Over the past few months, the timeline of stories is disjointed because of the nature of my internet access and the number of power outages in Nepal, which limited my ability to do anything except for my online work. But it’s been an incredible four months backpacking through South Asia. I started in Mumbai in February, then backpacked north through India with my cousin, spending two months taking in all of the highs and lows. There was the beautiful and festive Holi Festival of Colors in Jaipur, the Taj Mahal, and even rafting in Rishikesh.
After India, I welcomed the slower pace of my travels in Nepal. I spent a month teaching English to monks in the Kathmandu Valley, which was an absolute highlight of my round the world trip so far. We joined other volunteers on a trip to see endangered one-horned rhinos in Chitwan National Park, and then returned to the monastery for a final week. My cousin and I said our goodbyes to our monasteries, we gave Amrit a huge hug, and then took a bus straight to Pokhara. With just a few weeks left before leaving this region of the world, it was time to see the Himalayas. My cousin and I decided to do the Poon Hill trek through the Annapurna region. Straight from the hike, I headed to Begnas Lake and started a very serious and intense meditation course. It’s a painstaking mind-purification process known as Vipassana meditation, and it requires 10 days of intense meditation and a vow of silence.
My time in Nepal is among the most profound these past weeks. I slowed my travel pace significantly, choosing to sink into the travel experience rather than rack up a number of tourist sights and activities. I learned more than I could have possibly imparted by teaching a the monastery. The boys were welcoming, inquisitive, and fun. Each morning they would echo a chorus of “Good Morning, Miss” when I walked through the monastery gates. I will never forget my brief time working with them. Now though I will have to suffice myself with the sweet memories and the hope of returning in the future.
I had visa woes when I left Nepal. The whole of my problem centered on the fact that must attain an Indian Transit Visa if your luggage is not checked straight through to your final destination. The Indian Embassy in Cambodia screwed up my 6-month visa, and I my flight left three days after it expired. Since my flight would switch airlines in Delhi airport, I needed an Indian Transit Visa before I left Kathmandu. This cost me a $75, including the bribe money I paid to expedite the process. It was a debacle and until the day before my flight to Europe, I wasn’t even sure if I would be allowed on the flight. Whew, I was happy when it all worked out.
As I scurried around Kathmandu attempting to bribing my way out of my visa situation, the political situation deteriorated. The Maoist protests and marches shut down the streets and highways around Nepal in a bid for power because the Prime Minister stepped down. It caused chaos for so many, and I was both thankful and lucky that my flight and plans were not interrupted.
My conclusions on Nepal are wholly positive. The volunteering opportunity made me feel such a part of this country, and learning a lot of Nepali also changed my ability to bond and enjoy the people and culture. The people make this place. Beyond physical beauty, it’s about the people. The nature and welcome of the locals is what makes the difference — for this reason Nepal will always stand out as a wonderful travel experience. The Nepali people are earnest and friendly. And my rudimentary conversation skills earned the kudos and friendship of so many amazing people who I now call friends.
One anecdote sums up why Nepal is so special. My cousin and I were leaving Nepal en route to Italy (via India, which caused the transit issue). At the airport we had such a fun encounter with the Nepali immigration officials — and that’s not a group most known for their humor! More often than not, I encounter steely-faced, humorless immigration officers — it seems to be almost an international behavior code. Except in Nepal, because that code didn’t hold up against the natural joy and fun the people bring to daily life.
As my cousin and I moseyed through the line, the line was short and so one the immigration officers started chatting with us, wondering why we had visited for a full two months when most tourists come for just a couple weeks! In response, my cousin and I conjured up our best Nepali to inform him that we were volunteers. And if our display of conversational Nepali were not enough, fast forward ten seconds to the moment that my cousin and I are standing across the counter from the customs officer serenading him with our off-key and mildly mispronounced Nepali songs that we had learned along the weeks. From Nepali Ho to Resham Firiri, both beloved and patriotic songs, it was surely a sight.
He was shocked silent by our ability to sing in Nepali. He recovered quickly, however, and began to sway and sing along. Moments later, several other immigration officers abandoned their posts, circled around us, and joined in for the ending chorus of the patriotic Nepali Ho, which I had learned during Nepali New Year festivities in my small village. The moment was spontaneous and unexpected, and also completely in line with the welcome that I felt in every corner of Nepal.
With that moment buoying our spirits, my cousin and I caught a short flight into the oppressing heat of Delhi. Delhi was in a heat wave just before Monsoon season would roll across the land, and it was a dense, choking heat that my cousin struggled through (she’s from the Pacific Northwest and not accustomed to hot and humid like me, a born-and-raised Floridian). I hadn’t realized that Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport had no luggage storage, so it compounded the heat to carry our backpacks for the day-long layover.
With a full day before our flight, we hoisted our packs ventured into Delhi in search of Fabindia, our favorite shop that we found while shopping in Ahmedabad. We sweltered in the heat for an hour as our driver attempted to find our chosen mall, but instead we hopped out at a small grouping of restaurants and sought relief from the still, dense heat with a cool drink. Given the chance to do it over, I wouldn’t have left the airport area. It was a never-ending travel day, but the upside was knowing I would soon see one of my closest friends once we touched down in Italy.
After twenty hours in Delhi, we entered the international terminal of the airport and I felt a wave of giddy anticipation wash over me. I have loved so much about my five months in this region of the world — there is a lot to love about Asia, specifically, and developing countries, generally — but it’s also more work to travel in these countries. With large language and cultural barriers, even simple tasks become monumental. And there’s the food, I miss Western food. And my friends. It’s time to move on. Although it’s a sad goodbye to Nepal, I look forward to giving my friend Jenn a huge welcoming hug while we hunt down an ice-cold gelato.
Royal Chitwan National Park is a crowning jewel of Nepal, and it’s also one of the country’s most successful conservation projects. It’s a notable place not only in Nepal, but on the world stage, too—Chitwan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and therefore under international protection. During my month of volunteering, I had only heard good things about Chitwan from the young monks; I was eager to explore all Chitwan could offer a self-proclaimed responsible tourist like myself.
My friends and I had taken a boat through the National Park while scouting tigers in the wild, we ate delicious food, and we rounded out our weekend in Chitwan with a ride through a local Tharu village. Piling into the back of a jeep, we observed village life while the wind sent sticky heat across our skin. In addition to seeing the Terai villages, our end goal was Chitwan’s Elephant Breeding Center, where I planned to learn more about Chitwan’s elephant tourism industry, with a real hope that I could uncover how it differed from that of Thailand’s circus-like, deeply abusive, and state-sponsored elephant tourism industry.
Chitwan’s Elephant Breeding Center
Elephants in Asia are a sticky subject fraught with hard questions. Is riding ethical or can they be tamed humanely? And what role do breeding centers play in the equation? In conservation, many breeding centers effectively revive endangered populations. But the elephant population in Chitwan is not endangered, and it’s growing on its own through the park’s successful anti-poaching measures. Instead, the Breeding Center breeds elephants for use in the National Park—both for tourism and for anti-poaching patrols. That begs the question: Are those motives enough to rationalize an elephant breeding program given there are still no proven humane ways to break an elephant?
Even before arriving, I had reservations about the purpose of the breeding center—I knew I needed more information before I would fully understand the ethics of riding elephants in Nepal.
Consider that as of summer 2019, by establishing a new breeding center in Cambodia (and banning elephant rides at Angkor Wat), many conservationists hope to stop the ongoing poaching of the last of Cambodia’s wild elephants—because locals do use them for logging and work, and without a viable path toward using elephants, outright banning elephant tourism in the country would cause far worse side effects … for now. So although the dream would be just the responsible elephant experiences in Cambodia were left, the breeding center there is a larger step than any other Southeast Asian nation has yet take.
