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I Dig Culture, where people gather to learn about each other's cultures.
Flying into Kathmandu from Oman is an easy four-hour flight, so last February I picked up a bottle of Bombay Sapphire at the Muscat duty-free shop and boarded a plane. By sun-down I was in Kathmandu, and the first things that struck me were the friendliness of the people, and the absolute chaos of the traffic. While I waited for my friend to meet me, I struck up a conversation with some cab drivers, explaining that I had come to Kathmandu from Oman with hopes of enjoying a cooler climate and, since it was technically the middle of winter, maybe even seeing a little bit of snow. The cabbies informed me that it had not snowed in Kathmandu in nine years. Since my hopes of frolicking in fresh snow were dashed, I had to find other ways to occupy myself in the City of Temples. Below is a list of must-dos when visiting Kathmandu.
1. Enjoy the Night Life
One of my new cabbie friends drove us to the location of the cheap little hotel I had booked in Thamel, a part of the city known for its touristy vibe. The smaller hotels in Kathmandu are very cheap, and you can usually get a room for around $24 USD a night. As we drove through the crazy rush of oncoming headlights and the beeping horns of cars and motorbikes, I noticed that a lot of the streets were dark. I saw a lot of vendors along the side of the roads, with portable little shops set up on the backs of motorbikes, illuminated with candles. This is due to the fact that Kathmandu has daily black-outs for half of the day to conserve energy. This can be a hazard because the streets of Kathmandu are not very well maintained. There were lights at the hotels, powered by generators, and each hotel room has at least one generator-powered light, but the TV is not hooked up to a generator. Not a problem, however. After all, who comes to Kathmandu to watch TV? We made a few drinks with the Bombay Sapphire and some tonic water delivered to the room by the hotel staff, and set out to see some night life.
After dropping our room keys at the front desk (a good idea when travelling in unfamiliar regions with the intention of imbibing), we wandered down to some shady streets where we were beckoned into several lively-looking bars and clubs. We chose one for its colorful lights display, and were soon seated inside. Once our hosts learned that the girl I was with was neither my wife nor my girlfriend, they weren’t shy about introducing some of the local ladies to our table. We drank, took pictures, and smoked a lot of shisha before venturing out to visit a few other places. We went to a few pubs, including the Kathmandu Irish Pub. The place was dead, but we had a few drinks with the owner and his friend, and they gave us free reign over the music selections. After several tunes from The Pogues and some requested Billy Joel from our host, we decided it might be fun to see some live music. Oman has no live music scene due to a strange law that says three or more musicians cannot be onstage together at the same time because, you know, music leads to dancing and dancing leads to sex and sex leads to Hell.
Outside the Irish Bar, we walked down the confusing, winding, and dark streets as shady people shuffled by and muttered offerings of hash, weed, even mushrooms. It reminded me of the guys in the parking lots of Grateful Dead concerts who would walk quickly through the crowd muttering, “Buds! Doses!” to the Deadheads, trying to make a sale. We walked down the street until we heard live music coming from a place called Pub H20. We went in to discover a very talented little band playing in a very tiny little bar. The place was crowded with friendly expats, so we stayed to listen to a few familiar songs, then headed out to a bar that became a favorite: The Buddha Bar. This is a shisha bar hidden down a little side street with a very cool, hippy-like vibe inside. You sit at low tables on thick floor cushions and smoke shisha while the staff bring you drinks. The music was good and we got to meet a lot of the local Nepalese night owls, so I really enjoyed it. I even bought one of the Buddha Bar T-shirts.
Over the course of our visit, we made several friends. I have met a lot of friendly people in my travels, but none as sociable as the Nepalese. During my 12 days in Nepal, I made three new Facebook friends and still get WhatsApp messages and phone calls from two others.
