Nepal’s tourism industry focuses on a few centrally located attractions, further afield there is far more on offer
Nepal attracts close to two million tourists each year, predominately drawn to its natural beauty and trekking potential. Yet so many repeat almost identical journey to the same well-established destinations. A few snatched days in Kathmandu and Pokhara before heading for a ‘bucket list’ trek around Everest or Annapurna. Yet, outside this central tourist belt, there is far more on offer. These regions, so many of them on Nepal’s borders with India or Tibet, have so much to offer, but have not developed, nor tapped into their tourist potential. And for the traveller, it is precisely this lack of tourists, combined with a wealth of sites of natural, historical and religious interest, that makes these ‘forgotten areas’ of Nepal so intoxicating.
In the Himalayas, besides Annapurna and in valleys across from the Solukhumbu, lie forgotten Himalayan salt trading routes. These routes upon which yaks would carry Tibetan salt down through mountain passes to the valleys below could now carry trekkers instead, but they seldom do. Himalayan Nepal is also home to a number of Beyuls, which according to Tibetan Buddhism, are hidden valleys serving as refuges where the physical world blurs intertwined with that of the spiritual. In the eighth century, Guru Padmasambhava designated 108 Beyuls, some of which remain undiscovered to this date. These hidden valleys are protected by deities taking such forms as snow leopards or snowstorms. Beyuls do not reveal themselves easily, but when found they offer a place for spiritual practise when the outside world becomes too corrupt. Today, those that are known, offer sanctity and a place for reflection far from the hordes of tourists clambering for apple pie and Wi-Fi in the Khumbu.
South of the Himalaya, in the far east of Nepal near the border with West Bengal, lies subtle tea gardens, the soft shrubbery of tea smoothing out the edges of the hills and making a glorious place to unwind. Here in Illam, apart from domestic honeymooners, it is quiet and uncrowded with tourists compared to its noisier neighbour Darjeeling.
Venturing further south still and leaving the hills behind is the Terai, which for travellers remains the most overlooked and misunderstood region of Nepal. The Terai is the backbone of the Nepali economy and home to 50% of Nepal’s population, yet its flat plains may not be what first springs to mind when one thinks of Nepal. Yet here, ruins of ancient temples and an astounding degree of cultural variations and traditions span out from the Gangetic plain to the foothills of Nepal.
Life in these flatlands is as beautiful as it is diverse. With the Siwalik Hills in the near distance, the geographic wealth of the plains is vast. Ranging from tall grasslands hiding elephants and rhinos, to rich dense sal forest, the original homes of the Tharus or the protected jungles of Bardia and its lush surrounding community forest, an abundance of wildlife have made their home in the Terai.
Nevertheless, if it is the natural beauty of the countryside that attracts tourists to the Terai, the cities and towns are its beating cultural and religious heart and should not go unvisited. From Janakpur, the old capital of ancient Mithila, which in the epic Ramayana was the birthplace of Sita, to Lumbini the original home of Siddhartha Gautama, staggering religious and cultural significance is to be found in the towns hugging the East-West Highway.
Across all 77 districts of Nepal there are rich Hindu, Buddhism and Animist traditions, temples of stunning and unique architecture and a huge mixture of ethnic populations and traditions. Be it high in the Himalayas, deep in the hills or down on the plains, there is more to Nepal than overcrowded trekking trails in the shadow of Everest or 2 day trips to Chitwan. There is a huge cultural and historical wealth to explore, you just have to look a little further and search a little deeper.
Maximillian Morch is a Researcher, Journalist and Author of newly released book, ‘By the Way of the Border: Travels around the frontiers and beyuls of Nepal’, published by Vajra Books. Available in shops across Nepal, India, Singapore, the UK and on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Way-Border-Travels-around-frontiers/dp/9937933005/ref=olp_product_details?_encoding=UTF8&me=