You see, we had arrived at the restaurant to watch the sunset over the river and eat a *quick* bite before going to the Tharu Cultural Program, around 5:00. By the time we had to leave for the show at 6:45, we were still waiting for our food (something we would affectionately start referring to as a Nepali Minute). So we had no choice but to leave and come back to eat after the show. Irritated when we returned an hour later only to find out that our food STILL was not ready, we just about threw in the towel and went to bed with rumbling tummies. Fortunate for us, we had already ordered a round of beer and had to wait it out. Our food finally came and was a disappointment at that – almost every meal in Nepal took over an hour to arrive and almost every time was justified by its deliciousness, with the exception of this one. Little did we know, the universe had planned it all out for us. After dinner, the little guy announced that he had to go pee, so the Mister nonchalantly took him down to the sandy beach to take care of business. As he lowered the pee’ers knickers, he sensed movement at close range. As he looked beyond the tower in front of him and focused his eyes in the dark, he realized that the movement belonged to a wild rhino, not 10 feet away from them. Carefully, he pulled the Little Explorers pants over his booty, made sure that no sudden movements or loud shrieks gave them away, and backed away slowly.
And so began the Great Rhino Hunt. The beast grazed for a few more minutes before making his way next door (to where we were staying) and meandering DIRECTLY in front of our door to his second supper pasture. And so we followed him. Well, not quite followed – we went around the lodge to where we thought he’d be found. Sure enough, there he was being watched by a handful of onlookers, grazing away. Before long he was done with his second supper and headed back in the direction of the restaurant. And this time, we really followed him. As he walked back, he mistepped his way up a pathway that was blocked by a bamboo fence and we watched as he ploughed his way through it like it was made of foam. So naturally, we too embarked up the newly bulldozed path and through the bamboo fence to see where he’d be headed next. As we passed the restaurant, both holding a child, a man remarked, “are you really following the rhino… with kids?”. To our defense, we were a healthy distance behind him at this point. So far in fact that we ended up losing his path and heading back home, through the new pathway he made for us. At which time, the biggest Little Explorer ripped her brand new down Patagonia jacket (bought with a Friends and Family discount) on the rhino-broken-fence. And it’s at least two sizes too big for her, so now she has a wound by which to remember the death-defying adventure.
I had been warned by many-a-travel-writer about the precarious road conditions in Nepal. Lonely Planet had me questioning taking to the roads at all (though, come to find out, Nepal’s airlines don’t exactly have glowing records either) because of the incidence of fatal bus crashes. Nonetheless, we chose to take a bus from Kathmandu to Pohkara, so that we could detour to Chitwan National Park for a few days of jungle exploration. What should have been a 4-5 hour bus ride turned into an 8 hour adventure down half-finished throughways riddled with holes, lined by cliffs, or blocked by piles of rubble. The IMPORTANT part: we made it safely.
We arrived in Sauraha (just outside the park) with no reservations (just a long list of possibilities) and figured there would be others who flew by the seat of their pants as we did and thus, would be infrastructure built up around vagrants like ourselves. But, to our surprise, if you didn’t have a lodge vehicle waiting for you at the bus stop, you’d be walking your own booty into town. So, we walked our booties into town, plopped down at a local restaurant, and ordered a round of Everest Beer as the Matriarchs (myself and my sister-in-law – who was traveling with us, along with her husband and 14 year old daughter) scouted out a base for exploring Chitwan National Park. Second on my list was Rhino Lodge and had I known that it held true to its name, it would have most definitely been number one. Set right on the banks of the Rapti River, Rhino Lodge is visited every evening by a wild rhinoceros that comes across the river out of the national park.
After strolling back to the lodge after dinner on our first evening, the manager ran up to us and asked if we wanted to see a rhino… uh, hell yea! So we quietly walked out to the edge of the grounds, while the manager whipped out his flashlight and cautiously lite up the wild beast, grazing on the grass meadow adjacent to the hotel. As awesome as it was, it was quite dark so the view of the rhino wasn’t the clearest and as such, wasn’t quite as exciting for the kids as one would have hoped. Nonetheless, Safari (who would turn five in two days) played off of our excitement and went to sleep with visions of gigantic wild rhinos grazing outside her window. We assumed that this sighting was a fluke and were perfectly content with it being an isolated incident. SO, we were in for a real surprise the following evening when we would follow the freshly bulldozed path of a majestic giant. The death-defying details can be found here.
