Thamel: ten years of change in Kathmandu’s iconic tourist zone

Scenes from Thamel, Kathmandu
Main street in Thamel
Thamel: Kathmandu’s center of commercial tourism, guest houses, trekkers, cafes, bars, prostitutes, boutique hotels, trekking stores, massage parlors, space invaders, sandwich bars – dusty, dirty and either highly addictive or to be avoided.

Arriving in Thamel ten years ago

It’s been over ten years since I first took tentative steps entering into Kathmandu’s main tourist and commercial zone known as Thamel. It was late at night as my bus from Pokhara had been delayed by nearly 7 hours. A local pointed me in the right direction though a jumble of bus weary travelers as my guidebook’s map was woefully inept.

Hippie buying fruit in Thamel
Hippies can still be found in Thamel – slowly making their way up from India as the summer heat pushes them northwards – at least that’s what certain guidebooks say: most hop off a plane from Bangkok or Delhi these days and don the clothes from a snug guesthouse before going out to bargain their day away

Thamel at night back then usually closed up a few hours after dark. All that remained open were 2-3 bars thumping out 80s rock music which wailed over the sound of spluttering generators due to heavy load shedding (power cuts). Few roamed the streets past 11pm aside from the odd street thug and barking street dogs.

The next day things were even quieter. There was a bhanda (strike). Within minutes of getting a daytime view of a near empty Thamel, I found myself surrounded by tear gas, riot police and rock throwing protesters. Within a few days the protests were over and Thamel was once again rocking with 80s music alongside Buddhist mantras, determined trekkers, chilled backpackers, pie chomping hippies and trekking touts.

Tear gas and rioting students on the streets of Thamel 10 years ago
Tear gas and rioting students on the streets of Thamel 10 years ago

Those were my first experiences of Thamel. Today, this bustling epicenter of tourism in Nepal is changing at a phenomenal rate. Is the Thamel of old becoming better or have we lost an era into the jowls of an unforgiving city.

When did Thamel start to change?

The simple answer is that Thamel has always been changing and evolving since its origins over 1,000 years ago as a Buddhist Newari settlement known as Tabitha which had the Bikramashila Mahabihar (Bhagwan bahal) monastery/temple as its central area.

Traffic in Thamel
5pm onwards in Thamel and the traffic becomes overwhelming – it all started with cheap Indian motorbikes circa 2009 and the end result is shown in this photograph – yes I stood there, in the middle as the traffic swarmed around me – it’s becoming fiercer these days, 10 years ago one rarely got clipped by any vehicle, today you’ll can up quite bruised.

For me I first noticed a change in 2009 when the then mainly pedestrian streets of Thamel suddenly became overrun with young Nepalis on motorbikes. Before, it was mainly tourists, trekkers, cycle rickshaws, a few motorcycles, some annoying taxis and several cows.

The motorbikes had mainly wealthy students riding them. I seem to remember there was a good financial deal on various Indian bikes at the time like Hero’s. They rode them badly and there were many accidents and skids along the broken roads of Thamel and New Road.

Cycle rickshaw in Thamel
Cycle rickshaws still make their way through the broken roads in Thamel. For decades vendors, tourists and travel writers have said to ban all vehicles from Thamel except rickshaws – for decades the private tour companies that make up the tourism “authorities” have ignored such suggestions – instead the new horror of electric rickshaws (no doubt someone’s business associate) are being hinted at – lost in the clouds, they don’t see what tourists actually enjoy – tradition and quiet streets to shop in – is it any wonder “western” tourists no longer like to shop in Thamel!

There were always rumors of a samurai sword wielding gang member in Thamel (turned out to be true). Tourists were usually exempt from such trouble back then. We were the cash crop of trekkers and money spenders. The words “You want smoke, hashish” were usually the worst it got when it came to harassment.

Street children in Thamel huffing bags of glue would roam around looking for cash from well-meaning tourists not knowing that their money only went to buy more shoe polish, rugby or aerosols for the kids to inhale.

Ear plugs at night helped with sleep in Thamel as street dogs fought, howled and romanced until heavy metal shutters alongside hacking shop owners signaled dawns arrival.

The next big change in Thamel

Motorcycles and traffic increased rapidly over the next few years and the roads deteriorated but Thamel still had its east meets west trekking and touristic vibe. Pashmina stalls thrived as did metal souvenir stores selling everything from singing bowls to prayer wheels. It was never about temples or culture in Thamel. If you dared to stop for an instant to gaze upon something of note you’d be subjected to the sales pitch of a flute seller or dirty hashish dealer.

