The Eastern Terai and hills Travel Guide
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Lusher and more tropical than the west, the Eastern Terai – the southern flatlands east of Chitwan – are also more populous, more industrial and more Indian. Although the foothills are usually within sight, the main east–west highway sticks to the plains, where the way of life is essentially identical to that of Bihar and West Bengal just across the border; in many parts of this region, Nepali is the second or even third language, after Maithili, Bhojpuri and other North Indian dialects.
Most travellers only flit through on their way to the border crossings of Birgunj (for Patna) and Kakarbhitta (for Darjeeling); outside these places, there’s little tourist hype. The cities are generally unappealing, with one outstanding exception: Janakpur, a famous Hindu pilgrimage centre. Birdwatchers, meanwhile, can check out Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve, straddling the alluvial plain of the mighty Sapt Koshi River.
While the few visitors that reach the eastern hills tend to be trekkers bound for the Everest or Kanchenjunga massifs, or rafters running the Sun Koshi, the area also offers great day-hiking. It’s served by just two all-weather roads: one climbs to the lovely Newari town of Dhankuta and rowdier Hile, the other crawls up to Ilam, Nepal’s tea-growing capital.
Buses make good time through the Eastern Terai on the Mahendra Highway, and the almost-completed Dhulikhel–Sindhuli Highways will make getting to the east even easier. However, most places described in this chapter are located on side roads, and require various degrees of extra toil to reach. Tourist facilities are minimal, but the haat bazaars (weekly markets) are well worth looking out for.
The countryside surrounding Janakpur is inhabited by Hindu castes and members of the Tharu and Danuwar ethnic groups, and features some of the most meticulously kept farmland you’ll ever see. You can ride the narrow-gauge railway east or west and, during the cooler months, take bike rides along several roads radiating out from the city.
Hindu women of the deeply conservative villages around Janakpur are rarely spared from their household duties, and, once married, are expected to remain veiled and silent before all males but their husbands. Fortunately, their rich tradition of folk art offers them an escape. Set in a walled compound, the nonprofit Janakpur Women’s Development Center (Nari Bikas Kendra) provides a space for women from nearby villages to develop. Founded in 1989, with assistance from several international NGOs, the artists’ cooperative helps its fifty-odd members turn their skills into income – and the fact that some have gone on to start their own companies is a sure sign of the project’s success. But more importantly, the centre empowers women through training in literacy and business skills, and support sessions in which they can share their feelings and discuss their roles in family and society.
Initially specializing in Maithili paper art, the centre now has separate buildings for sewing, screen-printing, ceramics and painting. Visitors are welcome to meet the artists and learn about their work and traditions. A gift shop sells crafts made on the premises, as well as the booklet, Master Artists of Janakpur.
For three thousand years, Hindu women of the region once known as Mithila have maintained a tradition of painting, using techniques and motifs passed from mother to daughter. The colourful images can be viewed as fertility charms, meditation aids or a form of storytelling, embodying millennia of traditional knowledge.
From an early age Brahman girls practice drawing complex symbols derived from Hindu myths and folk tales, which over the course of generations have been reduced to mandala-like abstractions. By the time she is in her teens, a girl will be presenting simple paintings to her arranged fiancé; the courtship culminates with the painting of a kohbar, an elaborate fresco on the wall of the bride’s bedroom, where the newlyweds will spend their first nights. Depicting a stalk of bamboo surrounded by lotus leaves (symbols of male and female sexuality), the kohbar is a powerful celebration of life and creation. Other motifs include footprints and fishes (representing Vishnu), parrots (symbolic of a happy union), Krishna cavorting with his milkmaids, and Surabhi, the Cow of Plenty, who inflames the desire of those who milk her. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the kohbar is that, almost by definition, it is ephemeral: even the most amazing mural will be washed off within a week or two. Painting is seen as a form of prayer or meditation; once completed, the work has achieved its end.
Women of all castes create simpler wall decorations during the autumn festival of Tihaar (Diwali). In the weeks leading up to the festival they apply a new coat of mud mixed with dung and rice chaff to their houses and add relief designs. Just before Lakshmi Puja, the climactic third day of Tihaar, many paint images of peacocks, pregnant elephants and other symbols of prosperity to attract a visit from the goddess of wealth. Until Nepali New Year celebrations in April, the decorations are easily viewable in villages around Janakpur.
