On today’s installment of Streets of KTM, we’re taking a quick walk through Thamel. I didn’t take a lot of photos of the main roads and mostly stuck to the outer alleys because, to be honest, literally every traveler with a camera and a blog has something to say about Thamel. It’s been the center of tourism in Nepal since the 80’s, and it’s probably gonna keep being the center of tourism for some time. The neighborhood is nothing but trekking agencies, hostels and hotels, bars and clubs, and souvenir shops. I’m not sure if anyone actually lives in Thamel.
When I first arrived, I got mixed reviews about the place. Some foreigners love it because it’s where all the other foreigners are. It’s a condensed, curated version of what everyone imagines when they imagine Kathmandu. But those are also the exact reasons why I’ve met other foreigners who avoid it like the plague. To be honest, it took a few months for me to actually start liking Thamel. When I first arrived, I wanted to stick to the places that were “authentic” (whatever tf that means), and Thamel always felt like the exact opposite of that. Identical stores carry identical stock like it’s regulated. I’m not convinced there’s not some supply depot that each shop gets its stock from.
However, the longer I spend here, the more I’ve come to enjoy being in Thamel. It’s a hectic little place. During the day, it’s relatively peaceful in the vehicle-free alleys. Prayer flags strung overhead form colorful canopies that catch the light in kaleidoscopic arrays. Music echoes down the streets from local cafes tucked away in the labyrinthine alleys. Rickshaw drivers and cabbies call out cheerfully to every foreigner that passes by. Hash dealers whisper in your ear as they hurry past, hoping to make extra money off travelers. Because Thamel is a condensed version of Kathmandu, every little quirk of the city is amplified and present.
While we were walking around, we were approached by a guy off the street. He recognized me from a previous attempt to sell me a thanka painting, and was ready for a second go-around. I told him we weren’t interested, but he wanted us to come to his school anyway. We followed along, curious to see. As with many places that aren’t always available to tourists, we were led down a narrow passage with a very low ceiling. That passage entered into a courtyard where a small stand sold food and tea to local guys. Several passages branched off, deeper into the ancient buildings (Thamel was once a monastery and village). He took one in the corner, which had other passages branching away. Our path went up the stairs to a room filled with thanka paintings. From there, it was the familiar sales pitch that I’ve now been through three times and I was ready to leave. But that glimpse behind the curtain confirms there’s a lot more layers to Thamel than are apparent. I’ll spend some more time trying to understand Thamel a little better, because there’s more to it than just “the tourist area.”
I spent some time wandering through the back alleys, especially near the borders of other neighborhoods like Nayabazar and Ason. Here’s what I saw: