Beyond Darjeeling


Rufous Necked Hornbill Latpanchar West Bengal
Rufous Necked Hornbills, Latpanchar, West Bengal

When one thinks of touring West Bengal it's either Kolkata or Darjeeling. However, if you have a wild imagination and if it got the better of you, you may wander off to Sunderbans to see the tiger and one of the largest mangrove forests in the world but that's where the buck is most likely to stop. Little do people know that the northern West Bengal has stunning nature, wildlife and flora and there is more to it than just Darjeeling.


Hoary Bellied Himalayan Squirrel
Hoary Bellied Himalayan Squirrel

Recently, I went off the beaten path in north West Bengal and what I saw was definitely worth bragging about. Unfortunately, the weather was not in our favor but regardless, the locations way exceeded my expectations and I would love to visit them again. If you love nature, wildlife and are constantly searching for places that are far from mass tourism, then you should definitely visit the below on your next visit to the sweetest part of India.

Gajoldoba 

Home to the massive Teesta barrage on the Teesta river in Jalpairguri district, Gajoldoba is part of  the dooar or duar or in English the 'gateway' region. Dooar are the floodplains that are formed by the Teesta river in North West Bengal and is synonymous with the Terai region in North India. It takes an hour and half to get to Gajoldoba from Bagdogra Airport. Taxis can be booked at the airport and as of March 2019, no ride share services like Ola and Uber were operational at the airport. 


The barrage and surrounding forests are home to several species of migratory birds and you can see them up close by doing a boat ride organized by local fishermen from INR 500 to 1000 for half day tours. The boats are comfortable for two people, any more and you could be rubbing shoulders to feet. On a clear day (which we didn't get any of) you can even see the Kanchenjunga range. Best time to visit if you're interested in migratory birds is from November to March. 


Birds of Gajoldoba
Red Crested Pochards

You can stay at the West Bengal Tourism's Bhorer Alo which has brand new and very comfortable wooden cottages and is a short walk from the boat ride. Reservations can be made from their website.

Neora Valley National Park

A two and half hour up hill drive through scenic lush green spaces took us to the village of Lava in Neora Valley National Park. Lava is a 3.5 hour drive from Darjeeling. Spread over, 150 sq km, Neora Valley National Park borders Sikkim in the North and Bhutan in the East. Neora Valley's highest altitude is 3,200 meters and as such, the Park supports a wide variety of climatic conditions from tropical to sub-alpine. Because of this altitude variation, the Park is host to a variety of flora and fauna. 




Some of these are high on every wildlife and bird enthusiasts list - red panda (though very rarely seen), golden cat, clouded leopard, satyr tragopan, brown parrot bill, red headed bull finch, scarlet finch etc.


Birds of Neora Valley
Black Faced Laughing-thrushes

Lava was my base during my time in Neora Valley National Park. The Park's entrance is about a 10 KM drive from Lava and a local vehicle should be able to ferry you from the town to the Park and beyond. You could also stay in the next big town - Rishop, however the roads to Rishop are not at all great and bumpy to the most part. The stay options in this region are limited and not by any means luxury in this region. West Bengal Tourism has a tourist rest house in Lava but I am not sure about the service it provides and I was recommended to stay elsewhere. Despite our guide's recommendation we had to change motels while there and were glad to have found a much cleaner and pleasant one the second time around. In hindsight, ask your guide to provide you the hotel's photos and reviews or you can ask me too.



Hiking in Neora Valley National Park
Hiking in Neora Valley National Park

Neora Valley is not just for the bird watcher or wildlife enthusiast, you can have a pretty good time if you simply enjoy being outdoors and in nature. The forests are dense and ideal for those who like to hike. A 15 km walk through the forest from the entrance of the Park will take you to Zero Point. 


Lava Neora Valley National Park
View from Lava

Views of Nathula pass are outstanding on a clear day and what you come across in these forests might just be very rewarding even for the not so bird nerd or wildlife geek. A local guide is essential during your walks as the forests are inhabited by black bears and leopards. The guide can also arrange a vehicle and permits for the national park. 

Singhalila National Park

Our next stop was Singhalila National Park, a 5 hour drive from Lava via Darjeeling. We didn't stop in Darjeeling as it was too crowded and traffic jams rampant. Singhalila National Park is on the border with Nepal and is yet another destination that is ideal for travelers looking to re-connect with nature. The Park also offers stunning views of the Kanchenjunga range and Mt. Everest. 