Pashmina salesman in Thamel
A pashmina salesmen tries to charm a tourist into buying a shawl with a handsome smile – local businesses in Thamel complain of no tourists  – the truth is there are plenty but they don’t like to stop and shop anymore due to the traffic in certain areas of Thamel.

Of course trekking agencies and tour companies continued to come and go but Thamel remained largely the same until around 2013 when the Chinese first arrived, en-masse.

The Chinese in Thamel

There’s a Chinatown already in Kathmandu off Kantipath, but it never took off. Instead the Chinese “businessmen” took over a district in Thamel at the end of Amrit Marg. Chinese hotels popped up everywhere along with dubious exporters.

Chinatown in Thamel
The new Chinatown in Thamel: many Chinese businesses are merely “fronts” for other more dubious activities from antiquity exports, to bead smuggling, human trafficking, money laundering and drugs – the reward? Free tourist visas to all Chinese in 2016 …

Within two years you could be mistaken for thinking you were in China around that area. When researching my guidebooks to Nepal I quickly realized that many of these “hotels” were only for Chinese customers. Rooms were either “fully booked” or triple priced for westerners. Moreover many hotels were merely fronts for antiquity exporting. Plush double rooms filled with cargo crates were commonplace in my explorations.

Ashok sits behind his desk in Kunil Cyber (Narshing Chowk) looking at his accounts
Ashok sits behind his desk in Kunil Cyber (Narshing Chowk) looking at his accounts while over viewing empty seats – he once had one of the most popular Internet cafes in Thamel but in 2017 with 24 hour electricity / mobile technology he’s had to cut his cyber cafe in half and supplement his income by selling Nepali handmade bags – he’s also been running one of the better one day laundry services in Thamel for over 10 years.

Throughout the rest of Thamel Chinese businesses offered double the rent for local stores and landlords took their money giving their Nepali countrymen a mere 30 days to vacate their decades old stores that helped to build Thamel.

Traffic in the evening in Thamel
An evening in Thamel often means fighting with traffic these days due to a lack of regulations – is it any wonder tourists struggle to shop in Thamel as they try to figure out what is a genuine Nepali produced product versus a cheap Chinese import.

It was a sad and worrying period in Thamel as local businesses who had been running for decades where closing rapidly while Chinese businesses were popping up everywhere along with throngs of Chinese tourists who held little respect for Nepali culture.

Only the landlords of Thamel truly prospered now along with some vendors enamored by the short term fixation of Chinese tourists with fat wallets blatantly looking to copy all for their own businesses just down the road.

Greed had come to Thamel and Nepal’s bureaucracy bent to the might of the Chinese Yuan.

Then the earthquake came …

2015 earthquake and Thamel

Though nearly 10,000 people lost their lives during the 7.8 earthquake in April 2015, Most of Thamel itself survived with only cracks and superficial damage. On the outskirts of Thamel and beyond things were much worse.

Newari construction in Thamel
Post-earthquake Thamel has seen a boom in construction – thankfully some businesses are reconstructing buildings like this one in traditional Newari design which is what Thamel once looked like – a lot better than some of the bland concrete shopping centers found elsewhere in Thamel today.

Following the earthquake, Thamel motored on at a hot new fevered rate. While the Chinese tourists left in manic droves in fear of aftershocks countless well funded volunteers arrived to help out villages. Internationally financed NGO workers set up bases in hotels and in the outskirts of Kathmandu. Though utterly devastating to all of Nepal, post-earthquake Thamel saw “new” money arriving at a shocking pace.

A money changer from in Thamel counts his earnings at the end of the day
A money changer from Danphe Money Exchange counts his earnings at the end of the day – many vendors in Thamel now face sky high rents for tiny premises as the property market soars with Chinese business types offering double or triple rents in this popular commercial zone.

By the following year Lazimpat/Naxal (diplomatic /expat areas north of Thamel) were flourishing. As were areas in Patan which became popular with NGO offices. Tangaal Marg saw hip new clubs, restaurants and hotels quickly open to take full advantage of this new money.

Girl in shorts in Thamel
Ten years ago a girl in shorts would rarely be seen in Thamel let alone in the rest of Kathmandu – today it’s common place as are couples holding hands, smoking, drinking, passing out in the street, fighting and so forth – progress or a loss of tradition? Why did this occur so rapidly after the earthquake? Animal rights protesters from overseas that set up shop in Chitwan created traditional and cultural devastation among local communities all in the name of progress as a country tried to rebuild itself. Volunteers arriving in droves with western and eastern modern cultures took all their ways to Nepali villages where people were swooned by the opulence – one of several influencing factors that resulted in Thamel becoming a hot bed for young Nepalis seeking fame, fortune, money and fun.

