Just as Him couldn’t stop himself from humming the Lord of the Rings theme during the New Zealand portion of our trip, I found it nearly impossible to expel Bob Seger’s “Katmandu” from my head during our stay in the Nepali capital.

Hotel Access Nepal

Our clean, cozy, comfortable room at Hotel Access Nepal

“K-k-k-k-k KAT-MAN-DU! I think that’s where I’m going to,” I sang to myself as we wandered the chaotic streets of the Thamel District. (I now realize, with utter disappointment, that Seger misspelled the name of his desired utopia. Lame. He probably never set foot in Nepal either.)

We spent about a week in Kathmandu – a few days before we embarked on the Everest Base Camp trek and a few days after we returned. On the recommendation of a nice Canadian couple we met on the trek, we recuperated at the Hotel Access Nepal, a very clean and comfortable base in the middle of Thamel. There we caught up on sleep and gorged on generous breakfast buffets. Him nursed my cuts and scrapes from the fall.

When we tired of sleeping and eating, we set out to explore Kathmandu’s sites. Here are some of our favorites:

The Great Stupa of Boudhanath: This massive stupa, the principal center of Himalayan Buddhist worship, is located about 6 kilometers from the center of Kathmandu. The stupa was erected on an important Himalayan trade route connecting India and Tibet and China during the Malla dynasty between the 13th and 18th century. Travelers would stop at the stupa to seek blessings for safe passage over the mountain passes, and tourists today can continue the tradition by walking clockwise around the dome.


The Boudhanath stupa is located about 11 km from the center of Kathmandu

The stupa dates to the 4th century, but its origins are debated. A favorite explanation involves a widowed chicken farmer who requested permission of the king for land to build a monument to Buddha. The king agreed – on the condition the land not measure more than a single buffalo skin. The widow, however, cut the buffalo skin into strips and placed them end-to-end to encompass the large swath of land ultimately used to build the stupa’s 120-foot diameter dome.

Above the white dome is a four-sided pedestal known as a harmika. Each side contains the eyes of Buddha. Above each set of eyes is a smaller eye representing the eye of God. Below the eyes is a shape that resembles a nose but is actually the Nepali symbol for the number “1,” signifying Buddha’s path is the only true path to enlightenment.

In addition to numerous monasteries (we paid a visit to the neighboring Shechen Monastery), the area contains many shops and restaurants. We recommend lunching on the outdoor patio of one of the restaurants overlooking the stupa. We ate tasty veggie burgers with fries at the Himalayan Café. The view – of the stupa and people milling about below – was perfect.

Basantapur Durbar Square: Consisting of three loosely connected squares, Durbar Square was once the coronation site for Nepali kings. Today, merchants, tuk-tuk (aka “Nepali helicopters”) drivers and clouds of pigeons rule the area. Most of the temples, shrines and buildings date from the 17th to the 18th century.

Hanumandhoka Durbar Square

Temples of Kathmandu’s Hanumandhoka Durbar Square.

Technically, tourists are supposed to pay Rs. 300 to enter the square, but the area is not enclosed and no one seems to enforce ticket sales.

Climb to the top of the 9-tiered Maju Dewal Temple to escape the hubbub of activity below and catch a pigeon’s eye view of the square’s fascinating architecture. Directly across is the Shiva Parbati Mandir, a rectangular temple built in the 18th century. Statues of Shiva and Parbati peek out from the roof of the temple.

Look for the three-roofed Kasthamandap (or “Hall of Wood”) a 12th-century community center from which the name “Kathmandu” derives. Legend says the building was constructed from the wood of a single sal tree.

The Hanuman Dhoka, or Old Royal Palace (entrance fee Rs. 250) is the former home of the Malla kings. The palace gets its name from the 17th century statue of the Hindu monkey-god Hanuman standing guard at the entrance gate. Positioned under an umbrella, the statue is cloaked in red and smeared in vermillion paste by devotees who honor Hanuman’s assistance to Rama during his war against the demon king Ravana. The grounds feature museums, temples and numerous courtyards, but much of the five-acre complex is not open to the general public.

Swayambhunath – Commonly referred to as “The Monkey Temple” thanks to its primate denizens, the hilltop Swayambhunath religious complex offers sweeping views of the Kathmandu Valley. Take a few deep breaths before beginning to ascend the steep steps leading to the stupa on top.

Swayambhu stupa

Women sell wares at the base of the Swayambhu stupa

Our visit to Swayambhunath happened to coincide with the filming of a Japanese movie. Cameras, dollies and lights littered the grounds as the crew shot the same scene over and over again: Colorfully attired Japanese tourists excitedly visiting Swayambhunath. True to stereotype, each “tourist” wore a very large digital SLR camera around his neck. Collectively, they looked as if they just knocked off a Wolf Camera shop. I momentarily pondered whether all this gear was legit or merely consisted of plastic props. (In an effort to control my lens envy, I decided to go with “props.”)

Behind Swayambhunath is the quaint Natural History Museum (Rs. 50), a quirky collection of flora and fauna. From a pickled baby rhino embryo to glass cases brimming with dead insects, the museum offers a little something for everyone.


Note: Kathmandu’s streets are dusty, bumpy and confusing, but the good news is that taxis are cheap and plentiful. Just be sure to negotiate a rate before you climb inside.