Paintings on paper, which traditionally play only a minor part in the culture, have become the most celebrated form of Maithili art – or Madhubani art, as it’s known in India, where a community-development project began turning it into a marketable commodity in the 1960s. More recently, the Janakpur Women’s Development Center has helped do the same in Nepal, making Maithili paintings a staple of Kathmandu tourist gift shops. Many artists concentrate on traditional religious motifs, but a growing number depict people – mainly women and children in domestic scenes, always shown in characteristic doe-eyed profile.
Straddling a floodplain of shifting grassland and sandbanks north of the Koshi Barrage, Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve is the Terai’s smallest park. There are no tigers or rhinos, nor even any jungle, but birdwatchers can have a field day. Koshi Tappu is among the subcontinent’s most important wetlands, and thanks to its location just downstream from one of the few breaches in the Himalayan barrier, it’s an internationally important area for waterfowl and waders.
Some 465 bird species, many of them endangered, have been counted here. Flocks of up to fifty thousand ducks used to be seen in winter and spring, though numbers have been lower in recent years. Most of Nepal’s egrets, storks, ibises, terns and gulls are represented, as are at least five globally threatened species, including the black-necked stork, red-necked falcon, swamp francolin and the impressive lesser adjutant, one of the world’s largest storks. November and December are the optimum months to see winter migrants, while mid-February to early April are best for the late migratory species.
The reserve was established to protect one of the subcontinent’s last surviving herds of wild buffalo, believed to number 150–170 animals. However, there are concerns about the number of domestic buffalo getting in and mating with the wild ones. Mugger crocodiles and many species of turtle and fish are also present, as well as blue bull, wild boar, langur and spotted deer. Before the flood, numerous gangetic dolphins could sometimes be seen playing in the water above or below the barrage.
With no rhinos or large carnivores, Koshi Tappu is comparatively safe to enter on foot with a guide, though wild elephants have been known to maraud in this area. Elephant rides (Rs1000/hr) and canoe trips (from Rs2500) can also be arranged. Between the channels of water, a number of semi-permanent islands of scrub and grassland are the main stomping ground for blue bull. (Tappu means “island” in Nepali, an accurate description of this floodplain in the wet summer months.) Blue bulls are big animals with sizeable horns; they normally run away at the first scent of humans, but you have to make sure not to threaten them or block their escape route.
Nepal’s susu, or gangetic dolphins, belong to one of only three species of freshwater dolphins in the world and, like their cousins in the Amazon and Indus, are highly endangered. A small, isolated population survives in the far west of Nepal, downstream of the Chisapani gorge in the Karnali River. Before the 2008 flood, dolphins used to cavort openly in the outflow of the Koshi Barrage, less than a dozen kilometres from Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve; since then spottings have been less frequent, though three stranded dolphins were rescued by the army and released back into the Koshi in early 2009. However, whether these practically blind animals (they use echo-location), revered in myth as “messenger kings”, return in numbers, or go the way of the now-extinct Yangtze Dolphin, remains to be seen.
BIRATNAGAR, Nepal’s second largest city, is an industrial place close to the border and pretty much devoid of any charm. Industry here was deeply shaken by the Madhesi movement; in 2009, protests and bandhs (strikes) by various minorities and political groups reached such an extreme that industrialists reacted by conducting their own bandhs against the bandhs; Biratnagar was eventually declared a “bandh-free” area. The main reason visitors pass through is in order to catch a flight to Kathmandu or anywhere in the eastern hills. Aside from a small but lively Hanuman temple, around 500m northeast of the bus station on Main Road, there is nothing really to see or do.
JANAKPUR, 165km east of Birgunj and 25km south of the Mahendra Highway, is the Terai’s most fascinating city. Also known as Janakpurdham (dham denoting a sacred place), it’s a holy site of the first order, and its central temple, the ornate Janaki Mandir, is an obligatory stop on the Hindu pilgrimage circuit. Possessing a strong Indian influence, the city is small and manageable: motorized traffic is all but banned from the centre, and tourist hustle is largely absent.