The next day, we headed out to do a little shopping. Nothing, not even the random offers of drugs, reminded me more of a Dead Show than the many, many shops along the maze of streets around Kathmandu. As a Deadhead, or a fan of the band The Grateful Dead, the city reminded me of one big Dead show that never stopped. Even after the band had picked up and moved on, the hippies had set up shops where their tents and VW buses had been. Hence, the reference to “Dead” in the title of this article. The parking lot had become a winding, confusing network of streets, and these streets were maintained about as well as a Deadhead might maintain them. Most places are smooth and dusty, while others are littered with rubble and loose cobblestones. You may even encounter one or two big, deep, open holes along the roadside, dug for some reason and yet not filled in, and not marked with any kind of reflective tape or warning sign, so watch out. Keep one eye on the road in front of you as the other eye soaks in the colorful shops.
And the shops are colorful. The shops of Kathmandu are very similar to what Deadheads called “Shakedown Street” which is the vending area of the parking lot scene of a Grateful Dead concert, named for the album and song of the same name. You will see a plethora of colorful tie-dyed clothing, woven items of multicolored yarn, and a wide assortment of colorful jewelry, pipes, and posters that the hippies sold to finance their long, strange trip. In Kathmandu, Shakedown Street is known as Freak Street, and there you will see a lot of similar items, often made from hemp or yak hair, as well as tie-dyed T-shirts, colorful handbags and hats, bracelets and necklaces, hacky-sacks, and the occasional pipe or bong of colorful blown glass.
There are, of course, lots of cultural Nepalese and Tibetan items varying in price from hundreds of dollars to a few rupee. Popular gift items include singing bowls, used in Buddhist monasteries for meditation and ritual purposes (you can get the smooth machine-made ones or the traditional hand-made, and they all sound very relaxing when rung). You can also get some very beautiful and elaborate Mandalas, hand-painted by monks and students at the local monasteries. There are lots of tea shops where you can buy traditional Nepalese teas grown in the mountains of Nepal. You will also see a wide selection of statues, knickknacks, and funky power-animal hats made, again, from yak hair. You’d think it would be very itchy, but it’s really just very warm.
It is easy to get lost wandering around the streets exploring, but just when you think you can’t find your way back to your hotel, there you are. It reminded me a bit of my first Dead show when we couldn’t find our way back to a friend’s van after the concert. Positive energy… and this city is full of it, in the strangest of places if you look at it right. If you do get lost, there is no shortage of rickshaw drivers who will take you exactly where you need to go for a very small fee.
After finding gifts for my niece and nephew back in the U.S., I bid farewell to my friend and hopped a bus down to Chitwan, a little province about five hours south of Kathmandu. The bus ride offers some tremendous views as you bounce along the mountain roads along the blue Trishuli River, which provides some fantastic white-water rafting. It is very naturalistic, and it is not uncommon to see young women bathing in the many little waterfalls along the way. Again, it reminded me of the hippie version of a Utopian lifestyle.
After a few stops, I arrived at my destination. The driver from the Sauraha Resort picked me up at the bus stop and drove me to what would be my home for the next three days. The owner was very nice, if a little surprised that I had come on my own. He sat down with me while I had my complimentary lunch and went over my itinerary for the weekend. First, a quick tour of the wildlife reserve’s museum, then sitting on the shore of the river in deck chairs with other travelers to drink beer and watch the sun set over the park. The next day would include a river tour in a canoe, then a walking safari through the jungle to spy on whatever animals may be around. Then a trip to the elephant breeding grounds before returning to the resort for a late dinner. My final day would consist of an elephant safari (riding elephants!) before I was taken to the bus for the return journey back to Kathmandu.
The museum had photos, footprints, and skulls of some of the local fauna: Elephants, buffalo, rhinoceroses, crocodiles, tigers, and assorted birds. Poaching is very much a problem here, so there are armed guards posted around the park as well. I stood by on the paths in the woods outside as some of the tamed elephants came lumbering past. They really are beautiful animals, and the expressions on their faces tell you exactly how they are feeling at any given moment. Mostly, they are bored, it seemed, but once in a while one of them would think of something amusing and a smile would break out on her huge face. Even their eyes smiled in those moments, but those moments were rare from what I could see.
