Swayambhunath: The Monkey Temple

Hindus and Buddhists unite to give monkeys a place to breastfeed in peace

Quick+Dirty!

My internal clock is still messed up from 48 hours of traveling and a 13 hour and 45 minute time zone change.

Why 45 minutes, you ask? Because it’s Nepal, and strange little idiosyncrasies like that keep popping up every day. Like when the guy who runs my guest house told me how he graduated high school “back in 2065.”

This is because Nepal uses their own calendar, their own time zone…they even seem to breathe a different kind of air here.

It’s car exhaust and dust mixed with the thin strands of high-altitude oxygen, and I’m only walking for a few minutes before my heart rate starts to increase and my head starts to spin.

But I don’t mind – I am out! In Kathmandu! And en route to Swayambhunath, which is also known as The Monkey Temple.

The guy who graduated in the future gave me a map of Thamel and the surrounding areas, and I’m excited to see that the temple is located outside the invisible walls of the city’s tourist district.

On the map, the temple is west of my hotel, so I start heading west. I don’t have directions, and although I have a SIM card and in theory should be able to use Google Maps, the Google gods (or perhaps the Government of Nepal) have other ideas.

I’m flying blind, traipsing down dusty, winding streets that alternate between paved and sort-of-paved and used-to-be-paved and dirt. Large chunks of rocks lie next to enormous potholes, and it’s difficult to lift my eyes from the ground while walking for fear of tripping and swan-diving to the earth below.

I use the compass app on my phone to continue west, even when the streets insist on curving every way but. I pass empty lots strewn with garbage, stray dogs and tiny cats, women strapped with heavy basket loads, young boys walking with their arms around each other in friendship.

The sky is a brilliant blue, and the brightly painted buildings glimmer in the morning light. It’s quiet now, and I’m able to navigate large intersections with more ease than usual.

Bridge over the Bisnumati River

Bridge over the Bisnumati River

It’s happened in every city I’ve been to Asia, and it’s a phenomenon I absolutely love – just a single block outside the tourist area of Thamel,  I’m enveloped in Kathmandu Proper, the true city, the place that caters to itself alone.

I’m relieved to find the Bisnumati River, and hope I’m choosing the correct bridge across as the murky banks are flanked by crumbling overpasses. Chipped yellow paint highlights the way, and I pause for a moment to take in the narrow four-story buildings and metal-roofed shacks that line the riverfront.

The incline of the road increases and I find myself climbing steps to a shrine that overlooks the Bisnumati District. Is this the Monkey Temple?

There aren’t any monkeys in site, but there are a few men monitoring the shrine and they eye me with curiosity and suspicion. I wait for them to ask to me to pay, or to tell me to take off my shoes, but they lose interest and continue staring out over the hazy morning.

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I continue west, and soon enter a narrow street that hugs an unexpected mountain that seems to emerge from nowhere. The narrow shops and homes are separated by just a foot of breathing space between them, but it’s plenty of room to catch a spectacular view of the valley below.

Children giggle, women stare, but there is no sense of animosity here. They seem curious and a bit surprised to see me, which makes me wonder if I’m going the right way after all.

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After another 10 minutes westward, the street itself seems to buzz beneath me. Menus are suddenly written in English, taxi drivers emerge like statues come to life, and curious stares have turned into Nepali cat calls:

“Taxi, madam?”

“Nepali music, madam?”

“Where are you from?”

I smile and shake my head “no,” pressing on to the temple base – Swayambhunath! This must be it. If it’s not, forget the Monkey Temple, I’m going here instead.

It’s so enormous I can’t see the top, which exists as a floating rumor at the summit of steps that never seem to end. Lush trees jut from the hillside, their enormity hiding whatever treasures may lurk above, just waiting to be discovered.

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Before I can begin my ascent, something catches my eyes. I look to my right, and am rewarded with a view of dozens, no, hundreds of spinning, wooden prayer wheels.

The wheels are built into a high stone wall, where a long, rectangular alcove has been carved out just for them.

Worshipers begin at the northern end of the line walk and walk south, touching and spinning each wheel as they go. A few foreigners jump in and spin, but I’m too shy and afraid it will somehow be disrespectful.

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The hundreds of steep stairs are flanked on both sides by innumerable smaller shrines and pagodas. Women sell fruit and souvenirs from blankets while children and pregnant mothers beg for a few rupees. Stray dogs scratch themselves at the foot of The Buddha, and monkeys poke them playfully with sticks of broken incense.

