Welcome to Kathmandu, population nearly two million.
Think colour, think prayer flags draped from every building, think chaos, think lovely people. I’ve found myself living here for a few weeks and falling in love. The smell of masala, the fresh fruit, the chanting in the early morning and the cows wandering through the traffic – the mundane here still seems miraculous. While the bustling metropolis can feel overwhelming at first, there’s a real charm to some of the hidden gems of this city. I’ve compiled ten tips and activities that will help you with living locally and cheaply, while still immersing yourself in city life.
Get an offline map
First things first, get a little organised. If you’re here to book and prepare a trekking trip, then staying in the Thamel district and only memorising a few of the main streets will suffice. There is enough chaos, charm and hustle to still enjoy in Thamel – especially if you can get to a rooftop and view the city from above. There’s nothing like gaining a little perspective and taking a breather from the dusty streets below. If, however, you’re here to do a little sightseeing and exploring of the crisscrossing alleys, I would highly recommend getting an offline map. This allows for a peace of mind while you meander through the market streets, the back alleys and the outer suburbs as you get to know the city. An offline map allows for one of my favourite activities – wandering!
Use local transport
The best way to experience city life is to jump onto a microbus (usually RS 25-30) and head to one of the outer districts, like Baniyatar Pool or Gokarna. You’re in Kathmandu and this is how the locals live. Do use the offline map to find your stop and to guide you through the streets of the new area. Don’t think too much about how everyone crammed into the small bus would fare in the case of an accident. Half the fun of these buses is the pure chaotic energy they generate.
Eat like a local, read like a local
When you arrive in Baniyatar, you want to sit in a local restaurant and order rajma baht (beans and rice). Sometimes a little sign language goes a long way, and part of Baniyatar’s charm is smiling and chatting with the smiley locals. Reading the Himalayan Times translated into English, chowing down on rajma baht and chatting to the locals – such a cheap and charming way to get to know Kathmandu. I can’t stress enough how interesting it is to read a newspaper from the country you’re in as a way of immersing yourself culturally and politically!
Gokarna is a hidden gem!
The mountains outside of Gokarna provide some truly spectacular bike riding and motorbike riding scenery. Despite being on the outskirts of Kathmandu, the scenery is more reminiscent of the countryside. It’s a nice break from the traffic, easily accessible by micro bus or motorbike. It was one of my favourite places to visit in Kathmandu because it seemed entirely removed from the city. It was like a holiday within a holiday! Watch out for the eagles that dip through the skyline.
The unmissable stone carving at the Boudhanath Temple
Even the famous attractions like the Boudhanath Temple, Pashupatinath Temple, and the Kathmandu museum are best reached by micro bus. It’s cheap and exciting, and the drive takes you through sectors of the city you might not otherwise see. The Monkey Temple especially is a sight that can’t be missed. The view from the top of the stairs is worth the visit. The whole sprawling metropolis tucked into a seemingly small valley. With the most prayer flags I’ve ever seen in one place fluttering above, to the sacred cows plodding about, to the skittish monkeys darting between the tourist and the pilgrim, this place is one of wonder. While the souvenir stores take away from the holiness of the site somewhat, they smell like quintessential Nepal and are spectacular collections in their own right. Piles of candles, coins, magnets, and the Buddha’s eyes everywhere, not to mention some beautiful artworks, all crammed onto the same mountain that once bore the brunt of the 2015 earthquake. Don’t miss the stone carving of the Buddha from the 12th century.
Watch a performance/volunteer with Circus Kathmandu
The Circus Kathmandu is a fledgeling group, involved in a lot of social outreach programs and now increasingly to performance for foreigners. Keep an ear out for the next performances popping up in Thamel and in the district they train in – Lalitpur, Patan. The shows are full of wonder and spectacular, and well worth getting to! If you’re itching to volunteer and do something more meaningful with your time in Kathmandu, sending an email through their website could be the start of something exciting for you. You don’t need to have circus experience either, having someone who can hand out flyers and help set up is equally as useful as someone that can walk on their hands or breathe fire.
Cook for yourself
This step ties in with eating locally. You will be so enamoured by the tastes that you will have to try them out for yourself. The marketplaces are where Kathmandu comes alive! The spices, the fresh produce, the haggling, the busy atmosphere – all tied together with a faint scent of incense. So another tip of mine to explore, live like a local would be to book a hostel with kitchen facilities and go shopping. Learning some Nepali recipes to get the taste of Nepal, shopping using basic Nepali words, and saving some cash by avoiding the restaurants aimed at tourists, this is how you feel Nepali culture from within while on a budget. Bonus tip – add more garlic!
The final tip to live cheaply and live locally is to couchsurf. There is a really welcoming community of hosts here, always willing to impart invaluable local knowledge. Be sure to try the family cooking – usually dahl baht – and invite the host out for the Nepali wine. Not only are you saving cash, you are living in someone’s home in Kathmandu. This is literally the definition of living cheap and locally – and a humbling experience that will leave you with lifelong friends in a beautiful country.
If you find yourself in Kathmandu for an extended time and your hair is overgrown, find a barber. There’s a reason all the Nepali have perfect hair all the time – the barbers are incredible! With sign language and a hundred rupees, a beard trim and complimentary massage will follow!
What are you waiting for? There’s a whole lifestyle to discover and a city that ranges from the bustling markets to the holy temples to the magnificent mountains. Kathmandu welcomes you, Namaste.