Kathmandu stupas and Grand Hotel, Nepal

By November 17, 2014Journeys

Namaste! Swayambhunath stupa (a dome-shaped structure), probably the most sacred among Buddhist pilgrimage sites, and Boudhanath, the largest stupa in Nepal, are must-see landmarks for tourists visiting Kathmandu. On another note, the friendliness of the staff at Grand Hotel won us over right from check-in.

After a stroll through Nepal’s capital visiting Durbar Square and Thamel, searching for the Kumari living goddess and tasting traditional cuisine in an open-air restaurant, we headed to Swayambhunath stupa. This ancient religious complex atop a hill lies West of Kathmandu and is also known as the Monkey Temple. The reason: numerous holy monkeys live in the northern and western parts of the temple. The Tibetan name for this site translates into “subline trees” due to the many varieties of trees found on the hill. Swayambhunath is probably the most sacred among Buddhist pilgrimage sites, while for Tibetans and followers of Tibetan Buddhism it ranks the second most important after Boudhanath. To reach Swayambhunath from our hotel we took a taxi. Arriving at one of the two entrances we were greeted by numerous colourful prayer flags interconnecting trees up in the air, with the blue sky as a perfect backdrop.

The Swayambhunath complex consists of a stupa, the dome-shaped structure used by Buddhists as a place of meditation, several shrines and temples, as well as a Tibetan monastery, a museum and a library. There are also shops selling souvenirs, music CDs, bracelets, carpets (remember to bargain), restaurants and hostels. Before we began our ascent to the main platform we found ourselves surrounded by monkeys, big and small. There was also a baby-dog who watched them from a distance, somehow intimidated. One monkey even stole a big water bottle right from a tourist’s hand and then took refuge on the roof, so be careful with your belongings when you go there. These thief-monkeys are even known to have stolen cameras from tourists.

On our way up we stopped for coffee and tea at Cafe de Stupa. There, we had a chat with the owner on the terrace – protected by metal nails and shards against the monkeys – and admired the beautiful surroundings from a higher ground. We also learned that the current Kathmandu Valley was once a lake, formed over one million years ago, with a depth of 200 meters in some places. The last Ice Age cooled and dried the Himalayas and the lake started to shrink about 30,000 years ago. As the lake receded, flats emerged above the water. The Kathmandu Valley civilization grew and prospered because of the fertility of the soil, the hard-working people living there and, later, because of the Valley’s location along the ancient trade route between India and Tibet.

It was the first time we saw a real-life stupa, so we were amazed by its architecture, drawings and motifs. A cubical structure painted with the eyebrows and eyes of Buddha looking in all four directions sits on the base dome, which represents the entire world. Between the eyes, the Nepali character for number 1 is painted in the form of a nose. This question-mark-type symbol stands for unity and the only way to reach enlightenment – through Buddha’s teaching. Above each pair of eyes sits another eye, the third one. When someone awakes – a moment represented by the eyes of Wisdom and Compassion – from the limits of the “normal” world, that person reaches the state of enlightenment. The 13 pinnacles on the top symbolize that human beings must go through thirteen stages of spiritual realizations before reaching perfect enlightenment or Buddhahood. From the main platform we had an amazing panoramic view of Kathmandu, highlighted by the shining sun and the clear skies. We then left Swayambhunath via the second entrance, descending a long stairway with 365 steps. Each morning before dawn, hundreds of Buddhist and Hindu pilgrims ascend those 365 steps, passing by the two lions guarding the bottom entrance, and begin a series of clockwise circumambulations of the stupa.

Just when we thought stupas can’t get any better we arrived at Boudhanath, located on the northeastern outskirts of Kathmandu, about 11 km from the city center. It is the largest stupa in Nepal, one of the largest in the world and the holiest Tibetan Buddhist temple outside Tibet. Moreover, as of 1979 Boudhanath is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built probably in the 14 century, Boudhanath stupa lies on the ancient trade route from Tibet. When refugees entered Nepal from Tibet in the 1959 following the Chinese invasion, many decided to live around Boudhanath. From above, Boudhanath stupa resembles a giant mandala, a diagram of the Buddhist Cosmos. As with all Tibetan mandalas, four Dhyani Buddhas mark the cardinal points, while the fifth is located in the center, in the white hemisphere of the stupa. The five Buddhas personify the 5 elements also represented in the stupa’s architecture: Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Ether.

And there are more numbers. The nine levels of Boudhanath stupa stand for the mythical Mount Meru, center of the Cosmos, while the bottom is surrounded by an irregular 16-sided wall with frescoes in the niches and sculptures. The base of the stupa consists of three large platforms, decreasing in size as they go up, platforms that symbolize Earth. The square structure – with Buddha’s eyes on each of the four sides – is topped by a pyramid with 13 steps, the ladder to enlightenment. Last, but not least, there are many flags tied to the stupa, carrying prayers heavenward as they flutter in the wind. Adding to its charm, streets and narrow alleys, colourful homes, small shops and Tibetan Buddhist monasteries surround Boudhanath stupa.

So how did we feel after visiting these two landmarks of Kathmandu? For sheer size, Boudhanath stupa is an impressive achievement, amazing to admire from every angle. It looks even more spectacular from the air, as we’ve seen from several photos. However, Swayambhunath stupa was more to our liking. Its location – up on the hill, those pesky monkeys – without them the temple wouldn’t have the same appeal – and the amazing panoramic views unfolding in front of our eyes from the main platform, all these make it our favourite. We know Nepal has other amazing stupas – some high up in the mountains, in remote places – and we can’t wait to discover them, too.

