One of the richest districts in Nepal in terms of cultural diversity, natural landscape, and cash crops, Ilam is still sees few tourists. As well as Brahmin and Chhetri, Limbu, Rai, Magar, Gurung, Sherpa and Lepcha are also predominant ethnic groups in this region. Famous for its tea, which was brought from Darjeeling just over the border in India, the region also grows cardamom, ginger and broom grass among other things.
Shree Antu (1,544m) has had Homestays for twenty years, but only recently they have started to become very popular with locals and Indians from just over the border. The improvements to the road up from Jhapa has reduced the travel times up from the Terai where many Nepali guests come for a weekend breath of fresh air. Keen however to also welcome foreign visitors, the community homestay were delighted to join the Community Homestay.com network.
Coming for three days, I arrived from Kathmandu early in the morning in Fikkal, a small town about 40 minutes away. Met by my guide Lakshuman, he took me on his bike up through the undulating hills, covered with tea bushes. It was December, so the tea factories were closing for the winter. This was the time when the machines are maintained and the tea bushes pruned for the spring. As well as tea gardens, the village has a little boating lake, horses to ride, a viewpoint to admire the sunrise over Kanchenchunga to the north of the village on the Indian-Nepal border that is the third highest mountain in the world.
Staying at one of the family homestays, Rudra’s wife welcomed me with a cup of local tea, before offering me a delicious dal bhat. Rudra runs a small photography business in the centre of the village, as well as acting as a coordinator for the homestays. There are 43 homes offering one to six or seven rooms (technically homestays offer up to four rooms). However such is the demand for accommodation at weekends and in high season, the villagers often have to turn away guests who then have to return down to Fikkal or beyond.
Exploring the village, there is an attractive little boating lake overlooked by a restaurant on the hillside. There are horses for those who want to go riding. Everywhere there are paths going through tea gardens – I was lazy and was happy to let Lakshuman take me on his bike through the narrow trails. Early the next morning, we went to the view point on Shree Antu Danda (2300m) that looked over the plains of India. We could see the lights of Siliguri, Mirik and Kuseong twinkling below. The sun glinted off the rivers and Kanchenchunga (8,586m) first glowing orange, then gold, could be seen dominating the skyline to the north. The third highest mountain in the world after Everest and K2, Kanchenchunga is a holy mountain and most climbers have respected the tradition not to climb to the very top.
Fascinated by tea and having visited the tea gardens in Darjeeling and Sri Lanka, I visited the two tea factories in the village and was welcomed by the managers who were happy to tell me all about the process and history of tea in Ilam. The climate and geography are very similar to Darjeeling, just over the border and tea was introduced about 60 years ago. All around, as far as the eye could see were beautiful tea gardens on the undulating slopes. I was very happy to find that although the tea factories were closed, this in fact meant I was allowed to enter. During the months of February to December when tea is being processed, visitors are not allowed inside the factories. Guided by the factory manager, I was shown the machines that rolled and twisted the tea leaves, going through the process from plant outside to tea in the cup. At Antu Valley Tea Factory, the larger of the two in the village, I was told how the farmers, who all owned their own tea gardens, were not as careful with picking the leaves and often damaged the leaves before they reached the factory. Also faced with a problem to certify the tea as organic, this meant that most tea grown in Ilam was being shipped out to Calcutta to be mixed with Indian tea, the irony being that uncertified tea was being blended with certified, higher quality Darjeeling tea.
As I had come to see the homestays, I stayed with three different families. The second night my homestay was in the main bazaar area. As it was the auspicious time for weddings, Shree Antu was busy with wedding parties. A retired policeman and his Sherpa wife had come up from Bhadrapur, close to the airport on their bike, taking just two hours. Another couple had come for a few days break from Kakavitta, the border town with India also just a couple of hours away. The final night was spent in a little Homestay surrounded by tea gardens. Everywhere I stayed, the food was excellent, home cooked dal bhat being different at each place and delicious.
Finally it was time to move on. In order to reach my destination as quickly as possible, I left early for Fikkal where I could catch a local jeep to Birtamod, a town in the Terai where the East – West Highway would take me back westwards. Calling ahead, the jeep was waiting for me in Fikkal and then arriving in Birtamod, the express bus was sitting, ready to go.
Buses leave Kathmandu for Ilam taking about 15-18 hours to reach Fikkal.
Flights to Bharatpur Airport depart Kathmandu Domestic Airport and take about 40 minutes. It is then two hours by road.
Shree Antu Community Homestay rooms can be booked from www.communityhomestay.com.
Top image: Amit/Flickr