Kathie Returns to Katmandu 2008

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Nov 8th, 2008, 04:45 PM
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Kathie Returns to Katmandu 2008

I was last in Nepal in 1994. My memories of that trip are a study in contrasts: the amazing amalgam of Hinduism and Buddhism, the worst quality tap water in the world, the sense of time travel it invokes from medieval Baktapur to the heyday of hippiedom in Thamel, the smiling, open welcome of the Nepalese people, the sad observations of one of the poorest countries in the world. I found Nepal endlessly fascinating... the experience both dense and intense.

Nepal has been through a lot since my last visit: the massacre of the royal family by the Crown Prince in 2000, the crowning of the unpopular brother of the dead king, the Maoist insurgency that killed so many and terrorized so many more, the truce between the government and the insurgents that led to an election and deposed the reviled king. As stability has returned to Nepal, travelers are returning to this fascinating country. Nepal’s economy has always counted on the influx of travelers, and the long spell of travelers staying away during the political chaos meant increased hardship for the Nepalese people. I looked forward to a new experience of Nepal, of having the opportunity to see how Nepal has changed over those tumultuous 14 years since my last visit.

Recommended reading: Before I went to Nepal for the first time I read “Shopping for Buddhas” by Jeff Greenwald. It’s a classic travel book and gives a “slice of life” of Kathmandu in the late 1980s as well as a story of attachment and learning non-attachment, a Buddhist precept. I bought the book for Cheryl to read before we went and she really enjoyed it, and I also re-read it. If you are headed to Nepal, I highly recommend it. The best guidebook I found for Nepal is the Lonely Planet guide.

Practicalities of Arrival and Departure: We flew into Kathmandu from Bangkok on Thai Air. We were fortunate to get the last pair of Business Class seats on the right side of the plane, so we were able to see the Himalayas as we neared Kathmandu. Upon departure, ask for seats on the left side of the plane for the mountain view. The flight was full, and apparently regularly runs full. Thai Air will soon add an additional flight three days a week.

The Kathmandu airport has no jetways, so you descend the steps to the tarmac and walk to the terminal. We opted to get visas on arrival, facilitated by having downloaded the visa application form from the web. If you do so, make sure you find the current form, as the first half dozen or so google entries were for a defunct form. You can tell the current form by the visa options, as Nepal has added the option of a 15 day visa for US$25. Our completed visa forms, a passport photo and $25 each got us a Nepal visa. The line was not long and the formalities were relatively quick.

There is a departure tax of 1695 rupees per person, which must be paid in the local currency. As you make your way through passport control and various security checks, there are two times when you will be patted down. There are separate lines at some security checks for men and women, but there are always women security guard to perform the pat downs of female travelers and male security guards to do the pat downs of male travelers.

We had chosen to stay at the Hyatt, and knew they would have someone there to meet us. We received many offers of taxis, but when we said the Hyatt was meeting us, a couple of the touts pointed us to the Hyatt van in the parking lot. We took money out of an ATM on the outside of the airport and were ready for Kathmandu.

Hotel: We chose the Hyatt as an oasis in the chaos of Kathmandu Valley. It has received great reviews from many travelers and it has the advantage of being walking distance from Boudnath, the largest Tibetan Buddhist Stupa in Nepal, and Pashupatinath, the holiest Hindu site in Nepal and the site of the cremation ghats.

The hotel has large grounds, beautifully landscaped with nice patios and terraces, a large swimming pool and a smaller one plus a whirlpool. We opted for a deluxe room on the Club floor. The room was spacious with a seating area and a desk. Club privileges included daily breakfast either in the club or at the vast buffet in the café, nightly canapés and cocktails, round trip airport transfers and free access to the spa facilities – steam, sauna and Jacuzzi. There is free use of a computer in the Club Lounge. If you have your own laptop, there is a charge for wi-fi. The connection is rather slow.

The food at the Hyatt was excellent. We happened to be there during “Jazzmandu” and went to a fabulous Jazz brunch – great food, live jazz.

