Exploring the Culture of Kathmandu

Kathmandu got its name from a wooden pagoda that was located in what is now the centre of the city – the word literally means wood house. The Kathmandu Valley has been inhabited since at least 300 BC. The indigenous people of the valley are known as the Newa but a steady flow of immigrants into the area has meant intermarriage with other cultures.

Today Kathmandu is a multicultural city, but the two strongest influences continue to be Hindu and Buddhist. Traditionally this area has been famous for the religious piety of its inhabitants, and this explains why there are so many temples and other holy sites locally. The city was also once on an important trade route between India and Tibet, and this too has left its mark. The city has well over one million inhabitants and it attracts hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists and pilgrims each year. There are also believed to be at least 30,000 Tibetan refugees living in Kathmandu – predominately on the southern edge of the city.

Language in Kathmandu

Many languages are spoken by the locals in Kathmandu including:

  • Nepali is the official language of Nepal and it can be spoken by all citizens.
  • Nepal Bhasa is the local language of the Newar people.
  • Tamang language is a language of the Tamangs – the indigenous people of the Himalayas. There is a community of Tamangs living in Kathmandu.
  • Tibetan is spoken by many refugees in the city.
  • English and other European languages are spoken by those who are involved with the tourist industry.

Food in Kathmandu

The fact that Kathmandu has been influenced by so many cultures over the centuries means that their cuisine offers an eclectic mix. Probably the most popular dish is dal bhat which is rice with lentil soup. The Kathmandu people also enjoy curries both hot and mild. Indian, Tibetan, and Chinese food have also been embraced by the local people and some of these dishes have been adapted to suit local tastes. Some special foods are prepared only during certain festivals.

Festivals in Kathmandu

It is difficult to provide an exact date for most of the festivals in Kathmandu because they change each year. This is due to the fact that these dates are often decided by astrologers working with a lunar calendar. The most important festivals in Kathmandu include:

  • Gaijatra is the festival of the cows and it takes place during August or September. It is a chance to remember those people who have died during the last year and it involves teenagers dressing up as cows and parading through the street – despite being in memory of the dead it is actually a fun festival.
  • Nava Varsha is the official Hindu New Year and it usually occurs around the second week in April. This is a time for celebrating with family and socializing with friends.
  • The presence of so many Tibetans in Kathmandu means that Lhosar (Tibetan New Year) is also becoming increasingly celebrated, and it is also traditionally a Sherpa (ethnic group from eastern Nepal) holiday too – this event takes place during February. The Buddhist temples in the city are colorfully decorated with prayer flags and there are festivities to mark the occasion.
  • Maha Shivaratri is the night of the Lord Shiva, and this is one of the most important holy occasions for Hindus in the city. The festival officially begins at an appointed time during February/March but celebrations also take place in the weeks coming up to the event.
  • Holi is a water festival that takes place in March. A fun time is had by everyone as they splash each other with water and rub colored powder into each other’s faces – apparently this brings the victim good luck.
  • The Hindu Festival of Lights (Deepawali/ Tihar) is celebrated over the course of five days in October or November– in 2012 Tihar will occur between the 11th and 15th of November.
  • Teej is a festival in September (18th in 2012) where the focus is completely on women. Those females who are married wear red and go socializing while those who are still single remain at home where they pray for a husband.
  • Indra Jatra is another festival in September – it lasts for 8 days and the highlight involves the Goddess Kumari being paraded around in her sacred chariot.

Places to Go in Kathmandu

Some of the most interesting places to go in Kathmandu include:

  • Kathmandu Durbar Square is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and this was once the location of the royal palace. Today the plaza has some of the most beautiful and important buildings in the city – including an incarnation of the wooden house that gives Kathmandu its name.
  • Thamel is an area of Kathmandu that has been attracting foreign backpackers for decades. As well as budget hotels and cheap restaurants the streets are lined with markets selling every item that a visitor might want to buy.
  • Nasal Chowk is where the kings of Nepal once went for their coronation ceremonies. It is a picturesque square surrounded by buildings that date back to around the 17th century – there is also a museum on the premises.
  • If people wish to experience a bit of tranquility in the midst of Kathmandu they might want to visit the Garden of Dreams (Kaiser Mahal) in Tridevi Marg. This beautifully landscaped area has been strongly influenced by European gardens from the nineteenth century.
  • Swayambhu (Monkey Temple) is considered to be one of the most sacred (and possibly oldest) Buddhist temples in Nepal – it is located on top of a hill from where there is an excellent view of the city. It can be found in the western part of Kathmandu, and the whole area is referred to as Swayambhu.
  • The UNESCO World Heritage site Boudhanath (Boudha) has one of the largest Buddhist Stupas in the world, and it can be found in northeastern outskirts of the city. Tibetans have come to Kathmandu to pay homage to this holy site for centuries, and it continues to be one of the most important tourist attractions in the city today.
  • Up until 2008 Nepal was ruled by a monarchy, and the royal family resided in Narayanhiti Palace. After becoming a republic this building was turned into a museum and it has now become a popular tourist attraction.
  • Dakshinkali is 14 miles (22 km) outside the city and it is a temple that is devoted to the goddess Kali. Animal lovers might want to steer clear of this attraction as they regularly make sacrifices of cockerels and goats – particularly during the festival of Dashain.
  • The main reason why tourists travel the 20 miles (32 km) outside the city to Nagarkot is to catch a glimpse of Mount Everest. It is exceptionally beautiful here around sunrise or sunset.