Despite the absence of ancient monuments to confirm its mythic past – no building is much more than a century old – Janakpur remains an attractive city. Religious fervour seems to lend an aura to everything; the skyline leaves a lasting impression of palm trees and the onion domes and pyramid roofs of local shrines. Most of these distinctive buildings are associated with kuti – self-contained pilgrimage centres and hostels for sadhus – some five hundred of which are scattered throughout the Janakpur area. The city’s other distinguishing feature is its dozens of sacred ponds, which here take the place of river ghats for ritual bathing and dhobi-ing.
Hindu mythology identifies Janakpur as the capital of the ancient kingdom of Mithila, which controlled a large part of northern India between the tenth and third centuries BC. The city features prominently in the Ramayana: it was here that Ram – Vishnu in mortal form – wed Sita. In Janakpur the chant of “Sita Ram, Sita Ram” is repeated like a Hindu Hail Mary, and sadhus commonly wear the tuning-fork-shaped tika of Vishnu. Mithila came under the control of the Mauryan empire around the third century BC, then languished for two millennia until Guru Ramananda, the seventeenth-century founder of the sect of Sita that dominates Janakpur, revived the city as a major religious centre.
Janakpur’s atmosphere is charged with an intense devotional zeal. New shrines are forever being inaugurated and idols installed, while loudspeakers broadcast religious discourses and the mesmerizing drone of bhajan. Pilgrimage is a year-round industry, marked by several highlights in the festival calendar:
Parikrama As many as 100,000 people join the annual one-day circumambulation of the city on the day of the February/March full moon, many performing prostrations along the entire 8km route. The pilgrimage coincides with the festival of Holi, when coloured water is thrown everywhere and on everyone.
Ram Navami Ram’s birthday, celebrated on the ninth day after the March/April full moon, attracts thousands of sadhus, who receive free room and board at temples.
Chhath Women bathe in Janakpur’s ponds and line them with elaborate offerings to the sun god Surya at dawn on the third day of Tihaar (Diwali) in October/November. Women in the villages surrounding Janakpur paint murals on the walls of their houses.
Biwaha Panchami The culmination of this five-day event – Janakpur’s most important festival – is a re-enactment of Ram and Sita’s wedding at the Janaki Mandir, which draws hundreds of thousands of pilgrims on the fifth day after the new moon of November/December.
Once-sleepy KAKARBHITTA is the municipal capital of Nepal’s easternmost district. It’s mainly a gateway, and most of those using it are Indians, hopping over from Darjeeling for some shopping, or heading to Biratnagar for business; the presence of thousands of Bhutanese refugees in camps west of here contributes to the flow. In addition, the villages situated on both sides of the border receive some perfectly legal migrants just passing by: wild elephants. Every year a few people are trampled to death and houses get destroyed by the furious pachyderms, who liberally help themselves to the grain stock.
If you have some time on your hands, you can hike out to the pleasantly green Satighata tea estate, just ten minutes’ walk south of Kakarbhitta; a Buddhist monastery run by Tamangs can be visited on the way. Don’t be afraid: the chances you’ll meet any marauding elephants are very slim.
Every visitor to Nepal knows about Tibet. But few have heard of its Bhutanese refugees, who far outnumber Tibetans in Nepal. Some 107,000 ethnic Nepalis were forcibly expelled from Bhutan in 1991–92, and around 85,000 remain effectively interned in eastern Nepal, pawns in an obscure political stalemate.
Members of Nepali hill groups, notably Rais and Limbus, began migrating into Bhutan in significant numbers in the mid-nineteenth century, eventually accounting for at least a third of Bhutan’s population and earning the designation Lhotshampas (southerners). However, during the mid-1980s, the continued influx of ethnic Nepalis and a rise in Nepali militancy in neighbouring Darjeeling and Sikkim gave rise to a wave of Drukpa nationalism. The Drukpas were quick to make scapegoats of the Lhotshampas who, not coincidentally, controlled lands that were emerging as the economic powerhouse of Bhutan.
