Kathmandu Wild West escape
A Kathmandu fun guide for the intrepid. Yaks, steaming dumplings, pashmina shawls, mystic temples with all-seeing eyes and beds for business or leisure.
Dwarika's Dhulikhel/ photo: hotel
Nepal has rebuilt some infrastructure after the devastating 25 April 2015 Gorkha earthquake and the following Everest temblor that brought down several historic buildings in the Kathmandu area. Toppled temples and littered bricks remain in places like Durbar Square and historic Bhaktapur as the government focuses first on humanitarian aid - safe drinking water, hygiene, and health.
MY SEATBELT is fastened, seatback upright, and the tray table safely folded. I peer out the window. Glistening snow-capped peaks rise up to tickle a blanket of clear blue sky, light fluffy clouds swaddle the mountains. I spot a Sherpa, I think – a tiny ant-like figure on an awesome rock face. I wake up with a start and look out. It’s raining, it’s dark, and all I can see is the flashing light on the wing of the Nepal Airlines B-757 shuddering its way to Kathmandu.
Nepal’s national airline is adequate, but basic, and packed to the gunnels with loud and excitable passengers. Crammed overhead lockers threaten to spill their contents at all times, seats are faded, some frayed, and there’s the odd scrawl of graffiti on trays. Don’t bet on getting that pre-ordered vegetarian meal. Despite these amusing foibles, the service is friendly (unless you talk during the safety demonstration in which case you’ll get a stern telling off), and the captain frequently crackles across the intercom, describing the route, weather conditions and air traffic control issues.
So, what’s the big deal about Nepal? Well, for one, it’s home to that great hulking 8,850-metre (29,035ft) beast of a mountain, Everest, not to mention seven more of the world’s 14 highest peaks, several of them over the magic 8,000m mark. Mt Everest was awarded seven extra feet in height following a detailed geological survey, involving placement of a GPS system on the peak. For the world’s mountaineers, Nepal is a veritable playground. And, yes, any Nepal guide will be stacked with adrenaline-pumping things to do like weaving around mountains in a sightseeing plane, hiking up to breathless heights, ripping down rapids in a raft, kayaking, canyoning, mountain biking and paragliding.
Hyatt Regency/ photo: hotel
But it’s not only adventurers who will be happy campers in this landlocked nation. Nepal has a heady mix of religion, culture and architecture; more than enough to satisfy any curious soul. And you don’t even need to step foot outside the capital, Kathmandu. City of the gods, valley of temples, a living museum; call it what you will, but one thing is for sure. Visitors won’t be disappointed. Enjoy street life, shopping, hundreds of shrines and temples, and grand views of the surrounding peaks. Pack sturdy walking shoes, grab a camera and venture forth.
Politics, always heady, remains in flux, with the erstwhile Maoist guerrillas dropping their guns in favour of elected office and the more sedate corridors of government. The Maoists swept to power in April 2008 following elections on a platform of change and the elimination of the monarchy. Despite sporadic street protests and an end to the Maoist government honeymoon by May 2009 and frequent upsets since then, the election of the Nepali Congress (the country’s oldest political party) in late 2013 in may give the Nepal Tourism Board something to finally smile about.
Best foot forward then with our Kathmandu fun guide for the intrepid. Most visitors to Nepal tend to mix up their stay with a few days in Kathmandu and a trip perhaps to Pokhara, the Annapurna Circuit, Lumbini (the birthplace of Buddha), Sagarmatha (Everest) or Chitwan National Park. Kathmandu is a transit hub. But the city is a destination in itself. The Kathmandu Valley is an extraordinary feast, boasting seven cultural world heritage sites and a lot more in between. In the valley it’s said there are more temples than houses, more gods than people, and a festival 365 days of the year. The best known face of religion here is probably the Kumari, or Living Goddess, a child deity symbolising perfection and innocence.
There are indeed a staggering number of temples, shrines, pagodas, stupas – so many that you could walk the same streets for days and notice something different every time. And it’s not only the architecture, but the sights, the smells, the sounds that reveal the true spirit of this city. People are warm and welcoming. Monkeys and cows amble about temples, women in bright sarees haul mounds of straw up hillsides, Hindu funerals take place on the river, and kids haul up buckets of water from deep wells. Traffic grinds through jam-packed streets: tempos, motorcycles, scooters and the odd bulky trolley car, all battle for space.
