Temples and Thalis – A Cultural Trip Through Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley

In this special destination trip report, we will visit Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley and take in all the gorgeous sights and sounds of Kathmandu and Patan.

Nepal

To most people in the world, the word ‘Nepal’ conjures vivid images of the majestic peaks of the high Himalayas. When they think of the Asian country, most likely the Himalaya peak of Mount Everest is the first thing which comes to mind.

Although Nepal does indeed offer some of the world’s most fabulous natural scenery, there is so much more to the country than mountains alone.

Sitting at the crossroads of two major world religions (Hinduism and Buddhism), Nepal can certainly compete with its larger neighbour of India when it comes to cultural highlights.

Especially the Kathmandu Valley is full of temples, stupas, museums and other sights which are as good as anywhere else on the subcontinent.

Kathmandu

Besides being Nepal’s capital and most populous city at around 1.5 million inhabitants, Kathmandu is also the country’s cultural hub. For most people, it is likely the first place in the country they set foot in as Nepal’s main international airport is also located here.

Those who have never travelled before in the region will probably be in for a culture shock once they set foot out of the airport terminal and head in a taxi to their hotel or guesthouse. Just like the main cities in neighbouring India, the streets of Kathmandu can only be described as utterly shambolic.

Although I have travelled before to the subcontinent in both India and Pakistan, it still took me quite some time to readjust back to the chaotic, noisy, dirty but oh so lively streets of Kathmandu.

kathmandu valley
The Kathmandu Valley, located in the Himalayan foothills, is the first place in Nepal which most international tourists see. ©Paliparan

Royalty

The heart of Kathmandu is arguably Durbar Square – the place in front of the old royal palace where all the kings used to be crowned (the word ‘durbar’ comes from the Persian language and basically means something like ‘king’s court’).

There are three Durbars in the Kathmandu Valley, all of them listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Besides the one in Kathmandu there is one each in the adjacent cities of Bhaktapur and Patan.

The three cities used to be ruled by rivalling Newar Kings who all clung to power in their own city state until they were all conquered by Prithvi Narayan Shah who invaded the valley in 1768.

He unified the three rival city states in one large kingdom, making Kathmandu its capital. The united Nepali Kingdom would exist for 240 years until the Nepalese monarchy was finally abolished in 2008.

Durbar Square

The buildings on Kathmandu’s Durbar Square have been damaged several times by earthquakes, the last time as recently as 2015. However, each time the temples and palace buildings have been repaired. Most of the current buildings date from the 17th and 18th Century.

Durbar Square is actually made up of several adjacent squares. On the south side you will find the open Basantapur Square, which was originally used as the royal elephant stables, but now mostly houses souvenir stalls.

The main area of Durbar Square can be found to the west and is full of temples from where you can watch the world go by. It being Nepal, don’t expect it to be a quiet experience. There will be a constant stream of motorbikes, rickshaws, touts, begging children and believers out to perform their religious rites.

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A temple on Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. ©Paliparan
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Durbar Square. ©Paliparan
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Temples on Durbar Square. ©Paliparan
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Durbar Square. ©Paliparan
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Durbar Square. ©Paliparan

Hanuman Dhoka

On the northeastern side of Durbar Square you can find Hanuman Dhoka, a large complex spread out over five acres which essentially was the old royal palace of several ruling dynasties.

The palace got its name from a stone image of Hanuman, the Hindu deity sitting near the main entrance.

Nowadays the complex houses the Tribhuvan Museum, which has several exhibits about the life of the former royals and houses items such as ceremonial thrones, coronation ornaments, weapons, furniture and stone carvings.

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Exploring the Tribhuvan Museum. ©Paliparan
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View over Kathmandu from Tribhuvan Museum. ©Paliparan

Hippies and drugs

Just south of Kathmandu’s Durbar Square starts a street locally known as Freak Street. The street gained immense popularity (and notoriety) in the 1960s as the heart of hippie tourism.

Kathmandu itself basically formed the end of the famous Hippie Trail, which led from London through Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to Nepal and which was traversed by tens of thousands of young and old travellers.

