Returning to Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, felt like going back to see an old friend, so well do we know this city now. It’s a crazy, often overwhelming city that has a pulsating cultural heart and an energy so vibrant that it is hard not to fall for its many charms.
The old city especially, around the backpacker hub of Thamel, is an intoxicating experience that can threaten to overload the senses; sights, sounds and smells are everywhere, all at the same time.
As we’d spent time in the city before, we’d already seen most of Kathmandu itself, as well as many of the valley towns, including the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Patan, Bodhnath and Bhaktapur. We had also visited some lesser known Newari villages such as Kirtipur, Dhulikhel and Panauti.
Click to read about Our First Trip to Kathmandu!
Our visit to Kathmandu in May this year was, therefore, less about rushing around to see various sights and more about just being in the city. Yes, visiting a couple of new places and revisiting some important ones but, most importantly, it was about appreciating the city for what it is and allowing ourselves to soak up its mesmerising atmosphere.
On our first morning in Kathmandu, Ollie and I took a taxi out to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Swayambhunath, otherwise known as the ‘Monkey Temple‘. This hilltop Buddhist temple is one of the most famous sights in the city and can be seen from miles around.
Centered on a gleaming white stupa, the temple is topped by a gilded spire painted with the eyes of the Buddha. These eyes appear all over the Kathmandu valley and have become synonymous with Nepal.
The pulsating energy at this shrine is captivating with the smell of incense and butter lamps hanging heavy in the air. Tibetan pilgrims perform their ritual circumnavigations, spinning the prayer wheels at the stupa’s base.
The most atmospheric way to approach the temple is from the Eastern Stairway, which is lined with monkeys! Brightly painted Buddha statues lie at the bottom of the hill and the steps climb past a series of chaitya and bas-reliefs.
At the top of the stairway, you’ll see a huge brass-plated dorje (thunderbolt), a core symbol of Tibetan Buddhism. It symbolises the power of enlightenment, which destroys ignorance, and is itself indestructible.
Though we had seen Swayambhunath before, we returned to experience the vibrant spiritual energy all over again and take in the amazing sight of this most beloved temple. Views over Kathmandu from its hilltop location are spectacular, making this a great spot to watch the sunset.
West of the main stupa lies a second smaller one with a gompa just behind, surrounded by pilgrim rest houses and an important shrine to Saraswati.
Whilst you’re in the area, you could join pilgrims on a clockwise kora (circuit) around the base of the hill; along the way you’ll pass gigantic chortens, huge prayer wheels and Buddhist chapels.
You can also stop by the Buddha Amideva Park, a compound containing three large golden statues of Sakyamuni Buddha, four-armed Chenresig and Guru Rinpoche.
We spent that afternoon in the old town, wandering the chaotic streets and back-alleys of Thamel and stumbling across the many medieval temples and artistic shrines that line the way.
We didn’t head anywhere in particular; rather we enjoyed following where our intrigue led us, discovering anew the many hidden squares, stupas and temples that appear from every angle within the atmospheric back streets of Kathmandu.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Durbar Square is a must-see if you haven’t been but we noticed, upon climbing to the top floor of a nearby rooftop restaurant, that very little had changed since our visit last year in March 2016. The iconic square was still littered with debris from the 2015 quake; there is, therefore, a good deal more work to be done to restore it to its former architectural glory. Yet, much endures amid the destruction and a visit is still worthwhile.
Do you only have one day to spend in the capital? Check out our post: What to do with One Day in Kathmandu! We tell you how to get the most out of this buzzing city!
The next day we took a taxi to Pashupatinath, the site of Nepal’s most important Hindu temple. Throughout Nepal, Shiva is worshipped in his wrathful form of Bhairab; at Pashupatinath however he is celebrated as Pashupati, Lord of the Beasts. Sitting on the banks of the holy Bagmati River, the complex is surrounded by a large number of religious shrines, temples and monuments.
Cremation ghats are also situated along this stretch of the river, where, just as in Varanasi in India, people come from across the country, when they are close to death, to die and be cremated at this auspicious spot. A former temple complex beside the holy temple, the Panch Deval now houses a social welfare centre that accommodates destitute elderly Nepalis.
Non-Hindus cannot enter Pashupatinath Temple itself but there is plenty to see on and around the ghats to make a visit here extremely worthwhile.
Sights in Pashupatinath:
The Cremation Ghats
Used for open-air cremations, which take place daily on the ghats south of the temple. At the north end of the ghats are a series of yogis caves, previously used as shelters. South along the west bank you can also see a large uprooted lingam and a small 7th Century standing Buddha image, beside the Raj Rajeshwari Temple.
Full of life; take a few minutes to absorb the energy of it all. Devotees bathe in the tepid waters of the Bagmati, holy men perform rituals on the stone steps and, across the river, families prepare funeral pyres.
Across the river from Pashupatinath Temple, set atop a garden of stone terraces. These tiny temples are often used as lodgings by wandering sadhus; each one contains a central Shiva lingam. Keep an eye out for the lingam with a shiva face at the northern end of the group.
Up the hillside between the Shiva shrines; an elaborately frescoed temple often thronged by visiting sadhus. A side path leads to a panoramic viewpoint over Pashupatinath Temple.
A huge complex of lingam shrines at the top of the hill; there are more than 50 altogether in a variety of architectural styles.
Continue along the hilltop track to this towering red-and-white shikhara temple; it’s dedicated to the 11th Century yogi who founded the Shaivite tradition and invented Hatha yoga.