Boudhnath Stupa/ photo: Jane McLean
Kathmandu has its share of problems. Urbanisation and overpopulation have highlighted issues like air pollution, water shortage, poverty and hygiene. Heritage conservation appears to have taken a back seat in the face of recent development. But that has not changed the essence of the city – yet. Some hotels and restaurants are making a concerted effort with sustainability and conservation efforts.
Airport and getting around
Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport is a blend of brick and a bit of glass. It was virtually empty on the night I arrived save for a few immigration officers who manned tiny desks piled high with paper. Renovations to the airport are ongoing. Expect to see expansions in the arrival and departure halls, airport tarmacs and some new facilities scattered throughout. All visitors to Nepal, apart from Indian nationals, need a visa to enter. If you haven’t already got one, you’ll need to fill out a brief form and hand over your passport, a passport photo and pick which visa you need.
A 15-day visa costs US$25, while US$40 gets you a 30-day visa and one for 90 days is around US$100. It doesn’t take long, but the time depends on the length of the queue. Free visas are given to nationals of SAARC countries (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation). There is no charge for children under 10 years old. The Department of Immigration in Kathmandu will extend visas for 30 days for US$30. When travelling to and from Nepal make sure to reconfirm flights. Most of the big hotels have a travel desk and will do the reconfirmation for you. There is no departure tax when leaving the country.
Walking out of the airport is an exercise in blocking the ears (there are swarms of people hollering at the exit) and opening your eyes, (you’ll be looking for a taxi or a sign with your name on it). To save the hassle of negotiating taxi fares, organise transfers with a hotel beforehand. It’s the smoothest way in. The best cab option is a fixed-rate taxi run by the whimsically named Airport Queue Taxi Service, found right outside the arrivals hall. There are metered taxis too but you may need to still negotiate a rate before you get in. The airport is located east of the city about eight kilometres from the centre and a taxi should cost about 300-500 Nepalese rupees (US$1=NRs106). That should be enough to get you to most hotels in Kathmandu.
Sightseeing in the valley
Flowers at the market/ photo: Jane McLean
A few of Kathmandu’s must-sees are within easy reach. Taxis can be hired for the day, or cars (with a driver) can be organised by hotels for however long you wish. Traffic may be manic during rush hour, but sit back and enjoy the ride. There’s much to see just by hanging your head out the window. You could even try a “tempo”, a three-wheeled taxi. The flag-down fare is NRs10, with an additional NRs5.40 charged per 200m. Much of the city is flat – perfect for cycling. Hire a bike and take in all the sights (and the fumes) at street level.
Cycles can be hired in a number of outlets in Thamel and prices start from around 100 rupees per day. Otherwise you could rent a motorbike to explore the Kathmandu Valley (at your peril) but do check your insurance coverage. Try www.bikemandu.com or www.bsmotorbike.com.
Kathmandu Valley was once occupied by three different kingdoms that have left their imprint in three main cities surrounded by mountains. Kathmandu is the capital and the biggest of this historic urban confection. At the centre sits the Narayanhiti Royal Palace, which was until recently the sizeable (30 hectare) pink residence of King Gyanendra.
Patan, south of Kathmandu, is the oldest city in the valley, founded in the third century BC. It was here that the Newari brick-and-wood style of architecture originated. There are more than 55 major temples in Patan all built around a grand total of 136 courtyards. It all makes for an impressive picture. And it’s as much an architectural wonder as a bustling place where you can sit and watch the world go by for hours.
The third city of Bhaktapur, known as the ‘City of Devotees’, is 14km east of Kathmandu. Traditionally, this area was home to mostly farmers. Bhaktapur has preserved much of its original structure, although many of the more decorated shrines were destroyed in an earthquake that hit the city in 1934. In comparison to Patan, the temples are less intricate, the carving more sparse, but Bhaktapur is a huge attraction nonetheless. Stop by the Nyatapola Temple while you’re here. With its traditional Newari design, this five-storey temple is a popular draw. Each of the three cities has a central palace or ‘Durbar’ Square, where the original palace was located.
Sadhu poses/ photo: Jane McLean
Every Kathmandu guide will exhort you to head for Pashupatinath Temple, to the northeast of the city, considered one of the holiest sites for Hindus in Nepal. It is a UNESCO world heritage site and the pagoda is topped by a two tiered golden roof. Peak prayer times can get busy. The crowds start streaming in from 4am until 7am and from about 5pm to 7pm. On the many important days in the Hindu calendar, like Shivaratri in March, you’ll be hard-pressed to take a step anywhere near the temple as pilgrims flock to the area. Visit around 11am on a normal day and there’s much to see. Only Hindus are allowed inside the temple itself, but visitors can wander the grounds for NRs250. Some years ago, the temple was hemmed in by residential houses, but they’ve since been razed and the land dedicated to Shiva.
