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.
Quick Tips: Visiting Chitwan National Park
What to Pack
You are visiting a very wet, humid, and forested area. Pack clothes for hot, sunny days during the daytime, and lightweight clothes that cover your limbs in the evenings to prevent mosquito bites. To that end, you should absolutely pack strong DEET repellant and quality sunscreen. A full travel packing list is here. And don’t forget your Nepal travel adapter so you can charge all of your electronics.
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.
Where to Stay
The Tiger Tops Elephant Camp is a private elephant camp leading the way with the most humane and ethical elephant practices in Chitwan. 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.
How to Get to Chitwan
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.