Pollution rose astronomically and dust masks became the norm for nearly all as new money wriggled its way into new exclusive commercial buildings and historically devastating road widening projects.

In Thamel the “boutique” hotel had arrived. Old budget guesthouses were converted into contemporary hotels and prices started going up.

The influx of new money along with established bars, clubs and nightclubs saw Nepali youth converging in Thamel instead of previously popular local places further afield. Indeed, by 2016 Nepali people outnumbered tourists when it came to dining out in Thamel or in bars, nightclubs and even when it came to purchasing “fashionable” trekking gear.

Narshing Chowk in Thamel at night
It’s not dusk but in Thamel these days with 24 hour electricity nightclubs are open to late around Narshing Chowk in Thamel: it’s not tourists frequenting them but young Nepali who are chauffeured around in private cars, taxis and motorbikes as police stand guard over the children of the well connected.

Then in late 2016 load shedding stopped. In simplicity, someone discovered that for 19 years electricity was being stolen from the people of Nepal and sold to various companies. Literally overnight, 24 hour electricity returned to Nepal, including Thamel.

There were no more excuses, Thamel was seeing a wealthy boom among those who had money to invest and buy.

Thamel with no traffic at night
A rare night in Thamel when there’s not much traffic: this is only due to water pipes being laid down so traffic is blocked – the result? Peace, quite, stores with shoppers, smiles and a Thamel of old when Om Mani Padme Hum would ring out as the odd cow could be seen meandering home

Thamel in 2017 – no more cows

Construction. Boutique hotels and stores. Trendy and wealthy Nepali are the main shoppers in Thamel these days. Western trekkers and tourists look positively scruffy next to well-to-do Nepali youths in newly renovated bars and clubs. Chinese businesses are still in a state of flux between closing up post-earthquake and starting up as new Chinese tourists return.

It’s not all change though. The roads of Thamel are still pot-holed and nearly a foot higher than the drains due to years of cheap tarmac being added. There are still sections of Thamel by Bhagwan Bahal that look gloriously untouched for centuries. Garbage bins are still missing as people still throw waste on the streets for the road sweepers at 6am to whisk away to unknown destinations.

Street cleaners clearing up garbage in Thamel
There are no bins in Thamel … yet many local businesses have offered to sponsor free bins, something that last happened when the king was in power – Thamel Development Committee say there’s no room for bins and blame the local municipality who in turn blame Thamel Development Committee … meanwhile, every morning for the past decade this is the scene many tourists never get to see at around 6am when the street cleaners sweep up the strewn garbage from the day before.

Narshing Chowk and Thamel Junctions are still delightfully crisscrossed with rickety signs for trekking agencies, bars, cafes and laundry shops. The traffic is hideous as is the pollution but there are still strong hints of Thamel of old here.

Man selling jewelry in Thamel
Indra from Echo Pendants in south Thamel starts his day laying out beads and jewelery – he’s lucky as down where Thamel meets Jyatha the traffic is less fierce and tourists don’t have to fight with all manner of vehicle.

The one thing missing? Cows. It seems in 2017 the mad traffic, pollution, the need for stylish boutiques and changing bureaucracy has meant those holy cows once found grazing in garbage piles have left Thamel.

The future of Thamel

I’ve thought about this a lot. There are basically three ways Thamel can go.

1) A complete Chinese takeover of virtually all businesses in the throws of a focus on Chinese tourism over anyone else.

2) Thamel becomes a modern boutique shopping zone and exclusive night spot for the wealthy. Meanwhile the Thamel of old will move out in the direction of Paknajol.

3) There’s a serious revitalization of Newari culture with old/new buildings being created with Newari designs along with similar multi-budget stores, hotels, shops and restaurants that cater to all tourists along with locals. Ramshackle signs still point to trekking agents, laundry stores and so forth as past meets present allowing everyone to enjoy Kathmandu’s diamond in the rough.

Boutique stores in Thamel
Are “boutique” shops, restaurants and hotels the future for Thamel? This is Mandala street, Thamel’s only pedestrian street which was renovated by private businesses several years ago in Newari style – however, today some of the “boutique” stores in Thamel seem to sell Chinese imports instead of homegrown Nepali products – profit and style seems to be taking over Thamel (did it ever leave) – there is hope though as the design of Mandala street is Newar and there are some boutique stores selling quality Nepali products.

Of these three options the first will succeed without hesitation if Nepali bureaucracy continues on as it is. Greed and money will see to this.

The second option is probably the most likely and my best guess.

