A Kathmandu monastery with the Himalayas mountain range visible in the distance.
The tiny republic of Nepal is relaxed and tourist-friendly, with an eccentric culture, a lot of weird locals and visitors, amazing ancient buildings, stunning monuments and wonderfully colourful handicrafts. And all this at prices that make backpackers squeal with delight and plan to stay longer.
Outside the Katmandu Valley, there are well-supported trekking destinations with sensational mountain views, plenty of interesting tracks and villages, excellent guides and no shortage of little tea-houses/crash pads en route, maintained by charming hosts.
Nepal is a sort of exotic India-China cross-breed but 50 times smaller than its monstrous neighbours, so tourism is possible in a week if you must, though ideally any traveller with fully functioning legs should save a few days and get out of the Kathmandu Valley for a stupendous Himalayan trek, short or long. You won't have a real feel for Nepal until you see a massive, snow-dusted peak looming over you, and Pokhara is the main staging point.
Bodnath stupa, also known as Bouddhanath, in Kathmandu.
The Bodnath stupa is one of Kathmandu's most popular tourist attractions, but also an important Buddhist shrine so tourists share the space with colorful religious devotees, including Tibetan expatriates and sadhus. The area is calm and respectful but full of interest, statues, monuments, and of course eating and drinking places that make brilliant people-watching spots.
The view over Kathmandu from Swayanbanuth 'Monkey' temple. Also Swayambhunath!
Another fascinating and popular Buddhist site, Swayambhunath is a bit more work to get to but the views over the Kathmandu Valley are exceptional, especially very early or late in the day. The climb up steps to reach the temple is a good workout if you approach from the east, with 365 steps. From the south its much shorter. Driving most of the way is also possible.
Spinning the prayer wheels of Swayanbanuth temple, a pretty effective ways of completing multiple prayers in a short space of time!
• Bodnath Stupa (photo at top)
• Swayambunath (Monkey) Temple (photos above)
• Durbar Square (all three! Starting below)
• Kumari House of the Living God (photo)
• Pashupatinath Temple (photo)
• Garden of Dreams (information)
Outside the city
• Changu Narayan, an ancient temple on a high hilltop surrounded by forest a small village, also called Changu. The temple is in the Bhaktapur District about 8 miles east of Kathmandu.
• Kopan Monastery, a fully working Tibetan Buddhist monastery in a beautiful location not far from Bodnath stupa (photo)
• Buddha Nilkantha Temple, mainly a giant stone image of lord Vishnu lying on a bed of coiled snakes in the middle of a pond. About half an hour out of town.
• DakshinKali Temple, 10 kms out of town it's dedicated to the macabre goddess Kali, and features animal sacrifices twice a week. If you wish to see the shrine/sacrifices go very early or be prepared to queue.
Nara Devi, the main road approaching Durbar Square, the heart of the old city.
Durbar Square is both the historic and spiritual heart of Kathmandu, packed with incredible old buildings, statues, fountains, fascinating people and attractive little shops, though the 'guides' insisting on offering overpriced services are tiresome and need to be rejected very firmly if you are to get any peace. If you like this area then you also must visit two other Durbar Squares, one in Bhaktapur and the other in Patan, but both an easy day trip from Kathmandu.
If you are an ultra-hygenic, quiet-life sort of person then Kathmandu may not be your idea of Shangri-La. Like much of India/China it is crowded, noisy, polluted and frequently very dirty; gentle tourists can expect to get hassled a lot by vendors, guides and occasional beggars.
A tailor hard at work in his ancient shop.
Nepal can be a fantastically cheap holiday if you choose to stay in one of many budget hostels or even a dorm. Eat local food such as daal bhaat (rice, lentils and other vegetables), avoid beer and take public buses or walk everywhere. Unfortunately one thing that is difficult to avoid these days is a charge to enter special tourist areas such as the three wonderful Durbar Squares in the Kathmandu Valley unless you're adept at entering stealth mode and can sneak in and remain undiscovered.
Just to keep it real, here's a shot of Kathmandu outside the old town and outside the best season too.
If you're yearning for some peace and quiet in Katmandu then you could try the Garden of Dreams in the Thamel district, a neo classical 'architectural landscape' with pavilions, manicured planting areas and a sunken flower garden with a central pond. It's a regular oasis in the city with high walls to keep out the noise and lovely ambient lighting at night. The attached café/restaurant is expensive so bring your own snacks and drinks!
Dog Day Afternoon in Durbar Square.
Visas in 2013
It's not neccessary to get one beforehand, practically everyone will be given a 15, 30 or 90 days day tourist visa on arrival in Nepal at airports or land crossings.
Visa are not granted to citizens of a handful of central African countries and Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan.
A local woman makes a quick prayer to Ganesh the elephant god by pasting on some red gunk that has, over time, obliterated Ganesh's features. Another moment in the life of Kathmandu.
Best from September to November (Autumn) and March to May (spring).
At other times of the year expect either extreme heat or regular rainfall and cloud that will block views of the Himalayas, hiking trails become slippery, rivers become dangerous and transport becomes irregular.