Recently, we decided to take a jaunt to Kathmandu. Having never visited Nepal before, I was excited to see this city with everything I had heard about it. Granted the city is quite large, but like most tourists we ended up in Thamel–the tourist hub of the city. While we enjoyed our time in the city we were certainly ready to move on to a quieter part of the country after our stay. From the perspective of a traveling family below are some reasons we would NOT recommend Kathmandu as a destination of choice:
1. POLLUTION– The air quality here is horrendous! While I have had other travelers tell me that they think other cities (such as Delhi) are worse, the quality of the air in Thamel was terrible. We ended up wearing masks most of the time when we were out (try putting a mask on, and keeping it on, an almost 1 yr old). Even still, all three of us got sick; think scratchy and burning eyes, nose and throat and sudden cold-like symptoms. We are assuming it was the air quality as all of our symptoms disappeared when we left the city.
2. ENVIRONMENT– The Thamel area of Kathmandu is not very family friendly, despite it being the central tourist attraction. The entire area is filled with shops of all sorts, restaurants, and bars that line the narrow streets that see cycles, bikes, rickshaws, taxis, and people fighting for space. It’s all fine and dandy, that is until the sun goes down. Once the sun sets it gets real seedy, real fast, especially for families. I can’t tell you the number of times my husband was approached and asked if he wanted to smoke hashish–even when he was carrying the baby! Let it start to get on the later side (8:30-9:00ish) and the streets are filled with people yelling, staggering, etc. This being said, I never felt unsafe in the area traveling by myself to pick something up from the market, but I was never very comfortable having the baby out after dark, and certainly wouldn’t have been comfortable with an older child either.
3. LACK OF ATTRACTIONS– As I’ve mentioned before and as you probably recall, Kathmandu was hit hard by the earthquake in April. Several buildings collapsed and nearly all buildings have some sort of cracking and bracing. In fact, our hotel had cracks that were simply painted over. Luckily there is some sort of system to determine which buildings are no longer safe to enter and entry and use of those buildings has been banned. Durbar Square–one of the biggest attractions in Kathmandu– suffered significant damage; so much so that entire buildings are no longer there and many others have substantial bracing to keep the walls from buckling outward. This being said, while there are still a few temples remaining the main attraction of Durbar Square is no longer there. Also, there is a fee that foreigners must pay to access this area of the city, despite there not being much remaining. This fee was just raised from NRP 750 to NRP 1000 (approx. USD$10). There are other temples and monasteries in the area but taxis must be taken to get there (which in the time of a fuel crisis can be pretty pricey).
4. TOURIST PRICING– I think this is pretty much standard all over Nepal. If you look like a foreigner or even speak like a foreigner in my husband’s case, you are going to get overcharged. Prices are rarely posted, which gives everyone the freedom to charge rates as they wish. There are certain prices for the locals and other prices (often exorbitant) for foreigners. Tourist prices can be four to five times more than what they would ask of a local, and many times these prices are arbitrary and just based on what they think they can get out of you. My recommendation is to try and learn at least some of the nepali numbers and always keep an ear open for what others are being charged around you. This will help in the negotiation process. Never just accept the price that you are being told, it’s in the culture to haggle, so try your hand at it and if the price isn’t right there’s nothing wrong with walking away (in fact, sometimes it can even help!).
Nepal has lots to offer and while I personally did not care for Kathmandu as much as other cities in the country, there are others who prefer its atmosphere. However, as a mother, more scenic and a little less crazy is preferred. If you are planning a trip to Nepal you should still visit Kathmandu, just keep these things in mind and plan accordingly.
Travel on!- J