Chitwan will forever change the term “National Park” from a place your parents made you go as a 12-year-old when you would have preferred to play pirates (just me?), to an experience that you’ll never forget. But during the brutally hair-raising seven-hour bus ride from Kathmandu, you’ll probably ask “Are we there yet?” more times than you ever did as a child.
Upon arrival in Sauraha, you’ll be eternally grateful for the clean air and reprieve from car sickness. And – provided you’re not impaled by a rhino – it all gets better from there.
You can explore the jungle in four ways: a walk, an elephant safari, a river safari or a Jeep safari. Some safaris are safer than others, and some are more ethical.
We took a canoe down the river, coming within feet of crocodiles, monkeys and water buffalo. After we disembarked, our guide laughed about how crocodiles sometimes jump in the canoe with tourists and try to bite them – we didn’t take the canoe back. The same guide told us about how a few of his guests were almost trampled to death by a stampeding elephant on a jungle walk and how a sloth bear partially destroyed his leg – we didn’t take the walk. And several of Nepal’s leading animal rights experts told us that most domesticated elephants in Nepal are abused – no one should take an elephant safari.
That leaves the skittish and morally squeamish tourist with the Jeep safari. If that’s all you do in Chitwan National Park, you won’t be disappointed. Unless you get peed on by a monkey; then you might be a bit disappointed.
While it’s very likely that you’ll have animal sightings on your safari, there are a few places you can go in Chitwan where animal sightings are guaranteed.
Gharial crocodiles are endangered, but you’d never know it by a visit to Chitwan’s very well-populated breeding center. And while crocodiles aren’t exactly cuddly, you’d never know that by how closely they pile themselves on top of each other in threes and fours.
The inhabitants of Chitwan’s breeding center are both gross and hilarious: gross because, well, look at them; hilarious because of their tendency to sun themselves by the pool, until just one of them exhibits even the slightest movement and they all throw themselves over the side like lemmings off a cliff. You won’t need long here (not to be a crocodile racist, but they all look the same). Still, it’s worth a quick – gross and hilarious – visit.
Most domesticated elephants in Nepal are treated very badly, but one organization in Chitwan National Park is trying to change the lives of these remarkably sensitive and empathetic animals. While most elephant trainers abuse their charges with fire and sharp hooks to assert dominance over them, the trainers at the Biodiversity Conservation Center use positive reinforcement methods.
They reward elephants for good behavior instead of frightening them into submission, and they keep them enclosed in large fenced-in areas, not chained up to wooden posts.
Visit the elephants before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m. and see up-close for yourself how magnificent they are when treated with respect. One of the older elephants at the center is so gentle and content that it’s allowed to roam free – it always comes back home.
In Chitwan, you can pay to bathe in the river with elephants who spend their days (when they’re not chained up) hauling tourist groups on their backs either on safari or in the water. Instead of encouraging the abuse by bathing with them, walk to the river between noon and 2 p.m.
There, without paying a cent and probably only accompanied by local women scrubbing their saris along the banks, you’ll see something you’ll never forget: Led by their trainers, elephants wade into the river where they submerge themselves, roll one way and then the other, and burst up above the surface again, pushing out streams of water from their trunks.
There’s only one important rule when selecting a hotel in Chitwan: Pick a place on the river. You don’t want to miss views of the hazy sunrise in the morning, the canoes and crocodiles in the afternoon, and the rhinos that may very well cross the waters and look for food around your hotel in the evening.
The aptly named Hotel River Side provides riverside views and the friendliest staff in Nepal. The showers are hot, the food is great and the tours can be customized, led by one of the most experienced guides in Suaraha. Including breakfast, it’s all under $40 a night.
More upscale options exist, including a handful of luxury lodges just outside the park. These often cater to package tours and rates include safaris, walks, cultural shows and all of your meals.