So what does Cambodia have to do with Chitwan? Well, like Cambodia, the elephants are currently playing a vital role in the maintenance of the park. That’s not enough of a rationale for many, but if you believe that the answer about breeding elephants at Chitwan is black and white, then you are missing all the shades of grey that make up the reality of this world. Eliminating elephant use in regions where humans depend on it is a wicked problem, and it’s prevalent across many countries in Asia. Don’t know what’s meant by a wicked problem? The short of it is that this a complex problem without a single solution. It’s easy to say no riding elephants ever (and that’s my stance in every other country in the world), but if that elimination wipes out the last remaining bengal tigers in the world? Or means the extinction of the one-horned rhino. This is not a thought experiment; that’s what’s at stake at Chitwan National Park.
So, let’s get back to the breeding center.
The Breeding Center in 2009
As part of my packaged tour, our guide shepherded us along to learn more and to see the newest elephants. The prize animals at the breeding center were twin baby elephants, just three months old. It seems like it’s cute, but not a big deal. According to our guide, however, these twins are the only surviving elephant twins in the park’s history. And they are just the third set to be born here, period. Twin elephants are extremely rare all over the world and have dismal survival rates. Considering the extremely long gestation time for elephants (22 months!), the momma elephant who carries the twins has a long road to travel before birth.
When we arrived, the twin elephants lopped along at a goofy pace as they followed their momma back to the breeding center—they had left with the mahouts in search of breakfast. And while I wanted to celebrate the birth of these adorable elephants, it was hard to see the mother elephant march back into the compound bound in chains. I wondered when those cute twins “need” chaining.
A few minutes later, we met another set of elephants, both about two-and-a-half years old and both were feisty! They trotted over to our group as soon as we walked into the compound. These two guys were frisky and playful. And they knew precisely what they wanted—any and all food hiding in our bags. One of them even walked straight up to me with his trunk extended and tried to taste my camera! I assured him that the crackers in the other hand were tastier, and he then pushed and nudged me until I had surrendered every single piece of my food I had hidden in pockets for them.
The Breeding Center Today
Back in 2009, the number of chained elephants saddened me deeply and I wasn’t sure how the breeding center played into Chitwan’s larger conservation goals. Today, the breeding center is one of the handful of remaining places in Chitwan that still chains elephants—this practice is really changing elsewhere in the area and has seen a perspective shift among some private tour operators and private elephant owners.
In the years since my visit, a large percentage of private tour operators around Chitwan have worked with elephant advocacy groups to make changes to how they breed and break elephants. As of 2017, many captive elephants at places outside the breeding center were allowed to roam unchained and in packs, as they do in the wild—bull elephants are still chained for protection of people and other elephants, but the life of captive elephants has seen years of continual improvement.
Inside the breeding center, life hasn’t changed much, according to reports from A Little Adrift Readers. Elephants are still chained at the center, and the official Chitwan breeding center has resisted some of the more sweeping changes other elephant camps are implementing to counter the extreme cruelty done to elephants in captivity used for tourism and work.
Outside of the breeding center, however, there is a changing tide of opinion. Local tour operators are truly willing to find creative solutions to how they can balance their twin goals of a humane life for the animals while still using tourism to further conservation. The Chitwan breeding center is a skip for ethical tourists as of 2019 because of it’s cruel practices—I recommend using lodges and safari companies embracing the new styles of elephant tourism and conservation. The Nepalese government has been slow to embrace the changes, but the seeds of ethical tourism are firmly planting in non-governmental facilities at Chitwan, and you can have positive, ethical elephant interactions.
Should You Ride an Elephant at Chitwan National Park?
The short answer is no, you should not ride an elephant as it has taken unspeakable cruelty for that animal to be broken to the point that it will accept human riders.
The long answer, however, is maybe. As the final activity during our tour of Chitwan, our guide announced that tours end with an elephant ride through the jungle to spot wildlife. After all of my effort in Laos to not exploit the elephants, the jungle ride defeated the purpose. Even more tricky than breeding elephants, riding them is met with a lot of opinions. In Thailand, it’s a clear no-no and not a responsible tourism practice; in short, you shouldn’t ride an elephant when traveling there.
In Nepal, however, I tend to float in the other direction, as do several prominent responsible tourism websites. In Chitwan National Park, the elephants are primarily used to allow tourists to see endangered one-horned rhinos.
Additionally, park rangers use elephants to penetrate deep into the forest where they could never go by car, and where it would be dangerous to enter on foot. These anti-poaching elephants roam free from chains in separate quarters from the elephants used for tourism, and these types of elephant rides successfully protect the world’s remaining Royal Bengal tigers, vultures, and other critically endangered animals. For several years in a row, there wasn’t a single rhino poached. That changed in 2017, but the fact is that the elephant anti-poaching measures work. Chitwan has the lion’s share of Nepal’s more than 600+ one-horned rhino (at one time, there were fewer than 200 in the world). No system is perfect, but rhino and tiger populations are increasing in Nepal, and that’s a conservation win for the entire world. This is where the wicked part of the problem emerges, because Nepal uses elephants for both tourism (a no no) and for important conservation work (ethically ambiguous).
Effects of Riding an Elephant at Chitwan
Chitwan National Park uses elephants for two parts of its tourism industry: elephant safaris to see a one-horned rhino, and elephant baths. As of 2019, both of these activities are still offered, but there have been positive changes for government and private owned elephants.
Elephants perform a maximum of two safaris per day, down from five. Mahouts report the animals no longer have sores on their backs and are generally happier. (A reader reports that there has been a backslide here, and that they are back up to five, which is disheartening).
Metal hooks and prods are now banned and are no longer used in most aspects of the elephant-handling process. These are banned, that is a fact, but you may see them in use—avoid supporting that behavior.
Some private companies offer elephant walk-alongs rather than elephant rides—check that the one you use is not just doing the elephant walks in between the elephant’s duties with safari rides.
Private companies have decreased the use of chains, instead allowing all but aggressive bull elephants to wander more freely.
With the help and influence of conservation groups and activists, private groups are looking for new ways to train elephants. Two elephants have been raised so far using rewards-based training (instead of breaking the elephant through fear and beatings)—it’s been rocky but private lodges at Chitwan National Park are among of the few places on earth testing more harmonious ways elephants and humans can work together ethically.
Tiger Tops is the only place truly endorsable as an ethical option in the park—give them your money if you hope to support an industry in Chitwan that does not rely on elephant rides.
So again, should you ride an elephant? No. But should we ban or boycott elephant use at Chitwan for both tourism and anti-poaching efforts? Also no. There is a clear right answer we need to get to: not cruelly breaking an elephant’s will so it submits to a lifetime of captivity. But like in Cambodia, progress is slower than we might like, but it’s progress all the same. Chitwan is headed in that direction, and it’s happening a lot sooner than countries facing similar choices in Southeast Asia.
Where we’re at right now might be the best we could hope for at this moment in time in the conservation/ethical debate about elephants in Nepal. It’s seeing more progress most other countries on this front, and travelers demanding new forms of elephant tourism are moving the needle on how business offer these types of tours.
So what’s a traveler to do? Chitwan National Park offers options for tourists who want to use their tourism dollars to support businesses committed to implementing ethical, responsible tourism practices even when it’s more expensive and it bucks trends. Tourists can now vote with their dollars and help effect change that way. I understand some people boycott Chitwan altogether, but I believe tourism effects the most change when it’s used to funnel money into projects and people committed to enacting positive new policies in the world. Use your money to encourage more local providers to treat their elephants humanely, to offer ethical interactions that bring in tourism dollars without compromising the welfare of the animals in question.
