Terai Tales

Text and Photo By Yi Wen Tan

I fell asleep while the micro-van was still meandering along the mountain road, and awoke to find that the mountains had disappeared and the road had become straight, flat and dusty, running alongside endless plots of farmland. Even the climate had changed, and for once I managed to feel right at home with the tropical hot and humid weather. I had left the mountains behind and arrived at Nepal’s southern flatlands.

Just south of Kathmandu lies the Terai lowlands where the Tharu people, the fourth largest ethnic group in Nepal, live alongside the wildlife community of Chitwan National Park.

My journey began at the Tiger Mountain office in Kathmandu. We were an assortment of people from tourism-related industries, traveling as guests to experience a Tiger Tops adventure in the Terai. As a journalism student from Singapore currently on an internship with ECS Nepal magazine, this was my first trip outside of Kathmandu valley. It was my first adventure into a very different part of Nepal, one that everyone has told me about since my arrival in Kathmandu during the winter.

The five-hour drive to the Tiger Tops Tharu Lodge (13 km downriver from Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge) in Chitwan National park by micro-van provided us with a scenic view of the mountains and a glimpse of the lives of the Nepalese outside of chaotic Kathmandu. We drove past villagers carrying heavy loads up and down the hills, children walking for miles on the winding mountain paths to school, people crossing treacherous rivers on rickety bridges and the famous Manakamana cable car that crosses the Trisuli River in Gorkha District.

Later, we passed through the bustling town of Narayanghat, crossed the Narayani river and rode west into Nawalparasi District. At Danda Bazar at the west end of the roadside town of Kawasoti, we turned off the east-west highway and drove down a narrow dirt road through Tharu villages. By noon we were at the Tiger Mountain Tharu Lodge, located on the edge of the park. There we were greeted by Acting Manager Dhan Bahadur Chaudary  (‘DB’ for short). DB explained that the guest rooms at the lodge were inspired by the traditional Tharu longhouse and constructed with local materials—timber, rattan, elephant grass, cow dung, mud and clay. The rooms are designed in traditional Tharu style, with small entrances and high ceilings.

Our lunch at the lodge consisted of a traditional Nepali dal-bhat (rice with lentils and vegetables). Dining outdoors by the poolside, surrounded by the sounds of the forest left me wondering how I could put up again with the polluted and chaotic city lifestyle back in Kathmandu. DB, our host, a naturalist and bird-enthusiast with 13 years of experience, soon forgot about eating and started identifying the different bird species that were making their unique calls around the lodge. I asked him about the Spiny Babbler, which was on the cover of the March issue of ECS Nepal. He told how it was only found in Nepal, then explained the differences between babblers and other “noisy” birds like parakeets and warblers.

After lunch, we went for a guided tour of some nearby Tharu villages. On the way we saw the organic farm that Tiger Mountain has built to produce their own vegetables, meat and dairy products. I already felt my body going on a major detox program after hearing about the non-chemical, natural ingredients that went into the food we had just eaten.

Tiger Mountain helps local Tharu farmers improve their lives. They hire and provide training to the locals to work in the lodge and on the organic farm, and they have initiated special programs such as the Tharu Lodge Clinic and the Tiger Tops Swissair Pre-School to provide free or inexpensive services to the poor villagers.

Our host also described a unique ‘vulture restaurant’ that was set up in 1996 to help stem the decline in the vulture population in Nepal. (Many vultures have been dying from poisoning when herbicides and other toxic chemicals get into their food chain.) Alongside ox-cart, pony rides, jungle walks, and sunset river safaris, the vulture restaurant—serving up safe meat to the big birds—has become a major attraction to bird watchers.

Back at the lodge, just before a fine continental dinner, we were treated to a traditional Tharu dance by a group of local villagers. The shy smiles and elegant steps of the dancers and the enthusiasm of the musicians soon had us up dancing to the beat of the energetic drums alongside the local dancers.

Early next morning, we set out on an eight hour drive to the Karnali Jungle Lodge Camp, located within Bardia National Park in far-western Nepal. We stopped midway for a picnic lunch and by late afternoon we were travelling deep into the forests of the national park.

If Tharu Lodge was a place to detoxify the body, Karnali Lodge is a place to soothe and rejuvenate the soul. We decided to take things easy that day, as we had travelled far. So we went for a short walk around the Karnali lodge, and stopped by the elephant shed to see how Tiger Tops elephants are cared for.

The following morning we set out by jeep that took us to the elephants for an elephant safari in the jungle. We rode two to an elephant and there were two guides, one in front and the other at the back of each elephant.

Almost immediately, I learned to respect the mighty elephant. Nothing seems to get in its way, as it cleared the tall elephant grass, bushes and even tree branches with its trunks and lumbered through the dense forest vegetation as if on a morning walk. Our guides, though, had to help us city dwellers to clear the overhanging tree branches that occasionally threatened to poke and mutilate our faces.

Our elephant soon separated from the rest of the other elephants, and our guide started to look out for the various wildlife species. We saw crocodiles when we crossed the tributaries of the Karnali River, then various deer, many species of birds, and were hot on the heels of an elusive Royal Bengal Tiger. Our guide told us that the tiger paw prints we were tracking were fresh, probably made earlier that morning. Our luck ran out, however, as we lost track of the prints. The big cat continued to elude us.

On our way to the Karnali Tented Camp, we stopped by a legendary ‘Tickle Tree’, where the leaves of this particular tree shake when its trunk is tickled by a man. A few of us tried at tickling the tree, with varying degrees of success.

Dropping our baggage at the tented camp, we headed off to raft the Karnali River. Perhaps ‘rafting’ is a misleading term for what we did, as we merely drifted along the calm Karnali in a big rubber boat. We saw various species of water birds, and local men balancing on the narrow canoes while fishing in the river. We stopped further down the river bank for a late outdoor lunch. There was even an outdoor toilet erected from local materials that blended into the forest vegetation.

After lunch, as we rode the elephant back to the tented camp, the big beast’s slow lumbering gait soon made me sleepy. Just as the sun set, we disembarked and rode a jeep back to the tented camp

Sitting on the bench overlooking the Karnali River that evening, we watched the various stars that lit up the entire night sky. For all the things that are going wrong with this world, nature often has nothing to do with it, and Orion seemed to wink in agreement.

My friends in Singapore often ask me what Nepal is like. Is there such a thing as a ‘typical’ Nepali look, or cuisine, or culture? At first, I was stumped for an answer, but after my Tharu Village and Bardia adventures with Tiger Mountain, I have a ready answer.

That trip across the southern Nepal Terai showed me that Nepal is not just about mountains, trekking and politics, and that somewhere in the lowland, at least, people and nature continue to exist in harmony.