Just outside of central Kathmandu is the mystical town of Boudhanath (also spelled Boudhnath and Boudha). It’s an important center of Tibetan culture. This is one of the few places in the world where a large community of Tibetans is able to freely practice their religion without fear of persecution or discrimination. In short, it’s an intoxicating place to explore. The town’s focal point is Boudhanath Stupa — the largest stupa in Nepal and the most important Tibetan monument outside of Tibet. If you’re at all interested in Tibetan Buddhism, culture and history, it’s well worth the trip to visit Boudhanath Stupa while you’re in Kathmandu.
Boudhanath Stupa History
Boudhanath first established itself as an important place in Tibetan Buddhism in the 7th century. It was a natural stopping point for merchants from Kathmandu to pray before beginning the long journey along the trade routes to Lhasa.
The stupa has gone through several rounds of destruction and reconstruction. The one you see today was probably built around the 15th century, although locals will give you many variations of the exact timeline.
The mystique and legends surrounding the stupa’s history are part of what make it so interesting. Some of the best sources of Boudhanath Stupa information and mythology are the shopkeepers in the area. Several folks I met were adamant that the stupa contains the remains of and artifacts belonging to several important Buddhas, demonstrating the importance of Boudhanath Stupa. But they admitted that the historical record to back up those claims is limited.
More recently, Boudhanath’s significance increased with the arrival of a large Tibetan refugee population in the early 1960’s. These refugees and their families still live here today. The town has also seen a large influx of young Nepalis from the countryside — many of them Sherpas from the Everest region — looking for a lower cost of living than they’d find in Kathmandu proper.
In 1979, Boudhanath Stupa was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage landmarks in Nepal alongside several other Kathmandu Valley historical sites. Luckily, the stupa survived the 2015 earthquake with very little damage.
Symbolism in the construction of Boudhanath Stupa
Boudha Stupa is constructed in the typical style of Buddhist stupas in Kathmandu. If you’ve visited Swayambhunath (i.e. the Monkey Temple in Kathmandu), it will look familiar — although Boudhanath is far more beautiful.
The stupa’s central feature is a large white dome, topped with a spire decorated with Buddha’s watchful eyes. The squiggly line that looks like a nose is actually the Tibetan symbol for unity.
Each feature is symbolic of one of the elements: earth, water, air, and the “beyond” or “void”. The spire — which represents air — is 13 levels tall to symbolize the 13 levels you must attain to reach nirvana. Colorful prayer flags drape from the top back to the base, and prayer wheels line the entire exterior.
When you visit Boudhanath Stupa, you’ll be in awe of the level of detail in the construction. Each aspect is perfectly proportioned. It may not be immediately obvious from the ground level, but visit a rooftop restaurant near the stupa and you’ll see why this is one of the most beautiful landmarks in Nepal.
What to expect when you visit Boudhanath Stupa
Boudha Stupa is hidden in a large plaza accessible by alleyways leading from the main road. If you arrive at the main entrance, you’ll find a ticket office. Foreigners must pay the Boudhanath Stupa entrance fee of 200 rupees. If you enter through a different alley, you won’t encounter a ticket office. I came in through an alley on the east side and didn’t even realize I was supposed to pay until after I left.
As with every other Buddhist stupa, it’s respectful to only walk clockwise around the structure. Starting from the main entrance, walk about a quarter of the way around and you’ll see a crowd formed around a small shrine at the base of the stupa. To the right of the shrine is the entrance to reach the upper levels of the dome. From here, you can walk 360 degrees around the stupa in relative peace and quiet. Walk about halfway around and look below you to see young monks in training meditating and praying — many of them are Western, studying at a nearby Buddhist monastery.
Many Westerners associate Tibetan Buddhism with a secluded hilltop Buddhist monastery, monks praying, and general peace and quiet. So you may be surprised to learn that Boudhanath is actually a pretty chaotic place.
When you visit Boudhanath Stupa, you’ll jockey for space with pilgrims, monks, tour groups, and hippies learning to practice Buddhism. Beggars will ask you for money, shopkeepers will solicit your business, and some annoying old man with a tripod will step directly in the way of your perfect photo. Arm yourself with a healthy dose of patience and the understanding that this is every bit as authentically Tibetan as what you’ll find in remote corners of the Himalayas.
Make the most of your trip to Boudha Stupa
The best time to visit Boudhanath Stupa is in the late afternoon. The crowds on Kathmandu tours leave, and hundreds of pilgrims arrive. You’ll hear the monks chanting and smell the incense burning. There is no better way to gain an understanding of Tibetan culture.
The best views of the stupa from above are from Cafe du Temple and Stupa View Restaurant. Both are a bit pricey and very crowded during the day. Himalayan Java also has a good second-floor view and great coffee if you just need a short break — and you’ll likely share a table with local monks instead of Western tourists.
Things to do in Boudhanath after you visit Boudhanath Stupa
Beyond the largest stupa in Nepal, Boudhanath is home to many Buddhist monasteries. It’s a good shopping destination if you’re interested in bringing home Tibetan handicrafts. If you have more time when you visit Boudhanath Stupa, you can also combine it with a trip to the important Hindu site of Pashupatinath Temple.
The easiest Buddhist monastery to visit is Guru Lhakhang Gompa, directly across from the shrine at the base of the stupa. It contains elaborate murals, and the upper levels provide good views over the stupa. You’ll see thousands of butter candles burning, and it’s a popular pilgrimage site.
