A narrow strip of flatland extending along the length of Nepal’s southern border, the Terai was originally covered in thick, malarial jungle. In the 1950s, however, the government identified the southern plains as a major growth area to relieve population pressure in the hills, and, with the help of liberal quantities of DDT, brought malaria under control. Since then, the jungle has been methodically cleared and the Terai has emerged as Nepal’s most productive region, accounting for more than fifty percent of its GDP and supporting about half its population.
The jungle barrier that once insulated Nepal from Indian influences as effectively as the Himalayas had guarded the north, making possible the development of a uniquely Nepali culture, has disappeared. An unmistakeable Indian quality now pervades the Terai, as evidenced by the avid mercantilism of the border bazaars, the chewing of betel, the mosques and orthodox Brahmanism, the jute mills and sugar refineries, and the many roads and irrigation projects built with Indian aid.
Fortunately, the government has set aside sizeable chunks of the Western Terai in the form of national parks and reserves, which remain among the finest wildlife and bird havens on the subcontinent. Dense riverine forest provides cover for predators like tigers and leopards; swampy grasslands make the perfect habitat for rhinos; and vast, tall stands of sal, the Terai’s most common tree, shelter huge herds of deer. Of the region’s wildlife parks, the deservedly popular Chitwan is the richest in game and the most accessible, but if you’re willing to invest some extra effort, Bardia and Sukla Phanta further to the west make quieter alternatives. The region’s other claim to fame is historical: the Buddha was born 2500 years ago at Lumbini. Nearby, important archeological discoveries have also been made at Tilaurakot.
Four border crossings in the western Terai are open to foreigners. As it’s on the most direct route between Kathmandu and Varanasi, and fits in well with visits to Lumbini and Chitwan, Sonauli is the most heavily used. Less popular are the crossing points south of Nepalgunj or Dhangadhi. Alternatively, on the far western frontier is Mahendra Nagar, only around twelve hours from Delhi, but an arduous journey to Kathmandu.
The weather in the Terai is at its best from October to January – the days are pleasantly milder during the latter half of this period, though the nights and mornings can be surprisingly chilly and damp. However, wildlife viewing gets much better after the thatch has been cut, from late January, by which time the temperatures are starting to warm up again. It gets really hot in April, May and June. From July to September, the monsoon brings mosquitoes, malaria and leeches, and makes a lot of the more minor, unpaved roads very muddy and difficult to pass, and some rivers burst their banks.