Ancient beliefs and modern pressures struggle to find harmony in Kathmandu, writes Shannon Ryan.

I was in Nepal for three weeks. It felt like a lifetime, yet nowhere near long enough. Clearly this land, its people and the undeniable energy of the Himalayas has done a number on me.

I feel a rush arriving in a country that is so different. I have to engage my instincts, with the chaos of new sights, sounds and smells teaching me to swim in foreign currents.

Nepal's history is vast and you can feel it the moment you set out. There is no denying the deep-rooted traditions that challenge the population as urbanisation sweeps through communities, mixing the old with the new.

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I feel a sense of sadness for the loss of connection to self, tribe and environment in the modern world yet somehow at first glance, the people of Nepal have maintained identity throughout the ever-changing tides.

Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo / Shannon Ryan
Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo / Shannon Ryan

A long-standing friend is the catalyst for this trip. This glorious woman works in the NGO (non-governmental organisation) field and has called Kathmandu home for the past few years. Her place is my landing pad and a way to experience Nepal away from the usual visitor hot spots.

Throughout the first few days we walked the side streets of Jawalekhel. From street vendors and hole-in-the-wall family stores to temples and ancient town squares. Old and fading to bright shiny and new, Hindu, Buddhist and revolutionary artworks and engravings are on display around every corner. The streets close in so tight that it's a wonder any vehicle can snake through the crowds.

These daily strolls start to paint a picture of old Kathmandu and a psychedelic history begins to unfold.

The history of religion and way of life here is a whole other fascinating direction, but most recently Nepal, home to wild-growing "Kush" cannabis, was a haven for those who shunned the imposing expectation of conventional living. The 60s and 70s were quite literally a hit in Kathmandu. Artworks and quotes pay tribute to Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and every other philosophising, society-challenging artist.

Thamel became a centre of visionary, unconventional creation. As it teemed with seekers from all over the world, the energy must have been quite something; it still echoes throughout the streets today.

Coinciding with the counter-culture on the other side of the world, the US and other governments put pressure on Nepal to criminalise cannabis. Now it is legal to smoke hashish only during celebrations of Lord Shiva on Maha Shivaratri.

Shannon Ryan in Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo / Justin Greenwood
Shannon Ryan in Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo / Justin Greenwood

Forty-five minutes out of Kathmandu is Kopan. Its monastery opens daily for visitors to experience the grounds and observe Buddhist monks and students in their daily practice. Outside of retreat bookings, the monastery is open for visitors to stay a couple of times a year and I happened to be in luck.

Over the years, Kathmandu has edged its way towards the outlying hills. It means that what used to be a much quieter region, now grapples with a combination of working farmland, housing developments, numerous private monasteries, and an airport in the distance, all topped off with a peaceful retreat at the top of a hill. The contrast is epic. Whether it be Kopan or a rural monastery further out in the peace and calm, taking a look into life of the modern Buddhist monk in practice goes hand in hand with the Nepali experience. Kopan offers a place for the curious to investigate, where more private monasteries can operate away from interruption.

My final day in Kathmandu began with a visit to the grounds of the Pashupatinath temple. On the banks of the Bagmati river, this place of worship is marked a world heritage site, where visitors can really experience deep-rooted Hindu customs and traditions. There are 518 temples on more than 250ha and the river hosts cremations daily.

This could be confronting to some but the grounds of Pashupatinath offer a true insight into Hindu belief and practice. As it is one of the most important temple grounds in Nepal, its inner courtyard is off limits to visitors and even practising Hindus from other parts of the world. The ever-present litter scattered about is a sad reminder of how huge an impact modern life has had on even the most sacred of places. When you are moving about the grounds alone, however, the presence of yogis, blessings and history, will give you experiences that will be brought up in conversation for years to come.

Kopan Monastery outside of Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo / Shannon Ryan
Kopan Monastery outside of Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo / Shannon Ryan

Kathmandu must-dos

Food

Annamaya Healthfood Nepal

has views looking out to the Himalayas and the best coffee and cashew milk.

● We became regulars at a Vietnamese restaurant. Pho 99, Latipur.

● Local vege momos (dumplings) and traditional Dal Baht (24-hour power) are a must.

Shop
● In the same complex as Annamaya you'll find Kaligarh jewellery, handmade in the Himalayas. I adore my Kaligarh finds.

Top tips
● Pay close attention to how locals cross the road. You will be forced to manoeuvre your way across — there is a sort of symbiotic relationship between road users and pedestrians, and it works.
● Withdraw money from an accredited provider. You'll be given a receipt to exchange it back at the airport. Without this, it will be tricky to exchange your Nepalese rupees elsewhere.
● Kathmandu Airport has an NCell sim card booth at the exit. About $12 will buy you 16GB and some call and text time for 30 days.

● To follow Shannon Ryan's travels, see: instagram.com/shannonryanonline

Checklist

GETTING THERE

China Southern, Malaysia Airlines and Qatar Airways all fly from Auckland to Kathmandu with one connecting flight.