To Nepalis, ILAM means tea: cool and moist for much of the year, the hills of Ilam district (like those of Darjeeling, just across the border) enjoy the perfect conditions for growing it. The bazaar is fairly shabby – though it does contain some nice old wooden buildings – and there are no mountain views. There are, however, plenty of hikes and some good birdwatching. Settled by Newars, Rais and Marwaris (a business-minded Indian group with interests in tea), Ilam was eastern Nepal’s main centre of commerce at one time, and the Thursday haat bazaar here still draws shoppers from a wide radius.
Ilam’s tea gardens carpet the ridge above town and tumble down its steep far side. Between April and November, you can watch the pickers at work. Nepal’s first tea estate, it was established in 1864 by a relative of the prime minister after a visit to Darjeeling, where tea cultivation was just becoming big business. Marwaris soon assumed control of the plantation, an arrangement that lasted until the 1960s when the government nationalized this and six other hill estates. In 1999, however, the government sold the estates to an Indian company. As a result, the 140-year-old tea factory in Ilam town was closed and workers lost their pensions, but production increased.
Ilam district was badly affected by the earthquake on September 18, 2011, with around 10,000 people displaced from their homes.