Things to Do in Kathmandu

There are plenty of options when it comes to finding things to do in Kathmandu including:

  • Those visitors who plan on staying in Nepal for a few weeks will benefit from learning a bit of the local language. There are a number of schools in the city that offer introduction or immersion courses into the language.
  • If people are looking for a pleasant place to walk around they might like to visit the National Botanical Garden in Godivar. This garden always seems to be stunning not matter what time of the year it is.
  • Visitors who wish to learn more about the history and culture of the city should visit the National Museum in Chhauni. It is open every day from 10:30 until 14:00 or 15:30 (depending on time of year).
  • Those who wish to see an authentic Kathmandu market should visit Asan – this is located in the area between Thamel and Durbar Square. This is mostly a farmer’s market but it is worth visiting just to mingle with the locals and people watch.
  • Visit the Crematoria on the banks of the Bagmati River. The bodies here are wrapped in cloth and then burnt – this is probably not a good option for the squeamish.
  • Most men agree that having to shave on a regular basis is a real hassle, and this is why in Kathmandu it is common to pay someone else to do it. The barber shops in the city are renowned for their ability to give a close shave, and it also offers the opportunity to catch up on a bit of local gossip.
  • Meet a holy man and get their blessing. Most of these spiritual seekers do accept donations and many actively seek them from tourists. *Rani Pokhara is a lake in the middle of the city. It is now fenced off because it was once a popular suicide spot, but there are plenty of interesting things to see around the lake including Hindu shrines.
  • Listen to some traditional tunes at one of the many festivals. Newa music continues to be popular in Kathmandu but the younger generation seems to prefer Nepalese pop music. Kathmandu is also host to an internationally acclaimed Jazz festival called Jazzmandu.

Off the Beaten Track in Kathmandu

There are some good options for people who want to experience something off the tourist map in Kathmandu such as:

  • Visit the oldest known settlement in Kathmandu Valley which is called Sankhu Village (the name of the village can be translated as close to Tibet). This is a nice area to walk around and there are plenty of interesting historical buildings to see.
  • Nagarjun Forest Reserve is a national park not far from the city. There is plenty to explore as it covers an area of 159 square kilometers.
  • One of the best tours available in the city whisks people off to the Himalayas. Mountain Flights has a number of daily flights on small planes leaving Kathmandu airport, and the tour lasts a couple of hours but will likely be remembered for a lifetime.
  • If anyone gets a toothache during their stay in the city they might want to visit the Toothache Shrine in Bangemudha. There is a lump of wood at this shrine and apparently hammering a nail into this can cure a toothache.
  • Visit the terraced rice fields in the Kathmandu Valley. These really are beautiful to look at and to photograph.

Sports and Other Physical Activities in Kathmandu

Some good options for sports and other physical activities in Kathmandu include:

  • If people feeling energetic enough for a bit of exercise they might want to climb up Phulchoki in the Kathmandu Valley. This is the highest point in the area at 2791 meters, and there is a wonderful view from up there.
  • Hiking across the Kathmandu Valley is popular, and this is why there are so many agents offering these tours in the city. It is recommended that people shop around in order to find the best tours at the best prices.
  • One of the most exciting ways to explore the Kathmandu Valley is by mountain bike. This type of tour can be arranged from agents in the tourist areas of the city.
  • Running in the city can be a real challenge, but it is possible. One of the best routes is through the back streets of Ranibari.
  • The two most popular sports in Kathmandu are soccer and cricket. These sports are played everywhere by young and old alike, and it is sometimes possible to join in a game – those who are going to be staying in the city long term might want to join a team.
  • Those Kathmandu people who are serious about their health will usually join one of the many gyms spread across the city. Foreign visitors are usually welcome to join, and it is a nice way to make some Nepalese friends while staying in good physical shape.

How to Get Around Kathmandu

One of the major hassles for newcomers to Kathmandu is the lack of posted names on many streets. It is possible to visit most of the main attractions by foot, but it can sometimes feel like taking part in an obstacle course. One of the most fun ways to navigate the city is by rickshaw – these are plentiful around the Thamel area. It is also possible to hire a bicycle or a motorbike from most of the tourist areas – an international driving license is needed to hire a motorbike. There are also plenty of taxis that can be flagged down on the street or arranged by hotels, guest houses, or restaurants. When choosing a rickshaw or taxi it is strongly recommended that people negotiate a price first of all.

Outside of Kathmandu – Things to do in Nepal

Kathmandu is a good base from which to explore the rest of Nepal. Some suggestions for where people might want to go next include:

  • One of the main attractions in Nepal is the mountains and a visit to these areas can provide an unforgettable experience. Nepal is sometimes referred to as the nirvana for mountain lovers and for good reason.
  • Lumbini is the birthplace of the Buddha and it attracts pilgrims and tourists from all over the world. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is located in the Rupandehi district of Nepal
  • Chitwan National Park covers 932 square kilometers in south central Nepal and it is home to many types of flora and fauna – it is also a nature reserve for the endangered Bengal tiger and rhinoceros. This park is much loved by the Nepalese, and this is why it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country.
  • River rafting is a popular activity in Nepal and two of the best places to do this would be Marsyangdi River or Trisuli River.