Weekly Travel Feature

From Hotel Royal to the Kathmandu Rest House

Prepared by Harold Stephens
Travel Correspondent for Thai Airways International

Travellers to Kathmandu today have an endless array of hostelries to choose from. They range from the elegant Yak & Yeti to tiny back packer’s abodes tucked away in back alleys. The first hotel I stayed in when I visited Kathmandu in 1965 was an old hotel called the Snowview. I had arrived by Jeep via the Tribhuwan Rajpath from India. The Snowview was a mountain climbers’ hotel. When there weren't enough rooms for all the climbers, they pitched tents and camped on the lawn.

Hotels were few back then. The most famous one was the Royal Hotel, managed by a self-proclaimed hotelier who had turned an old Rama palace into a very popular hotel. The man was Boris Lechneivo, a displaced White Russian, better known as Boris of Kathmandu. Boris was truly a legend.

The legend began in 1948 and not in Kathmandu but in Calcutta. The belle of Calcutta at the time was an eighteen-year-old young lady, a true Danish beauty with flashing blue eyes and lovely/wavy blond hair. Her name was Inger Scott. The war had ended and, having completed her schooling in England, she went to Calcutta to live with her mother and stepfather.

Enter a White Russian bar keeper by the name of Boris Lissonevitch. He was known by nearly everyone and a leading entrepreneur of social life for all the colonials and expats in the city. He was by birth an aristocrat and a colourful bonvivant who had fled Russia with a ballet troupe after the Bolshevik Revolution and eventually made his way to Calcutta where he opened the posh 300 Club. He was a friend of nearly everyone, from very rich playboy maharajahs, reigning royalty, sultans, heads of state, foreign diplomats, actors and actresses, political leaders, and political agitators as well.

At a party given by Maharajah of Cooch Behar, Boris met Inger and a fairy tale love story ensued that sounds more fiction than fact. I wrote about it all in my book At Home in Asia and I will merely mention here that the two, Boris and Inger, fell in love and married.

Among the maharajahs and royalty who visited the 300 Club, one prominent visitor was the deposed King Tribuvan of Nepal.  On February 18, 1951, when King Tribhuvan returned to Nepal to regained power he invited Boris and Inger to come to Nepal to organize his coronation. Boris gladly accepted.

It’s most interesting to note what Inger had to say about Kathmandu when they arrived:  "Kathmandu was like a fairy tale," Inger said lamentingly. "The town was very quiet then, with old brick buildings and carved windows. There was not a drop of cement anywhere, only high mud walls. We had one paved brick road and no more than a hundred vintage cars. Mind you, no buses, no cabs, no pedicabs or rickshaws. We walked. We walked everywhere and thought nothing about it."

Indeed, Kathmandu then was a privileged place. Life in the valley seemed unperturbed by the outside world; few newspapers ever reached the capital, and no radios disturbed the peace of the streets. No road led into the country and, for the few vehicles the capital did have, they had to be carried into the country on the backs of men and beasts.

Boris took complete charge and responsibility for the king's coronation. It was a huge success. Guests from around the world attended. Boris had made all their arrangements which, naturally, included accommodations. The biggest and most difficult problem for Boris was finding places to stay for the thousands of people who came. Boris quickly saw the need for a proper hotel in Kathmandu. When the celebration was over and the last guest had departed, Boris confronted the king with a proposition. What Kathmandu needed, he said, was a first-class hotel. The Snowview and the Imperial Hotels, the only ones in town, were inadequate. Not only VIPs needed a place to stay when they came to Kathmandu but tourists as well.

The king listened to Boris' proposal and finally agreed. Kathmandu would have its proper, first-class hotel. He granted Boris the use of a Rana palace right in town for this purpose, and the famous Hotel Royal of Kathmandu was born.

With the introduction of tourism, and after Nepal's admission to the United Nations in 1955, there was an obvious increase in the number of foreigners in the valley. The Hotel Royal soon became the meeting place of Europeans and Nepalese and Boris, with his buoyant charm and enthusiastic personality, became the leading spirit of the town's social activities.

When Boris opened the Royal, he had a copper chimney with a red brick base built in the very center of the lounge. In a large circle around the fireplace were comfortable reclining chairs where everyone sat with their feet propped up on the bricks. It was here at the fireplace that I first met Boris many years ago. Boris passed away in 1985.

The Hotel Royal no longer exists but there are several five-star hotels that stand in its place. Topping the list of five-star hotels are the Yak & Yeti, the Everest Hotel, Soaltee Holiday Inn, de  L’Annapurna, Shangri-la and the very beautiful Dwarikas Hotel. One of my favourites, where I usually stay, is the Malla Hotel.

But this time, on my recent trip, it was different. I was travelling with travel writer Robin Dannhorn and he insisted we stay at the Kathmandu Guest House in Thamel. “You want atmosphere,” Robin said, “well, here it is.”

