Posted by: Ciaran | December 3, 2009

Changing places – Bodhnath

The small town of Bodhnath, about seven miles outside of Nepal’s capital Kathmandu (to feature in a later post), is in itself a fairly unremarkable place.  Like much of Kathmandu itself, it is polluted and grimy, overrun by taxis and shoe shiners.  The air is thick with smog, clinging to the back of your throat and getting up your nose and into your eyes.  I walked there from Pashupatinath (which, again, may merit a post of its own), along the way seeing this quite brilliant sign…

The question you all want to know... No, I didn't use it.

I was in Bodhnath to see the Buddhist stupa; it is one of the biggest in the world, and has a terrific mandala on it.  The eyes seem to follow you as you walk around it – always being careful to walk clockwise and keep it to your right – and there are a number of fascinating gompas (monasteries) around it which you can go in to, as well as some shops and cafes of varying quality; the ‘chocolate brownie’ I bought had the texture – and taste – of an old shoe.

The enormous Bodhnath stupa, one of Nepal's holiest Buddhist sites

When I was there a Nepalese music star was making a pop video on the stupa; the crowds were agog, although I stood there with virtually no idea who she was and what was really going on.  A smiling monk wearing a pink Baby-G watch and some very questionable shoes gave me some kind of explanation, but I remain none the wiser as to her identity.

Nepal's answer to Cheryl Cole - maybe - struts her stuff

But what was most memorable for me about Bodhnath, and why it really warrants a post as a ‘changing place’, is what happened to me as I walked towards the stupa.  En route from Pashupatinath, I’d been approached by a lot of begging children and given them the bottles of water and Coke which were all I had in my bag.  But as I went to cross the main road in Bodhnath, a woman who looked as though she was in her 30s but was probably younger thrust a small child into my face with the plea: “You buy my child one milk?”

Tibetan prayer flags adorning the stupa

The woman was desperate, the child was crying, and the dirty, pathetic milk bottle she brandished at me was empty.  I walked with her to the supermarket and bought a box of powdered milk for her son.  When we were outside the shop, she implored me to come to her home to take tea as an “honoured guest”.  Naively, I took ‘home’ in a very Western context, and it was only five minutes later as I started to walk down a muddy track and the ground began to taper downwards that I realised I was walking into a huge slum which was home to Soni, her husband, two children, and many thousands of others.

The slum which I visited

It was an amazing and humbling experience.  The poverty was incredible, and I later returned to the supermarket and bought as much food as I could for Soni and her family as well as the many wonderful children who ran around the slum asking to have their photographs taken.  Words cannot really do justice to the experience: one water pump for about 5,00 people; beds which were just rugs nailed onto wooden platforms and infested with fleas; a kitchen which in total comprised a small fire, some pots and pans, and probably less than 250 grams of rice.

Soni got out her finest mug for me to drink from and, seeing it was dirty, removed the rag she wore on her head and wiped the cup clean.  She slowly brewed Nepali masala tea while I talked to the young people there who told me they dreamed of visiting England and asked me questions – sometimes intrusive – about my life, family and education.  I was in awe of how much the people there smiled; they were amongst the most friendly and likeable people I have ever been privileged to meet (despite the interrogation – “How much money do you have?” was a recurring question).

And, despite the dubious hygiene and equally questionable accompanying biscuit, Soni’s was the nicest cup of tea I have ever drank.



  1. The Buddha said in so many words that poverty is brought about by the mal-distribution of a nation’s wealth (this is presently happening in the US). Turning to just whom is responsible for such mal-distribution, we have only to turn to a nation’s leaders, recognizing the values they espouse are the Three Poisons, namely, mental dullness, hatred, and greed.

  2. I am making a digital narrative on Katmandu, and if you have a spare 10 mins I can make you a nepalese chai… although I have no Yak milk.

    The Nepalese were always interesting and friendly, although there were one or two colourful characters in Katmandu.

    • Yes by all means make me one! 🙂 When were you there? Which ‘interesting characters’ are you referring to? The drug pushers and the street kids sniffing all sorts..?

      As I said, I will be doing a blog soon on my experience of Kathamndu so will link to your story – look forward to seeing it!

  3. This was really interesting. I remember walking out to Bodhnath from Kathmandu 33 years ago – Iwas there for Christmas at the end of an overland bus trip with Asian Greyhound. But I don’t remember any polution! I’m doing a blog of my diary of that overland trip in 1976 with photos and will soon be getting to the Kathmandu episode. If you want to read any of it, you can find it via my website or at

    • Thanks for the comment Janet, really appreciate it! The pollution is probably fairly recent what with all the cars on the roads there in the last 10 or 15 years or so.

      I’ll definitely have a look at your diaries, sounds great! I’ve got plenty more Nepal-related posts on the way so do keep reading 🙂

  4. Thanks so much for this post. I was in Kathmandu back in 1973, and as someone else said, no pollution, no traffic jams, not many street dogs…or overt political unrest. It’s a place and time I won’t forget–and while I had just come from an Embassy posting in Vienna, the lack of modernity did not shock. It was a source of endless inquiry, but I did feel, oddly, like I could make a home there. Glad I found your blog:)

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