycle), she will turn back to a normal girl, and a new Kumari selection process will begin. I could go into a whole other post about this, but I won’t. If you would like to read more, I found this article interesting. Along Durbar Square is Freak Street. It sounds like Freak Street was the Thamel of the 70s but probably with fewer tourists and more drugs. It seemed pretty tame these days, but still worth a walk down.
Durbar square in Kathmandu was interesting for another reason – it was filled with locals. Locals come here to hang out. Anybody that doesn’t look like a local (see: white person) is directed to pay booths set at each entrance to the square. Foreigners are then asked to pay around $10 USD/person to enter the square (locals can enter for free). Somehow we entered from the only direction where there is not a pay booth so we found ourselves behind the ‘paywall’ so to speak. We went back and forth – should we exit and enter again to pay the tourist fee? In the end, we rationalized not paying the tourist fee by telling ourselves the money would just go to the government (see: corruption links above) and by buying more delicious food from vendors instead.
There was a lot we didn’t do. There are many things to do in Kathmandu that are a little bit out of the city, but we were busy before our trek and lazy after it. Besides, we really liked Thamel, so we decided just to hang out.
Nope. Before the trek, no way. After the trek, no way. It would have taken some work (we would have had to get out of town), and the smog in Kathmandu was UNREAL. Worst air we have encountered so far (supposedly due to slash and burn fires in India).
Food. The food was so amazing.
The vibe. Yup.
Power cuts. Power cuts suck. From what we understand, Nepal doesn’t have enough natural resources to provide power to its citizens. There are no oil, gas or coal reserves in the country, so it has to import all of those from other countries. They are incredibly wealthy when it comes to renewable resources (see: wind, sun, water) but do not have the capital necessary to develop these quickly enough to meet demand. As such, power supply is only able to meet 85% of demand (pre-earthquake per energypedia) during the dry season which is when we were in country. From here the laws of economics take over and the end result is power cuts! Many businesses that cater to tourists have generators for back up power. Our budget hotel had no generator, and therefore, we had power for maybe 6 hours a day (which was mostly when we were sleeping). And this is the biggest city in the country we are talking about. We usually had some source of light, so not sure how that is powered (solar?). Much of the country relies on burning wood or dung to cook their meals. When we were traveling through the countryside at one point when it was dark out, you would see towns with very few lights on. Some of this is just the way it is and has been, and some of it is caused by the earthquake. Apparently, the earthquake did damage to some power supplies (such as hydroelectric), and these have not yet been fixed, which has exacerbated the situation.
No hot water. I’m fine with no hot water in southeast Asia, but I need it when it is cold outside. I guess that’s my high maintenance requirement. Also interesting to note – the definition of ‘hot’ in Nepal is different from my definition of ‘hot’. At one point, we were looking at a hotel room before committing, and we asked the hotel reception if there was hot water. She said yes and invited us to check. We did. It was lukewarm (at best). We confirmed with her that this is what she was referring to as hot, and she said yes. See ya!
Traffic? Touts? Is this a “no, thanks”? I’m not sure. Traffic and touts could be annoying, but they also contribute to the vibe of the city. It probably depends on the person for how much they bother you. I didn’t mind them too much, but it does take some mental stamina every time you leave your hotel.
Earthquake. For those of you living in a box, Nepal had a devastating earthquake in April 2015. It hit sections of Kathmandu pretty hard. There was some evidence to us (Durbar Square for sure, and then we saw several other crumbling buildings), however, it was hard to tell if something was the victim of the earthquake or was crumbling for some other reason. Overall, it looked better than I expected, but I also have no idea how things looked before.
Traveller’s Tummy. Somehow, I managed no stomach issues for the first two months of the trip, but only lasted one day in Thamel. I didn’t even eat any street food on the first day! Apparently this is common. Kathmandu can get even the strongest tourist stomach. Something to do with their water having 30 times the recommended amount of fecal matter per the World Health Organization. You know, nothing big. My stomach bug wasn’t a huge issue, it only lasted about 4 hours. Oh no, the big stomach issues were yet to come.. (how’s that for a cliff hanger?)
Vegetarianism. It was amazingly easy to eat vegetarian while we were in Nepal due to sects of Hinduism and Buddhism being vegetarian (I think that’s the reason anyways..). Also, it is prohibited to kill living creatures in the Khumbu Valley (where we did most of our trekking), so it was extremely easy to eat vegetarian on the mountain too, but more on that later. Major plus in my book!