In 1988, after a national census, the government began a process of systematic discrimination against anyone who couldn’t provide written proof of residency in Bhutan in 1958. A campaign of ethnic cleansing gathered momentum, culminating in 1991 when “illegal” families were evicted from their lands. Opponents of the regime had their citizenship revoked, and they and their families were harassed, imprisoned, tortured and raped.
The refugees fled initially to India, but receiving little encouragement there, most continued on to Nepal. As their numbers swelled, the Nepalese government, wanting to keep the problem out of sight, established refugee camps at seven locations in the eastern lowlands. Since then, international and Nepali NGOs have built housing, schools, health posts and other essential facilities in the camps under the direction of the UN. Conditions are fairly liveable, but residents are desperately poor, dependent on aid or scarce labouring work.
The crisis shows little sign of being resolved. Since 2008 almost 50,000 refugees have left Nepal for Western countries, but the rest are still desperate to return to their homes in Bhutan. Preparing for a long haul, aid agencies have shifted their focus from relief work to income-generation projects to attempt to give the refugees some independence.
For more on the situation, visit w bhutaneserefugees.com.
Call it development, or colonialism by another name, but the big donor nations have staked out distinct spheres of influence in Nepal. Despite the closure of the Gurkha Camp at Dharan, the bustling gateway to the eastern hills, almost half the British Army’s Gurkha recruits still come from the area, and the old ties are strongly felt. Britain’s aid programme, based in Dhankuta, has been handed over to the Nepalese government, but agriculture, forestry, health and cottage industries are still in operation. The biggest and most obvious British undertaking is the road to Dharan, Dhankuta, Hile and beyond, which was constructed with £50 million of British taxpayers’ money. While there are few grand monuments or temples, this region is a bastion of traditional Nepali hill culture. The bazaar towns of Hile and Basantapur, in particular, give a powerful taste of what lies beyond the point where the tarmac runs out.
From Dharan the road switchbacks dramatically over a 1420m saddle at Bhedetar, then descends to cross the Tamur Koshi at Mulghat (280m) before climbing once again to DHANKUTA, stretched out on a ridge at 1150m. Though you’d never guess, this is the administrative headquarters for eastern Nepal.
Dhankuta is a small, predominantly Newari town, with a friendly, well-to-do feel. Steps lead up from the bus park to the main bazaar, which climbs north along the ridge. The lower half of the bazaar, up to the police station, is paved and reasonably active; the upper half is quieter and more picturesque, lined with whitewashed, tiled and carved Newari townhouses. The outlying area is populated by Rais, Magars and Hindu castes, who make Dhankuta’s haat bazaar, on Thursdays, a tremendously vivid affair.
Although you can’t see the Himalayas, the area makes for fine walking. In Santang, about 45 minutes southeast of town, women are seen embroidering beautiful shawls and weaving dhaka. You can walk to Hile in about two hours by taking short cuts off the main road: stick to the ridge and within sight of the electric power line.
Most buses to Dhankuta continue as far as HILE, 15km beyond Dhankuta and 750m higher up along the same ridge. This spirited little settlement is one of the most important staging areas in eastern Nepal. Poised over the vast Arun Valley, Hile’s bazaar strip straggles up the often fog-bound ridge, drawing in to trade Tamangs and Sherpas from the west, Newari and Indian traders from the south, and Rais from their heartland of the roadless hillsides all around. The most visible minority group, however, are Bhotiyas from the northern highlands, who run a number of simple lodges. One of the most exotic things you can do in Nepal is sit in a flickering Bhotiya kitchen sipping hot millet beer from an authentic tongba (miniature wooden steins with brass hoops and fitted tops unique to the eastern hills).
The only thing to do in town is browse the bazaar: Hile’s haat bazaar, on Thursday, is lively, but smaller than Dhankuta’s. Most visitors are here to trek, and magnificent views can be had just a half-hour’s walk from Hile – as long as you’re up early enough to beat the clouds. Walk to the north end of the bazaar and bear right at the fork up a dirt lane; after 100m a set of steps leads up to join the Hattikharka trail, which contours around the hill. The panorama spreads out before you like a map: to the northwest, the Makalu Himal floats above the awesome canyon of the Arun; the ridges of the Milke Daada zigzag to the north; and part of the Kanchenjunga massif pokes up in the northeast. Some landowners in this area also cultivate tea: take a look at the Guranse tea estate (w guransetea.com.np), whose main entrance is just down the road from the bazaar.
