Nepal 12: The Drug Dealers of Thamel

Kathmandu Nepal Street Photogrpahy

I told the agent thanks, and I’d think on it. I folded up the piece of paper with his budget calculations on it, and stuffed it in the back pocket of my slacks. We shook hands and he must have committed my face to memory, because for the next week, every time I passed his office, he would call out to me and ask about my plans.

But today, we simply said goodbye. I left his office, and headed for the main streets of Thamel.

The sensory overload was immediate, and total.

The first thing one notices about Thamel is the dust. The streets of the district are not paved; they’re just dirt. Loose, dry dirt which is being constantly kicked up into the air by the beating of a thousand feet and the spinning of scooter wheels. Half the people in Kathmandu, locals and travelers alike, wear facial protection on a daily basis; the other half probably should too.

The dust is unavoidable: it irritates the eyes, lodges in your throat and causes chronic coughing, and quickly coats anything left outside. The settling of the dust is impossible to miss, as every shop in Thamel has piles of dusty goods stacked outside, an incentive to shoppers overwhelmed with choice. Most of the trekking shops stack duffel bags outside their doors. These big piles of multicolored haul bags all appear brown and faded as dust settles on them throughout the day. The owners pull them inside at night, shake off the dust, and the cycle begins anew the next morning.

Smog and pollution from motorbikes and taxis adds to the poor air quality. Scooters and actual bicycle-powered rickshaws regularly mingle with the pedestrian traffic in Thamel. The rickshaws take up a lot more space, but they’re definitely preferable, because you can be sure they won’t belch black smoke in your face. Scooters and taxis, free of any environmental controls, have been known to do that.

Thamel is dusty, polluted, and loud.

I picked a direction, and started walking. I had no particular goal in mind. Truthfully, my meeting with the trekking agent had overwhelmed me. We had talked for less than 30 minutes, but I couldn’t stomach the thought of walking into another dingy office, and having the same conversation four or five more times. I just got here, I thought. Let’s get a pulse on the place.

After five months traveling through Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, Nepal was the most foreign place I had ever been.

As I walked, I marveled at the high buildings and the seemingly endless array of trekking and souvenir shops. The owners stood on their stoops, and called out to me as I passed. “Trekking sir?” “Good deals, friend!” Now and then, one offered something I was interested in, but, afraid to seem susceptible to touts, I’d keep walking.

Despite my best efforts, I was easy pickings for the touts. I hesitated at intersections, looked just a little too long in store windows, and clearly didn’t have any goal in mind. Many, many men walked up to me on the streets, matching my pace and offering to show me around the city.

“Welcome to Nepal, brother! First time here? What brings you to our country? Trekking? I have a trekking agency, very good, very cheap! Come, come with me, brother. Very good, I promise!”

Worse than the trekking touts were the drug dealers. When Holly and I were traveling together, we had never once been approached about such things. Although touts would occasionally harass us about her blond hair, or try and convince me to buy her a rose or a ring or some other trinket, we had certainly never been offered drugs.

The first time it happened, a man on the side of the street muttered “hashish?” under his breath as I passed. I kept walking, then did a double-take, as I processed what he had said. He caught my interest, and hurried over to me. Too nervous to buy drugs off the street on my first day in a foreign country, I immediately resumed walking. He kept walking with me. “Hashish, brother? Very good, see?” he held out a cigarette with the end twisted off, the Nepali version of a joint.

I shook my head and kept walking. Undeterred, he continued with me. “Marijuana.” He reiterated, again brandishing the joint, as if I had not understood.

“No thanks,” I said, making eye contact with him for the first time.

“Something else?” the man asked. By now we had walked half a block at least. The tout was much shorter than me, and I was trying to discourage him by walking as fast as my long legs would carry me. The Nepali are not so easily discouraged though, and he was cheerily keeping pace.

Again, I told the man no. Again, he offered me drugs. “Cocaine?” I shook my head. “No.” He changed tacks. “Trekking? You want to go to mountains?” he asked, hopefully. “Where are you going, my friend?”

I reiterated again, firmly: “Thank you, no.” I ignored him as I lengthened my stride and walked away.

Within thirty seconds of losing the first tout, another man whispered “hashish?” as I passed by. This time, I just kept walking.

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[this is part 12 in an ongoing series. Click here to read part 1, find all entries here, or sign up for email updates here.]

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12 thoughts on “Nepal 12: The Drug Dealers of Thamel

  1. The drug aspect reminds me of Amsterdam.
    And the tourist treatment of many places. It takes zero time to clock a wealthy foreigner. It always amazes me how slick they are. One second a drug dealer the next a trekking guide lol

  2. You describe it well, I first went there many decades ago and often since then. Wonder if I should do a comparison post … I would never suggest any foreigner go to Thamel, far too many touts! A cafe in Freak Street would get you a more genuine deal on trekking or anything else you need to buy.

  3. Same, same but different! India is most certainly different than the rest of the world…more complex, more culturally diverse and most certainly more populated. In terms of land area alone, India is bigger than four to five European nations put together. And the population must be the same as the population of US and Australia put together, if not more. India is still an agrarian economy that largely depends on farming and revenue it earns from its export and farming is still not as technically sound and modern as rest of the world. Most of the farmers don’t even have their own lands and use cows to plow the fields. And since they don’t have any farm land let alone grazing pastures, they let their cattle free to graze wherever they can find some vegetation. And that’s why you see cows on the streets in most of the Indian cities and tribal belts and villages. In countries like the US, UK, NZ and Australia, the population is well under control and there’s an abundance of farming land and open green pastures for grazing. Most of the farmers are well off and have their own lands where they leave their cattle to roam around freely and that’s why the concept of cows on the streets is a little alien and unsettling for westerners visiting Indian cities…not the big metropolis though. At least not any more except for a few sporadic instances. But if you can get past the cows, and other sensory assault; India has a lot to offer. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart and is more like an acquired taste. But once you get a taste of it, you can’t get enough. There are many foreigners who have settled in India and those who had returned to UK as kids after Independence in 1947, came back as adults to settle down in India as they couldn’t forget their adolescent years spent here. Give it some time and you just might end up liking us…we welcome you and the rest of the world with a genial smile and a warm embrace…Namaste!

  4. 🙂 Most of the cities (big or small) in India are like that, dusty, potholed, crowded. You will get used to it after a while 😉 My friend who was here for a week from London couldn’t stand the noise from nearby flats and apartments during the night. And after a couple of days, he got used to it. When he went back he told me how very quiet his place was and that he felt that it was too weird 😆

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