View Kathmandu Interest in a larger map
If you’re coming to visit us this year, you might be perusing a travel guide or just rolling the dice and leaving it up to us entirely to plan your stay. Here are some fun things we’ve come to love, as well as some things we’ve yet to see and do. You can use the above map as a reference for a lot of this.
I tag each highlighted place or activity with general category, transport there, activity there, and price range (each $ means an arbitrary expense factor; $=10, $$=50, $$$=100, $$$$=1000).
You should bring about $100USD to change in case the ATM’s are not working. We have access to two (2) ATM’s that work 95% of the time and can spot you whatever you can’t manage. Most places offer similar exchange rates, all of which are worse than what we can get, but that’s life. The airport, Thamel, uptown, whatever. It’s probably better to rely on your ATM card. You can also cash a check of up to $500 USD if you’re our guest at the Embassy. Pretty cool, that.
Photocopy your passport (including VISA page) and have two copies on hand just in case. If you’re planning traveling to other countries or doing any trekking, bring a few passport-sized photos and visa-sized photos (1.5″ square or so). Photos can usually be made quite easily, except during holiday times, and frankly you never know what will be happening.
You’ll need these for trekking permits ($10 TIMS, $45 ACAP, $500 for upper mustang) and if you’re traveling with a registered guide, they have probably already informed you about this.
The State Dept has released an iOS app called Smart Traveler that makes it super easy to register with the embassy and check on travel recommendations. This is not something to be done while waiting to board, it takes a LONG TIME to fill this stuff out for more than a couple.
Bring your unlocked GSM phone, and purchase an NCell SIM when in town. If you’re our house guest, we can provide you a SIM (that we have already) for use while you’re here. It’s a full-sized SIM, though we may be punching it down to work with iPhone 4 and other micro-SIM using phones in the near future so it can be used with either. If you need to purchase a SIM, the base price is about 100 Nrs (Nepali Rupees) and charge cards can be had for 100 – 1000 Nrs. Calls are 3 Nrs a minute and texts are about 1.5 Nrs. Check the latest exchange rate for accuracy, we drift between 68-75 Nrs to the USD. This means in general less than $10 for over 100 minutes of calling and a couple hundred texts.
To purchase a SIM, you will need a photocopy of your passport, including visa page, passport photo, and THUMBPRINTS. I’m not joking.
*Clothing! Ignore movies like “The Golden Child” when it comes to portrayal of weather in Kathmandu. It rarely gets to freezing around here, only overnight in January. That said, bring a fleece or light sweater even if summer, especially if you’re going light trekking. (Trekking is really a euphemism for “paying a large sum of money to have someone point the way, schlepp my luggage, and make me feel like I’m going backwards for lack of speed, on a hike to a building where I’ll sleep and hope not to get fleas, on which I’ll see amazing mountains that make the Rockies look like mounds of mashed potatoes on my plate for for which I’ll ultimately be grateful.”)
In fact, pretend you’re going to Colorado. You will be sweating in the sun no matter the season, and possibly chilly in the shade. You’ll be wet in the summer, so bring water-proof shoes (low rise hikers and/or high hikers for trekking) and sandals. Bring sunscreen. And a hat. And a good umbrella. And a rain jacket.
*If you fail to bring anything you need, you can buy knock-off ANYTHING from trekking stores in Thamel, usually at 20-30% what it costs state-side. You can also buy quality gear from the local Sherpa store, North Face store or Mountain Hardware store. Vaude also has a store, but oddly enough it’s the most expensive. The prior three have a roughly US-cost feel to them, though sales are possible.
Nepal is expected to get a major earthquake any minute now. Or maybe 25 years from now. No one knows when it will hit. We can provide food and water, you need to provide travel insurance and make sure it covers natural disasters. Register with the embassy. Bring an LED flashlight.
When You Arrive
Have your $25USD ready to pay for your entry/tourist visa, unless you’ve secured it already. If you’re planning on going to Tibet, Bhutan, or elsewhere and coming back here as a home base, make sure it’s a multiple entry!
