April 18, 2012

Our #Nepal vacation #travelogue - #Kathmandu sightseeing

This is the second of several posts about our recent totally awesome family vacation to Nepal. We worked with the fabulous folks at Geographic Expeditions to plan and book the trip.

On Sunday, April 8, we visited four gorgeous and moving sites in and around Kathmandu. Our guide, a knowledgeable and friendly young woman whose name I am embarrassed to say I've already forgotten, was superb.

Durbar Square, Kathmandu

First up was Durbar Square in Kathmandu, where the living goddess, Kumari Devi, lives. She's like 8 years old and peeks out the window once per group that comes in. She only leaves her house for special events, and she lives there until she gets too old (usually 12 or 13) and can't touch the ground as long as she is Kumari Devi. This was a fascinating aspect of Nepali culture, that such a medieval tradition has persisted for 600 years or more and is still treasured (I presume) by the Nepali people.

Durbar Square also sports a huge pagoda, an old palace, and several other temple looking buildings that I wish I better remembered now. Below are images that give a sense of the place.

... but postcards with her image are available outside...

Everywhere you turn in Kathmandu, brilliant colors delight.

See? I told you cows roamed like stray dogs.

We didn't intentionally dress them in the same shirt.

The Nepali version of a courrier, I suppose. We saw a lot of people in this area carrying huge bundles like this, with a cloth braced on their head and the burden on their stooped backs.

A good look at typical Nepali wiring. You say the electricity is not 100% reliable? I'm shocked it works at all. Ever.

The other pictures of Durbar Square that are from height were snapped from the first level of that pagoda.

Swayambhunath, the Monkey Temple

Next we drove up into the hills to the "monkey temple," Swayambhunath. This is one of the holiest places for Buddhism, we were told, with a large and recently renovated stupa as well as a monastery on the site and even a Hindu temple. The whole place is strewn with flying prayer flags, which gives a dramatic foreground to a sweeping background view of the whole Kathmandu valley.

This site, if I understand what our guide told us, memorializes the creation of the world, which happened right there in the Kathmandu valley. It's about 1,600 years old if you believe wikipedia, or 2,500 years old if you believe another source I'm reading here offline.

Swayambhunath is called the "monkey temple" because it is home to a number of holy monkeys that are sometimes fed by the people who come to worship or pray here.

Holy monkeys, Batman, your stupa is huge!

We spun a lot of prayer wheels, which may have helped bring us good luck later in the week when we got to Pokhara.

Flags flying from the stupa, praying for peace.

The flags are purchased by people who come to the temple, then hanged by the monks. (The flags are hanged, not the people.) As I understand it. We bought some strands of flags, but we kept them as souvenirs.

And check out the view of the Kathmandu valley!

This was one of my favorite sites on our whole trip. From the views to the flags to the dramatic stupa... even the monkeys. I'm not a monkey guy myself, but they were cool.


Next we drove across town to what our guide called "Little Tibet" because so many Tibetan Buddhists have resettled there. It's also the site of Bodhnath, one of the largest stupas in the world. This thing is massive, surrounded by shops. It's a pretty little area.

The stupa's prayer wheels are in that wall to the right. The stupa is the centerpiece of this circular row of buildings. You can see the arc of the buildings and get a sense of the massive size.

We went inside one of the shops, a studio where they were teaching the art of mandala painting, a traditional Buddhist circle art. In the corner of this studio was a master with a Buddhist sand painting in a case in front of him. The sand paintings are intricate works of art, delicately crafted over weeks by placing each grain of sand individually. They're created for special ceremonies. Then, after the ceremony, they're wiped away.

Students painting. Intricate work.


Our last stop of the day was the city of Patan, one of the three ancient kingdoms that's been merged into the metropolis that is now Kathmandu. Patan has its own Durbar Square, along with a tremendous museum of Asian art and culture. Due to heavy traffic on the drive from Bodhnath, and a late lunch at the museum's restaurant, we had only a half hour or so to view the museum. It was too bad because the collection is stunning, and the museum itself is beautiful.

While in Patan, we also visited an out-of-the-way shop where Maria got two pashminas and Ethan looked at, but did not buy, some pretty serious khukuri knives. We also got a demonstration of singing bowls, metal bowls that hum and vibrate when stroked around the edge. They are also used for healing application, I guess. Sounds like snake oil to me, but they were still pretty cool. But way too expensive.

Sam had a near shopping experience here. He was desperate to buy a singing bowl, but they were like $80 to $110. No way that was happening. Both the boys then bought mini khukuri knives at a street vendor's for $5 each. Good value--cheap and cool little knives, just what Ethan had been looking for. Unfortunately for Sam, he forgot to pack his in our checked luggage and it was confiscated by Kathmandu airport security as we got on our flight home later in the week. Fortunately for Sam, the Pokhara airport gift shop had a small singing bowl for $10, so he did come home with a fun souvenir. Just not the one he'd originally bought.

More cows and pigeons? Seriously?

A view of the square from the 2nd story window of the museum.

After all this, we returned to our hotel in the early evening. We walked back to Thamel to shop a little and find a restaurant for dinner. Unfortunately, we couldn't find any of the restaurants we were interested in from the Lonely Planet, so we wandered into the Northfield Cafe. We were unimpressed, and I would not recommend this restaurant. The food was mediocre, and the service was dreadful. All the clientele were white and British or Australian. And it wasn't even very cheap compared to other restaurants.

So ended our first full day in Nepal. The next day we were back to the airport for a flight to Chitwan National Park. We had no idea what we were getting into.

1 comment:

J P Hannan said...

After the unsettling start this view of Kathmandu is altogether more like my expectations of Nepal. While you were there two other friends of mine (who don't know each other) were there too. I find myself scouring your pictures to see if there's any glimpse of them. I love the prayer flags. It seem to me to be such a beautiful tradition to write your prayer on a brightly coloured flag for it to be raised to the sky and allowed to blow in the wind.