Bhaktapur is the site of one of the oldest kingdoms in Nepal, one of three major city-states in the Kathmandu Valley. It thrived and functioned as a prosperous kingdom and for a while was the main capital of Nepal, with some of the structures dating back to more than 600 years ago. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and has long been touted as the best-preserved medieval city in Nepal.
It’s Wikipedia page still says that (ahem), but the 2015 earthquake hit this town outside of Kathmandu with a vengeance. Buildings that had stood intact since the 1400s got shaken to their core and some ended up as a pile of bricks. At least 270 people died and many historic Newari homes had to be condemned.
After two years, there were signs of redevelopment in many directions when I visited recently, but it’s going to take quite a while to restore some of these buildings. Some simply can’t be saved: they’re just too unsafe to go into. Fortunately many of the biggest, most prominent temples and palaces came through relatively intact. I’m sure devotees would say that was the work of the gods and I’m not going to argue. Lakshmi is a bad-ass and her 5-level temple that’s the tallest in the country still stands tall. I will say it feels spiritual to stand in awe looking up at her Nyatapola Temple from 1702, with its grand staircase flanked by scary guards. Then again, maybe that was just the mid-day heat getting to me…
Also known as Bhadgaon or Khwopa, Bhaktapur is 16 kilometers from Kathmandu. These days that just makes it a suburb, but back in the 1400s it would take the better part of a day to get from one Durbar Square to the other. Each king had to put his stamp on new construction projects, so new temples—both Buddhist and Hindu—went up during each reign. A king needs a grand residence too, of course, so the Palace of 55 Windows on the main square went up in 1427. Part of it is now a gallery, but the facade is literally propped up with long wooden poles, so I didn’t feel real confident enough to walk in and check it out.
In 1744, when the USA was still just a collection of small colonies, Prithvi Narayan Shah marched with his army from Bhaktapur into Kathmandu and took over, uniting the country under one rule. The monarchy stayed in place until recent times, when the country moved to a shaky democracy.
This is the second earthquake to hit the city, after one in 1934 that impacted thousands of buildings. Life goes on, of course, so the streets are alive again with commerce. This is actually a much better place to go shopping for handicrafts than Kathmandu. There’s a better selection of quality goods, you’re closer to the source of where they’re made, and you’re not dodging cars and exhaust fumes constantly like you are in Thamel. Cars aren’t allowed in Durbar Square and no heavy vehicles can come into central Bhaktapur. Many deliveries are made via people power.
There are great masks, puppets, copper bowls, antiques (real and reproduction), musical instruments, and rugs. Of course you can also get tea and t-shirts, music and mirrors. The shopkeepers are fairly mellow here, but the wandering street sellers will still wear you out.
Nevertheless, this place is a breath of fresh air compared to increasingly crowded and traffic-choked Kathmandu. If I were coming back to Nepal again and had more time, I’d spend a few nights here to experience it in the evenings, after all the day-trippers have left. It would be a magical place at night, a step back in time to when this was a hermit kingdom that very few outsiders saw.
Bhaktapur will rebuild, but it’s going to take time. And it’s going to take money. It’s easy to get irked about the US$15 entrance fee that foreigners are charged just to walk around this open-air museum. That is, after all, enough for a few nights in a basic hotel or a few days’ worth of meals. It’s out of whack with travel prices in Nepal. It’s also strange to pay so much to enter a living city, one that’s not just uninhabited ruins surrounded by an entrance gate that closes at night.
Tourism in Nepal dropped like a rock after the earthquake of 2015 though, the number of visitors going down by 56%. The numbers have been steadily climbing back up, but this key source of income for the government plays a big part in doing restoration right. Supposedly almost 2/3 of the revenue in Bhaktapur comes from tourism. So consider it a charity donation.
The government had allotted around $3.7 million to the effort as of the second quarter this year and part of what’s to show for the effort is they have rebuilt 4 of the 11 destroyed monuments. The person in charge of the effort says it’ll take another $15 million to complete the job, which probably won’t be finished until 2020 at the earliest.
What can you do? Well there seem to be as many NGOs as people in Nepal and more than a few of them are shady. The best contribution you can make is economic. Go to the country. Spend time there. Support local businesses. Suck it up and pay the annoying entrance fee to go stroll around Bhaktapur (or take a local tour from Thamel). It’s still a wondrous place.