Market stalls sell prayer beads and flowers, and saree-clad women wander among bored-looking cows and restless monkeys. The animals are fairly harmless though monkeys may take affront at snapping cameras and jutting lenses. Sadhus, or Hindu holy men, sit contemplatively on steps behind the temple, clothed in loincloths, adorned with white, red and yellow paint. Ragged children will pester you for handouts. Behind the temple is Bagmati River, a garbage-tip of muddy water. It is here that Hindu cremations are held.
The Royal Palace is smack bang in the middle of the city on Durbar Marg and is a good place to get your bearings. In May 2009, the palace opened as a museum to strong public interest.
Durbar Marg is one of the main tourist drags in Kathmandu’s centre. Some of the more expensive shops, boutiques and restaurants are located on this stretch along with travel agents, coffee shops, bakeries and hotels.
On a hill about four kilometres from Kathmandu centre is the Buddhist Swayambhunath Stupa, also known as Monkey Temple. The place, unsurprisingly, is swarming with monkeys. This stunning stupa is typical of many others you’ll see throughout the city though on a much larger scale with a broad white dome, gilt spire and prayer flags fluttering in the breeze. You’ll need to pay NRs75 for the pleasure of seeing it close up. Steps – 360 of them – lead up to the main part of the temple. Just below the spire, the painted eyes of the Buddha Vairochana look out in all four directions. Apart from the charms of the temple, there is the view looking out over the whole valley. This is an excellent perch for a memorable sunset.
Patan temples/ photo: Jane McLean
Boudhnath is the biggest Buddhist stupa in Nepal and is a Kathmandu landmark, which requires a NRs100 entry fee to view up close. It’s believed to have been built in 5AD. At the ground level are prayer wheels that release a mantra as they are spun. Rising from the centre is the spire (or harmika) with the all-seeing eyes on four sides. Surrounding the temple is a circular pedestrian lane with shops and restaurants. It’s a peaceful area for a quiet bit of contemplation.
Patan, also known as Lalitpur, is old. Very old. It’s a maze of little lanes, bustling streets and ancient architecture. Most of the monuments in the main square date back from the 16th century. SAARC nationals pay NRs25 while others must cough up NRs200 to view the Patan Golden Temple, which was built in the 12th century and is now a UNESCO world heritage site. Durbar Square in the centre of Patan is a great place for people-watching and market action. Choose one of the walk-up six-storey restaurants, order a coffee and sit on the rooftop. One of the hundreds of festivals could conveniently be in full throttle.
Thamel is backpacker central and, some say, the heart and soul of Kathmandu. Drumbeats emanate from pubs, live music belts out from cafes, motorcycles rev their engines, shoppers haggle, taxi-drivers yell for business and, everywhere, are cheap guesthouses, shops, stalls and restaurants. This is the place for cheap Kathmandu budget hotels and rock-bottom prices. In Thamel you might get flustered, but you won’t get bored. You can also change money, develop photos, surf the Internet, drink yourself stupid, book a trek, get a tattoo, get a massage, get pierced, and generally, get exhausted.
Northeast of Kathmandu, about an hour’s drive over potholed roads and up a steep winding hill, is Nagarkot, 2,175m above sea level. Tiny wooden shacks selling tea (as well as local beer) dot the hillside going up and as the road climbs ever higher, the treat of a view just gets better and better. Stretched out before your gob-smacked eyes is a blanket of grass and farmland, wheat and rice paddies, the sprawling cityscape of Kathmandu and mountains by the mile. Nagarkot is a popular place for couples as well as potential couples so if you’re looking to woo someone, this is the place to begin. On weekends and public holidays, the roads and teahouses can be busy. There are places to stay and a whole lot to do, especially if you’re into nature. Mountain bike up to Nagarkot if you must, but watch for cars, trucks and the side of the hill. The walks around the area are not too taxing.
Shopping for souvenirs and gew-gaws
Road to Nagarkot/ photo: Jane McLean
Kathmandu shopping is all about souvenirs. Lots of them. Mind you don’t buy any handicrafts over a century old – these are termed ‘antique’ and taking them out of Nepal is illegal. For anything remotely antique you’ll need a certificate from the Department of Archaeology in Kathmandu (near the Supreme Court).
