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The noise outside my hotel room was deafening as bells rang out in the small courtyard below. These weren’t dainty bicycle bells either.
They were large, metal clanging bells. They signaled a puja performed by a Hindu priest at the Til Madhav Narayan temple in Bhaktapur, Nepal. I moved a curtain away from the window to watch the crowd that gathered every afternoon to listen to a holy man preach from inside what looked like an elaborately decorated wooden cart.
Using a megaphone, his words, and the bells that followed, echoed off the buildings surrounding one of Nepal’s oldest Hindu temples dated to 1080. I was witnessing a ritual that has been performed here for almost a thousand years.
The History of Bhaktapur
Established as the capital of the Kathmandu Valley in the 12th century, Bhaktapur’s history goes back much further as a settlement along ancient Tibetan trade routes that provided the area with incredible wealth.
Eventually a decline in power allowed neighboring ethnic forces to conquer the city folding it into the Kingdom of Nepal in 1769 and moving the capital to Kathmandu.
Two massive earthquakes in 1833 and 1934 devastated the area, but much of the ancient city was painstakingly rebuilt earning the city UNESCO World Heritage status in 1979 and with it an increase in tourism.
Visiting Nepal with a small tour group, entering Bhaktapur felt like stepping into the distant past.
Siddhi Laxmi Guest House
We stayed at Siddhi Laxmi Guest House, part of a group of buildings that surrounded the Narayan temple in the heart of Bhaktapur.
We passed through an unmarked hallway next to a storefront to reach the hotel’s entrance inside the temple courtyard. When we arrived, the hotel’s owner Makunda Mandahar welcomed us with khatas, small ceremonial scarves that he placed around our necks.
The Old City
Mandahar offered to take us to out dinner since he had closed his hotel’s restaurant because of the pandemic.
Using the opportunity to show us the city, we walked through narrow streets past tiny shops selling everything from clothing to jewelry to Nepalese metal artwork.
Then the street opened to Na: Pukhu, one of three man-made ceremonial ponds built in the 1700s on the city’s northwest end. He told us that residents, including himself, liked to walk or run around the ponds for exercise.
The First Dinner: Na: Pukhu Café
Mandahar led us to Na: Pukhu Café overlooking its namesake pond. After settling into a second-floor table, we ordered momo or Nepalese dumplings, a popular dish found on almost every Nepalese restaurant menu.
Momo comes either steamed or fried and with a choice of fillings – veggie, buffalo, or chicken – and a spicy tomato-based sauce to dip them in. We washed the pillowy dumplings down with Gorkha Strong Ale, a Nepalese beer.
Walking back to the hotel after dinner, Mandahar had us stop into a juju dhau shop for a special treat, a cup of King Curd, (juju dhau means king of curd) for dessert.
Juju dhau, a Bhaktapur specialty, is a creamy rich Nepalese yogurt made from buffalo milk, sweetened with sugar or honey, and served in a small ceramic cup. Good thing we were walking because Bhaktapur cuisine was upping my calorie intake.
Our view from Chiya Bhatti Café was spectacular as I sipped a frothy latte on the third-floor dining area overlooking Taumadhi Square. Directly across the plaza from my travel mates and I was Nyatapola Temple.
Meaning five-storied roof, it’s the tallest structure in Bhaktapur and the temple’s five dark reddish-brown ‘hats’ were a stark contrast to the bright blue sky. As we waited for breakfast, we observed the busy plaza below as residents went about their morning routines of opening stores while tourists took photos on the temple steps.
According to our guide, Nyatapola was built in 1702 and had survived three centuries of deadly earthquakes because it was constructed with a combination of earthquake architecture still used today – base isolation (the temple’s stone base is separate structure, absorbing vibrations leaving what’s above intact) and triangulation.
Along the temple’s staircase were five pairs of statues considered “guardians,” each pair said to be more powerful than the one below it. At the bottom are mythical human wrestlers, Jai and Pratap, next a pair of sturdy elephants, then two singhas or cat-creatures, two griffins, and finally a pair of scary-looking deities. Interestingly, the statues get smaller in size while increasing in power.
Chiya Bhatti Cafe
When our veggie omelets arrived, Chiya Bhatti Cafe’s owner helped the server bring our plates to the third floor from the second-floor kitchen and thanked us for being there. We said we came because of the fabulous location (it was also catty-corner from our hotel) and the menu looked delicious.
He explained the café was a new venture. His grandfather bought the original building decades ago as a home and both his father and he himself grew up here. Unfortunately, it collapsed in the 2015 earthquake and when finally rebuilt the owner, who used to work at Nepal’s stock market, convinced his family to turn it into a café.
When the pandemic delaying the opening, he worried his ‘crazy’ idea would fail, but as tourists like us returned to Nepal, things were improving.
The Pottery Class at Bhaktapur’s Pottery Square
Later we ventured to Bhaktapur’s Pottery Square for a class at the Prajapati family’s Pottery Training Center. Pottery Square gets its name for all the clay artisans making and selling clay pots northwest of Taumadhi Square and is easy to find because it is filled with rows of pottery jars, many made from the region’s distinctive black clay.
We met Srijan who taught us how work the clay on a potter’s lathe rounding it out and raising it up to create bowls and vases. While pottery is an ancient art, the artisans of Pottery Square today use electric wheels that turn on with the flip of a switch.
Although the wet clay was messy (don’t wear your best clothes) and it took several attempts to get the feel of it, working with clay was easier than I thought it would be and I even managed to make a decent-sized cup (or small bowl depending on your point of view).