My sticky situation here is that elephants shuttle tourists to the rhinos, which provides invaluable funding for anti-poaching measures. I believe this is a rare instance where a responsible tourism industry can include a ride on an elephant as a means of supporting responsible tourism—for now. It does not mean I think you should ride one—if you’re reading this then you’re ready to make the ethical choice to put your money in the right hands when you visit. And you should visit, because Chitwan needs money and support to continue its important conservation work—work that is conserving critically endangered animals in the national park. Work that employs very poor mahouts who have no other livelihoods.
There are few alternatives to raise the profile of the one-horned Indian rhino. These rhinos are extremely dangerous on foot, and the elephant ride is one of the few ways tourists can view the rhino without risking dismemberment. And I am not exaggerating. One of the Chitwan guides had returned home from the hospital the day I visited because of a wild rhino attack. For our journey, a rhino we spotted was unperturbed by the three elephants circling him in the large, grassy area. He munched the grass for several minutes, and then he stood perfectly still, almost like he was posing for a mini photo-shoot for us (he was more tolerant than the Indian cow debacle!)
Should You Participate in Bathing Elephants?
In addition to the elephant safaris, elephants participate in a bathing ritual twice a day. Back in 2009, mahouts used metal prods on the elephants, but today that practice is banned. Instead, it’s an activity that you have to decide for yourself where you stand. Perhaps you skip the elephant safari, where the saddles are problematic and painful for elephants, but believe this is a lower-key option. Even the most highly touted elephant sanctuaries in Thailand allow some form of elephant bathing (and other highly-touted ones even ban that), so consider if it’s a halfway point in the ethical debate for you—a way to see these majestic creatures in a more natural way.
Final Impressions: Chitwan National Park
It was a lovely trip and one that I highly recommend to travelers visiting Nepal. We had no major issues throughout our visit. In fact, the whole trip was documented well by one of the doctors volunteering in a community near our village of Pharping. Lip, a Malaysian doctor, was such a fun addition to our ragtag group. He took a picture of absolutely everything he encountered, meaning we were all happy to look back and remember certain moments, and add to it that he had just completed his own Vipassana Meditation course, and he was a veritable chatterbox. Fellow travelers Jess and Regina also joined our group of Pharping volunteers. Jess was spunky and fun; she had just received her certification in the US and was a newly minted doctor. Regina is Portuguese and also a doctor volunteer in the medical clinic in Chapagaon.
After my months on the road, it was fun and a relief to travel with three doctors! My cousin and I had a bevy of questions for them, naming symptoms and questions from our illnesses endured these past months on the road. Despite being sure we had issues, our doctor-friends cleared our symptoms and told us to wait it out until we rejoined the developed world in just a few weeks.
Side Note: This Conde Nast Traveler article is thoughtful read for those more deeply interested in the true challenges elephant tourism presents. The article describes some of the cultural implications of elephant-human interactions in Asia (Cliffs Notes: It’s been happening since before Christianity so it’s a bit much for Westerners to dictate it must end in one fell swoop.), and details the work of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and Asian Captive Elephant Working Group to create a more sustainable link between elephants and tourism.
Quick Tips: Visiting Chitwan National Park
Staying Healthy at Chitwan
As far as health concerns went throughout Chitwan, all seven of us took anti-malarial medicine because of the parks tropical climate and proximity to India. Until this point, I had opted against malaria medication, even though it was recommended for all of Southeast Asia and India. Because it was dry season in SEA, I took a calculated risk. Instead, I used strong DEET repellant and wore long pants in the evenings. And while that worked well, I figured only an idiot would refuse to take anti-malaria medication while all the doctors in the group were doing it. I already had a three-month supply from the U.S. travel clinic I visited just before my trip, so that was plenty for my cousin and I to take recommended dose of Doxycycline every day (and for four weeks afterwards).
We also all had travel insurance that would cover us if we needed immediate transport from the very remote National Park back to Kathmandu for medical treatment—this is important since there’s a lot that can go wrong in the jungle.
Exploring Chitwan was amazing. I highly recommend that fellow travelers build this into any trip to Nepal. It’s a gorgeous region of the country making important strides in conservation and environmental preservation.
What to Pack
Chitwan is a wet, humid, and forested area. It’s also blazing hot and there may be power outages at night, when nary a fan or breeze moves the stagnant heat. Pack clothes for hot, sunny days during, and pack lightweight clothes that cover your limbs in the evenings to prevent mosquito bites. And absolutely pack DEET repellant, quality sunscreen, and a hat. A full travel packing list is here. And don’t forget your Nepal travel adapter so you can charge all of your electronics.
Where to Stay
Most travelers stay in Sauraha. If you want to put your money where your ethics are, head to Tiger Tops Elephant Camp—a private elephant camp leading the way with the most humane and ethical elephant practices. I also recommend Eden Jungle Resort and Lodge; it was lovely and remains highly rated by other travelers in the years since my visit. If you’re feeling more spendy, then Landmark Forest Park Hotel is a great choice.
Throughout this piece I linked to other resources and points of view on the questions ethically supporting elephant tourism in Nepal. The best ones for those in search of additional reading include this one, this one, and this one. And it’s always good to refresh yourself on the best practices of responsible tourists.
The best guidebook. Use the Nepal Lonely Planet to organize your wanders; it’s the one I used during my months there, and it proved useful!
Nepal Travel Guide
A guide to everything I learned while backpacking Nepal. From Kathmandu to Pokhara—and a lot in between—here’s where to go, my favorite places, and everything you should know before you go.
When I first booked my trip to spend three days at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Royal Chitwan National Park, I had visions of trekking through the jungles to spy on tigers and dodge wild rhinos.
Turns out, the adventuring at Chitwan doesn’t go quite that far.
I did see one of the rare one-horned rhinos, and I learned that it wasn’t the tigers and snakes to fear, but rather the park’s wild elephants. Tamed elephants appear docile at times, but our guide informed us that a wild elephant might charge you and attempt to rip your limbs apart by a particularly gruesome process of stepping on you with one giant foot, and then grabbing an arm with its trunk to then wrench your body apart.
And I learned this in my first minutes in the park!
Our guide had such a way with words when he delivered his welcome speech to our group, as we sipped tea in the dining room and learned the outline of our three day tour. My time these past weeks traveling in Nepal were wonderful, and that includes meeting the other volunteers in the nearby communities. Our group, which included medical volunteers at the local clinics and hospitals, decided to book an eco-friendly tour to Chitwan together. By traveling in a pack, we solidified our friendship, but we were also able to negotiate a steep discount on the transit and guide required to visit and explore. Tourism is big business in all of Nepal, and Chitwan is no exception. We arranged a full tour, including bus transport from Kathmandu to Sauraha, free pickup from the bus station outside of Sauraha, and transport all the way to our resort. It was handy, although it’s a cinch to do independently as well (details at the bottom).
As I’ve mentioned, there are four teaching volunteers at the monasteries near Pharping, including me and my cousin. Then we met the doctor volunteers from Chapagaon when our mutual volunteer placement company (and what a debacle it proved to be!) brought the doctors into Pharping to see the monasteries and prayer rituals. The seven of us trooped south to Chitwan for a weekend of elephant safaris, jungle walks, a canoe trip, and tours through the small indigenous villages of Southern Nepal.
Chitwan’s Wildlife & Conservation Successes
Like visiting any national park, there is great potential for wildlife sightings, but no guarantees. And in the region, Chitwan is actually the best place and chance of spotting any of the most rare and interesting animals. But animals don’t much love tourists, so it takes an act of god to see one of the endangered bengal tigers living in the park.
I have a small obsession dating back to childhood with tigers, and I would love to see this majestic animal in the wild. But even more than that, I would love to see it thrive and population numbers rebound, so I wasn’t going to bemoan the animal’s survival instinct, which keeps it far from tourist paths.