What else to buy? Even if you are not a fan of pashmina wool shawls (made from the fine inner fur of hardy Himalayan goats), that aunt of yours might appreciate something. If not a pashmina shawl or scarf, other local products include ‘thankas” (mystic scroll paintings), belts or wallets made from goatskin and water buffalo, ‘khukris’ (curved knives) used by the Ghurkhas, woollen carpets, ceramics, ‘lokta’ paper, embroidered bags and purses, sarees of all description, teas and spices. If you’re clever at bartering, or a bully, give it a go. Whatever the way, Kathmandu shopping is ridiculously cheap.
Durbar Marg and Thamel are the major spots for shopping in Kathmandu. On Durbar Marg you’ll find international clothing brands such as Benetton, Bossini, Giordano, Adidas and North Face. Most of these can be found along New Road, and if you’re still not satisfied, head over to Tripureshwar Road to the United World Trade Centre, the largest mall in the country. Don’t expect huge stores containing piles of Gucci or Louis Vuitton, although products such as Apple iPhones can be found if you look. Shoppers will be flummoxed by the amount of stuff on offer in Thamel from local handicrafts to woollen socks or hats, North Face sleeping bags, backpacks, ponchos, chess sets, books, embroidered shirts, jewellery, bags, and purses. This is also a great place to look for local instruments, as is nearby Khichapokhari.
Other Kathmandu shopping hotspots are to be found in Patan’s or Kathmandu’s Durbar Squares (full of Nepali mementos and a great way to brush up on bargaining skills) and in the areas surrounding major tourist areas like Boudhnath. Or try the little lane right outside the Radisson Hotel in Lazimpat – it’s a peaceful place to browse if you need a break from the Thamel hoopla. In the stores here you’ll find the ubiquitous pashmina (prices start at around NRs1,000), embroidered cotton tops (from about NRs200), t-shirts, fleeces, jackets, embroidered bags and other bits and bobs.
If you visit first thing in the morning, the shopkeepers may declare you a ‘lucky morning customer’ in which case you’ll get a good discount. Whether this is just a sneaky sales pitch, or a morning customer is indeed ‘lucky’, you’ll feel special nonetheless. There’s also a 7-Eleven, a Bluebird supermarket and the ‘Chinatown Restaurant’ on the same road.
Kathmandu hotels and a few casinos
Radisson room/ photo: Jane McLean
Where to rest your weary head after a day out sightseeing? There are options for every budget, from basic Kathmandu guesthouses to five-star hotels. The five-star offerings in Nepal might not have the gleam of an equivalent hotel in, say, Chiang Mai, but they are comfortable nonetheless and many are upgrading. It is common to find a casino tacked onto a hotel.
The five-star Radisson Hotel Kathmandu is in Lazimpat, neighbouring the Royal Palace. It is close to a number of diplomatic embassies (the British, Indian, French, Finnish, Israeli, Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, Russian Embassies and the Canadian Consulate are all within walking distance), as well as the central business district. Thus the Radisson is a popular choice for business travellers. This eight-storey hotel offers 260 rooms ranging from superior to premium, with some luxury suites. Rooms are clean and well presented, and include complimentary internet access, writing desk, satellite television, coffee maker, hairdryer and a small safe.
Pinstripers should check out the Radisson Business Class rooms, which offers additional amenities like complimentary breakfast, daily newspapers, free pressing of two garments, in-room snacks, and happy hour offerings at the lounge. The rooms are even equipped with personalised stationary. There are three restaurants, including the Terrace Garden for dining alfresco on the fourth floor of the hotel’s new wing. There are spacious meeting and conference facilities that can accommodate 800 people. The fitness club includes an outdoor pool with views over the city, as well as the usual weight and cardio machines, sauna and steam room.
If you have a sweet tooth, check out the pastry shop for baked goods, homemade ice cream or just to grab a cappuccino. The lobby is often distractingly abustle. Fear not, staff is efficient and friendly. WiFi is available throughout the hotel for NRs791 for 24 hours. The Radisson is not just a good Kathmandu business hotel, it is close to the tourist spots of Durbar Marg and Thamel. And if gaming is your thing, a casino is on site.
Yak & Yeti pool/ photo: hotel
A cheaper alternative in the same area is Hotel Tibet. Step into the lobby and you might actually imagine, just for a minute, that you’ve got completely lost and ended up, well, in Tibet. You’ll be greeted by Tibetan-inspired detail from all sides. There’s hand-woven Tibetan carpets on the floor, Tibetan rugs draped over chairs, Tibetan furniture, and walls and mirrors bordered with Tibetan motifs. This hotel offers 56 rooms and suites with air-conditioning and satellite television. Dine at the Himalayan restaurant or kick back in the Yeti Rooftop Bar or Potala Garden Bar.
