“Chhop” I shout. Nothing. “Chh-op?” Still nothing. “Chhoooop?” I’m beginning to get a sore throat. The mahout, knee-deep in the river, looks up at me, smiles and sticks up his thumbs. I give it a final try: “Chhop!” A fraction of a second later Rani’s wrinkled grey trunk arches back towards me and squirts a huge burst of water into my face. Down river several travellers perched on pachyderms are undergoing a similar drenching to a chorus of laughter, splashes and periodic trumpets. Others are busy scrubbing away or snapping photos. Elephant bath time has begun.
This raucous scene is a regular occurrence in the Rapti River, which separates the village of Sauraha from Chitwan National Park in Nepal’s southern Terai region. Most people associate Nepal with mountains, trekking and traveller hangouts in Kathmandu, but the Terai is a complete contrast. Bordering India, the region is hot, flat and culturally distinct, with stunning national parks, elaborate Hindu temples, and one of the holiest Buddhist sites in the world.
Chitwan, around 150km – by road – southwest of Kathmandu, and the forests around it are famous for their endangered one-horned rhinos, which can be spotted on guided walks, jeep tours, canoe trips, and – most enjoyably – elephant-back rides. Prior to elephant bath time, Rani and her mahout (handler) took me through the community forests, a protected buffer zone separating the national park from the surrounding inhabited areas. The scent of the elephant masks your own, making it easier to get close to the wildlife: we got within metres of an adult female rhino and her calf, peacefully grazing as the morning sun rose above them.
Later I stop off at the Elephant Breeding Centre, a national park-run project that aims to boost the elephant population by allowing the pachyderms to mate in peace. Baby elephants are the big draw here, but there’s also a tiny museum with a helpful list of verbal commands for elephants, including “Chhop” – “Spray water”.
Chitwan is easily the most popular attraction in the Terai, but it is far from the only worthwhile sight. From here, I take a local bus east along dusty, bumpy roads – doing my best to ignore the many articles on fatal road accidents in the local newspaper – to Lumbini, birthplace of the Buddha.
Nepal’s most important archeological site, Lumbini is home to a complex of temples built by Buddhist communities from around the world in their own distinctive styles. The centrepiece, however, is the Sacred Garden and the glimmeringly-white Maya Devi temple, parts of which date back to around 300 BC. Inside – protected by bullet-proof glass – is the spot the Buddha is reputed to have been born. Although there are few ruins in Lumbini, the fluttering prayer flags, neatly-tended grounds and meditating monks made it an incredibly tranquil place to sit and think – at least until a party of local schoolchildren arrives.
Beyond Lumbini, in the remote far west of the Terai, is Bardia National Park, which feels like Chitwan 20 years ago. Relatively few travellers make it this far and apart from some atmospheric lodges built in the local “Tharu” style (think mud-and-thatch huts), there is little in the way of tourist facilities. This meant, however, that I could explore the park’s dense forests and patches of savannah in peace, spotting several rhinos and scores of crocodiles slumbering on river banks, though sadly not an elusive tiger.
My final stop is Janakpur, a small town east of Chitwan. I’m the only foreign tourist in town, but there are many Hindu pilgrims who have travelled to visit the Janaki Mandir, an eye-catching plaster-and-marble temple dating back to 1911, when it was built to mark the spot a golden statue of Sita (consort of Hindu god Rama) was reputedly discovered.
Nearby is Janakpur’s old quarter, a maze of streets crammed with mithai (sweet) shops, stalls selling colourful religious trinkets, small-scale tailors, and jewellery dealers. Much like the Terai in general, it is a place of unexpected pleasures.
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the South China Morning Post.