So you think you know Thamel? Maybe you do and maybe you don't. People who've seen Thamel change over three decades say that in order to understand what it is all about, you have to understand how your experience is different from your best friend's.
Caveats out of the way, comes the hard part-explaining what makes Thamel such a special place. Sure, it's a melting pot, sm?rg?sbrod, fruit salad, grab-bag, chamber orchestra playing rock and reggae, but what is its secret? It might lie in the tolerance and contradictions that often come with cosmopolitanism. A delightfully busy, and picturesque street scene might be something like this-a street urchin sings to the tunes of his sarangi, seemingly oblivious that across the street is a music shop pounding with trance beats. People say that being dred and being hairless, being one colour or the other, preferring one mode of speech, clothing, behaviour or the other, none of this matters in Thamel. This is debatable for others have noticed numerous subtle and not-so-subtle tensions in the air, few of them threatening, it is true, but present nevertheless.
It all began for Thamel (then Tha Baha) in the early seventies when Nepal became a destination for people as interested in adventure sports as in hash and ganja. Freak Street-Jhoche-could not expand any more to provide all the facilities that increasing numbers of tourists demanded. Accommodation was a big factor, as most Freak Street lodges were really converted residences with low-ceilinged rooms that had been partitioned into tiny dwelling spaces for people too stoned to notice much.
Newer hostels and hotels in Thamel, though, were being built with budget tourists in mind. One of the first was the legendary Kathmandu Guest House, which opened in 1970, and offered more modern amenities than low-end travellers had ever seen in Kathmandu. It was a tremendous success, and slowly, the charms of Freak Street began to fade. Karna Shakya, the man behind Kathmandu Guest House says: "It was not my dream to cause the fall of Jhoche when I opened Kathmandu Guest House. Freak Street died a natural death because theirs wasn't sustainable tourism. Tourists might adjust to the culture of Freak Street for a few days, just for the experience, but for how long? Ultimately they will need hamburger and chicken."
Budget travellers looking for the best bargain, adventure tourists returning from a hectic trek, Valley residents looking to unwind, Thamel has something for everyone-food, accommodation, souvenirs or just a good drink at the end of a hard day. It really is the only place in South Asia with a cafe culture. Shopping is an integral part of a Thamel visit. There are great music shops like Dexo and East and West that thankfully go a little beyond meditative, repetitive chants that seem to lose some of their charm when heard outside Thamel. Expensive jewellery, Tibetan antiques, pashmina, rice paper products, books, and those rather hideous crazy hats-the choices are numerous and so are the prices. If you're looking for thankas, wood-carvings or metalwork, you'll have to fish around a bit, but if you're short on time, you could always settle for less serious purchases like wooden masks, khukuris, Buddhist prayer bells and wheels, silver ornaments, baskets or puppets. The real question is what is "authentic" enough to be a Nepali handicraft. Or, you could avoid the question altogether and buy, or have made, a corny T-shirt with, say a map of the Langtang trek or unattractive hippy-style clothing that has never been out of fashion in Thamel. Every item on display has a distinct Thamel feel to it. It's the stuff of tourist ghettos and that's what sells-crazy hats, tiger balm, miniature chess sets and hash.
Buyers and sellers are constantly trying to drive a hard bargain for room, board or curio. Thamel's bible, the Lonely Planet, advises tourists to bargain-"Whenever you shop remember to bargain. Subtract 20 percent and get a good benchmark as to what you should pay on the street if you are an excellent bargainer"-and so hustlers and shopkeepers alike have their share of informed hagglers. But it's tough doing business here, and monthly rents can be as high as high as Rs 30,000-Rs 60,000 per shop. Traders all complain of the recent drop in tourist arrivals and its negative impact on business. But they're not the only people feeling this way, for so do the beggars, the "one-rupee" kids, and all the other hustlers who invite you down dingy side-streets for heaven knows what.
In between shopping and being hustled, there's also time to be amazed by the variety and sheer number of bookstores. Here, you can browse through and buy coffee-table glossies, a wide range of fiction and non-fiction, maps, postcards, guidebooks, and foreign newspapers and magazines. The oldest bookshop, Tamang Tantric, was founded by Johnny Lama and then taken over by a man known simply as Shyam. Between the two of them, they've spawned other stores, like Barnes & Noble (no relation to the superstore chain) and Walden, whose owner Ram Hari worked with Shyam. The other big Thamel literary name is, of course, Pilgrim's Book House. There are other excellent, slightly wacky bookshops, like Good Earth, which is run by a Newari poet, and the amazing Nightingale. Nightingale is owned by a man who goes by the unlikely name of "Paki", who used to work with Lama at Tamang Tantric. Paki decided he loved all things Japanese, and the shop has a wonderful collection of Japanese books, and Paki even speaks some Japanese and, at least two people swear, Cantonese. If that isn't enough, the shop has a first edition collection amazon.com would do well to swiftly acquire.
Nightingale even occasionally has a fortune-teller, which is a bit like bringing coals to Newcastle-Thamel has many people who will read your palm, Tarot cards, tea-leaves, horoscope, and even, if you don't mind being stared at, your face. There's the legendary Lalji, who looks at your handprint and gives you the pleasure of hearing him talk about you for 60 uninterrupted minutes and, yes, you can tape him. Kathmandu Guest House, which has everything a person could want, houses a little old Sikh fortune-teller in its compound.
