Nepal

How the Drug War Destroyed a Hippie Paradise in Kathmandu

Nixon's pursuit of draft-dodgers and pot smokers fueled the communist ideology it was trying to contain

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Whether it's mountaineering or marijuana, trekking to Everest or tripping on LSD, getting as high as you can has always been central to the Nepal tourist experience. In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon tried to nip communism in the bud by destroying a Himalayan hippie Shangri-La. But in stopping the smokers, he sparked a Maoist blowback.

From the moment Nepal opened its doors to foreign tourists in 1951, popular culture imagined the Himalayan kingdom as a hippie Garden of Eden. Movies, novels, and comic books all dreamed of a far-flung fantasyland of drug trippers, Everest trekkers, levitating lamas, and Himalayan hunts for the ever-elusive abominable snowman.

As the last country on earth to forbid the sale, cultivation, and consumption of drugs, Nepal promised an irresistibly mind-bending trip. But in an era when few could afford round-the-world airfare, frugal flower children took a rougher route to the most far-out destination on the planet.

The Hippie Trail followed the footsteps of the ancient Silk Road. But instead of trading textiles, its travelers swapped the postwar social conformity of the Western world for dreams of enlightenment in the East. Some fled the Vietnam War draft; others came to find themselves. For whatever the reason, from 1965 to 1973, tens of thousands of young people bused or hitchhiked the overland route from Istanbul, Turkey, to Kathmandu, Nepal, annually. And the terminus of the Hippie Trail was a single bustling urban lane called Jhonche, rechristened as Freak Street by its new inhabitants.

Over time, the hippies created their own community in Kathmandu. In a fascinating and comprehensive look at Nepal's hippie history, Mark Liechty, author of Far Out: Countercultural Seekers and the Tourist Encounter in Nepal, describes Freak Street as a Haight-Ashbury or Greenwich Village on the other side of the world. Hippies knew little of the local language and culture. Instead, they lived in a fantasy Nepal that existed in their imaginations: a land where old rules about drugs and dress, music and sex didn't apply, where they could live freely and create themselves anew. A culture that was too shocking for 1960s America—"the land of the free"—found a welcome home in a faraway religious monarchy.

Nepal accepted these strange foreigners because there were locals who were strange in the same way. Hindu holy men known as "sadhus" shared a similar taste for flamboyant dress, drugs, and a desire to find themselves by leaving the world behind.

But paradise is not of this earth. Two years after President Nixon declared an international "war on drugs," Vice President Spiro Agnew was dispatched to Asia. Agnew toured every country along the Hippie Trail before arriving in Nepal. Nixon threatened to withhold economic aid from countries that, in his view, held a permissive attitude toward the drug trade. Months later, Nepal enacted the first anti-drug laws in its ancient history.

Surrounded on all sides by India, China, and under mounting pressure from the United States, Nepal needed a strategy to cope with the Cold War. King Mahendra skillfully played the great powers against each other. He maintained cordial relations with all sides while extracting billions in development cash that would modernize the country, prop up the monarchy, and, for a few more generations, stave off revolution. In return, Nepal would play by international rules. And that meant the drugs and hippies had to go.

Kathmandu's hashish shops were closed. American narcotics agents roamed Freak Street, surveilling drug takers and draft dodgers for arrest on their arrival back in the United States. And in a move that would have consequences for decades to come, Nepal's marijuana fields were torched.

The hippies weren't the only ones angered by prohibition. In western Nepal, far from the capital city of Kathmandu, hashish cultivation was the main source of income. Sellers and growers were arrested. Private property with marijuana growing on it was forfeited to the state. Tens of thousands of farmers were pushed to the brink of starvation. Promised development aid to the region never materialized.

Seeing political opportunity in economic collapse, the Communist Party exploited local grievances and persuaded residents that only a violent overthrow of the government would solve their problems. The Maoists vowed to overthrow the monarchy and fly the hammer and sickle atop Mt. Everest. Nixon's global war on drugs was fueling the communist ideology it was trying to contain. 

By the "just say no" Reagan era, drug prohibition had opened new opportunities for corruption that lead all the way to Nepal's royal family. A blockbuster 1986 report by Nepalese journalist Padam Thakurathi implicated top aides to the king's brothers in Nepal's booming heroin trade. Days later, in the middle of the night, a bodyguard of the royal family entered Thakurathi's home and aimed a gun 18 inches from his head. Shot in the face, Thakurathi survived the attack. He lost an eye but lived to expose the royal family's involvement in black market heroin.

