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.
Bhaktapur – the lovely, historic, culturally rich, ancient capital of Nepal. The third largest city in the Kathmandu Valley, Bhaktapur stretches far and beyond its historic center. While we only drove through the city proper, we spent one whole charm filled day exploring its cultural heritage. And we sort of fell in love. Declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979 (along with 6 others in the Kathmandu Valley), Bhaktapur embodies the ancient Newari architecture of the 12th-15th centuries. It was once the capital of the Greater Malla Kingdom and remained an independent kingdom until the 18th century.
Despite the fact that over 1/3 of its temples and buildings were destroyed in a devastating 1934 earthquake, most of the city has been reconstructed and only noticeable to the most discerning eye. Its main points of interest, Durbar Square, Taumadhi Square, and Dattatreya Square are filled with temples and pagodas, all of which represent something different and equally profound. Though the population of Nepal, which is also representative of Bhaktapur, is primarily Hindu (80%), there are still a prolific amount of Buddhist sites found among Nepal’s historic areas. Woven together to create a web of religious intrigue, it seems like these two traditions have evolved quite peacefully together.
We began our tour walking the narrow cobblestone alleyways of Bhaktapur and were immediately charmed. It’s centuries old buildings had doors that were no taller than 65 inches and passageways leading into them that made them appear as a network of interconnected caves. I wasn’t brave enough to walk into one (most being residential), but the child in me (who is ever-present when it comes to to anything cave-like) was aching to. We past groups of women making sewn crafts, a makeshift garbage dump, chickens clucking along the sidewalks, and herbs dangling down from 3rd story verandas. And then we happened upon this sweet woman weaving on the street. LOVE. AT. FIRST. SIGHT.
As we strolled on, we eventually found our way into the Durbar Square area and began exploring its dozens of temples and outlying buildings. It wasn’t too long before the kids lost interest and we continued into her small cobblestone streets. I blame it on the kids, but in all honesty, I would often times rather be meandering down hidden side streets, observing how people live, than soaking in the history of royal palaces. More of an anthropologist than a historian. We were approached by a Nepali man who was in school to become a cultural tour guide and wanted to show us around. Which is something that we rarely, if ever, do. But for some reason, we decided to hire him. Even though our attention span was far too short to actually listen to the deep history about most of the temples and buildings (because of the kids of course), it was fun to tour around with a local (who also helped cart our kids).
And then I shopped. Because Nepal handicrafts are AMAZING. Long have I been in love with the knitwear and fleece that comes from Nepal, but I wasn’t quite prepared for just how enthralled I’d be traveling through Nepal. I couldn’t go anywhere without wanting to buy something. This day, I bought my first cashmere scarf and seriously considered buying a test batch to sell back home, but ultimately decided not to (I do, however, think that being a small-scale exporter to help fund your world travels is brilliant).
My shopping jaunt brought us to Pottery Square, where hundreds of vases and vessels and other pieces of pottery are made each day and set in the square to dry. My ceramist of a husband couldn’t help but get his hands dirty making a pot of his own – to which the local potters were quite surprised by his skill. From there we headed through Taumadhi and Dattatreya Squares, trying to prolong the inevitable melt downs that occur when the kids have been made to be patient for too long.
I haven’t yet mentioned where we stayed in Bhaktapur. There are dozens of guesthouses located within its historic center, which we didn’t realize at the time of booking, so we ended up at a guesthouse just outside based on good TripAdvisor reviews. Though Planet Bhaktapur was a 5 minute drive down a bumpy dirt road from the nitty-gritty of Bhaktapur, I felt that it was a perfect choice. Our room was great – beds comfortable, heat sufficient (propane stand-alone unit), manager super personable, and food AMAZING. For the remainder of our trip, I fantasized about staying here one more night just so we could eat their breakfast.
Bhaktapur is known for its curd, which to me, is basically Greek yogurt. You literally don’t find this anywhere else in Nepal. It’s fresh, it’s local, it’s delicious. I hadn’t eaten dairy for a number of months before staying at Planet Bhaktapur, but when they set that heaping bowl of curd and muesli in front of me, that was it. For something like $3, I got a DELICIOUS garlic omelette, roasted veggies and some sort of scrumptious bread, mango juice, coffee, AND a large bowl of yogurt and muesli. We sat there for over an hour, slowly trying to make our way through it all. Yum, I want it NOW.
We ended our tour at a nice little restaurant down a charming little alley, that cost us all of $10 for three adults and two children.