This is what the main road in Sauraha looks like at dusk. A steady stream of working elephants galavanting through town after a long day of work carting tourists through the forest – I won’t get into the particulars yet, you’ll have to keep reading to get to the juicy details.
We contemplated our many options of how to best see Chitwan National Park and settled with the DIY version. If you care to know the gritty details of what went into that decision, they can be found here.
For better or for worse, our DIY Chitwan tour was fabulous. Our first evening, we found ourselves at K.C.’s Restaurant and elbow deep in DELICIOUS Nepali and Indian fare – a meal that may go down as our single best dining experience in Nepal. The kids played in the beautiful garden and the adults relaxed, eating and drinking the evening away (which can easily turn gluttonous in Nepal because of the low cost of living – for $50, 5 adults and 2 children could wine and dine until their heart’s content). As a side note, we quickly learned to order half what we thought we needed because for 200 rupees ($2), we would get a heaping portion of food – but it took us time to adjust – in the US (and China for that matter), a $2 plate would mean a few bites – in Nepal, it almost always meant an entire meal. Except for the times that it didn’t. And you waited for an hour and a half to get your food only to find out that this was the ONE place that served up the portions we kept expecting for the price. Which only happened once, maybe twice. Overall, we ate VERY well in Nepal. Did I mention that it was a vegetarian’s dream of a country to backpack through? Well, it was.
Chitwan was the first Nepali national park, established in 1973 and was given the status of UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. In 1950, the area that now makes up the national park was home to roughly 800 rhinos, but by the late 60′s, their numbers had decreased to under 100 due to large scale human settlement, widespread use of DDT, and hunting. Understanding the imminent need to protect these rhino’s, the Nepalese government set 210 square acres to be protected, which was later increased to 360 square acres that now makes up the northern part of the Chitwan-Parsa-Valmiki Tiger Conservation Unit that extends into India.
Chitwan has the reputation for being the best in Asian wildlife viewing. Its rivers and lakes boast 113 different fish and crocodile species and its forests are home to at least 43 species of mammals. Bengal tigers, leopards, sloth bears, striped hyenas, wild elephants, and rhinos are a few of the mammals that beckon tourists from far and wide. We had the pleasure of learning all about the fauna of Chitwan at the Wildlife Viewing Center (though I can’t for the life of me remember the ACTUAL name of this place), where there were dozens of small and newborn animals (whom died naturally) floating in formaldehyde baths. I thought it was going to be either an icky exhibit of taxidermied dead animals or a useless tourist trap, but I was wrong. Creepy coolness it was, if the “newborn animals floating in formaldehyde baths” didn’t already give the super creepy part away. I mean, who doesn’t want to see what the reproductive organs of a sloth bear look like? The littlest explorer kept pointing at different vessels and asking me what they were, to which I had to repetitively respond, “hunny, that’s the penis of a [insert name of animal here]“. Heartbreaking to see such little creatures dead, yes, but incredibly interesting nonetheless. In exhibits like this, I rarely get the sense that conservation and education are at its core – but strangely and surprisingly, this exhibit did.
The Terai of the subtropical Himalayan foothills is home to the Tharu people. Pushed out of the area that would become Chitwan National Park and one of Nepal’s largest indigenous groups, the Tharu people were resettled in and around Sauraha,just outside of the park, in the early 70′s. Naturally resistant to Malaria, they settled in the area LONG before outsiders even knew it existed. When, in the 1960′s, the government (with the help of the WHO) took on an anti-malaria campaign and eradicated malaria through devastating use of DDT, the area became inhabitable by all and further pushed the Tharu people away from their home. Fortunately, through a strong cultural identity, the Tharu are still thriving and have permeated Chitwan tourism through an extremely well-done (yet simple) Tharu Cultural Museum and a nightly Tharu Culture Program. Both of which we squeezed into our short time there and well worth the visit.
