Buddha Watches Over Emerging New Life in Nepal

By Susan Spano

Los Angeles Times

KATMANDU, Nepal ~ The all-seeing eyes of Buddha stare blankly over Katmandu’s Palace Square from a massive, wooden portal. The door is shut tight. But standing here on the very day in November when Maoist rebels signed a peace accord ending 10 years of turmoil in Nepal, I could almost hear the giant door open, bidding visitors back.

A Hindu adage says guests are like gods. But travelers have largely stayed away since 1996, when Maoist insurgents began a terror campaign. Rebels blockaded roads, bombed tourist areas and demanded money from trekkers in the mountains. The US embassy in Katmandu advised citizens to avoid Nepal, and the Peace Corps suspended operations.

Then, in 2001, the king and nine members of his family were massacred in the palace by the crown prince. The tragedies seemed almost unreal, especially to travelers who, over the years, were deeply attached to Nepal.

I booked a trip to Nepal – my first – last summer, about the time insurgents agreed to lay down their arms. Since then, negotiations between the government and the Maoists have remained on track. A peace accord was signed on November 21, and visitors are returning.

With 75 percent of the country covered by mountains, including many of the world’s tallest peaks – among them 29,035-foot Mount Everest – Nepal is a dream destination. Its closure to outsiders during the Rana clan’s regime from 1846 to 1951 only piqued interest.

The first visitors who trickled in after that found marvels quite apart from the Himalayas, including the soulful, straightforward Nepalese people.

The still largely feudal mountain kingdom was undeveloped but breathtakingly colorful. Its ethnically diverse population of about 27 million, including Gurungs and Chettris from the west, high-mountain Sherpas and Newars, who dwell in the Katmandu Valley, were ruled by a monarchy and organized in castes, but they coexisted.

The myriad faces of Nepal today are nowhere more apparent than in the fertile Katmandu Valley, which is ringed by terraced rice paddies. The Himalayas are about 50 miles north but seldom visible from the city because of clouds and pollution.

I spent a week walking through this vibrant, noisy, nerve-rattling capital and touring nearby Bhaktapur and Patan. Since the late 13th century this triad of cities – now melded in urban sprawl – has been the home of Nepal’s kings, who filled it with palaces and temples. With seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Katmandu Valley would richly reward visitors even if it weren’t in the shadow of the Himalayas.

Soon after I arrived, I booked a mountain flight in a small Buddha Air plane from the Katmandu airport to see Everest. The aircraft are specially designed to give every passenger a window seat.

It’s best to leave early because clouds roll in by midmorning, obscuring the mountains. Minutes after takeoff, I saw 23,771-foot Langtang north of Katmandu, followed by the eastern part of the Himalayan chain, including flat-topped Menlungtse (23,560 feet), Cho Oyo (26,906 feet) near Nangpa La pass to Tibet, Nuptse (25,790 feet) on Everest’s shoulder and then Everest itself.

I’ll never forget it, and just to make sure, a flight attendant was selling t-shirts that read, “I did not climb Mount Everest, but I touched it with my heart.”

I was back at my hotel by 9am, eating muesli and wondering whether it had all been a dream.

I stayed at Hotel Tibet near the foreign embassies and new royal palace. It is owned by a family that immigrated to Nepal after the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1951, when refugees flooded in. The newcomers were known as keen business people, and they prospered in Tibetan Buddhist communities. The women at the hotel’s front desk wore traditional Tibetan dresses. Carved dark wood, tiger rugs and stuffed yaks decorated the lobby.

It was a 10-minute walk from the hotel to the tourist hub of Thamel in central Katmandu. I took a variety of routes, passing vegetable stands, bicycle taxi ranks, boys playing cricket and intersections clogged with cars that abide by no traffic rules except survival of the fittest.

Royal Tragedy

My path passed the eerily quiet, heavily guarded new royal palace, which occupies a huge walled compound in central Katmandu. Once open to tourists, it has been closed since that night in 2001 when, high on drugs and alcohol and distraught after an argument with his parents, Prince Dipendra opened fire on his family then turned the weapon on himself. He was rushed to the hospital in a coma and proclaimed king, but he died without regaining consciousness.

The prince’s uncle, Gyanendra, took the throne. Though he doesn’t enjoy wide popularity, many Nepalese are deeply attached to the monarchy and his picture is seen in restaurants and shops.

Life goes on, especially in crazy Thamel, which grew up when hippies discovered Nepal’s cheap hospitality and hashish in the 1960s. The country outlawed marijuana in 1973, and only a few graying flower children hang on. But the Thamel street scene remains overpowering, a slam against the wall for trekkers just emerged from the silent, white temple of the Himalayas.

Thamel’s unofficial nerve center is Pilgrims Book House, which has a large collection of titles on the Himalayas, handicrafts and a congenial restaurant. I sat there drinking milky Nepalese tea with owner Rama Nand Tiwari. He started selling used books on the street in Varanasi, India, then moved to Katmandu about 25 years ago.

