Sustainable Travel

Magic and Mystery: Eco-Travelers Find Both in Kathmandu

Kathmandu, Nepal, is a place of crowded streets, temples and palaces, and street food. It all adds up to a magical cultural experience.
— By Pamela Grant

Words like "magical" and "mysterious" are used to describe Kathmandu, a city with a long history, an exotic location, and breathtaking opportunities for eco-travelers. It is a place offering a feast for the eyes with a spectacular surrounding landscape and inspiring cultural sites.

Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal, can be a starting point for reaching a Mount Everest base camp, a place where you soak up history by visiting ancient monuments in Durbar Square, or a shopping experience where you find exquisite traditional local crafts. This is a place where eco-travelers can have it all.

Looking for Cultural Jewels
Kathmandu, Nepal, located in a valley, has been around a long while. Valley life is documented as far back as the 7th century BC, but it was not until the 12th century that the town flourished. It grew because of its location along the trade route to Tibet.

Now the capital city, it is located in the heart of Nepal near the confluence of the Vishnumati and Baghmati rivers at an elevation of 4,344 feet. Its historical path led to Hinduism and Buddhism flourishing together, which explains the numerous temples located in Kathmandu and around Nepal.

It can be a starting point for planning a trip to a Mt. Everest base camp, but it will take a plane or bus ride followed by a 12-day trek to reach the destination on the Nepal side.

Many people choose to never leave the city.

Warning: Unless you have unlimited vacation time, spending your holiday chasing Everest means missing out on the jewels that Kathmandu offers. It is a city of legends and mystery; religious sacredness and artisan vendors; friendly residents and fascinating food. Kathmandu does not make a claim to urban planning, so walking the streets in search of famous sites and neighborhoods is a true adventure.

For many, a first destination is Kathmandu Durbar Square, also known as Hanuman-dhoka Durbar Square, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The square is the location of an ancient complex of Hindu and Buddhist temples and other places dating back to the 15th-18th centuries. Their pagoda architecture, red brick and wood facades, red-trimmed roofs, and intricate carvings and ornamentation immediately transport visitors to a different place in time.

After visiting temples like the Kumari (Living Goddess) Gar temple or the Mahaday Temple, to name just two, on the outer edges of the square, spend time in the inner area. Here is found ancient royal structures, like the Hanuman-dhoka palace and courtyards. Every temple and shrine can only be called magnificent.

Durbar Square is also the place of cultural and religious celebrations, like the eight-day Indra Jatra Harvest Festival in which the living Goddess Kumari rides her sacred chariot in a parade.

Explore Narrow Streets Filled With Chaotic Charm
It is important to visit one or more of the temples and shrines because they are so important as cultural monuments and capture the history and spirit of Kathmandu. However, the cultural excursion should also embrace what lies outside the square.

Narrow streets are filled with old homes ornamented with wood-carved doors, small shrines and temples, art galleries, craft shops, and friendly faces. The art of craft-making is not lost in Kathmandu, where artisans continue to make traditional crafts with great skill and in the same way they have been made for centuries. Arts and crafts include wood carving, carpet making, Thanka or Painting of Gods, and Himalayan Nepalese paper making.

Idealistic traditional art is called Paubhas and embraces the country's religious heritage. The city is blessed by the Living Goddess Kumari, mentioned earlier. So do not be surprised if you encounter a ceremonial procession with masked dancers and religious significance. Kumari is a real little princess who is selected each year in a process similar to the one used to select Tibetan Lamas.

If you do not want to walk, no problem! A ride in a rickshaw is a true adventure.

Kathmandu offers a lot more than temples and palaces. Located in a valley, it dishes up a spectacular view of the Himalayan mountains, so expect to find throngs of people ready to head off on backpacking excursions. You, on the other hand, can stay in Kathmandu and spend time soaking up the chaotic charm of the city. It has some well-known neighborhoods, like Thamel. Located in the oldest section of Kathmandu, it offers a selection of street foods – some healthy and some … well … you are on vacation so suspend your eco-traveler persona just long enough to enjoy a wide variety of traditional foods.

Re-Energize on Street Food
If you like dim sums or dumplings, then stop and buy momos with red chili chutney for dipping. Momos are found everywhere, and each cook or vendor uses their own unique mix of spices.

You may enjoy choila, a hot and spicy food made with grilled buffalo meat. Enjoy lakhamari, a sweet crunchy bread, or deep-fried sel roti, a puffy donut-like food. Samosas are another popular food you can buy fresh on the streets; these pastry balls are filled with spices and potatoes and might be served with a sauce. This is just a sampling of the kinds of street foods that entice people all day long as the smell of food fills the air.

Once fortified with food, you are probably re-energized, so head out again into the streets of Thamel. The streets are packed with people, rows of Tibetan prayer flags and shops. Never accept the first price offered because it is intentionally set high. Bargaining is an expected shopping experience.

Some people enjoy wandering the back streets of Old Kathmandu but prefer using a guide. There are two advantages to this approach. One is that you support the local economy, always a tenet of eco-travel. Second, you will enjoy cultural experiences you might miss otherwise. How about a tea tasting, hearing about legends, visiting temples not in busy tourist areas, and meeting Kathmandu's residents as you browse the colorful street stalls?

Refresh the Spirit
Perhaps the site that most represents the mystery and uniqueness of Kathmandu is Swayambhunath, a Buddhist temple. Walk up 365 stone steps among hundreds of monkeys believed to be holy. A resident monk will explain the fascinating details. You can even join a daily chanting session, refreshing the spirit and recalling the past.

Where else in the world would you find such an experience as this other than in Kathmandu?