Nepal is justifiably famous for its Himalayan treks, but a whole other landscape awaits you south of the Pahad mountain region. The flat, hot, tropical Terai plain of southern Nepal is home to a vastly different ecosystem. A visit to Chitwan National Park yields an Asian safari experience like no other.
Chitwan National Park
Chitwan National Park is one of the best Bengal tiger habitats in the world. This UNESCO World Heritage site also features the endangered Indian rhinoceros and over 700 other species. The easiest way to get there is with a quick twenty-minute flight from Kathmandu to Bharatpur. Travellers seeking to add a safari to their Himalayan trek can also fly to Bharatpur from Pokhara. A half-hour drive from Bharatpur brings you to Sauraha, a small village on the northern bank of East Rapti River.
Along the drive, you’ll pass dozens of similar farming communities where the Tharu people live. Sauraha sits on the eastern edge of Chitwan, Nepal’s oldest national park. Most of the town’s economy is tied to the national park, with dozens of hotels and lodges
catering to visitors. Lodges exist in Sauraha to suit every budget, but the differences between them have more to do with amenities than the safari. Some lodges offer spa treatments, pools, and gourmet meals. Others have more basic offerings. Typical safari packages all follow a similar pattern, offering half and full-day tours that incorporate canoes, elephants, jeeps, and walking tours.
Sitting in a wooden howdah atop an elephant is a jarring experience, but it does offer a different perspective of the world. Elephants lumber through Chitwan largely oblivious to the crocodiles, deer, and even rhinos around them. An elephant ride offers a chance to get close to other wildlife without the noise of a car engine to startle them.
In recent years, travellers have raised concerns about the cruel treatment that elephants endure to render them docile enough for tourist purposes. Some lodges will attempt to fit four adults on one elephant, a situation that is not comfortable for humans or pachyderm. Visitors who are concerned about the humane treatment of elephants should conduct due diligence to see how their lodge treats these gentle giants. Or you can skip the elephant ride altogether. Several lodges, such as Tiger Tops, have partnered with elephant aid organisations to design more humane programmes. Other lodges, like Sapana Village Lodge, offer a chance to help care for elephants with their daily bath.
Most visitors opt for a motorised safari, riding in the back of specially configured jeeps for morning or evening animal drives. The stadium seats provide a good view in all directions. Jeeps are manned by a driver and a guide. Most tours start at the river’s edge but quickly spread out across the park, which covers more than 900 square kilometres.
Adventurers will often have the road to themselves unless a rhino comes along. The rhino population has made a comeback in recent years, so spotting these endangered mammals is easier than one might think. Adult males weigh more than 2,000kg and make your jeep seem small by comparison.
Tigers and sloth bears are more solitary and harder to find, so vehicle safaris will spend several hours moving deeper into the jungle. They will also include a visit to Chitwan’s Gharial Breeding Centre, which is trying to increase the population of this critically endangered river crocodile, characterised by its toothy narrow snout topped with a bulbous protrusion.
Brave travellers can enter Chitwan on foot. Although no one is allowed to stay in the park overnight, lodges will arrange walking treks for those who want to explore this way. Even solo travellers will have company since every walking group is required to have two guides and check in with park rangers. This is a more intimate experience, albeit at a slower pace.
A morning canoe ride along the Rapti River and its tributaries provide a chance to see boars, kingfishers, gharials, and other animals up close. Birdwatchers will be busy since over 300 bird species call Chitwan home. Your guide will remind you to stay centred in the low-riding dugout canoe and not place your hands in the water. When you see the 4-metre long Indian crocodiles drifting past, you’ll understand why. After floating downriver for 45 minutes, you can walk back to Sauraha through the jungle and see fresh tracks left by tigers.
Visitors to Chitwan should also carve out time to visit a Tharu village and meet the locals. Many lodges employ local staff and can provide an opportunity for you to enjoy a meal in a local home, shop for handicrafts, tour a village, or volunteer to help with the harvest.
Sauraha’s Tharu Culture House also offers a nightly demonstration of traditional music and dance by local performers.
There are daily flights on Buddha Air and Yeti Air from Kathmandu to Bharatpur. Most lodges and hotels will arrange airport pickup.