The geographical ups and downs of Nepal provide hundreds of opportunities for Nature lovers to explore them and engrave them on their memories. From the chilly mountains, the mesmerizing hills, to the tranquility of Terai, Nepal provides a complete package of tourism just from the way it represents itself on the topographical maps. Among these three options, people heavily incline on the beauty of the mountainside, but the hard terrains and the cold weather is not for everyone. Similarly, the Terai regions have their own charm, but the extreme heat during daytime and the unwanted fatigue takes away some enjoyment from the adventurers. This leaves us with the Hilly region which has a certain balance in the geographical as well as climatic conditions. As such, tourists can visit the hilly sites without having to worry about extreme cliffs or a fireball constantly grilling their backs.
While we are at the topic of Hilly destinations, why not educate ourselves on the beautiful and astonishing views of Illam today. Its 2020 and with the change of time, Illam has ripened its beauty sort of like a wine that ages finely over time. Sure, there are a lot of hills and the climate is a bit chilly, but the people of Illam have found a way to enhance this odd geographical blessing. Talking about Illam's placement in the Nepali map, it lies in the eastern development region of Province number one as per the new map regulations. The Illam district has allocated the municipality of Illam as its headquarters. Distance-wise, I would say the headquarter lies 600 kilometers away from the capital city.
In a nutshell, Illam is famous for its grand scale tea gardens that cover the hills like a green blanket. Other than that, people get attracted to the unique cultural and biological diversity. It is quite surprising that these places of Nepal have been slightly less influenced by the urbanization or industrialization side. And guess what, tourists love these contrasts. Most of the people who search for pleasure via nature, love places like Illam which has an abundance of natural beauty dripping from its nooks and corners. To educate you better on the beautiful aspects of this place, we have researched and prepared a list of the best places to visit in Illam.
Some facts on Illam
We have already discussed the location of Illam on the map of Nepal. It is one of the most popular and celebrated hill stations of our country that spreads across a total land area of 1,702 sq. kilometers. Since it is a civilization flourishing on hills, there are several ups and downs. The exact statistical deviation ranges from 3,636 meters to 140 meters. The whole Illam district shares its borders with Morang and Dhankuta in the western region, Pachthar, and Jhapa in the southern part and Darjeeling, India on the eastern side.
The nomenclature of this place has an interesting fact related to its geography. The name Illlam does not come from the Nepali language instead, it comes from an old language called Kiranti. According to the scripture of Kiranti, the initial letters "IL" in Illam means twisted and the remaining letters "LAM" means road. When brought together, it gives the meaning of a twisted road. So, why does this place has such a twisted name? Well, you can fully relate to the naming sense when you go on a ride to Illam. The roads leading to the headquarters are lengthy, twisted, and comes with hundreds of roundabouts. Other than that, Illam is also known as Charkhol which translates to the junction of four rivers in Nepali. Actually, the place lies at the meeting point of four rivers namely Jogmai, Mai, Puwamai, and Deaumai.
We have already shed some light on the scale of tea cultivation in this place. There is no doubt that tea farming is the major occupational line of the people living in this area. They cultivate and manufacture different types of tea on a yearly basis. Of course, the population of Nepal does not consume the whole harvest so; people export tea to other countries. The manufactured tea gets divided into different categories according to the quality of the leaves. From normal green tea leaves to silver tips, the prices vary accordingly. The prices of the top-notch tea might surprise even foreign visitors. But, the high price also guarantees the quality of the product.
Asides from the tea cultivation, there are some other crops that help the people to elevate their farming game rather that everyone competing on the quality of tea leaves. The place has a tropical, subtropical temperature that is favorable for the cultivation of cardamom, ginger roots, potato, and broom. Other than the wonders of large acres of farming lands, one can tour around the forests of a hill station. These jungles are the home for some exciting and rare animals and plants like black bear, red panda, thar, chimal, chaap, sal, and the lovely rhododendron.