That said, it’s possible—rare but possible—to sight them on the daylong jeep safaris. And some travelers report more chances for a tiger spotting at Bardia National Park, instead. But also, tiger sightings can occur, and at increasing frequency in Nepal now that numbers are rebounding, so I was cautious about seeing them, too since I was on a walking safari!
But even without the tiger spotting, the other animals are beautiful and it’s a region of Nepal offering unique activities quite unlike sightseeing in Kathmandu or the Valley, and entirely unlike the Pokhara area, too. Nepal is leading the region in conservation and in the last decade—strong anti-poaching measures have seen the populations of the tigers swell to more than 120, and the endangered one-horned rhino numbers well over 600 across the entire country. Add to that unique flora and fauna, beautiful birds, a smattering of leopards and sloth bears, and a resident population of elephants, and it’s a no-brainer to visit on any trip to Nepal. It’s hands-down the best safari experience outside of of driving around the Serengeti.
Where to Stay Near Chitwan
We had organized everything ahead of time, and as such we stayed at Eden Jungle Resort and Lodge in Sauraha, which home to all of the budget and backpacker lodging. It would have been lovely to stay at one of the more remote luxury lodges since they have deeper access to the national park and far less commercial development. With a bit of budget, I would have hands-down stayed at Landmark Forest Park Hotel, which is just outside of the backpacker area. I would have also opted for a jeep safari instead of the walking safari.
But for a backpacker budget, Eden was perfect as a spot that covered food, board, and a guide. The lovely staff fed us delicious food and the resort organized the entire weekend flawlessly. Our group had a personal guide who showed up each morning during breakfast and then traveled with us through the National Park and among the different activities. We had booked three days of sightseeing, with travel days on either side to and from Nepal. You really need at least two days to truly enjoy the nature and beauty and culture.
Exploring the Local Culture
Our arrival day in Chitwan, that afternoon we needed a low-key activity and our guide rounded us up and took us on a walk through a Tharu village. The Tharu people are an ethnic group in south-western Nepal who are native to the Terai region, which is a plain region that encompasses Chitwan, as well as other areas. Once the Park received UNESCO status and government protection and conservation, the villagers formed settlements along the border. Across decades now, the Tharu have maintained these villages and live in a remarkably similar traditional manner to their previous generations—a feat for any culture with the number of tourists that visit the park.
Many cultural anthropologist attribute the strong ties to tradition culture to the fact that Tharu never followed the larger trends in Nepal to seek work overseas. Tharu stay within their communities, rarely even venturing into other Nepali communities. Through these isolationist tendencies, they have a strong tie to the land and the customs of the ancestors. The houses of the Tharu people seemingly emerge from the ground like the stalk of a strong and abundant plat. The homes have clay walls and thatched roofs, both features that allow the homes to stay cool in the dense summer humidity.
Wildlife Safari in the National Park
We started out our first morning in Chitwan with a canoe ride and jungle walk. One of the women with us, Jess, was particularly freaked out by the prospect of a jungle walk after our guide’s pep-talk about the danger of wild elephants and rhinos, but she decided to stick out her fear and join the activities anyway. To skip the jungle walk, she would have missed the leisurely early morning canoe ride down the Rapti River, which was truly beautiful. We all boarded a wooden dugout canoe and floated along the riverbank, peering into the jungle. Then we disembarked and walked back toward town through the jungle, looking for wild animals.
Over the years, I go back and forth about bird-watching safaris. If there aren’t many birds, then my eagerness for bird spotting wears thin. On the canoe trip, there is an element of bird-watching, but it’s in such a serene and peaceful setting that it’s always engaging. Since you leave in the early morning, many animals are active and villagers are on the river, too.
And as you look into the forest, there are opportunities to spot wild elephants and rhinos. During our ride, we spotted a number of beautiful species of kingfisher birds coasting across the water, egrets waded through the shallows. We also passed by groups of local children clowning around in the river, they were entirely unconcerned with our canoe full of tourists.
Our jungle walk was peaceful and uneventful. We spotted on rhino resting among the trees. The guides do make a dramatic adventure, however. Our perhaps he truly did hear things in the jungle. It was hard to determine. But he picked up a big stick for protection and indicated that the seven of us should tighten our single-file line on the narrow paths. Either way, our guide made us acutely aware that we were in the jungle, a place a bit more dangerous strolling through New York’s Central Park. Although we didn’t spot the big game animals on the walk, we did spot fresh footprints from a leopard, several deer, and a few other animals that could probably have killed me if they ever happened upon the seven of us gently tiptoeing through the jungle.
Bathing the Elephants
Among the highlights at Chitwan National Park is the chance to play with the elephants. After our jungle walk, we stopped near a cafe for drinks and a sunset on the river. Nearby, a group of elephants took their daily baths in the river, and tourists are allowed to join the mahouts, the elephant trainer. The mahout would command the elephant to tip us at various points, and to generally play around a bit in the water. After the frolicking session, we then moved into the shallow water to rub our elephant, ours was named Lakshmi. They have thick, coarse skin filled with wiry hair, and the elephants enjoy being cleaned.
It was a fun to interact with the elephants on this level, without some of the whiffs of exploitation that come with riding elephants in parts of Southeast Asia. Interacting with the elephants at all is a sticky subject and one that has few hard and fast lines. While some groups claim that elephants should never be ridden or used for tourist purposes, in Nepal, I tend to see that the National Park’s conservation efforts hinge on tourism. This tourism draw in the name of conservation isn’t present during the canned tourist experiences in Thailand. It’s complicated, but I discuss the elephant issue here, as well as the National Park’s Elephant Breeding Center that you’ll visit on many tours of the area.
Suffice to say, I write about sustainable and responsible tourism, and in my estimation there is a case to be made that elephants at Chitwan serve a needed larger conservation goal for critically endangered animals living in the park. I understand those who draw a hard line that you can never ethically blend elephants with tourism, but I simply came to a different conclusion and I don’t see the issue as black and white.
A Glimpse of Tharu Culture
Having toured the villages the day before, on our second day at the National Park our guide arranged for us to watch a traditional Tharu dance performed by a large group of the middle and high-school children from the community. The dancers were all male, and the Tharu young’uns spent thirty minutes shaking every limb of their bodies while dancing to beating the rhythm on their clacking sticks.
Although I was an Irish dancer for years, I recognize that I could not sustain that level of movement and dance. The dancers had skill and charisma that kept us captivated throughout the performance.
By the end of the second day, we had spotted leopard tracks, bathed elephants, spent hours peacefully spotting animals from the river, and even sipped beers as the sun set. It was a lovely way to spend the day. The next day we would set out early to visit the Elephant Breeding Center, which plays a large role in supporting the funding and tourism industry that keeps Chitwan National Park afloat.
Should You Visit Chitwan National Park?
Tourism is the main industry supporting the park’s conservation; it’s quite literally the way that Nepal funds the rangers who protect the park from poachers. In that way, tourism is the best way to keep the conservation happening. That said, the two- or three-day packaged tours sold from Kathmandu are canned tourist experiences. You will run through a set of activities everyone does, from a jungle walk, an elephant experience, a cultural show, etc.
Do I think you should do it? Really depends on what you are looking for in the experience. It’s well organized and tourism is big business, so you’ll do the things they promised. Because tourism is big business, the likelihood that you will see tigers (which roam at night and shy from touristy areas of the park) is very, very low. You have a great chance of seeing the rhino, and you will learn about an indigenous culture, the Tharu, who are only located in this region of Nepal. You also can easily do add this stop into a route around the country that includes the park, ie. Kathmandu > Chitwan > Pokhara.
Think about your own expectations and what you want out of your travels. You will not be remotely hiking through a wild jungle, you will be learning about conservation and the park’s breeding programs, with fun activities thrown in there, too. If you are looking for wild and remote, save those expectations for your trek of the Annapurna circuit.
