Peace, quiet, and Wiener Schnitzel: spend a day relaxing in the Garden of Dreams.
“What is the Garden of Dreams?” a friend who was recently visiting Nepal asked when he heard the name come up in conversation.
“It’s a park-like garden in Thamel, that used to belong to one of the Rana aristocrats,” one of us answered.
“And what do people do there?” he furthered inquired.
The Nepalis at the table looked at each other, mischievous smiles forming on our faces. “Make out,” we said.
Inside the grounds of the Kaiser Mahal, a former Rana-dynasty palace, at the eastern edge of the Thamel neighborhood, the Garden of Dreams is a popular meeting place for Kathmandu’s young lovers. Public displays of affection are frowned upon in Nepal, and the nearly 76,000-square-foot neoclassical-style garden, commissioned by Field Marshal Kaiser Shumsher Rana in 1920, has plenty of quiet spots that make it ideal for privacy-deprived Nepali couples.
You may observe some canoodling as you walk through the garden, but young couples are not the only ones flocking to the Garden of Dreams. It’s a great place to read or sketch or take a nap. Staff members say that on any given day, the garden gets about 300 visitors. Around 800 people visit on Saturdays and public holidays.
The expansive space, for which you have to pay a fee to enter (100 rupees for Nepalis, 200 rupees for foreigners), is a reprieve for locals looking to escape Kathmandu’s pollution. Nepal’s air quality was recently ranked as the worst in the world in an Environmental Performance Index report. Nepal’s capital has also dealt with excessive noise pollution, prompting officials to ban car horns in Kathmandu last year. Making loud noises in the garden is prohibited, and its high walls shelter visitors from the noise, chaos, and dust that permeates the rest of the city.
As high-rise apartments, malls, and other commercial buildings encroach on Kathmandu’s open grounds and skies, greenery in the city is quickly disappearing. Tundikhel, which was once the city’s largest open space where people could gather for festivals, political rallies, or shelter during a natural disaster, has been shrinking. Currently, a part of it is being used as a bus park and the Nepal Army is constructing a building in the space.
The handful of parks that currently exist in Kathmandu are popular among locals who use the spaces for exercise and evening strolls. Unfortunately, only a few of them are being properly taken care of and managed, which is another reason the garden is such a popular attraction.
The garden—with its ponds, walkways decorated with diverse flora, pavilions and pergolas, and secluded sitting areas—is an oasis that evokes romance. An amphitheater with a small body of water in which tiny swordtail fish swim separates the stage and a grass-carpeted seating area. You can lounge directly on the grass or use one of the mats and headrests available to visitors to spend a lazy afternoon under the sun. The garden also has a rotunda, next to which a lingey ping (bamboo swing) is constructed every September or October for visitors to keep their feet off the ground, like locals believe one should, during Dashain, the annual harvest festival in honor of the Hindu goddess Durga.
The garden features a statue in honor of another deity: Laxmi, the goddess of wealth and abundance. Apart from being a scholar, linguist, botanist, and a connoisseur of arts and literature, Kaiser Shumsher—who commissioned the park—was apparently also good at gambling. The Garden of Dreams is said to have been built with the one lakh rupees (100,000 rupees) that he won off his father, the then-prime minister of Nepal, Chandra Shumsher Rana, in a game of cowries on the day of the Laxmi Puja festival. Kaiser Shumsher believed that the deity helped him defeat his father, so the statue of Laxmi has a set of five cowries next to it.
Visitors are allowed to bring in their own snacks and water, but you can try the Kaiser Café and the Barkha Bar if you get hungry. The Kaiser Café has an extensive and expensive menu (at least by Kathmandu standards) that includes Wiener Schnitzel, and Crepes Florentine, a daal-bhat (lentil dish served with rice and vegetables) and the usual Nepali snacks options like momocha (steamed dumplings stuffed with meat or vegetables) and sukuti (spicy buffalo meat jerky). There’s also a great selection of cakes for desserts. The Kaiser Cafe’s friendly staff is very attentive and more than willing to offer recommendations if you’re not quite sure what to order.
If you’re in the mood for a libation, head to the garden’s Barkha Bar. It’s open from noon until 9 p.m., and offers a variety of cocktails from Martinis to Mai Tais. A small selection of snacks, including packeted junk food like Lays and peanuts at inflated prices are also available.
Even though the property is now known as an oasis in the middle of a chaotic city, the Garden of Dreams wasn’t always a destination for people seeking relaxation. After Kaiser Shumsher’s death in 1964, the previously private property was handed over to the Nepali government. Unfortunately, it was neglected for several decades and fell into disrepair before being salvaged in 2000 by the NGO EcoHimal with funds from the Austrian government (the Austrian government supports other restoration projects in Nepal too). The restoration project took seven years to complete. In 2007, the garden was opened to the public, giving Nepalis a glimpse of the life that Rana aristocrats enjoyed during their reign.
Now, if there was a competition between parks in Kathmandu, the Garden of Dreams would perhaps be voted most well-maintained and most well-designed. On one of my recent visits, I overheard a tourist saying, “There is no other place in Kathmandu with grass like this.”
It’s true. There is no other place like it in the city. That’s why you don’t go to the Garden of Dreams to experience Kathmandu, you go there to escape it.