Quieter Samtenling Gompa is just a few steps away from the stupa, on the northeast end. Alternatively, head a bit further north to visit the massive complex of Shechen Gompa.
As in most Buddhist cultures, feet are considered slightly taboo in Tibetan Buddhism. Remove your shoes before entering a Boudhanath monastery. Don’t step over monks’ cushions or point your feet directly at anyone.
If you’re more interested in shopping for Tibetan handicrafts, you can start with the shops surrounding the stupa itself. But the alleys leading to the stupa have the same products for cheaper. You’ll find the best deals north of the stupa, where fewer people rushing through on Kathmandu tours venture.
Visit Pashupatinath Temple
After you visit the stupa and the town, another of the favorite things to do in Boudhanath is to walk to Pashupatinath Temple. the journey takes about 20 minutes. Download an offline Google map and use these directions from Lonely Planet to find the way.
Pashupatinath Temple is a major Hindu pilgrimage site. It also overlooks cremation ghats where you can see this sacred ritual completely in the open. If you decide to visit, err on the side of respect when it comes to tourist behavior and photography (basically, don’t take photos).
Note that there is a 1,000 rupee admission fee and non-Hindus aren’t allowed to enter most of the temple. Many people who visit are disappointed. I chose to skip it for those reasons, and since I’d seen similar things in Varanasi. But other travelers — especially people who have never been to India — find it fascinating and well worth the money.
How to get to Boudhanath from Kathmandu
It’s very easy to visit Boudhanath Stupa from Kathmandu. Getting there, exploring for awhile, and coming back takes about three hours.
By far the easiest way to get to Boudhanath is to take a taxi. It’s affordable, especially if you are in a group — I paid 350 rupees from Boudhanath to Thamel. Be sure to agree on a price before you get into the taxi, but aggressive bargaining isn’t necessary. The taxi ride takes 20 minutes or so.
When you leave Boudhanath, walk out of town (to the west) for a couple hundred meters to get the best deal on a taxi. If you try to take one directly from the stupa exit, you’ll pay 50-100 rupees more.
Another easy — although potentially less satisfying — option is to take one of the Kathmandu tours that includes Boudhanath. These are typically minibus tours that also stop in Patan and possibly Bhaktapur, as well as hitting the major Kathmandu attractions. I always prefer to travel independently over taking tours — tours are too rushed for me. But if you have limited time in Kathmandu it could be a good option. Any travel shop in Thamel can book this for you.
Public transportation to visit Boudhanath Stupa
If you’re on a budget, you can also take public transportation to Boudhanath. This is really only worth it if you are counting every penny.
The first step is to go to the chaotic Ratna Park bus station, just outside of Thamel. Ask the locals for a bus to Boudha (it’s pronounced “Bow-da,” not like “Buddha”). They’ll direct you to either a big bus, a microbus, or a tempo (pickup truck with wooden benches in the back). The latter take you around the ring road before heading to Boudhanath, and they are extremely dusty and crowded.
Boudhanath is typically an intermediary stop on the bus routes. It helps a lot to download an offline Google map of the area so you know when to get off. Vehicles stop directly outside the stupa, but you won’t be able to see the stupa from the street at all. I asked the driver of my tempo to let me know when to get off and he didn’t. You pay when you get off — 20-25 rupees, depending on the type of vehicle.
Getting back to Kathmandu from Boudhanath is even harder. Tons of buses stop directly outside the stupa, but it seems that none of them go to Ratna Park. Every driver I asked unhelpfully pointed me further down the road, where there were no bus stops! I didn’t want to end up on a bus that would drop me at some unknown station far from Thamel, so I eventually gave up and took a taxi.
On your own steam
Boudhanath Stupa is close enough to central Kathmandu that you could theoretically walk there. It’s about 3.5 kilometers. The walk is along very dusty, high-traffic, major roads with no sidewalks.
Some travelers rent bicycles or motorbikes to visit Boudhanath Stupa. You couldn’t pay me to drive in Kathmandu traffic. But it could be a good option if you’re planning a longer day trip including other destinations around the Kathmandu Valley.
If you decide to walk or rent a bike or motorbike, be sure to time your visit so you’re off the roads before dark. Between the reckless driving and police targeting foreigners for tickets, it’s not worth the risk to return too late.
Extend your Boudhanath Stupa visit
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If you want to spend longer in Boudhanath, visit at odd hours of the day, or just want a quieter alternative to Kathmandu, it’s entirely possible to stay overnight in Boudhanath.
Literally every other building in Boudhanath is a momo shop, so you never have to look hard for food here. Thukpa (Tibetan noodle soup) is another popular option. The area around the stupa has an abundance of Western/Nepali backpacker cafes.
If you want to learn more about Tibetan Buddhism, consider attending the 10 am daily talks at Kopan Monastery. This is also a popular place for Westerners to study Buddhism. You can sign up for a course lasting from one week to a month.
Looking for more Kathmandu day trip ideas after you visit Boudhanath Stupa? Try visiting the medieval city of Patan. Click here to read more about Patan.
Visiting Boudhanath Stupa is an unforgettable experience. It’s the most beautiful of all the stupas in Kathmandu and the Kathmandu Valley. And it’s an easy day trip from Kathmandu. Don’t miss out on this chance to learn about and witness firsthand Tibetan culture.
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