Another highlight of our time in Chitwan was a Canoe Trip down the Rapti River. Though you definitely feel a bit like a sheep being cycled through a well-greased tourist machine, once we were on the water, the peace of the setting enveloped us and had us all captivated, including the Little Explorers. As our guide pointed out the variety of bird life found in the surrounding Sal Trees, we kept our eyes scouting out the banks of the river, scanning it for crocodiles. We had opted for an afternoon canoe trip, with the hope that the sun would be out and so too would the crocodiles. As time would have it, the sun had just emerged from the morning fog and had over a dozen crocodiles soaking in its rays on the shore. Behind me on the boat sat a 4-5 year old boy who would squeal every time we saw any type of wildlife and scream in between, most certainly disrupting the tranquility of the experience and making me ever so grateful for my Little Explorers, who sat calm and captivated (and most importantly, not affecting anyone else’s experience). Children are nearly always an amazing addition to any travel experience, but I’m a firm believer that their presence shouldn’t negatively affect the experience of others who did NOT come to listen to squealing children. Whether it’s a result of our insistence on this (though they are by no means angelic like this all of the time) or just a result of biology, they are pretty incredible little people to travel with. End brag.
On our second and last evening, after a full day of Chitwan adventuring, we were searching out a spot to watch the sunset in Sauraha. We decided on an outdoor bar/restaurant next door to our lodge and as we strolled up, one of the workers was encouraging passer-byers to take a seat and share the view. I assumed that this was a ploy to get people to sit down to spend money on food and drinks. But when nearly everyone got up and left just after the sun had set, I realized that he literally had simply wanted to share his space. We of course stayed and were gifted the worst meal experience of our trip, but that’s neither here or there, though the story that accompanies it is actually worth knowing and was referenced above. This was just another of the countless examples of the magnanimous nature of Nepali people. Naturally, I’m impressed, coming from a culture where personal space is a prized (and coveted) possession, not to be shared by just anyone.
This restaurant also happened to be adjacent to an area that mahouts bring their elephants to drink and bath after a hard days work, which was fun for the whole family to watch, if you can turn off the process by which those elephants got to be the current version of themselves.
Nepal has a long history of using elephants for work. So much, in fact, that there is now a need to captively breed elephants and one of these breeding centers is found in Sauraha, on the outskirts of Chitwan National Park. Captive breeding is actually much more ethical than elephants being poached from the wild to be used in the trade, requiring much more rigorous, and albeit cruel, training methods. I’m not sure what I was thinking when going there sounded like a good way to spend the afternoon. Coincidentally, we had to walk right past it on our way back into town from our canoe trip. I’m all too familiar with how elephants are “trained” or rather, tortured, in becoming domestic workers or performers. It’s something that we’ve had many conversations with Safari about, who has wanted to ride an elephant for as long as I can remember. She now calls these types of elephants, the “sad elephants”.
In terms of elephant training, the Elephant Breeding Center is not among the worst offenders. Training often includes beating the young elephants with nails or sticks, to make them submissive to their trainers, which is not part of the training program here. Despite this, the program still involves the necessary cruelty required to break a young elephant into domestication. The process begins when an elephant is 2 years old and begins with chaining the elephant to a pole and depriving it of food and water for a period of time. At the center, you literally see elephants in all points of this process. The most heartbreaking was watching elephants chained up, doing this back and forth stomping dance, desperately wanting to move. If you’ve ever been face to face with an elephant or just know of their intellect and sensitivity, you know that they show their emotions vividly and candidly. At the breeding center, you could so deeply feel the sadness and pain from these young elephants who had been recently ripped apart from their mothers and were being forced to stand still, deprived of food and water.
There were a few grown elephants who still had their babies with them and one in particular that for some reason, was allowed to roam around. The Little Explorers, of course, thought that this was the COOLEST. THING. EVER. Speaking of which. As a parent, you both want to inform and protect your children. My natural inclination is to inform them about ethical and moral dilemmas. But I often have to remind myself of how young they are and question whether things of this nature are too complicated and confusing to them. Just let them enjoy the elephants, I told myself, fighting back tears. They live in a magical world where elephants aren’t broken and they won’t be able to live there for that much longer – let them hold onto the magic for as long as they can. Don’t trouble them with information. I struggle. I digress. I say things.
So you can imagine that when it came time to DIRECTLY support this industry the following morning, riding into the jungle on the back of an elephant, I was feeling guilt-ridden. You tell them that training elephants is sad and unethical, but then you let them ride on one. Ugh. Talk about confusing mixed messages. In the end, it was Safari’s 5th birthday and riding on an elephant was most definitely on her 5 year old bucket list, so I swallowed my sadness and rode through the damn jungle on the back of a majestic beauty. Now I feel like she’s checked it off of her bucket list, we will never again pay into the breaking of elephants.