For a day-trip, catch a bus to Basantapur, a dank, almost Elizabethan bazaar 21km northeast. En route you get tremendous views of the Makalu massif, while in town you can sample Nepal’s only wine, Hinwa, which is made from berries.
Like the Dhankuta road, the Ilam road keeps getting longer: originally engineered by the Koreans to connect the tea estates of Kanyam and Ilam with the Terai, it now goes all the way to Taplejung, the most common starting point for Kanchenjunga treks. The road is in excellent shape as far as Ilam, but it’s extremely steep and entails a couple of monster ascents.
After traversing lush lowlands, the road begins a laborious 1600m ascent to Kanyam. At Phikal, a few kilometres further on, a pitched side road leads steeply up for 10km to Pashupati Nagar, a small bazaar at 2200m just below the ridge that separates Nepal and India. Shared jeeps wait at the turn-off at Phikal, from where the road descends 1200m in a series of tight switchbacks to cross the Mai Khola before climbing another 700m to Ilam (1200m).
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.
To actually try tea and see how it’s made, you’ll need to return back down the main road from Ilam as far as Kanyam (1hr 30min by Jeep). The tea factory here, built using British aid money in 1985, is the largest in the district. Once inside you’re likely to be welcomed with a short (free) tour and a cup of tea. The plucked leaves are loaded into “withering chutes” upstairs, where fans remove about half their moisture content. They’re then transferred to big rolling machines to break the cell walls and release their juices, and placed on fermentation beds to bring out their flavour and colour. Finally, most of the remaining moisture is removed in a wood-fired drying machine, and the leaves are sorted into grades. Ilam’s premium tea compares favourably with Darjeeling’s, and indeed most of it is exported to Germany to be blended into “Darjeeling” teas.
In addition to the mysterious Tharu, the Eastern Terai is also home to the Danuwars, who are widely distributed across the region, and the Majhis, who live in riverside settlements between the Bagmati and the Sun Koshi. Both groups traditionally rely more on fishing than hunting or farming. Most of the Terai’s Hindu caste families are first- or second-generation immigrants from India, and maintain close cultural, linguistic and economic ties with their homeland. In addition, a significant number of Muslims inhabit the Western Terai, especially around Nepalgunj, where they’re in the majority.
For centuries the only developed corridor through the Terai, the gentler southern section of the Tribhuwan Rajpath served, before air travel, as every foreigner’s introduction to Nepal. A narrow-gauge railway used to run from Raxaul, the last Indian station, as far as Amlekhganj, from where dignitaries were transported by elephant over the first band of hills to Hetauda, then carried the rest of the way to Kathmandu by donkey or sedan chair. Those few who made the journey during Nepal’s pre-1951 isolation did so only by invitation of the prime minister or king. The construction of the Rajpath in the 1950s eliminated the need for elephants and sedan chairs, but the railway wasn’t decommissioned until the 1970s.
If you’re arriving from India, the Rajpath makes an exhilarating introduction to Nepal, particularly if coupled with an overnight stay in Daman, from where there’s a superb Himalayan panorama. The dramatic northern section of the Tribhuwan Rajpath, including Daman, is covered here.
BIRGUNJ may not be one of the best places in Asia to spend time, but it certainly beats Raxaul, its evil twin across the border. The town has exploded in the last decade on the back of cross-border trade with India; its population has almost tripled since 2001. Unless you have business interests, there’s no reason to come here except to cross the border to or from Varanasi or Kolkata. Even then, you’re more likely to use Sonauli because of its better connections within Nepal. You could probably kill a few hours in the market area around Maisthan, a mother-goddess temple just off the main drag.
The border is 2km south of birgunj, and Raxaul, the Indian border town, sprawls for another 2km south of it. Horrendous traffic jams are a regular occurrence – if you’re driving it can take hours physically to get through, leaving aside the paperwork.