After a week of deprivation, our next couple of weeks certainly felt like complete luxury. Having left the children’s home, we met up with Merilyn, my mum, who had come to visit us in Nepal for a couple of weeks. After meeting her at her hotel, we had a literal taste of what was to come. My mum treated us – as she would continue to do throughout her time in Nepal – to a meal at the oldest restaurant in Thamel (the tourist part of Kathmandu) KC’s. We even had beer, which generally doubles the price of a meal! Our first beer in Nepal!

Before continuing on with the luxuries we experienced, our experience of Thamel should quickly be mentioned. Back in the 1970s Thamel was home to all the drop-out hippies (of course all hippies in the correct meaning of the word are drop-outs but that’s another discussion), while today it’s home to trekkers. Every 3rd shop is a camping shop, selling a variety of different quality rip-off North Face items (and other such brands). Apart from the camping shops, its basically a cheaper Camden Town. For those of you that haven’t been to Camden Town in London, that means its a market place which sells “alternative” hippie rubbish. With that said, it has its hectic charm, but my advice would be to get in and out as fast as possible! The only real reason I can see to stay is in order to visit other towns and places around Kathmandu.

Back to our luxuries. Having decided that none of us liked Kathmandu, we decided to do some day trips. Stop one – Pashupatinath and Boudhanath. Pashupatinath is certainly a must see, and was the largest “cultural shock” I’ve experienced so far. Its main purpose is to cremate people. However, the way I conceptualise cremating (obviously according to Western practices) and the way it is carried out here are very different. Bodies are burned in the open, for everyone to see (though the bodies themselves are wrapped in a sheet), on massive stone slabs on the banks of a river. There are several different stone slabs depending on your caste and how much money you have. If you are an atheist, you get burnt on the slab for the lowest caste – what in India would be termed “the untouchables”. However, as our guide commented in a subtle jibe at the status differentiation, it doesn’t matter where you get cremated, your soul is still released from your body: some people just pay more for the service. The philosophy behind this practice is (correct me if I’m wrong!) that everyone other than babies and Holy Men and Women dies with sins and by being cremated, your sins turn into ashes and get washed away in the river, where the ashes are scooped. This is why babies and Holy Men and Women get buried instead of cremated as they have no sins to be washed away.

I also found it interesting how public the whole process was. I’ve always seen death as a private affair. But again, our guide explained how death is part of the process of life and should not be hidden away, but celebrated in the open (a similar approach is applied to sex in the tantric carvings on the buildings!). Crying at cremations is in fact highly frowned upon as death is not meant to be a sad thing. The only bad thing I can say about the place is that its smells rather iffy…

Next to the cremation area is home to the Holy men and women (the women are on one side, the men the other). They live completely separately, but are allowed to talk. By becoming holy people, they commit to not engaging in any sexual practice for their whole lives. If they do, all the work they have done up to that point becomes void.  What was also cool was that Buddhist and Hindu holy people lived literally side-by-side.

After this incredible experience, we walked through woods with monkeys playing in the trees and tiny farm villages to a Tibetan Buddhist town called Budhanath. Having come through China and Tibet, this wasn’t as special as it might have been otherwise, but if you haven’t been to China or Tibet and you go to Nepal, this is another must see place. In the centre there is a massive stupa – the largest we have have seen – and down the side streets there are several monasteries, many of which are schools for developing monks. There are also many places to buy the same things that you can pay in Kathmandu, but without the hectic chaos which is Thamel.

The next day I came down with my second batch of food poisoning – again the source unknown. Unfortunately, this meant that we didn’t go to Bakhtapur so we can’t really talk about it.

The following day we left Thamel and Kathmandu, never to return, and settled down for the night in Patan. Patan historically was one of the three city-states in Nepal (the other two being Kathmandu and Bakhtapur), however nowadays it is more often consider to be in the suburbs of Kathmandu. It is now famous for its Durbar Square. In the 17th Century one king clearly had too much money to spend, and built loads of temples all in one square. There are also some nice stories to go with the square. In the centre of the square there is a stone elephant and about 10 meters in front of the elephant there is a ancient water hole. It is said that in the darkest part of the night, when everyone has left the square the elephant leaves its stone pillar and walks down to the water hole to have a good old drink and then returns before anyone has noticed its gone.

Another story was about a king who was much loved. One day he went hunting, one of his favourite past-times, and never came back.  There was already a statue of the king in the square and so they put a stone bird on his head and opened the window to his bedroom so that the king can climb back in.  Legend has it that as long as the bird stays on the kings head, the king is alive, but if the bird flies away, the king is dead. The bird hasn’t flown anywhere yet…

The best experience of being on the square, though, was after all the tourists had gone home. The local kids come out to play football amongst the ancient temples, using the 300yr-old king’s pillar as a goal!

Other than the square there are several nice fair-trade shops where you can get some lovely presents or simply indulge yourself – something we were getting quite used to.

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