Well, these are the geographical traits of the land. While you are at Illam, be sure to explore the cultural diversity there. The hilly region is the homeland for several old ethnic groups like Limbu, Magar, Tamang, and Rais. These are the races with dominant numbers. The rest of the communities hold other ethnicities like Newar, Sherpa, Gurung, Lepcha, Kulung, Sampang, Yakkha, and many more. The land area of Illam is divided into six rural municipalities and four urban municipalities. Among these, Illam, Deumai, Mai, and Suryodaya are the major ones. Also, the 2011 national census indicates that the total population of people residing in Illam is 290,254. This is 2020, and the numbers have definitely changed, but you can get a rough idea.
Okay, no more random description of the place. Let's get to the real deal and explore the best places to visit in Illam for both national and international tourists. Let us proceed with this process with one topic per place.
1. Antu Danda: If you are a person that loves the pure and magnificent sunrise and sunsets escaping to and fro the hill peaks, I would recommend not missing Antu Danda. "Danda" means hill in Nepali to be exact. You might need this vocabulary in the explanations to come. This tourist spot lies at the height of 2,328 meters. As you ascend higher, you can see the overall beauty of the surrounding terrains much easier. The flat plains of Terai, the terrace farming on hills that looks like a ripple pattern, forests covered with pine and conifer trees, and the endless tea gardens running from one hill to another. What else do you need to get the natural vibe?
Reaching to this destination is very easy. Once you step inside the Illam district, you can easily spot the Illam Bazaar which is the main market. From there, you just have to drive three hours to reach Antu danda. As from Pashupatinagar, the place is rather close and takes only an hour on wheels. Antu hill is not an isolated place either. Once you get there, you can stay the night in a cozy hotel or a traditional home-stay and continue your adventure after the next sunrise.
2. Mai Pokhari: what is the deal with water reserves and natural beauty? I mean every river, lake, or water dam automatically gains positive points when it comes to natural attraction. Blessed with the same kind of beauty is the next destination on the list of best places to visit in Illam. It is none other than Mai Pokhari. "Pokhari" in Nepali means pond. The Mai Pokhari is famous for an unusual reason and that is the number of corner surrounding the water source. Yes, the pond has nine corners, which is kind of interesting when we think of a typical pond dimension. The path to the pond is like a mini safari session in itself. Surrounding this natural pond is a thick jungle consisting of birch, fir, pine, and juniper trees.
As you move towards your destination, flowers like rhododendron and orchids will be there to welcome you. Since, the jungle is dense, flora and fauna has developed over the years making it a perfect natural reserve. I will not say certainly, but you might come across some rare species of animals lurking in the woods. Some of them are musk deer (Kasturi in Nepali), red panda, jackal, leopard, and porcupines. Honestly, I think it is better to observe animals in their natural habitat rather than caging them behind iron bars and forcing them to stare at visitors on a daily basis. Okay, let's not get too philosophical, shall we?
Moving on, Mai Pokhari is famous for its strange aesthetics and peaceful environment, but we cannot overlook its religious side too. Dedicated to the goddess Bhagwati, Hindu devotees consider this natural water reserve as a holy pond. To celebrate this aspect of the pond, a fair is held every year which lies somewhere between October and November according to the western calendar. And no, this festival is not only limited to Nepali residents. Hundreds of people from India and Bhutan attend the fair and get their share of enjoyment and blessings. To reach this amazing place, you can take a vehicle and drive for just 30 minutes from Illam bazaar. The distance is just 18 kilometers though. If you like, you can reach the place on foot too.
3. Sandakpur or Sandakphu: Let's take our adventure to a rather higher spot where the clouds meet the lands. Sandakpur lies at the elevation of 3,655 meters from sea level and is kind of like a bridge between Nepal and India border. Since the whole area stretches to Darjeeling, some parts of this destination elongate to the West Bengal region of India. Nonetheless, the place is a must-visit site if you are in Illam. Reaching Sandakpur requires a little bit of walking. And by little bit, I mean five hours considering an average trekker. First, you take a ride from Illam to Maimajhuwa Khorsanitar and then trek for an extra five hours to finally reach this beautiful place.
As they say, difficult roads lead to beautiful destinations, Sandakpur is totally worth spending your stamina on the hours-long walking sessions. The main attraction of this place is the sightseeing facility. You can literally gaze your eyes on the world-famous peaks like Mt. Everest, Mt. Kanchanjunga, Mt. Makalu, Mt. Kumbakarna, and Mt. Lhotse. Believe it or not, all the previously mentioned peaks are above the scale of 7000 meters with Mt. Everest is the tallest one obviously at 8,848 meters above the sea level. If you can see the sunrise or sunset rays hitting these snow-clad mountains, your fatigue will momentarily leave your body. Suddenly all your hard work will come to fruition and you will thank Mother Nature for such a spectacular view.