Srijan gave us the opportunity to fire our creations and take them home, but the pottery was too big for our carry-on luggage. Instead, we purchased tiny, but professionally made teacups to remember the experience by.
Bhaktapur Durbar Square
From Pottery Square we walked to Bhaktapur Durbar Square, a UNESCO World Heritage site. A word meaning “palace,” Durbar Square was where the city’s ancient rulers once lived. Over centuries, the rulers built dozens of temples, of which about 33 remain today.
The Palace of 55 Windows, named for the number of intricately carved wooden window frames that line the building, still showed damage from the most recent earthquake. The large building next to it was the National Art Museum.
In between the two was the intricate artwork of the Golden Gate leading into palace gardens. We entered the gate and walked past military guards and signs warning against taking photographs.
Our guide led the way to a royal pool with statues of large cobra heads that have overseen rituals performed since the 14th and 15th centuries. Walking around the square we admired several magnificent Hindu temples, each with its own architecture emblematic of the era in which it was built.
Walking to the square’s southeast end, we admired the grand Siddhi Laxmi temple with its unusual ‘guardians.’
While Nyatapola had fierce and intimidating guardians, Siddhi Laxmi had somewhat tamer creatures. At the bottom was a family – a parent with a small child and large dog on each side – then a pair of horses, rhinos, and finally camels. An odd choice considering rhinos and camels didn’t live anywhere near Bhaktapur.
Leaving the square, we pass by two magnificent lion statues standing by themselves. They were once the guardians of a temple destroyed by the 1934 earthquake. Today they were called Lapandegal, which meant “obstacle in the road.”
The Day Hike to Nagarkot
The last activity on our trip itinerary was a day hike to Nagarkot, a popular hiking/biking route northeast of Bhaktapur. Our hiking guide Ram from Liberty Tours met us for morning coffee at Bean the Coffee Shop near our hotel before he and a driver took us into the foothills above the city.
We were dropped off on a road outside a small village and began walking through terraced farmland. Hiking at over 7,000 feet above sea level, Ram led a leisurely pace as the farmland changed to forest.
Ram then showed us the curious Trishul (trident) Danda temple along the trail. Throughout the site were colorful pieces of artwork, statues, and flowering plants reminding me of the artist enclaves found in Taos or Marfa.
Ram led us up a spiral staircase to the top of a three-story lookout tower where we caught our first glimpse of the jagged tips of Himalayan peaks poking above the green foothills.
After hiking about four miles, we met up with our car and drove to Nagarkot Geodic Survey Tower, a small park with an observation tower.
Climbing the ladder to the top, the full grandeur of the Himalayan Mountains spread out before us. We could see eight of the 13 ranges that make up the Himalayas including the Mahalangur Range where Mount Everest is.
Unfortunately, thick haze shrouded Everest, but many other eight-thousanders – as the locals called peaks 8,000 meters (26,246 ft) above sea level – like Manaslu, Annapurna, and Langtang Lirung were clearly visible.
The Final Dinner at New Watshala Garden Restaurant
Back in Bhaktapur that evening Mandahar took us to dinner at New Watshala Garden Restaurant near the temple of Watshala by Durbar Square. The outdoor dining space was filled with greenery making it feel more like a botanical garden.
A giant projection screen had been set up in the main dining area to show World Cup soccer matches. Near us a German couple with a small child watched Germany versus Japan while we dined on our last meal of momo.
Mandahar invited us up to his hotel’s rooftop for some rakshi, or Nepali moonshine. The rooftop is where his café used to be and it was a shame the café was closed because it had spectacular city views.
Explaining that home distilling was legal in Nepal, Mandahar said that many families made their own rakshi from millet or rice and that it was Nepali tradition to share it with friends. Pouring the rakshi from a repurposed plastic bottle, we added some Coca Cola to smooth out the rough-around-the-edges spirit.
He said that he considered his hotel guests like family and hoped we enjoyed our time in Bhaktapur. We assured him we had as we sipped the last of the hooch as the silhouette of Nyatapola’s five hats glowed in the moonlight.
What to know about Bhaktapur
Bhaktapur is about 8 miles from Kathmandu and 6 miles from Tribhuvan International Airport.
Visitors to Nepal must apply for a tourist visa upon arrival at the airport. The process is simple, but lines can be long. Fees are $30 US for 15 days, $50 for 30 days, and $125 for 90 days. Fees are paid in US dollars so bring enough cash to pay the fee at the airport.
As a UNESCO World Heritage site, Westerners must pay a fee to enter Bhaktapur – 1,500 Rupees (about $15 US).
Since most visitors are on day trips, this is a one-time fee, however, if you are staying in Bhaktapur overnight or want to visit over several days, show your passport to the gate agent and they will extend it into a multi-day pass (up to seven days).
Keep your ticket with you as you need it for re-entry if you leave the city limits.
Pottery classes are approximately $40 US (4,000 Rupees) per person and walk-ins welcome.
The Nagarkot day hike is about 8 miles total if you walk the entire route. We walked about half and it includes lunch at a local restaurant.
Nepal Tourism Board website: https://ntb.gov.np/bhaktapur
Siddhi Laxmi Guest House
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Author Bio: Carrie Dow is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, NC, whose work has appeared in regional and national magazines. She founded What’s Pawsitive, a website that profiles animal-based travel, animal rescue organizations, and animal welfare advocates around the world.