The Kathmandu valley is a flat plateau surrounded by the higher Himalayas. Inside the valley lies Kathmandu city in the northwest, Patan in the south and Bhaktapur in the east. Scale 1cm = 5.1km
In order to make you feel at home in Kathmandu, this guide is endorsed by locals. It has useful hands-on tips at the end of every chapter, covers raw reality to get you "in the know" and you'll find the kindest recommendations on what to avoid or how to deal with common issues. No matter whether you stay for 2 or 122 days, this guide is for you.
If you are after pure sightseeing information like "top 10 things to see", please visit TripAdvisor, LonelyPlanet, RoughGuides, Wikitravel or the like.
Imagine a secluded country where there's often no power, no railroad, hardly any paved roads with meter-wide potholes. A place where dogs and cows roam garbage piles in search for food and where the Western notion of time and Western rules of conduct don't really apply. This country, you may be surprised, is a touristic top-priority and is home to nearly 30 million hospitable people belonging to a multitude of ethnic groups. Welcome to Nepal. Follow me to get a sense of what it really means to survive in Kathmandu.
The year is 2072, sunny October morning. I have goosebumps as I get out of bed in a room just north of Thamel, because the poor concrete walls refuse to keep the heat inside. "The rumors were true", I think for myself, "it gets really chilly inside". Nepal has many national heritage sites, not only those listed as the seven UNESCO sites, and today I'm fully intended to immerse myself into the ancient culture of one of those - Nepal's old capital and one of the three old kingdoms of the valley, Bhaktapur, translated as the city of devotees. Monsoon just ended a month ago, the thermometer shows a pleasant 27C (77F) and the cheering and singing for the Dashain festival, coming from groups of students in a nearby canted school, is ricocheting off the rough house walls just outside my window.
As I twist the tap in the shower and watch it drip reluctantly, the lonely light bulb in the ceiling - that kind which was phased out in Europe years ago - turns suddenly off. "Great, load shedding just started", I mutter, "I think I skip shower". As Kathmandu expanded rapidly, power lines were added organically, resulting in some 50 scheduled hours of power cuts per week. Locals adapted by importing Indian lead batteries to cover the "dark" gap, but the voltage jumps unreliably and the tense Nepali-Indian relations and sky-high corruption in both countries makes people think twice before calling a battery service centre.
I wear cotton slippers as I step over cold stone tiles into a dim kitchen, to be greeted by curry- and cumin-saturated air, reminding me of yesterday's mutton festivities. Above the fridge hangs a wooden temple, the size of a big birdhouse, decorated with bright orange marigold flowers and already lit incense sticks.
1. Stay informed - what is it like in Kathmandu?
2. Stay - rooms, hostels, hotels
3. Stay connected - electricity, internet
4. Stay healthy - medicine, food, water
5. Don't stay - transportation, logistics
1. Stay informed - what is it like in Kathmandu?
Culture & values
"If people haven't said yes 3 times, they mean no"
Like in many Asian countries, saying "no" or being direct is considered rude. Instead, they will hesitate to answer, give an imprecise answer or talk about something completely different. For instance, if you are inviting someone for dinner and get the answer "That sounds very interesting, I might come!", it means a dead "no". A "yes" would instead be "Okay I will come, when and where is it?". It's not about the enthusiasm shown, it's about the precise/imprecise word choice.
People in Nepal are raised with a group mentality, meaning they'd generally prefer time with relatives and friends to personal time or vacation abroad, which would reflect a more individualistic mentality. So being nice and friendly to a Nepali means you'd spend quality time with him or her, have breakfast/lunch/dinner with them and tell stories about your experiences.
If you ever been to Malaysia, you know how much they love good food. Nepali are just like that, in part because there are many ethnic groups with their own recipes. I've heard numerous stories of Nepali coming back from Europe complaining about the bleak cuisine!
Please note, everything takes longer time and has hidden costs, compared to your country of origin. Going through passport control? Wait 1-1.5 hours. Getting a research permit? Count on $100 for application, 100 rs for the application form and weeks of hassle. Want to cook food? One grocery shop might be too expensive, the other closed for festival (there are more festivals days than working days) and the third is far away, so you end up in the fourth one tomorrow. Going home late? Oh, last bus went at 20:00, now you'll have to walk 1h from Patan. Thought the cinema movie is 1h30mins, as it says in the description? Nope, you get 20 min advertisement of detergent and a 10 min break in the middle of the movie. Of course you planned to talk to your mom at seven this evening. Better you shift it 4h either way, because there will be no power in the house at seven. Or there might be from the backup battery enough to light the lamps, but because the inverter is falling apart and gets the voltage up to 80% of the working level, your laptop might refuse to charge.
