Esconced in my secluded guest house just out of range of the throngs of touristy Thamel – the backpacker suburb of Kathmandu, I’ve just returned from my first foray into this old town, Swayambunath temple.
To get there I walked the rocky road (literally) through the towns quiet-er area and find this the most pleasant way to explore a new country. The locals look up from their daily routines and smile. The doorways to shops and houses in Nepal are low (about 160cm) so I’m ducking when entering and occasionally biffing myself when leaving. The electricity is routinely switched off for a couple of hours in the early evening leaving most of the town in candlelight, giving it a very mediaeval feel which I find very pleasant.
Swayambunath Temple is perched on a hill and can be seen from the town. Walking there is simply a matter of pointing yourself in that direction and enjoying the experience. The base is surrounded by large Buddhas. Pilgrims walk around the entire hill paying their respects dressed in distinctive Tibetan costumes – red robes and a striped apron wrapped tightly around the waist higher up on the body.
The eastern stairway to the temple is one way to prepare for a walk in the Himalaya. There must be two hundred steps up to heaven before the temple gleams above your head amidst blue, green and red prayer flags. Prayer is offered around the clock. If it’s not blown by the wind (prayer flags) it’s carved in colourful Buddhist mantras on the perimiter wall. Along all the Himalayan trails these are known as Mani stones.
Hyperactive monkeys and demonic statues surround the main stupa that rises from the centre. Elderly Nepalis walk continually around spinning the prayer wheels. Young families from town gather at a smaller temple and touch the walls with their foreheads, making offerings of flowers and incense.
Bodhinath Temple is some way out of town requiring you to take a battered old taxi (all of them tiny Suzuki Maruti tin cans on wheels – battered and bruised). The narrow, rocky, potholed roads will surely keep you awake the entire way.
On arrival at Bodhinath through a large gateway thronging with people, you come face to face with the classic Tibetan Buddhist icon – the two large all-seeing eyes of the Buddha and the sanskrit number one resembling His nose. This enormous temple is surrounded by a village housing devoted Tibetan refugees who care for the upkeep of the overflowing souvenir shops and stupa itself.
Hanging around until evening gives you the opportunity to watch daily life take over from the hordes of tourists. At dusk hundreds of locals are circumnavigating the stupa – so I joined in. I managed at least twenty circuits passing children lighting candles, chanting monks and horn-blowing bhikkus crammed into a tiny enclave worshipping the Buddha relics inside. I spent 6 hours here and was reluctant to leave by 7pm.
I join the Annapurna trekking group on Sunday 25th October. More news when I can get to a computer.