The path drops down through forest to this large temple, built by King Pratap Malla in 1653 and dedicated to Parvati in her wrathful form of Kali. Entry is prohibited to non-Hindus but you can peek into the compound from outside; the riverbank in front of the temple is lined with Shiva shrines and octagonal plinths for ritual bathing.
We hired a guide, who took us around the main sights for about two hours. He was worth his weight in gold; not only did he know where everything was, he was also a mine of information on all things Pashupatinath. He also offered us a much deeper insight into Hindu culture than we had ever gleaned before: suffice it to say that we learnt a lot that day!
Best Times to Visit Pashupatinath
The best times to visit Pashupatinath are early in the morning or around 6pm, when evening prayers take place. At dusk, pilgrims release butter lamps on boats made of leaves onto the Bagmati as part of the aarti (light) ceremony.
From Pashupatinath Ollie and I walked on to Bodhnath, the site of Asia’s largest stupa. Bodhnath is a pulsating Tibetan paradise, one of the few places in the world where Tibetan Buddhism is allowed to run free. Most of the people living in the village are, in fact, Tibetan refugees who fled China after the 1959 occupation.
We visited this magical place in March last year when the stupa was undergoing heavy restoration work. Now, just over a year later, the work was finished and the stupa was back to its former glory!
With the eyes of the Buddha watching over us, we joined the mass of pilgrims making their ritualistic circumnavigation of the dome. Tibetan monasteries line the prayer-flag decked streets that lead out from the stupa, as well as hundreds of shops selling every kind of religious paraphernalia.
The spiritual energy at Bodhnath is quite unlike anywhere else in the world; it would be impossible not to feel the beating heart of this special place. Bodhnath surely leaves a mark on the mind of every traveller who is lucky enough to visit.
We also ventured a little further afield into the Kathmandu valley to the town of Pharping and nearby Dakshinkali Temple. Pharping lies 19km south of the capital but it took us about three hours by painfully slow local bus to get here. In fact the first bus we were on broke down mid-way and we had to wait for another to come along!
This small town is very traditional and sees few foreign visitors; we made the journey to see its ancient Buddhist pilgrimage sites. It took us 1-2 hours to make a clockwise circuitous tour of the various monasteries and temples; they were nice to see but paled in comparison to the more famous sights of the Kathmandu valley.
The Pilgrim’s Circuit Includes:
Auspicious Pinnacle Dharma Centre of Dzongsar
A giant chorten containing 16 enormous prayer wheels. Beside it you’ll see a huge Guru Rinpoche statue in a glass case.
A large white gompa with a brightly painted chorten; located up the hill past a line of Tibetan restaurants.
Sakya Tharig Gompa
An enormous and brightly painted chorten; inside are hundreds of miniature chorten and statues of Guru Rinpoche set within alcoves in the walls.
A shrine sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists; it’s accessed via steps to the right of Sakya Tharig Gompa. The Rigzu Phodrang Gompa is nearby, worth visiting for its impressive frieze of statues.
Guru Rinpoche Cave
Also known as Gorakhnath Cave; located inside a large white monastery behind the Drolma Lhakhang. The dark cavern is illuminated by butter lamps and a row of coloured lights; don’t forget to remove your shoes before entering.
Vajra Yogini Temple
A 17th Century Newari-style temple devoted to the Tantric goddess Vajrayogini .Reached via a flight of stairs leading down from the Guru Rinpoche Cave.
Shesh Narayan Temple
Around 600m downhill from the main junction in Pharping in the direction of Kathmandu; a highly revered Vishnu shrine surrounded by ponds and statues. It’s tucked beneath a rocky cliff wall and a Tibetan monastery.
To the right of the 17th Century temple you’ll see a cave dedicated to Guru Rinpoche and in the courtyard lie a series of statues, depicting figures such as Ganesh and Hanuman.
6. Dakshinkali Temple
From Pharping we walked a few kilometres on to Dakshinkali Temple, a favourite Hindu pilgrimage destination. This temple is dedicated to the goddess Kali, the most bloodthirsty incarnation of Parvati. To satisfy the goddess, pilgrims bring chickens, ducks, goats, sheep, pigs and even the occasional buffalo, which are then sacrificed by temple priests and then cooked on a huge barbecue.
The blood flows freely every Saturday and Tuesday and during the festival of Dasain in October; Ollie and I, vegetarians as we are, purposely visited on a Sunday when the area was very quiet. The temple was being cleaned at the time of our visit, though alarmingly it was still possible to see the unmistakable tinge of red everywhere in what can only be described as permanent blood staining.
If you are thinking of visiting, it is worth knowing that only Hindus can enter the actual courtyard where the image of Kali resides. Also, however disturbing it may be to learn about what goes on at this temple, it is important to remember that the sacrifices are a religious event with profound spiritual significance for local people. Remember to be respectful, whatever your views may be.
We spent our final day in Kathmandu chilling out around Thamel and at our wonderful accommodation, Blue Mountain Homestay, where we always stay whenever we visit the city. We wandered the hippie streets, drank copious amounts of chai and took the day to slow the pace down a gear, after what had been another incredible month in Nepal.
Suffice it to say that Thamel offers everything to travellers, every kind of ware you need and every kind of food you’re craving. We, however, stuck with the ever faithful dal bhat every night; this simple Nepali meal is not only the best value dish in Asia but also one of the tastiest and one that we would sorely miss.
Are you heading to Pokhara? Check out our Insider’s Guide! Or for more day trip ideas in the valley check out: Top 11 Off-the-Beaten-Track Day Trips in the Kathmandu Valley!