For those interested in experiencing true Tibetan art and culture, Kathmandu the capital of Nepal,
has taken the place of Lhasa, Tibet as a tourist destination. In Kathmandu, in the northern Boudinath district of the city, there are now so many Tibetan attractions and recent refugees that the area is becoming known as “Little Lhasa,” and it’s well worth a visit to those people interested in Tibetan Buddhism. Centred around the largest stupa (temple) in the world, the tourist can find over 40 different Tibetan monasteries, arts and crafts stores, restaurants, cyber-cafes, bookstores and guesthouses, many of them catering to western visitors.
Nepal is a poverty-stricken country and it often appears that the only thriving industry is tourism, but where else can you get a room in a guest house run by chanting monks wearing purple robes for $10 a day, and a breakfast for 25 cents, and enjoy an earnest conversation about existentialism with an elderly bearded sadhu (wandering wise man) toting a trident and speaking excellent English with a 1910 Oxford accent while asking for a modest tip for his time?
In the Boudinath district, very early in the morning, mobs of pilgrims and refugees circumnavigate the 250-foot high Boudha stupa in a clockwise direction, murmuring prayers and spinning the prayer wheels, lighting butter lamps and offering gifts to the gods. Pilgrims come from all over the Himalayan world to worship here, often prostrating themselves on the ground in devotion during every inch of their long journeys, thereby arriving in a rather advanced state of wear and tear.
Here in the giant plaza you will come face to face with ragged peasants sporting wild hair and torn clothes. There are graying hippies, Indian touts selling every sort of artifact (some of them real), hip young Nepali entrepreneurs toting Blackberries, revered holy cows munching on street garbage, Swiss restaurateurs offering wonderful pastries and desserts, New Age wanderers with stardust in their eyes, serious practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism and starving street kids with their hands out, all vying simultaneously for your eye, camera or attention.
While many visitors to Kathmandu head directly for the downtown Thamel tourist district with its cheap hotels, loud bars, trekking stores and tatty souvenir shops, travellers looking for a real Tibetan experience should direct their taxi driver to head for Boudinath instead. There are no visas or harsh Chinese customs officials to ruin your sensory experience as in Lhasa, and you won’t find any troops in the streets threatening to arrest you for wearing a Dalai Lama pendant. In fact, posters of that venerable sage can be found everywhere, and you will feel you are truly in Tibet wherever you wander in Little Lhasa.