Thoughts On My Visit To Kathmandu, Nepal

I’ve just wrapped up a three day visit to Kathmandu, Nepal. Kathmandu has long been on the list of places I want to see. I’m happy to have finally been, even if it was structured as a stopover.

That’s because the real destination was Bhutan. So we flew Korean Air from San Francisco to Seoul to Kathmandu, and then Drukair from Kathmandu to Paro.

So, what did I make of our three days in Kathmandu? The city itself was insane, the sights were incredible, and the people were friendly. I’m happy to have seen Kathmandu, would recommend visiting, but don’t need to return anytime soon. At some point I’d love to explore other parts of Nepal, as the landscape is among the most stunning in the world, and there’s great trekking.

Let me expand on the above a bit:

The city is insane

I’ve been to a lot of chaotic cities, though Kathmandu ranks up there in terms of how hectic it was, which I wasn’t expecting. I wasn’t expecting it to be calm, per se, but I also wasn’t expecting it to feel like parts of Delhi or Mumbai.

The traffic was horrible, the city was dirty, and not once was I at ease when walking around the city. Not because I felt like I was going to get robbed, but because I always felt like I was a second from getting hit by a car or motorcycle.

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I also didn’t find the city as such to be terribly charming, aside from some of the major attractions.

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I should note that Kathmandu had a massive earthquake last year, and the damage is still very much visible. Tons of buildings have external support holding them up. There’s also trash all over the streets, the roads are in horrible condition, etc. I’m not sure if that’s due to the earthquake or has always been the case in the city, but…

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The sites and people were great

I can’t say enough good things about everyone we interacted with. They were hospitable, friendly, and seemed honest. The people were one of my favorite parts of Nepal, and I felt safe and comfortable at all times (well, aside from living in constant fear of getting hit by a car).

We had two full days in Kathmandu, and did half day tours both days, which I enjoyed immensely.

Nepal has both Hindu and Buddhist influences. The three places we visited that most stood out to me were Bhaktapur, Swayambhunath, and Pashupatinath Temple. All three were interesting in their own way.

Bhaktapur is an ancient city and UNESCO World Heritage Site, that still has tens of thousands of residents.

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Swayambhunath is a complex with a stupa, shrines, temples, and even a monastery.

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What I found most interesting, however is Pashupatinath. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, though perhaps most significantly for me, they cremate people there. Like, all day every day. Our guide explained “we’re going to a place where they cremate people out in the open on the river.”

Come again?

I’m a bit squeamish, to put it mildly, and the thought of a paper cut makes me feel like I’m going to puke, let alone the thought of watching (and smelling) people be cremated. Now, I realize in Hindu culture death is viewed somewhat differently than in other cultures. Nonetheless I figured I’d be squeamish about the whole thing.

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To my surprise, I wasn’t. Instead it gave me a new perspective on death. Seeing this was my favorite part of our visit to Kathmandu, despite my initial hesitations.

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Oh, Kathmandu also has a great Hyatt

Topic change from cremation. We stayed at the Hyatt Regency Kathmandu, which has to be the world’s best Category 1 Hyatt. We got an upgrade to a suite, the hotel has a great club lounge, as a Globalist member you get breakfast in the restaurant, etc.

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Furthermore, the hotel was such an oasis. It wasn’t far from the center of the city, but was tranquil.

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Bottom line

I’m happy I had the opportunity to visit Kathmandu — it was different than I expected, both in a good and bad way. There’s a lot to see in the city, and I’m sure we could have spent another week touring all the sites. However, the city is also significantly more chaotic than I was expecting.

So I’d definitely recommend a visit, though I don’t need to return to the city anytime soon (or perhaps more accurately, there are other places I’d like to see before returning). I’m now in Bhutan, which is just a short distance away, but has a completely different vibe.

If you’ve visited Kathmandu, what was your experience like?

Comments

  1. I actually enjoyed the chaos, keeps you on your toes, kind of invigorating …:) It was very genuine outside the tourist hotspots while I felt Bhaktapur was more of a tourism showcase.
    I’m hoping you have some time to spend in Bhutan, I have never been there unfortunately, but I think you need time to really appreciate it and do some serious hiking.

  2. Ben,
    Don’t forget Karma Coffee for a great cup of coffee in ChangLum Plaza while in Thimphu. Enjoy the wonders of the Kingdom in the Clouds. One looks forward to your posts!

  3. I visited Kathmandu on a weekend years ago (pre-earthquake), having done almost no research in advance except booking a local tour guide. I spend a lot of time in India, and was shocked at how poor and dirty it was in comparison to India. It is the very embodiment of squalor.

