Just like any South Asian city, Kathmandu is crowded, noisy, dusty and polluted. The capital city of Nepal is choking under a blanket of pollution particularly now when it is going through a lot of construction, building repairs and roadworks as part of post-earthquake recovery efforts. As such, many travellers typically spend only a day or two in Kathmandu. Majority quickly move on especially the adventure travellers for their main objective is to trek the Himalayan mountain trails in the country. Well, who can blame them – 8 of the world’s Top 10 highest summits are in Nepal including Mount Everest 😊
Regardless, I found Kathmandu quite extraordinary. This urban jungle along with three other major cities (Boudhanath, Bhaktapur, Patan), smaller towns and villages are situated in a valley called Kathmandu Valley which is a major spiritual and cultural centre. Kathmandu Valley is so rich in culture that it has 130 monuments including pilgrimage sites for Hindus and Buddhists, 7 UNESCO World Heritage Sites of unique Newari architecture, and the highest number of jatra (street festivals) in Nepal. Almost every street corner in Kathmandu Valley is dotted with ancient temples and historic buildings, thus it is no wonder that Nepalis are extremely proud of their rich cultural heritage.
I was in Kathmandu 2 months ago – unfortunately, I spent only half a day to do some sight-seeing while the rest of my time was spent attending a travel conference. No regrets in attending the conference but I wished I had arrived in Kathmandu much earlier to explore the city more in depth.
*Also Read: Best Time to Visit Nepal is NOW!
Here are the sights that I had visited which I also feel are must-see places in Kathmandu for first-timers:
#1 Kathmandu Durbar Square
Durbar Square comprises palaces, quadrangles, courtyards, ancient temples and historical buildings that date back to 17th and 18th centuries (some even older) and are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Site. Durbar Square is strikingly impressive for its traditional Newari architecture of magnificently carved wooden windows and balconies, and the site was where the city’s former kings were once crowned and ruled from.
It takes about an hour or two to explore Durbar Square, or sometimes longer if you wander off the side lanes and alleyways to explore food stalls, markets, shops, barbers and more temples.
Durbar Square area is actually made up of 3 linked squares: Basantapur Square – a former royal elephant stables that now house souvenir stalls; the main Durbar Square area where you can sit by the temples and people-watch; and Hanuman Dhoka area with more temples.
At the southern end of Durbar Square is the Kumari Chowk – a house in which lives one of the most curious attractions of Nepal, that is, the Kumari Devi or the Living Goddess. The Kumari Devi is a young pre-pubescent girl (as young as 4 years old) who is revered and worshipped by Nepali Hindus and Buddhists (though not Tibetan Buddhists), and is believed to be the incarnation of Taleju, a manifestation of the divine female energy. They also believe that the goddess vacates her body when she reaches puberty, thus ending her role as the living goddess and the girl reverts to being a normal mortal.
Admission to the Kumari Chowk is heavily restricted. The Kumari Devi doesn’t leave the house except on ceremonial occasions or special festivals. Her feet must not touch the ground as she leaves the house, as such, she has to be carried. If you would like to read more about Nepal’s living goddess, click here.
#2 Swayambhunath (Monkey Temple)
Sitting atop a hill, overlooking Kathmandu is Swayambhunath – one of the most sacred Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the capital city and is considered as second most important temple after Boudhanath for the Tibetan-Buddhists.
The Swayambhunath complex consists of a stupa, shrines and monasteries. The stupa has a dome at the base, above which is a structure painted with eyes of Buddha looking in all 4 directions of Kathmandu. It is also known as the Monkey Temple as there are many monkeys living in parts of the temple.
Visiting Swayambhunath is a must-do activity in Kathmandu – you will find devotees walk around the stupa spinning prayer wheels, and the location of Swayambhunath is the best place to watch the sun set over the sprawling city.
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As for the Hindu faith, one of the sacred temples situated on the banks of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu is Pashupatinath. The temple built in Nepalese pagoda style of architecture is dedicated to the national deity, Lord Pashupatinath.
The main temple is located in a fortified courtyard, strictly guarded by Nepal military police and army ensuring that non-Hindus are not allowed to enter the main temple (I have no idea why they enforce such strict rules). However, foreign visitors can walk around the surrounding complex where there are religious stalls selling marigold flowers, prasad (offerings), prayer beads, incense and other religious paraphernalia. You will find sadhus readily available for photo opportunities but with a small fee (of course!).
One of the interesting things to observe at Pashupatinath temple is the open cremation for Hindus and Buddhists at the funeral ghats along the Bagmati River. It was mentioned that cremation fires were burning continuously on these funeral ghats for weeks in the aftermath of 2015 earthquake.
Situated outside of the city centre, Boudhanath is probably the largest spherical Buddhist stupas in Nepal…and my favourite site in Kathmandu. The mystical atmosphere in Boudhanath is heightened particularly in the late afternoon/early evening when scores of pilgrims converged at the dome of the stupa doing the kora (ritual circumnavigation) and chanting mantras. It is here in Boudhanath that you will see Tibetan monks in maroon robes, devotees spin prayer wheels, and hear sounds of Tibetan chants played from speakers in shops selling Tibetan religious paraphernalia.
Note: Remember to walk around the stupa clockwise. Should you wish to go back to a shop or restaurant that was located right behind you, do not turn back and walk in the opposite direction (I made a mistake of doing this and I got stares!). Instead, continue walking in clockwise direction until you make a full circle and return to the premise that you wanted to go.
*Also Read: Temples and Streets of Kathmandu – A Photo Essay
*My trip in Nepal was part of the Himalayan Travel Mart FAM trip sponsored by Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) Nepal Chapter. Opinions expressed in this post are, as always, my own.
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