The next day, I went with a guide to the river and we plopped ourselves into a long, narrow, leaky wooden canoe. The oarsman shoved us away from the shore with a long pole, and we began our lazy cruise down the river. It was so peaceful and quiet. At one point, I draped my arm over the side and let my hand drag along in the cool water. My guide quickly suggested that this may not be a good idea, and later I saw why: Huge crocodiles. We saw several of them that day, but the first one was a really big sucker, lazily sunning himself on the banks of the river. I asked my guide what kind of crocodile it was, and I must have misheard him because it sounded like he said “Mass-murder crocodile.” I apologized for not understanding his accent, and asked him to repeat it. Again what I heard sounded like “Mass-murder crocodile” which did little to ease my nerves as the oarsman moved us closer and closer to the big, scaly beast. That croc would have no trouble at all in toppling our little canoe and dragging us all down for a death-roll. But the big fella didn’t even move his tail. My guide explained that the croc had just eaten, and would have no interest in returning to the waters for a while.
We continued drifting down the river, and saw all sorts of birds and buffalo, and women on rocks at the shoreline washing clothing in the waters as children played nearby. Everything here seemed to be included in the great balance of nature, and it was all beautiful. After about two hours, the oarsman pulled up to a path that headed off across the reserve. My guide and I got out, thanked the oarsmen, and watched as the canoe drifted away. Then we walked up into the grasses of what looked a lot like how I imagine the Serengeti would look. My guide politely asked if he could excuse himself as he was feeling his own call of nature. A minute later he was back, and excitedly telling me to follow him.
“What is it?” I asked. “Rhino!” he replied.
Soon we were off and running across the water’s edge, down to some lowlands at a fork in the river. I realized how out of shape I have become as my chest was pounding in less than a minute and I was breathing so hard I was sure I would scare the rhino away. Looking back, I realize how silly that is: Scare a rhino away? Luckily, we did not have far to go, and soon we were slowing down and I could see the large prehistoric-looking creature wading through the waters, eating some plants from the river bottom.
My guide kept a low profile, so I followed suit. We crept a little closer. The rhino was a good distance away in the water, but my guide informed me that they could go from 0 to 60 very quickly. Fortunately, their eyesight is very poor, but their hearing is very good. We crept around quietly in the grass as I took pictures. This sort of an excursion deserves a much better camera than the little pocket camera I had. My guide offered me his binoculars to get a closer look. It was much more impressive than the colorful birds we had peeped at before. At this point, I felt very satisfied in my one-man safari: I had seen crocodiles and birds, and now a rhino, one of the great endangered species of our planet.
Once back on higher ground, my guide spotted something in the dirt: A big paw print. “Tiger!” he said, circling the print with his walking stick. This was so other safari guides would see it and be alert for the presence of the big cat. Sadly, that was as close as I got to an actual tiger on that trip. Perhaps that is a good thing. We walked past some cameras hidden in the brush that had been placed there to help count the tiger population. They took our picture as we walked by.
The best part of this safari came a little farther down the path, when off to our right we heard bushes rustling, heavy breathing, and vegetation being munched. A big, gray mass moved slowly behind the brush about fifteen yards away – another rhino! My guide waved to me to follow him, very quietly. I figured he knew what he was doing, and I really wanted to see a rhino up-close, so onward we crept. We moved very slowly, and whenever a twig snapped or a branch rustled, we’d stop and listen. Sometimes, the rhino would stop her munching and listen, too. This made me nervous as I remembered what my guide had said about their hearing. At one point the munching stopped and the rhino lifted its huge head, its horn jutting above the grasses it was dining on. My guide turned to me and asked very, very quietly: “Can you climb a tree?” My heart stopped and my eyes went wide. Just the look on my face must have been answer enough, because then he said “Hide!” I crept as quickly and quietly as I could behind a nearby bush. My guide found one of his own and none too soon, as the big horned behemoth casually trudged between us onto the path we had just been walking on. It paused, and looked around. I was very quietly raising my camera to snap a very quiet picture. How could I not? But my guide saw what I was doing and reached out for my camera. I gave it to him, thinking he was going to put it in his pocket where I couldn’t use it to get us both gored to death. Instead, he took it and began creeping up behind the rhino! He got a good shot of it, and then we ducked behind the grasses. At this point, we had traded places with the rhino. It continued across the path and disappeared into the brush on the other side. We quickly and quietly continued on our way in the other direction.