I was surprised to note how many people we met were on a group tour. In the morning, we would often see luggage lined up in the lobby and a bus waiting out front. Twice during our stay large groups of Germans checked in en masse to the Regency Club. They were loud and boisterous and, frankly, a pain in the ass. We made a quick visit to the Yak and Yeti and they also had many tour groups staying there. Several guides or drivers were surprised to hear that we were traveling independently.

High season rates for two persons range from $150 per night for a regular twin/king to $200 for a Regency Club Deluxe King (about 30% larger than a regular room).

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Nov 8th, 2008, 04:51 PM
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Some general comments on Kathmandu: Visiting Kathmandu can feel like stimulus overload. There is so much going on right in front of you. The city is crowded with people, animals, colors, sounds, smells.
The traffic in Kathmandu is terrible. This was a dramatic change from when I was there last. The streets were crowded with cars, trucks, tuk tuks, bicycle rickshaws, motorbikes, bicycles, but also with people, cows and dogs, and even a man riding a horse. There are few traffic signals and they seem to be routinely ignored. I found the traffic to be more chaotic than Hanoi. What made traffic work in Hanoi was that drivers and pedestrians have a shared concept of how traffic should flow and there was a cooperative effort to keep traffic flowing. One of our drivers said he thought traffic was so bad because “everyone wants to be ahead” and there is no common goal to keep traffic flowing. Often in the city, there is gridlock as the intersections are blocked by people and vehicles going in all different directions. It is not uncommon for a driver to simply turn off his car and wait.

Every driver had his own short-cuts, but we soon learned that all short cuts have worse pavement (if any), are more crowded with people and animals and take longer than the regular route.

We took taxis to many places, opting to hire a car and driver only one day (to Bhakatapur and Changu Narayan). Unlike Bangkok, where you always want to make sure that the driver turns the meter on, in Kathmandu you are often better off if you negotiate a price with the driver ahead of time rather than asking for the meter. Various taxis’ meters seem to run at wildly different rates. At most locations, taxi drivers are cooperative, they know which driver is next for a fare. Negotiating a reasonable rate is pretty easy. Only once did we find a group of taxi drivers vying for our business.

ATMs are readily available in Kathmandu. None of the ATMs we used charged us for the use of the ATM, and since our own bank doesn’t charge for the use of foreign ATMs, using ATMs cost us nothing. Our bank charges just 1% on foreign exchange, so the rate for the ATM and for exchanging cash were very close, using the ATM came out slightly better.

When I was last in Kathmandu in 1994, the air was thick with the black exhaust of the tuks tuks. The tap water, even in the best hotel in town was a greenish brown color and had an unpleasant odor. The tap water in Nepal was considered the worst in the world at that time. The list of diseases one might contract from the tap water was “appalling” as I noted in my travel journal at the time. This visit, the air pollution was much less. The smoke-spewing tuk tuks were banished about 10 years ago. While the air still smells of diesel and the dust is ubiquitous, we were actually able to see the tops of some of the Himalayan peaks from Kathmandu! The water at the Hyatt ran clear and only had a faint odor, apparent, for instance, when we filled the bathtub. It is not safe to drink or use tap water for brushing your teeth. Bottled water was supplied by the Hyatt and is readily available for purchase everywhere in the Kathmandu Valley.

Politics: Politics and religion have long been inexorably entwined in Nepal. It was the last Hindu Kingdom, and became the newest republic after the elections in April which deposed the king. The king was considered to be the reincarnation of Vishnu. So the recent political changes in Nepal have impact not only on governance but also in the spiritual/religious realm.

Nepal is pretty stable at present, having had elections in April. Almost everyone we spoke with was hopeful that the new government would be successful in addressing the problems the people face. I was surprised at how many people volunteered their opinions on the last two kings. Even as I exchanged money, the woman looked at the portrait of the “old king” and said how everyone loved him, as he cared about the people. Of the recently deposed king, she said that all he cared about was money. Similar sentiments were echoed again and again. Many Nepalis believe that the recently deposed king was involved in some way in the massacre of the Royal family. When I asked one man about whether he thought the most recent king was involved in the massacre of the royal family he responded “You can’t say that – the army will shoot you.” But it was clear that many people did, indeed, believe that. The only survivor of the massacre was the most recent king’s son, and as one person put it “He (the most recent king) was the only person who benefited (from the massacre).”