Chitwan is in a remote area of Nepal, you need travel insurance that will cover you if you need immediate transport from the National Park back to Kathmandu for medical treatment—this is important since there’s a lot that can go wrong in the jungle.
Sauraha is the town outside of Chitwan and it is from here that the vast majority of tours are run. This is where the guesthouses and resorts are too. Nicer resorts are on the outskirts of Sauraha, but all of the budget and backpacker accommodation is in this town. To get to Sauraha, buses run directly from Kathmandu and Pokhara and each take between 4-6 hours in general. Buses are prompt, so arrive with time to spare in the morning or you will miss the bus out of Thamel. Tours also pack tourists on other shuttles and they also leave in the morning. There is an airport just 10 km outside of Sauraha in Bharatpur and it’s ideal if you are feeling spendy—flights run daily from Bharatpur to both Kathmandu and Pokhara, though less frequently in low season. The Wiki Travel page for Chitwan is a good resource for updated and additional information.
Books About Nepal
Use the Nepal Lonely Planet to organize your wanders, it’s the one I used during my months there, and it proved useful! If you’re keen on cultural reading, I’ve read a ton of books about Nepal and from local authors. Arresting God in Kathmandu is a beautifully written account by a Nepali author, while The Violet Shyness of Their Eyes: Notes from Nepal is a more traditional travel narrative that is also well done and is a classic recommendation—you can’t go wrong with reading either before or during your trip to Nepal.
The Nepali New Year dawned bright and early during my third week of living in the small village of Pharping, Nepal. Amrit, the charming man running our guesthouse, invited the volunteers staying at the guesthouse to celebrate the New Year with his family. The plan was to hike a nearby hill for views over the Kathmandu Valley, and once there we should share in revelry and food. My cousin and I were both teaching at local monasteries, (and I’ve been documenting the details in a Nepal Travel Guide if you’re planning a trip); both of our monasteries were closed for the New Year festivities. Without Amrit’s invitation, we would have been just four lost souls living in a fishbowl. Heh. Or rather, four painfully obvious foreigners wandering on the periphery of the familial New Year festivities taking place all over Nepal.
Instead, Amrit, Carna (the guesthouse’s cook), and a team of Amrit’s Nepali family members descended on the guesthouse kitchen. They took the day’s task seriously and the family spent hours cooking a small feast. Amrit handed us a slapped-together breakfast and shooed us from the guesthouse just as the spicy scents of our picnic lunch wafted through the rooftop patio. Amrit wanted us gone until the hike, so he handed over a hand-drawn map of the path up the hillside to the huge picnic area overlooking the Valley.
We set off on the walk and were soon met by Amrit’s younger cousin who indicated that he would lead us through the dry rice paddies and up the steep hillside. About a quarter of the way up the hill, I freaked out and turned around. Breakfast was just a piece of small fruit and with my serious hypoglycemia, I wasn’t doing well. I hadn’t planned my food intake for a strenuous 45 minute vertical hike. It’s not the first time I’ve had to abort situations because of my blood sugar, but I was disappointed that I would miss the gathering.
Luck prevailed, however. I was halfway to the guesthouse when Amrit pulled up on the motorcycle to zoom me up the dirt pathway that snakes upward to the topmost monastery on the hill.
Once everyone was settled, Carna dished up the freshly cooked food. And being a holiday, the food was different from the usual. For the first time ever, Amrit ate a meal that didn’t include dal bhat! Our meal consisted of puffed and pounded rice, lightly curried veggies, potatoes, a pav bhaji type mix of crunchy toppings, and an ice-cold beer in a tiny plastic cup. Dal bhat is the main food staple here in Nepal, and people throughout the country eat this lentil and rice dish usually twice a day. It’s hearty and affordable, although the tastiness depends on the cook.
The food was tasty, but our luck didn’t hold. The overcast sky unleashed its fury in a sudden downpour that sent us all huddling beneath thin covering provided by an anemic outcropping of tall trees. After minutes of standing and wondering about a next move, Amrit led our group further up the hill. The rain changed to a light drizzle so we decided to seek shelter at the large hillside monastery, hoping to escape the full downpour moving toward us. We made it to the entrance gate of the monastery before another 10-minute downpour trapped 30 of the picnickers under a small awning.
One Nepali guy saved the day by pulling out his guitar. He serenaded our group with an eclectic mix of highly weather appropriate English songs like Have you Seen the Rain, as well as and patriotic Nepali songs, like Nepali Ho by 1974 A.D. My fellow volunteers and I latched on to the Nepali Ho song — which translates as “I am Nepali” — with a devotion that was only overshadowed by the passionate belting put forth from every single Nepali person in the vicinity. They deeply, deeply love this patriotic song. The locals joined the guitar strummer by shouted the chorus and finishing with an emphatic, “Nepali ho!.”
In the fun way of travel, this song would become a bonding experience and a trump card when we bargained the locals selling wares in Thamel and Pokhara. If they wouldn’t lower the price, or if my Nepali language skills started to falter, my cousin and I would bust into the chorus of this fiercely patriotic song. We would be sure to put a lot of passion and conviction to the end, where we would pronounce to the vendor — and the entire street — our inner “Nepali-ness.” And it worked! They ate it up and always joined in for the chorus. Their demeanor would often change, they’d invite us to share a chia tea, and they’d give us an “expat” discount.
The rain eventually lifted and our ragtag group left the shelter of the monastery to rejoin the main group. For all the weeks we lived in Nepal, my cousin and I were both committed to improving our Nepali. It’s a fairly easy language to learn when using the Roman Alphabet and I was obsessed with becoming proficient. One phrase my monks had helped me assemble was a rough guess, but I wanted to try it out on Amrit, who had a great sense of humor. Even so, we took him by surprise by busting out with the phrase tapaai:laai pagal ho. Pagal is a Nepali word with many different meanings, apparently. Urmila, our Nepali language teacher in Kathmandu, indicated that we could use this phrase to tell a friend that they were being silly. The monks confirmed this was a general meaning.
Amrit was floored when we told him what we thought translated as “you are silly.” He processed the phrase and then keeled over in uncontrollable laughter. Although pagal can mean silly in some circumstances, it actually means crazy/mad/insane. When I told Amrit, tapaai:laai pagal ho, he heard “You are going insane.” Or in Amrit lingo, he translated it as, “You are going to the mad.” This little video clip is Amrit’s reaction to our little display of Nepali language ignorance:
All in all, it was fun. We didn’t let the rain stop us from having a pretty rocking time, and it was an intriguing way to celebrate the Nepali New Year. Unlike the way we ring in the New Year in the U.S., this was a family day. There were no fireworks nor partying, and beyond our picnic lunch, the day was chill and relaxed. It centered on spending quality time with friends and family. At least, that was the way of things in our neck of the woods, a small village an hour outside of Kathmandu. There was talk that the Kumari (more on her here) made one of her 13 yearly appearances in the courtyards around Durbar Square. We were away from all that madness however, and enjoying the isolation of our remote valley town.
Pharping is a large town by Nepali standards. It’s small to be sure, but it’s bigger than the tiny villages that dot the hillside as the bus putters through the mountains for an hour before arriving at Pharping. The town has a local grocery store. Smaller than a 7-11, but it has the most basic of necessities in life. Rice, eggs, and junk food. Sometimes, although I am not meant to eat sugar because of a medical condition, I splurge on a snickers bar. Which they sell, so that made me happy. When I traveled in Laos, I could rarely find any chocolate, but here the Nepalese must enjoy chocolate too because nearly every shop offers something.
It’s interesting to actually see that the local grocery store is so small. It is representative of the nature of rural life here in Nepal. Locals eat the basic staples, and that food is fresh — or at least prepared from scratch. The rice and veggies are bought from local farmers. Eggs are likely from their own chickens. Processed foods of any sort, especially junk food, is an expensive luxury unaffordable for most Nepali families.
