One of Nepal’s many hidden treasures, Bandipur is a perfect concoction of serene nature, inspiring tradition and well-preserved culture.
An ancient, natural, fortified market town – Bandipur is a little jewel often overlooked by tourists visiting Nepal. It is Nepal's best-kept secret, and still provides that rare experience of being discovered for the first time. This small town is approximately 150 kilometres from Kathmandu enroute Pokhara. It provides an unrivaled view of the Himalayan panorama and overlooks the Marsyangdi River valley and highlights the Newari culture, once vibrant in Kathmandu but now rarely visible, in its authentic form. One of Nepal's best-kept towns, it is home to the Newari people and a living museum of Newari culture – a beautifully preserved village crowning a lofty ridge, its main street is lined with traditional row houses. Time seems to have stood still here, although it has taken a lot of effort to preserve this magic while developing the town as a destination. Derelict buildings have been reborn as cafés and lodges, and temples and civic buildings have been pulled back from the edge of ruin. With its attractive 18th-century architecture, pedestrian zone and outdoor dining, it has a distinctly European feel. Its eagle nest location, idyllic farms and orange groves make it a stunning destination.
The Newars are Nepal's historical inhabitants, which is why the majority of its striking architecture reflects Newar's imprint. While walking through Bandipur you can't ignore the red-brick mansions, courtyards and bronze ornamentation which lends an idea of what the ancient Newari town of Kathmandu would have looked like in olden times, before it was overrun with shops and tourists. Many of these stunning buildings have been renovated and turned into accommodation for tourists wanting to break up their journey between Kathmandu and Pokhara.
Bandipur is a winding, fifteen-minute drive from the highway town of Dumre, midway between Kathmandu and Pokhara. It was on a sudden detour we took on our way to Pokhara that I chanced upon Bandipur, enroute to Kathmandu. What we found was a revelation of Nepal's best-kept secrets. Our plan was to halt at Bandipur for half-an-hour for breakfast but the tranquillity of the place overtook us and we spent the next many hours exploring it, not wanting to leave at all.
Bandipur was originally a part of the Magar kingdom of Tanahun, ruled from nearby Palpa (Tansen), but Newari traders flooded in from Bhaktapur and Kathmandu after the conquest of the valley by Prithvi Narayan Shah. The town was an important stop on the India -Tibet trade route until it was bypassed by the Prithvi Highway in the 1960s. In the 1800s, Bandipur grew in wealth, as traders came loaded from Tibet with musk pods, mountain herbs, animal skins, and horses. Calico, tobacco, glassware, and kerosene came in from British India. However, when Nepal opened its doors to the world in the 1950s, Pokhara, with its airfield, began to gain importance, and in 1972, the neglect was complete, as the Kathmandu-Pokhara highway bypassed Bandipur.
But, I think the route's realignment was a blessing in disguise. While many Newar hill towns lost their shine and distinctiveness after joining the highway grid, Bandipur retained its originality. The Newars are friendly people who are happy to offer a smile and warm greetings. They are famous for their craftsmanship which resulted in their carved buildings. Because Bandipur's merchant class had built sturdily, their striking buildings have stood firm and are used today to house these quaint shops, cafés and lodgings. At the northeast end of the bazaar (which is the main shopping strip), the ornate, two-tiered Bindebasini temple is dedicated to Durga. Its ancient walls are covered in carvings and a priest opens the doors each evening. Facing the temple across the square is the Padma Library, a striking 18th-century building with carved windows and wooden beams.
No road ran through Bandipur until 2003, and its flag-stoned marketplace is still traffic-free. Your vehicle needs to be parked one kilometre away before you enter this small town on foot, a welcome reprieve in Nepal. There is not much to do in Bandipur, other than take leisurely walks to the nearby attractions, which adds to the USP of the place. Climb through pristine forests for a two-hour hike to Dumre Bazaar on the old, historical Bandipur trail, to view a town that has hardly changed in centuries. Enjoy nature by hiking through the forest to visit Khagda Devi temple, as well as the monastery – some other prominent attractions.
A wide flight of stone steps leads up the hillside to the barn-like temple of Khagda Devi, which enshrines the sword of Mukunda Sen, the 16th-century king of Palpa (Tansen). Allegedly a gift from Shiva, the blade is revered as a symbol of Shakti (consort or female energy) and once a year, during Dasain, it gets a taste of sacrificial blood.
We then had a delicious lunch of local delicacies at Bimalnagar restaurant and did a quick sightseeing tour of the ancient Bandipur Bazaar. It's the tranquillity of this well-preserved town which is its main charm and entices travellers to experience its unique offerings: its rich hill culture, mountain views, and hiking trails.
Tundikhel is a wonderful viewing point in Bandipur. In centuries past, traders would gather on this man-made plateau to haggle for goods from India and Tibet before starting the long trek to Lhasa or the Indian plains. It was also a former parade ground for Gurkha soldiers. These days it's a local picnic spot and viewpoint. On a clear day, a stunning panorama of the Marsyangdi Valley and the entire Annapurna Range is visible, including Dhaulagiri (8167m), Machhapuchhare (6997m), Langtang Lirung (7246m), Manaslu (8162m) and Ganesh Himal (7406m). Try going before sunrise or sunset.
Unlike most trading posts in the Nepal hills, Bandipur has retained its age-old cultural attributes – temples, shrines, sacred caves, innumerable festivals, and the old Newari architecture and way of life. The more I explored this little town, the more I fell in love. The main reason to climb up to the Thani Mai temple in Bandipur is for the spectacular sunrise views from Gurungche Hill. A clear morning offers some of the most memorable 360-degree vistas in the country, with the Himalayas stretching out along the horizon, and the valley below cloaked in a thick fog that resembles a white lake. The trail starts near the school at the southwest end of the bazaar, and is a steep 30-minute walk.
I also visited a Silkworm farm, a Ganesh shrine and the Siddha Gufa cave. A visit to Silkworm Farm takes you through the fascinating process of how silk is produced. The farm comprises orchards of mulberry plants, which are grown for worm food – the worms themselves are reared indoors, usually from August to December and March to May. But you can visit any time, with someone on hand to explain the process, using jars of preserved displays. To get here follow the road past Green Hills View Lodge downhill for around two km.
At 437m deep and 50m high, Siddha Gufa is said to be the largest cave in Nepal. Its cathedral-like interior is full of stalactites and stalagmites, not to mention hundreds of bats, which whistle overhead. Trekking here from Bandipur is a popular (if muddy) half-day trip, including a 1½-hour hike each way. Consider hiring a guide from Bandipur's Tourist Information Centre. Alternatively, you can hike up to the cave from Bimalnagar on the Prithvi Highway, which only takes 45 minutes.
While it has since embraced tourism, Bandipur remains very much a living community, bustling with farmers and traders going about their business. Pause to savour this unique town at the Old House Cafe, a delightful eatery in the bazaar with good momos, pizza and delicious Newari khaja (thali or set meals). It also has six basic, clean, en-suite rooms out the back, with very nice views.
On the main strip, Hill's Heaven is a popular hangout with cheap beer and free wi-fi. Himalayan Cafe is a bakery and coffee shop on the main street, with a small bar with occasional live music.