The Terai Region
To many foreigners, when they think of Nepal, the image invariably is of a remote mountainous country with its snow covered Himalayan peaks, deep valleys, and Mongoloid people quietly tilling their hill terraced farms. Yet, almost half the country's population lives in the subtropical Gangetic plains, called the Terai, that extends through the entire southern part of the country. Unlike the northern part of the country that is known for its highest peaks of the world, the southern plains are less than 100m above sea level, mostly covered with forests (which are thinning out at an alarming rate) and fertile green agricultural fields (that feed most of the nation).
The most striking thing about the Terai is itself; the sharp contrast in which it displays itself from the northern hills and mountains of the country, which are generally only a few hours away. With the exception of a couple of places, there is nothing of special interest that really stands out. And the Terai is recommended to a new visitor to Nepal more in the spirit of exposing him/her to the richness in diversity, both geographic and socio-cultural, of this country than to point out "must-sees". A day or two in passing is sufficient to get a taste of it. A Terai town doesn't really make a destination in itself, but an interesting place to drop by.
Interesting places of Terai
- Royal Bardia National Park
The Terai is far more accessible than the hills of Nepal for the simple reason that it is geographically flat and hence roads are easier to build. The major highway, Mahendra Rajmarga, that cuts across Nepal linking its eastern region with the western region goes through the Terai. And, most Terai towns, such as Bhairawa, Janakpur, Birgunj, Nepalgunj, Biratnagar etc., are linked to this highway through 20-50km long access roads.
Regular buses travel between these towns, Kathmandu, and Pokhara daily, and cost a few dollars (US$2-US$5, depending on distance). The buses are not that comfortable, but they take you places.
There are also regular flights several times a week from Kathmandu to Biratnagar, Bhairawa, Nepalgunj, Jankpur, and Birgunj. A couple of days' advance purchase is recommended.
Being not much of a popular tourist destination, the Terai does not provide very good accomodation facilities except in the case of Chitwan. Most of the towns mentioned above do have some simple options, but they are often quite "interesting". The cost is likely to be from US$2 per night to, perhaps, US$10. Shop around, you may be lucky enough to find a decent place. Janakpur, Birgunj, and Bhairawa have better lodges than others.
Again, not much of a choice. You can find many Indian food serving stalls around town. There may be a few restaurants, but they are very basic. Be careful with water and other raw uncooked food items.
Situated at the Terai plains of the southern Nepal, Lumbini is the place where Siddhartha Gautam, the Shakya Prince and the ultimate Buddha, the Enlighted One, was born in 623 BC. The sacred place, marked by a stone pillar erected by Emperor Ashoka of India in 249 BC, is listed as one of the World Heritage Sites.
Today the holy site is being developed with international support as the supreme Buddhist pilgrimage and a symbol of world peace. The shrines and monastries that many countries have built or are still building reflect the architectural traditions of the respective countries, and thus giving Lumbini an international feel with a message of universal friendship and brotherhood.
About 30km east of Lumbini is the village of Tilaurakot which is believed to have been the location of the Kapilvastu royal palace where the Buddha grew up as the Shakya dynasty prince, until he renounced it at the age of 29 in search of enlightenment.
The main attraction at Lumbini remains the Sacred Garden, which is spread over 8 sq.km and possesses all the treasures of the historic area. Today as part of the global initiative to promote Lumbini, many countries have built or are building temples, monastries or stupas near the Sacred Garden in the International Monastery Zone. Temples or shrines that have finished their construction so far are Myanmar Temple, International Gautami Nuns Temple, China Temple, The Nepal Buddha Temple and the Dharma Swami Maharaja Buddha Vihara.
There are also three museums in Lumbini. The Lumbini Museum, located in the Cultural Zone, contains Mauryan and Kushana coins, religious manuscripts, terra-cotta fragments, and stone and metal sculptures. It also possesses an extensive collection of stamps from various countries depicting Lumbini and the Buddha.
Lumbini International Research Institute (LIRI), located opposite the Lumbini Museum, provides research facilities for the study of Buddhism and religion in general. Run jointly by the Lumbini Development Trust (LDT) and the Reiyukai of Japan, LIRI contains some 12,000 books on religion, philosophy, art and architecture.