There’s a 24-hour Internet lounge-cum-business centre for guests in need of a computer, and the hotel is WiFi-enabled. There are no in-room safes, but there is a safety deposit box at reception. The Shambala Spa offers Tibetan-style treatments and there is also a meditation room. Hotel Tibet is in a quiet street yet minutes away from Thamel.
On the other side of the Royal Palace is Hotel Yak & Yeti, a huge property, enveloped in history, on Durbar Marg. There are no yaks, nor yetis, but there are two wings – one is more than a century old. It was once the third palace of a prime minister of Nepal. The size of the building is vast, the grounds equally so. A sprawling garden contains two pools, tennis courts, a pond (with ducks), white chairs under white tents, jacaranda trees, large greens and a 100-year-old temple dedicated to the Goddess Kumari.
The 270 rooms range from superior to suites and are either Newari in style (brick walls with intricate wooden carving) or more contemporary. Each comes with a writing desk and satellite television. Some of the larger suites are located on an exclusive floor, which holds a separate guest lounge. Conference and banquet facilities at the Yak & Yeti are spacious with chandeliers and a sense of history. WiFi is available throughout the hotel for a fee and full secretarial services are offered at the business centre.
There’s a choice of two restaurants serving Russian cuisine at one and a mix of Asian and continental fare at the other. There’s also a poolside bar and, for partying, the hotel has its own nightclub and casino. Extensive renovations have taken place 2011-2013 and this includes a revamp of the lobby, a new lobby bar, shopping arcade, a new fitness centre and spa. Yak & Yeti is one of the best Kathmandu business hotels and is a fine pit-stop for leisure travellers too with a central location. Mark it in your diary.
Hotel de l'Annapurna/ photo: hotel
Also on Durbar Marg is the four-star Hotel de l’Annapurna. The hotel has undergone substantial renovation, including work on its swimming pool, which now boasts separate areas for adults and kids. The lobby is garish and bright with souvenir shops greeting guests before the actual reception area. It’s a large property sitting on five-and-a-half acres of land. The 155 rooms range from superior to suites and offer WiFi, TV, hairdryer, iron and ironing board and coffee maker. There are three restaurants, one bar and a cake shop. For health buffs, there’s the aforementioned pool (one of the bigger hotel pools in Kathmandu) and fitness club. The hotel offers large conference and meeting facilities and can provide themed receptions on its lawn. There is a baby-sitting service and, as seems to be the norm for larger hotels in Kathmandu, a casino.
Kathmandu’s Shangri-la Hotel (no relative of the Hong Kong headquartered regional chain) is set in lovely grounds in Lazimpat where guests can while away the hours sitting in delightful gardens, listen to the birds and sip a great brew. The lobby is elegant, Indo-Tibetan in style, with an old piano sitting beside the entrance. Some of the 95 rooms are decorated in traditional Newari style while others sport contemporary decor. For a tad more comfort, the top floor offers larger rooms including two deluxe suites, a club lounge and views across the gardens.
Internet access is available in rooms and there is complimentary WiFi available in the hotel’s coffee shop. There are meeting and conference facilities and bookworms will welcome the reading room. A fire roars in the Lost Horizon Bar on cool Kathmandu nights and Saffron Restaurant serves up Indian cuisine. The Shangri-La’s hair salon and spa, located on the street outside of the hotel, are popular, so book in advance for a makeover. Himalayan legend Sir Edmund Hillary stayed here, as did explorer Dame Freya Stark. If it’s good enough for them…
Hyatt Regency Room/ photo: hotel
South of the Royal Palace, near Patan, is Hotel Himalaya. It is close to the United Nations complex, as well as the Norwegian and Egyptian embassies. It claims it is the only hotel in the city to have 180 degree views of the Himalayas. It’s termed five-star, but this 125-room hotel has seen better days. The property switched from Japanese to Nepalese ownership some years ago. Standard rooms have been slowly and systematically renovated over the past couple of years and come with wooden floors, Newari décor and a new bathroom. All rooms come with LCD TVs, Internet, international dialling, hairdryer, and in-room safes. There’s also a new floor full of Executive rooms, which boast their own enclosed balconies (some with great views over the city). The hotel offers spacious grounds, a pool, tennis court, meeting facilities, its own temple, two bars and a restaurant. The ancient Patan Durbur Square is a 15-minute walk away.