At the monastery where I volunteered, the staff and students all helped cultivate the garden in the back of the property. This garden was an important part of allowing the monastery to serve the students a healthy range of fresh vegetables and meat alongside the lentils, which is the most common food in Nepal. These rural towns are comparatively quite poor if you consider the tourism wealth that floods into Kathmandu, and even buying food from the local market is out of reach for many families. If you can’t grow it, you can’t afford to eat it. As you journey deeper into the Kathmandu Valley, it’s apparent that this is still a farming culture. Stepped terraces cut into the mountainsides, and the lowland valleys are home to a range of vegetables and homes. By planting a garden at the monastery, the boys are among the lucky Nepali — they eat fresh vegetables every single day as a key part of their diet.
My guesthouse provided breakfast and dinner while I volunteered teaching English in Pharping. Nepali people in poor areas eat dal bhat twice a day. My placement served eggs for breakfast many days, and every night dinner consisted of dal bhat, which is rice and a lentil curry. After a couple weeks, we convinced them to use some of our food stipend to cover vegetables, and the cook even made Tibetan momos once, which was a fun treat. If our meals at our guesthouse were uninspired, the monastery served a beautiful feast each day. Most days, the meals are vegetarian, but the monastery strives to give the growing boys a nutritious diet and they would eat meat once or twice a week, and trade out the rice for potatoes.
This diet is remarkably different from my U.S. diet, but in actuality, it’s similar to the meat and potatoes of my Irish ancestors. While I loved my time eating the range of dishes in India, the months in Nepal had me craving variety. There is a great range of the cuisine of Asia, but in the world’s poorest countries, there is similarity in the way the food is pared down to its most basic components. Six weeks I spent in Laos and Cambodia had prepped me for the Nepali tradition of eating rice at every meal (at my Cambodian volunteer program we ate it three times a day!).
Having only a rough knowledge of what it would be like to travel through Nepal beforehand, I though the cuisine in Nepal resembled Indian food. And although Nepal borrows some flavors and influences from India, there are few similarities in practice. When I questioned the monks at the monastery, they simply stated that they could imagine no other life — they loved dal bhat and enjoyed eating it every day. When I shared with them that people in the U.S. eat rice just a few times a week, they were horrified and sad for me. So, as strange as I find their diet, they are equally appalled by the idea of a world with less rice.
Life in the village is slow, and some evenings the handful of us volunteers would walk the about one minute up the hill from our guesthouse to the town’s only restaurant, the Snow Lion. If we ever ordered actual food, it sometimes took two or three hours, but as a treat, they would serve curd with honey and a steaming hot and deliciously spicy chiya tea, the Nepali version of the ubiquitous chai tea popular throughout South Asia. On a good day, one of our group would buy a mango on the walk home and we would feast on curd and mango — a tasty dessert option that I had never dreamed up before traveling throughout South Asia these past months.
One of the things about living in a rural village is the need to pace your life to the pace of life in town. And that means going to sleep a lot earlier than normal. If we stayed at the restaurant too late, we were like a horrible party guests overstaying their welcome. The entire town shuts down by eight, and the streets are deserted. The dusty food-shops silent, with shutters tightly closed. And because of the power shortages, the streets took on a ink-black stillness I’d never before known in a town with so many people sleeping nearby.
Even funnier, the charming Amrit never seemed to remember that we had left dessert. We were the only people staying in the hotel, but he would lock the door, forcing me to gently knock around 8:30 pm. Sheepish to be coming home late! He would audibly shuffle down the hallway in his night-clothes and shower shoes, shouting from just the other side of the locked door “Ssannon? Ssannon is that you? Why are you out so late Ssannon?” Then, he would wait on the other side of the door until I again explained the need for dessert. I would confirm that it was safe to open the door because it was just the four of us. This became a hilarious and absurd ritual every few nights. And if this were Kathmandu, perhaps it would justify worry, but in a sleepy town of 30,000 people, there was neither imminent danger, nor any chance that it was any other soul knocking on the door.
On the weekends, English teachers were given the entire weekend off, even though the students attend classes on Sunday. Our ragtag group would venture into Kathmandu on Saturdays to stock up on snacks. For some reason, a large portion of my days centered on the procurement of food, the eating of food, and the ponderings about the next meal and snack!
In addition to shopping at the larger grocery stores for snacks, my cousin and I would wander the streets of Thamel and the backstreets of Kathmandu in search of souvenirs. We had already done our sightseeing in Kathmandu, so on the weekends we either took weekend trips to other areas of Nepal (like Chitwan National Park!), or we simply enjoyed the range of restaurants and foods.
Thamel is the backpacker part of Kathmandu, and it’s a sensory overload. I am not a city person under most circumstances, and in this case, Kathmandu became a place that I enjoyed in doses. The vendors in Kathmandu constantly nag tourists to enter the shops if you make even a passing glance at the pashminas, silk scarves, wooden carvings, Tibetan singing bowls, and other goodies lining the streets. Other areas of Kathmandu hum with more activity, but fewer touts paying tourists nay mind. It’s in the city that I learned how to deploy a well-timed “chhahi daina,” which roughly translates as “I don’t need,” would shock the vendors into a grin to hear me speak Nepali, and they would let me pass without further comment.
One of the great things about Nepal is the fact that the Nepalese love when you try to speak their language. My cousin and I scored not only major kudos with the street vendors for bargaining in Nepali, but we also scored discounts, too. And as fun as it was to experience the bustle and pulse of Kathmandu, we would all head to the bus and find our way back to the slower pace of life in Pharping.
The bus ride between Pharping and Kathmandu is an adventure in and of itself every time we stepped foot on a Nepali bus. Sometimes the buses were perfectly empty and we would sprawl across the torn and dirty seats, each one with springs curling from their sad cushions. Other times, my cousin and I would wedge our large bodies into the crevice of other humanity penned in the bus. Because of our height, she and I would use one hand to protect the top of our heads, and then use the hand to hang on for dear life as the bus hurled itself around corners, bumped down the lightly paved roads, and snaked through the hillside back Pharping.
Twice I had to make the entire bus ride in that precarious position, an hour-and-a-half hunched over, with my neck cranked sideways, and my eyes fearfully glued to the road in anticipation of the deep potholes that would launch my body into the roof. No one ever said travel was going to be glamorous!
One of the best parts about my weekly trip into Kathmandu was the Baskin Robbins stand half-way between the bus station and town. Each time we rode out of town, the other volunteers and I would stop at the ice cream shop and wrap our taste buds around a sweet, creamy, and welcomed taste of home. Just like walking into a Cold Stone Creamery back home, the scent of waffle cones suffuses the store and it was a throwback to a place I haven’t seen in a good number of months.
Pharping is a smaller town deep in the Kathmandu Valley, which means the last bus out of town left every day between 5 pm and 6 pm. Once on the bus, we would strap on our face masks to protect from the harsh pollution. Health-wise, Kathmandu and is a polluted city. My cousin developed a prolonged dry cough as a reaction to all of the exhaust pollution that she inhaled during her daily 45 minute walks along the highway to her monastery. It didn’t take much to convince me to invest in a face mask for the regular commutes, and next time I will bring a high quality mask from home!
The monastery, probably like any boarding school, runs on a regimented timetable. The boys have classes everyday except Saturdays and throughout the day they have brief breaks. I came to love the daily tea-time ritual every afternoon. Nepali chiya is different than Indian chai but just as enjoyable. Nepal’s version of the drink seems to come sweeter, which the young ones certainly slurped down quickly. Like in India, taking the time to relax and drink a hot cup of tea is a treasured. It’s a big deal here in this part of the world. The afternoon tea-break lasts just 30 minutes, and like children the world over, they were determined to milk those 30 minutes for all the fun and enjoyment possible. They would sprint from the classrooms, grab soccer balls and hacky-sacks, and make full use of the large cement courtyard.
