Kathmandu’s Garden of Dreams

53 comments
Asia, Nepal, South

The Basanta (spring) pavilion

Six years ago this month, I set foot for the first time on a land that felt foreign yet familiar at the same time. India and Indonesia are separated by the Indian Ocean, but relations among kingdoms from the subcontinent and the sprawling archipelago had been forged since antiquity. India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands are in fact just a stone’s throw away from Indonesia’s westernmost islands. However, despite the supposed familiarities, traveling in India for an entire month turned out to be mentally challenging for me. Unfortunately, it was in India where I met some of the rudest people throughout my six-month odyssey across South and Southeast Asia in 2015, although I did meet genuinely friendly and hospitable people too, including one of my dearest blogging friends Madhu. But it wouldn’t be India without such stark contrasts.

Nepal was the next as well as the ultimate destination of the journey, and it was on our first night in this Himalayan nation when we realized that it was the right decision to put this country at the very end of our most epic trip to date. While India was intense, Nepal was easygoing in a way that if the country were a person, it would take no effort for me to feel comfortable spending a lot of time with that individual. Nepal was like an oasis I didn’t realize I needed.

The Nepal I’m talking about is not the majestic snow-capped mountains and deep gorges along which turquoise rivers flow. Rather, it’s the undeniably charming labyrinthine alleys of Kathmandu; the awe-inspiring ancient structures of Patan; the greatest and tastiest serving of yogurt I’ve ever had in my life in Bhaktapur; and the gentle and always-smiling people everywhere I went – which reminded me of home. Like I said, the timing was right. Maybe after traveling for a relatively long period of time, I needed to return home. And Nepal, in many ways, felt like one.

In Kathmandu, we stayed in Thamel, a commercial district as well as the tourist hub of the city. In this dense area, shops, restaurants, cafes, hotels, hostels, traditional markets, money exchanges, grocery stores, and offices of travel agencies filled every space available along a network of narrow crisscrossing streets and alleys. Some of the buildings were modern, while others incorporated Newari architectural elements, making the entire place very photogenic despite the chaotic setting. However, a small garden that occupies a walled plot of land at the eastern end of Thamel turned out to be a seemingly out-of-place oasis and an open-air space amid the high density that is otherwise the norm.

The Garden of Dreams, as it is called, was conceived by Kaiser Shumsher Jang Bahadur Rana, a field marshal of the Royal Nepalese Army who happened to be the son of the then-prime minister of Nepal. Inspired by English gardens during the Edwardian era, the private sanctuary – which was completed in the early 1920s – comprised ponds, fountains, and different pavilions, each named after Nepal’s six traditional seasons. The garden remained a property of Kaiser Shumsher until his death in 1964, after which its ownership was then transferred to the government of Nepal. This marked the end of the garden’s glory days as it gradually fell into disrepair in the decades that followed. Eventually, at the turn of the new millennium, there was hope that the garden – or at least parts of it – would see better days following restoration work funded by Austria that would take seven years to complete.

I came to the same park in 2015, eight years after it was opened to the public. As I left the street and entered the garden, a sudden calmness and tranquility caught me by surprise. It was immediately clear why this place was popular among locals and tourists alike, because it offered a respite from the hustle and bustle of Thamel. On top of that, the garden was filled with colors – flowers from different trees and shrubs – despite the fact that it was already winter. And that was how I realized ‘Garden of Dreams’ was not just some nice name randomly picked to sound catchy. The name was inspired by the place itself, an unlikely spot that was able to take people’s imaginations away from their immediate surroundings. It was like being in a dream.