The third option is the ideal one. The new being built in the style and tradition of the old. There is some hope here as a few newer hotels are spending money on Newari style architecture in north Thamel. However the vast majority of new buildings are horrible concrete shells.

Every time a bland concrete building is constructed, a little bit of Thamel dies.

Yes, Thamel has stood for a thousand years and is likely to continue standing for a thousand more. Within those first thousand years it changed and some would say adapted well to the changing times.

Small street in Thamel, Kathmandu
No matter how much Thamel has changed over the past 10 years, no matter if you think there is negativity in this article (reality bites), no matter the development nor corruption in this iconic district of Kathmandu or no matter the pollution, noise, street dogs or touts – there are still hidden enclaves in Thamel where time seems to have stood still … with a little imagination!

Perhaps this article is no more than a rose tinted 10 year memoir by a traveler who misses those first few adventurous steps into the chaos that was Thamel then.

Yet, much like Thamel, I too have adapted to the change. I have to as I continuously update the very best guidebooks to Nepal to help others on their own first steps into new adventures in the still chaotic fun that is Thamel.

This article is one of several about Thamel which includes photographs, changes, places to go and book reviews. You can find all these articles in my main travel guide to Thamel.

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35 Replies to “Thamel: ten years of change in Kathmandu’s iconic tourist zone”

  1. Sigh. I can’t say I’m surprised. I haven’t been there since 1998 (almost 20 years!) but it wasn’t really a sleepy village back then either. Still…sad to see.
    A similar thing has happened in Siem Reap Cambodia. I first went in 2002 and just returned from my 5th visit last month. Unchecked growth has run rampant there, lining the pockets of the connected and pushing local people out. Sure, you can get a decent glass of wine and a really good meal there now, but at what cost, and to who? Ugh, and the young tourists who cluster outside of Pub Street with the sole purpose of getting blind drunk on $1 shots from alcohol carts is just plain gross. That’s new in the last 2 years.
    I also just visited Luang Prabang Laos. The entire town is a UNESCO world heritage site, and while touristy, yes, still retains a ton of charm. Too bad Thamel and Siem Reap did not follow that path.

    1. I’m not sure UNESCO is the right route. It seems there are making anything a heritage site these days and many towns etc are developing tourism around that ethos. That said, yes Luang Prabang is pleasant. It’s up to the local authorities to make changes in Nepal. The best place to set an example is Panauti where the local tourism board has no say so it’s run by a group of paid “volunteers” – by far the nicest visiting experience.

  2. As usual, insightful and very well written post, thank you.
    Having lived in Malaysia since 10 years and having visited many places locally and regionally, all I am left to say with resigned look every time I visit a familiar place a few years apart is: “Can’t stop the development…”
    Rushed development and high income to a few privileged… After all, money only comes in the first place.
    We people rarely learn the lesson from elsewhere, we have to lose it first to appreciate it…

  3. Excellent read. I’ve been living in Kathmandu for over 20 years. You nailed it!

  4. Just relaxing in Pokhara over breakfast when I read through this. Very accurate description of Thamel. I don’t find it negative at all. The main take I get is the maddening traffic. Why is this historic area being destroyed by cars, bikes and jeeps!!!

  5. We were in Thamel just before the earthquake. Totally agree on the Chinese side of things. Groups were spitting near temples and sitting on statues. Very disrespectful. I hope the tourisim authority takes a look at Thailand who doesn’t put up with Chinese hoards.

  6. I so enjoyed reading this. It brought back many great memories. The dogs barking!!! The photos. Great.

  7. As someone who has frequented Lazimpat and bought both your KTM and Nepal books I certainly enjoyed reading this.

  8. Wonderful narrative on the past ten years of Thames. Raw, factual and tweaked with hope.

  9. Nice depictions Dave. We found Bangkok is going the same way. Street markets being pushed out and closed. All in the name of progress. Yet in Europe local markets are being encouraged back.

  10. Was there last month. Quote of the day “Where have the lovely cows all gone?”

  11. Really enjoyed reading this. Though Thamel of old is gone, it’s good to see new buildings with old designs being built.

  12. This have me both a smile and a tear. Sweet memories stay the same even when the places change. Thanks for writing and documenting like this.

  13. I bet in another 10 years Thamel will revamp itself yet again. Lessons learned it will bring back old street markets, pedestrian priority streets and maybe even some bins.

  14. I haven’t been here since the late 90’s. I cant say im surprised though. Very well written post though. Thank you

  15. Even though we have never made it to Nepal, this was a great read as I have watched many places I love (Tulum most notably) change before my very eyes. It sucks, but you just have to appreciate the fact that you saw it during the old days … great post, Dave!

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