Dodging buses belching exhaust and minivans careening up the hill and out of the bus park, it looked like trying to take local transport to the ancient city of Bhaktapur instead of hiring an expensive taxi was going to get my friend and I killed.
“Bhaktapur?” we asked one driver hopefully as we sidestepped yet another battered school bus thundering past. It was almost an hour since we’d left the backpacker haven of Thamel on a search for local transport.
The driver, who looked about 12 years old, nodded. He motioned for us to board and at the same time released the handbrake so that we had to grab the handrails and swing ourselves up the stairs and onto the moving bus.
As we stumbled to our seats the driver turned up the stereo until the vehicle shook with bass.
His wing-man and ticket collector leaned out the back door shouting, “BhaktapurBhaktapurBhaktapurBhaktapur!” He thumped the side of the bus with his fist in an attempt to drum up business as we careened out of the parking lot and into the Kathmandu traffic.
The ancient city
Bhaktapur is one of the Kathmandu Valley’s ancient cities, and its third largest. It’s easy to visit on a day trip from Kathmandu and if you can find the right local bus without getting run over, it only costs 50 rupees. Hiring a taxi costs around 800.
Listed by UNESCO, Bhaktapur has city status but feels more like a village.
Like Kathmandu, it has its own Durbar Square and nearly all the rabbit-warren back streets seem to lead to it. It has more temples than Kathmandu or Patan, the Valley’s other ancient gems.
Wandering Bhaktapur’s streets and alleways is like taking a walk back in time 400 years.
Many aspects of life seem largely unchanged and the buildings certainly don’t look like they’ve been modernised at all.
Our crazy local bus arrived well before the package tourist hoardes from Kathmandu so for a couple of hours as we wandered the village it was mostly just us, the odd local and of course the odd holy cow.
By lunchtime, though, it was a different story.
Not only was it the day before Diwali so locals were out in force buying up big at the market but it was harvest time.
The town’s squares were filled with tarpaulins covered in drying grain, where local women (and their young children!) sorted it into sacks.
Then school let out, and the squares quickly filled with kids causing mischief and buying treats. Their excitement about the upcoming festival of Diwali was palpable – it really did feel like the day before Christmas.
Bhaktapur is an easy day trip from Kathmandu (once you find the right bus). Your guesthouse can organise a taxi to take you there and bring you back, but the bus is considerably cheaper.
An entry ticket to the village costs about 500 rupees – there are ticket booths located at every entry point so it’s almost impossible to get past without paying. We were asked to show our tickets several times. And why would you want to skimp on the cost anyway when the funds go back into preserving the site?
You can see all the major sites in a morning but it is possible to spend the night. There are a few guesthouses in and around Durbar Square and although we didn’t stay, we were there early enough to see how different the city became once the the tour buses from Kathmandu arrived.
Spending a night or two in Bhaktapur might be a relaxed alternative to the frenzy of Kathmandu (and it’s bus parks!) and the hassle of Thamel.