My boyfriend and I were all set to travel to Nepal in 2015, but a week before departure the earthquake devastated this beautiful country, and we had to postpone. Over a year later, we were rebooked for our Nepal adventure! We had originally booked a tour with Annapurna Foothills Treks and Expedition and we were happy to hear that they would honour our deposit even after so much time had passed. So come along on our much anticipated journey, as we travel Nepal in 2 weeks – Day 1: Kathmandu!
After a fourteen hour layover in Hong Kong, we landed in Kathmandu and were greeted by our lovely guide at the airport. We got our first taste of a third world country before we had even reached our van. We were swarmed by a few locals who wanted to assist with our bags. Tired, with our guard down, we assumed that they worked for our tour company. They immediately asked for a tip and started to harass my boyfriend for more money once his wallet was out. I sensed something was wrong and luckily he only gave away a twenty before I stepped in. While I’ve travelled to poor countries before, Nepal still took me by surprise. Even though I knew to a degree what to expect, reality was still shocking. Despite this one incident though, once I became comfortable with my surroundings I became immersed in the beauty and peace of this country.
The next morning we met Bijay, our awesome guide for Kathmandu. Kathmandu is unlike any city I have ever visited. The narrow streets are packed with motorcycles, cars, carts, people and animals. An intoxicating ever-present smell of incense lingers in the air, along with clouds of dust and exhaust while the constant beeping of car horns keeps you on your toes. Kathmandu was made the capital of Nepal after the invasion of the Kathmandu valley in 1768 by Prithvi Narayan Shah and the creation of the Shah dynasty. For decades, the city’s infrastructure has been struggling to sustain itself. Massive earthquakes destroyed much of the city in 1934 and 2015, and the city was flooded with tens of thousands Nepalis who were escaping political violence in the early 2000s.
We journeyed just outside the city to the hilltop Buddhist temple and Unesco World Heritage Site of Swayambhunath, the “monkey temple”. Covered in holy monkeys with prayer flags strung from every corner, I felt a mystical energy in the air. I took a deep breath of incense and gazed up at the bright white Stupa that sat towering in the centre.
The site is impressive and intoxicating, peaceful yet chaotic with statues and detailed carvings lining every door. We walked among the many shrines, ringing bells, temples and Nepali people chanting mantras. How wonderful it must be to be able to visit a place like this in your daily life.
We observed Nepali people praying and making offerings to statues like Mahakala (above). We spun the prayer wheels and learned the Buddhist mantra “om mani pad me hum” which means, simply to invoke compassion. I love that. I think we could all use a reminder to be more compassionate to each other.
The view of Kathmandu from the Stupa was spectacular, an awesome way to start the day!
The top of the Stupa is topped by a gilded spire painted with the eyes of the Buddha, eyes that we would see all over Kathmandu.
I loved the prayer flags hanging like vines everywhere. They became a comforting, recognizable symbol throughout our trip.
I managed to snap one decent photo of a holy monkey. Even though they were crawling everywhere, they are fast and like to jump along the roofs. I really need to buy a longer lens…
We then headed out to the area hit hardest by the earthquake, Durbar Square. Also designated as a World Heritage Site, Durbar Square is the heart of the old town and was where the city’s kings were once crowned. The restoration process has been slow, and it was heartbreaking to see so many temples in heaps of ruins. Photos at the sites displayed the original structures, some dating as far back as the 18th century or older. The comparison made the damage even more devastating.
When I saw the intricate wooden detailing on the temples that were still standing, my heart felt heavy at the thought of how much work lay ahead. They say that rebuilding Durbar Square will take 5-7 years, which probably means closer to 8-10 years.
The home of the “living goddess”, Kumari Bahal was particularly interesting. A real girl lives in this impressive building and is only permitted to leave once a year for the Indra Jatra festival. Once she reaches puberty, she reverts back to being a mortal and a new goddess is carefully selected.
The detail on the balcony and doors is stunning. I loved learning about the symbolic meaning behind all the various elements, and how everything is connected.
Nasal Chowk in the Hauman Dhoka Palace was one of the few places we could enter. The most famous courtyard of the palace, Nasal Chowk is named after Nasadya, the God of dance. The space was used for performances, rituals and coronations, as recently as 2001.
As you can see the detailed carvings that adorn the chowk are absolutely incredible. Snake imagery is common throughout, symbolizing rebirth, death and mortality in Hinduism.
Degutaleju Temple is also part of the Hanuman Dhoka Palace. Degutaleju is another manifestation of the goddess Taleju, who embodies the living goddess Kumari. I remember our guide also telling us this was the “love” temple. With Nepali people sleeping and begging among the crumbled ruins, I was struck by the tragic beauty in this scene.
We were getting used to seeing statues covered in offerings and the Kala Bhairab monument in Durbar Square was no exception. Bhairab is the deity Shiva in his terrified state and is the protector of temples and women.
There is a sense of irony when you see how dedicated the local people are to their faith. They make daily offerings for prosperity and health, yet their country is impoverished and the temples that they depend on now lie in ruins. Yet, despite their poverty, you feel a certain peace in this place, and overall Nepal has a low crime rate. There’s something to be said about that.
The Shiva-Parvati Temple was built in the 1700s by Bahadur Shah, and if you look closely you can see white Shiva and his consort peering out from the upstairs window.
After Durbar Square we headed out to Boudhnath, “The Great Boudha Stupa”, that is said to contain the relict of the past Buddha Kashyapa. The stupa is enormous, one of the largest in Nepal and is perfectly proportioned and highly symbolic. I loved the area around the stupa, a bustling market filled with monks, pilgrims, religious shops and monasteries. I could have easily spent a whole day exploring.
For lunch, we had our first taste of momos, and it was everything I dreamed. Soft dumplings filled with juicy buffalo, dipped in a creamy, spiced sauce. I vowed to eat as many momos as possible on this trip!
We also had a daal bhaat tarkari platter, another staple meal of Nepal. Curried vegetables and meat, lentil soup, steamed greens and chapati (unleavened Indian bread) are dipped and poured over rice. Fresh, flavourful with endless refills, I was loving the local cuisine.
Happiness is tasting your first momo!
As the clouds rolled in we managed to visit one monastery in Boudhnath. On the roof of the monastery among rows of glowing candles sat this beautiful wheel of enlightenment or “dharma wheel”. The wheel is one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols and is used to symbolize Buddhism.
We tried to visit the Pashupatinath Temple but unfortunately the rain poured down and the streets flooded. Luckily we were coming back to Kathmandu at the end of our trip and planned to revisit the temple then.
After a long but awesome day, we returned to our lovely Hotel Shakti in the Thamel area. Clean, safe and cozy, the hotel is conveniently located near plenty of shops and restaurants. The staff are friendly and helpful and a decent breakfast is included.
Stay tuned for Day 2 of our Nepal trip when we visit Patan and Bhaktapur!