Visiting us? We can pick you up from the airport if you let us know when you arrive. Otherwise it’s 600 Nrs (about $9 USD) to any given destination, probably more if you’re in Thamel. That’s the price of a good lunch!
In the city
Boudha(nath)Getting There: driving 15 minutes
Activity: cultural heritage spot, touristy, restaurants & shops, entry (200Nrs), walking (easy), Cultural appreciation, photography and video, eating ($), shopping ($-$$$$), good for 30 minutes for rowdy kids and no meal, up to two – three hours with grown-ups who shop and have a meal.
Boudhanath, or “Bhouda” as local expats call it, is a buddhist temple in the north-eastern part of Kathmandu (check out one of the little purple pins in the map above). After paying your 200Nrs (less than $3USD) entry fee, you can circumnavigate the temple clockwise along with the crowd. Watch your valuables, as this is a great spot for high-rolling tourists to buy tibetan furniture and carry expensive cameras. Circle a couple of times, stopping at the shops and snapping photos. Step up into the upper area (left side is marked “entry”) and (clockwise) go around the upper area on top of the Stuppa. Keep a hand on kids under 10, as there are no guard rails to keep them from pitching off a 8′ drop onto some devout buddhist below. Thoroughly steeped in culture, retire to one of the cafes surrounding the temple for a roof-top lunch or dinner.
Getting There: driving 25 minutes
Activity: cultural heritage spot, touristy, shops (one restaurant at the bottom near parking), entry (250Nrs), walking (moderate – steps), Cultural appreciation, photography and video (monkeys too), eating ($?), shopping ($-$$$), good for 60 minutes for rowdy kids and nothing else, up to two hours with grown-ups who shop and have a meal at the restaurant below.
Swayambhunath, or swayambu as the local expats call it (check out one of the little purple pins in the map above) is located on the south-western side of the city. Free and easy parking, this buddhist temple sits at the top of a hillock overlooking the city. It is also known as the “monkey temple” and is variously swarming with monkeys. After paying your entry fee of about 250Nrs (about $3.50USD), your first challenge is getting past the folks offering to be your docent or guide. Proceed directly to the Monkey Swimming pool, a stone basin some steps down to the left. Don’t be distracted by the vendor stalls to the right, we’ll be coming back down the steps near them in about an hour or less. If you bring snacks for kids or yourself, conceal them from the monkeys or you’ll be hungry later. Take some cute monkey photos, but don’t get too close to the bigger monkeys, you could be threatening and get bitten (highly unlikely unless you poke or offer food). Ascend the steps to the temple, and toss small change (less than 10Nrs in bills or coins) to some of the cripples if you need to (we generally don’t, as we’re there about once every six weeks and don’t want to be a target).
Once at the top, you’ll have a couple dozen shop-fronts to peruse over-priced items. Unless there is something incredible, skip it and aim to pick it up for less in Thamel. Check out the ever-present prayer wheels, amazing temples and (hopefully) the great vista of the valley. You’ll have a better chance of the latter if you come during or just after the rainy season (June-October). You can probably only occupy children for 20 minutes at the top. Head back down the stairs on the other side and stop by the remaining tourist stalls. Satisfactorily sated with culture, head down to the restaurant (we’ve not yet been) for lunch or dinner, or head out. The view is not spectacular, and I don’t know about the food.
Shopping in Thamel
Getting there: 25 minutes driving
Activity: touristy shopping area geared towards trekkers ($-$$$) & eating ($-$$), walking (easy), photography and video, good for one to three hours of entertainment depending on the crowd.