As we were in Nepal just prior to the US presidential election, everyone wanted to talk with us about the election. The locals were quite well informed about the US election and hoped that Barak Obama would win. They expressed the hope that his election would change the way the US interacts with the rest of the world. While Nepalis do not like the recent actions of the US, particularly the war in Iraq, they recognize the difference between Americans and the actions of our government. We were warmly received everywhere.

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Nov 8th, 2008, 04:54 PM
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UNESCO World Heritage Sites: The entire Kathmandu Valley is considered a world heritage site containing 7 individual World Heritage sites: The Durbar Squares in each of the three cities, Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur; the two Buddhist Stupas, Boudnath and Swayambhunath; the Hindu temple and cremation site of Pashupatinath; and Changu Narayan, the site of a Hindu temple dating to the 4th century.

Descriptions of the sites give no real sense of what it is like to visit the sites. Going anywhere in Kathmandu is an experience: the crush of people, cows, dogs, bicycles, motors bikes, cars and trucks, all on lanes barely wide enough for two small cars to pass without scraping their mirrors. Walking has many hazards: vehicles, no sidewalks, holes in the pavement, men digging holes in the roads using pick-axes and shovels standing waist deep in a huge hole, mud, water, sewage, cow dung and dog poop. There are children, beggars, touts, and sadhus. The cacophony of sounds - music, traffic, people talking, laughing, chanting, selling are the soundtrack of Nepal. No matter where you go, the experience is intense. Another traveler we met said that the Durbar Square in Kathmandu was the densest place he had experienced, dense with temples, people, sights, smells, new experiences. The people’s connection with their religion is ever-apparent as we walk through Hindu temple areas or Buddhist stupas with people offering flowers, prayers, incense. The Hindu concept of the cycle of life, death and rebirth feels ever-present. On our visits to the Hindu temples, our guides described the recent festival in which animals were sacrificed – 108 water buffalo in the Durbar square in Kathmandu and 108 in the Durbar Square in Patan… we could see the splashes of blood stains on the stone. Likewise, in Bhaktapur, animals were sacrificed, but “only” 25.

Guides: We hired guides at Bhaktapur, Kathmandu Durbar Square, Patan Durbar Square and Pashupatinath. Negotiate a price with the guide as you hire him and the price will be quite reasonable, perhaps 300 – 500 rupees for 1.5 – 2 hours. If you do not arrange a price ahead of time, the guide will endeavor to wheedle as much money out of you as he possibly can!

Boudnath : The largest Tibetan Buddhist stupa in Nepal was a 10 minute walk from our hotel, so we were able to visit it again and again, seeing it at different times of the day. At all times of the day you see the faithful circumambulating the stupa. There are people who are lame, bent, blind, all circumambulating the stupa. Each time of the day had its own delights. In the morning, there were mostly locals and monks in the flow, spinning prayer wheels, counting beads on their malas. At mid-day, there were plenty of western visitors, who, like us, joined in the flow and fewer maroon-robed monks. In the late afternoon, there was a river of people, mostly monks, nuns and locals, flowing around the stupa. There is such a lovely, peaceful feel at Boudnath, enhanced by the sense of shared values among the locals, the monks and the visitors. There are those prostrating themselves before the stupa or Buddha images, others offering flowers or candles or incense.

Swayambhunath is another Buddhist stupa in Kathmandu. It’s a long, steep climb up the stairs to the hilltop stupa. There are many other buildings and statues around the area, including “Buddha Park” at the foot of the hill with enormous gilded statues of the Buddha. It was here that we encountered a Tibetan monk chanting the sutras, accompanying himself with a bell and a percussion instrument. The Lonely Planet guide refers to “limpet-like” touts, but our limpet experience was with a small boy who actually attached himself to my leg and would not let go. There are many monkeys at this temple but they are not aggressive in the way that monkeys often are at temples like this. At the top of the hill is the stupa as well as a number of Buddhist shrines. It was here that I saw some interesting Buddhist graffiti: “The Buddha is not the reincarnation of any god.” In the blending of the Buddhist and Hindu traditions, Hindus have often tied the two religions together by positing that the Buddha was the eighth reincarnation of Vishnu.

