I went up the roof deck of my guest house the moment I woke up from my lengthy slumber. I was welcomed by mid rise brick buildings and the Saturday morning buzz of motorbike horns and market vendors inviting customers. From afar, I could see tourists filling up Thamel as rickshaws make their way through its narrow streets.
A small stupa was in the center of the busy market and the sky was grey, threatening with monsoon rains.
Going to Kathmandu during monsoon season was less than ideal. The unpaved roads of Nepal’s capital were muddy and my walking tours were often interrupted by the occasional drizzles. I knew this the moment I booked my flight to Kathmandu in early June but I still decided to push through because I badly needed a break from my work. (READ: How to get a Nepal tourist visa on arrival)
I decided to go to Kathmandu for a break for several reasons. For one, Nepal is one of the few countries near the Philippines that I haven’t visited and that I wanted to add to project 25. Second, Kathmandu, as I read, is a very spiritual place. Since I was going through some personal problems as well, I thought the city would be perfect for a self-imposed retreat.
Of the 6 days I was in Nepal, I spent half the time sleeping and mulling over my life. The other half, I spent walking around the valley and making new local friends.
I listed many places I wanted to visit in the city but I found out while there that some of these tourist sites were wrecked by the April 2015 quake. So here are the 5 places that I recommend you visit when in Kathmandu.
1) Durbar Square
Fee: NPR 1,000 for foreigners
You cannot miss the Kathmandu Durbar Square, one of the 3 durbar squares in Kathmandu Valley and a UNESCO World Heritage. Dating back to the 3rd Century, the square has served as residence for generations of royals and as the main tourist spot in the city for decades.
Sadly, this area was severely affected by the quake. Parts of the Hanuman Dhoka Palace Complex, which was the royal Nepalese residence until the 1900s, have collapsed and some buildings are only standing because of supporting beams.
While there, I saw the Kumari Devi, a 9-year-old girl believed to be the manifestation of the divine female energy, thanks to my tour guide. We had to wait for a couple of minutes for her to peek into her residence’s courtyard. The guards were very careful in making sure that we didn’t snap our cameras. It was a once in a lifetime experience and is considered extremely lucky.
There are many tour guides and vendors around Durbar Square who will plead with you to get their services and buy their products. The trick is to say no and stick to that answer. I got a tour guide because I didn’t want to get bothered anymore and it left a bad impression on me.
My tour guide told me that I’d have to pay NPR1,200 for a 45-minute tour. But by the end of the tour, he asked NPR 1,500 from me. Also, while I enjoyed some parts of the tour, I really hated how he took me to some shops persuading me to buy some products so he can obviously get a cut. The moral of the story is really to say no!
2) Swayabhunath (Monkey Temple)
Fee: NPR 200 for foreigners
Another must-visit site in Kathmandu is the Swayabhunath or the Monkey temple. Located on top of a hill in west Kathmandu City, the complex is one of the oldest religious structures in Nepal, believed to have been founded at the beginning of the 5th century.
In order to reach the top, you have to climb 365 steps. There are seats along the stairway so you can rest along the way. Consistent with the name of the temple, monkeys loiter around the trek so be careful with your belongings.
Once on top, you’ll see a breathtaking view of the entire Kathmandu Valley. There are also some religious souvenir shops and food stalls aside from the many small stupas and statues surrounding the main dome.
What Buddhists usually do is to spin the prayer wheels surrounding the central dome, which is gilded with 20 kilos of gold, to pay their homage and ask for blessings. The cubical structure above the dome has Buddha’s eyes looking in 4 directions.
3) Garden of Dreams
Fee: NPR 200 for foreigners
If you’re looking for a place to finish a book or take a breather from the polluted streets of Kathmandu, the Garden of Dreams is the place you need to visit!
Built in 1920, the garden of dreams is a neoclassical garden that is part of the Kaiser Mahal, a palace complex in Kathmandu. The garden has fountains and shaded seats that are perfect for an afternoon reflection or reading. The area is enclosed in walls so it is an escape from the buzz of the city.
There’s also a cafe inside so you can get your afternoon tea from there, although the prices are expensive. I was able to read through the Murakami book I brought there for hours because of the ambiance of the gardens.
4) Narayanhiti Palace Museum
Fee: NPR 500 for foreigners
A few hundred meters away from the gardens is the Narayanhiti Palace Museum, the former home of last Nepalese royals.
There’s a bit of a dark history in this palace. In June 2001, crown prince Dipendra killed 10 members of his family including King Binendra and Aishwarya. What came to be known as the Nepalese royal massacre is still full of rumors and conspiracy theories even among locals today.
Visitors are not allowed to bring any gadgets inside the palace so no one can take photos. The palace interior shows the lavish lifestyle the royals of Nepal lived. There are 52 rooms, including the king and queens’ and those for foreign leaders who visit.
The throne room gives a sad vibe when you realize how the centuries-old Shah Dynasty saw its end in the same building. It’s definitely a must-see especially for those interested in recent history of Nepal.
Lastly, whether you’re shopping for souvenirs or looking for a good place to eat, you should not miss Thamel, the center of Nepal’s tourism industry for the past 4 decades.
You can buy everything here – from yak’s wool and singing bowls to precious stones and trekking gears. This area is also where most guesthouses and hotels are located so there’s really a lot of foreign travelers going around.
I will write a separate guide for shopping in Thamel but needless to say, you should not miss it. When there, try the Yak Restaurant, it’s a fine place to get Chinese, Indian, and Nepali food.
I earlier said there were some sites I included in my itinerary but do not recommend because they were destroyed by the April 2015 quake. The Dharahara Tower is one of them. It’s really sad when I went to the area and saw that only the base of the tower is standing.
Boudhanath, another iconic stupa in Kathmandu, was also partly destroyed and is still undergoing construction according to my Nepali friend so I didn’t go there.
Despite the damage in its major tourist spots though, I still recommend going to Kathmandu. There’s a certain charm in this city – a charm that goes beyond the seeing of sights or the tasting of food – a charm that goes back to the city’s thousand-year history.
Do you have any recommendations of places to visit in Kathmandu? Let me know in the comments section!