In the end, the Elephant Safari was cool in that it got us into the jungle and 10 feet away from a sleeping rhino and her baby. It was cool to wade through the river and walk up its steep banks riding on a beast. Would I do it again, no way. If I were to do Chitwan ever again, I’d hire a jeep for a full day and venture deep into the park, where the chances of seeing more wildlife, even the elusive Bengal tiger or a wild elephant, were better.
However, our biggest Little Explorer trotted into her 5th year on the high of riding on an elephant and crossing something off of her bucket list. I have NO regrets about how we experienced Chitwan. It was an incredible experience and most definitely has me wanting to plan more wildlife based trips (sans riding on elephants).
You see, I did no less than 27.6 hours of research on where and how to best explore Chitwan. All-inclusive vs. DIY? Luxury accommodation vs. budget option? Elephant Safari vs. Jeep Tour? Elephant Breeding Center vs. Gharial Breeding Center? Supporting elephant activities at all? There were a number of factors at play, but mostly, I wanted us to have the most culturally enriching, animal filled experience possible.
There are a number of all-inclusive, high end lodges that until recently, were located inside the park but have now been ostricized to its outskirts but nonetheless still hold their prestige as the best way to see Chitwan. These lodges range from $100-$250/night (per person) and include all excursions/food/culture programs (but most don’t include transport from the nearby airport/bus station). We originally thought we’d skimp in other areas and splurge on one of these lodges but after too much thoughtful indecision, we decided that we do the DIY Chitwan experience. As with ANY option, there were both upsides and downsides of this choice. Please note that there are also DOZENS of mid to lower-end lodges that offer the all-inclusive packages (the best quote I received was $100/person for a 2N3D package).
1) Food flexibility – we were able to try out a number of local restaurants rather than being isolated to the food at one lodge.
2) Excursion flexibility – we were able to pick and choose the excursions that we wanted and leave out those we didn’t want – thereby cutting down on the costs.
3) Cost-efficiency – we spent something like $350 total, for 7 people to do 2 nights and 3 days at Chitwan vs. the $700-$1000+ we would have spent at a higher end all-inclusive lodge.
4) Both the Elephant Breeding Center and Tharu Village Tour are very close to Sauraha, so being based there was convenient to do both of these. If we would have been at a higher-end lodge, we would have either not done these or had to take a shuttle quite a distance in order to do so.
1) Crowded Culture Program – there is a Tharu Culture Program in Sauraha town, which is great, but was CRAZY crowded. The all-inclusive lodges offer private culture programs.
2) Elephant Safari Highway – the elephant safari booked through any tour agent on the street, starts at the same place and at the same time as a dozen others, so you sort of feel like you’re on a highway, rather than on a secret mission through the bush searching for wildlife. The higher end lodges own their own elephants and take off from their lodge, so the experience *may* have been a bit more isolated like we had envisioned.
3) More work involved. Though booking everything was fairly simple, we were running around a bit on our first evening trying to figure it all out.
I must have read 200+ reviews from both those who went with the all-inclusive route and those who did the more DIY option. Some lodges, even those that aren’t all-inclusive, have their own elephants that you can feed and get private elephant bathing experiences with (get your head out of the gutter – private in that only people staying at that particular lodge get to be involved with bathing the elephants). I’ve read mixed reviews about how the elephants are treated – some great, others not so great. Rhino Lodge did not have their own elephants, which somewhat conveniently took out that variable for us.
The higher-end resorts seem to be more focused on environmental protection and conservation, which makes sense because they can afford to be. It’s always difficult to reconcile, while traveling on a budget, spending a bunch of extra cash to stay at the luxury resorts that are more thoughtful about their impact on the environment; while I HANDS DOWN want to support them and to stay at them, we almost never can justify the costs of doing so. Perhaps in another lifetime.
All in all, I’m happy with how we did Chitwan. In the end, if we would have had another day, the only thing that would have rounded out our experience may have been a full day jeep tour deeper into the park. As it stood, our one and a half days there were packed with experiences I definitely would not have wanted to trade in.