Wait, what?!

Monkeys!! Oh my God, there are suddenly monkeys everywhere!

They emerge from the shrines, from the trees, from the very bowels of the mountain. And they are terrifyingly tame, not afraid to walk right up to you as if to say “Hey punk, back off, this is my turf.”

While filming one monkey, I seriously think I’m going to be attacked as she heads straight for my camera, then turns at the last second and struts past me. I think I even hear her giggle.

Monkeys fighting, monkeys making monkey-love, monkeys screeching at dogs and playing with cats and stealing fruit from tourists.

The people who run the temple apparently feed the monkeys in order to keep them (and the tourists who love them) around.

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Just when I was start to become slightly terrified of the monkeys, whose numbers seem to have no end, I glimpse an uncharacteristically still monkey perched on the ledge of the stairs.

She is squatting strangely, as if she is about to curl herself into a ball. Her head is down, her arms wrapped around herself in a strange hug.

Perhaps sensing me, she suddenly snaps her head up and stretches to her whole height, inadvertently revealing the cause of her strange posture  – her infant monkey, no more than a few days old, is sucking greedily at her monkey breast.

I’m staring at a monkey – a wild monkey –  breast-feeding her baby.

Ok, that’s it. I can go home now. If the ten thousand monkeys on this mountain decide to wage war upon me, I will die happily.

I finally reach the top of the stairs, though not without struggle. I keep telling myself I’m breathing heavily because of the elevation, and not because I’m pathetically out of shape.

After paying the 2,000 rupee entry fee (about $2 USD), I reach the summit. It is a flat-top platform filled with shrines and relics and the ever-present scent of burnt incense.

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Golden-bodied towers watch over visitors with painted Siamese eyes meant to ward off harmful ghosts. Shrines are everywhere and are used to house the ashes of the dead and honor ancestors past – white-washed shrines, metal-gold shrines, dull shrines of deep gray meant for the poor. The carvings become less intricate as the color fades, which makes the gray shrines look more like giant chess pieces than monuments.

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Smog and a city-wide dust cloud hangs over Kathmandu, ruining the view. Later I find out that it’s best to visit the Monkey Temple in the afternoon, when it’s clearer. As an Angelino and an experienced avoider of smoggy views, this seems counterintuitive to me – wouldn’t the smog be worse in the afternoon, after hours and hours of traffic on the roads?

A holy man sits on a mat in front of one of the shrines, singing a Hindu blessing over what I assume is a soon-to-be or just-married couple. I desperately want to know what he’s saying and why, but the 12 offers from 12 would-be guides in the last 12 minutes has turned me off, and I explore the grounds alone.

A crowd has gathered on the southern side of the main stupa – they’re shooting a music video. The actress, in head to toe white, lip syncs cheerfully with her smitten co-star. As soon the director yells “cut,” she looks bored and annoyed, much to his disappoint. I may not speak Nepali, but I can tell a diva when I see one.

Nepali diva.

Nepali diva.

On a clear day, it’d be easy to ingest sweeping views of the entire Kathmandu Valley from this perch. But my timing is bad, and I begin the long descent a bit disappointed with the pollution, the snotty actress, and the complete lack of reverence or sacredness at what I thought was supposed to be a holy site.

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The Monkey Temple can potentially offer the best view in Kathmandu if the weather is clear, but don’t expect a chance for communion with the Divine. Or rather, look for the divine in commercialism, in crumbling history, and, of course, in the monkeys.

This post is an excerpt from My Week With Deepak: A memoir of Nepal, available February 2015 from THP Publishing. To pre-order your copy, click here!

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. The Swayanbhunath Monkey Temple is located about a 30-minute walk west of Thamel in Kathmandu.

2. You can take a taxi from Thamel instead of walk, but it’s a very interesting walk through some great neighborhoods, so hoof it if you can!

3. It costs 2,000 rupees ($2) for foreigners to enter the temple. The ticket booth is located at the very top of the steps. If ascending from the east side of the complex, it will be on your left hand side.

4. If you accidentally walk past the ticket booth without paying, the collector will bark at you. Don’t take it personally.

5. Go in the afternoon (not the morning!) unless you want crappy, smog-clogged views of the city.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

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