There are some objective peculiarities to Nepal, like the odd +45 min time zone shift (UTC +5:45) and a calendar which is about 56.5 years ahead of the Western calendar (New Year starts in April). And there is a more subjective time experience difference, like that people are walking slower than in Europe (oh my god, I step on heels all the time) and are generally not obsessed with always looking at the watch to count minutes, as well as the notion of being of time for a meeting is very flexible (I guess like in Brazil, from what I heard about it) mostly due to random traffic.
If you don't care about fashion or blending in, you'll be comfortable in sandals, jeans and a t-shirt that covers the shoulders all year round, both genders. If you want to be hip, find a t-shirt with "Paris, France", "JAPAN" or any other far away place spelled out in large font. If you want to blend in: for women, consider covering legs, breasts, shoulders and not wearing skin-tight clothing; for men, wear jeans, shirt and covered shoes.
Clothes to buy from Nepal are typically locally produced sari, kurtha, colorful patched bags and woolen garments.
Do what you fear most and you control fear /Tom Hopkins
I recently helped my host family to fix the water boiler. It smelled burnt and didn't boil properly, so I opened it up and brushed off the dust inside. I also removed a burnt cockroach larva that had caused the smell and the rest of its family - mother cockroach, father cockroach and two siblings. This says it all, doesn't it.
Having a childhood fobia of cockroaches from the time when I almost wet my pants after seeing them on every surface in the kitchen, including the table where I used to eat every day, I certainly came to the best place to meet my fears. You can find them in the strangest of places, like shoes, tea pots and on the bread in cheap street cafes.
- carry a portable bottle of alcohol solution for cleaning hands before meals. Many dishes are eaten with hands.
- check with your vaccination office what you'll need. Rabies will probably be the most expensive to take, but you want to have that extra protection, because there are lots of stray dogs and monkeys here. A 12-year old boy died in Rabies in the beginning of 2015 after being bitten by a dog. Malaria pills are only necessary if you'll travel south to the Terai region. Read more on health issues in chapter 4.
At the time of writing, 1 USD equals 100 rs (Nepali rupees, NPR). With this rate, you can live on $10 a day (hostel room, local food and public transport), but you can easily spend $40-60 a day (hotel, great food in Thamel, taxi). You can even go less than $10 if you manage to get discounts.
Credit cards are not often taken, so bring a second wallet to have space for all the cash that you're gonna carry. ATMs are frequent, but take a surcharge of around 250-500 rs, plus any surcharge from your bank. I've also had some trouble finding the right change sometimes, so be sure to keep a variety of notes.
Important landmarks/places to know first
Your entry/exit point will probably be "Tribhuvan Airport", located east of city. From there you have some options to get into the city centre
- microbus to "Ratna Park", cost 20-25 rs (value for money). Don't pay more. A typical scam is that the collector let's everyone else pay first and when only you are left in the bus, he can boldly ask for 50 rs without losing face in front of the locals.
- A green bus called "Sajha Yatayat". Check for its bus stops route online, e.g. on Facebook. This governmental bus company was the result of collaboration with China in the 60's. Due to corruption, there are now only a handful of buses left, operating infrequently along the most important routes.
- taxi, cost 300-500 rs (fastest)
- walking 1h straight to the west (if all else fails)
"Ratna Park" and "Sundhara" are the two major bus hubs close to Thamel. They are 5-10 min walking distance from each other. "Thamel" (T and H pronounced separately) is the touristic centre, containing one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites called "Kathmandu Durbar square", which is a remnant of one of the old kingdoms before the unification of Nepal in the 18th century. Entrance to all Durbar squares, being 3 in total, costs 500 to 1250 rs per person.
The locals' city centre is found around Kamal Pokhari and Dilli Bazar, with shopping malls and cinema. Ticket to cinema costs around 230 rs. One fruit market is located in Naya bazar. Some big shopping malls can be found next to Balaju chowk and in Thamel.
Rules of conduct in public
- hug or kiss.
- hold hands if you are of opposite sex. For foreigners it's usually okay, but people will stare at you.
- bring up topics of love. Nepali speak about love and sex only with good friends and preferably after a bottle of Gorkha beer or an aged whiskey.
- touch a child's head. It is a sacred area that can be touched only by parents or preceptor.
- cough up slime, vomit, spit or clear your nose out on the street.
- hold hands if you are of same sex. It will seem like everyone's gay but they are (most probably) not.
- if you rent any kind of vehicle, the most important is to learn where the honk is and second where the brakes are. In Kathmandu, honking often and loudly bears the meaning "I am so sorry to disturb, but I am worried about your safety, so please look out, here I come", especially when approaching a sharp turn with bad sight.