    It wasn’t until I was rather taken aback by the ride to the Hyatt from the airport that I looked up more about it and found it was one of the poorest cities in the world. Still quite enjoyed the experience but definitely a shock.

  4. The only time I visited Nepal was in Far Cry 4, I loved the tuk-tuk rides , Did you try one Lucky?

  5. I was in Kathmandu last month, and also stayed at the Hyatt. I didn’t find it more chaotic than many places in Asia. My perspective was probably different because I went there after two weeks in India. So I was desensitized to chaos at that point. I was bothered more by the air quality (or lack thereof).

    I thought the place was doing remarkably well after the earthquake. People might think about visiting sooner, as a way to help the economy recover. The Nepali people were so kind and welcoming. In addition to seeing sights, we spent a day at the Nepali cooking school. It includes a visit to the local markets, and hands on cooking of a full Nepali menu including momos. Great way to learn more about the way of life there.

    Agree that the Hyatt there is a great oasis and amazing point value. Glad to hear there should be a review coming.

  6. I’ll be visiting in October, nice to get a bit of a preview here 🙂 My aunt visited last year and she had similar comments. She ended up wearing a mask because the air pollution was quite bad. Sounds like the traffic is on a level with Saigon, I always feel about 8 when I’m there, super proud of myself for crossing the street!

  7. Love this city and have been several times. I agree with you about the Hyatt it’s one of my favorite of their hotels and such a calm spot.

  8. Love the post. Nepal has been on my radar for a while but hasn’t quite been a priority. Your post bumped it up the list a few notches

  9. Any one who is curious about Nepal and the Himalayas should find it well worth the time spent reading ” Four Against Everest ” by Woodrow Wilson Sayre . An incredible adventure and introduction to a magnificent part of the world

  10. “there’s great trekking” LMAO…

    I can just imagine you going trekking; (not)… 🙂

    Well, maybe for an hour or two, but usually trekking means at least several days…

    Very much looking forward to the post/s on Bhutan…

  11. I’m guessing that the Hyatt doesn’t experience Nepal’s infamous rolling power outages. It is a great disservice to your readers not to mention that very important detail about Nepal.

  12. @ Jonathan — I shared thoughts of “MY visit” to Kathmandu, as stated in the headline. I in no way sold this as expert’s guide to what you should do there. This is no different than how I write a review of an airline product after spending “only” 10 hours experiencing it.

  13. that landing in Paro… get some Xanax

    now the take off, like a F22 !

    Now Khatmandu, you forgot the smell….

  14. “Now, I realize in Hindu culture death is more of a celebration than something to mourn, so it’s different than what many of us are used to” Come again??? Where did you get this information from?? I cannot imagine a more ill informed statement – and I am HINDU. Jeez!

  15. I’d be interested in hearing how you came about your guides and your half day tours. I have had good luck and bad luck with guides and tours at different locations around the world, but it just seems so random. How did you find them? How were they? Etc.

  16. Kathmandu sounds like it’s a chaotic, loud, stinky mess.

    My kind of city!

    I am now really tempted to fly over to Kathmandu for one of my weekend getaways. Though, Dwarika’s (sp?) Hotel would be far more tempting than an antiseptic Hyatt Regency.

  17. The shrouded corpse photo is a first for any Boarding Area blog–first pic of a dead body in a trip report.

  18. @Tommy – exactly what I was thinking , maybe lucky should start a side blog ‘One dead body at a time’

  19. Love(d) reading your posts , but this weird understanding of “Hindu Culture” had me in splits. I am a Hindu , right across the border in India , and nobody from our religion ( yes , we are more than just a ‘culture’ ) , or for that matter anybody on earth , “celebrates” the loss of a near one. Either your have a very weak vocabulary , or you need to spend a little more next time & find a better guide. Have fun !!

  20. We spent 3 days in Kathmandu in January, 2006. We stayed at Kathmandu House, famous for the Beatles’ visit when they consulted their guru. A private room with a bathroom was $14/night, and it was a rambling compound with lots to explore and experience. Chateau Briand (for 2, of course) was $8. Just outside the compound gates was a charming street of shops with incense and music wafting over the cobblestoned road.

    Getting out of the Hyatt mindset and into where the people live makes for a truly memorable experience. And you save a buck or two.

  21. @KB You might want to check out the Lonely Planet blog. This one is about luxury travel. 😉

  22. The closest I’ve been to Khatmandu besides this post was watching Dr. Strange. Nice post! Thanks!

  23. I spent 3 days in Katmandu in 2014.

    The best reason to stay at the Hyatt is they have an emergency power generator that actually is put in use.
    Nepal is the only country I visited that has a website that upon selecting a location, will tell you when the electrical power will be shut off and for how many hours each day.

