This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
The transvestite, in soap-opera sari, coiffed, face painted, is primly seated. Her companion, a young Japanese man in a neat beard and scruffy Ché T-shirt, is angry. Then ‘Rangeela’ flounces through the bead curtain and down the dank stairway. The man takes a huge pull of Everest beer, and notices that I have noticed.
“Fugyu,” he insists. To save him face, I turn back to take a bowl of miso soup from a tray that recently held superb tempura. The menu again catches my eye. It has a compelling message bordered by photos of a yellow rose, and a basket containing a towel and soap: “What is life when wanting love? Night without a morning! Love’s the cloudless summer sun, Nature gat sick adorning.”
Outside, two local bands, Anuprastha at Kathmandu Pub & Café, and an unnamed one at Namaste Café & Bar, are competing cover to cover — The Doors to The Doors, Rolling Stones to Rolling Stones, Pearl Jam to Pearl Jam — and decibel to decibel, in a frenetic meld of “Come on baby light my faiyah can’t get no satisfaction brown shoo-gur garble screech garble yeah.”
Back in Thamel after a year-and-a-half, it’s like I never went away. This teeming zone of kindergarten architecture smaller than, say, Connaught Place, is where freak meets freaky; where the dispossessed and the Blackberried hipster spouting instant karma walk together. Thamel is Goa- meets-Manali-meets-Dharamshala- meets-insanity-meets-commerce, with all the exuberance, ‘cool’, elegance, grottiness and filth enveloped in a uniquely forgiving Nepali charm.
The northern borderlands are marked by the Himalayan Java Café, where Thamel crosses over to the rest of the universe near the palace of Nepal’s deposed king. To the west is residential Kathmandu — and the temple to Swayambhunath. The southern and eastern borders merge into the rabbit warrens of Makhantole and Hanuman Dhoka in the Basantapur area — and Thamel’s fabled, faded predecessor, Freak Street. Thamel has grown to become a trekker and foodie haven, the nerve centre of Nepal’s crucial tourism trade, the gauge of its health. Along with the Himalaya, and the ethno-cultural magnet of this deeply fractured once-kingdom, I need a Thamel ‘fix’ now and again. I’m joined by tourists and locals: Kathmandu youngsters, Rana nobles, exchange-rate royalty from NGOs and embassies. Outside, Nepal goes through its post-war churn. In here it’s a willful, delirious zoo.
As I step out into the late evening drizzle, a bunch of British schoolchildren troop past in trekking gear, wearing marigold garlands, bright eyed, grinning, following an equally exuberant tutor who weaves a track through the throng. We pass shops selling Thangka and trinkets, fake and real Gore-Tex; the Pumpernickel Bakery where I eat croissant and yak cheese; the excellent K-Too steakhouse that also offers in its menu some Mel Brooks: “Don’t get saucy with me, Béarnaise!” I’m headed south to Pub Maya, located at a tri-junction wreathed in smells of incense, coffee, offerings from Shiva’s kitchen garden, wood-fired pizza — and refuse.
At Pub Maya, they have “Crazy Hours”. The previous evening, along with a bunch of hiker fashionistas dressed in fleece and beads, we had a ghostly Janis Joplin transport us with Try (Just a Little Bit Harder). A wall message urged: “Get pissed.” Outside, by a shop that sold clothes made from hemp and jute, I met a filthy, middle-aged Brazillian man in a tatty Lao DPR T-shirt, who begged me for some rupees. Next to him, an equally filthy, shaven-headed Brit junkie gave rupees to Nepali street urchins to “go have a fag or something, mate”. Bare-chested, he wore pajamas with a towel worn over in grotesque imitation of the Malay sampin. His bare feet were encrusted with black.
Freak Street was the laidback, ‘tuned-in’ cousin of Wall Street, where hippies and incognito rockers arrived for spiritual and psychotropic redemption in anonymous tourist ghettoes before moving on. For a while, they lived in wilful denial in this twisted Shangri-La of hash brownies and smiling images of snot-nosed children so beloved of trekkers.
When Pico Iyer visited Kathmandu in the 1980s, an experience he records in Video Nights in Kathmandu, “freaks” were already emptying, driven away by rising prices of both narcotics and accommodation. Today, Freak Street is more Souvenir Alley, some travel and curio shops, a handful of hotels with names like Monumental Paradise; and the holdout: The Pipe House, a store that sells an array of fanciful tubes to smoke narcotic, but would sooner sell copperware. Tourists and locals crowd the vast Durbar Square to buy curios, trinkets, khukri and kitchenware; drop in for honey pancake at the Grasshopper Café; surf at Speedy Net; or buy juju dhau — peerless curd. It’s now a mere province of the Republic of Thamel.