“Panauti is a bit further out of Kathmandu than we were planning”, I commented to my husband as we bumped along the potholed village laneways of Nepal. We decided to have a look anyway as Rabindra Puri, award winning Nepali architect, is known for his unique ability to combine traditional Nepali styled houses with modern conveniences in his restorations (which reuse and recycle as many materials as possible) and we had always dreamt of living in one of his creations.
The driver pulled up in a small square with a Hindu shrine surrounded by a huge garbage pile. “Welcome to MatanChhen”, I followed Rabindra’s finger past the rubbish pile, past the seemingly half-finished houses, past the goats tied up to the electricity pole as my confidence that this was a good idea faltered. But then I glimpse my first sight of MatanChhen, a gorgeous 4 storey traditional Newari wooden carved building. I felt like I was home.
We felt our way through the dark shops in the bottom, our nostrils overwhelmed by the mouldy smell of wet bricks, and climbed the wooden stairs to explore the 4 one-bedroom apartments in the building. The first floor was dark and incomplete, the second floor brighter and we got a sense for Rabindra’s skill in restorations with the attention to detail – the brass sinks, the traditional nooks for Buddha statues, the deliciously carved wooden beams, doors and windows. By the time we reached the third floor, I had almost moved in. The balcony, added from the original by Rabindra to enable its occupants to enjoy the river and field filled view, was immediately a place I know I would spend a lot of time. We settled on the terrace rooftop with a beer to soak up the sunset and discuss rent. We had been living out of a guest house in touristy Thamel on and off for the last 5 years running our development organisation, Mitrataa Foundation, and had decided it was time to rent a base.
Being 35km from Kathmandu, Panauti wasn’t ideal, especially given it was a 1 ½ hour drive due to the quality of the roads, but the village environment (we both grew up in rural Australia) had its appeal and was a balance from the chaos of the big city where we worked. Our discussions took an unexpected turn and 18 months later, after a lot of frustration and Nepali bureaucracy, we became the proud owners of MatanChhen.
After lifting the furniture over the third floor balcony with ropes as it wouldn’t fit up the narrow stairs, we celebrated our new home with friends and Rabindra decided to take this opportunity to share a piece of MatanChhen’s history with us – he bought the 2 houses which he merged to create the home cheaply, because they were considered haunted by the locals. We had bought a ghost house! The story goes that a teenage girl had died in the house after being seen by her uncle during her first menstruation (a taboo in Nepal). We were promptly informed by the locals that in order to get rid of the ghost, we had to conduct a ritual with the 9 Living Goddesses. We gave in to community pressure, wanting to fit in with our new neighbours, and agreed to the ceremony.
It turned out the “Goddesses” are actually middle aged Nepali men dressed in drag who arrived, chased 2 squealing pigs around the square encouraged by crowds of screaming locals, finally catching the now distraught piglets, drinking their blood followed by copious amounts of beer and food on our account. I suspect the villagers may have seen an opportunity to dupe the new naïve foreigners for a party but it was an experience nonetheless! We were to discover that Panauti was a village known for its strange festivals and beliefs.
Our lives took an unexpected turn and we rarely spent time in the house which became home to the pigeons over the next few years as my job as an intellectual property lawyer with Cadbury limited my ability to get time away from work. Fortunately, the villagers still believed it was a ghost house and refused to enter it, the best form of security system we could have hoped for!
In May 2011, having left Cadbury and deciding to commit more of my time to our Foundation, I moved back to Nepal full time to run a children’s home with 250 kids. Panauti became my escape from the chaos of the children’s home and Kathmandu. I relished my occasional weekend in the peaceful village when I could get away.
In September 2012, my husband and I starred in an episode of House Hunters International, which focused on our search for a house in Nepal. Filming the episode was an hilarious experience and we had a lot of fun. It has been replayed numerous times on US television resulting in messages from ex-colleagues getting in touch to ask if it was really us as television stars!
Not long after, our marriage ended and I was left with the decision of what to do with our beloved house. Due to financial limitations, we decided we would have to sell it so my daughters, Nimu, Saraswoti and Sarika, and I went to the house to spend a last week there before packing it up to sell. Sitting on the balcony watching the village settle in for the evening against the beautiful sunset, we decided we could not sell it. We would turn it into a guest house and invite others to share our little piece of heaven and experience life in a Nepali village.
MatanChhen has started its new life, from ghost house to boutique guest house, as we hope to spend a lot more evenings sharing festivals and laughs with our wonderful, eccentric village neighbours and introducing Panauti’s charms to the world.
We look forward to sharing a meal and some stories with you. Please enjoy your stay at MatanChhen.
With love and gratitude,
Bec, Nimu, Nirmala & Saraswoti