We arrived in Kathmandu late at night after a layover in Hong Kong. As we flew over Asia and into Nepal we passed through an intense storm that shot perfect lightning bolts that lit up the sky; a sight thoroughly enjoyed by Nicole who loves to fly! Having probably consumed too much red wine on the Dragonair Flight that had no entertainment system, we figured it was best to book a hotel at the airport rather than attempt to tackle the chaotic and confusing streets of Kathmandu late at night.
Our goal for Nepal, which was a top pick for Cameron, was to do a multi-day trek in the Himalayas, get Nicole river rafting for the first time, ride elephants on a jungle safari while hunting for tigers and rhinos, visit the elephant breeding centre and bathe the elephants in the river (Nicole's thing, giant animals are not Cameron's specialty), visit the many temples of Kathmandu and hang out by the peaceful lake in Pokhara.
We knew that we had paid too much for the hotel room ($15 with taxi fare included) so we negotiated the hotel owner down to $10 because we happened to like the place and planned to stay four nights. I guess we had given the driver too much information the previous night (again, red wine consumption was quite high) and found him waiting in the lobby the next morning ready to take us to 'his tour company'. Feeling somewhat pressured into the dance, we went along with it and walked with him through the congested single lane roads of Thamel to 'his office' - at the airport he said he was taking us to 'his hotel' implying that he worked there also, a man with many professions! We were escorted into a fancy office with leather chairs and were served fresh Nepali milk coffee while we waited - not exactly the environment a backpacker budget wants to be in!
Long story short, we found the company to be extremely professional, organized and insured - so we booked 10 days worth of tours that included all transportation (more on that later), all hotel accommodations, three meals per day, an afternoon of river rafting, a five-day trek with a personal guide into the Annapurna range (Nicole was hoping for a two day trek but Cameron wasn't having it!), and three days in the Royal Chitwan National Park that included a jungle trek, elephant breeding centre visit, canoe trip and the infamous elephant safari… and all for only $330! We felt we got a pretty good deal all things considered. In case you're interested, the company is called 'Outdoor Himalayan Treks' and the managing director's name is Raj.
With our two week trip to Nepal organized by late afternoon on the first day it was time to relax and explore the city. Kathmandu is similar to other big Asian cities. It's loud, it's dirty, it's confusing and exhausting, it's overcrowded and it's filled with interesting people and experiences. The city is scattered with Hindu and Buddhist temples and seems to struggle in its attempt to become a modern and respectable city - it is still very poor and in dire need of discipline. We had been given recommendations by our friend Grant who had visited the country twice in the past year and were eager to start exploring. The city boasts some iconic temples and attractions so the following morning we had the tour company organize a driver to take us around the Kathmandu Valley to visit these inspiring Unesco World Heritage Sites.
We first visited the famous Bodhnath (Boudha), one of the world's largest stupas and an iconic Tibetan Buddhist temple. Bodhnath is surrounded by buildings with rooftop restaurants and is said to be one of the few places left in the world where Tibetan culture is still accessible and alive. We arrived later than expected and missed the morning Tibetan worshippers but still enjoyed spiced tea while overlooking the gigantic shrine and Kathmandu Valley (thanks again for that tip Grant!). To partake in the ritual, we walked around the colossal stupa in a clockwise direction and spun the prayer wheels for good luck. The beating drums and chanting monks within the surrounding gompas (Tibetan monasteries) added to the uniqueness of the experience.
Our second stop was the most important Hindu site in Nepal, Pashupatinath Temple. This Hindu temple sits along the riverbanks of the Bagmati River, a holy river similar to the Ganges in Varanasi. Like Varanasi, the temple is a popular place for Hindu deceased to be cremated along the ghats. It was an interesting experience watching the stacks of wood burn with feet sticking out of the end, listening to the cries of the mourning family. Although it is permitted to take photos across the river on the terraces, it was a strange feeling taking photos of such a sacred moment. That said, we couldn't help oursleves and took a few photos (we can be such tourists sometimes!). Looking down at the river through the smoky air was a moment neither of us will soon forget.
Our next stop was to Patan's Durbar Square.Kathmandu was originally divided into three citys, each having a decadent Durbar Square. Patan's is said to be "the most stunning display of Newari architecture to be seen in Nepal" (courtesy of Lonely Planet). It did not disappoint! We toured around the square for an hour looking at the dozens of fabulous temples and statues before having a late lunch on a rooftop terrace that overlooked the entire square. Check out the Kathmandu photo album to get a better sense, words just can't describe the beauty of the plaza.
Our final destination was to great Buddhist temple of Swayambhunath, otherwise known as the monkey temple. After hiking up a number of stairs we were greeted by a similar stupa to that of Bodhnath. The site was filled with several small Buddhist monstaries and of course several monkeys running around doing what monkeys do. The temple was also a great place to get panoramic views of the beautiful Kathmandu Valley. It is also a place to witness several different children taking a number two right in the middle of the walkway in front of tourists and worshippers... very odd and very gross.
There are power outages every night in Kathmandu, making the evening stroll quite interesting - when we turned down a dark city street corner and saw a cow staring us down we knew we were far from home! Dinners were typically served under candlelight because the backup generators were needed for the fridge and kitchen appliances. The thin and jam-packed streets of Thamel are littered with tiny retail shops selling knock-off trekking gear and equipment (we indulged in some cheap North Face jackets) and street touts try to sell the tourist everything from hashish to tiger balm.
After four days of site-seeing and exploring, shopping and eating, acclimatizing (to the culture not the altitude) and organizing, we were ready to start our adventures into Nepal. The next morning we were on a 'tourist' bus headed for the Trisuli River for an afternoon of river rafting!