Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, is a vibrant city. Packed with ancient history, this city is draped in palaces and temples. Kathmandu is home to gems such as Durbar Square (culmination of temples dating back to the 12th century), Boudhanath Stupa (a world heritage site), the Pashupatinath Temple (the country’s most important Hindu temple, on the banks of the Bagmati river), and the Royal Palace (the site of the infamous 2001 massacre of the Royal Family by the then Crown Prince, and now converted into the Narayanhiti Palace Museum).
Kathmandu is also the gateway to the rest of Nepal—in particular the tranquil Bhaktapur, the temple-tastic Patan, the Chitwan National Park, and, of course, the Himalayas (half of the world’s 8000-metre peaks are found in Nepal).
The mountains hold a magnetic attraction for many who visit Nepal. The trek to Everest base camp, a two-week trip starting with a nerve-wrecking flight to Lukla airport, is the most popular mountain activity, whilst the stunningly beautiful Annapurna base camp can be achieved by a 7-10 day trek from Pokhara.
Kathmandu, and most of Nepal, is now recovering from the 2015 earthquake that claimed over 9000 lives. The first post-earthquake Everest ascent took place on the 11th of May 2016 and there was a 40% increase in the number of tourists in 2016 (just over 750,000).
1. Boudhanath Stupa
The Boudhanath stupa is one of the holiest and most recognisable sites in Kathmandu. Assigned UNESCO world heritage status in 1979, Boudhanath (aka the Boudha, Chorten Chempo and Khasa Caityais) has a diameter of 120 metres, making it the largest temple in Nepal. The stupa is built on an octagonal base surrounded by prayer wheels, and has colourful prayer flags draped from its 36-metre central spire.
Boudhanath is rich in symbolism: it has five statues of Dhyani Buddhas, representing the five elements (earth, fire, water, air and ether); nine levels, representing Mount Meru (the mythical peak at the centre of the Buddhist cosmos); and 13 rings from its base to its apex (representing the steps to enlightenment or Nirvana). Boudhanath is the religious centre of Nepal’s Tibetan/Buddhist community, and is surrounded by around 50 monasteries and shops settling Tibetans. About 15% of the population are Buddhists.
Look out for Tibetan monks, with shaven heads and maroon robes, and pilgrims spinning prayer wheels and buying yak butter and tsampa (roasted barley flour). Be careful to observe and pay respects to the Tibetan custom by walking around the stupa in a clockwise direction. There has been a stupa on this site since the then Tibetan king Songsten Gampo converted to Buddhism in around 600 AD.
The Stupa was heavily damaged during the 2015 earthquake. It re-opened, following extensive repairs, at a three-day purification ceremony held in November 2016. Late afternoons is the best time to visit once the tour groups have departed and the Stupa is fairly empty but beautifully lit with the traditional candles. The Losar (Tibetan New Year) celebrations are held here in February/March.