Most of the younger boys joined me when I perched in a small patio area near the courtyard to enjoy the steaming hot chai and watch the older boys play sports. Each class period is marked with the loud clanging of a gong near my the patio. For several days in a row I startled so violently at the sound that the Level Three boys who ring the gong would give me an emphatic “move Meeeeess” (Miss) before striking the small gong with all the force their 14-year-old arms could yield.
When I first started at the monastery, I focused on teaching the boys lessons out of the books. We had been given few instructions, just told that there was a curriculum that we should progress through at a pace of our choosing. The other teachers seemed to zip through lessons, but I wasn’t sure they were grasping much. Some of the students were on their third trip through the same exact textbook because they hadn’t learned it the first time through.
For that reason, I asked for permission to augment the lessons with other games too. We branched out from the basic reading comprehension style daily lessons. Lobsang was supportive and positive about me using any sort of creative games or lesson plans to keep the students interested and learning. The younger boys responded to stories and games while the older monks showed strong reading comprehension but they had a lot of grammar questions. My cousin had worked in the Peace Corps in Guatemala for two years, so she came to the monastery and helped me teach a range of fun games that she had found effective during her time in Guatemala.
The games broke down into two categories, although there was overlap. We had several educational games that could be adapted to a range of lesson plans and topics. And then there were the reward games, which mostly focused on being a whole love of fun. They loved both types, and I found that the enthusiasm for the class at every level improved when we wove games into the class period.
With the younger monks in the lower levels, they lacked much comprehension. They had wonderful reading skills, but they weren’t understanding 60 percent of what they were saying. To combat this we slowed the lessons down to a creep and focused on total comprehension of the lesson. Because my Nepali language is basic, we used pantomime and gesture to communicate lessons and questions.
They loved one of the simplest games; it was a clear hit. The boys would read a story and then we would pick out the new vocabulary and assign everyone gestures to fit the word, or sometimes just fun gestures at random. For example, for the word “tap” they would have to drum their fingers on their desk, “whisper” was easy too, but other words necessitated a bit of imagination stretching. Once we had agreed on the gestures, I would tell another story that included the new vocabulary. Everytime I said a keyword, the team that did the corresponding gesture first received a point. This game got competitive! They listened so carefully to try and beat the other team, and it had the benefit of drilling the vocabulary and the cadence of speech.
The non-educational games were easy, I just thought back to the many afternoons and summers of my youth spent at after-school care. Everything from Simon Says to Hangman to Mother May I scored me major points with the students, and we added a game called Red, Green, Yellow to the line up. Between them all, the students were entertained until the gong rang each day.
Although the main routine consisted of school and tea time, I learned to arrive early every morning so that I could watch their morning prayer. It’s a lovely chant that they recite before the school day and I came to love listening. outside of the classrooms:
A feeling of love and positive energy suffused the grounds during their chants. It made me feel warm and fuzzy inside even though I didn’t understand a word. Prayer is one of those things that transcends conscious comprehension.
When I booked my volunteer experience to teach English to young monks in Nepal all those months before landing there, I could not have known what waited for me when I touched down in the country. I knew stories of trekking in the Himalayas. I knew of the deep and rich history in Kathmandu. But I could not have known how much I would love the Buddhist monastery where I volunteered teaching English for two months. I could not have landed in a better place to volunteer than the Manjushri Di-Chen Learning Center. This Buddhist monastery was built to specifically address the poverty and lack of education in Nepal. It runs on donations and the donations sponsor rural children to attend the school, and also further develop the monastery with the needed classrooms and dorm facilities for the children living and studying there.
The children come from the poorest families in rural Nepal—areas where they live miles from the nearest school and may never have previously attended school. Once they are accepted into the Learning Center, they receive a formal education. As one would expect from a Buddhist school, students learn Tibetan language, script, and religion. They also study mathematics, English, and several basic courses. Although many of the youngest children have just left their families and were dropped into this new environment, they take seriously the opportunity to study, learn, and live in a safe environment.
The boys live at the monastery throughout all of their schooling and they return home to their villages for two months every year. Through several of the older monks, I learned that if they attend University, the monastery also pays for that tuition from donations and sponsorships.
One question I had regarding the schooling specifically centered on the Buddhist nature of it. These boys come to the school as young as five or six, and they haven’t chosen to live as a monk. The local leaders and the students themselves shared with me that they are not required to stay with the monk lifestyle once they leave the monastery. They are free to learn and study at the monastery, but then become “householders”—which means work, wife, house, and kids—once they graduate. That said, many students continue the lifestyle and religious practices into adulthood.
My monastery is receptive to native English speaking volunteers willing to teach English to the young monks. When they have no English-speaking volunteers, a non-native speaker—usually one of the head monks—takes over the class. For this reason, they are keen to have a rotating cast of native English-speaking volunteers gifting the students their time. The volunteers teach classes for eight levels of English language courses. During my time in 2009, there were 40 boys living at the monastery, and I taught all eight levels. The curriculum is based on the Indian schooling system and the young monks leveled up unevenly, so some classes were tiny with just three students. My kindergarten class had thirteen! Children stay in their given level for several years. It’s different from the US system where you progress annually to a new grade-level; several of my level eight monks were preparing for University.
Learning to Control the Students
During my first week, I shadowed another volunteer named Louise, with me co-teaching the class to learn the rhythm and keep the disruption of transition to a minimum. She had warned me about the naughty kindergartners. As the youngest of the bunch they had the least command of English. Once Louise left, I spent my evenings studying by candlelight, intent to memorize the most important of my Nepali verbs and phrases. I knew that if I wanted to control the class I would need to communicate in Nepali, otherwise they would just continue to ignore me and throw things at each other. They really only liked the Dr. Seuss stories, so I used that as a base for each class but then also learned a few commands in Nepali. These ones came in handy: sit down, please start writing/reading, repeat me, sit down, don’t do that, stop doing that, stop touching each other, sit down, please sit down. Sit Down—said in a harsher voice with emphatic hand gestures. STOP DOING THAT. And then time-out.
My first attempt at time-out actually yielded much different results than I anticipated. The kindergarten class is huge and wrangling thirteen boys who speak very little English is even harder than you may imagine. The thing is, I am really good with kids. I am patient and skilled at coaxing them into good behavior.
But these kiddos! They frustrated me to the max. One of the little boys would not stop headbutting, slapping, licking, nudging, rubbing, and pestering the others as we sat on the floor reading Are You My Mother by P.D. Eastman. I used several of my key phrases. I emphatically gestured to him that trouble was near. More key phrases. He still didn’t stop. After a few minutes, he had called my bluff. I had to follow through or lose my credibility so I made him step away from the group where I had gathered the kids on a blanket on the lawn for story-time. I indicated that he should stand in time-out for three minutes. He promptly walked 15 feet away with his back to us and grabbed his ear-lobes and began doing full squats.
I couldn’t tell if the kid was doing squats to sass me, but it seemed like more. One of the kids with strong English saw my confusion and said, “Miss teacher, it’s OK. OK Miss, ramro chaa.” Ramro chaa, means “it’s good,” so clearly this was a normal thing. I watched him for a few seconds before realizing that it’s a local form of punishment, so I quickly motioned the kid back to the blanket.
Later, I would read a news story from India about a little girl who died of dehydration and heat exhaustion because her teacher made her stand outside in the 100+ degree weather. Apparently, it’s prevalent throughout this region. After that, I was more careful about using timeouts when they misbehaved!
