It was the 1970s. Freak Street was the happening place in Jochhe for hippie tourists in Nepal, the land of the wild hash. They sat on the temple steps in Basantpur, read Allen Ginsberg and watched the world go by.
A little to the north, past Asan was Thamel. There were wide open spaces then, only a few houses with vegetable gardens. It was a backwater. Then came Karna Sakya with his Kathmandu Guest House and the rest is history.
Today, Thamel is a brash, crowded, cosmopolitan city within a city. Visitors either love it or they hate it, but they can't ignore it. And it all started with Karna's baby, KGH. "Freak Street was a cult thing and it died a natural death," recalls Karna, "Kathmandu Guest House was all about atmosphere. It catered to the ecological-minded mountain adventurer."
As it turned out, KGH became so popular that it developed something of a cult following itself. Cat Stevens stayed there, as did Jeremy Irons and Ricky Martin. The guidebooks wrote about it, and suddenly it was "discovered". Then, Karna's Law kicked in: "Everyone wants to go some place exclusive, but once everyone starts going there, it isn't exclusive anymore."
In true Kathmandu fashion, KGH clones sprang up, and before you knew it Thamel had become a must-be for all tourists visiting Nepal. "The reason it clicked was because it was vibrant, urbane, and it served as a re-entry zone for trekkers coming back from weeks of solitude and rough-living of the mountains."
Karna Sakya is a forester-turned-hotel entrepreneur, and has prided himself in doing pioneering new work. He has travelled across Nepal, working with naturalists, and was in the team that drew the boundary of the Royal Chitwan National Park. "All that travelling changed my whole outlook about my country and about myself," he recalls. That is when he learnt "that tourism must not be a bird that fouls its own nest, it has to be a goose that keeps laying golden eggs".
He calls it "soft tourism", or "tourism forever"-the kind of controlled sustainable tourism that has a small ecological footprint, creates employment and raises living standards while preserving the indigenous traditions, cultures and the environment.
Karna was the architect of the Visit Nepal Year 1998, which was successful in raising Nepal's total tourist arrivals to the half-a-million mark. New international airlines started flying into Kathmandu, conventional tourism got a boost, and there was a 25 percent increase in domestic tourism.
After his wife and daughter died of cancer within months of each other in 1987, Karna devoted all his time and energy to helping fundraise for the state-of-the-art cancer hospital that is now set up in Bharatpur. Then he designed the Park Village Hotel in Budanilkantha, which is integrated to the Shivapuri National Park, and nature dominates the physical infastructure.
Karna's latest project is to convert his family home in Naxal into a bed-and-breakfast pensione called Maya Mansion (see picture above). This is an old Rana home designed and built by Nepal's first civil engineer, Kumar Narsingh Rana and is nearly 100 years old. The interior has been completely renovated into ten spacious and modern rooms, there is a cosy library and dining area. Often, Karna can be seen sitting in the gazebo chatting with guests about the best place to go bird-watching, or where the best Newari cuisine can be found.
Karna hopes that others will copy his idea and turn some of the crumbling Rana palaces as well as the old bahals inside Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur into b&b hotels as well. Asked about what drives him, Karna says: "This is my karma. I am different from other businessmen, money is not my main motivation. With everything I do, I need the satisfaction of knowing that I am doing something original, creative, and also that I am paying back the debts that I owe to my motherland."