A girl sells goods in front of a Buddha statue at Swyambhu in Kathmandu.

A girl sells goods in front of a Buddha statue at Swyambhu in Kathmandu. Photo: Reuters

I HAD expected life in Kathmandu to happen on the street but I didn't know I'd be watching a cremation on my first day in town.

Pashupatinath Hindu Temple is not an especially beautiful place of worship but it was all happening there.

A young boy climbed into the coffin and tried it out as a boat. 

It took less than two minutes to see my first robbery and about 10 minutes before I was robbed myself. The first mugger was a monkey, making off with a packet of peanuts pinched from a lady vendor, to the delight of tourists and the distress of the peanut seller.

My robbers were a pair of holy men. These dreadlocked gentlemen hang about on the hill above the temple, dressed in saffron robes or loin cloths, their faces painted with red and yellow ochre. Perhaps they spend some time each day reflecting on the meaning of life but they haven't entirely given up seeking out worldly possessions. "Photo-money-where-you-come-from?" is their chanted mantra.

I saw it as a sort of street theatre so cheerfully forked out the 1000 Nepali rupees they asked for photographic rights, thinking in my innocence that it was about $1. It's closer to $10. For that sort of money I expect buskers to do an impressive song and dance act. No wonder they looked happy in the photo.

On the river bank opposite, a small funeral procession arrived, carrying a bright red coffin. A group of men, followed by women in saris, stood around for a while chatting, then opened the coffin and pulled out a body, wrapped in a white sheet. The mourners lugged it down to the river, where they left it with its feet in the water. An older gentleman was assisted down the bank to scoop up water and pour it on the eyes of the departed. The face was now exposed; it was a woman, presumably his wife. The family members all took out mobile phones and ritually took final snaps of her. The body was then strewn with flowers, wrapped in orange cloth and carried to the funeral pyre further down the bank.

A young boy climbed into the coffin and tried it out as a boat, paddling it along the river to join the next stage of the ceremony.

The widower took a burning lamp and walked three times around the pyre. A helpful Nepali man standing beside me explained it to me. "He walks three times around the body. Once for Brahma the creator, once for Vishnu the preserver, once for Shiva the destroyer."

"Thank you very much," I say.

"Where you come from?" he asks. "Australia? I love to collect Australian coins ... and euros."

The pyre was burning, a stiff white arm protruding from under the sheet.

The grieving family appeared to have lost interest and my bus was waiting.

I'd like to be able to make an insightful comment about what I learnt about the meaning of life but perhaps one day I'll go back to the holy men and ask them to give me $10-worth of enlightenment.