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Taming Thamel

By UrbanAnthropod, May 9, 2010 9:34 am

Now that I’ve gotten the political rambling out of the way…

Entering the tourist zone

Thamel

Thamel - Kathmandu

Any tourist visiting Kathmandu is sure to know about Thamel. Some recommend staying clear of it, while others will tell you that it’s where the action is. Maybe there is an artificial quality to Thamel. As with any tourist district, it’s sure to cater to … tourists! Lining the streets, you’ll find numerous shops selling pashminas, hats and local knick-knacks. The variety of restaurants geared towards foreigners are plentiful, yet it’s a little difficult to find something authentically local. Internet cafe’s are stacked one atop the other. And the most interesting thing about the winding roads of Thamel is the fact that there are no street names.

Choose your direction in Thamel

Finding things isn’t so bad, but a few days of wandering will definitely help you out. Thamel has an aesthetic all it’s own. The narrow streets are crowded with cars and motorbikes that constantly whip up the dusty ground. Kathmandu, itself, is heavily polluted — extending through most of the valley. The addition of the dust doesn’t help much. The constant burning smell and the dusty roadways caused me some respiratory distress. There were times I would have sneezing fits. And don’t even get me started on the stuff I was blowing out of my nose. Beyond this, Thamel was a really relaxed place. While the hawkers are alert and trying to sell their wares, they aren’t overly aggressive. I was told that the tiny storefronts ran for $700 a month, with 6 months paid up front. Hard to see anyone being able to afford such a hefty price in Nepal, but it does seem worthwhile.

Even the taxi drivers and rickshaw drivers weren’t that pushy. They’d offer to take you somewhere when they saw you, but they’d back off soon after telling them you weren’t going anywhere. The best part of the bicycle rickshaws were their horns. The constant sound of rickshaw horns is quite definitive of Thamel. Who knew that they were being powered by an old soda or water bottle instead of the traditional rubber bulb? Unlike my experience in India, the drivers used their horns to make you aware that they were coming on the narrow street, as opposed to simply adding to the noise pollution. These drivers were remarkably conscientious throughout the controlled mayhem.

Celebration

The night-time atmosphere of Thamel was rich. Live music can be heard from various bars and restaurants. Bad and good covers of Western rock music would be playing concurrently from each direction. I was taken to a small bar where smaller acoustic sets would be played. The performer that night happened to be the runner-up from Nepali Idol. He ran through some traditional Nepali music on his guitar with strong vocals reminiscent of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. As it was someone’s birthday in the audience, he quickly switched from the fusion world music to the traditional “Happy Birthday” and back to pleasantly histrionic vocalizations of the song he was previously performing.

We arrived during the climbing season. The first summits of Everest had not taken place yet. I could only imagine what it would be like weeks later when the climbers returned. Or better yet, the hopeful crowds that had arrived weeks before us to make their way to basecamp.

Huffing … and I don’t mean gasping for air through the pollution

But night-time wasn’t only celebratory. While walking through the streets and hearing the rock music playing, I’d invariably pass the urchins sitting on the ground bopping their heads with blank smiles. Their glazed looks and disheveled appearances reminded me that I was in one of the poorest countries. In the U.S. sniffing or huffing is a drug of convenience and doesn’t discriminate based on economics. In Thamel, the openness of this self-abuse reminded me of the meaning of travel to foreign places. No matter how far I would get away from the U.S., there would always be something that reminded me of home. While I don’t see public huffing in New York, I know it exists and I don’t ignore the problem. The only difference was that these kids were probably 9 years old and living on the street. One night, as we drove past the urchins, our guide stated “now you’re gonna see one of these guys run after us.” Our guide was quite recognizable and sure enough, one of the kids ran along the car and chatted with him, bag in hand. Apparently, he had struck a deal with the kids. If they didn’t sniff, he’d buy them a meal a month. I’m not sure if he’s ever had to pay up or if he just paid up regardless. He informed us from his conversations with the urchins that they loosely associate into a gang with one kid as the leader. Through hustling, playing on sympathies of tourists and theft, they make a living. And a cut goes to the leader. While I noticed the blank smiles and bopping heads during the night, I also saw these kids on the fringes of Thamel during the day gathering their bags and markers (and whatever other fume-inducing substances).