Another tourist attraction of this place is the bird watching experience. Since the place is at a rather higher elevation, you will get a chance to observe animals and birds that have adapted to the extreme climatic conditions. Since you will be under Nepalese territory, I would highly recommend searching for the national bird of Nepal called Danfe or the Himalayan Monal. If you are lucky, you could come across some rare animals like musk deer and red panda. Just keep your eyes and camera lenses ready for action. Photographs can be delicate memories when you look back at them in the future.
4. Kanyam and Fikkal (Phikkal Bazaar): Tea gardens are the most tourist-attracting feature of Illam and Kanyam - Fikkal are the focal points of this attraction. In fact, these two places have shrubs that have been growing for more than 140 years. So we can imagine the early cultivation scene and the rich history it holds for tea farmers. Due to its geographical and historical importance, tourists from both inside and outside the country visit this place for relaxation and sightseeing. You will most likely find other tourists clicking insane amount of pictures and even picnicking here with their loved ones.
Fikkal however, is kind of like a business spot for Illam residents. For tourists that arrive either from the Nepal side or from the Darjeeling part of India, the place acts as a meeting place. One can easily learn the basic business mechanism of the Illam residents after visiting Fikkal. Every Thursday, an event takes place where all the local farmers and vendors meet up to sell their products. In Nepali language, it is called Haat. If you are planning to stay there, maybe help the vendors by purchasing some organic vegetables. These are mostly fresh and have a higher concentration of nutritional values.
5. Siddhi Thumka: Keeping our adventure spirits on higher levels is another destination on the list of best places to visit in Illam. The name of the place is Siddhi Thumka and it lies at the altitude of 1,693 meters. Getting to this place is not that difficult and you don't have to hike till your calves fall out. From the Illam bazaar head towards a place called Ajambare Danda. This will not take much time and effort. From there, the Siddhi Thumka is just eighteen kilometers away. You can take a vehicle for convenience. The main attraction of this spot is the uncanny sunrise and sunset viewing options. Actually, you can see the mountain ranges like Mt. Everest and Mt. Kanchanjunga along with the hill ranges like the Mahabharat range and the Churia range. These huge rocky structures are beautifully arranged by nature to give you the perfect sunrise and sunset sensation.
I know, the sunrise, sunsets and mountains are getting kind of repetitive, but these are the natural gifts you cannot get enough off. But I didn't say these are the only things you receive in Siddhi Thumka. Asides from the popular destinations, there are some underrated places which are definitely worthy of your time. Take your time to explore the Khandrung cave, Fulbari, Ratopani, Namthala, Falgunanda, Pankhelung falls, and Manghim temple. I know, the names are quite unfamiliar, but the places are truly refreshing. If you observe the south-eastern side of the Siddhi Thumka, the rice paddy fields and acres of orange farming will certainly grab your attention. This colorful side of civilization is mostly overlooked. Now that you have read this article, I hope you won't miss these delicate details.
6. Gajur Mukhi: It is not every day that you come across a religious site that is located in the middle of a hill forest. Gajur Mukhi is a sacred place that overlooks its followers from a height of 500 meters. The place is one of the most popular sites on the eastern side of Nepal for its religious importance. The location is simple to find though. You just have to go near the banks of river Deumai and the temple will easily catch your eyes. This religious place has another belief tied with it which has encouraged several married couples to visit the temple. It is believed that the devotees who visit this place will get blessed with a child if they are having any fertility issues. Of course, rumors like these have no scientific reasoning to back them up, but we all have some kind of trust in the higher power. Also, people believe that the ones who have lost their capability to speak will eventually get their voices back once they pray here.
But it is kind of sad that people will only visit the place if they want something from the Gods. I hope you guys can break the jinx and just visit the place to explore its historical and religious values. It is just 40 kilometers away from the Illam Bazaar. Every year, people organize a huge fair in the month of November. The day is called Kartik Purnima and people from all over the place gather there to enjoy the festival.