“I am a book sadhu,” he told me, using the Sanskrit word for holy man.

The only other quiet corner in Thamel is the newly opened Garden of Dreams on the grounds of an old European-style, Rana-era palace occupied by the Ministry of Sports and Education.

I kept going back to Thamel because of the restaurants. They serve every variety of Asian cuisine, refreshingly unfused. I had perfect pad Thai in the courtyard at Yin and Yang, and sat on the floor at Thamel House, tasting traditional dishes of the Newari people (half the population in Katmandu Valley) such as roasted soybeans and potatoes fried with turmeric, chili and cumin.

Thamel is also an irresistible place to shop, with merchandise from all over Asia, testifying to Katmandu’s favored location on ages-old trading routes between India and China.

Prices for fabrics and clothes, carpets, wood carvings, Newari metalwork, handmade mulberry paper and an astonishing array of knickknacks are low even before negotiation.

Upscale shoppers favor Durbar Marg, two long blocks east of Thamel. It is Katmandu’s Fifth Avenue, despite uneven sidewalks and stray dogs.


Bustling Trade

Katmandu’s historic center, Palace Square or Durbar Square, is crowded with statues, pavilions, the old royal palace and marigold-decorated temples in a range of architectural styles. Pilgrims who come for blessings from the Shivas and Vishnus inside, souvenir hawkers, rickshaw drivers and restoration teams working atop rickety scaffolds make the area vibrantly alive.

Tourists must buy tickets to wander through the precincts, and many monuments, such as Taleju Temple, a three-tiered pagoda built in 1564, can be inspected only from the outside.

The old palace stands at the east side of the square. It is beautiful but dilapidated, haunted by conspiracy, like the mass killing of 30 officials in 1846 engineered by the first Rana prime minister. Among its musty treasures are touching baby pictures of King Tribhuvan, who was a virtual prisoner in the palace but escaped to India in 1950, where he helped unseat the Ranas and give Nepal its first democratic government.

Pilgrims come here from all over Asia to worship one of the incarnations of creator-destroyer god Shiva, who is said to ride a bull and live in the Himalayas. When I asked my guide whether the Nepalese people viewed such stories as myths, he shook his head.

“Our belief is literal,” he said.

In Nepal, religion is not for holy days only but tightly woven into routine, as I saw one morning at Swayambhunath Temple a few miles west of downtown Katmandu. Devotees in warmup suits were circumambulating the hill on which the temple is perched.

A steep flight of steps leads to a giant white stupa, or Buddhist shrine, decorated with prayer flags and another image of Buddha’s all-seeing eyes. Monkeys skitter across the tile roofs and, when I was there, teenage soldiers filed around the stupa, spinning the prayer wheels.

I watched, counting my blessings. To be in Nepal at that moment seemed a great gift. Only Buddha can see how the Nepalese will fare as they rebuild their fragile democracy. But I’m sure there is welcome in his eyes.


A Guide to Katmandu Valley


Dwarika’s Hotel, 447-3725, www.dwarikas.com, is an architectural landmark built with wood carvings salvaged from traditional temples and houses throughout Katmandu Valley. It has 72 luxurious rooms, a beautiful courtyard, swimming pool, restaurant and bar. Doubles US$135 to $210.

Hotel Tibet, 442-9085, www.hotel-tibet.com, is a friendly, 55-room, family owned hotel off Lazimpat Road, about a 10-minute walk north of Thamel. It has a restaurant and rooftop terrace. Doubles $80, including breakfast.

Hotel Vajra, 427-1545, is a handsome compound on a hilltop outside the city center near Swayambhunath Temple. Favored by Himalayan trekkers, it has a garden setting, elaborate wood carvings, restaurant, rooftop bar and theater. Doubles $16-$61, including breakfast.

Kathmandu Guest House, 470-0800, www.ktmgh.com, is an old favorite among budget travelers, in a compound set back from the busy streets of the Thamel district. It has 121 rooms, a courtyard cafe with WiFi, ATM, laundry, bike rental, travel agency and hair salon. Doubles $4 to $65.


Chez Caroline, 426-3070, is a stylish restaurant serving French onion soup, quiche, omelets, and more at the Baber Mahal Revisited shopping arcade. $10-$15.

Mike’s Breakfast, 442-4303, founded by one of the first US Peace Corps volunteers to arrive in Nepal, in the 1960s, is in a courtyard shaded by a giant camphor tree in the Naxal neighborhood, east of the new palace; it offers a diverse menu, from gourmet coffee to quesadillas. $5-$10.

Yin and Yang, is an excellent Thai place in busy Thamel. $10-$15.

Thamel House, 441-0388, is in a restored 19th-century Newari town house at the north end of Thamel. It serves traditional Newari cuisine at low tables with seating on the floor. $10-$15.


Nepal Tourism Board, Tourist Service Center, P.O. Box 11018, Bhrikuti Mandap, Katmandu, Nepal. 425-6909. www.welcomenepal.com.

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