We saw several Buddhist ceremonies going on in the courtyard surrounding the stupa. When I was last here, there was a group of monks chanting prayers. Both Swayambhunath and Boudnath are good places to observe the daily practice of Buddhism.

There are many shops atop the hill, selling prayer wheels and prayer beads and mani stones as well as a variety of other Buddhist-themed tourist goods. On my last visit here, I purchased mani stones from a woman carving them along the stairway to the stupa. I wondered if she was still selling mani stones, and I asked a stone carver atop the hill about her. He knew who I was talking about, and sent me down the right stairs to find her. I did, indeed find her! We had a lovely conversation and I purchased more mani stones to take home.

Changu Narayan is the oldest Hindu pilgrimage site in Nepal. To get there from Kathmandu, you drive beyond Bhaktapur, up onto a hillside overlooking the Kathmandu Valley. You are out in farming country with the beautiful, lush fields in a patchwork of terraces. The main crops are rice (which was just beginning to be harvested), barley, and brilliant yellow-green fields of mustard. Atop the hill, there is a small car park, and you walk up a paved path through the middle of the village to the temple. When I was there in 1994, there were no tourist-oriented businesses with the exception of one small shop that sold water and souvenirs. The path led past homes and the school, and the daily life of the villagers was played out before you. Now almost every place along the path has been converted to a store selling things to tourists – cds, crafts, etc. so atmosphere is now very different. At the temple, in 1994, we were the only visitors. There was a lone local woman making an offering, but we had the quiet courtyard to ourselves. This visit, there were more locals at the temple but we were still the only westerners. The courtyard of this temple has some lovely stone sculptures and several shrines. As we were leaving the village, a small bus arrived with a tour group. This lovely little temple is now on the tourist track, though certainly less visited than most of the other places we went.

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Nov 8th, 2008, 04:55 PM
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Hi Kathie, I've been looking forward to your report. Kathmandu has been on my list of "have to do before I die" since I was 16 (along with a lot of others!) Hopefully it will happen next year - the trip that is. Thanks for the details you are putting in about visas etc.

My husband wants to do the trip on a motorbike but as I only sit on the back I think I might just stay in Kathmandu and let him go off.
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Nov 8th, 2008, 05:40 PM
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Great start to a stellar report Kathie. Love those Hyatt Int'l Regency clubs. Lots of great information so far, anxiously awaiting more. Welcome home!

Aloha!
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Nov 8th, 2008, 09:50 PM
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loving the report...

wait till you hit india....nepal traffic is a good introduction, but a bit tame i think
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Nov 8th, 2008, 11:02 PM
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Loving all the details in your report, Kathie.
Brings back memories of my 2 visits to Kathmandu as a teenager when my father was on assignment there. I remember the quality of the tap water being bad....back then, we had to filter our own drinking water (bottled water was not readily available)...my first experience with filtered water, and the filtration would make the water tasteless, but drinkable and safe.
Looking forward to the rest of your report.
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Nov 9th, 2008, 01:03 AM
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Loving your report Kathie
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Nov 9th, 2008, 02:11 AM
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Excellent work here - loving this. I've been waiting for Kathmandu seen thru Kathie's eyes. But where's the sex and drugs and rock 'n roll? C'mon - you can trust us.. we won't tell a soul.

You note the differences between 1994 and now - I saw it first in 1971. Incredible eh?

'Dense' is such a perfect word. Like rhk, I think Kathmandu is relatively benign compared to parts of India - much less carnivorous, but your point is accurate, just the same.

Bang for Buck - Kathmandu wins hands down over pretty well everywhere else I've been in S.E. Asia and the Subcontinent.

