“Damn it! Nepal for the third time?!” Certainly, this wasn’t my reaction as opposed to what it was. Homecoming in Nepal every time sure feels like the most amazing travel summons from the universe.”
My first ever visit to Nepal was with my parents and as expected it was a package of a few touristy days in Kathmandu. The second visit was nothing that I ever expected to get in my life. I won a fully sponsored trip to Nepal in a competition organized by Zostel. Even after two years since it happened, writing about it never fails to give me goosebumps.
And the third time, I decided to know more about the country that I loved, especially covering a heritage circuit this time.
The largest of all in Nepal, Kathmandu is the capital city. Once you depart from the airport side, the actual city side starts to settle upon you.
From broken and traffic-jammed roads to encountering under-construction Durbar squares, it is like a pressure cooker with a big chunk of heritage, culture, age-old stories, colours from the festivals, sounds of the religions and a blend of the present.
The city is full of religious shrines and heritage centres. One cannot miss trekking in the Himalayas when in Nepal but not before soaking in the various aromas of Kathmandu.
The Kasthamandap (wood pavilion) temple that stood in the Durbar Square is responsible for the name ‘Kathmandu’. But it collapsed during the Nepal 2015 earthquake, unlike the country which is strongly building itself again.
The Three Kingdoms of Kathmandu Valley
The rise of the Malla era (1200 AD-1768 AD) after the Licchavi period led to the formation of four fortified cities: Kantipur, Lalitpur, Bhaktapur, and Kirtipur.
For simplicity in the modern times, the Kathmandu valley now consists of three districts which are Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur.
Kathmandu valley has got not only one Durbar Square, which I thought was the case, but exactly four of them. Three of them are well preserved in Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, made when the king wanted to have three different kingdoms for each of his three sons and an unpreserved one in Kirtipur.
Bhaktapur: The Living Heritage
Bhaktapur durbar square is a plethora of all the Nepalese traditions and cultures at one place in real sense. The ‘Living Heritage’ city was the capital to Malla Kingdom until 15th century.
The city has got beautiful Newari architecture marvels. Some of them are the 55-window palace, Taleju Temple Complex, Yaksheswor Mahadev Temple etc. Do visit the Phasi Dega Temple to see the views of the entire city.
I vividly remember it was my second day in Kathmandu and I was extremely exhilarated to visit Bhaktapur where one of the three Durbar squares had been built and preserved in terms of achieving the UNESCO heritage status for the whole city, which was earlier known as Khwopa. Each alley of the Durbar Square complex opened into a new cultural centre having tiny restaurants, flea markets and numerous potters.
A pleasant humming sound welcomed my thumping footsteps on the brick floored lane, as I was walked past one of them. Hands carrying the yellow metallic bowl reflected all the sunlight they could while coming towards me in an arbitrarily trajected way from a dark low-height space.
As soon as I reached in front of the lit wooden framed door, a boy with spectacles much bigger than his face came with rotating his right hand in a swift circular motion around the bowl.
The sound that pulled me, came from the vibrations of the contact between the wooden wand and the metallic bowl which the boy asked me to buy, in hope of making his father proud of him.
To this day, I still use that Tibetan singing bowl for relaxation and it never fails to transcend me yet again to those Bhaktapur lanes, where a young boy taught me to play it with utmost enthusiasm and skill.
Travel has given some ceaselessly beautiful memories but one that still stays exquisitely carved in the folds of my brain is the one from pottery square in Bhaktapur.
Wherever I turned, I was struck by these people enjoying their work and eventually sculpting their sources of income through their hands, pottery wheel being the symbol of how life becomes deformed for those who don’t enjoy the process.
I was casually passing by this building and then I heard some laughs along with shares of chat immediately fascinating me to turn and as I did, I encountered these old city men basking in the sunlight and enjoying their offline moment.
Please Note: There are many local buses available from Ratna Park which takes you to Bhaktapur.
Tips: Do try to attend the 15-day long festival ‘Dashain’ here. (September/October)
Do try Juju Dhau (King of Yoghurt) in Bhaktapur.
More places around Bhaktapur:
Nagarkot: To spot Mount Everest during a beautiful sunrise and sunset.
Changu Narayan: Oldest temple in the valley. A hiking trail to Nagarkot starts from here.
Thimi: Traditional Newari city, famous for vegetable gardens and handicrafts
Bode: Riverside shrine of Nil Barahi. Attend ‘tongue-boring festival’ here (second day of Nepalese New Year)
Surya Vinayak Shrine: Ganesha shrine on top of a hill
Recommended Heritage Hotel in Bhaktapur
Hotel Heritage, Bhaktapur
This first deluxe hotel built in Bhaktapur truly captures the essence of Newari architecture. From its construction to the décor, I could differentiate elements both from Malla and Rana period. It is a new construction but most of the material and interior items are reclaimed.
