Kathmandu / Nepal
We visited Nepal exactly one year after the 2015 earthquake. There are some areas that are still recovering, as well as some minor tremors every now and then, but it’s completely safe to go back as a tourist. Tourism is down and it was clear from our three weeks in Nepal that tourism is a big deal. So many tea houses, shops and trekking companies are set up purely for tourism and are waiting, doors open daily, for the number of visitors to climb back up. Though times might be tough for a lot of families, you wouldn’t know it by the people.
In a few other developing countries we’ve visited, we felt hassled and swindled and often targeted as tourists. In Nepal our only discomfort with the people was that they were SO nice, so welcoming, and in service situations overly attentive. We almost didn’t feel worthy. This was partly because we were tourists and local businesses were happy to see travelers, but being respectful is clearly part of the culture.
It’s also a very tidy place, compared to other developing countries we’ve visited. Whether a shop is tucked into a tiny dark space under a dilapidated building or has a proper walk-in storefront, the wares and foods are neatly maintained and presented. Even the raw meat slabs or defeathered chicken bodies for sale didn’t look as appalling or as fly encrusted as we’ve seen them in other countries. The air however was horrible. On top of the normal April haze from car exhaust and pollution from brick manufacturing in the valley, the air was thickened by additional wild forest fires. There was unusual dryness this year – we even saw a forest fire while in Pokhara. Never before have I felt like such an asthmatic while traveling – throughout the three weeks I had constant congestion and coughing, which cleared up completely when we left. Toward the end we opted for wearing masks (common among locals), we got cute ones, which helped a lot.
Where to Stay
Most other blogs said two days in Kathmandu is enough before heading on to a trek, but we had about a week total and were able to keep ourselves busy. Most tourists stay in Thamel, where streets are lined with shops hawking cheap outdoor gear (mostly fake North Face and Patagonia), every color of pashmina, rustic metal jewelry and gadgets, and tons of cafes and restaurants. We stayed in four different places, spanning budget to midrange accomodations. Most budget options are around $15. For $30 you can find much nicer hotels with AC. Here are a few in Thamel we recommend…
Avalon House – simple, hard bed, static tv, fan, and clean bathroom, nice staff, simple toast breakfast included, weak wifi, and super cheap – $12 for a double with bathroom.
Yambu Hotel – $35 a night for a double with bathroom, much nicer than the above, air con, good wifi, really attentive staff, taxi on hand for outings.
Subu and Mala’s Air BnB – we a benefactor (my older sis) who treated us to two nights in this cool Air BnB in the middle of Thamel – thanks Mere! It was refreshing to have our own space to stretch, eat outside of a restaurant, and do laundry. For multiple nights they lowered the price from $75.
What to Eat
Every restaurant we dipped into randomly or found on Foursquare was amazing. The food in Nepal is warm, spice-infused and filling – not really what you’d normally crave in that heat, but do it anyway. Dal Bhat is THE dish – it is a spread of dhal (lentil soup), curried veggies, rice and often a pickled something, plus free refills of all elements. While Reece dug into Dhal Bhat, I fancied the Momos, the Nepali dumpling often filled with veggie, chicken or buff(alo). I ate many a momo, but the best we had were the ones we made ourselves. We took a cooking class with a local family through Backstreet Academy, which sets up tourists with classes taught by locals – this experience was a highlight! We’re excited to attempt the recipe when we get home with the help our dexterous fingered friends. The country is jammed between India and China, so the food is a delicious fusion of Indian and Asian flavors.
After two weeks of feasting on local cuisine (bellies totally fine) we were dhal’d and momo’d out. The best part about renting an Air BnB for two nights was getting to eat cereal for breakfast and dinner and not being judged. In Thamel we only found snack shops lined with expensive snacks for tourists and men selling fruits from their bikes, but no super markets. Restaurant food is very affordable for travelers, so it financially might make sense to just dine out for you. Here are some restaurants we enjoyed…
New Everest Momo Center – this was a recommendation of a taxi driver as the best momo in town. They make one thing and they make it well – buff momo. If we were big meat eaters we would give it the “best momo” stamp, but since we’re not we give it the “most memorable eatery” stamp. It’s a local spot – for 80 cents you’ll get a hot plate of momo, maybe add a coke for 30 cents. It was the only place we went where we were the only tourists.
