The medieval town is where the principal festival associated with the Nepali New Year - Bisket Jatra - is annually staged. The town-dwellers build a giant ceremonial chariot dedicated to the Hindu God Bhairab, drink lots of alcohol and a giant tug-of-war ensues in which the residents of the Eastern and Western parts of Bhaktapur battle for the right to pull the chariot through the town, a contest that's believed to bring the winning side good luck all through the new year. (Check out my photo gallery of last year's Bisket Jatra preparations at the bottom of this blog post.)
Apart from this rather boisterous festival, the town is famous mainly for its towering pagoda-style temples, sweeping ceremonial squares and intricately carved wooden windows.
Oh. And its famous "king curd". Something I thought I had tasted until I found out I hadn't. Almost exactly to the day, this time last year, I was being duped out of the legendary Juju Dhau.
It turns out that Bhaktapur's juju dhau takes time and effort to make. Time that the restaurant I tried it in obviously didn't have. So instead of having the creamy, custardy creation that this city is most famous for, I ate a watery version that, although tasty enough, really wasn't juju dhau.
So consider yourself warned. If the blogosphere is to be believed, there are quite a few restaurants in Bhaktapur serving what they claim to be juju dhau but what in reality is nothing more than sweetened curds.
If in doubt, bear in mind that authentic juju dhau is:
A. Made and served in red clay pots called kataaros or bhingats (not ceramic bowls found in tourist-trap restaurants).
B. So solid, you can turn it over your head without being drenched in whey (something I would never have considered doing with the version I ate).
C. Seasoned with spices and not sweetened with sugar (or indeed honey, which is what I suspect my fake juju dhau contained).
It's a real shame as milk-based desserts feature among my all-time favourites. The worst part is I never realised it until today, when I began researching juju dhau to add more detail to what I thought would be a well-timed Nepali New Year post :(
I guess the only good thing is I now have a reason to return to Bhaktapur. It truly was one of only a handful of places I've ever been to that made me feel I was going back in time without it seeming staged.
PS: If you enjoy the simple life, consider spending a night here. Most people visit Bhaktapur as a day trip from Kathmandu, but the city comes into its own after the tourist vans and buses drive off. Watching dusk fall over Bhaktapur while sitting on the red brick stairs of the Nyatapola Temple, and wandering the streets at dawn to photograph the city before the Bisket Jatra celebrations began rank among my favourite memories of Nepal.