2. Stay - rooms, hostels, hotels
Accomodation - hostels are cheap
Having not found any place to stay before arrival, staying in a hostel the first two weeks and looking for accomodation in the mean time was a nice solution. Look for hostels in the quiet Paknajol area just north of Thamel, which is within walking distance of everything you need for your first days. Later I stayed with a fantastic host family. If you want to have a full cultural experience, you need to live and work like locals do; the living part will be solved if you stay with locals. The working part will be solved if you volunteer in some organisation.
Hostel rooms might be at 4-5$ per person per night (120-150$ per month).
As mentioned earlier, if something is not said thrice, it is not valid. The same can be said about contracts - don't believe anything of importance if it's not stated in a written contract.
Here's a story. As it is common in Europe, I expect the most basic tea/coffee to be free in hostels. So I asked for it some days for breakfast or tea break. They were very friendly and brought me the beverage, but at the end of the stay I got a list of every tea order with a 10-15 rs price tag per cup. I got upset that they didn't tell me before and didn't state it anywhere so in the end I didn't pay for that, not because of some 1-2$ but of principle to teach people honesty and transparency. But this is peanuts. I personally know people who many times got promised to get paid, but the employer keeps telling them that it's bad times now and that they have to wait a bit more, "maybe next month". It takes courage and wisdom to be strong and not use the weaker for your egoistic benefit.
- build your network by getting to know Nepali people in your home city or neighbouring cities. Ask them if they know someone who might have a room for you. Nepali are extremely hospitable (on par with Georgians in Caucasus) and you might be lucky to stay for free in their house.
- however, you always need a backup place to stay. Have a couple of hostels in mind just in case.
Typical evening during Dashain festival - male relatives drinking beer and whiskey and playing cards for money.
3. Stay connected - electricity, internet
Power plugs and sockets - US and Europe types are fine
UK will need an adapter. You can always find an adapter for like 1$, but bring one if you have because it may take some day to find an electronics shop.
Power cuts - bring a power bank for your phone
Power cuts are not as bad as they sound, because every place has at least one backup battery, which covers part of or the whole "off" period. But, because not all backup batteries are well-functioning, your laptop might not want to charge, because some batteries can't deliver full voltage (220V). If it happens, disconnect your charger, wait for half an hour and reconnect again.
- Nepal has 7 zones with rotating load shedding, so you can download the "Loadshedding Nepal" app to know when to expect a power cut. In Autumn, it is 4h during day and 4h during night.
- bring a power bank, preferably a solar-charging one. You can order one from like eBay. Order at least a month before departure to Nepal to get it in time, because electronics in Nepal are very expensive due to lack of national production. Don't expect anything to be delivered in Nepal.
Slow wifi in hostels and cafes - use mobile internet
Loading a 5 min low-quality YouTube clip might take up to 10 minutes. Depending on where you are in town, mobile internet can be way faster than the general public wifi. It's quite straightforward to get mobile internet, but there are some steps you have to know about
1. First of all, you need to buy a simcard - NCell or Nepal Telecom (NTC), pick any. I had NTC and it worked fine. Up to HSDPA download speeds exist for both. It comes in "micro" size, so I took a pair of scissors and made it "nano" size. Next you need to buy at least one "top-up card" which will put money on the account. The cheapest is a 200MB package for 130rs (as of Oct 2015). The amount on the top-up card (100rs or 500rs) is subject to some percent of tax, meaning if you pay 100rs you get like 98rs, or 500rs in cash translates to 490rs on the account. Just follow the instructions on the back of the top-up card and you'll be fine.
2. Now that you have a simcard and a balance, next step is activation. Send "3G" to 1415. This might have changed, so please search online for how to activate and configure your NTC/NCell mobile internet.
3. If you don't get a message with settings from the operator, then you'll have to do a manual setup (which you usually don't do in Europe). You'll need to select a mobile station, called an APN. Search the internet for "configure NCell/NTC 3G" or "configure NCell/NTC GPRS". The information I had to enter was proxy 188.8.131.52, port 8000 and APN name "ntwap" or "ntnet".
- to use password-protected public wifi:s, download apps like "WiFi Map - Passwords", "WifiMapper" etc, that crowdsource passwords from various places. But passwords change regularly, so expect some trial and error.
4. Stay healthy - medicine, food, water
Bad air quality - wear mask
As our Airbus from Istanbul started to descend, spectacular mountains arose out of the blue. But almost as quickly, they disappeared in the polluted, dusty air, which is kept in place by the surrounding, 1 km higher mountains. The valley suffers from extreme air pollution and people wear masks at all times except at home, in the mountains or just after a cleansing rain.