7. Pathibhara Devi: Another eastern temple with a huge number of annual visitors is the Pathibhara temple. The temple is a resting place of Goddess Pathibhara according to Hindu Holy Scriptures. The actual Pathibhara temple lies elsewhere in Nepal. The main temple is located in Taplejung district and the one in Illam is kind of like a sister temple. As funny it might sound, the temple is kind of like a franchise of a really big company with its sister branch in another state to provide services to more customers. Anyways, the main temple lies at a height of 3,794 meters whereas the Illam version lies just above Sunmai. Those who have difficulty visiting the original temple due to various circumstances can visit the sister temple during their Illam visit. After all, devotion towards God is irrelevant to the geographical positioning of temples.
The Pathibhara Devi temple is located at a place called Hanspokhari. You can visit this temple while you are crossing the Illam to Mechi highway. The actual spot is a little hike of stairs to the main temple. You could pray for a comfortable and safe ride as the roads are scary.
8. Mai Beni: This tourist destination lies in the lap of Illam. So, why is the place famous? The Mai Beni is the junction where two rivers Mai Khola and Jogmai Khola meet. By the way, "Khola" means river. You can just reach the place strolling around with your camera on shorts and flip-flops. A simple evening walk or morning jog can take you to this place just 3 kilometers away from the Illam market. The two rivers that meet up in this place are considered holy according to Hindu belief system. Therefore, hundreds of worshippers accumulate here to observe and suck in the holy blessings.
Especially in a festival called Manghe Sankranti, thousands of devotees gather in this spot and take a dip in the holy waters. According to the western calendar, this festival falls in January every year. This means the weather is chilling cold and taking a dip in the natural river will literally make your bellies sink inwards. Jokes aside, cleansing your body with holy waters symbolizes washing of the sins of this lifetime and securing your path to the heavens. I guess a normal shower won't get you anywhere.
9. Todke Jharna: Finally, a place where you don't have to dip in deliberately. "Jharna" means waterfall and the Todke waterfall is the second-largest waterfall in entire Nepal. The water crushes down on the rocks from a height of 1,600 meters with the actual height of the waterfall being 85 meters. We have already discussed the Mai Khola. Well, this place lies just 40 kilometers west of Mai Khola. So, I hope you won't miss the chance to see this natural beauty. Since the elevation is so high, it almost gives the illusion of water falling down from the heavens. Thousands of tourists visit this spot to click photos in the best angle possible. If you like to watch another waterfall, ask the locals or your guide to take you to Dhappar Todke falls which lies in the Dhappar area of Mai Majhuwa.
10. Hangetham and Choyatar Jungle: Okay, here is a destination for the forest lovers and conservation activists. The Hangetham Jungle sits at an elevation of 2,710 meters on the eastern side of Illam. More precisely, the area spreads across Jamuna VDC and has majestic weather conditions to back up its beauty. Since the forest lies in high altitude, the climatic conditions changes regularly. You might end up strolling the jungle in a dense foggy condition or a clear green paradise. The place lies above Illam, so you will feast your eyes on the civilization below.
The main attraction of Hangetham and Choyatar forest are the animals that have been carrying on with their lives on this jungle for decades. Some of the important ones are leopard, that, red panda, black bear, thakthake, charibag, and rajpankhi. Also, you can find some rare bird species like the munal, kandevyakur (spiny babbler), eagle, and many others. Fun fact, spiny babbler is a species of bird that is only found in Nepal. The dense forest is filled with chiraito, katush, chap, sunakhari, rhododendron, bante, and countless other species of trees.
While you are at Hangetham, make sure you offer your prayers to the nearby Buddhist monastery. It lies somewhere in between Naya Bazaar and Thumke.
So these are some of my recommendations for the best places to visit in Illam. Of course, these are not the only options. There are some other overlooked places like Sati Devi Mandir, Narayansthan, Singha bahini, and Bhimsensthan which could help you explore more. You can easily tell from the places mentioned before that most tourist places in Illam are related to some kind of religion. Well, Nepal is famous for its religious destinations. The more you explore, the more you fall in love with the diversities and the beauty of nature. Actually, Illam can be a great startup point for some tourists that have entered our country from Indian borders. Keep exploring nature and yourselves from within.