The garden’s main pond in front of the Basanta pavilion

Details of the most prominent pavilion

A small oasis in the middle of the Nepalese capital

Early winter blooms

Some flowers put up gentler colors, like these pink chrysanthemums

Others are more flashy

A makeshift swing in the garden

The Grishma (early summer) pavilion

Leafless doesn’t mean lifeless

A place to dream

A carmine red display

It’s always a good idea to have a fountain in a garden

An orange trumpet vine adding to the already colorful greenery

Come and contemplate

A curious little squirrel

This marigold wants to steal the thunder

A newer fountain in the northwest corner of the garden

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

53 thoughts on “Kathmandu’s Garden of Dreams”

    • I believe so many things have changed since your last visit to Kathmandu, and I wonder if you go back there these days how much you will recognize. Nepal is also one of the countries I enjoyed the most, and if I get the chance to return one day maybe I should try one of those famous trails.

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  1. This time in 2019 was my last visit to nepal and also my last visit to Indonesia. Seems a distant age ago and i often wonder when and if i will visit again… covid and climate change have/are changing life on our planet. So good to read you again 🙏😊 Trees

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    • I fell in love with Nepal, and also with Bhutan, which made me wonder if I have an affinity to those regions on the slopes of the Himalayas. How are things in your part of Oz? It’s crazy how two years ago we were still traveling like we had been for years! Always nice to have you here, Trees.

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    • Tranquil is the right word to describe this garden. While Kathmandu’s chaotic streets and alleys have their own charm, it’s nice that the city has this place to provide refuge to those seeking peace.

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    • Betul kak. Ke taman manapun itu kalau pas lagi ada bunga-bunga bermekaran itu happynya dobel-dobel. Saya sebenernya gak nyangka sih ke sini pas sudah masuk musim dingin ternyata masih banyak bunga yang mekar. Makasih sudah mampir. 😀

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  2. SIX years ago – hard to believe! (Then again, I was last there in 2012, which seems impossible). As I read, I kept thinking this was the same place as a restaurant I ate at called Dechenling Garden of Joy, but from what I can tell, it is a different garden, one that I didn’t see in Kathmandu. I would have loved to! The city was such an assault on the senses, and an oasis like this would have been wonderful.

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    • I also still can’t believe that the six-month journey I took with James was six years ago — how time flies! The Kathmandu I saw was a place that was still reeling from the destructions caused by the April 2015 earthquake. But even with the damage at some old buildings in the city’s Durbar Square, the claustrophobic alleys of Thamel, and the air pollution, for some reason I found it all inexplicably photogenic and enchanting. However, I believe the locals appreciate the presence of Garden of Dreams as something different — soothing even — in their city.

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  3. As you alluded to, the Nepal I picture is dramatic, snow-capped peaks, and the Kathmandu that springs to my mind is a charming but chaotic tourist town. I never would have placed the Garden of Dreams, with its European aesthetic, in Kathmandu. What an absolute surprise. The beautiful gardens and architecture immediately convey a sense of calm. I can well imagine that this was the perfect ending to your epic journey.

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    • I think it was James who found out about this place and suggested it to me. Since we stayed in the area and had enough time, I thought sure, why not see it? I’m glad we did because it was so different from the rest of the city. Although technically speaking Nepal was not part of the Spice Route, it was a good decision to include the country and put it at the very end of our journey.

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  4. “it was in India where I met some of the rudest people throughout my six-month odyssey across South and Southeast Asia in 2015”

    Yes, it does sound like home! You are right about the strange familiarity you feel when you travel across South and South-east Asia. It is clearly a different country, but it also has a touch of home. Its a very nice feeling (except when you meet the rude people or the tourist hustles).

    We’ve been thinking of going to Nepal again every year after the earthquake. And then there was the lockdown. I’m not sure that the border is as open as before yet. I barely remember this garden, and I’m not sure I’ve mixing it up with something else.

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    • Although I may sound like I didn’t like India, actually I really want to go back to explore more. There are parts of the country I most want to visit in the future, including Maharashtra (chiefly to see the Ajanta and Ellora caves), Odisha (I have Konark Sun Temple in mind), and Hyderabad, among other places. But at least now I know what to expect when I return to India.