The rest of the safari consisted of some crazy tree-killing vine (seriously, the thing creeps up the tree and takes two years to strangle it. I could imagine the tree screaming as trees do, creeping the hell out of the other trees), some amazingly blue birds, a wren, some more elephants, and another crocodile. The rhino had been the crowning jewel. We left the jungles a couple of hours later and headed for the elephant breeding grounds.
4. Gawk at Elephants (but maybe don’t ride them)
The elephant breeding grounds, I am sad to say, are little more than an elephant brothel where the women are forced to work. Domesticated female elephants are chained up under high wooden roofs with some hay to munch on as they await the midnight marauding of the wild males that live in the park. Tourists don’t get to see any actual mating as it all takes place at night. Now, I agree that the world needs more elephants, but is this method ethical? Do the females get any say in who they mate with, being all chained up out there? At least they get the company of their children, as several of the mommy elephants were accompanied by cute little baby elephants… but then again, is this something that children should have to see? Their own mothers? And what mothers! These poor animals are pregnant for nearly two years before the baby is born! Can you imagine that? At least it is two years of not being chained up in an elephant whorehouse. While they are gestating, the big girls get to relax in the open fields and forests of the breeding sanctuary, no doubt in the company of any children they already have.
The next day I awoke before dawn to go out with my guide and ride one of these big, lovable, intelligent beasts. The morning was cold and very foggy, which played hell later on with the cold I was developing. One of the hazards of international travel: Every new climate brings a slew of new bugs and viruses into your system. I rode out on the back of my guide’s motorbike to the elephant ride launching area. There, you climb atop wooden scaffolds and wait for the driver to park his elephant under your feet. Then you just step over onto the big bastard and slip into the crated frame strapped to its back. Three other people climb in with you, one person to a corner to maintain balance. Once we were all situated, the driver nudged the elephant and we were off into the morning mist. First we waddled down a huge, muddy embankment into the river, crossing over to the other side where the good jungle was. It’s a good thing they balance those crates with a person in each corner, because on more than one occasion I felt certain we were going over the side.
The ride through the early morning was a delight, and I got to see a few more animals that I had missed the day before: Deer, peacocks, wild boar, and an ornery chicken. Still, I must say that I felt bad for partaking in what I now realize is animal slavery. The elephants did not seem happy. The drivers would coax the elephants to move by driving their big toes into a little spot at the back of the elephant’s ears that looked like it had been jabbed to the point of being very tender. If that didn’t motivate the elephant, a stick was administered to the top of the elephant’s head. Not a big stick, thank God, and not a hard hit, either… more just a firm tap. But still… I was happy to see our elephant mount a bit of a protest at one point. The big girl just stopped by a tree to reach up with her trunk and pull off some particularly tasty-looking branches. She stood there, enjoying her breakfast, apparently impervious to our driver’s toe-jabs and stick-taps. He whistled, he barked, he jabbed some more, but she remained where she was. Finally, she swung the uneaten portion of the branch over her head and hit our driver right on the ol’ coconut. Good for her, I thought. The driver didn’t seem to mind. I guess that happens a lot.
Later that day, I said good-bye to my gracious host, the manager of the resort and his family. I left my guide a hefty tip and gave some decorative Omani weaves to the manager’s two young daughters. As we drove away, I saw the two little 3- and 4-year-olds tying them into each other’s hair. It’s always a good idea to bring little gifts when you travel for just those occasions. I took some more pictures of the mountains and river on the ride back – including one of a bus that had gone off the road and dropped a ways down the edge of a cliff some time ago. It does happen.