He was right. What a delightful surprise. Thamel, a 20-minute walk from downtown Dubar Square, is where the real action is these days in Kathmandu. As you approach Thamel, you begin to feel its pulse beat. It has atmosphere.  It's crammed with shops and stores bulging at the seams, restaurants and bars, book shops and pizza parlors, hawkers and rickshaw drivers calling out to strollers, and all the weird and strange sounds—but it’s the people who make it interesting, tourists included.  Occasionally there's the passing freak, but the majority of visitors these days are serious-minded travellers––hikers, trekkers, climbers and determined sightseers.  They come with climbing boots and rosy cheeks, with bright woolen sweaters and sweat pants, some walking, others riding bicycles. They come to gather in the restaurants in the evenings, lingering over their tables, drinking coffee and hot toddies.

The Kathmandu Guest house is without doubt the most popular of travellers’ hotels in Kathmandu, and it serves as the central landmark in Thamel. Sit in the comfortable lobby of the KGH for but a few minutes and you find you are in the travellers' nerve centre.

I was anxious to learn more about the rest house and met the general manager, Sunil Sakya. In the course of our conversation, when I mentioned that Robin and I were interested in the wildlife reserves of the Terai, he said we should meet his father. He made a phone call and in the next few minutes a car was taking Robin and me to the home of Karna Sakya.  I was about to embark on another adventure and met one of the most interesting characters I have met in Asia.

After Sunail had told me about his father and all that he had done in his life, I was expecting to meet an old man if not in a wheel chair perhaps on crutches. On the contrary, we were greeted by a robust man who certainly does not look the 66 years of age that he is.

Karna meet us at the entrance to his beautiful old colonial house. The Elizabethan entrance is marked with huge pillars and, once we entered, we found ourselves in rooms with high ceilings. Karna led us through passageways and up stairways whose walls were covered with family portraits and framed photographs of Nepalese royalty and many famous people from abroad. He bid us to be seated in a large living room with the walls equally adorned with framed photographs. A servant brought us tea. What I expected to be a short chat turned into an hour or more and that was not enough. Karma told us his story. Sitting there, I was like a kid again, listening to strange and wondrous tales about jungle lore and kings and kingdoms. Karma is a natural raconteur and the author of many fascinating books.

In 1967, after his postgraduate in forestry, he joined the Ministry of Forest as a wildlife conservation officer. He did the reconnaissance survey and carried out a complete boundary demarcation of the nation's first national park, the Chitwan, which is now listed in the World Heritage Site and is one of the best national parks in the world. As Ministry of Forest Officer, Karna travelled to every remote location. He wrote a book about that experience titled “Paradise in Our Backyard.” I have read it and found it as exciting as any “bring them back alive” thriller by the noted American explorer Frank Buck.

Karna can boast of another hat he wears––the father of tourism in Nepal. Foreseeing that tourism would be a big business in Nepal, he decided to open a guesthouse but not in the downtown area of Kathmandu. He was not prepared to attract overflowing hippies from the freak street of Jhochen. He wanted to host intellectual tourists. He managed to get patronage from Peace Corp volunteers and UK based overland operators. The hotel was the Kathmandu Guest House and the location was Thamel. After luring other guesthouses to hang up their marques and vendors to open shops in Thamel, the business grew. “A tourist destination is not built,” Karna explained. “It is created and it is created when the environment of a destination becomes vibrant and cosmopolitan.”

After five years, the backward area of Thamel became the most popular tourist destination in Asia. Now that small hotel runs 140 rooms catering to some of the world's distinguished personalities from artists to writers, authors, singers, politicians and people from all walks of life.

Karna Sakya set the pace for Robin and me for our coming weeks in the wildlife reserves of the Terai. Karma was our introduction to a wonderful experience that we were about to have, real experiences with wild rhino and charging tigers. It’s now my turn to tell some exciting tales.

QUESTIONS & ANSWERS

Dear Mr. Stephens. I enjoyed you story last week on Nepal but what I found most interesting was the photograph of your vehicles taken in Bhaktapr. The town today is closed off to all private traffic.  I am looking forward to our coming stories on Nepal, my favourite destination in Asia. ––Alex Joseph, Syndey.

Harold Stephens
Bangkok
E-mail: ROH Weekly Travel (booking@inet.co.th)

Note: The article is the personal view of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the view of Thai Airways International Public Company Limited.


The Yak & Yeti Five-stars in Kathmandu


The famous Kathmandu Rest House


Karna Sakya, Nepal's father of tourism


Lady shopper in downtown Kathmandu


Looking for an apartment in old Kathmandu


Trishaws, a fun way to travel and see the city


The women of Kathmandu


Street scene in Thamel


Thamel has replaced old Kathmandu for fun


Time change, now an iron buffalo in the streets


The girls of Kathmandu


A pretty girl by any standard


Shabby neighborhood but still flowers


Old Kathmandu for colour


Read the author's book for real characters of Kathmandu