For better or worse: tourists, hashish and hard drugs in Kathmandu Nepal

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ January 7th, 2013. Published in: Travel blog » Nepal.
Drug sellers in Kathmandu

Take a walk in Thamel after dark and you’ll soon be approached by several people loudly whispering the words “You want smoke …”

Buying drugs in Kathmandu was legal in the 1960′s … walk the streets today & you might think it still is

Anyone who has visited the tourist zone of Thamel in Kathmandu after dark can attest to the lone scruffy men who will brush eerily close by your face and loudly whisper the words -

“Smoke? … Hashish … Smoke, you want?”

It’s been that way for decades. Once a free haven for the legal smoking of marijuana, cannabis, opium and other recreational narcotics Nepal’s drug scene is the stuff of hippie hangout legend.

Today things have changed. Drugs are illegal. But the sellers, buyers and traffickers are still here in abundance. Unfortunately so too are hardcore drugs like heroin, cocaine and amphetamines.

For better or worse it’s still very easy to get drugs in Nepal.

For the tourist buying drugs in Nepal is a dangerous path to follow in more ways than one.

Smoking Hashish during Shivaratri in Nepal is legal ... but only then

Smoking Hashish during Shivaratri in Nepal is legal … but only for one day!

Why are drugs easy to get in Kathmandu Nepal?

Nepal is not a major drug producer per se. Yes, in some “remote” villages you might find the odd crop of green leafed medicinal plants growing. And certainly during the Shivaratri festival hashish smoking is legal for the day. Shiva is after all a deity who enjoys the odd smoke now and then.

The real reason that drugs are easily found in Nepal is two fold. Firstly due to the country’s geographical proximity to the Golden Crescent—Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.

Add in frequent flights to Thailand and India along with a large porous land border with north India to making things even attractive.

Then there was that hic-up in the 1970′s with the USA telling Nepal to ban drugs which kicked off a hugely lucrative trade in heroin that some say toppled the monarchy.

That was all before the good old days …

Freak street where the shops once sold hashish

Eden Hashish Centre poster

Eden Hashish Centre where once hashish was legally sold

The small street to the south of Kathmandu Durbar square called Freak Street was once a lot more lively than it is today. Once upon a time there were direct buses to Freak Street from the airport and borders filled with hippies looking for their legal smokes!

Yes, government-run hashish shops in the 1960′s were one of the main tourist draws to Nepal. Today Freak Street is a renovated “un-attraction” to hippies and tourists alike.

Only the former hippies of yesteryear revisiting Nepal walk Freak Street now. Occasionally bumping into and avoiding a few of today’s “designer” hippies trying to look as if they are of the same stock.

When US President Richard Nixon made an agreement with the new Nepalese King in 1973 to ban cannabis there was a round-up of traditional hippies on Freak Street.

They were physically deported to India. The hippie tourism of the 60′s was quickly replaced with the more respected business of trekking and cultural tourism.

Then came the royal heroin smuggling. The harder drugs had arrived into Nepal.

From stoned hippies to global heroin trading

Heroin trading became a huge income earner for an elite few in Nepal during the 70′s and 80′s. One of the casualties of brown sugar heroin was the Crown Prince who allegedly ended up being sent to rehab in Switzerland. Meanwhile in 1984 the Nepalese Soccer team were detained at LAX carrying 150 kilos of pure heroin.

During a SAARC conference a US delegation purchased two kilos of pure heroin, dumping it on the Nepalese police chiefs desk before threatening to cut off all aid to Nepal. There was a huge round-up of foreigners, tourists and locals who were arrested on drug charges both real and falsified. Allegations of torture were brought to light and the royal family faced national protests.

In 1990 King Birendra reinstated multi-party democracy in Nepal. Closely followed with military and trade agreements with Pakistan. A rash of democratic ruling parties took over and suddenly Nepal was a heroin hub.

Following the royal massacre a Time magazine article pointed to the history of drug trading by the royal family. The article was blacked out in Kathmandu.

Today Nepal is a poorer country. The hippies have left and on the streets of Kathmandu are loud whispers of a hashish past mixed with much cruder words.

How to avoid drug dealers on the streets of Kathmandu today

Ignoring the drug sellers in Kathmandu

Simply walk by the drug seller and say nothing to them …

It’s true when they say things are never the same when you revisit a country. I remember walking back from a bar in Kathmandu at night in 2007. Repeatedly dirty looking men stuck their faces too close to mine hushing the words “Smoke? … hashish? … you want smoke?”

I never answered them. Once though, like many people, I got aggravated by the nightly in your face pestering. So when one man got a little too close I told him to get lost with the F word. He went from annoying man to verbally abusive and retaliated with a racist verbal barrage and enraged fist.

I learned then that the best way to deal with the hashish dealers is to walk on by saying nothing. Or, at most, put the palm of your hand up just before you see one of them step forward from the shadows.