Manebhanjang, entry point to Singalila National Park
Manebhanjang, entry point to Singhalila National Park

To get to Singhalila, we took a taxi from Lava to Mane bhanjang and from there we got in a 1950s four wheel drive Land Rover (left behind by the British but modified for present day travel). It is also at Mane bhanjang that you will be required to get permits for the National Park. Permits are INR 100 per person for Indians and INR 200 per person for foreigners but this may change. Camera fees is INR 250 per piece. It is advisable to get a guide and there are plenty waiting at Manebhanjyang. Guide charges range from INR 1,500 to INR 2,500 per day. These guides can arrange your stay if you're planning to trek all the way from Manebhanjang to Sandakphu (3,600 meters) or beyond to Phalut. The last leg of the trek which is from Gairibans to Sandakphu is very steep but completely worth it for the views and potential wildlife sightings. 

Kanchenjunga range from Tumling Singalila National Park
Sleeping Buddha or the Kanchenjunga Range from Tumling

Singhalila National Park is well known for it's red panda population. This critically endangered species sleeps during the day and comes out to forage on bamboo leaves and shoots early mornings and at dusk. Due to bad weather, I didn't get a chance to see a red panda but the journey from Mane bhanjang to Gairibans and further to Kala Pokhri was outstanding. We didn't make it to Sandakphu as the roads were snowed in, making it unsafe to travel by car.


Spotted Nutcracker
Spotted Nutcracker

We stayed for a night at the Gairibans trekkers hut which is very very basic in terms of living. It was rather cold when we were there but the hut manager was kind enough to serve us delicious hot food. Besides the trekkers hut there are several home stays opened by locals in the area. 


Gairibans Singhalila National Park
Trekker's Hut

I saw the condition of some of them and they didn't look very warm and clean. Further, toilets in the trekker huts are Indian style so you have got to squat one two many. Camera batteries are hard to re-charge as most of the trekker huts do not have electricity (only solar) and cell phone reception is pretty much non-existent.



From Gairibans we hiked in to the dense forests for a few kilometers looking for the red panda and satyr tragopan bird but unfortunately it started raining again and we had to head back to the hut. The forests are really dense and scattered with a variety of rhododendron trees besides other vegetation such as bamboo. If you're a night sky enthusiast, the trekkers hut is the place to stay in. Rough it out for a night or two if you can for the wilderness and bio-diversity. Staying in the trekker huts is super cheap - INR 400 per person and this excludes meals. Meals are very reasonably priced too. There is also a dormitory which has 6+ beds and a shared Indian style bathroom, but no thank you!

Tumling, Singalila National Park
The other side of Tumling

The following morning, we made our way back to Tumling which is at 2,900 meters and actually falls in Nepal. We decided to stay here for the remaining two nights. The view from Tumling of the Kanchenjunga range was outstanding and the place we stayed at was brilliant. Hot food, warm clean rooms and a common dining hall where everyone got together and shared their travel stories. 

Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary

From Singhalila we made our way to the Himalayan foothills and arrived 3 hours later in Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary. We were glad to get rid of our inners and hang out in fewer layers. We stayed in Latpanchar, a small village at 1,200 meters which offers travelers several clean and friendly homestays at reasonable prices (no luxury, just basic). From Latpanchar, Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary is about a 10 km drive. 


Sapphire Flycatcher
Sapphire Flycatcher

To make the most out of your time here, a guide and a taxi is highly recommended to take you to various places including the wildlife sanctuary. Also, there is no organized wildlife safari in a vehicle inside the sanctuary, you have to park your car at the entrance and then walk everywhere with your guide. The wildlife sanctuary also has a two bedroom forest rest house, booking of which can be done by contacting West Bengal Forest Department. You may need to get your own rations for cooking so please check with the officials at the time of booking. 


Latpanchar is a bird photographer's paradise
Latpanchar is a bird photographer's paradise

Historically, the village of Latpanchar was developed by the British who planted Cinchona trees, the bark of which is used to treat malaria and other diseases. Today, Latpanchar is completely off the tourist radar and offers travelers an alternative hilly town feel minus the traffic and crowds. It's close proximity to major land marks (Darjeeling 2.5 hours and Bagdogra Airport 2 hours) and to the most part undisturbed forests offer several wildlife spotting opportunities with the most prized being the Rufous Necked Hornbill, Sultan Tit, Himalayan Newt (amphibian seen during the monsoon) and the Malayan Giant Squirrel, besides others. 

If you are planning a trip to this part of West Bengal, please feel free to email kunal@totravelwith.com for advice and personally tried and tested recommendations.


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