Bound by the Indian states of Bihar, Sikkim and West Bengal, the eastern Terai is broadly a mirror image of the west. The rolling hills of the Mahabharat Range are squeezed between the dry eastern plains and the Himalaya. The Mahendra Hwy cuts east to meet the Indian border at Kakarbhitta, providing easy access to Sikkim and Darjeeling.
It was in Lumbini, around the year 563 BC, that one of history’s greatest and most revered figures, Siddhartha Gautama – better known as the Buddha – was born. It’s no great surprise to learn that the World Heritage–listed Lumbini is of huge religious significance and attracts Buddhist pilgrims from around the world.
Like the other border towns in the Terai, Janakpur’s way of life is unmistakably Indian, but there’s a lot more going on here than rickshaws and bustling bazaars. What makes Janakpur (also referred to as Janakpurdham) one of the most fascinating towns in the Terai is its electrifying religious atmosphere mixed with a rich historical and cultural heritage.
Nepalganj is a gritty border town with a hectic Indian (in particular, Uttar Pradesh) flavour. You’ll hear more Hindi spoken than Nepali. As Nepal’s second city, Nepalganj is an important transport hub with mountain flights to remote airstrips in northwestern Nepal, a busy border with India, and the closest airport to Bardia National Park.
The Siddhartha Highway
Most travellers heading from Sunauli to Pokhara follow the Mahendra Hwy to Narayangarh, then the Prithvi Hwy from Mugling to Pokhara. A more interesting route is the dramatic Siddhartha Hwy, which weaves its way north through the dramatic Tinau Gorge towards Pokhara via the scenic mountain village of Tansen.
Tansen, 119km south of Pokhara, is far enough off the radar to make it a rewarding detour for independent travellers. Perched high above the Kali Gandaki River on the road between Butwal and Pokhara, Tansen’s main attraction is both its Newari charm and distinct medieval feel.
For what is Nepal’s major industrial centre and second most-populated city (approximately 170,000 people), Biratnagar is surprisingly low-key. Sure, you’ll have to dodge a rickshaw here or there in the town’s centre, but it’s neither as polluted nor swarming with bustling activity as you might expect.
Sunauli & Bhairawa
Sunauli is the most popular tourist border crossing between Nepal and India, seeing scores of people on the way south to Varanasi or Delhi, or northwards to Lumbini, Pokhara and Kathmandu. Most people refer to both sides of the border as Sunauli, though officially the Nepali border town is called Belahiya.
Kakarbhitta (Kakarvitta) is the easternmost crossing between India and Nepal, and is just a few hours’ drive from Siliguri and Darjeeling in West Bengal and Gangtok in Sikkim. Like Nepal’s other border towns, Kakarbhitta is hot, dusty and stressful, and there isn’t any great reason to linger here other than to break up your journey.
Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve
The smallest of the Terai’s national parks, Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve is a birdwatcher’s paradise. Consisting of 175 sq km of wet and grassland habitat, Koshi Tappu (translating to ‘river islands’) is home to at least 493 species of birds, as well as being the last habitat of the endangered arna (long, pointy-horned wild water buffalo).
Like its neighbour Darjeeling across the border, Ilam (pronounced ‘ee-lam’) is synonymous with one thing – tea. The two share an almost identical climate and topography and, while Darjeeling is a household name, Ilam quietly sets about its business in making a name for itself internationally through its quality tea.