Getting there and around
Buses run regulary after every hour or so from morning six o' clock to afternoon five o' clock to Lumbini from Bhairawa, an industrial town situated 284 km to the southeast of Lumbini. They are crowded and slow: it almost takes an hour for the 22km trip.
You can hire a cab for the day for about US$15. The cost may sound little bit expensive, but it's worth spending if you are travelling in a small group. The other option is you can hire a three-wheeler tempo for about half the price.
Many just make a day trip to Lumbini from neighboring towns of Butwal, Bhairawa or Sunauli. But if you want to stay in the area, the peaceful environment of Lumbini is certainly better than those towns. The Lumbini Hokke Hotel is a spotlessly clean excellent Japanese style hotel for a rather steep price (US$80 up). The Sri-Lankan Pilgrims' Rest House is a more modest living place for about US$10; it is a little distance away from the main center of Lumbini though. The Lumbini Village Lodge is closer and provides rooms for a few dollar less, but the rooms are very basic at best.
There is very little choice. There is only one restaurant, the Lumbini Garden Restaurant, which is about ten minutes walk from the center. The Lumbini Hokke Hotel (fairly expensive) and The Sri Lankan Pilgrim' Rest House (very basic menu) are the only other choices.
Named after the legendary King Janak, Janakpur was the capital of the ancient Indian Kingdom Mithila, the native country of goddess Sita, the wife of the Hindu god Rama and the heroine of the great Hindu epic Ramayana. Today Janakpur stands as the most cleanest and interesting place among all the towns of Terai.
Janakpur has become a great piligrimage site for Hindus today. The most sacred sites are the Janaki Mandir, dedicated to goddess Sita, the Ram Sita bibaha(marriage) mandir, built over the spot where Ram and Sita were said to be married, Ram Mandir, dedicated to god Ram and the holy pond Dhanush Sagar. Hundreds of Indian devotees come here every year to pay their respect to the goddess at this temple.
Besides the religious importance, Janakpur is also the center for the revival of the ancient Mithila art and craft. As a tradition, Mithila women have always been decorating the walls of their houses with paintings depicting figures from Hindu mythology in abstract forms, sometimes resembling a mandala.
Janakpur is manageable on foot and the lack of car makes it an absolute pleasure to walk Cycle rickshaws are plentiful and cheap; good for visiting the semi-rural suburbs of Janakpur, with their village feel and many water tanks.
By "express" bus, Janakpur is 12 hours from Kathmandu and seven hours from Kakarbhitta. An easier way is to fly directly from Kathmandu which just takes around thirty to forty minutes. Flights from Kathmandu are three times weekly; the airport is two kilometer south of town.
Accomodation and food
There isn't much in the way of tourist hotels. Hotel Welcome is the best, with rooms from Rs.45 to Rs.500 for an airconditioned suite. Food is deliciously Indian influenced, with lot of sweets and vegetarian specialities for devout Hindus, though the lack of menus may reduce you to sign language or a point and eat system. Look around the bazaar or across from the Janaki Mandir for tea stalls, sweet shops and restaurants
Chitwan National Park (Introduction)
For a country known for its beautiful mountains, the Gangetic flat lands of the Terai that stretches through out the southern part of Nepal provide a wholly different experience. (See the separate section on the Terai for more details.) A visit to Nepal remains incomplete without seeing the beauty of the Terai.
And Chitwan is the best place to do so. The Royal Chitwan National Park, established in 1973, provides a great wildlife experience with its rich flora and fauna –read further for more details. The wildlife and the landscape are not as breathtaking as those found in Africa but still, the experience will stand out.
Though one can visit neighboring Tharu villages in Chitwan, the major interesting focus of Chitwan is still the exploration of the Chitwan National Park.
Flora and Fauna
The flora and fauna of Chitwan makes it a great place for nature lovers. Chitwan has over 50 different species of mammals, 400 different species of birds, and 65 different types of butterflies in its hardwood Sal forests, riverine vegetation, and "elephant grass" savannah. More than 70 different species of grass grow here.
The most famous wildlife in Chitwan is perhaps the single-horned Asian rhinoceros. A few decades ago, their number had fallen to less than 100, but recent count puts them at 400. These animals have thick armor like hide that is hard to penetrate even with a bullet.
