Touring Kathmandu on the Back of a Vespa
I’m a sucker for a scooter ride, and when I heard about Vespa Valley’s vintage Vespa tours of Kathmandu, I had to check it out.
My guide, Surendera, picked me up near my house on a cherry-red ’80s model. He gave me a helmet and we cruised off into the streets of Kathmandu. Our customized three-hour itinerary was going to combine some iconic eats at secret spots, and a stellar view above the valley.
I live in Kathmandu, but I don’t often see the sights. Plus I’m usually driving my own scooter and have to pay attention to various dogs, rickshaws, small children and cows on the road. Being on the back of Surendra’s ride let me look wherever I wanted, listen to his tales, and soak it up like the tourist I was the first time I came to Kathmandu 13 years ago.
We drove towards Thamel, then hung a left down into the lanes of Basantapur. On the way we stopped at Indra Chowk, at one of Kathmandu’s longstanding institutions–the lassi shop. This place does one thing and one thing only- zingy lassis. Loads of locals gather around, standing and drinking their sweet drinks. Once you reach the bottom of the glass you’re rewarded with cashew, pistachio, and dried fruit prizes. It’s simple and delicious. When peak season comes, they can churn out over 8000 glasses a day! Right around that area are the outdoor markets where most of the locals shop. Surendra remembers times when he was a kid during the Dasain festival. Everybody came here to do some serious pre-festival shopping. As a reward, they all got a treat to a lassi. A big nostalgic smile covered his face.
Next stop: New Road. Along the way Surendra told me facts about the local areas, explained the meaning in their names, and pointed out things that could get lost in the bustle without someone local and expert drawing your eye to them.
Surendra parked the scooter and we were off to try another snack, the beloved samosa. I’m not going to reveal where we went, but it was hidden between several commercial buildings. The space was packed with people eating savory samosas with a spicy sweet tamarind sauce off of little bowls made of saal leaves. Surendra inhaled several pani puri, little puffed dough balls filled with a cold sour broth. I politely declined after an angry run in with them a few years ago. Some experiences you are meant to have only once.
After that, we stopped in Durbar Square. I took some photos while Surendra told stories. The place i live about 15 minutes from here, but I rarely come down anymore. And used to hang out here regularly with my good friend and drink chai and spy for barefoot tourists. I miss those days, think we’ll have to revive the tradition.
And now for more food! Surendra took me to another hidden place, a Newari hole in the wall where he’d been coming for years. He and his buddies used to skip school and hang out here upstairs, sitting on carpets around low tables full of food. We tried chatamari- a sort of rice flour pancake topped with egg and minced meat, a khaja set of beaten rice, roasted soybeans- musya, hard boiled eggs, and spicy curried potatoes. We also tried super spicy dried buffalo choila. I love it! My favorite though is the hot, sour bamboo soup- alu tama. I was sufficiently well fed on this tour!
Then we were back on the Vespa afterward for the cruise the bike was yearning for. We rode up to Swayambhunath, Monkey Temple. Once you get over your fear of the scampering hoards of verbal monkeys all around you, this place is pretty magical. The stupas, the views, and layers of stories around the place are awesome. We looked over the city far below us. I wanted to get my bearings. Before the Dharahara tower fell down in the earthquake, that was the landmark. Now it’s a little tricky to describe what’s where. It didn’t matter. It was just calming to be looking down across the pastel buildings, slightly softened in the afternoon haze.
Surendra was fantastic. He answered all of my questions with a wide smile and the patience of a Kathmandu-ite. He drove with great care and I felt very safe and very stylish the entire time. Vespa Valley has a fleet of eight Vespas, so it’s ideal for a small group. Some of their other set itineraries go out into the surrounding villages, but it’s possible to craft a bespoke trip, too. No matter if you’re visiting for the first time or maybe the 20th, this was a lighthearted, educational and delicious cruise around Kathmandu!