You might do better, fortune-wise, if you seek out wisdom in the mountains, though, as we heard a trekking gear salesman telling a foolish-looking customer who'd dared question the integrity of boots he was eyeing. "Only in mountains understanding will come [of how good the boots are]." The customer was right in being sceptical-Thamel no longer sells quality used gear, but instead, knock-offs of every major outdoors label you can think of. Boots, sleeping bags and down jackets (the "down" being chicken feathers, so don't be surprised if you start smelling like a poultry farm gone horribly wrong), fleeces and such are usually fine and suit most purposes except serious climbing. But beware the "Gore-Tex", it can let you down badly. Gear bought, time to begin the quest for "understanding", and what better place to do it than Thamel-the place has more trekking and tour agencies per square inch than any other part of the world catering to the adventure tourist. Great choice, but again watch out for the occasional hustler.
Then again, you really don't have to go anywhere. Thamel presents endless opportunities to gain Knowledge of Life. Just actually go down one of those mysterious looking sidestreets, consider sampling the herbal delights every second person seems to sell here, spend five days with a hustler and write a Tom Wolfe-Joan Didion-style essay, or go to places where friendly travellers and hardcore "seekers" congregate. To hear about border crossings, go to the legendary Pumpernickel Bakery in the mornings, to admire mountaineering exploits, go to Rum Doodle Restaurant in the evenings and read the signed footprints with amusing expedition tales, and if you see anyone walk out without paying their bill, you've just seen a legend-climb Everest and you can wine and dine for free here for the rest of your life.
The multi-level sun-decks and terraces scattered everywhere lull people into a contemplative and extra-friendly mood. In Thamel, there are no strangers, only possible friends. The bars and clubs in the evening are possibly the best places in the world to meet people. For dancing, the Underground is fun and friendly, the Jump Club is alive with sharklike men and women checking each other out, and the Tunnel is where the backpacker glitterati go. For a glimpse of old-school Thamel bar culture, go to Tom & Jerry, which has been around since 1984, or Tongues & Tales, also the big thing about ten years ago-both still attract a decent crowd of Kathmandu residents and, usually, Brits and Aussies. There's what we call Kathmandu Eternal-Sam's Bar, where overlanders, artists, writers and loads of Thamel institutions and just plain interesting people gather around the fire, and Maya Cocktail Bar, which has great drinks and a serious happy hour, plays excellent music-loads of Miles Davis, Massive Attack and acid jazz, and is the best place for a quieter drink with friends. The Roots is a nice Rasta-styled bar where you'd expect Thamel's hip-hop kids to hang out. The bar scene is unique, but it can't help falling into the strange trap no city with bars can escape-the Irish bar. Paddy Foley's Irish bar is very large, but unfortunately no one ever seems to be there.
The food in Thamel, thankfully, is loads more interesting than, well, meat, potatoes and cabbage. Most restaurants share the same menu-and kitchen, we believe-that offers reliable, if unadventurous, ChineseIndianContintentalBreakfast, but there are some mouthwatering exceptions. The Northfield Caf? is a good place for contemporary southwestern-American food. There are other old standbys like Third Eye, Alice's, a veggie place, and KC's, the oldest restaurant in the area, which does steaks and such carnivores' delights. Yin Yang, one of the two best Thai places here, is actually a Freak Street phenomenon that moved to Thamel and recently slicked itself up considerably. The other is Krua Thai, whose Thai chef used to work at a vastly popular Darbar Marg joint, but decided to take a walk on the wild side. There's a preponderance of lip-smacking Italian places, like La Dolce Vita and Casa della Pasta. The best Nepali food is at Thakali Bhanchaghar-a delicious fixed-price-all-you-can-eat Thakali lunch/dinner that makes people sob with joy at the end of the month.
Food is also at the forefront of a movement we call "the new Thamel". It's slightly more slick places with a late-90s sensibility, like the pizza and pasta Fire and Ice, the two new coffee shops, Himalayan Java and Himalatte, which are a nice complement to the Japanese coffee shop, Chikusa, and the all-American Over the Rainbow, opposite Pilgrims, which does the best soups and sandwiches in the city. There's also Jatra, at the Satghumti end of Thamel, which is like a mini-Thamel, with Internet facilities, a handicrafts shop, a reading room, and a bar that serves drool-inducing finger-food, all in a lovely old building.
There are over 200 dining and drinking establishments in one sq km here, and competition is intense, with room for freebies-there's free tequila at Walter's Botega, but the kids in ponchos and sombreros who accost you on street corners are surreal enough to make you think maybe you've already had enough. Bookstores buy back books you've bought from them for half what you paid. Bakeries offer 50 percent off after 7 pm, and there are some wicked one-for-one happy hour deals. Himalayan Encounter, a very hip tour agency, even offers slide shows on adventure travel with free drinks!
Thamel is packed weekend nights and that's how many of us know it, but there are so many reasons to just spend a day there, walking around. The colours, the hustlers, the dealers, the merchandise and food and drink, and the only real nightlife in otherwise quiet Kathmandu. Off-season, young Nepalis still keep coming. The cosmopolitan environment gives everybody space-nothing stands out, nothing seems out of place and the sheer variety is mind-boggling. That could be why increasingly more Nepalis favour Thamel than New Road
or Darbar Marg.
Many things are not what they seem here, and many things simmer under the surface, waiting to be discovered, or hit you in the face. And, really, who knows how long it will last-some say Thamel is facing saturation. Freak Street, once so vibrant and colourful, died, and the fluid nature of tourism might lead Thamel to a similar destiny. With the slow rise of Baudha, or the revival of Freak Street, things are uncertain.