      Even though international travel is now possible again, I think places will only fully reopen next year the soonest — and by then I guess it would be the right time for you to go back to Nepal.

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      • I suppose things will open slowly, piecemeal, and with false starts too. But I don’t think any trip will be quite the same until we have treatments for COVID, and not just vaccines. We’ve been taking trips recently, mostly outdoors. But there is always a sense of “check that we are safe”.

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      • That is true. Until we have over-the-counter pills for COVID like we do for common cold, there will still be restrictions in one way or another.

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  5. Thanks for introducing me to this dreamy garden, Bama! It looks totally different from what I’ve known about Kathmandu. At first, I thought the garden belonged to the Nepalese kings because of the title Kaiser (Emperor) in the owner’s name 🙂

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    • The pleasure is mine, Len. I remember reading somewhere that although the king from the Shah dynasty was officially the head of state, in reality the prime minister from the Rana dynasty held the actual power. Kaiser Shumsher Jang Bahadur Rana happened to be the one of the sons of a prime minister from the Rana dynasty — which explains why he was able to have this plot of land right at the heart of Kathmandu.

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  6. I love places like these, where you can just take a break from the environment of a hectic city. During my travels to China and Tibet I found similar places like these where you can just take a break and admire nature. Shang Hai Jade Buddha Temple was one of those places. Also, your picture of the golden marigold reminds me of the iconic Mexican marigold we use in Mexico for Día de los Muertos.

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    • I think all cities need this kind of place for the wellbeing of their inhabitants. Your mention of that temple in China somehow reminds me of Nan Lian Garden in Hong Kong. It was a very peaceful oasis amid the fast-paced city. If you celebrate it, I hope you had a nice Día de los Muertos, Liz!

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  7. What a beautiful place. Although I’ve never been to Kathmandu I would never have expected to find a place like this there. Lovely photos Bama. It must have been so nice to spend time there.
    Alison

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    • When you go to Kathmandu one day, and you feel overwhelmed by it, you know you can always retreat to this serene corner of the city. However, having survived India, I think you’ll be doing just fine. Thanks Alison.

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  8. I had never heard of the Garden of Dreams before Bama! Your photos convey the feeling of peace you felt in this beautiful oasis. Bookmarking for whenever I get to Nepal.

    I remember your disappointment with India. This country has probably gotten more intense since your visit 🙂 We are setting out to Aurangabad to visit the Ajanta and Ellora caves next week, incidentally…will be boarding my first flight since our return from Chile.

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    • That disappointment won’t stop me from coming back, though. Meeting you and Ravi was one of the best things we experienced in India, and because of that our impressions of Chennai were more on the positive side. There are just too many things I still want to see in your country, Madhu, so much so two or three more visits wouldn’t suffice.

      Oooh I’m a bit jealous of your upcoming trip! 🙂 I haven’t flown anywhere since the beginning of the pandemic. But I’ve been thinking of going back to Bali since it’s been more than six years since my last trip there. Enjoy the caves, Madhu!

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    • You’re welcome, Steven. As you can see, when I went the garden was a world away from the rest of the city.

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  9. The place in your photos looks almost otherworldly, like a place that can heal you from the inside. Hopefully, I’ll be able to visit the garden someday.

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    • The garden and all those trees were certainly an antidote to Kathmandu’s dusty streets — the city definitely needs more places like this. When you do go to the Nepalese capital one day, you shouldn’t miss this garden, Ankana.