From all over the world, hippies would descend to India and Nepal seeking spirituality, adventure as well as narcotic substances. In Freak Street, drugs such as marijuana and hashish were freely available from government-run shops.

Only under pressure of the US Government in the 1970s did a more conservative Nepali government close these hashish shops and started deporting hippies back to India, ending a famous chapter in world travel history.

Nowadays, drugs have been replaced in shops by electronics, clothes, trinkets and basically anything which you need or don’t really need. Most of Kathmandu’s charm is simply walking through these streets and observing local life in this developing city.

On a typical walk through the Kathmandu streets you’ll find colourfully dressed local women shopping for food, market salesmen putting their dried chillies and rice out on show and artisans at work in small workshops, all while you try to dodge the at times insane traffic. It’s a cacophony of sounds and aroma of pleasant (and less-appetising!) smells which will be hard to ever forget.

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The colourful streets of Kathmandu. ©Paliparan
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Woman in local dress. ©Paliparan
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The bustling streets of Kathmandu. ©Paliparan
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Apart from its historical beauty, Kathmandu is a typical developing world city which will definitely overload your senses if you are not used to travelling outside of Western countries. ©Paliparan
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A walk through Kathmandu. ©Paliparan
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Kathmandu. ©Paliparan

Religion

With a population of 28 million people consisting of more than 100 ethnic groups, Nepal surely can be described as a country of incredible ethnic diversity. It also means that several dozen languages are spoken and that almost every world religion – especially Hinduism and Buddhism – have a foothold in the country.

Although by far the most Nepalis are Hindu (around 80 percent of the population), some of the most famous sights in Kathmandu are actually Buddhist.

Bodhnath

Perhaps the most famous religious site in Kathmandu is Bodhnath, which is Asia’s largest stupa. It’s a great place for people watching, especially in the evening hours when the tour groups are gone and the local Buddhist community comes out to circumnavigate the dome.

You’ll see monks in their bright maroon robes and hundreds of people from Kathmandu’s sizeable Tibetan population walking around the stupa, gently spinning the hundreds of prayer wheels. Just don’t forget to walk around the stupa like the Buddhists do – which should always be done in a clockwise direction!

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The Bodhnath stupa is Asia’s largest. ©Paliparan
bodhnath
In the evening hours when the local Tibetan community comes out to circumnavigate the stupa and thousands of lights are lit, Bodhnath is perhaps at its most atmospheric. ©Paliparan

Swayambhunath

Another major Buddhist temple is Swayambhunath, located on a hill just a few kilometres to the west of Kathmandu’s city centre.

Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, you will find as many monkeys at the grounds as tourists and monks. It is therefore no surprise that Swayambhunath (or Swayambhu) is also known as ‘the Monkey Temple’ by the locals.

Interestingly, the temple is also revered by the Hindu community and you can find both Buddhist and Hindu iconography throughout the complex.

The centre of the Swayambhunath complex is a gleaming white stupa topped by a golden spire painted with the eyes of the Buddha. Around the main stupa you can find several smaller temples, all decorated with the ubiquitous Tibetan prayer flags.

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Swayambhunath is located on a lush hill just to the west of the city centre. ©Paliparan
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Swayambhunath is also known as the Monkey Temple by locals. ©Paliparan
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Children monks at Swayambhunath. ©Paliparan
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Tibetan prayer flags at Swayambhunath. ©Paliparan
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The main stupa at Swayambhunath. ©Paliparan
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A local rolling the prayer wheels at Swayambhunath. ©Paliparan
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The main stupa at Swayambhunath. ©Paliparan
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One of the many monkeys which can be found at Swayambhunath. ©Paliparan
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Sleeping monkey. ©Paliparan
swimming pool monkey
Not sure if a joke or for real! ©Paliparan
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Posing for a picture at Swayambhunath. ©Paliparan

Pashupatinath

From all the Hindu temples and religious sites, Pashupatinath is arguably Nepal’s most sacred and important.

This Hindu temple stands on the banks of the holy Bagmati River which meanders through the Kathmandu Valley. It is surrounded by a bustling market full of religious stalls selling pictures of Hindu deities, glass lingams, incense, rudraksha beads, prasad (offerings) and other kinds of essentials for devout Hindus.

