Don’t be fooled by its modest name. Kathmandu Guest House is a surprisingly palatial hotel in the heart of Thamel, Kathmandu’s tourist district, and something of an institution in Nepal’s capital. There’s another reason, however, why many of its guests return year after year: staying there makes you part of a timeline of adventure travel in Nepal that started 50 years ago.
In 1968, philanthropist and conservationist Karna Sakya converted his family home, a neoclassical mansion built for Nepal’s ruling Rana dynasty in 1903, into a 13-room guesthouse. Back then, Thamel was just a patchwork of rice paddies – but not for long. At a time when the few hotels in town catered to dignitaries and expats, the $2 rooms at Kathmandu Guest House (KGH) were a hit with intrepid travellers of all kinds
First came the mountaineers and Peace Corps volunteers; then the overland trucks rumbled in, led by British travel company Encounter Overland, ending their London-Kathmandu expeditions at KGH. George Harrison became one of the hotel’s first celebrity guests on his way back from Rishikesh, in northern India, in 1969.
KGH soon became a place to meet, as much as a place to stay, “a bottleneck where all travelers [would] pass at one time or another”, says Tony Wheeler, who penned some of the first Lonely Planet guidebooks there.
I almost step on Wheeler’s name when I arrive, literally. It’s part of KGH’s Walk of Fame, an adventure traveller’s Hollywood Boulevard honouring famous guests such as Jeremy Irons and Jimmy Carter, mountaineer Reinhold Messner and writer Peter Matthiessen, even Ricky Martin and Aussie actor Joel Edgerton. Today the KGH is a 103-room boutique hotel (soon to be 153 rooms, after the rebuilding of a wing destroyed by the 2015 earthquake), but it hasn’t forgotten its roots. It’s still committed to budget travellers, with 43 rooms that are cheaper than some hostels I’ve stayed in, without the backpacker vibe. My $US40 standard room is cosy, more like a ship’s cabin, but it’s clean and simple, and has everything I need: comfortable twin beds, a good shower, free Wi-Fi, a writing desk, universal power points (no need for bulky adapters, hallelujah) and windows that open (unfortunately, onto a brick wall; the garden-facing rooms are across the corridor). The best part of staying here, however, has nothing to do with the room. It almost feels like cheating, paying so little to stay in this grand hotel in such a central location – just beyond the front gates is one of Thamel’s pedestrian-only streets, festooned with prayer flags and bursting with hip cafes, vegetarian restaurants, jazz bars and bookshops. Then there’s the enormous garden, the perfect place to linger in the sun over a latte (the hotel’s cafe serves Illy coffee), meet new friends for a couple of Gorkha beers or dine under the stars at the Dream Garden cafe-restaurant (not to be confused with the popular Garden of Dreams, a short walk from KGH). In fact, the KGH seems to occupy a sweet spot between comfort and community. So even as you enjoy a superb Nepali and Indian meal in the garden, listening to traditional live music, there’s a sense that you’re among friends. At dinner on my first night, I see red-robed monks lounging on the grass, groups of trekkers chatting in various languages, holidaying families and Nepali couples. Cats slink around our legs, and a sign on a wall advises guests to “beware of monkeys”.
Breakfast, too, is more boutique than budget. Served in the Beatles Diner, decorated with photos of the Fab Four, there’s everything from warm croissants and fresh fruit to Nepalese pancakes and masala tea.
The hotel’s generosity extends beyond its guests through a strong social and environmental ethos, employing women who have been victims of trafficking, a major issue in Nepal, for instance, and participating in projects such as the US-based Eco-Soap Bank, which donates recycled hotel soaps to hospitals and humanitarian organisations. Like Nepal, Kathmandu Guest House has a way of getting under your skin. After two nights there, I feel part of the family. That’s no surprise to director Shaguni Singh Sakya, daughter-in-law of Karna Sakya. “People get inspired here, make lifelong friends,” she says. “Sometimes they fall in love here and come back the next year for their honeymoon. There’s a human connection that happens in this hotel that’s really special.” Louise Southerden stayed at her own expense but flew to Nepal as a guest of Intrepid Travel.
Kathmandu Guest House has rooms from $US40 a night and suites up to $US260 a night, including airport pickup, breakfast and Wi-Fi. There are 50th anniversary discounts this year at all seven hotels in the KGH Group, such as 10 per cent off spa treatments.