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  10. Wonderful photos ~ you label one as “come and contemplate” which is a perfect description for this post, Bama. Peaceful, and I could understand through your words how you set foot in land for the first time and while it being foreign, it held a familiarity at the same time. I think for those who live and grew up in SE Asia, such connections are special. These are the moments of travel I relish, and often it is meeting the locals and finding similarities of thought and life, even though the culture I grew up in is so vastly different. Nepal had such moments in abundance ~ and great that you share such treasures. It is also very cool that you met Madhu in India, how awesome that must have been 🙂

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    • Thanks Randall. I think one thing many Southeast Asian countries have in common is their people’s affinity to smiling at others, and to me seeing someone genuinely smiling at me always feels comforting. However, I do realize that even though some people from other parts of the globe don’t have this trait, if I go beyond the superficial things I will most likely learn that we have more things in common than we are different. Meeting Madhu really helped me enjoy Chennai more than most visitors would, and I’m grateful for that. 🙂

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      • You know, I think you are right. During our last travel in Myanmar, my sister said how at ease it was to talk with people while traveling and I thought it was because they were genuinely happy with life – and that is a good reason to smile 🙂 And yes, you were very fortunate to have Madhu there to help you enjoy Chennai – what a wonderful time that must have been. 🙂

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      • I grew up in cultures where smiling is natural — people just do it without thinking much about it. It’s just a part of life. But traveling has opened my eyes to different ways different people express themselves.

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      • I did too, and always thought perhaps it was because I grew up in a small town. Here is Czech and in some other places, it is not at all common and that always surprises me 🙂 Agree, travel really opens the eyes and minds to different cultures and ideas, while also entwining us closer because of other similarities.

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      • From what I heard, the more east of Europe you go, the less people smile. 😀 When Russia was about to host the soccer world cup in 2018, there was this video/campaign the government made to encourage their people to smile more. I found that rather amusing.

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  11. Garden of dreams indeed. What gorgeous photos Bama. I’m sorry to hear about the rudeness experienced in India. Hopefully your experience an exception rather than the rule.

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    • Thanks Sue. I read that some people actually felt the people they met in India were genuinely hospitable. Maybe I was just unlucky, or maybe it’s different from one state/region to another. But one thing for sure: I still want to go back to India one day.

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  12. Your descriptions of Nepal here make me want to visit, when I’ve not been particularly interested before. Honestly, for me, the people can make me fall in love with a place, as I found in Chile and in Myanmar. Nepalese seem like people I could relax with. Your photos of the Garden of Dreams are excellent. So much colour and such beauty and peace. Love that gate that says, “DREAMS.”

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    • There are a lot more to Nepal than those famous snow-capped mountains. I was in the country during a rather difficult time; it was still reeling from the devastating earthquake that killed thousands of people seven months earlier, and it was in the middle of a fuel blockade imposed by India due to a political crisis between the two countries. However, the people of Nepal that I met were very kind and gentle despite their hardships. More places like this garden would have certainly helped alleviate some of the burdens they faced, I believe.

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    • Cities certainly need to have places like this for the wellbeing of their residents. Yet, despite the benefits a garden or a park can bring to a city, many leaders choose to prioritize “profitable” projects.

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  13. So sorry to hear about your experience in India. I almost feel like wish I could correct it. I hope you will some again and have a very good experience, one that you should have as a guest. I was in Kathmandu in 2019, yes just before the pandemic. And just like all other tourists, I also stayed at Thamel. Didn’t know that Thamel had such a lovely open space amidst all the crowd.

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    • I guess I was just really unlucky. For sure I will return to India. When AirAsia started flying to Bhubaneswar I was actually thinking of going since the sun temple in Konark is one of those places in India I most want to see. But then the pandemic hit us all. It’s nice that you got to visit Kathmandu right before borders are closed. I hope we all can travel again sooner than later (hopefully in 2022).

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  14. Wow, the place looks beautiful and has a very interesting history! I have never been to Nepal, even though it is probably one of the first countries that I ever wanted to visit, but I have yet to discover this part of the world. In the meantime, thanks to you I feel like I have traveled there a bit, so thanks for sharing! 😊

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    • Kathmandu is every photographer’s dream. Despite its chaotic first impression, it has this charm I rarely find in other cities. When you do travel to this part of the world one day, you shouldn’t miss this garden, Juliette. Glad you enjoyed this throwback post of mine from my trip to Nepal six years ago.

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