    Lucky should have taken the Everest Mountain flight- a 1 hour flight in a turbo prop airplane where they do not sell the interior seats- everyone has a window seat. They fly up and back to Mt Everest.

  24. It’s a pity to miss out on the legendary Nepalese hotels like Dwarikas and the Yak and Yeti because whilst they remove the chaos from you they root you in the hospitality and the beauty. That said you got to see a lot. I haven’t been there since before earthquake and similarly I wasn’t in a rush to go back but I’m keen now. Really looking forward to hearing how you get on in Bhutan. That’d be a dream. 🙂 The zone around the UN is a little less chaotic by the way but traffic is terrible everywhere. And the airport is an OMG is this real kind of situation. Plus the electricity situation. And the genuine gruelling toil of some of the more gritty parts. It’s hard to enjoy it because it’s exhausting and you are avoiding traffic and people selling you things but thinking of combining it with Bhutan makes me want to go book a flight.

  25. Awesome Ben! I would love to see more post likes these. I can only read so many flight reviews before tuning out.

  26. You should give the ‘backstory’ on why Hyatt (the Pritzer family from Chicago) has a property in Nepal. The Hyatt CEO being a follower of Buddhism.

    The HR Kathmandu is excellent. I was there 6 months after the earthquake and the hotel and executive lounge bent over backwards on my wife’s gluten-free dietary requirements. The chef (from Europe??) was outstanding as was the RC staff.

    The city is dirty, polluted and chaotic. Having a face mask is a must especially if taking a tuk-tuk. It remained me of India (its neighbor to the south).

    I would be more than happy to return to Nepal and explore the areas outside of the city. The people are friendly and I never felt unsafe.

  27. Kathmandu is an average city and not really a place I would recommend people to travel in Nepal. If you really want to enjoy Nepal then 2 great places would be Pokhara. Take a room facing the lake and not a stone throw away from the lake.

    Even Lumbini is great.

    Their airports are a sight to see and make you not believe it. Ofcourse there are many attractions such as Mt. Everest flights (but you don’t need to take that flight. I would rather recommend taking flight to Pokhara and you definitely would see multiple mountains.)

  28. I truly love how you write your posts, feels very sincere & also good humour. Keep it up Lucky & cant wait to hear about Bhutan!

  29. @DT and @delhi_times read Bhagwat Gita.“He who lives the inner life knows that death is truly his resting-room. To him, death is anything but extinction. It is a meaningful departure. When our consciousness is divinely transformed, the necessity of death will not arise at all. To transform life, we need Peace, Light, Bliss and Power. We cry for these divine qualities. They cry for our aspiration. They are equally anxious to grant us everlasting life. But until our body, vital, mind, heart and soul aspire together, the divine Power, Light, Bliss and Peace cannot possess us.”

    http://www.writespirit.net/spirituality/commentary-on-the-bhagavad-gita-by-sri-chinmoy/ii/death/

    Today’s kids have seen real Hinduism in movies only… Or reel Hinduism

    Lucky it’s not like we just throw the body on ground and burn it. There are properly laid procedures that are followed. I myself experienced first cremantion of my grandfather when I was 7. It wasn’t anything like horrible. It gets you thinking the real purpose of life.

  30. Ben,
    Thanks for sharing regardless of how long your trip to Nepal was.

    We visited Nepal for spiritual reasons. It is a poor city, similar to Tibet’s Lhasa. We wanted to go there as well but China wouldn’t allow foreign visitors then (2010/2011). They open and they close applications so it depended on their govt decisions and world politics.

    Kathmandu is a poor and dirty city, like India and some China cities.

    We also stayed at the Hyatt which for us was good, a view of the Swayambhunath from our room, and a nice walk from the rear exit of the hotel thru some paths leading to it. We visited many times in our own pilgrimage. We walked around it prayers, One way only, everyone goes that way, we even had a cow walk with us a few times round. It is a wonderful experience if one knows where they are spiritually. This is a very special area.

    Wonderful chanting from Monks in their monastery, incense flowing. Local folks with divine belief prostrating around the Stupa.

    Walking around regular areas was as you say, difficult from the traffic. We asked for directions from the Stupa and walked about a long way up a incline road to another monastery. We met a monk along with they way, and to our surprise she was a young women from France coming down from her monastery. We had a nice chat.

    We also visited the burial area. We were more concerned about the men in white paint who lived in the cemetary than the cremations across the river.
    We did observe one family, very sad indeed. The oldest son had to do the honors and he was crying very much to send his father onwards. It was very sad. As always we and as well as anyone else, say prayer, ask an angel to be present for them. Doesn’t take effort, it is just the thought of be compassionate to someone else.