Entering Thamel on foot after parking can be overwhelming at first. There are taxis and rickshaws at the ready, and then there are the glue-huffers (pre-teen and teen boys who have fallen from their shoe-repair jobs to huffing plastic bags of the cleaning products used in their trade). Once you get through that gauntlet, Thamel relaxes a bit, but only so much. Thamel’s heart is in kukri knives and knock-off hiking gear (some of which is actually very good quality). You can also find excellent wood-craft and paper craft, brass and copper knick-knacks, etc. If you’re pressed for a rain jacket, fleece, or pair of goretex hiking boots you can find them in a pinch at 25-30% their retail cost in the states. Nepalis are all about bartering, so when they give you a price, don’t counter-offer right away. Just looking disinterested or walking out can get you as much as 40% less than the original offered price, depending on the item. Don’t go into Thamel thinking you have to buy everything in one day; it’s close enough that we can go there two or three times in your visit if need be. Just as with Boudha, keep a close eye on your valuables. This is the transit hub for all trekkers coming to Nepal and while muggings are almost non-existent, pick-pocketing is common enough. All that looking and shopping can build an appetite, and this is where Thamel shines. There are easily a couple dozen good eateries of many cultural backgrounds in Thamel, all of which are reasonably priced. We prefer Or2K (israeli) and also enjoy the Thai and Korean offerings especially. There are also decent coffee shops.
Shopping on Lazimpat Road
Getting there: 20 minutes driving
Activity: upper-scale shopping and eating area geared towards more well-healed folks, but still reasonable, morning coffee and/or breakfast, shopping ($-$$$), eating (lunch at Newari/Nepali, Indian, Thai or Japanese), walking (easy), good for 1-3 hours depending on the audience.
We generally park at the Radisson Hotel and walk up to the main road. Guys, if you need a haircut (or kids), stop in at the Radisson for 250Nrs/125Nrs (adults/kids) haircut. The Yak & Yeti export shop is also nearby, with export-priced (less expensive) silk wear, pashminas, scarves, jewelry, etc. It doesn’t have much of a store-front, but the people are nice and the prices are right.
Durbar Square, Kathmandu
Getting there – 35 minutes driving
Activity: cultural appreciation, photography and video, light shopping ($-$$), good for 30-60 minutes.
This square is the busiest in the area, and of course there are cows, and police traffic (there is a police station right in the middle of it. Once we get in and pay the 200+Nrs tourist ticket fee, we have some light walking on even ground in the sun (or rain, depending), and then get to see various temples with Pagoda-style rooftops. And pigeons. Every travel guide for Nepal has at least one photo of pigeons flying from the temple tops. If your visit is less than two weeks, skip it, otherwise we can be sure to fill some time with this spot. At least visiting here allows easy access to the southern side of Thamel.
Durbar Square, Patan
Getting there – 35 minutes driving.
Activity: cultural appreciation, photography and video, light shopping ($-$$) and eating ($-$$ breakfast, lunch and/or dinner), 1-2 hours.
This square is the nicest in Kathmandu, and though smaller than Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, is much less hectic and does not have vehicular traffic (except near the edges). Once you’re in and have paid your 200+Nrs ticket fee (sense a theme?) walk around (with a guide if you want the full experience, they will be on you like flies before you’re even in) and check out the temples. If you have a hankering for brass or turquoise and lapis-covered copper knick-knacks, stop by a vendor table. Be sure to relax with tea and/or a meal at one of the surrounding cafes for a rooftop view of the other tourists. If we finish up early, we might retire for lunch or dinner five (5) minutes drive away at “restaurant row” where we have a selection of Mediterranean, European, Nepali, Pizza, etc. If you need mountain bike supplies, Epic Mountain bike is also nearby.
Restaurants & Eating in town
Kathmandu has a plethora of restaurants. Check out my other blog on this: Third Culture Life and come back here.
Every outing MUST be accompanied by a tasty meal.
The Royal Palace
Getting there: 20 minutes by driving, an hour to tour.
Activity: Cultural “Appreciation”, Avoid with small children.
The monarchy stepped down in 2001. The style of the mansion stopped progressing in the 1950′s when the borders of the country opened. A cross between a bad antique shop and Gunston Hall, this place is garish, dusty, poorly maintained, and generally an eye-sore. In other words, a must see if you’re here more than a couple weeks. Anything less and skip it.