The same policy is true today.

However as the times have changed so to have the loud whispers and their offerings.

Drugs on the streets of Thamel today

Today those fabled words have changed. Today the words have become harsher. Today I hear the following:

“Smoke? … Hashish? … You want good time?”

“Smoke? … Hashish? … Coke?”

“Smoke? … Hashish? … Something else … Stronger?”

“Smoke? … Hashish? … you want Girl? …  Boy?”

Even now merely ignoring some of these sellers can result in insults being sneered at you. Maybe it’s just me as a solo male on his way back to a guesthouse at night that invites this harsher tact as opposed to older couples. One thing is for sure though …

The days of casual free thinking hippie hangout smokes are indeed long gone from the streets.

Strangely even the glue addicted street children of Kathmandu are bipartisan to this harsh new world of hardcore drugs.

One night a Nepalese friend tells me of someone he knows who’s addicted to heroin. I asked how bad the man was? He said the man enjoyed it. A complete lack of education let alone rehab centers have turned what’s known elsewhere as a dirty drug into a bravado drug here.

Arresting tourists for buying drugs in Nepal

Rickshaw driver at night

Rickshaw driver at night that was offering much more than a ride home …

The reality on the ground is that it’s very, very easy to buy drugs in Nepal. Hashish still remains the most commonplace drug. It’s simply a matter of going into Thamel and waiting for someone to come up to you.

There are risks though. Once a month I hear of at least one tourist getting caught and arrested for possessing drugs in Kathmandu. Most recently a Dutch girl was arrested in Thamel by undercover police. The result is not pretty either.

Tourists are easy targets for police. It’s easy to spot a strung out tourist versus an everyday trekking / cultural tourist. A $100 on the spot bribe to avoid jail is not so easy these days to find either. The worst is yet to come if anything other than hashish is found.

Heroin, cocaine, indeed anything stronger than hashish is likely to end up with a tourist serving time in Kathmandu prison. Take a visit there and see for yourself. Go with a random name and see the attendant pull out a list of foreign prisoners. You’ll see a mass of US and European names. Along with a growing list of Nigerians.

If they have money they’ll be okay in Kathmandu prison. Otherwise, it’s truly not so nice.

The reality is it’s good for political numbers to arrest some easy pickings. It keeps international donor countries supplying millions of aid dollars a year happy to see assertive progress.

Tourists getting caught buying drugs on the streets of Kathmandu are easy pickings.

Last year a Thai woman married to a European bound for Malaysia was arrested for cocaine smuggling. In Makwanpur over 2.6 tons of hashish was seized in June 2012.  Polish man arrested for drug selling in Kathmandu. Drug arrests in Pokhara. The list goes on …

Ironically while Nepal was forced to make marijuana illegal by the USA it’s now making a legal comeback in some USA States. Just don’t forget it’s still illegal in Nepal.

Buying Drugs in Nepal – leave it to the big shots

Nepal is changing. It’s no longer a hippie hangout. Nepal is even trying to rid itself of being a budget travelers destination. Entrance prices are on the increase. Trekking permits go up every other year. Nepal is trying to move up in class. Ironic considering the Nepalese caste culture.

Tourists are being watched as easy pickings that bolster Nepal’s numbers and profile in fighting drug trafficking. Nationally heroin addiction is growing among the local population. Big time drug busts are going down.

My advice is to ignore the men trying to loudly whisper into your ear along Kathmandu’s streets. Wave off the rickshaw driver offering you anything other than an expensive ride home. Instead enjoy Nepal for its culture, food and incredible trekking.

Like all countries Nepal has it’s good and bad sides. Let the big drug dealers run with the risks. Enjoy Nepal for everything else!

 This is an additional feature article highlighting the drug selling in Kathmandu Nepal


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18 Great responses to For better or worse: tourists, hashish and hard drugs in Kathmandu Nepal

  1. It seems that in the 21st century you can get the entire range of drugs & vice in every corner of the world – where mass tourism has arrived … Catering to Western tastes, I suppose.

    • Places like Barrio Alto, Barcelona were pretty in your face about it at night. Ditto KTM. So yes, you’ve a valid point there Michael. I can’t say I don’t go out looking for drugs. In KTM they seem to come looking for you. I think in other touristy towns it’s who you hang with and where as well. The history of drugs in KTM is what I find interesting. Just imagine what Kabul was like back in the day. I imagine in about 20 years it might be what KTM was like 20 years ago.