A fully grown animal can be as tall as 180cm. In spite of army protection for these animals and severe punishment for harming them, rhino poaching is still a problem as every organ of the animal carries some (probably superstitious) value. The horn fetches about US$10,000 per kilo and is believed to be an aphrodisiac. The dung can be a laxative, the urine cures tuberculosis and asthma. The blood can help cure menstrual problems. The hide keeps away evil spirits. And so on.
There are several ways to do this; and if you stay there two to three days, as most tourists do, you can try them all out.
An elephant ride is the most popular way of exploring the Chitwan jungle. For about US$15, the government elephants take you around the jungle for an hour and half. There are two trips a day, one in the morning at eight and another at four in the afternoon
There are regular daily flights to Bharatpur, about 25km from the Park area, and to Meghauli (US$75). The flights take about half an hour. One can easily get rides from the airports to the Park area. If you plan to stay in one of the expensive resorts inside the Park, your flights to and from Kathmandu will probably be included in your package.
Public buses go to Tadi from Kathmandu and Pokhara for about US$2 (twice the cost for more comfortable "tourist buses"). The ride takes about seven hours from Kathmandu, six from Pokhara. From Tadi, you will either have to cover the six kilometer distance to Sauraha on an ox cart (takes two hours to cover the distance!) or in a rented jeep for US$0.50. You can also rent a bike for about US$1 a day, or walk. On the way you need to cross a river which can be waded across during offseason, but during seasons with high water, local fishermen will ferry you across in their dugout boats for a couple of cents.
There are some who take a car from Kathmandu for the trip for an outrageous roundtrip price of US$100 (plus or minus US$50, depending upon your bargaining skills!). These are generally arranged by the lodges themselves. You can ask around in Thamel in Kathmandu. Another option is to rent a taxi in Kathmandu or Pokhara for about US$75 or less for a two day roundtrip travel. Split among two or three travellers, this can be reasonable.
Package organizers in Thamel will also arrange rafting trips to Chitwan. The trip normally starts at Mugling, 110km out of Kathmandu on the Kathmandu-Pokhara-Chitwan road. The trip itself is an easy river cruise that takes two or three days. The price ranges from US$30-US$75 per day. Before you pay up, shop around, bargain, and ask a lot of questions about the details of the arrangement.
The budget hotels in Chitwan are all located just outside the northern border of Chitwan National Park, in a village called Sauraha. Sauraha, in the past few years, is quickly turning into another Thamel or Lakeside. They range between US$3-US$15 per night; reservations are not necessary. Competition is so intense among the dozens of hotels that bargaining is very common. If you take the public bus to Tadi, touts who serve as agents to one of these budget hotels will pounce on you, don't give in. Check the hotel out yourself, and play one tout against another to get the best rate.
Some of the more upscale budget hotels in Sauraha also organize three day packaged tours of the area for about US$75-US$150 from Kathmandu. The price includes all basic expenses including transportation, accomodation, meals, tours of the area, etc. You can obviously do the same for much less, but if you want to go on these tours, the main tourist areas in Kathmandu and Pokahara have booking agents. Shop around, and bargain.
If you are staying in one of the luxury hotels inside the park itself, they provide you with excellent western meals. Except for the drinks and tips, the meals are normally included in your price.
Outside the Park, for those who stay in Sauraha, there are a few decent dining places in the main market place. As Chitwan becomes more and more popular among foreign visitors, more and more establishments are opening. The restaurants here don't meet the standards of Kathmandu, or even those of Pokhara, but they are manageable for a couple of days
Royal Bardia National Park
The Royal Bardia National Park is the largest and most undisturbed wild area of the Terai. Simialar to Chitwan but drier and more remote, it encompasses 1,000 square km of riverine grassland and sal forests. Bardia has the country's second largest tiger population, plus blackbuck antelopes, a few wild elephants, Gharial crocodiles, birds and mammals, and some rare Gangetic dolphins in the Karnali River on its western border.
You can camp near the warden's office, but bring all your supplies. Significantly, nobody's done it yet. The sole accommodations are Tiger Tops Karnali Lodge and its tented camp on the bank of the Churia river.
As Bardia lies in the far-western region of Nepal, travelling till there via road from Kathmandu can be tiresome. Most people prefer to fly to Nepalgunj, which has an airfield. Round trip airfare from Kathmandu costs around US$ 198 and if you are going to Tiger Tops, you will be picked up upon your arrival and brought back for departure.