Hyatt Regency Kathmandu is one of the younger hotels on the Kathmandu block. It’s all about space at the Hyatt. Set on 37 expansive acres, its rooms are the biggest in the city, and it has more of them (280) than any other Kathmandu hotel. The Hyatt has a gloss to it that is conspicuous by its absence elsewhere. A long driveway is bordered by grassy gardens and meanders up to the hotel’s entrance. The lobby is large and light-filled. There is a sunken ‘temple court’ holding replicas of Buddhist temples, where guests can sit on cushioned seats. Some guests might not enjoy the smoke wafting from the lobby’s smoking area, which is barely distinguishable from the non-smoking area. However, there is no shortage of areas to escape to.
The garden holds two pools, vast lawns, tennis courts and a view of Boudhnath Stupa. Rooms have wooden floors, king-size beds, WiFi, TV, hairdryer, bathrobes, and granite bathrooms with separate bath and shower. Book the presidential suite and you’ll get an entire floor, a bathroom with rain shower, a Jacuzzi that looks out to Boudhnath, and separate kitchen and dining area. There’s a slick spa and fitness centre. Four restaurants cover all tastes from casual poolside to formal dining. Extensive conference facilities complete the picture. Grab a ‘Chaitya Walk’ map from the lobby and explore 1,500 years of Buddhist architecture, all located a short walk from the hotel.
Everest Hotel pool/ photo: hotel
Swing kings will also find several golf options nearby. Indeed, golfing in Nepal is on the upswing. If your preferred mode of transport is by helicopter, and your wallet is up to it, there’s a helipad in the garden. A great escape for work or personal refuge, this is one of the top hotels in Kathmandu for small corporate meetings, business, or a lazy stretch.
Everest Hotel lies east of the city centre and, because of its close proximity to the airport, it is a popular hotel for offloaded passengers. (Have you reconfirmed your flight?) The lobby of the hotel can be manic with loud, cigarette-smoking groups. Perhaps more glamorous in its heyday (the brochure claims Everest Hotel has hosted ‘royalty, dignitaries and the celebrities of the world’), the décor is dated and kitsch. Everest Hotel offers 160 rooms, a pool, tennis court, five restaurants, a bar, a casino, as well as conference facilities. Group bookings are heavily discounted.
If you fancy Thamel, but need peace at the same time, try the Kantipur Temple House. Built in 1998, in the style of a typical Newari temple, Kantipur Temple House offers 48 rooms furnished with traditional art and décor. The open rooftop terrace offers views of the city, the hills and Swayambhunath stupa. There are two restaurants, a courtyard and garden.
Kantipur Temple House waves an eco-friendly banner – there’s no use of plastic bags, guests are provided with cloth shopping bags, the hotel does not sell plastic bottled water (free water is offered in jars), and organic vegetables are used in the restaurants. Even the water is solar-heated, and televisions are banned unless required for presentations. There is no air-conditioning in the rooms but the hotel provides fans in summer and electric blankets in winter. Free Wifi is available in the lobby and common areas. Kantipur also offers wellness activities such as outdoor yoga classes. It is a sister company to Bhojan Griha, an excellent Nepali restaurant in Dilli Plaza (more on that later).
Dwarika's Heritage Suite/ photo: hotel
The museum-like Dwarika’s Hotel is about ten minutes’ drive from the centre of town, in a residential area. It’s within walking distance from Pashupathinath. The hotel is built in the Newari manner with intricately carved wood and brick and throughout are rare antiques and artefacts collected over many years by the late Dwarika Das Shrestha, whose aim it was to preserve the heritage of Nepal. The 87 rooms are each individually designed – some have 16th century windows, others have private courtyards. All are WiFi-enabled (for a small fee). Hand-painted fabrics are used for the bedspreads and curtains, linen is handwoven and some of the artwork dates as far back as the 14th century. There is a separate bar and three restaurants, one offering a 22-course menu.
For relaxation, try the in-room massages or head straight to Pancha Kosha Spa, which also offers daily yoga classes. You can also grab a book in the library, browse the Internet at the business centre, or park yourself in a lounger beside the pool. For a real treat, try the Royal Suite, which covers three floors with its own formal and informal meeting areas in addition to the bedroom, bathroom and private lounge area. Also consider a short drive up to Dhulikhel where Dwarika's has a second resort style property with grand views of the Himalaya.
Soaltee Crowne Plaza is west of the Royal Palace in Tahachal, a ten-minute drive from central Kathmandu. Set on 11 acres, this five-star hotel has 282 rooms, including 16 ‘Regal’ suites. All rooms have complimentary daily newspapers, TVs and VCRs, as well as WiFi for US$14 per day. A stay in one of the Executive Club rooms comes with free daily breakfast and evening cocktails at the Club lounge. Elite club members are eligible for free standard Internet access.