The American Club
Getting there: 20 minutes by driving (or similar by bicycle if you’re adventurous)
Activity: tennis, squash, swimming (April-October), jogging, playground (for smaller children), exercise machines, , eating ($). 1-2 hours entertainment.
Since you’re with us, you get access to the amenities that Phora Durbar has to offer. A respite, though I have to say the food is not the main draw here. This is a good hopping-off place for Thamel, and other nearby spots, is located on a secure compound (which allows us to not worry about a parked car), and has an ATM and western toilets.
1905 Restaurant (and farmer’s market)
Getting there: 20 minutes by car (5 minute walk from American Club)
Activity: farmer’s market on Saturday mornings, year round (also has a good restaurant for lunch, dinner, and is a party spot for semi-private occasions), 30 minutes to 1.5 hours entertainment.
The market has enough fresh veggies, cheese, sausage, and even rotisserie chicken to sate. Chocolate croissants too. Saturday mornings and now also Wednesday evenings 4-7pm, year round.
The Garden of Dreams
Getting there: 20 minutes by car (5 minute walk from the American Club)
Activity: relaxing ($), also a meal($$) at the Kaiser Cafe if you need, 30 minutes to 2 hours entertainment if you tack on a meal.
The Garden of Dreams is primarily a landscaped area for strolling with shrubbery, lawns, pools of water with fish, etc. 80Nrs entry fee. Kids will enjoy exploring (just don’t let them get to rowdy or you’ll be chastised) and you can enjoy breakfast lunch or dinner at the Kaiser Cafe afterwards. The fare there is decent, but don’t expect a miracle or fast service; this is Nepal after all.
The US Embassy
Getting there: 10 minutes drive or 20 minutes walking
Activity: a tour, meal (breakfast or lunch at the cafeteria ($) 30 minutes to 1 hour entertainment.
Assuming we have you on the access list, and after leaving all your worldly touristy possessions at the baggage check, stroll the grounds with Jean to see what all the Magic® is about.
Getting there: 10 minutes driving
Activity: Cultural appreciation, knick-knack shopping. Entry($) 30 minutes to 1 hour entertainment.
Pashupati is Kathmandu’s crematorium. No one buries there dead here, but rather they burn them. Thank goodness in a city of up to 4 million (already encroaching into the foothills), but at the same time, the Bagmati River (the sacred river) can hardly sustain the amount of ashes being added to it from this place. After paying your 500Nrs entry fee, stroll into the riverside via a surreal paved walkway lined with hawkers selling their wares. Watch from afar the bodies covered with marigolds and surrounded by timbers being set alight and the various people taking a dip in the sacred river (or rivulet, depending on the season). Holy men will ask for a rupee or two for a photograph, and despite their stoned state, they have a sharp eye, so be ready with your 2Nrs coins or small notes.
Activity: yes, free to $$, 1 – 8 hours entertainment.
Either by renting a bike (500-1000Nrs/day) from Bike Station(Pani Pokhari on Lazimpat), Himalayan Single Track (Thamel) or Epic (in Patan) or riding another, you can cycle all over the valley. To get out, there will be some city cycling involved, so bring a breathing mask if you are averse to pollution, and by all means wear a helmet. Rides can vary from a one hour round trip to a multi-day affair with an overnight in a tea house, and can even replace a multi-day trek for outdoor activity. Rides can also be simple off-roading to extremely technical (biker-speak for “only really stupid people try this”). A popular trek is the Shivapuri circuit, which requires a 750Nrs (!) entry fee. Winter riding can be extremely dusty and summer riding can be extremely messy, but it’s always fun.
Hiking (day treks)
Activity: yup, free to $, 1-8 hours entertainment.
