The Kathmandu Intermezzo; TOP 5 THINGS TO DO IN THAMEL
As a tourist and city traveller, I have always been interested in both major architectural and historical sights and the mundane city streets that make each place unique. I am the type of tourist who would never miss an opportunity to see Parthenon in Athens or Colosseum in Rome, but as importantly, I would go on to explore random city parts you have never heard of.
In other words, this blog post will take you to places like this:
...as well as this:
If you love exploring foreign cities NOT by following Top-10s on Tripadvisor, but rather by spontaneous walks through little alleys where ordinary tenants replace the crowds, this post is for you.
In this article, I will take you with me on an early morning stroll through the very heart of Kathmandu: Thamel and its surroundings.
During a rare time at around 6 am, I discovered the magical centre of Kathmandu in its true nature, unspoiled by tourists. Below are images and sketches from my wandering: showing locals engaging in their everyday activities, and me joining them. I saw landmarks, enjoyed great morning food together with breakfast drinks, I prayed and meditated, and learnt about how the Nepalese society works and what key differences there are between Nepalese cities and the European ones.
I decided to write this article as 'Top 5 things to do in Thamel', giving you the key strategies for an authentic visit to Kathmandu's city centre. For all of you scrolling down random sites in between work sessions, this blog post takes you through time and space, allowing you to relive a fresh morning with me in Kathmandu. What a treat!
1. Set your alarm and see Durbar Square before all the tourists pour in (it is so worth it!)
Perhaps the most-visited place in whole Kathmandu, Durbar Square, is situated right in the middle of the city. Normally, you pay a fee to get in and absorb the beauty of its temples, many of which were damaged by an earthquake in 2015. During the daytime, you find yourself moving through the square with a crowd of tourists in a set direction, snapping quick photographs and hoping to get out of there as soon as possible and with all your belongings. However, if you make an effort and come before 7 am, not only you don't have to pay, but you get to share the place with locals.
Most Nepalese come to Durbar Square to sell, buy, or to beg for money. I have been surprised that many locals come to such a central location to shop for clothes and goods, all exhibited lying bare on the pavement. One would have thought locals shop elsewhere where it might be cheaper, but apparently, they own and use the square just as much as the tourists.
Sketch 33: Carrying the weight of one's life
In today's sketch, you see a Nepalese woman carrying her entire business on top of her head. In an enormous bag filled with goods, she carries much of what she owns and is transporting it to a selling spot. She then unpacks the goods onto a pavement wherever it seems appropriate. In a similar fashion, she and her mobile store disappear by the end of the day. Needles to say, it takes a hell of a strong person to carry the burden of an entire livelihood on top of one's head.
Date: 18th October 2019
Location: Durbar Square, Kathmandu
2. Wander the streets as locals go to work, shop and pray. Let yourself be drawn to alleyways, shops and people.
Durbar Square is a must-see, yet I would like to argue that what offers the most amazing insight into the everyday life of Kathmandu's citizens are ordinary alleyways early in the morning. Each day, the streets of Thamel get crowded with people selling and buying, on the pavement, tables, from their bicycles. The hustle is inexplicable, and you simply have to go and get lost yourself!
The main advantage of a morning wonder is:
a) there is much less traffic, and you don't have to be on a constant watch in fear of being hit by an inconsiderate motorbike driver. This makes your life a LOT easier.
b) there are almost no tourists around, only locals. This means you can observe their habits, and instead of being chased by sellers, you move around almost unnoticed, as this is not YOUR time, but THEIRS.
On a morning walk, you will see more clearly a city of rich history, tore down by a destructive earthquake. In almost every street there is a building or a shrine partly ruined, with no funds to repair it.
Rickshaws provide livelihoods for thousands of people in Kathmandu. Early in the morning, you see some Nepalese sleeping in them, revealing the terrible extension of their poverty.
Sights like this make you appreciative of our infrastructure. Of what use are large cities without a reliable supportive network? And in a developing country, how do you move from dirt and disorder to clean streets and hygiene?
