Beyond Nepal’s Mountains: Chitwan National Park

Say Nepal and what comes to mind for most people are the High Himalayas. Those iconic peaks of Everest and Lhotse, the Annapurna massif and Kangchenjunga, are just a couple of the more popular mountains found in the borders of this small country, which boasts seven of the 10 tallest mountains in the world.

But, when you arrive in Nepal and get your hands on some Nepali rupees, you notice that they are emblazoned with a variety of animals that are not found in the mountains: deer, crocodiles, rhinos, elephants. These animals aren’t on the money just because they are cool animals, but because they are actually found in Nepal, in the jungle-y southern border with India.

There are a couple of national parks along the southern border, but the most easily accessible and most visited is Chitwan National Park, near Sauraha, about six hours by bus from Kathmandu.

Getting There

There are two main options when it comes to getting to Chitwan: either a long bus ride or a flight on the pricier side. If you choose to fly, it’ll set you back about $90-100 US and take about 30 minutes, plus a cab ride.

A bus on the other hand, could cost you anywhere from $5-20 US, will take anywhere from five to eight hours, and there are a variety of buses to choose from, as the price range would suggest. Personally, I took Greenline Tours. The ticket was 2000 NPR (about 20 USD), included a pretty good buffet lunch at the River Side Resort and the buses had WiFi.

I felt a bit safer spending the extra money, but if I knew Nepali, I might have investigated a cheaper option. The bus drops you a little ways outside of the main town. If you made a booking ahead of time, there will likely be someone waiting for you. If you didn’t make a booking, catch a ride with one of the resort guys and tell them you want to check out their place. You aren’t obligated to stay there if you take the ride, so check it out and then shop around if you don’t want to commit.

Accomodation

There are a lot of places to stay in town, all pretty much the same and geared to a more budget conscious traveler. There are some more upscale options that are away from the town area and actually inside of the park.

The hotel staff at all of the lodging options can make arrangements for any activities that you want to do and often for a bit cheaper than what the independent guide center will quote you. Plus, they use the same people, so there’s no real benefit to trying to organize everything on your own. I stayed at Traveller’s Jungle Camp, which is pretty much right in the middle of town.

Rooms range in price from 800-1500 NPR (8-15 USD).

Food

There a quite a few restaurant options the small area that you’ll likely be staying, though your best bets are probably the Indian and Nepali restaurants. I heard raves about the curries at KC’s Restaurant and a general distaste for the continental and Western options available in town. I ate at Traveller’s for each meal, because the package I got was all-inclusive. Their thali sets were really good.

Activities

Now this is what you really came down here for, the various activities that could lead you to your chance to spot a one-horned rhino, a mugger crocodile, a wild elephant or maybe, perhaps, a Bengali tiger.

Canoeing

Wake up for an early morning canoe trip down the river. You have three options to choose from: short (about one hour), medium (about two hours) or long (about three hours).

The early morning time is one of the better times for animal viewing, it’s not too hot for most of them to move around, the nocturnal animals (i.e. tigers) may not have settled into their daytime hideaways and the birds are all coming to life. You being on the water also gives you the one of the best possible vantage points, as many animals come down to the river for a drink or a bath.

On my short canoe trip we saw lots of birds (kingfishers, ibises, storks, egrets, among others) and two mugger crocodiles.

Prices start around 1200 NPR (about 12 USD).  

Jungle Trek

Head into the jungle on foot with two guides who will take you around to a couple of the animals usual haunts.

These guys go out pretty much everyday, so they know where the animals like to hang out that you can reach easily on foot. They also carry cell phones, so if another group sees something that may be there for a bit and is close by, they will often communicate that knowledge with each other.

We were quietly, slowly making our way through the forest when our guide got a call and then took off running. He ran to a spot that another group was just leaving to find an enormous rhino, just off the road, taking a nap in the shade. We also saw a couple of deer and spotted another rhino just as it shuffled into the grass.