For our stay in Kathmandu we’ve chosen Grand Hotel. A 4-star property, the hotel is located 7 km from Tribhuvan International airport, in the vicinity of Casino Mahjong (a five minute walk), the business district and several shopping areas. Also close by are tourist attractions like Bhaktapur Durbar Square, National Museum, Swayambhunath stupa (Monkey Temple), Kathmandu Durbar Square, Pashupati Nath and Krishna Mandir. With traditional Nepalese-style architecture, this 12-storey hotel is one of the highest buildings in Kathmandu. Grand Hotel has 91 guest rooms, including 7 suites, with central air conditioning and heating, multi-channel TV, mini bar, hair dryer, non-smoking floor, tea / coffee makers and other amenities expected by the modern traveler.

The first thing we noticed at Grand Hotel Kathmandu was the friendliness of its employees, from the driver who greeted us at the airport and the bellboy to the Reception staff and the General Manager. In an industry where modern hotels tend to offer – more or less – the same amenities (or, at least, they strive to do that), the staff’s attitude makes all the difference. In most cases, a smile upon check-in, a pleasant conversation and the feeling they’ll do everything to make you feel comfortable during the stay are more important than the size of the rooms, over-the-top amenities, gadgets or how much gold leaf was used for decorations. For us, the staff’s attitude makes a big difference!

In this regard, I still remember the check-in I did at a luxury hotel in Dubai several years ago after a long, exhausting flight. From a 5-star property with an eye-catching design and refined interiors I expected the Reception staff to at least smile and make the usual conversation: how was the flight, how long are you going to stay with us, any plans for sightseeing, etc. Well, none of this happened. No smile, no conversation. Just the usual formalities, the handover of the electronic keycard and a soft-spoken “Have a nice stay!” It was the first time when I felt like a room number and not a guest. That “icy” welcome in Dubai had nothing to do with the warm welcome felt at Grand Hotel Kathmandu, where the staff seemed to know us for years, not minutes. Moreover, every time we met the hotels’ employees during our stay they were all smiles and ready to help.

The views from the room – or rooms with a view – are also important when it comes to making a difference. Here, we had nothing to complain about. Located on the seventh floor, our Executive Suite overlooked the city and Swayambhunath stupa. Every morning we watched a beautiful sunrise over Kathmandu and admired the Monkey Temple in the afternoon, at dusk, remembering the time spent there. Wi-Fi is available for free in the public areas, with a small fee necessary for in-room use. Another thing we liked about Grand Hotel: the packages awaiting guests. Besides a Grand Casino Package (valid only for guests with Indian nationality), passionate travelers can opt for 5 packages with experiences lasting between three and eight days: Grand Adventure package – rafting, bungee jump & mountain biking (3 days), Kathmandu-Pokhara (6 days), Kathmandu-Pokhara-Chitwan (8 days) and Kathmandu-Nagarkot (4 days).

If you fancy a dinner with a view we recommend Maharaja restaurant, located on the hotel’s top floor. Going from extremely mild to spicy, Mughlai cuisine – a style of cooking developed in South Asia by the Imperial kitchens of the Muslim Mughal Empire – and live entertainment will be part of the ambiance, whether you’re enjoying dinner with your loved one or some friends. Also on the top floor, Aromates Bar & Lounge is the perfect place to unwind before or after dinner with a wide selection of international / domestic hard and soft liquors, cocktails, beverages and snacks. At lobby level you can choose Rendezvous Coffee Shop for all-day dining with an international menu and Jharna Tea Lounge for tea, coffee, pastries and other refreshments.

The hotel’s health and leisure facilities include the Himalayan Healers Spa, the Beauty Centre and an outdoor swimming pool. For meetings and events, Grand Hotel Kathmandu relies on a Business Center, as well as two Conference and Banqueting venues. Named The Diamond Hall and The Golden Ballroom, their capacity ranges from 20 to 250 guests. Large functions of up to 400 guests can also be catered to using the Diamond Hall and the poolside lawns. After three days, our time in Kathmandu has come to an end. Upon check-out we were greeted by the same friendly and smiling staff. A quick visit to the shops located in the hotel, offering arts and crafts from Nepal as well as non-traditional wares, and then we left for the airport knowing we’ll return to Kathmandu sooner rather than later.

How do we sum up Nepal after seven unforgettable days? It was love at first flight as we haven’t visited this country before. It was also love at first sight. Nepal has some amazing landscapes and landmarks, from Kathmandu’s stupas and temples to the majestic snow covered peaks of the Himalayas – eight of the world’s ten tallest mountains, including Mount Everest, can be found in Nepal – and the beautiful lakes in Begnas and Pokhara. We can even say it was love at first bite as we’ve tried some interesting dishes and drinks. Leaving these aside, we fell in love with the people of Nepal: friendly, welcoming and with a warmth you’ll rarely find. As for the children we met while hiking on the hills of Begnas, they were the happiest we’ve seen so far. We made new friends, spending some time with like-minded people, helpful and passionate about traveling. More than just another destination, Nepal is a journey of (self) discovery, a genuine experience that made us reevaluate what’s important in life. We will return soon, that’s for sure.