A 'cleaned' street in the morning. Someone took the time to sweep the street, concentrating all rubbish on one pile. But without proper waste disposal infrastructure, this is where it ends. Many of such piles full of plastic are set on fire to get rid of them, releasing pollutants into the air of Kathmandu.
3. Enjoy delicious tea from a tea stand, as all the Nepalese do.
We have been walking for a while, and although it's still early, a morning booster is in place! In Kathmandu, there is only one beverage to go for: tea. It does not matter whether people are rushing to work, selling, buying or chilling; most are sipping their morning tea. In stands similar to this one, you get it boiling in a melting plastic cup, with full-fat milk and an enormous amount of sugar, and almost for free. I have to admit that after more than an hour of walking, this cup has tasted heavenly and turned my walk into pure pleasure.
4. Buy a Nepalese fast food breakfast
Another thing most early-morning streets in Thamel have in common is breakfast fast food. It consists of fried dough, in some cases covered in sugar, in some served plain. Although I was not bold enough to try, it definitely seems like an utmost authentic experience. Most locals picked their portion rushing through the streets with the certainty of Europeans grabbing their morning Starbucks on their way to work.
However, if your stomach does not quite feel like a fried piece of sweet dough as soon as the sun rises, you can opt for fruits like these. Early in the morning, there are also fresh packets of milk, cheese and tasty, sweetened yoghurt sold on the pavement. Throughout the day, the warming milk and yoghurt sitting in the heat lose their appeal, so make sure you indulge in dairy when it's fresh out of the fridge.
5. Indulge in a little bit of European-style coffee, music and food
The streets of Thamel in the morning are less crowded, less congested as well as safer and more authentic. Yet, after wandering around, bargaining food prices, enjoying the sightseeing, one might feel like hiding in a safe space for a little while.
Since I spent quite a few days in Kathmandu's city centre, I felt the urge to find myself a little hiding place. Somewhere you can get away from all the hustle, congestion, noise, sellers and bargaining. To enjoy the time in Thamel, finding a calm place with decent coffee, comfortable seats, plugs and Wifi proved crucial.
Luckily, on our my morning walk, it just turned 8 am, and all European-style coffee houses are opening up in Thamel! For the first time in weeks, let's enjoy the taste of an Espresso from freshly ground Hymalaian coffee beans. Don't get me wrong, during my trek in Nepal, a cup of an instant coffee (Nespresso 3+1) served with lots of milk, sugar, and with that caffeine kick was one of the best coffees I have ever tasted! Yet, being back in the city, I felt like paying a visit to Himalayan Java Coffee. This is a coffee house with a real western feel, where you sip your coffee, have a bite of your avocado toast while listening to jazz music, connected to reliable Wifi, or grabbing an English book from the shelf.
Don't get me wrong, sitting in a Europian coffee shop is not an experience I have longed for in Nepal. Later, living in a Nepalese family, while teaching at a Nepalese school or trekking in the mountains, I have not felt the urge to hide in a coffee shop, but embraced the differences between my life here in Nepal and back in Europe. It felt like this is my new normal, and I loved it. Yet, central Kathmandu is different. If you spend more than a day or two in it, I believe that finding a hiding place is almost a must. For me, a place that probed best for such purposes was Coffee Ghar. Set within gardens and courtyards with water fountains, it became the perfect oasis for counterbalancing Kathmandu's Hustle.
My morning walk is slowly coming to an end, and I feel like a piece of real Nepal was secretly revealed to me.
I am getting very excited about leaving Thamel and Kathmandu behind and start living with the Nepalese, teaching at a rural school. My next posts will take you with me on my TEACHING adventure, sharing stories from everyday life of Nepalese household.
If you would like to continue reading about the life around the Himalayas, I suggest you check out my previous post on TREKKING in Nepal.
I hoped you enjoyed our morning walk, and until next time!