Even though judging by its location Pashupatinath might not seem that special (it is located just a short distance from the airport runway on a particularly polluted stretch of river) it does hold significant spiritual power for Nepal’s Hindus.

As the destroyer and creator, Shiva is often worshipped in his form of the wrathful and destructive Bhairab. At Pashupatinath, Shiva is however celebrated as the Lord of the Beasts, or Pashupati.

Pashupatinath is so important that the temple even attracts pilgrims and Sadhus (Hindu religious ascetics or holy persons who have renounced the worldly life) from all across the Indian subcontinent.

Although only Hindus are allowed into the main temple, non-Hindus can freely roam the rest of the complex.

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Pashupatinath. ©Paliparan

Cremation ghats

Apart from all the shrines and temples, the most interesting part of Pashupatinath are perhaps the cremation ghats along the Bagmati River.

The Bagmati is basically the Nepalese equivelant of Varanasi on the holy river Ganges and is one of the most popular places for local Hindus to be cremated.

The cremations happen in plain sight and it might not be everyone’s cup of tea to see. However, given that the bodies of the deceased are wrapped in shrouds before they are put on the wooden pyres, the view isn’t actually that harrowing as you might initially expect it to be.

That said, I thought it was a powerful, vivid place which is a must-see for anyone even remotely interested in the mysterious rites of Hinduism. Especially when you visit around sunset the lights of the funeral pyres create quite an eerie sight.

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The cremation ghats at Pashupatinath. ©Paliparan
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The cremation ghats at Pashupatinath. ©Paliparan
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Visitors are allowed to watch the cremation ghats from a discreet distance. ©Paliparan
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The Bagmati River at Pashupatinath. ©Paliparan

Thamel

Nepal’s tourist industry has slightly evolved over the last decades. From the days of the Hippie Trail to a popular backpacking destination, from mountaineering and hiking expeditions to mass tourism, Kathmandu has seen a wide variety of tourists walking its streets.

What hasn’t changed much is the Thamel neighbourhood, which has always been a sort of travellers hub within the city. It is sort of low-budget travel and backpackers ghetto full of travel agents, guesthouses, trekking gear shops, restaurants and pubs in the same style as Delhi’s Paharganj or Bangkok’s Khaosan Road.

Although Thamel definitely is tourist-orientated, there are also some upscale restaurants and trendy nightlife spots to be found here which are popular among a wider range of tourists and the Nepalese upper middle class.

kathmandu thamel
With its shops, bars and restaurants, the commercial Thamel district is the main tourist area of Kathmandu. ©Paliparan

Patan

Even though it was once a fiercely independent city state, Patan nowadays feels like a Kathmandu suburb given its location only a few miles away across the dirty waters of the Bagmati River.

Patan is also known under its old Sanskrit name of Lalitpur – which means the City of Beauty.

In some ways, I thought it was certainly a more beautiful place than Kathmandu, having an equal amount of impressive temples and palaces but less of the chaotic scenes and hustle and bustle of the capital’s city centre.

Just like Kathmandu, the heart of Patan is its own Durbar Square which is certainly as spectacular. Patan’s history goes a long way back. The city’s four corners are marked by stupas which are said to be erected by the great Buddhist emperor Ashoka himself a couple of centuries before the birth of Christ.

Most buildings however date from the 16th to 18th Century and were constructed under the Malla Dynasty.

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Patan’s Durbar Square. ©Paliparan
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Patan’s Durbar Square is famed for its Newar architecture, temples and stupas. ©Paliparan
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A group of local men on Durbar Square all wearing a Dhaka topi – a type of brimless hat and important part of the traditional Nepali folk costume. ©Paliparan
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Prayer wheels at a Patan temple. ©Paliparan

Exploring Patan

Although Patan’s Durbar Square is a popular tourist stop, most foreign travellers only tend to hop into Patan for a short while to see the main sights, only to hop back to Kathmandu as soon as possible.

If you wander just a few feet away from Durbar Square, you will be surprised how low-key Patan feels compared to Kathmandu. Sure, it has the same local vibe, colour and craziness of any other major subcontinental city, but it lacks the tourist crowds and shops and therefore feels so much more local and authentic.

It’s a great place to soak up the local atmosphere and culture, or to perhaps stop for a tasty meal or some shopping.

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The streets of Patan. ©Paliparan
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If you wander around the streets of Patan you will come across many small temples and shrines. ©Paliparan
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Walking through Patan. ©Paliparan
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I thought the streets of Patan have much more local life and colour than those in Kathmandu proper. ©Paliparan
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Patan temple. ©Paliparan
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Patan temple. ©Paliparan
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Local women in colourful garb. ©Paliparan
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The streets of Patan. ©Paliparan
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Patan is a good place for some shopping. ©Paliparan
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Dark monsoon clouds approaching. ©Paliparan
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Sheltering for the monsoon rains. ©Paliparan

Nepali cuisine

Although every world cuisine is available in the restaurants of Kathmandu – especially in the streets of Thamel – you would be crazy to miss out on the opportunity to dive into the immensely flavourful (and at times spicy!) local cuisine.

Nepali food is at first sight quite similar to Indian food, featuring many of the same staples such as dal, chapati, naan, samosas and spicy curries. The staple meal in Nepal is perhaps ‘daal bhaat tarkari’, consisting of lentil soup, rice and curried veggies.

Many Nepali Hindus are vegetarian, and keeping a vegetarian or vegan diet is rather easy in the country. In many local restaurants, the choice of meal will simply be between ‘veg’ (vegetarian) or ‘non-veg’ (with meat).

Restaurants run by the Newar people might however feature some unusual meat dishes – with especially water buffalo being the meat of choice but goat being fairly common too. Just like in India, cows are considered sacred and are not eaten.

One of the joys of travelling on the subcontinent is the abundance of street food and cheap local eateries where a meal only sets you back a dollar or two.

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Some spicy dal bhat served on a thali (round platter) in a local Nepalese restaurant. ©Paliparan

Getting around

It is fairly easy to get around the Kathmandu Valley as local taxis and rickshaws are cheap and usually reliable, although at times you need to haggle hard as a local tourist to get the prices down.

Although there is an extensive public transport network covering Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, most tourists do not bother with it as it is often overcrowded and hard to comprehend for a first-time visitor.

Buses are however a reliable option – and often your only option – to travel onward to other destinations in Nepal.

Getting there

Most tourists simply fly to Kathmandu, which is well-connected to airports across Asia. Connections are especially good to other countries on the subcontinent and to the Middle East due to the large population of Nepali guest workers being employed in countries such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar.

Air China, Air India, China Eastern, China Southern, Etihad, flydubai, Korean Air, Malaysia Airlines, Oman Air, Qatar Airways, Thai Airways and Turkish Airlines are currently the main foreign carriers serving Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport, offering one-stop connections to almost all the main cities in Europe, Asia and North and South America.

Nepal Airlines is the country’s flag carrier and serves destinations across Asia and the Middle East, although its safety record is less than stellar.

Several other airlines with names such as Buddha Air and Yeti Airlines serve destinations across Nepal. Check safety records and reviews carefully before booking a domestic flight ticket, although do take into account that due to Nepal’s mountainous terrain and difficult airport approach routes accidents are simply more likely than in most other countries of the world. That said, lethal accidents do occasionally happen on buses, too.

Overland transport to and from India by bus is easily possible. Going to China (Tibet) is however more tricky, as connections over the Himalayas are less frequent and you need a special permit from the Chinese Government, making careful research and timely preparations essential.

Explore some other destinations with us!

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Koen

Koen

Koen works as a freelance journalist covering south-eastern Europe and is the founding father and editor-in-chief of Paliparan. As a contributor to some major Fleet Street newspapers and some lesser known publications in the Balkans, he travels thousands of miles each year for work as well as on his personal holidays. Whether it is horse riding in Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan mountains, exploring the backstreets of Bogotá, or sipping a glass of moschofilero in a Greek beachside taverna, Koen loves to immerse himself into the local culture, explore new places and eat and drink himself around the world.

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