Bring your hiking shoes and get a guide or a local to point you in the right direction. You’ll need to drive to a hiking point, so it may be advisable to get someone to pick you up on the other end, or don’t leave anything valuable in your car if doing a circuit.
getting there: 30 minutes driving, departing from domestic terminal
Activity: seeing Everest (Sagarmatha) and the Himalayas up close, 1-8 hours entertainment (flights are delayed).
For those not hiking to base camp or summiting, the Everest flight on Buddha Air ($160-$185) is the next best thing. Flights almost never depart on time, so book for an early one (6:30-8:30am) and hope you get on the flight by lunch. Bring a granola bar or three to tide you over as you wait. Once you board, you’ll be treated to a one-hour round trip flight to see the mountain range up close and take photos and video. The pilots may even invite the passengers up into the cockpit for a head-on view of Everest as they make their U-turn. Each passenger gets a glossy card-stock 8 1/2 x 11 “certificate” suitable for frame or scrap book.
Outside of the Valley
View Bhaktapur in a larger map
Getting there: 30 minutes to 1 hour driving
Activity: cultural appreciation, knick-knack shopping, eating , 2 – 4 hours entertainment.
After driving on the glassy “Japanese Cooperation Highway” from Kathmandu, turn off left and swing around the back side of Bhaktapur to park in the bus park (20Nrs for the day). Pay your entry fee (1100Nrs as of Autumn 2011) and walk up into the historic Bhaktapur. If you’ve secured one of the many guides offering their tour services (this is an actual government position), you can fend off the others, and various kids and beggars (this is actually worth the guide fee alone of about 500-1000Nrs) you can cruise along on a guided tour lasting between two and four hours, with perhaps a break for lunch in between, or if you fancy granola bars you can hold off until dinner. There are some interesting temples to see (and climb for kids), the “peacock window”, etc. This tour will appeal more to those over 18, but is worth it for the younger set if they have the energy to walk a couple hours; consider an abbreviated tour if the group is made up of more than 30% under 15, and consider a baby sitter if the group is more than 50% under 15. (The fees alone, even kid prices, will make you resentful if you’re spending more time asking kids to be quiet than listening to the guide)
View Dhulikhel in a larger map
Getting there: 1 – 2 hours drive from Kathmandu
Activity: hiking to a buddha statue and staying at Dwarika’s Shangri-La Hotel OR just having lunch there, 1 hour entertainment to overnight.
Another 30 minutes to one hour past Bhaktapur, up the switchbacks and over the shoulder of a foothill you’ll find Dulikhel. Watch out for the crazy bus and truck drivers who will pass you up and downhill on blind corner switchbacks. Put your 4WD into action if you’re in the rainy season to drive up “Resort Road” and park at the base of the foothill into which Dwarika’s is built, and pull your roller luggage up the long walk (comprising a walkway and 142 steps give or take 20) to the hotel. Check in and enjoy a walk up to the Buddha statue (another 1 K or so and a lot more steps), come back and have lunch or dinner. The terrace at the hotel provides an excellent view of the Himalayas, enjoyed primarily NOT in the winter, when such a view is obscured by pollution. Accommodation can be had at diplomatic rates if you’re with us, about 5500Nrs a night. If you have a stiff back, consider bringing an air mattress sleep roll to put on top of the traditional Nepali box bed.
View Pokhara, Nepal in a larger map
Getting there: 8 hours by car or 30 minute flight
Activity: weekend retreat, or week-long set of entertainment, cost can be as inexpensive as $500 for flight and hotel stay, to as much as $1500 if you do it to the nines.
Pokhara is a sleepy little town compared to Kathmandu, though increasingly being developed. It’s easily reachable by plane outside of the rainy season (they do not fly using instrumentation here) and should be reachable by car assuming there are no landslides or other blockages. The flight is about $185 for non-resident adults (about $140 for kids) and a van trip (seating 8) can be had for about $600USD; figure your opportunity cost and do the math for large groups. Hotels can be $8-$150/night depending on amenities. Figure on something in between, around $80USD for something comfortable. Hotel Barahi, Fishtail Lodge, Dwarika’s Shangri-la (yes, here too) are all good picks, though the latter is somewhat out of town and will be a good 15 minute walk or 5 minute ride in. There is even a “hotel” at the top of the southern side of lake Phewa, a five minute walk from the World Peace Stupa, but it’s more of a trekker’s lodge and isn’t blessed with hot water all the time.