Finding your way

Narrow Streets of Thamel- Kathmandu

If travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, what about settling down as an expatriot? I travel for the experience. Most of all, I travel to experience the culture. Kathmandu often stirs visions of hippy freaks who have left the U.S. for a simpler life towards achieving some sort of nirvana. Remarkably, I didn’t come in contact with any in Kathmandu. This might be a product of being in Thamel, but I didn’t really see evidence of it. Sure, there were wares being pushed that would cater to that crowd, but it was notably absent. The streets were filled with tourists influenced by that aesthetic, but none of them were long-term residents.

Even more conspicuous amongst the tourists were their ages. While many foreigners traveling through Kathmandu were in the mid 20’s to mid 30’s, a large demographic of those 40-60 were visible in Thamel. On top of that, they often looked as if they’d returned from weeks of trekking! I suppose it had to do with being at that point in life where the money was available and the kids were out of the house. It was really impressive since most people I know that age just stick to sedentary lives on cruises for vacations! While one is sure to meet similar types in hostels anywhere in the world, Thamel is replete with these travelers. A veritable parade of tourists courses through the narrow streets of Thamel at any given time. This subculture of Nepal is worth experiencing as much as the culture of the Newar outside of the cities.

If you’re ever searching for something in Thamel, you’ll get directions relative to other landmarks. Just take a look at the Wikitravel entry for Kathmandu! Let’s try to find Hot Breads, for example. Wikitravel says:

Past Helena’s, opposite the right-turn junction towards Fire & Ice, Hot Breads sells fresh pastries (pan au chocolats, cinnamon bakes) from about 30 NPR each, which you can eat on the roof along with a selection of drinks. The place to go for breakfast at least once.

So where exactly is Helena’s? Fire & Ice?

From Chhetrapati, pass the Everest Steak House on your right, and turn the next left. Helena’s is about 2 minutes walk up this road on your right.

You can see what I’m getting at here. But in the end, a couple days of wandering and taking in the names of places, it’s really easy. It just gets difficult when you need an address for money transfers and the like. I’ve also made a reference to finding things in Thamel before when I mentioned our attempts to bypass the Delhi re-entry issues by printing out our boarding passes. Wandering through Thamel is fun and getting a little lost is a good exercise for any traveler, especially an anthropod.

OSM fail

Kathmandu is totally walkable, in theory. From Thamel, you can hit the Durbar Square to the south in 15 minutes. That is, if you could find your way. A good map should help. To the west, you could find your way to Swayambhunath (which was still under renovation when we visited). To the immediate west is the former royal palace converted into an overpriced museum. I heard there wasn’t much of interest in the palace museum so we did not go. I later discovered that the Garden of Dreams directly adjacent to the palace was worth a visit. Apparently, the environment is conducive to escaping from the noise of Kathmandu while being minutes away from Thamel. It sounded like the only contemplative place in Kathmandu and it was right in the center of it all! Following the main roads east and then north, one could walk to Boudhanath in 30 minutes. It’s totally not recommended to walk that far in Kathmandu though since the air quality is that bad and it would just be exacerbated by traveling on the larger roads. Guides, taxis and rickshaws are abundant for low cost, so that’s the better bet. We did actually walk from Swayambhunath to the Durbar Square and back through Thamel to our hotel. We had a guide though!

I’d hoped to map some of the roads in Thamel with my GPS logger, but the narrow streets made it difficult for me to get a fix. Unfortunately, openstreetmap.org is severely lacking with respect to Kathmandu. After hearing about our various guides’ experiences with trekking and watching their sure-footedness along the country roads, I had imagined what it would be like to track their GPS logs. In fact, one guide asked me what the little device was on my belt loop. This had been the topic of a few conversations when I was in India , as well. Below is a map of Kathmandu from OSM with the marker on Thamel.

Related posts:

  1. Transit through India
  2. Nepal Maoists
  3. Prepping for India and Nepal, Part 3
  4. Prepping for India and Nepal, Part 2
  5. Prepping for India and Nepal, Part 1

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