Food poisoning - wash hands
Even in medium-quality restaurants or fast food courts, cooks don't care about using gloves or washing their hands. They might sneeze while preparing food, use tap water to wash fresh vegetables, reheat cold samosas from the day before and you can surely expect dirty plates with food left in the corners from 10 customers back. So, please, wash your hands thoroughly before every meal and don't eat at places which are just too dirty.
In general, in Thamel you'll find medium to expensive restaurants and there are plazas and shopping malls south of Thamel (along the Kanti Path) and around the city centre/Dilli bazar (east of Thamel). Supermarkets are not in the most intuitive locations, but go there if you suddenly start craving Western food, like fresh milk, yoghurt, peanut butter or ice cream. In that case, search for "Big Mart" or "shopping mall" in an online map. You can also get kebab, pizzas and pastas both in Thamel and in the more "hip" district of Kupondole (in northern Patan). But be warned: pastas are very spicy and pizzas are small and filled with carrots and cabbage :)
- delicious momos in Sorakhutte (GPS coordinates 27.717795, 85.309275). You won't find cheaper. In Oct 2015 the price was 50 rs for 10 pieces.
- yak cheese is sold by an old, charming man on Z-street (1 rs = 1 gram), in Big Marts and in the government-owned Dairy Development Corporation (GPS coordinates 27.717581, 85.315179).
- hygienic and good food (breakfast, lunch) in Lakha Chhen (GPS coordinates 27.719255, 85.309690). For some reason, Google Maps shows "permanently closed restaurant", but it is not!
- there are lots of unique and absolutely amazing sweets that you have to try - gulab jamun, soan papdi and jeri. These are definitively sold in Big Marts, but also in numerous street cafés.
Water - drink boiled or bottled water
Never drink tap water. I've heard several cases of people getting sick even from purified bottled water, but that's what everybody drinks.
Before coming here for Autumn, I got vaccines against the following diseases: Hepatitis A+B, Typhoid, Meningitis, Kolera, Rabies. I also bought Malaria medicine (there is no vaccine) in case I'd go to the Terai region in the south - there is little to no risk for Malaria in Kathmandu because of the high altitude (1400m), according to my vaccination bureau. And don't worry, you won't get altitude sickness on this height. Consult your local vaccination bureau at least 2-3 months before departure.
If you are into Ayurveda or natural medicine, then Kathmandu is your new Mecca. Medicine shops are everywhere and you have a multitude of book shops with information on such topics.
- before departure to Ktm, buy a portable bottle of alcohol in your nearest pharmacy to wash your hands before every meal.
- in Ktm, buy a paper mask from any drugstore. They can be found along most streets. Specifically in Paknajol and on New road. Cost: don't pay more than 10 rs.
The menu of a fast food eatery, called Lunch Box, hangs on the wall. It is Chicago-inspired in both atmosphere and prices. This was one of the places which was still open during the fuel and gas crisis. In Kupondole, northern Patan.
5. Don't stay - transportation, logistics
The average speeds in town rarely exceed 30 km/h, because the people are quite laid-back and the weary roads have to carry everyone from pedestrians and cows to steroid tin cans (aka. tuk-tuks) and heavy water trucks. However, the ring road might be 70 km/h or more, partly due to better road cover.
Available common transport within Kathmandu is
- by foot. Being the most common transport type, expect to walk on average 30-60 mins one way to reach places. From Thamel, it takes 1h one way to Boudhanath or the airport in the east or to Patan in the south.
- bicycle. You have to be sure of yourself to ride a bicycle, but with common sense and lots of precaution in the beginning, you'll be fine. If you intend to stay a couple of months, you might get bored of walking all the time. Bike prices range from 5000 rs for a used bike to 35000 rs for a new mountain bike. Check out the "bicycle market" close to the Ason area and the Rani Pokhari pond. To rent would be ~500 rs per day.
- scooter or motorbike.
- tuk-tuk (colloquial: "tempo").
- minibus. In peak hours, people ride on top of roofs or with one foot in the bus and one foot hanging in the air or stomping along the asphalt. Cost is generally 15 rs per travel, no matter how far you go. You pay to the money-collecting boy upon exit. Note, there are no bus time tables in Kathmandu - the minibuses run usually every 15 minutes, more often during peak hours and less during weekends. Public transport is very scarce after 20:00, expect to walk or take taxi by then! If you want to plan your trips and get a feel for distances: go to Google Maps, turn on the "public transport" option and zoom in until you see the bus stops, these are the actual bus stops for the minibuses.
- taxi. Cost around 50 rs per km.
At the time of writing, there is a fuel and gas crisis because India blocks the only transit route into Nepal, so fuel prices are up at 400-500 rs per liter (1900 rs per gallon). Airport to Thamel costing normally 300-500 rs is now 1500-2500 rs.