By 2006, the Maoists controlled 80 percent of the country. The insurgency based in the agricultural heartland had grown into a national political force that paralyzed the nation with a series of national strikes and armed resistance to the king. After a decadelong civil war that claimed 17,000 lives, Nepal's monarchy was abolished and the communists were elected to power.

Today, the civil war is long over, but Nepal's war on drugs continues. It remains a thriving hub for heroin and hashish, with stories of drug busts, addiction, and violence, mainstays of Nepal's television news coverage.

Freak Street is looking a little lonely. The erstwhile hippie haven is now a hangout for hipsters. Artisanal coffee shops outnumber head shops. The old Eden Hashish Centre is just an ordinary budget hotel. Kathmandu's hippie past is running high on nostalgia and low on foot traffic.

Despite a small political movement to legalize hashish, marijuana is legal one day a year for religious purposes only. The rest of the time, locals and tourists take their chances on the black market.

With its wild days behind it, Freak Street has mostly dropped the drug trade and reinvented itself as a destination for mountain trekking.

These days, the real action has moved to Thamel. A short walk from Freak Street, Kathmandu's thumping nightlife hotspot offers visitors every kind of indulgence that was available during Freak Street's heyday and many more that the hippies couldn't have imagined on their wildest trip.

Produced by Todd Krainin.

Music licensed under Creative Commons, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US.

"Malashree Dhun" by Sringar Nepal.

"Bass Bansuri" by Hamsadhwani.

"Eastern Thought" by Kevin MacLeod.

"Holiday (instrumental)" by Silence is Sexy.

"Aspirato" by Kai Engel.

"Long Time Gone" by Amaya Laucirica.

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  1. Same old same old: government fucks things up. There is nothing which government can’t, and won’t, fuck up.

    Amazing how few people don’t understand that.

    1. Amazing how I can’t handle a double negative.

  2. Nixon threatened to withhold economic aid from countries that, in his view, held a permissive attitude toward the drug trade. Months later, Nepal enacted the first anti-drug laws in its ancient history.

    The lesson here: Nepal responded to economic incentives.

    1. Whjy is it a ‘threat’ to say you are going to stop giving someone free shit?

      Shouldn’t libertarians recognize that the fundamental problem starts with economic aid? Which is never about anything other than buying desired behaviors.

  3. After a decadelong civil war that claimed 17,000 lives, Nepal’s monarchy was abolished and the communists were elected to power.

    And we know how much Maoists loved the drug culture.

    1. Sometimes, the pieces here reach new levels of unintentional hilarity

    2. Things don’t always end the way they begin. Alot of your so-called revolutionary marxist movements had anarchists, vagabonds, gays, free love advocates, etc, that were eventually purged once they took power. Happened all the time.

      Why would Maoism be any different? It wasn’t. Many of the original Maoists were idealistic, starry-eyed youth that ended up getting disillusioned, defied Mao, and got tortured and killed for their disobedience. It’s a common theme among such movements.

  4. Freak Street is looking a little lonely. The erstwhile hippie haven is now a hangout for hipsters. Artisanal coffee shops outnumber head shops. The old Eden Hashish Centre is just an ordinary budget hotel. Kathmandu’s hippie past is running high on nostalgia and low on foot traffic.

    Despite a small political movement to legalize hashish, marijuana is legal one day a year for religious purposes only. The rest of the time, locals and tourists take their chances on the black market.

    It’s like you’re describing Burning Man.

  5. hippie paradise is wherever I am .

  6. “By 2006, the Maoists controlled 80 percent of the country.”

    The reason Maoists controlled 80 percent of the country wasn’t because of a popular backlash against the American drug war.

    If Puccini were alive at the time, he would have written an opera about the end of the royal family in Nepal.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nepalese_royal_massacre

    To make a long story short–from faulty memory–the heir to the Nepalese throne fell in love with a girl from India, but marrying an Indian girl was unacceptable to the king and queen of Nepal. It would have meant that the next heir wouldn’t be 100% Nepalese.