The inside of the lobby is bright and brisk. Soaltee Crowne Plaza (once the Soaltee Oberoi) has ample facilities for conferences and meetings and remains among the more popular Kathmandu business hotels. There are four restaurants and two bars (including the club lounge). A pool and gym will satisfy health nuts and the tennis court comes complete with ball boys. A casino is also on site. About five minutes away by foot is the Kalimati Fruit and Vegetable Market – the biggest fruit and veggie market in the valley. Dive in and find your dream asparagus. If you’re in need of a Kathmandu casino hotel, look no farther.
Soaltee Crowne Plaza/ photo: hotel
Want to hit the golf greens in Kathmandu? Then consider staying at Gokarna Forest Golf Resort and Spa (previously managed by Le Méridien), about 30 minutes from the city centre. (A taxi from the airport will cost around US$10.) Gokarna might be farther afield, but this three-storey resort offers forest surrounds (once the private hunting grounds of the Nepalese kings), panoramic views of the Himalayas, and a Gleneagles-designed golf course on its doorstep. All of the 55 wooden-floored rooms and suites have views of the forest. The hotel has an indoor pool and spa, overlooking the valley. Wine and dine in one of four bars and restaurants – for fine dining and a taste of history, try Hunter’s Lodge Restaurant, previously a royal hunting pavilion. Look out for deer and monkeys that wander free nearby. The resort can organize horse riding and mountain biking adventures, and forest walks and secluded picnics.
Club Himalaya Nagarkot sits atop the aptly-named Windy Hills. It is certainly windy up here in Nagarkot and markedly cooler than the city. The hotel advises guests to always bring a windcheater and “avoid loose flying skirts and sarees unless you want a Marilyne [sic] Monroe experience”. From outside the hotel on a clear day there are dramatic views in every direction. Club Himalaya is one of the bigger places to stay in Nagarkot, with five floors and 52 standard rooms offering basic amenities and private balconies.
Deluxe rooms built in 2011 feature hardwood floors and use minimalist Buddhist elements to create a Zen like feel (despite the LCD televisions). Furniture is predominantly handcrafted locally. Private balconies have views of the mountains. WiFi is not yet available but is in the pipeline. The lobby, which contains one of the hotel’s two restaurants, has a dark wood interior, making things a bit dim on cloudy days. There are views from certain parts of the lobby, but these are partly obscured by foliage.
From the lobby restaurant, peer over a waist-high wall at people swimming in the indoor pool and spa below. The Tea House Inn, part of the hotel but set apart from the main building, has better views of the valley. It is hikers’ heaven up here and Club Himalaya can arrange a car for day or overnight trips. Other outdoor activities include pony rides, kite flying, a children’s park, and a jogging track. Those less outdoorsy can unwind by catching a film at the on-site movie theatre. Despite, or maybe because of its location at 7,200ft, the hotel boasts its own helipad so that visitors can quite literally ‘drop in’.
Budget hotels and guesthouses
Club Himalaya/ photo: hotel
For Kathmandu budget hotels and cheaper rates, head to Thamel. Cheep and cheerful are the likes of Hotel Manang, Hotel Impala, Hotel Tenki, Hotel Marshyangdi, Hotel Northfield, Yeti Guest House, Mustang Holiday Inn (owned and run by the Mustang royal family), Kathmandu Guest House, Hotel Potala Kathmandu and Tibet House. Accommodation at these Kathmandu guest houses is variable, rates change constantly and, if you go for the cheapest rooms, bathrooms will be shared. However, weary trekkers returning from the mountains report that Thamel guesthouses are luxury digs indeed. Do note that starting 2011, the government has introduced various home-stay programmes to allow visitors to see how the locals live. For more information, check out www.visitnepal.com. There are also volunteering placements available across Nepal, mostly involving teaching and mentoring orphaned children, see www.volunteernepal.com or www.mountainvolunteer.org.
Dining and Newari style to pizza
For those lacking a cast-iron stomach, steer clear of uncooked food in Nepal (including cut fruit). Avoid ice, and drink bottled mineral water. If you’re after McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut or any other international fast food joints, then you’re out of luck, for now. You will see KFC, but it’s the Kathmandu Fried Chicken version and is remarkably different from the ol’ Colonel Sanders secret recipe.
Local Nepali food is cheap, tasty and involves plenty of lentils. Nepalese curries are light and not overly spicy. Momos are steamed dumplings filled with meat or vegetables; a Nepal trip is not complete without sampling these delicious morsels.
