Kathmandu offers the best shopping in the country. Everything that is turned out in the various centres around the valley can be found here. The recent pedestrianisation of parts of Thamel has made it a much more pleasant place to shop; hopefully the traffic-free status will be maintained. Other streets still suffer from chaotic traffic; dive into a side street or garden haven when stress levels start to rise.
The Essential Thamel Shopping Guide
From Kashmiri carpets to trekking poles and yak-milk soap, Thamel offers the best collection of shops in the country. Bring an extra bag (or buy one here!) and stock up early on Christmas presents.
Spices Plenty of shops and supermarkets in Thamel sell small packets of spices, from momo mixes to chai spices, or head to Asan Tole, where the locals buy their freshly ground masalas.
Embroidery Sewing machines around Thamel whirr away late into the night adding logos and Tibetan symbols to jackets, hats and T-shirts. Trekkers can commission badges and T-shirts commemorating their successful trek or even get a business logo made.
Jewellery Kathmandu is a great place for jewellery, particularly silver. Buy it ready-made, ask the jeweller to create a design for you or bring in something you would like copied. The price of silver is quoted per tola (11.7g) in the daily newspaper.
Puppets Puppets make good gifts for children and are made in Bhaktapur as well as other centres. They’re often of multi-armed deities clutching little wooden weapons in each hand. The puppet heads may be made of easily broken clay or more durable papier mâché.
Pashminas A shawl or scarf made from fine pashmina (the underhair of a mountain goat) is a popular buy. The cost of a shawl depends on the percentage of pashmina in the mix and from which part of the goat’s body the hair originated, starting from the cheapest back wool and rising through the belly and chest to neck hair, which is about five times more expensive than back hair. The cheapest shawls are a 70/30% cotton/pashmina blend, silk-pashmina blends cost around 30% more and pure pashmina shawls range from around US$50 to US$275 for a top-end ring shawl (named because they are fine enough to be pulled through a finger ring; also known as a water shawl).
Tea Ilam, Ontu, Kanyan and Mai Valley teas are the best Nepali teas, from the east of the country near Darjeeling. Expect to pay anything from Rs 600 (in Ilam) to Rs 3000 (in Thamel) per kilogram for good Ilam tea. The excellently named ‘super fine tipi golden flower orange pekoe’ tea is about as good as it gets. Connoisseurs choose the first (March) or second (May) flush, rather than the substandard monsoon flush. Lemon tea flavoured with lemongrass is another favourite, as is pre-spiced masala tea.
Clothes There are lots of funky wool hats, felt bags, embroidered T-shirts (our favourite has ‘Same Same…’ on the front and ‘…But Different’ on the back!), jumpers etc, particularly on the twisting road known as Saatghumti. Always try clothes on before handing over the cash. Impossibly cute baby-sized North Face fleeces and down jackets are hard to pass by.
Prayer flags The best place to buy is the street in front of the Kathesimbhu Stupa south of Thamel. Choose between cheaper polyester and better-quality cotton flags and remember, this is your karma that we are talking about.
What to Buy
Thamel has some excellent trekking gear for sale, but don’t think that you are necessarily getting the genuine article. Most of the ‘Columbia’ fleeces and ‘North Face’ jackets are Chinese knock-offs or made locally but with imported fleece and Gore-Tex.
Kathmandu has dozens of excellent bookshops with a great selection of Himalaya titles, including books that are not usually available outside the country. Many dealers will buy back books for 50% of what you paid.
An endless supply of curios, art pieces and plain old junk is churned out for the tourist trade. Most does not come from Tibet but from the local Tamang community. Prayer flags and prayer wheels are a popular buy in Durbar Sq, Bodhnath and Swayambhunath, but be prepared to bargain.
In general you'll often find a better choice of crafts, or more unusual items, in the centres that produce the items – Jawalakhel (southern Patan) for Tibetan carpets, Patan for cast-metal statues, Bhaktapur for woodcarvings, and Thimi for masks. Head over to Patan to find well-stocked fair-trade shops.
Remember that antiques (over 100 years old) cannot be taken out of the country. Get a receipt and a description of any major purchase from the shop where you bought it. If in doubt get your item verified at the Department of Archaeology.