You’ve seen the photos. Happy, beautiful people covered in colored powder. Typically a gentle spattering of reds and blues with a streak of yellow, highlighting bright, smiling eyes. These are people who have celebrated the Hindu festival of color…Holi.
These photos tell a calm, gentle story. Tourists will think, “yes. this looks like a great time that won’t cause any anxiety at all”
So let me tell you about how my trip to celebrate Holi on the streets of Kathmandu caused a mixture of excitement, paranoia, pain and a big fat love for the country of Nepal. And let me give you some survival tips and warnings so you can head there this upcoming March and experience this festival in the real world.
Our Holi Celebration
I planned our entire Nepal trip in March just so we could celebrate Holi.
Side Note: Another big perk about going around this time of year is that the wildlife is very active in Chitwan National Park and the plant life isn’t fully grown in after winter yet so it’s easier to spot all the animals. You can read about why you HAVE to go to Chitwan here (get ready for cute animal pics).
Once we arrived in Kathmandu we settled into our very adorable hostel, Sparkling Turtle Backpackers Hostel. Honestly, I picked this place because I like turtles and in the reviews on Hostelworld everyone mentioned that you have to keep your windows locked unless you want monkeys breaking in and stealing your shit. The hostel is located outside the busier parts of the city, and directly near Swayambhunath temple, which is also known as Monkey Temple because of the hundreds of monkeys that live here (and steal your shit). The main tourist section of Kathmandu is called Thamel, and you can walk there from the Sparkling Turtle within 20-30 minutes.
The morning of Holi we all dressed in clothing that we no longer cared about because we heard that we might get “a little messy”. Our lovely hostel hosts fed us and went around giving everyone a red line on their forehead, called a tilaka, to welcome us and to mark the start of the festival. Then he said “come outside so we can play!”
That’s what they call it…playing.
So we walk outside, expecting a little colored powder and within moments we are drenched with water guns and smeared with every color imaginable. Since we are soaking wet, the color runs all over and naturally my color runs directly into both of my gentle eyeballs. My eyes promptly turn red like a zombie straight out of 28 Days Later. The color barely washed out of my eyeballs, and I imagined my life as a blind person for about 2 seconds, then I got over it and went back outside. After we danced to whatever electronic music they decided to put on, someone said we were gonna head to Thamel so off we wandered, about 20 of us from the hostel.
The walk from the hostel to Thamel was a war zone. Anyone and everyone that was outside was fair game. Children appearing out of nowhere had huge buckets of water, or homemade water balloons that they would toss on everyone they could catch. There were armies on rooftops that threw water balloons HARD and FAST. They didn’t care if they hit your face, they just wanted to hit you. Besides water balloons we had literally every stranger approach us saying “Happy Holi!!!” and smearing color onto our faces (we bought color on the street as we walked so we also smeared color on about a million strangers).
Along the way there were also monkeys and dogs participating.
Because literally the entire city participates.
The closer to Thamel we got the louder the music became (and the more color we gained). At this point the paranoia was already in full effect. Anytime something moved quickly towards us we twitched and braced ourselves. We ran away from people, and also chased people.
Once we reached Thamel we realized the music we heard was because on every corner there was a dance party happening. Huge groups of people in each dance party throwing color in the air and literally having the best time of their lives. We joined in (duh).
After a couple hours of dancing, getting drenched, and getting color smeared on us we all became ravenously hungry and found a great little hole in the wall to eat in peace. This gave us a chance to get to know all of the hostel people we have been celebrating with for the entire day.
I say this to everyone, but if you are traveling and you are not staying in hostels, you are traveling wrong. These are for SURE the best way to meet new people, get the best travel tips, and make lifelong relationships. Please please please stay in hostels. If you don’t want to share a room with strangers, you can also book private rooms. These are almost always cheaper than hotels and you can meet people in the common areas.
Use Hostelworld to book them, and read all the ratings so you know what to expect.
Once we were well fed we all mentally prepared ourselves to go back into the war zone. Our goal was to get back to the hostel ASAP because we were all worn out. We jumped, ran and dodged all the way back to the Sparkling Turtle.
The showers were occupied for the rest of the day, and the floors were dazzling colors. We all relaxed up on the roof, reflecting back on our unique day.
And that was our Holi. Still one of my favorite days I have ever experienced (and perhaps the most paranoid).
A few tips and warnings for you…
- Holi is typically celebrated on the full moon in March
- Do not bring any valuables with you during Holi. We brought small bags with stuff in them, and that was dumb. All you’ll need is your own body, a small amount of money to buy color and food, and perhaps a WATERPROOF camera, like a go pro or your cell phone with a good case.
- If you stay at the Sparkling Turtle and ever get lost in the city, just check the skyline for Monkey Temple (it is on a high hill top) and head in that direction.
- If you care about your hair, especially if you are blonde or have blonde highlights, wear some kind of protection over it. A lot of the blonde in my hair was dyed pink and stayed that way for about a month.
- Its fun to wear white shirts… but remember it is also a water fight and not everyone wants to see you half naked.
- Bring some eye wash.
- If you don’t want to participate, stay inside. Don’t ruin it for other people by being grumpy.
- There is a good chance that you will get pelted HARD with water balloons. This is part of the “game”, realize that you are a guest in a different country and don’t lose your temper on people. Again, if you don’t want this to happen to you, stay inside.
- Eat momo.
I encourage you to put this festival on your bucket list. Celebrate it either in Nepal or India. You’ll be a tiny bit terrified, but you won’t regret it.
And hopefully with my warnings and tips you’ll be better prepared than I was 😉