KATHMANDU, NEPAL — Once a haven for artists and dreadlocked hippies, Thamel, a decades-old Kathmandu tourist enclave, offers both traditional and trendy delights for tourists, trekkers and mountaineers.
Following the April 2015 earthquake that devastated much of Nepal, tourism dwindled. But in 2017, more than 15,000 Canadians visited Nepal. The majority were on holiday, hoping for a glimpse Bengal tigers in Chitwan National Park or were lacing up their boots for the trek to Everest Base Camp. The number of Canadians visiting Nepal increased by more than 70 per cent in 2018.
Only 8 km from Tribhuvan International Airport, the Thamel neighbourhood was the first stop for most. In his book The Dark Side of Kathamndu author Rabi Thapa aptly describes Thamel as “the beating commercial and cultural heart of Kathmandu — a dizzying square kilometre of hotels, bars, cafes, bookshops and temples to which visitors and residents gravitate, drawn by its dazzle and its possibilities.”
Above: Thamel is a place where you can find everything from stuffed toy yaks to clay pots.
The compact quarter, now Nepal’s first full Wi-Fi zone, is home to around 17,000 residents and entrepreneurs.
Walking is the easiest way to get around but tourists need to be prepared to dodge taxis and rickshaws, motorbikes and minivans, parades of monks and the occasional sacred cow. The good news: many roads have recently been declared vehicle free zones. No mention of cows.
Following is some suggestions of things to do while touring Thamel:
Check out: Kathmandu Guest House
Built in 1900 as the home of Col Kumar Narsingh Rana and purchased in 1950 by Siddhi Bahadur Sakya, it opened as a hotel in 1968. Two years later, Beatle George Harrison initiated an extensive list of notable guests, including mountaineers, writers, artists, actors and singers. Visit the breakfast buffet in The Dream Garden Restaurant, then follow the Walk of Fame to find celebrity names carved in the stones. Standard rooms in the old wing are small, garden facing rooms most popular for trekkers and the new Siddhi annex offers the added comfort of air conditioning and elevators.
Start Your Day with a Language Lesson
Soak up local culture and make your experience in Nepal fun by learning few words of Nepali with my friend Urmila at the Namaste Nepali Language Institute.
Her upstairs schoolroom above a tiny courtyard off an even tinier alley is hard to find but once you do, it’s worth it. A true professional, fluent in French and English, Urmila offers reasonably priced individual and group lessons, promising some measure of conversation level in just 20 hours. http://www.namaste.edu.np
Above: Monks arrive early in Thamel each morning to collect alms, left, while an old lady sells her fresh veggies on a street corner.
OM Pilgrims Book House
Fortified by caffeine, enjoy the 10-minute walk past stalls crammed with yak wool blankets and silky pashmina shawls. From humble beginnings in Varanasi, India, then reincarnated in various manifestations in India and Nepal, OM Pilgrims Book House has now settled in two locations, Thamel and Varanasi. The Thamel store houses the latest in mountaineering books, as well as calendars, postcards, handicrafts, maps, teas, soaps and music on the main floor. Climb the creaking wooden stairs to second floor. You’ll find an extensive collection of children’s books. Most staff speak English and know their stock well. http://www.pilgrimsonlineshop.com
Lunch at Newa Momo Restaurant
Sample traditional Nepali dishes for lunch at this tiny, inexpensive restaurant run by a welcoming couple. Sip an Everest or Gorkha beer and be prepared to wait. Handmade fresh momos, Himalayan dumplings, come with a variety of fillings. Meat eaters might like a plate of buffalo momos or be brave, try the assorted platter. Each momo has a different filling. Spoiler alert: the accompanying red chilli sauce is smoking hot. Ask Aranjana about her morning cooking classes. Find them on Facebook.
Above: Locals and tourists come together in the Thamel district, where the air is spiced with many different smells.
Site seeing at Kathmandu Durbar Square
It’s a short walk or rickshaw ride outside the boundaries of Thamel for a front row seat at history being rebuilt. Buildings and temples at this UNESCO World Heritage Site originally constructed as early as the third century were destroyed in the 2015 earthquake. Reconstruction is progressing thanks to foreign aid and Nepal government funds.
Coffee Break Time
A few minutes from the Namaste Language Institute the coffee bar on the edge of the courtyard garden of boutique hotel Eco Resort, is my favourite oasis away from the bustle of busy streets. Try some of your Nepali phrases with barista Amar while he whips up your steaming latte.
You’ll find front desk to security staff unfailingly friendly. Enjoy the serenity while planning your next move. Consider dropping by later to sample the wide variety of craft beers offered at their Yeti Bar.
Shop for Your Happy Price
At Sherpa Adventure Gear, North Face and Mountain Hardware on the fringes of Thamel, you’ll find authentic brand goods at Western price tags.
But wander the cobbled alleys to discover perfectly good knock off down jackets and adventure gear spilling from open fronted shops. Bargaining is expected. Start at 50 per cent of what you want to pay. Have fun. My favourite shopkeepers serve Nepali milk coffee or Masala tea while we haggle to reach our “happy price.”
Visit Reef Restaurant and Lounge
Perched on the top floor of the Gaju Suite Hotel in the A-One Business Complex building, the lounge has an extensive International menu. The trendy décor and moody lighting make the Reef the perfect spot for a nightcap while listening to live music. Most song selections are Nepali, providing a last chance to soak up local culture.
If You Go: Trekking and holiday planning company Ace the Himalaya has high Trip Advisor ratings and the personal recommendation of the author. http://www.acethehimalaya.com