  2. paul nunan says:

    I have vivid memories of waking in kathmandu and walking to durbar square and drinking tea from a street vendor and feeling like i was truly in another world.That was 1979 and Freak street was famous for pumpkin pie as much as smoking hash,but the true memories of Nepal and Kathmandu that never go away was nearly straining my neck trying to see the peak of those majestic mountains and feeling completely surrounded by them.Hard drugs in those days were not that plentiful in kathmandu and the picture you paint now is very different to my days.But like you i would not hestitiate going back to kathmandu but not for the hash etc.but for the mountains and medival feeling that kathmandu hopefully still holds in places like Durbar square.

    • I certainly got/get that “another world” feeling about KTM. All those old buildings that look so different to so many other places in the world. The streets, the mix of old and cultures. Yes, very off world like.

      Today there are more motorbikes around than ever. Mandala Street in KTM has been renovated to shiny brick level. Yes, Patan, Durbar Square and Baktaphur still have the another world feel to them at first glance. I haven’t heard many tourists explain it like that other than you or I. Perhaps the fact it now costs 750 rupees just to enter Durbar Square has something to do with it. We were/are lucky to have seen that other world when we did Paul.

  3. Jan says:

    Stellar read. Incredible to see how one countries influence unseated a much more relaxed country into this. Not the first time either. And as you pointed out, ironic.

  4. Emma says:

    A well put together piece. Enjoyed reading it if not for the facts of today but that interesting history!

  5. Harry says:

    Times have changed for the worse. Nepal will wants to be Bhutan. Only they can’t do it as they are living off years of US aid. So they let the drugs flow through. Anyone thinking China doesn’t have a role is barmy. The US did more to screw things up than just latin America.

  6. Jason says:

    I read this a while ago now Dave on the RSS. I remember my early times in Kathmandu where we stayed in a great little place in Freak Street. Thamel was starting to get a little expensive back then for the ultra budget and the glory days of Freak Street were well behind it but we still enjoyed the atmosphere.

    We were approached on a few occasions for drugs during this time, but from your account it appears that things have changed dramatically.

    Lets hope it doesn’t get as bad as Morocco where I was offered quite a large quantity of hash as I was walking towards the customs at the port of Tangiers!

    • I don’t think causal smuggling will be an issue in Nepal like Morocco. They’ve already got a few paid off trucks from what I hear!

      I personally found the offers of prostitution along with drugs being offered on the streets have grown a lot. The street dealers haven’t really grown in number, but what’s on offer certainly has!

  7. Mark says:

    Interesting story, but I have found a general tone of it a bit unnerving. Drugs are bad, just say no, shit is annoying. I like cannabis and I can’t wait to get my hands on Nepali hash when I get to Kathmandu. If I don’t buy it from a street dealer, then, who am I suppose to buy it from? We all know it’s possible to get arrested. How about some advice on how avoid undercover cops?

    • I don’t think there’s any lecturing about the pro’s and con’s of “taking drugs” here. In regards to getting caught buying or selling then those are simply the facts.

      If one were to read the bit about it’s easy to spot “strung out tourists” then one could guess what/who the police would usually target.

      After that, you’re on your own!

  8. DCanna says:

    great read, thanks alot for the info!
    im planning on a trip to nepal, in the next 6months to a year.
    im young, just turned 20…. i guess im one of those “desginer hippies” you mentioned above lol
    i’ve been fascinated by the cannabis culture in nepal, due to what ive read online. i wasn’t imagining it to be similar to the 60′s but i must admit its a real shame to imagine the picture you’ve painted in the article. i guess i’ve been fairly naive to think it had escaped the negatives that the western culture can bring.
    i wont lie, my main reason to visit is to sample the hash,charas and herb and to see the plants. though im very keen on taking in the culture, hindu culture and trekking and seeing the fabulous sites.
    i’d appreciate if there is any advice you feel you can give me?

    • For what to do in Nepal I can certainly tell you that reading over my Nepal travel guides will help you a lot. In regards to drugs then all I say to you is to exercise caution as drugs such as the ones you mention are 100% illegal in Nepal and carry hefty prison sentences not to mention serious health issues.

  9. Drago says:

    Those seeking sources should seek (link-removed)
    Quite easy to find, not only from seedy city dealers but also from every third uncle who sells a few tolas to supplement the family income.

    Before denigrating cannabis, one must recognise that it has been used as a sacred plant in India and Nepal for thousands of years. The drug war history illustrated here demonstrates clearly how prohibition led to the proliferation of harder drugs and drug crime, along with police and government corruption profiting directly from the drug war. The only solution is legalisation – not only would all drug war problems cease, along with industrial hemp it would empower the nepali economy like nothing else could.

    “Prison is for murderers, rapists, and thieves. If you put someone in prison for possessing a plant that helps them relax, you’re the fucking criminal.” -Joe Rogan

  10. Shannon says:

    Awesome read, especially about the history! Very interesting stuff. On another note Ive got this idea in my head that there are opium dens in KTM and was wondering if anyone know if anyone knows how to find them?? Or am I wrong and I should get off the drugs? cheers!