5. Get to Know some of the Locals
One of the best things you can do when you travel is to meet the locals. Spend time with them. In a country like Nepal, it is very easy to do, as the local population is very gregarious, and it is not uncommon to be invited into someone’s home to meet the family. Don’t be shy… do this. Not only does it show the people of the world that the people from your part of it are cool, but it will give you a very rewarding experience to remember fondly. Remember before when I said I found some gifts for my niece and nephew? I found them, but I had not yet bought them. I didn’t want to have extra stuff to carry when I traveled to Chitwan. Now, back in Kathmandu, I went to pick up the presents. The man who sold them to me was a very kind fellow who also owned a tea shop. We went to his tea shop, where he introduced me to his wife and daughter and made us some delicious milk tea. We chatted, comparing life experiences… he had worked in the fields and saved money all his life to move his family to Kathmandu and open some shops. He was living his dream, and he was a happy, friendly man for it.
Later, I ran into another fellow on the street who asked me where I was from. He offered to show me some of the temples around Kathmandu. His name was Prem, and I spent the day with him, getting some great pictures.
He showed me the proper way to pray at the entrances to the temples, and explained that it is proper to move clockwise around the inside of the temple. As in most Asian countries, it is also customary to remove your shoes before entering. He also told me the names of the various deities. He showed me how to apply the red paint to my forehead for the Third Eye. He even took me to Boudhanath, the famous Buddhist temple in Kathmandu where the Buddha’s bones are said to be interned. I asked him later if I could give him some money for his guide services. He refused it. He said his family lived near Boudhanath, and asked me if I would come visit his home. How could I not?
He led me across the busy street, behind the row of shops and down to a small, dingy collection of shanties and tarp-covered huts. We went into his one-roomed house that he had built himself. His wife and young daughter, he said, were away, visiting a sick father in another part of Nepal. He introduced me to his sister and young son, who chewed relentlessly on a stick of sugarcane. His sister made us tea while we chatted about his life and where I came from. Later, his brother joined us. I spent the afternoon with those people, and they never asked me for anything. They said they just wanted foreigners to see them, to know how many Nepalese lived. No one ever came to see this part of Nepal, but it was important that people should. I took pictures and they made more tea. The room was little more than two large wooden-plank beds covered with various blankets and stacks of boxes and containers around a central post and a small wood stove. So much poverty and squalor, and yet so much kindness… and just across the street from one of the most famous Buddhist Temples in the world.
He and I still talk. He has my phone number here in Oman. This is why traveling is important.
6. Visit More of the Temples
Aside from Boudhanath and the many smaller temples hidden throughout the city, there are other major temples that are worth a day to explore. One is Swayambhunath, or the Monkey Temple. It got this name because of all of the cats that run around the temple steps. Did I say cats? I meant monkeys, of course – monkeys everywhere! Before you enter the temple, there is a marking of the Buddha’s footprints by the entrance. It is considered good luck to touch these and then touch your forehead before entering. This temple, as most temples in Nepal, is decorated with spinning prayer wheels, some small and lined along the walls, others huge, and by themselves in little side-rooms to the temple. It is important that when you spin one of these cylinders, you spin it clockwise. If you spin one of the larger ones with its own room, walk around with it three times and pray.
The steps leading up to the temple are many, and it is an exhausting hike, lined with fortune tellers, artists, and craftspeople making all sorts of Buddhist-themed jewelry and other souvenirs for sale. Some of the salespeople on the stairs can be very pushy – pushier than most travelers would like. If you do not wish to buy, do not engage them in conversation. Keep your eyes down and keep moving up. A simple word of kindness here can get you a very annoying traveling companion. Even if you finally explain, “Look, I have no money! A monkey stole my wallet!” they won’t believe you and will keep following.
That’s no exaggeration about the monkeys, either. They are crafty little thieves. My friend had her juice box stolen from her when she sat down with one of the fortune tellers. The monkeys will swipe anything that is set down for a moment that looks colorful or tasty. Sure, they are cute, but they can be little jerks, so watch yourself and don’t make eye contact with them, either. No eye contact with monkeys or salespeople.
Do remember to be respectful, as always, as the Monkey Temple is the most sacred Buddhist pilgrimage site. For followers of Tibetan Buddhism, it is second only to Boudhanath. As with the temple at Boudhanath, it is proper to walk around these temple sites in a clockwise fashion, three times for the best results. There are a few rules of etiquette to remember when visiting any holy site, and even though Buddhists have a reputation for being very laid back, it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with them before visiting a temple.
