Escape From Thamel

Eric Weiner: On hawkers, banana pancakes and tourist ghettos from Kathmandu to Bangkok

11.02.09 | 10:19 AM ET

I’m hunkered down in Kathmandu’s Thamel district, afraid to leave my hotel. No, it’s not Maoist rebels, armed thugs or unruly street mobs that I fear. It’s the hawkers, a determined army of young men offering me Himalayan treks, hashish (Afghan or Moroccan varieties), Tiger Balm, Tibetan prayer wheels, a wide variety of musical instruments, a massage, more Tiger Balm, extremely large Gurkha knives and, of course, rickshaw rides. They address me in pigeon English, but can quickly switch to pigeon French or pigeon Hebrew should the situation call for it. They are determined, ruthless—and utterly beyond shame.

Rewards await me, too, I know, should I venture outdoors. Not far from my hotel, there’s a restaurant called Fire and Ice that serves superb wood-oven pizzas, and another place that whips up the best banana pancakes anywhere in Asia. There are bookstores, too, with selections to make any bibliophile purr. And, yes, out there, somewhere, lies Nepal. Or so I’m told.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Tiger Balm and banana pancakes as much as the next guy. And I understand the evolutionary logic behind Thamel. Like Bangkok’s Khao San road and Delhi’s Paharganj neighborhood, Thamel met a demand, affording road-weary travelers an opportunity to reconnect, buy some souvenirs, and eat something other than curry. In other words, the Thamels of the world offered a respite from the rigors of travel. Now they are travel. Some (not all, to be sure) travelers spend a few days in Thamel, before hopping a short flight to Pokhara, a sort of lakeside version of Thamel, and then embarking on a short trek. They then board flights back to New York or Berlin or Tokyo satisfied that they’ve “seen” Nepal when all they’ve seen is the Lonely Planet version—and only select pages, at that.

The inhabitants of Thamel, Nepalese and foreign alike, engage in a sort of charade. The hawkers and shopkeepers pretend that you are an honored guest, and not merely a walking dollar sign. Backpackers, meanwhile, steadfastly ignore each other’s gaze, pretending they’re visiting something other than a tourist ghetto. Unlike most ghettos, the inhabitants of Thamel sequester themselves voluntarily, but there is that same claustrophobia, that same repetitive quality of life, that same unrequited itch to escape, that one finds in all ghettos. 

I don’t deny the Nepalese the chance to make a rupee off the travel industry. God knows they deserve it after a Maoist insurgency for years scared off all but the hardiest travelers. I can’t help but wonder, though, if there isn’t a better way for the travel business here to rebound. A more organic way.

As for me, I spent four days and three sleepless nights in Thamel (the Steppenwolf blaring from the bar next door kept me up at night) before I made my move. I’m now ensconced at an undisclosed location. OK, never mind, I’ll disclose it. I’m in Boudhanath, on the outskirts of Kathmandu, the Buddhist heartland of Nepal. The Tiger Balm salesmen are blissfully absent, and no one has yet offered me hashish, of any variety.

Yes, there are tourists here, and that’s fine. The point is not to find some idyllic, imaginary locale free of all travelers, save ourselves. It’s a matter of balance, of proportion, and here in Boudhanath tourists and locals mingle in happy equilibrium, and I am once again a free man.

6 Comments for Escape From Thamel

Dave 11.02.09 | 12:02 PM ET

“I spent four days and three sleepless nights in Thamel (the Steppenwolf blaring from the bar next door kept me up at night) before I made my move. Iím now ensconced at an undisclosed location. Okay, never mind, Iíll disclose it. Iím in Boudhanath, on the outskirts of Kathmandu, the Buddhist heartland of Nepal.”

I made the same move during my last (of 6) weeks in Nepal.  There’s only so much a guy can take of the loud cover bands playing the same setlists night after night!  I’d much rather be waking up to the morning chants of monks in the monastery adjacent my guest house, and be in the perfect spot to observe the Tibetans practice their religion openly. 

Great piece!

Joel Carillet 11.02.09 | 12:24 PM ET

Just finished your book, Eric, and love your shorter pieces on World Hum too.  Wonderful description of these two different sides of the Kathmandu Valley.

Arun 11.06.09 | 7:45 AM ET

If you ever need something similar while in India, try Pushkar.

Eric H. 11.30.09 | 4:10 PM ET

Hey, E. I loved Geography of Bliss, like Joel. I went to Iceland after reading it and found all your observations as sturdy as heartwood. But c’mon! Thamel is a junk show and Bhoudha is a tranquil escape—is that all you got from Kathmandu? Stop whining. Learn some Nepali and get to know those sarangi sellers. Nepali was /invented/ to be an easy second language. Two weeks of practice and you’ll be chatting about hometowns and favorite foods, comparing family histories and trading song lyrics. Until you do, the shame is all yours.

Lumbergh 12.04.09 | 12:57 AM ET

I’m sick of all the complaining about commercialization and banana pancakes. If these countries were rich enough not to have to pander to western kids, we couldn’t afford to them. For myself, I love me a good backpacker ghetto. What am I supposed to not like about it? The $5 hotel rooms? The cheap beers? Being liberated from cubicle world? Quit whingeing.

Eric H. 12.07.09 | 6:01 PM ET

Hey, E. For a fascinating history of the growth of the Thamel tourist ghetto, google the anthropology paper Building the Road to Kathmandu. It explains, among other things, why you suffered sleepless nights next to a loud stereo system playing worn-out classic rock.

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