The bricks are from the 17th century Rana Palace, the antiques belong to 16th century and the wood also dates back to the same period but is kept intact and well preserved.
Kathmandu or Basantpur Durbar Square
This is also known as Kathmandu Durbar Square. Apart from having temples dedicated to gods, it also has a statue of Kal Bhairav.
Commonly this place is known as Hanuman Dhoka and is a collection of Royal structures belonging to the Malla kings and from Shah dynasty.
This one Durbar Square feels like the most crowded to me. Crowded with locals more than the tourists every time I visit it. Locals usually are spotted feeding the pigeons now and then, children keep running all around, somewhere the youth will be spotted clicking selfies and the Kalbhairav statue is usually lined up with ladies for worship.
The Kathmandu Royal Palace or Hanuman Dhoka has 10 courtyards and is overlooked by Basantpur outlook tower. The house of living goddess Kumari (Kumari Bahal) is also here. I have heard a lot about the goddess but never gotten a chance to see her in reality.
Tip: Try Bhoe Chhen Newari Restaurant for authentic Nepali food.
Recommended Heritage Hotel in Basantpur
Dwarika Chhen, Kathmandu Durbar Square
A Newari home (Chhen) to Manandhar family for over 300 years, this exemplary structure was transformed into a boutique hotel to provide an authentic Newari lifestyle experience to the visitors.
Their beautiful courtyard is just the right place to have any sort of meal. My love for Nepali Thali started from here only. It feels like you are inside the Durbar Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The proximity to the heritage site just boggles my mind.
The owner passionately would give the tour of the property as per your interests. I saw a 150-yr old Kerosene-run refrigerator there apart from the many treasures located in different corners of the property.
Patan or Lalitpur Durbar Square
Patan Durbar Square became my new favourite when I revisited it. It happened when every evening continuously for three days I decided to soak its vibes by wandering around the square. Flaneur much?
The miraculous setup of this Durbar Square is intriguing. It is one of the oldest Buddhist cities.
On one intersection you have Krishna temple, a big bell, some more temples and all of them stand eastwards facing the gorgeous Patan palace. The correct answer to the construction of this square still sits on crossroads of history.
If one wants to embrace the colours of sunset, Patan Durbar square looks like the perfect place for it.
It is also fascinating to not be able to make out how the most beautiful buildings are set in such a small piece of land. That’s what the speciality of Patan is.
Fact: Among the Newaris, Kathmandu is known as Yeṃ Deśa and in Patan and Bhaktapur, it is known as Yala Deśa and Khwopa Deśa
Tip: Do visit Kar.ma café for great snacks, bakery items, coffee and musical Friday evenings.
Dhokaima Café in Old Patan is great for creamy Irish coffees, western and Asian meals.
Cafe Swotha for delicious sandwiches, salads, and French press coffee.
Recommended Heritage Hotels in Patan
1. Newa Chhen, Patan
The warm hospitality from the owners and the excitement of living in an actual Newari house just completed my trip to Nepal. In a true sense, it feels like the Newari house where detailing of the interior is all from natural materials, in-detailed carved woodwork and low entry doors where you bend to pay respect symbolically.
The low heighted rooms made me realise how eco-sensitive was the construction in earlier times. Newari people knew well how to keep their houses cool in summers and hot in winters.
2. The Inn, Patan
The Inn stands as the perfect example of a fine mix of Neoclassical and Newari architectural styles.
At first, I was stunned to see such a beautiful modern building and yet just perfectly blending within its heritage surroundings.
Their washrooms with beaten brass sinks just took my breath away in the first glance only. Do give this dreamy hotel a try if classic properties are your calling.
This time I was lucky enough to witness this huge Newari festival called Gaijatra at all the three Durbar Squares of Kathmandu.
The festival focuses on families in bereavement. A young boy from the family whose any relative has passed away is made to dress like a cow. It is believed that the cow helps the departed to reach heaven.
In Bhaktapur, the celebration of the festival can be seen at a gigantic scale. The decorated carriers are made to revolve quite a few times inside the Durbar Square. It`s madness to see the youth dancing from morning till afternoon on beats which are coordinated enough to lift the whole neighbourhood.
Beyond these major tourist spots of Kathmandu, there are many offbeat destinations too. Read about them here
Places to see in Kathmandu: The Capital City of Nepal
“Thamel is the tourist`s hub. Thamel adds pace to your slow days. Thamel makes you forget. It makes you less homesick. Thamel is a colour palette. Thamel is madness.”
A row of variety of cafes and restaurants is pierced with various souvenir shops in Thamel. And if you ever a find a single empty space there, for sure a graffiti would be spotted there.
