Like the Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, ‘Change is the only constant’. From a thriving center of business activities such as hotels, restaurants, book shops, jewelry stores, clothing stores, travel agencies and more in the 70s, Freak Street a couple of decades later, had been reduced to a quiet neighborhood with only curious travelers poking around to find out what all the fuss was about. Its name evoked images of hordes of starry eyed, coloful hippies looking for an escape from the trappings of modern society. Sadly, the deluge of freaks dried up, turning the area into a neglected quarter. But Freak Street surprised us all by making a dramatic comeback and even the backstreets are filling up with cafes today and still growing.
Jhonchen became world famous as Freak Street in the 1960s after the invasion of hippies from around the globe. “Love, peace and happiness” wasn’t just a slogan propagated by the youthful Flower Generation; there really was a sense of peacefulness, togetherness, a kind of brotherhood that generated a feeling of belonging to the greater society of humanity. Nationality and race meant little back then. By the late 70s, Kathmandu was flooded with tourists, some of whom seemed to be here for the long haul. Visas could easily be obtained by crossing the border into India for a few days and coming back with a fresh one. There were familiar faces around Freak Street who stayed on for years and some of them never left. The high-end tourists would come around just to see what Freak Street was like, just as people visit Haight Ashbury, San Francisco even to this day.
Kathmandu had by then earned a reputation as a modern day Shangri-la where living was cheap, people were friendly; there were no laws against drugs that could be easily bought on the streets, and the country was free of any unrest, so peace prevailed. Unlike in neighboring countries, there was no xenophobia here, and the locals were more inclined to smile and laugh at blonde haired white folks, rather than give hostile stares. The Nepali youth became heavily influenced by the freaks that would stay for long periods and made friends with them. Many freaks arrived overland driving though Europe, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India taking several months, enjoying the hospitality of the people along the way. Large parts of the world enjoyed peaceful co-existence back then and terrorism was limited to the middle-east and Latin America.
Kathmandu was also popularized through songs by such international stars like Cat Stevens, Bob Seeger and John Lennon. Many may not have heard Lennon sing about the ‘little yellow island in the north of Kathmandu’, but the other songs were commonly heard and added to the attraction. The two religions of Hinduism and Buddhism brought another mystical dimension. Many foreigners immersed themselves in these two religions and soon we were to see white folks with shaven heads singing Krishna’s praises on the streets of Kathmandu. While some became sadhus or matas, others were seen wearing the maroon robes of a Buddhist monk. The world was changing at an amazing pace; never had the west influenced the east and the east influenced the west so much. The Kathmandu youth wanted to listen to only western rock or reggae while the freaks would pick up the sarangi and madal.
Freak Street was at the epicenter of the mass movement of hippies in all kinds of attire which included beads, fancy hats, large jewelry, gogo sunglasses and loose fitting clothes that were often unwashed for long periods. There would be dancing on the streets until late in the night as loud music emanated from the exotically named restaurants like ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ or ‘Hungry Eye’. Yin Yang was the place with the best music system and sitting on the floor passing a chilum around was the norm. Airbnb probably had its origins in Kathmandu as many families kept freaks in their houses and one would see them popping out from the most unlikely places. From Hanuman Dhoka to Freak Street one was likely to see more white faces than Nepali faces which was quite shocking. And pies being popular among these tourists, there were pie shops even along Maru and down towards Bhimsenthan.
The liveliness of Freak Street in its heydays will probably never be recaptured; the music booming from all around, second hand book shops selling hard covers on The Rolling Stones and freaks selling everything from second-hand Levi’s jeans, sleeping bags to cassettes on the streets. Many of them even ran cafes and restaurants bringing exotic food to Kathmandu besides the hash cakes and hash pies. Business was booming; foreign currency was changed on the streets, hotels and restaurants were mostly full; hotels like Eden officially sold hashish by openly advertizing on hoardings and Mercedes buses that came overland were sold right there in Basantapur square. Life was good.
As the constant flow of freaks started dwindling and the trekking industry started booming, the focus shifted to a cleaner, wealthier clientele, that wouldn’t live in the dingy lodges in Freak Street. So the hotels in Thamel were more attractive to the new breed of tourists who weren’t looking for a Shangri-la but adventure out in the wilderness prepared to sweat it out for weeks in the rough Himalayan trails. Jhonchen’s glory days seemed to be coming to an end. Businesses like second hand book shops, travel agencies, bead shops and restaurants started moving to Thamel. The pie shops too began to vanish along with the freaks.
By the late 90s, Freak Street resembled a mining town deserted by its residents. Some low budget tourists still arrived but there was little business. However, these old timers enjoyed their stay as there were fewer people around, the obnoxious touts had moved to Thamel and Jhonchen had become a quiet, peaceful neighborhood. I remember a Greek tourist who came here regularly and stayed for at least six months. He found peace and spent most of his time hanging around Mountain Café, drinking gallons of beer. He was very opinionated and we had meaningful conversation. He made occasional trips to India but would soon be back complaining about the unbearable heat. What amused me most was watching him morph. He’d arrive in Nepal looking fresh and charming, full of energy. Over the months that he spent doing little else other than drinking beer, eating and chatting, he would start changing. By the fifth month, he would start looking older and disheveled. By the time he was ready to head back home, he resembled an old, worn out hippie. He would repeat this year after year until he went home for the Athens Olympics. He said, “This is a good opportunity to earn money because of the Olympics,” That was the last I saw of him; he never returned.
But Freak Street got a new lease on life. The Kathmandu youth began spending more and where better than in an eatery chatting with friends and sucking in sweet smoke through a shisha pipe. Thamel was losing its charm and the younger generation started hanging out around Jhonchen. Basantapur became the place to be. Eateries like Kumari and Palpasa Hookah Lounge & Bar were crowded in the evenings which prompted other entrepreneurs to open new cafes like Jessy Penny and Ginger, restaurants like Bota, better and more modern hotels like Monumental and bakeries too. Even live bands were hired and businesses remained open late into the night. Business in the past was seasonal, but now with local clientele, Freak Street is lively throughout the year. Maybe it’s not as colorful as in the 70s, but with a mix of locals and tourists visiting, life has returned to good old Jhonchen. And thank God for that!
- But Freak Street has surprised us all by making a dramatic comeback and even the backstreets are filling up with cafes today and still growing.
- By the late 90s, Freak Street resembled a mining town deserted by its residents. Some low budget tourists still arrived but there was little business.