Introducing Bodhnath (Boudha)
On the eastern side of Kathmandu, just north of the airport and around 6km from Thamel, is Bodhnath (admission foreigner/SAARC Rs 50/20), home to one of the world's largest stupas. The village, also known as Boudha (pronounced boe-da), is the religious centre for Nepal's considerable population of Tibetan exiles, and the sidestreets are full of maroon-robed Tibetan (and foreign) monks, gleaming monastery roofs and shopfronts full of Tibetan texts and yak butter. This is one of the few places in the world where Tibetan culture is accessible, vibrant and unfettered.
Bodhnath has always been linked to Tibetan Buddhism and Lhasa. A major trade route coming from Lhasa went through Sankhu, and Bodhnath therefore lies at the Tibetan traders' entry to Kathmandu. One can easily imagine the traders giving thanks for their successful journey across the Himalaya, or praying for a safe return. People (including mountaineers and Sherpas) still come here to pray before undertaking a journey in the Himalaya.
Many of today's Tibetans are refugees who fled Tibet following the unsuccessful uprising against the Chinese Communists in 1959. They have been both energetic and successful in the intervening years, as the large houses surrounding Bodhnath testify. Apart from the local Tibetans and Nepalis there's a sizeable community of foreign Buddhist students, which contributes to occasional bitchy factional tensions between the different schools (apparently the lessons on nonattachment aren't going so well…).
Late afternoon is a good time to visit Bodhnath, when the group tours depart and the place once again becomes a Tibetan village. Prayer services are held in the surrounding gompas and, as the sun sets, the community turns out to circumambulate the stupa - a ritual that combines religious observance with social event. It's a wonderful feeling to be swept around by the centrifugal force of faith - remember to walk around the stupa in a clockwise direction.
Most people visit for an hour or two before returning to Thamel but the accommodation and facilities in Bodhnath are good and it's not a bad place to be based, especially if you have an interest in Tibetan culture. The atmosphere of cultural exchange and spiritual curiosity is unrivalled.