Eco Restaurant – this looks like a generic spot with cheesy blue and green blinking lights on the exterior. A police officer woman whispered to us that it was good, so we listened. We went back twice, everything was rich with coconut and spices, so yummy.
Himalayan Java Café – if the electricity didn’t kick out here every now and then like it does in the rest of the city you’d think you were in Starbucks. It’s cool and comfortable and a great place to sip a delicious Nepali coffee and do work – they have lots of tables for computers. There are two locations in Thamel.
Chick’n Falafel – this is a filling and cheap bite in the middle of Thamel. It’s on a street corner with no seating, but worth waiting in the short line for a $2 falafel wrap stuffed with falafel and fries.
Snowman Café – this is apparently the old school hippie hangout. Now it’s dark, full of alternative biker teens (still a few old dreads around too), with a smoky atmosphere. It’s worth finding for the cake – we wanted to try them all, but we can confidently say the Dark Chocolate and Chocolate Banana are yummy.
Rosemary Café and Fire and Ice Pizza are yummy places for din, reliable food, but full to the brim with tourists.
What to Do
We met up with two friends in Kathmandu, both of which are involved in earthquake relief and development projects. Also, I ran out of pages in my passport and since US citizens can no longer add pages when abroad, I had to order a new passport. This usually takes 1 – 2 weeks, so make sure you have sufficient time in the country you order it in. The US embassy was speedy! But then you have to go to the Nepali immigration office to transfer over the Nepal visa – that was comically ridiculous. It was eye opening to see how out dated and inefficient their systems are. For example, they handwrite everything in big dusty old books that they keep in banged up file cabinets from the 50s. One women fell asleep on her bus crossing the boarder into Nepal, and came in frantic because she didn’t receive the Visa at the boarder. The heavy set Nepali man told her with crossed arms that the only option was for her to go back to that boarder (an entire day’s travel), that’s it. Walking there brought us out of the main tourist area (into Patan) and it was awesome people watching – the route dragged us through areas jam packed with locals on foot, on bikes, on mopeds, in cars, all squished into narrow streets selling and shopping.
The Monkey Temple was worth visiting in the morning. It was about a 45 minute walk from Thamel and wonderful way to see the morning routine of locals setting up their shops, sweeping their door steps, frying doughnuts, bringing their offerings to the nearby prayer spot. There are 300 + steps, but they go by fast while you watch locals exercising at each level and monkeys darting around looking for food. It’s really wonderful to walk around (always clockwise around temples) and watch. A local man invited us to sit down and listen to a singing session going on, which made us feel less awkward. There are tons of monkey that look a little haggard and weirdly human – funny to see that, along with the pigeons, they are the cleanup crew and help eat the offerings.
Bhaktipur is an older area outside Kathmandu, about a 45 min drive, that is worth walking around for a day. It was heavily damaged by the earthquake, and very interesting to see while in a state of repair. There are still old magnificent temples to see. Try the fresh yogurt too (our tummies were fine)! More info here >
We took a cooking class through Backstreet Academy, a company that connects tourists with locals. We chose a three hour momo making class. They set us up with a translator, which helped a lot when we were firing questions back and forth trying to learn about them and them trying to learn about us. Their arranged marriage was just as interesting to us as our “love” relationship was to them. Unlike an average Nepali family, the husband was the chef in this household and he taught classes through BA as a part-time job. We felt like they had welcomed us into their home as friends, not just clients. It was a highlight!
We tried yoga at Pranamaya Yoga after we returned from trekking. Right above a busy, dirty street, somehow the space is refreshing and calm. It was a great class, nothing revolutionary, taught by a westerner, but was awesome to stretch out after hiking.
And then to went to Pokhara to hike the Ghorepani Poon Hill Ghandruk trek. There are a bunch of buses and even a flight – we opted for Greenlines, one of the upscale tourist buses ($25).