Restaurants are as plentiful and as good in Kathmandu. Arrange for airport pickup if you can, to avoid outrageous taxi fees. Toss your bags in a room and hope the hotel doesn’t have a maoist labor walkout. Taking care not to leave any valuables, unless your room is blessed with a safe, and then that’s only so secure, take a stroll Lakeside to shop, eat, and relax. If the weather is nice, and you need some distraction, rent a paddle boat for a couple hours to paddle out to Lychee Garden Resort (if you’re not already staying there) for lunch or dinner. Hike up to the World Peace Stuppa (45 minutes to an hour up) if you’re hale. Perhaps take a few hours to do some paragliding off the slopes to the north. Take a car or van tour of the city and don’t miss Devi’s Falls, Seti River Gorge and the swing bridge. Those inclined can also mountain bike in the surrounding area, though I’ve not done this myself. Pokhara can be a quick weekend getaway, or can occupy up to four days (or more, depending on actvities) for groups.
View Larger Map
Getting there: four to eight hours by car;
Activity: cable car, hotel stay, cultural appreciation; overnight entertainment.
Drive the crazy switchbacks outside of the valley, watching out for the drivers passing you on blind turns. Make sure you have enough gas and provisions for a day in case you get stranded. If you leave KTM before 8am, you’ll reach Riverside Resort in 2.5-3 hours at speed. Check in to the Riverside Resort and drive on to the Cable Car, another 20 minutes, where you get a ride up the mountainside to Manakamana. Locals will sacrifice their goats and chickens, and in the festival of Dashain, usually early October, the streets will be black with blood. Try driving out on a Saturday for light traffic and make a weekend of it. The view from the top is nice, the ride up and down is fun. Consider this a stop if you’re driving to Chitwan or Pokhara.
Chitwan National Forest
View Chitwan National Park in a larger map
Getting there: 8+ hours by car or 30 minute flight to Bharatpur + 30 minute drive.
Activity: outdoor appreciation, hotel stay
Chitwan is a forest reserve that has an abundance of wildlife you may be lucky enough to see. The primary activity here is riding an elephant, from the top of which you may see various wild deer, wild boar, peacocks, and maybe even rhino or snow leopards. Staying inside the park can be convenient, though more rustic. Staying outside the park can give you nicer accommodations, but be sure to give adequate time for your in-park activities. We stayed at Machan Wildlife Resort, and though decent, I feel that if we’d been further west, inside the park, we might have seen more wildlife. I would advise a February-April or October-December visit. The summer can be stifling and full of mosquitos. Malaria can be an issue, so take Malaria pills, insect repellant and sun block.
The Last Resort
Getting there: ? (haven’t done this myself yet, but it’s drivable from Kathmandu)
Activity: outdoor appreciation, hotel stay
The Last Resort sells tickets/reservations on Mandala Street in Thamel. It provides a weekend getaway for activity-oriented folks who want to canoe/raft/kyak, do a bungy jump, and relax. I’ll post cost info and such when we eventually do this, which we will at some point this year.
Getting there: 1.5-2 hours by car from Kathmandu or 3-5 hours biking
Activity: outdoor appreciation, amazing view, hotel stay, food
Nagarkot is located northish from Dulikhel and north-east of Kathmandu by 30+ km. Driving up this road requires a small van and/or capable vehicle. To get good views of the Himalayas, go during September-November or April-June. It can be beautiful, and worth an overnight stay just to get out of the valley. It is 2200 meters (about 6600 feet) and truly feels like a bit of Colorado. There are ample hotel/restaurants.
Come and enjoy Nepal!!!