    While we were there, those smaller planes that fly hikers up to the mountains crashed and everyone perished.

    We would say anyone can go there for a pilgrimage even staying in the city without going up to the mountains. We stayed for 8 days. We flew on Thai Air from Bangkok.

  31. Good read. It brings back the memories of earthquake and camping in Hyatt’s lobby in the days following the big one. Memories…

  32. @ Ben/Lucky,
    Great read. Seems to be about the right amount of time I would want to spend there. Looking forwards to your thoughts on Bhutan.
    @Credit,
    Your Far Cry 4 comment was too funny (still have to play Far Cry 4) 😉

  33. Loved this post, especially since I’m heading to Nepal in two weeks. Your photos and report show a side not typically revealed in guide books. I ultimately chose another hotel in same neighborhood as GH for our first 3 nights, but I think I’ll use cash and points for our pre-departure night. Did the Hyatt arrange your guides? If you were impressed enough to refer, I’d try to book them.
    Looking forward to Bhutan report!

  34. As awkwardly written as this is (with respect to Hinduism), I’m just happy to hear that Lucky actually left the airport lounge/hotel!

    WOOO HOOO!!!

  35. Very cool, Lucky!

    It sounds like a cross between Varanasi and Darjeeling. If you haven’t been, ya gotta go!

  36. Ben,

    Nice meeting you and Ford in the flesh the other day here at the Hyatt travel desk!

    One of the best features of the Hyatt is its proximity to the Bodnath temple, which is a short walk away through a gate at the eastern edge of the hotel’s 37 acres. Bodnath is the center of the Tibetan Buddhist community, and has been beautifully rebuilt and improved as a result of the earthquake.

    The immediate reason for all the congestion and pollution in the streets relates to widening the roadway, which itself makes a mess, combined with demolishing structures that were too close to the road. And at the same time, there’s a major water supply project going on which requires digging up all the main roads.

    Today, we have sparkling clear, cool weather, reminiscent of the storied backpacker days of the 60s. A little rain did the trick…

  37. I think Kathmandu is dirty and crowded,especially now coz there is construction going on for a road around Kathmandu.I agree that u feel like you may get hit by a car or a bike.Traffic rule is a joke.However, Nepal has been consistently top 25 destination in the world in Tripadvisor and other websites.If you really want to see Nepal,u have to get out of Kathmandu. Pokhara is def my top destination and other is Chitwan .If you feel like doing hiking, you can go Everest or Annapurna or Langtang area.There are one of the prettiest place in the world.Lucky should have at least taken the mountain flight .I have seen the Alps,Rockies,Andes and Southern Alps and none of them can be compared to the Himalayas.Kathmandu is the entry point to Nepal but Nepal is not just Kathmandu.

  38. The tent city just to the west of the Hyatt was razed a few days ago, with a huge police presence, razor wire strung up everywhere, and heavy equipment doing the dirty work. 400+ families were told, essentially, to go home to their villages, which wasn’t much solace. Oddly, many other camps are still functioning here in Kathmandu. The displaced persons had been living there for almost 2 years after the earthquake, without much in the way of services, schools or security. There are two sides at least to the story, but the bottom line is that the field is completely empty.

  39. I’m making my 20+ trip to Nepal as we speak, and randomly came upon your post. Definitely a realistic impression of a city that is hard to get to know – despite the immense hospitality of its people – for tourists, especially on such a short stay and forays out of the Hyatt only to tourist enclaves.

    So, I don’t fault any of what you share, but might add that there is amazing beauty and nuance in this city of 3+ million, but it takes some time and earned discovery. To those going in future, some recommendations would be to walk the back streets to Asan Tole around sunrise and see the bustle of rush hour as it’s been happening for centuries. Spend the night in Bhaktapur and wander its streets and alleys, taking in the full flavor of the medieval Newar city. Get out to Panauti and Kirtipur, visit the museum in Patna, hike up Nagarjun or overnight at Nagarkot to see the sunrise over the Himalaya (sadly not possible these days from the city).

    Kathmandu is chaos, its frenetic pacing and stark poverty and pollution overwhelming, but within this fabric are incredible sights, fabulous history, rich culture, and the most amazing people and friends for those willing to look deeper.

    I hope you’ll go back again with more time to explore, and also time to get to the hills. It’s well worth it.

    Best,

    Jake

  40. As someone from Nepal; Kathmandu sucks. It is overcrowded and dirty. You should have tried getting out of Kathmandu you would have seen much better places.

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