Go local in Kathmandu
So they get you in a taxi from the airport and drop you off at a hotel in the tourist area. There are trendy internet cafes, shops and restaurants, all for the sole purpose of getting a piece of the lucrative tourist dollar that is the backbone of Nepal’s economy. There’s a man on every corner trying to sell you everything from treks to Everest Base Camp to cheap plastic beads from China. Horns honk, touts yell, and other tourists cling to laptops. You find yourself feeling like you’ve just been transported to another modern metropolis full of backpackers and cocky volunteers and NGOs, when what you really want is a taste of the exotic culture and local life of Kathmandu, a life you caught. glimpse from dirty taxi windows on the way from the airport! So grab your bag, camera and sense of adventure and let your feet take you into the heart and soul of Kathmandu, one of the busiest cities in the Himalayas. Let me reveal some of the best places to get a taste of the local Kathmandu, a side of this bustling city that the “tour bus” crowds don’t often see.
Asan Tole – Asan Tole is the main market square in central Kathmandu. The market is the pulse of the Newar culture (Newar are and Kathmandu Valley ethnic group). The narrow cobblestone streets leading to the tole are dotted with hidden temples and courtyards, dominated by ancient houses, all leaning on one another for support. Look up and you can still see the original hand-carved woodwork that has been the trademark of Newar craftsmen for centuries. The market square itself is situated around some lovely old temples and leads through several small side streets. From early morning to late afternoon, you’ll find men and women squatting around the central plaza selling fresh produce brought in from the fields that morning. Depending on the season, you can find everything from exotic oyster mushrooms, 10 different types of potatoes and sweet little tomatoes to juicy fresh peaches, mounds of vibrant green spinach and a variety of herbs. Stroll down any of the side streets leading from the chowk and you can find aromatic spices, the local staple rice, spicy dried fish, fresh handmade chillies and tofu, brass and copper clothing, pots and pans, incense, temple offerings and an almost endless variety of household items. Asan Tole is a great place to practice your haggling skills, soak up the atmosphere of this bustling market, and come home with some amazingly fresh local produce or some authentic Nepalese cookware.
Muslim Chowk: If you want to feel the atmosphere of a local community, just outside of Thamel, take a walk through this picturesque alley that is home to part of the Muslim population of Kathmandu. There is activity on this street at all hours of the day, from the halal butchers constantly selling their wares, the smiling juice and fruit whallas to the local housewives carrying huge baskets of laundry on their hips to the local water pump. It is almost like immersing yourself in another area when Nepalese Hindu culture merges with the Muslim environment of India. Muslim Chowk is also an amazing place to be at night. Entire families go out; women sit on doorsteps chatting, while children play and men sit in tea shops sipping hot tea. Here, you can also find some amazing restaurants serving deliciously delicious tender meat dishes, piping hot chapattis and Parthia and healthy spiced potato and chickpea dishes! A cheap and satisfying meal enjoyed amongst some of the friendliest people in town.
Bag Bazzaar – Looking for some local fashion? This one is strictly for women. Bag Bazaar is one of the original shopping streets of Kathmandu. Here you can find store after store displaying swathes of colorful fabrics waiting to be made into Kurta Surwal or Saris, two of the most widely worn garments by Nepalese women. If you’re looking for an affordable new outfit, head to one of the stores you love and grab a cushion. The shop keeper will shower you with smiles and tea while her assistant brings in an endless parade of stuff for you to choose from. Once you have decided on the material, you will be measured and checked for your style preference. Then comes the best part, haggling over the price! This can take some time and usually requires more tea! In a day or two you will return to the store, pick up your new garment and enjoy more tea. This is one of the most fun and authentic shopping experiences in Nepal and totally different from the way you shop for clothes at home.
Tulikhel: If you’re an early riser, put on your sneakers and walk through the early morning streets. Make your way through Asan and the side streets that lead to New Road. You’ll see street sweepers, meat boys making their morning deliveries of whole sides of buffalo, and newspaper boys weaving precariously balancing a stack of newspapers on their handlebars with one hand and tossing newspapers into gardens with the other. Head towards Tulikhel, a large open park in the center of Kathmandu. This is where the locals come in the mornings to work out, socialize, and do yoga! Grab a mat and join the daily yoga class held in the lower corner of the park. Learn to stretch and contort your body at angles you never thought you could, and be doubly amazed at the old lady sitting next to you with her ankles around her ears! The best part of these sessions organized by yogis from India is the great session of laughter at the end. Get in the mood for the day by placing your hands on your belly and joining the locals in a roaring chorus of laughter that wakes up anyone who hasn’t gotten up yet.
Swayambunath – This popular tourist attraction has much more to offer than pictures of monkeys and the Kathmandu skyline. Come here in the early morning or late afternoon to join the throngs of Tibetans and Buddhists who make daily circumnavigations of the stupa. Follow in their footsteps as men and women dressed in traditional clothing make three circuits at the bottom of the stupa, turning the wheels of 10,000 mani as they go. Then go up the stairs to the top, head behind the main stupa, down the stairs and into the jungle. There will hardly be a sole around. Find a spot along one of the many paths that lead into the jungle and sit in total peace and silence. When you’re happily satisfied, walk to the little white stupa and Newar Buddhist monastery, chat with the boy monks who will be busy sweeping the courtyard in the morning. Back on the road, head to a local tea shop for some tea and freshly cooked Mulpi (fried dough crispy on the outside and sticky in the middle) or try the traditional Tibetan tea with salt, spiced potatoes and fluffy flatbread. . All this and you can be back in Thamel before the other tourists have even gotten out of bed – even better if you got there so early you never had to pay the entrance fee!