Learning the Quirks of Teaching English to Young Monks
Each of my eight classes had their own distinct group personality. The youngest always flagged me down between classes to check my pocket schedule and find out if they had class that day. They loved the English lessons even though they were exceedingly naughty. The next to levels were studious, serious, and they worked hard—they also loved English class and seemed to collectively want to create a learning environment.
But then, the dynamics changed with Level Three, they were unmotivated and unenthused, for reasons I couldn’t pinpoint. Perhaps during the rotating cast of English teachers over the years they had grown weary—that is surely a downside to relying on volunteer English teachers over paid staff who can build a rapport with students. Who knows. But their enthusiasm each day extended only to my standard greeting, “Good Morning, Miss”, which was a part of the monastery etiquette.
I loved my Level Four class. They had a passion for playing “Hangman” and they would do anything to earn ten minutes of the game at the end of productive classes. From there upwards, teaching the older boys was hit and miss. Level Six never wanted to participate in English class and often asked me if they could use it as an independent study. Level Eight was similar—it seemed they had other subjects they felt were more important than fine-tuning the last of their English language skills.
One monk, however, was in Level Eight but had a profound curiosity and motivation to learn. He went by a nickname, Lucky, and he sought me out at every opportunity to practice his English. He had high hopes of being accepted into the University in Varanasi, India (which he got into the following year!) and he would bring me long essays, letters, and stories that he wrote so that I could check the grammar. I worked with him every day and it was that relationship that was most rewarding during my month teaching English at the Buddhist monastery. In the years since I visited Nepal, I would write to Lucky many times and follow his progress.
All of the students had their own quirks, and like any new experience, it took time for me to learn how to adjust to the local culture. I was there to support the monastery in any way possible, and like many of my volunteer experiences over the years, they taught me more than I could have possibly imagined.
The warmth and humor of the Nepali people are among my best memories from traveling through Nepal and volunteering there. Across my two months there, Amrit, the man overseeing my guesthouse during my volunteer experience, became one of my favorite new friends. Driven and charismatic, he also exudes optimism. His happy dispositions settles deep into your soul and you can feel like fast friends with Amrit.
Amrit’s uncle, Barbajuan owned Family Guesthouse (and just about everything in Pharping). Amrit lived at the guesthouse and acted as the “den-mom” for the volunteers living at the guesthouse. Our first days in Pharping will forever be shaped in my memory by Amrit’s joyfulness. Although we had some problems with VSSN, Amrit’s welcome was instant and genuine, and he found many opportunities to share with us his infectious laugh.
For the first week of our stay at the guesthouse, Amrit handled everything from cooking to overseeing our time in Pharping. After that, Carna returned from his village and took over the cooking. With Carna and Amrit presiding over the guesthouse, our meals became a constant source of gusting laughter and cheeky stories of their life and experiences, and what it meant to be a 20-something in Nepal.
Learning of Nepali Fashion
Although I am not the most fashionable person in the world, Carna opened my eyes to the trends and times around me in Pharping. Carna seemed hip with the local trends — he wore trendy Western-style clothes and always sported the latest in Nepali fashion. One day, as he served dinner, I noticed a series of band-aids stuck to the bottom on his shirt. The placement appeared deliberate and even artful. When asked, Carna explained that band-aids are hip right now, but only when you wear them on your clothing in a creative pattern. Over the coming weeks I would notice that crosses and exes were most popular, though if the wearer designed a more elaborate pattern they got mad props. Carna himself evolved with the trend. The band-aids steadily migrated across Carna’s clothes, moving from the hem of his long button-down shirt to the calf of his jeans, sometimes appearing suddenly on a pocket or hemline.
The trends are unique to Nepal, as I didn’t see any of these trends when backpacking through India for two months. I’ve noticed a few other interesting trends, including long gelled hair and long pinky fingernails. There’s a particular use for long nails in the U.S., and when I asked Amrit if the nail also indicated aspects of drug culture, he assured me that the Nepali youth are growing out one single two-inch long nail for fashion’s sake. It’s so normal and on-trend that several of the older monks at my monastery also sported the long-nail, although I didn’t spot any of them wearing band-aids on their clothes.
Coping with a Lack of Power
If the new friends and locals in Pharping were the highlight of living in the small village, then the country’s power situation was one of the tougher aspects. As one of the poorest countries in Asia, Nepal has some issues. And while many of those deal with human rights, tourism development, and a range of other things, the power situation undoubtedly exacerbates all of these issues. It’s a well known issue and one that has great possibilities considering the potential for hydroelectric power. But even in the many years since I visited, the power situation remains plagued with issues. During my initial three weeks in Nepal, the government allowed each region of the country eight non-consecutive hours of power a day, given in four hour blocks. But the kicker was that no one ever knew when the power company would activate the electricity.
Each day, electricity would run from either: 12 to four, four to eight, or eight to 12. Once the first block of power came on for the day, locals were relatively certain that it would come back on at the same time that evening. As an added bonus, since rainy season had just begun across Nepal, the power company gifted everyone with a few extra hours of power each week.
Suffice to say, I used my handy headlamp every day and was so happy that I took others’ advice and packed a powerful headlamp as a “just in case.” Turns out, it’s needed on round the world trips! It was invaluable when I camped in a treehouse in Laos. And during my months in Nepal, I carried this with me at all times from dusk until dawn. Well, I carried it at all times after that one time that I was caught sitting on a toilet in the pitch black darkness and my headlamp was on my nightstand.
Each evening all of the daily tasks most often took place by candlelight. I learned how to take a bucket shower by the tiny illumination of a small headlamp. My balancing skills allowed me to read a book by the glowing light of a dim candle without lighting the pages on fire!
Every day when I would walk to my monastery, one of the local Nepali men would share with me his favorite joke: What is the most romantic country on earth?
Nepal, because they treat their wives to candlelit dinners every night!
Ok, I know it’s corny! But this hunched-over-ancient-little old man would beckon me over to his morning perch on a rock wall and delight me with this joke. It’s a testament to his sincerity that I was able to listen to it with a grin on my face every day, and offer him a genuine chuckle each time I heard it.
Hunting Down Internet
During my last few weeks in Nepal, the Indian government agreed to sell more power to the country. The government bumped up the national hours for electricity to 12 hours each day, instead of eight! That meant a lot to me as I attempted to work from the road and keep my client happy. But it meant even more to the locals.
Each day when the fluorescent light in my room flickered to life, greeting me with glorious illumination, I would snatch my laptop and scurry to the internet cafe three shops down from our guesthouse. I knew I’d have a couple hours to post my work, update my website, and furiously whirl my fingers over the keyboard in an effort to get as much done as humanly possible while the electricity lasted. Internet in the village was slow but inexpensive. At just 25 rupees an hour, roughly 40 cents, I would sit there for hours and sometimes even let the clock run while I talked to the very sweet shop owner. One wee little girl frequently played on the floor of the café while I was online. She sensed that am a sucker for children and each day she chanted didi at me, meaning big sister, and try to rope me into playing endless games of peek-a-boo with her.
Celebrating the Holidays
Holidays have come and gone over the past seven months. Some passed unnoticed without Hallmark commercials to jog my memory. Others, however, made for interesting opportunities to create interesting new traditions and also adapt traditions to the current circumstances. The other volunteers and I decided to celebrate Easter in our tiny Buddhist town. We bought eggs and asked Carna to them for us. He was confused when we insisted that we weren’t going to eat them, so he brought them to us with salt and silverware. Then we colored eggs with markers and nailpolish — we created a tiny celebration to mark the Easter holiday. Then, we treated ourselves to curd and honey for dessert and we ate our eggs for breakfast the next day.
For one of our birthdays we bought brown bread and taught Amrit and Carna the joys of French toast.
Having settled in one spot for two months, it allowed us to slip into a lovely pace of life and learn more about ourselves and the local culture than could have been possible just passing through Nepal in a rush.