    After a final plea being rejected, the crown prince went literally ballistic. He murdered his mother and father, and then he killed all his brothers and sisters and all of their extended family in the palace. He then declared himself king–so he could give himself permission to marry whomever he wanted.

    The king of Nepal’s legitimacy with the people of Nepal was infused with Buddhist ideas about avatars, reincarnation, what have you. It was unacceptable for the palace staff to speak ill of the king, even though he’d murdered the royal family, but someone in the palace apparently overcame that taboo and took it upon himself to kill the new murdering king. At least, the palace announced that the new king was suddenly dead shortly after the murders.

    The question then became who would rule. Who was the next in line to be king since the next 12 people on the list had all been murdered? The person they found to be next in line turned out to be some distant relation who was the Nepalese equivalent of a used car salesman. He was completely incompetent, quickly lost whatever support he had from the Nepalese people, and became highly unpopular due to his misrule.

    Maoist rebels who had originally been funded by the Chinese Communist Party were still active in the wilderness, and as the only opposition of any significance, the people started to rally around them–because there was no one else. That is how the Maoists came to command so much support in Nepal. To whatever extent America’s drug war had an impact, it was against that backdrop of a power vacuum.

    Not everything that happens in the world (or doesn’t happen) is because of the United States. Sometimes things happen for reasons that don’t have much or anything to do with the United States at all.

    1. Downright Shakespearean.

    2. And yeah,

      Sometimes things happen for reasons that don’t have much or anything to do with the United States at all.

      is a very hard thing for a lot of Americans to grasp.

      1. It’s a kind of reverse American Exceptionalism. We’re so awful, everything awful in the world is thanks to us.

        1. Yeah – people seem to particularly have this problem with understanding the Middle East. A lot of Americans greatly exaggerate the role the US has played and are completely ignorant of European involvement in the region (let alone Turkish involvement).

    3. Sounds like the prince was ….

      (•_•) / ( •_•)>⌐■-■ / (⌐■_■)

      …. stoned out on drugs

    4. I admit I came down to the comments to see if anyone was going to call out the inanity of claiming the U.S. drug war turned Nepal communist.


      Not everything that happens in the world (or doesn’t happen) is because of the United States. Sometimes things happen for reasons that don’t have much or anything to do with the United States at all.

      Indeed, sort of like how voters in the U.S. want to curtail American industry to ‘save the world’ from CO2 yet the U.S. isn’t one of the primary producers of CO2 worldwide.

      The ‘New American Exceptionalism’ is that the U.S. is uniquely evil in every regard, which is a weird point of view in my book. Sure, we aren’t perfect. Compared to much of the rest of the world, we’re pretty great and our immigration issues should prove that to many people.

    5. No, it was because Uptight Man Bad 30 years ago. I mean, naturally. Nothing gets revolutionaries riled up like diplomatic stuff that happened when their parents were kids

  7. Bob Seger hardest hit.

    1. But, really, he never was going to get out of there.

      And what’s Cat Stephens / Yusuf? Chopped lamb?

        1. Fair enough. Now that you mention it, you could even argue that he started as a sellout in the mid-60s, had his near-death experience, had a moment of authenticity, sold out again in the mid-’70s, had another spasm of authenticity when he threw away his career to become a Muslim and brought on global hatred by supporting the fatwa against Rushdie, only to turn around and sell out again.

          So . . . what a douche.

      1. I liked Cat Stevens. Yusuf’s music was interesting, but nothing to write home about.

        1. I still have a soft spot for almost everything he did from 1969-71, subsequent career notwithstanding. Partly because I too am an acoustic-guitar-playing baritone, and his songs got me a lot of mileage in college.

  8. The Nixon gang also made a mess of the paradise we had going in San Francisco. There was some schadenfreude to be had when George Wallace–whose spoiler votes quickly changed the GOP into Dixiecrats–got a demonstration of the initiation of force. Many of us fled abroad, like our grandparents and Henry Miller had done when beer was a felony.

    1. oh great, more hank phillips nonsense glorifying drugs and license masked as “liberty”. you libertarians have sunk low…

  9. sucks that the world cant stop drug dealers and drug wars
    خرید تجهیزات شبکه

  10. just more degenerate pro-drug propaganda from “Reason” while blaming America first for all the world’s problems. and praising maoists! monstrous. you libertinians are sick freaks…

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