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In this week’s episode of the podcast navigating the streets of Kathmandu’s Thamel District.
When you plan your vacation to Nepal whether it’s a trekking adventure through the Himalaya or a cultural visit to see the temples, architecture and amazing diversity of the country your first stop will most likely be the capital, Kathmandu. Within the city lies the largest concentration of hotels, restaurants, and travel/trekking agencies-The Thamel District-or simply Thamel.
It is an insanely hectic place to walk most of the time. There are no crosswalks, traffic lights or lines. It’s a free for all! A mix of cars, motorbikes, bicycle rickshaws, and pedestrians jockeying for space on extremely narrow lanes. You’ll actually be surprised how some vehicles make it through this part of the city. It can be a test in patience for you waiting for a vehicle to pass through a narrow line while blocking everyone.
Thamel was first established as a backpacker enclave in the 70’s when The Kathmandu Guesthouse first opened it’s doors. Before that, Freak Street, the neighbourhood close to Durbar Square was The spot in Kathmandu attracting hippies around the world with a cheap place to stay, eat, and smoke pot.
You will find everything you need to get your Nepal adventure started here. ATM’s, trekking and travel agencies, moneychangers, lots of shops selling trinkets made out of yak or buffalo bone, wool hats, pashmina scarves, trekking gear and restaurants.
In Thamel they serve everything from the Nepali national dish, Dal Bhat(rice and lentils) to pizza and pasta. On my last visit I tried a couple of Japanese restaurants which were really quite good. You can also sample some Tibetan specialties like momos, a kind of dumpling, Thupka, a noodle soup and more. If you are going trekking you’ll have plenty of opportunity to try those dishes so don’t load up too much on them before your trip.
One of the challenges you will have in Thamel is figuring out how to get back to your hotel if you’ve been out for a walk, shopping or getting a meal. The streets do not run parallel to each other, it actually feels like a maze. I’ve been coming here for awhile now so I’m used to it but if it’s your first time here it can be a little overwhelming. Especially when you’re trying to deal with the traffic, the flute and tiger balm sellers, rickshaw and taxi drivers all trying to get your attention.
I’ve tried different methods of reminding myself how to get back to my hotel. Memorizing street corners, landmarks, like the Kathmandu Guesthouse. Sometimes this work. I’ve also taken pictures of my route to remember how to get back. The problem with this method is the streets can look completely different once the shops have closed down for the night, which can be as early as 8 or 9pm. When they close their signs are not visible so you don’t even have them as a marker. Super frustrating.
The absolute foolproof way to navigate the area is with the use of your smartphone and the google maps app. Getting a sim card in Thamel is easy. Just take a copy of your passport, and a passport size picture to one of the Nepal carriers, like Ncell, and they’ll hook you up right away. The long distance plans are absolutely the cheapest in the world as well, costing anywhere from 2 to 3 rupees a minute to call North America, that’s like 3 or 4 cents!!!
Not only will this save the frustration trying to find your hotel. But you will also save tons of time looking for restaurants that are recommended in your guide book. I know most people only have a couple of days in Kathmandu before or after their trek or trip outside of the valley and every hour is precious.
Just search for say a restaurant you’re trying to find by it’s name or even a portion of it’s name after you’ve opened the app. I tried all the major restaurants in Thamel and they were all searchable in google maps. Make sure you’ve allowed the app to locate you and you’re on your way. Save your favorite restaurants, shops, cafes, or bars and it’s even easier next time you want to go.
When it’s time to return to your hotel just go to it’s saved location on the map or search by name again and start your way back.
There is wifi widely available throughout Thamel but I think the sim card is the most reliable way to count on Google maps working consistently.
This doesn’t mean you have to be regimented in your stay just because you’re relying on this app. Take your time and wander. Get lost even! Using the app will give you the confidence to wander even away from Thamel, knowing it will be a breeze finding your way back.
This of course doesn’t solve the problem of dealing with traffic. You have to be extremely cautious, usually cars will honk and even the bicycle rickshaws have makeshift horns that are easy to hear above the noise to warn you if they’re approaching. The motorbikes and scooters are the vehicles to be aware of the most as they don’t always honk plus it is very easy for them to maneuver through the lanes so they operate the fastest.
One last tip. I will be honest. After a day or two, even a few hours of being approached by flute and tiger balm sellers, trekking company representatives, rickshaw drivers, and sometimes aggressive shop owners it can be a little wearing.
I recommend a positive friendly attitude along with a complete disinterest in what they are trying to sell you. Some countries are different and this method doesn’t necessarily work but in Nepal and Kathmandu, the sellers will go away nicely after one or two no’s. Nepalis are some of the friendliest people on the planet. You don’t have to be mean, or nasty, just firm, friendly and uncaring. Once you have a handle on your attitude you’ll find the interest in you will drop considerably.
A few people I have met traveling through Nepal do not like Thamel and spend very little time there. In my opinion with a few strategies in hand it can be a great place to stay with the convenience of a variety of restaurants, cafes and bars within walking distance of your hotel and a central location for day trips in the valley.
During festivals it really is one of the best places to be as many local performers make this there place to entertain, like these two young ladies performing a dance during Dipawali or Tihar, the Hindu festival of lights.
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That’s it for this week’s podcast. Next week the final instalment of my cycling tour of Taiwan. Until next time this is John Saboe. Safe travels and Namaste!
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