If you visit the Monkey Temple, it is a short trip to another picturesque site, Three Buddha Park, where you can see the statues of the Three Buddha of Swayambhu. The one in the center is the Amitaba Buddha, and the statue is the largest Buddha statue in Nepal, measuring in at 67 feet (20.4 meters). Each represents one of the dominant types of Buddhism: Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana.
7. Get Drunk and Fly a Plane Around Everest
On my last night in Kathmandu, I went out with a friend I had made who worked at my hotel, a fellow named Shantos. He and his friends invited me to go drinking with them, and we soon ended up back at the Buddha Bar. We drank and smoked shisha. The shisha severely aggravated my sore throat from the cold I caught while riding elephants in the early-morning mist, so I started drinking ginger brandy. I mentioned that I was sorry that I did not get to see Everest. It is a long way from Kathmandu, really, and requires a grueling twelve-day trek to see it up-close. Shantos said they fly airplane tours to see Everest. He offered to book one for me through the hotel. The price is a little steep – around $150 USD, but I felt it was something I needed to do, so I readily accepted.
The next morning, I awoke blurry-headed and still drunk. The pounding in my head turned out to be Shantos pounding on my hotel room door as he tried to wake me up for my flight. I jumped out of bed (luckily I had slept in my clothes) threw on my shoes and jacket, and headed out. Before I knew it, my hangover and I were circling Mount Everest in a little prop plane. If you arrive drunk and sit in the wrong seat, they even let you fly the plane for a bit… Obviously, they were just having fun with me. Although I got to hold the controls for a few seconds, I could tell it was the co-pilot who was really handling the plane. Or perhaps I had replaced the co-pilot? I really have no idea how planes work. As we got closer to the mountains, I was relieved of my pretend pilot position. Still, I got some great picks through the cockpit window. When we landed, I even got a little certificate that says “I did not climb Mt. Everest, but I touched it with my heart.” I call it my “I pussed out and took a plane” certificate. Afterwards, I returned to the hotel for some rest. The next day, I did some last-minute shopping and then booked a cab to take me to the airport. I said goodbye to my new friends, and that was that.
Nepal is not the cleanest tourist destination, but it really is fulfilling on a spiritual level. I would have liked to have been able to travel into Tibet while I was there, but it can be pricey and there is a long waiting period for the necessary VISAs and I didn’t have the time or the money. It was nice to see Everest, even from the air, but it would have been nicer to actually set foot on it… even walk up a few feet just so that I could say yes, technically, I had climbed Everest… not all the way to the top, of course. The trek to Everest is a popular thing for the more adventurous travelers with more time and money (and physical health) at their disposal, but for a guy like me… Hell, I was lucky I woke up in time to catch the flight. All in all, it is a very good experience. But do be careful… a report came out recently that Kathmandu, for all of its friendliness, leads the word in kidney theft. Yes, you read that right – those urban legends you have heard? It actually happens in Kathmandu… but usually not to tourists. It is more of a local problem. Just the same, don’t be stupid, no matter where you travel. Keep your wits about you and don’t wander off down any dark streets with any strangers for any shady kind of dealings. According to recent news reports, people begging for money for kidney operations is common in Kathmandu. I did not see anyone specifically begging for kidney money. I did see a few kids involved in a scam where they ask a tourist to buy them some milk in a grocery store for a sick sibling back home. Tourists just offer to give them money, but the kids refuse, and instead insist on taking them directly to a nearby store. This adds a bit of legitimacy to their tale – until you realize that the grocers are in on it and the cost of a carton of milk is suddenly around $30 USD.
Either way, keep a tight grip on your wallets and purses and kidneys. Be friendly, but be safe wherever you travel.
I am an American expat that has been living overseas since 2007. Most of that time has been spent in East Asia as I lived in Korea until 2012. Currently I reside in the Sultanate of Oman. I enjoy traveling, and I always bring a towel, but ultimately I hope to return home to Pittsburgh. So if you hear of any jobs...
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