Stories from the Road: Swayambhnath Temple, Kathmandu, Nepal

Stories from the Road is a collection of stories about my own photographic adventures in South Asia. Sometimes the stories are exciting and sometimes mundane and at times emotional. I hope you enjoy the pictures and the story.


Oh the Swayambunath Temple, it is an adventure. I was in Kathmandu, my trip had been shortened, but I knew I wanted to see the temple. In Nepal religions have mingled in ways they have not in other countries and other aesthetic imagery have evolved. Buddhist Stupa’s in Nepal are known for the pair of eyes on the base of the spire, which can be seen in the photograph above.


This entry is going to be marked by  some differences from previous posts. One, by this point in my trip I had banged up my wide angle lens, so the photographs in this post are not spectacular. They capture the details, but I could not get any nice overall views. For instance, a photography lesson here, the photograph above would be better if the corners and pinnacle of the spire were not cut off. Two, this post will take a slightly different approach and not necessarily discuss the photographs specifically. Photographs may be worth a thousand words, but they did not capture my entire adventure. Hopefully later this year I will make it back to Kathmandu and can make more photographs.


I depart from Thamel, the area of the city that caters to tourists, and headed to the Swayambunath Temple, via a cycle rickshaw. I thought he was going to take me to the base of the temple, however, he did not. He did take me to a set of stairs leading up. He told me to walk up them. I followed the stairs up to a structure and then I was not sure where to go. A young woman told me to walk back behind the building and I would see where to go. It lead out to a street, where I had to continue walking up hill. I got to a junction in the road and someone else told me which way to go. Once I got a little further up that road I could see the temple (see below). There was a foreign family in front of me, a man, pregnant woman, and their young son. I just followed them. The road was dusty and lined with buildings, but not much activity going on.


Once I got to the bottom of the hill the temple is on I realized how many stairs I was going to have to climb to get to the top. Uggg…I thought, those Buddhist want you to work for it. Up the stairs I went. I was doing pretty good, but half way up I was feeling the burn. I am no longer in amazing shape. However, there were visual nuggets to along the stairs to keep you interested and motivated, like a group of Buddha statues. There were also people along the way just sitting and relaxing. I even saw one man sleeping. There were also vendors selling jewelry and stones carved with sayings in Nepali. I refrained from buying anything. At this point I was running out of luggage space.


Once I got nearer to the top, where you could see the apex, there was another obstacle, monkeys. The monkeys were definitely looking to see if the tourists had anything they might want. I carefully made my way up the stairs and realized I had my water bottle in my hand, I needed the water. However, a little monkey saw me and wanted my water bottle. What was I going to to. We made eye contact. His little face looked like mine. His ears, so cute. I put the bottle out for the monkey. He reached out with both hands to take it. His small fingers were so human like. He took off to enjoy his prize. I look up the stairs to keep going and see a male monkey grabbing a female and he starts screwing her right there in my path. Such nice monkeys.


I make it to the top to realize the place is crawling with tourists and monkeys. I guess that is why the temple is also called the Monkey temple. I was surprised when I reached the top. I was expecting a stupa (Buddhist structure originally used to hold relics) in the center and a clear path to walk around it. However, I found the stupa but also other religious artifacts and more vendors.


As I began to walk around you could see damage from the earthquake, some areas were fenced off. There was a monkey on the opposite side of a fence and a stupid white guy kicked the fence and yelled the monkey. The monkey screeched back. I wish the monkey would have attacked the guy. I continued walking and went to the edge to see the city from above.


As I continued walking around I saw further destruction from the earthquake and a cluster of small stupas as well as more vendors. It was late in the day, so I was ready to head back down the stairs. In some ways it was anti-climactic. I am not sure what I was going to find up there, I am still not sure if I found it or not. Time will tell I guess.



As I started back down the stairs I had to once again watch out for the monkeys. It was easier going down. Less monkey activity. I got down to the bottom of the stairs and should have gotten a taxi straight away, however, I thought I was going to walk all the way back down to where I came from. After walking a few minutes I thought I needed to get on back down to town, I was ready for dinner. I got a taxi and went down the hill. The taxi dropped me off and my adventure continued.

_DSC3138P.S. That landing you see in the center of this photograph is not the bottom, it is about a 1/3 of the way down.


Now that I have told you my adventure lets get to the photography of the matter. As I said at the beginning. These photographs were not taken with my wide angle lens, they were taken with a 50mm lens. On my camera that is slightly telephoto. You work with what you have and do the best you can. However, the photographs would have been better served with a wide angle lens.


I have been thinking about this post for about a week now. About the story and how sad I was about the lens. Now this thought journey has taken me into the realm of photo theory. Susan Sontag in her Seminole book, On Photography, talks about how people make photographs as proof of having been somewhere. This book was published first in 1973. The photographic times have changed drastically since then. People definitely still want that proof that they have been somewhere. Furthermore, I am sure we all miss out on certain details because we are taking a photograph. For me personally, as an American, I fall in the middle of the spectrum on making photographs. Some people take way fewer photographs than I do, on the other hand, some people only armed with their smart phones take three or four times the photographs that I do. I am cognoscente of Sontag’s words.


Here in 2016 almost everyone in the First World has a camera with them at all times in their smart phones. The landscape has changed. Our expectations of an experience have changed. We expect for their to be a photographic moment, something unique and if their is not one we can make our photographs prettier using Instagram filters (and I am not slamming any filters, I enjoy them too). Today making photographs has become a part of the experience. It is no longer a novelty. We do not need to take our own photographs to prove we have been somewhere. We can google and image, make adjustments in Photoshop, and it is magic, we have our proof! The novelty is increasingly becoming the act of having been there. I obviously love photographs, as I have dedicated my life to the pursuit of photography, but I urge everyone, do not be an armchair traveler or observer. Go out into the world, make your own photographs, learn about another place and meet new people. That is the true beauty of photograph, the chance to see the world differently.






By |2016-11-10T18:51:23-06:00February 23rd, 2016|nepal, Travel|1 Comment

About the Author:

Betsy Williamson is an assistant professor of art in the state of New Mexico. Before coming to New Mexico for this job she was an adjunct professor throughout Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, teaching photography and art appreciation. Between September 2015 and May 2017, she took a break from teaching to pursue art, research and life in India. Now she is back to teaching and part-timing it in India.

One Comment

  1. […] Nepal is influenced by Tibetan Buddhism. There are two main Buddhist pilgrimage sites in Kathmandu, Swayambunath Temple (which I have discussed in another post) and Bodhnath […]

Leave A Comment

sign up for email list to be informed of new class material (posts)

Join 243 other subscribers