And I love the little boy who attached himself to your leg and wouldn't let go.
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Nov 9th, 2008, 03:01 AM
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I am enjoying your report, Kathie. I had never seriously considered Nepal as a travel destination but now I'm adding it to my list. How was the weather?
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Nov 9th, 2008, 03:51 AM
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Dogster,

How old were you when you first went to Kathmandu and did you enjoy it? I'm asking because I'm thinking of taking my kid there.
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Nov 9th, 2008, 04:01 AM
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I was a spotty 21 year old. But Hamuman, my Kathmandu then was a lot different from Kathmandu now. Plus my personal habits were suspect. I particularly remember the Hashish Grilled Cheese Slices...

I don't know how old your lad is - but I reckon KTM is about as perfect a destination as you could get. You can send him off on a trek while you hunker down in Club Lounge at the Hyatt doing all the stuff that Kathie did - and I'll make you a few doggy suggestions too. I've spent 10 weeks in KTM over the last 12 months. I love it. Like Kathie says - TONS to do.
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Nov 9th, 2008, 04:06 AM
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Dogster,

My "lad" is a 17 years old girl! No Hashish for her but daddy wouldn't mind a little sprinkle on his favourite Cuban cigar!
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Nov 9th, 2008, 04:36 AM
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Oh, Hanuman, you have to go. She'd feel right at home. And if you stay in/around Thamel there'll be a million kids her age [ish]. Unfortunately the Inn Eden Coffee Shop is a long-lost memory now.

Tell Mr. Hanuman that I know just where he should go for his supplies. lol. But, I'm sure Kathie's been there too.

heh heh.
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Nov 9th, 2008, 05:18 AM
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Hi Kathie,

First, thanks for teaching me a new word - I just had to look up what a "limpet" was. Hmm, I wonder if he was the same young boy who attached himself (figuratively speaking) to me when I visited Swayambhunath earlier this year? An adorable and incredibly intelligent kid of about 9 or 10. I suspected from the start I was being set up but I so enjoyed spending an hour there with that kid that I didn't even care!

I'm enjoying your report and look forward to reading more. I agree with the observations that Durbar Square in Kathmandu is one of the "densest" and most sensory-overload places I've ever experienced.
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Nov 9th, 2008, 08:29 AM
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i'm trying to imagine some little girl attaching herself to hanuman's leg and refusing to release herself....how would he handle it...would he use his thai sophistication or his american brut force?? or maybe he would just pay her off...??
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Nov 9th, 2008, 08:41 AM
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Dogster, "Hashish Grilled Cheese Slices"lol..i wish i was able to travel in those years (i was too young)..But non the less i can't wait to get to Kathmandu at the end of this week..

Kathie, u are making me very excited but i am not planning anything...i know in my mind what i wanna see, and hope to get to all the places in the short time we will be there...

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Nov 9th, 2008, 08:48 AM
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Hi Kathie-
Great report. I've been looking forward to reading about the changes.
I agree with Dogster's assessment of good "bang for the buck". We were there 10 years ago for a month during our RTW trip. Did a 10 day trek in the Annapurnas as well as weeks in Kathmandu and Pokhara.
When we got home, inevitably people would ask what our "favorite place" was. I would always say there were 2; Nepal and Thailand. I felt that Nepal was as polar opposite to where I live as one could get. There were parts where life had not changed in 300 years and I was in awe of that.
I've now been back to Thailand multiple times, but not Nepal. It may be time to go again, but I still haven't been to India so that's going to be a tough choice.
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Nov 9th, 2008, 11:05 AM
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Thanks for the encouragement, everyone. There is more coming soon.
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Nov 9th, 2008, 01:41 PM
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Thanks for a great start to your report Kathie. We will be in Nepal in December and are looking forward to it. You've provided us with some excellent info. Hadn't planned on going to Changu Narayan, but will now try to fit it in -- though we will not have as uch time in KTM as you guys had. Thank Cheryl for the flip videos -- we enjoyed them.
TracyB -- I bet you are getting very excited as your departure is imminent. Can't wait to hear your impressions as well -- and all about the Courtyard hotel. We may be staying there, too.
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