For good, organic, Nepalese food, try Bhojan Griha in Kathmandu’s Dilli Bazaar (tel: [977-1] 441-6423, www.bhojangriha.com). Bharat Basnet is the genteel and hospitable man behind restoration of the 150-year-old building where the restaurant is housed. The place is full of character. Stairs lead up to the dining entrance where shoes are left at the door, hands are washed in the traditional manner and foreheads dotted with a ‘tilak’. Three dining floors are set up with the customary low chairs, low tables and heavy brass tableware. Dinner begins with a shot of whiskey (called “thon”) and, intriguingly, popcorn.
Shiva Mandir/ photo: Jane McLean
Dishes arrive in rapid succession. These may include “aloo tareko” (spiced potatoes), momos, “jhaneko mas ko dal” (lentils), and “khashi ko masu” (lamb curry). It’s all topped off with a sweet yoghurt dessert. Eating is accompanied by bursts of Nepali music and dance. The set menu costs US$20 plus tax per person. Drinks are extra. Reserve a table – this place is popular. Bhojan Griha is not the only string to Basnet’s eco-friendly bow. He also manages wildlife lodges in other parts of Nepal, was the leading force in changing Kathmandu’s tempos from diesel to battery-power, and is working to reduce the use of plastic wrappers in Kathmandu.
Another restaurant serving up a nightly cultural show with traditional Nepalese fare is Bhanchha Ghar (tel: [977-1] 422-5172, www.nepalibhanchha.com) located just off Durbar Marg. There are dozens of other dining spots in Thamel and Durbar Marg where you can get anything from Japanese to German, Chinese to Mexican, Italian to vegetarian. The more expensive restaurants are located on Durbar Marg and a few local fast food chains are dotted around town; The Nanglo chain (tel: [977-1] 554-4263, www.nanglo.com.np) comprises Nanglo Café & Pub, the Nanglo Chinese Room, Nanglo Deli and several Bakery Cafes throughout Kathmandu. Food is cheap and ranges from Chinese and western, to Indian and Nepalese curry. Interestingly, the chain has been training and employing handicapped deaf persons since 1997.
Other food joints include 1905 (www.1905restaurant.com), or Fire and Ice for pizza and pasta (www.fireandicepizzeria.com). There’s a huge variety of eating and drinking options in the Thamel area. Try Utse Restaurant, Yak Restaurant, The Rum Doodle (www.therumdoodle.com), La Dolce Vita, Delices de France, Brezel Bakery and countless others. And that’s a quick A-to-Z Kathmandu fun guide. Amidst the mayhem, there’s a mystic experience to be had. And lots of momos. Eat up, people.
FAST FACTS / Hotel Contact List
Exchange rate: The Nepalese currency is the Nepalese Rupee (US$1=NRs106). There is a foreign exchange counter at Tribhuvan International Airport. Banks, moneychangers and ATMs are available in the city. Hotels will change US dollars and other major currencies at their own conversion rate and major credit cards are accepted.
Travel season: Nepal has four seasons. Winter is from December to February. It gets cold in the city but doesn’t snow. There is snow on the hilly surrounds though. Spring is from March to May and is a good time to visit, although it starts to get hot and dusty towards the end of May. Summer, from June to August, is rainy season. Autumn is from September to November. This is peak season, when the air is clear, and the temperature moderate.
Travel Agencies and Information: Some online travel resources could include the Nepal Tourism Board (www.welcomenepal.com), Nepal Association of Travel and Tour Operators (www.natta.org.np), and Nepal Association of Tour Operators (www.nepaltouroperators.org).
Kathmandu hotel directory
All hotel prices are subject to 13 percent VAT (value-added tax) and 10 percent service charge. In many cases steep discounts will be available especially at off-peak times. Any rates quoted here are for rule of thumb only. Always check for the best available rates (BAR) online. As a general guide room rates may range from US$40 for a guesthouse or US$64 for a simple hotel to US$140 at a local five-star or US$205 at an international five-star hotel.
Club Himalaya Nagarkot. Tel: [977-1] 668-0080, 668-0083, 668-0048, fax: 668-0068, (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or www.nepalshotel.com).
Kathmandu budget hotels, guest houses
Kathmandu budget hotels and guesthouses vary vastly in quality and amenities. For the very cheapest rooms, bathrooms and/or rooms will be shared. Clarify these details before booking.
Hotel Impala. Tel: [977-1] 470-1549, fax: 470-1695, (e-mail: email@example.com or www.hotelimpala.com.np).
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