There are a couple of different lengths of walks in the jungle, ranging from an hour to a full day.

Jeep Safari

This was the one that I was most skeptical about, these wild animals have to be totally alert to the sounds of a car rumbling through the forest and know to steer clear of it, right? Wrong. Either they are totally used to the sounds of the cars or they just see them as another animal in the jungle and pretty much ignore them.

We stopped to watch a rhino who was about five meters away from our Jeep, just munching away on grass like there was nothing strange going on as we all clicked away on our cameras. The guides are pretty attuned to what to look for in the forest and grasslands, so we would stop pretty much right where the animals were and check them out, and the guides know how disappointing it can be to drive around for four or five hours and not see anything seemingly exciting.

All three of the rhinos we saw on the trip I was on were all in the last 45 minutes of the drive. We also saw a langur, a bunch of different kinds of deer, macaques and we stopped at the gharial crocodile breeding center (entrance 100 NPR). I was totally satisfied with my experience.

Cost is about 1000 NPR (about 10 USD).   

Elephant Breeding Center

This place is an interesting place to visit, and from an animal treatment perspective is certainly making progress.

Here you can see mama and baby elephants together; I went at feeding time. In the past, all of the elephants were chained to a post, but now they are slowly letting them off of their chains under a program that is called “Chain Free Means Pain Free.” The elephants are still kept behind electric fencing, but that’s probably more for the visitors’ benefit than containing the elephants.

Some of the female elephants that are known to be more aggressive or rebellious and all of the male elephants are still chained up when they are at the center. During the day pretty much all of them are taken out into the jungle to graze.

I spoke with a woman who works with a conservation organization that is partnered with the center who said they are making progress to getting all of the elephants off chains eventually. In fact, when I was there, she was delighted to tell us that the elephant she was watching was off chains at the center for the first time ever, which was really special to see.

For what it’s worth, all of the signs of a happy and healthy elephant that I learned about from Patara Elephant Farm (flapping ears, swinging tail, sweat around the toe nails, minimum of four clumps of dung during each poop, poop is not malodorous, dirt on both the elephants sides in the morning indicating that it slept laying down the night before) were present in all of the elephants that I saw, chained or not, so I did feel a bit better about their treatment knowing that. Also, they do spend most of the day off chains and out in the jungle. It’ll be worth watching how things progress here.

Admission is 100 NPR (1 USD).

Elephant Safari

This was the one that I went into with two assumptions, this would be the trip into the jungle that would provide the highest chances of seeing wild animals but also I had some reservations about riding the elephants after learning more about pachyderms at the Patara Elephant Farm in Thailand. But after what I saw at the Elephant Breeding Center, I did feel a little bit better about the treatment of the elephants, and while I did ride an elephant, I just felt guilty the entire time.

Four tourists are loaded onto a small platform on the elephant’s back (that is cushioned much more than I saw any such contraption cushioned in Thailand), plus the mahout rides about on the neck of the elephant. All of the mahouts I saw handled their elephants with either bull hooks or at least a stick, that they would sometimes whack on the elephant’s head if it didn’t listen to the spoken directions after a number of shouts.

This was again, early in the morning, and we saw a lot of deer, but not much else. Personally, I probably would not do this one again.

Cost is about 1000 NPR for about an hour ride.     

Elephant Bathing

This one I felt better about afterwards than I did the ride. You can go to the beach and watch some of the mahouts giving their elephant a good scrub down in the water. Then once they are clean, tourists are given the chance to sit on their back, bare back, get sprayed with water for a minute or two and then dumped in the water. It’s a nice and refreshing dip in the river, though you should shower off once you get back to your hotel. It’s very short and I think the elephants have a lot of fun spraying the water.

Cost is 100 NPR.

 

If you came to Nepal for the mountains, I guarantee that the jungle will surprise and delight you. It’s well worth the side trip, even if you only end up getting to spend one full day here.


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