During the night, with the lights and the hippie crowd, music from various restaurants and bars also increase. From somewhere, some English songs to lure European crowd would blare. A few restaurants play Nepali songs as per their theme.
Recommended stay options in Thamel
1. Hotel Marshyangdi, Kathmandu
Comfortable rooms with room varieties like twin beds, deluxe suite and junior suite, the hotel is a great option to choose from all the places available around Thamel.
The hotel seemed to be having the friendliest faces because I could see a lot of Indian tourists who had come there after completing their Kailash Mansarovar Yatra.
2. Hotel Manang, Kathmandu
The hotel had both Newari and Tibetan themed rooms. It was symbolic of the diverse country that Nepal is. The hotel is centrally located and is known for its hospitality.
Its well-decorated rooms remind you of the Himalayan regions and their native homes.
3. Nepali Ghar, Kathmandu
A property which completely resonated with the idea of how plush Newari house would look like. Little details like cupboard design, sanitary fittings, detailed wooden work, hanging lights etc added to the charm of the whole structure.
They also have a roof-top restaurant, gym, bar and indoor restaurant. A beautiful little light well throws the right amount of sunlight on every floor.
4. Zostel, Nepal
One of my most reliable and cheap places to stay in Nepal is Zostel. To interact with as many travellers as possible, hostels are a great place to start with.
I loved eating at their Carpe Diem café and watching sunsets from their terrace which also has a very cool lounge seating, by the way.
Cafes to try in Thamel
· Thamel House: for a full course Nepali meal
· OR2K Reastaurant: For Zuri cake, Alice Buddha bowl and Mediterranean food
· Eco café and Eatery: for good breakfast
· Rosemary Kitchen and Coffee Shop: for momos and European food
· Roadhouse Café: for coffee and continental food
· Carpe diem in Zostel: for momos and good breakfast
· Yeti Cafe and Restaurant: for Indian and Nepalese cuisine
· Sam’s One Tree Café: for fast food and sizzlers
· Fire and ice Pizza: for pastas and pizzas
· Fuchhey Restaurant: for fuchhey bowl
· French Bakery Paknajol Marg: A vegan friendly cafe
· Garkone Restaurant: for authentic Nepali food
· Sam`s Bar: for great bar and cozy roof top setting
The Bouddhanath Stupa
I remember with what level of difficulty I reached this place in a mini sharing van during my first day in Kathmandu. This was located an hour away from Thamel. But as soon as I reached its gate and saw this magnificent Buddhist temple peeking from in between the street buildings, I felt a sense of calm with my short-lived ordeal. It’s fluttering prayer flags matched the pace of my steps to reach it and praise its beauty from all sides.
Prayers playing in loops reached my desperate ears which were disturbed from the traffic outside. It was as if the whole street side bowed to this white Stupa. One fine example of a place which shows that you don’t need tight security to keep your priceless temples or monuments intact, but a responsible response to protect its integrity at present and for the times to come.
How often do you lose yourself while walking on a street, amongst hundreds of people going to and fro? When street shops played songs, which wrapped fables of places far from them, restaurants which were never empty but felt something deeply missing, suddenly had their tables to sit upon and seats had chances to get warmed. When these beautiful prayer flags found heads to bestow their blessings upon, I lost myself again in that indescribably long but brief instance.
Religious spots do play a major role in shaping up the nature of a city. One such place in Kathmandu is the Pashupatinath temple. You can strongly sense the cultural essence here.
The temple is located by the Bagmati river and is dedicated to Lord Shiva. The temple also has a cremation site.
My love to know people of various ethnicities never seems to fade away.
I find it fascinating to see how still people respect their cultural pursuits but quite suitably moulded to modern times and needs.
The Newars form the largest ethnic group in the Kathmandu Valley. The 1500-yr old original inhabitants of Kathmandu, the Newars have been known since medieval times for their highly developed artistic skills. Their skills are evident in the three ancient cities of the Kathmandu valley with their distinctive pagoda styled architecture.
In case you are wondering if I went to Pokhara, then Read it here. How went into a nature-coma!
Garden of Dreams
This place feels like another peaceful escape from the otherwise crazy streets of Kathmandu. It has a wide green space with fountains and seating spaces in between. Palaces and ponds inside the pavilion seem like the perfect place to unwind a bit.
It is just located at a walking distance from Thamel.
Kathmandu Old Town
Ancient relics like Itum Bahal courtyard is a sight to see. Catch the colours of the city which literally in its daily markets.
Swayambhunath Temple (Monkey Temple)
This Buddhist Stupa is built on one of the most important Nepali religious sites.
Quite frankly, I become hesitant every time I decide to visit the Monkey Temple because hundreds of monkeys keep moving all around you, both while you start climbing the stairs and when you are finally at the temple.
