Nepal: What to do in Kathmandu

There's plenty to do in this landlocked nation - even if you don't pack crampons.

Kathmandu city. Photo / Thinkstock
Kathmandu city. Photo / Thinkstock

"Most tourists who visit Nepal don't climb Mount Everest," confides a Nepalese woman as we sip tea in a rooftop cafe at the edge of Kathmandu's World Heritage-listed Durbar Square.

We gaze down upon streams of foreigners inspecting some of the capital's historic gems.

She's extremely generous with information about her visitor-friendly Asian homeland so I decide it would be churlish to suggest she's stating the obvious.

A glance at visitors passing beneath us confirms most are in no shape to climb the world's highest mountain - which is merely one of Nepal's many snow-covered Himalayan peaks attracting climbers from around the world.

Mountaineers complain about too many climbers tackling Everest. Some, it's claimed, are woefully inexperienced. Their plastic water bottles and other garbage pollute the route to the summit.

Seasoned mountaineers are often delayed by slow-moving groups. It's a traffic jam up there, moan some who've climbed it.

Everest's popularity is growing rapidly - but, even so, most travellers see it only from afar.

Alternative activities, not involving mountaineering, are abundant in Kathmandu and the rest of Nepal.

For instance:

THAMEL

Repeat visitors commonly knock Kathmandu's most visited precinct as "too touristy". But, as an introduction, this latticework of narrow streets and narrower alleys (the Kathmandu of first-timers' imaginations) is hard to beat.

It's crammed with shops, shops and more shops - emporia (where bargaining is expected) selling fabric, clothing (some with designer labels at bargain-basement prices, including mountaineering and trekking gear), art, handicrafts and sundry souvenirs.

Thamel has splendid English-language bookshops, too. Hotels, restaurants and live music bars (though in this early-to-bed city many close around midnight) are numerous.

Side streets showcase more traditional pursuits: carvers transforming marble, butchers perched behind large slabs of meat, cone-shaped peaks of multi-hued spices.

For sunset drinks-with-a-view, try the Utse Hotel's rooftop bar (even if staying elsewhere).

DURBAR SQUARE

Walk through Thamel to get there. A large rectangle dotted with temples and historic buildings, World Heritage-listed Durbar Square's most famous edifice is Kumari Ghar (Kumari House) where a Nepalese oddity, a "living goddess", resides.

A young girl, aged about eight, is chosen but replaced when she first menstruates or sheds blood through injury. Until then she's revered.

Photography of her window from the courtyard is forbidden in case she peeks out. However, the "living goddess" can be photographed when she's held aloft during religious processions.

NATIONAL MUSEUM

Take a taxi (cheap in Nepal), past temples and former palaces in distinctive local architectural style, to the National Museum.

Built in 1819, it's one of the capital's more prominent old buildings.

Aside from archaeological exhibits and depictions of Nepalese life through the ages, the museum has a large display of weaponry and an art gallery with historic Buddhist art as well as works by contemporary Nepalese artists.

PASHUPATINATH TEMPLE

Also a short taxi ride from most hotels is two-storey Pashupatinath, Kathmandu's oldest and largest Hindu temple, filled with ornate statues.

Termites crumbled the site's previous temple - succeeding earlier structures - which made way in the 17th century for the current place of worship.

MOUNTAIN FLIGHTS

Several domestic airlines run one-hour Himalayan sightseeing flights, a memorable diversion for visitors who aren't mountaineers.

Though sometimes described as "over" Mount Everest (implying the peak is below), flights are actually alongside it, giving better views.

These joy flights also pass over many other snow-covered Himalayan mountains.

LUMBINI

An increasingly popular side-trip from Kathmandu, Lumbini's claim to fame is being Buddha's birthplace.

Options to get there are car-and-driver (easily arranged at hotels), 10-hour bus trips, or domestic flights to Bhairahawa followed by 40-minute drives.

Lumbini's World Heritage site encompasses a monastic area where shops, restaurants and hotels are banned.

A sacred Bodhi tree, covered in prayer flags, dominates a holy garden at the edge of Maya Devi Pond.

POKHARA

Nepal's sub-tropical number-two city is 200km west of Kathmandu, with air or road access.

Three of the world's highest mountains are a scenic backdrop within 50km of a city positioned on an ancient trading route.

World Peace Pagoda offers good city views.

The Gurkha Museum - honouring Nepal's famed soldiers who fought for Britain in many battles - is a top tourist attraction.

CHITWAN NATIONAL PARK

Covering 932sq km, it's one of Asia's best - renowned for Bengal tigers, elephants, rhinoceroses and a crocodilian fussy eater. (Called the gharial, or Gangetic crocodile, it eats fish but shuns humans.)

Other creatures sighted include leopards, sloth bears and several types of antelope. Options include elephant-riding safaris.

TREKKING

An all-year activity, it's least popular during July-August monsoon seasons.

Advice from tourism experts: pick reliable operators.

Treks range from challenging to easy. Some visit Everest Base Camp, the climbers' starting-point.

Porters carry trekkers' packs. Some routes go through snow while lowland treks are more like conventional hikes. Fitness is recommended.

Upscale treks feature lodges like comfortable hotels; others use teahouses (small family-run B&Bs) or tents.

Treks take stunningly scenic routes and are opportunities to interact with rural villagers.

RAFTING

Rivers of melted snow flow from the world's highest mountains.

There are many possibilities ranging from easy routes along placid rivers to adrenalin-charged whitewater rafting through wild waters.

Choices include the Seti River (two nights out of Kathmandu), Marsyangdi River (four nights) and Tamur River (11 nights).

Kayaking is included on some trips, as are hiking and village stops to meet locals.

With so much to do, I run out of time and reluctantly skip a climb up Mount Everest. That, at any rate, is how I like to tell it.


IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: No direct non-stop flights operate between Australia and Nepal. Low-cost carrier Air Asia X (1300 760 330, airasia.com) flies between the two - with connections in Kuala Lumpur - from Gold Coast, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.

Nepal Airlines (nepalairlines.com.np) services Kathmandu from Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. Various Asian airlines servicing Australia operate to Kathmandu from their home ports.

STAYING THERE: Kathmandu has many places to stay in all categories, with prices among Asia's lowest.

A centrally-located and spotlessly clean small hotel in Thamel is the Utse (+977 1425 7614, utsehotel.com). Popular with foreigners and run by a friendly Tibetan family, this mid-market property also boasts one of the capital's best restaurants for Nepalese and western fare.

PLAYING THERE: Himalayan mountaineering trips - for which fitness and experience are strongly recommended - are offered by companies in Australia and Nepal.

Do your homework and pick a well-regarded operator. Useful tourism websites: welcometonepal.com and nepaltourism.info.

- AAP

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