This view is from the Hill Top temple. Thankfully, by this time the number of monkeys fooling around decreases. The temple is at a walking distance from Thamel.
Located on the outskirts of Kathmandu, this Buddhist monastery is now famous for teaching Buddhism to its western visitors.
Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park, Bagmati
Himalayan Black bear, leopard, jungle cat, and rhesus monkey are some of the species that are found in this National Park.
Apart from this, Asan Tole and Kel Tole are a great place to spot hidden temples, stupas and photography spots.
Read my experience in Chitwan National Park, here
How to reach Nepal?
By road (How to reach Nepal by road from India?)
Sunauli border crossing is the busiest India-Nepal border crossing. The buses take you to Bhairahawa in central Nepal.
Panitanki Border Crossing is another point in far eastern Nepal to cross the border. The route goes towards Kakarbhitta in far eastern Nepal via Siliguri in West Bengal. It is open for 24 hours. Kathmandu is 14-16 hours away from here.
Birganj and Raxaul are the other two crossing points for tourists between India and Nepal.
Via Raxaul: from Patna (a state in India), it is a journey of 6 hours.
Via Birganj- How to go to Kathmandu from Birganj?
From Birganj, India-Nepal border is 3-km away.
Border opening timings: 6 am-11 pm
Visa issuing time from Nepal side: Until 6 pm
Once you are in Nepal side of the border, there are regular buses that ply to Pokhara and Kathmandu. Sharing taxis are also available.
How to go to Birganj (India) from Kathmandu?
From Gongabu Bus Park (10 minutes from Thamel), buses leave for Birganj
Prices: Regular Bus- 550 NPR
A/C deluxe or Tourist bus- 800 NPR
Direct Bus service from Delhi to Kathmandu
Yes, this exists since 2014. The AC Volvo buses start from Dr.Ambedkar Stadium Bus Terminal. It departs daily at 10 a.m.
Cost: 2300 INR (one way)
Time takes: 30 hours
If crazy Himalayan views interest you, then by air from Delhi to Kathmandu is the best option. Tribhuvan International Airport is currently the only one of its kind in Nepal. Pokhara airport is expected to open by 2021.
I loved my experience with Nepal Airlines.
Travel time: 1 and a half hours
From Delhi to Gorakhpur, trains are available. Then from Gorakhpur till Kathmandu, it is a 15-hour long journey on a bus.
Gorakhpur to Sunauli (Indian border)- 3 hours journey
A new direct passenger train between India and Nepal will soon be on the run.
Best season to visit Nepal
The summer months May to July are really hot. The sun feels like a burn on the skin.
From July till early October, monsoon season stays. It rains sometimes during day otherwise it becomes too hot and humid in Pokhara. Kathmandu stays hot but less humid. It rains mostly post afternoon during this season and that too almost every day.
October till January the season is one of the best times to visit Nepal. During day time, it`s bright and sunny which seems perfect in the winter months. The nights become cold and chilly. December till March remain particularly chilly.
Indians don’t require any visa or passport to enter Nepal. Only an authorised identification card is required (Voter ID card)
For countries other than India, you may check out the visa details here.
Things to Remember
- Even if you are an Indian and don’t require a passport to enter Nepal, just carry it anyway. It makes the hotel check-in processes and every other thing quite smooth.
- In Nepal, Indian currency notes of 500 and 2000 are banned. Carry only Rs 100, 200 notes and notes lower than this denomination.
- Personal transportation in Nepal is extremely expensive. Look for shared taxis and public buses in the region to commute.
- Don’t be disappointed when you see construction going on at all of the Durbar Squares. Respect the spirit of rebuilding the heritage. Nepal is slowly but surely recovering from the effects of the 2015 earthquake.
- Travel sustainably by carrying your basic cutlery and a refillable water bottle.
- Hundreds of trekking gear shops in Nepal can be quite tempting. Make sure you differentiate between the real North Face brand and its 1st copy. You can invest in a local brand called Sherpa which is quite long-lasting.
- You can buy a Ncell sim as soon as you reach the airport. It is reasonably priced with average data and call charges.
- While withdrawing cash from the ATM, make sure to get a good amount in the first transaction only because otherwise bank fees of 500 Nepali rupees will be levied on every transaction.
- Though all currencies are widely accepted but Indian, US Dollars, Euros and Pounds seems like the best option.
- One can assume a backpacker budget between 1000-1500 Indian Rupee per day for survival.
I think there is nothing wrong in holding onto something which gives you the strength to rise every time you fall. And it is even better if the same thing is one’s weakness. Only warriors can turn their weaknesses into strengths. And Nepal is undoubtedly one such country.