Kathmandu, pronounced somewhere between kat-mandu and kath-mandu, is the capital of Nepal. With more than 2.5 million inhabitants, Kathmandu stretches as far as the eye can see and basically spills over into all three of the other district areas in the valley. From the air, its low-lying, earth-toned buildings (none over 6 or 7 stories tall) look like thousands of teeny gopher holes popping out of the ground. From the ground, its streets resemble those of highway 101 in Los Angeles, at rush hour. Minus the highway. Her pot-hole riddled streets are a mess. A constant entourage of motorcycles, bicycles, cars, buses, utility trucks, rik-shaws, and the occasional stray bovine, create traffic jams galore and only the most skilled cab drivers can navigate through her hidden back alleys and avoid the worst of it. (As opposed to the ones who drive you an hour in the wrong direction, causing what should have been your 30 minute ride to turn into 3 hours – which would have been a great city-seeing detour were it not for the fact that an hour in a car at 5pm in Kathmandu means traveling only a matter of kilometers – and then demand MORE money for their mistake. True Story.)
Now combine the combustion engines of the bustling streets with wood burning being the primary heat source for all 5 some odd million people in the Kathmandu Valley and what you get folks, is fairly extreme pollution – i.e. dirty air. Plateauing in the morning hours when it’s colder, the pollution is a force to be reckoned with in this charming valley. And my perspective is urban China, which tells you that what I speak is legit. I had read about Kathmandu’s pollution many times over before we got there but pretty much dismissed it because I know pollution. Despite, even from my tainted/experienced perspective, it was bad. So bad, indeed, that the first morning we were there, we invested in a couple of ninja masks for the kids to help guard their already battle scarred lungs against large particulates (though, in truth, it’s the small particulates that are of the most concern, as they penetrate deeper into the lungs).
Despite these things, when you look past the mayhem and the hazy skies, the culture and the people more than make up for it. I’ve never met a Nepali I didn’t like. From my first encounter in a pub in London to our 15 day trip to the motherland, they really are incredible people. Everywhere you go in Nepal, you read signs that say, Come as a Guest, Leave as a Friend, and it’s a legit statement. The only other places I’ve traveled that have rivaled their kindness, are Indonesia and Malaysia. The only way I can describe it is it’s as though you can feel their hearts. Kindness seems to just ooze out, beautifully and naturally. The sense of community between Nepalese people is incredible (as it can be in other cultures as well, notwithstanding my own), but what is even more amazing is that they share this community with those who travel to their country.
The last Nepali insight we were given before deciding to travel to Nepal was from an American-Kiwi who had only negative things to say about the people and culture. He even went as far as to say that he wouldn’t recommend traveling there to anybody because of the commodi-fication of tourists. This crushed me a bit, as Nepal had long been high up on my life-list. But boy am I glad that we didn’t heed his warning. Now, I will say that if your experience of Nepal was in the tourist hub of Thamel in Kathmandu (where he likely would have stayed for at least part of his trip), your perspective might be a tad jaded. This was one of the only places in Nepal where we experienced hawkers and did feel like a dollar sign; but compared to other countries in which I’ve traveled, it really wasn’t all that assaulting.
The Kathmandu Valley has a denser proportion of UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other area its size – in the world. Seven in total, five are found within the limits of Kathmandu proper. By chance, our first night was spent just adjacent to one of my favorites and coincidentally also one of the holiest Buddhist sites in Kathmandu, Boudhanath Stupa. A place of meditation for Buddhists and covered in Tibetan prayer flags, this stupa is one of the largest in the world. At most hours of the day, but mainly at dusk, hundreds, possibly thousands, of people can be found circling its perimeter spinning prayer wheels as they pass by. During daylight, dozens of people can be seen doing repetitive sun salutations on its steps. Declared a World Heritage Site in 1979, Boudhanath Stupa has developed as a hub of Kathmandu tourism, as evidenced by the plethora of shops and restaurants scattered about its periphery – which all add to the charm of this ancient site. More than that, the area has evolved as a center point of Tibetan Buddhism in Kathmandu, with over 50 monasteries established nearby.
The calm of the stupa is reinforced by its protection from the bustling city streets found just outside the narrow alley ways that lead to its interior and further juxtaposed by the commercial zoning around it. Which, for a non-practicing Buddhist like myself, combine together to create a magical environment. I mean, I could both meditate and buy gorgeous Nepali knitwear in the same place – win-win if you ask me.
After spending both an evening and a morning at Boudhanath Stupa, I didn’t imagine that any of the other stupas in Kathmandu could compete and probably would have been content ending my tour right there. Drawn by its resident monkey population though (and motivated by animal loving children), I knew that we couldn’t pass up a visit to Swayambhunath, or Monkey Temple, found just west of the city and erected sometime in the 5th century. High up on a hill, Swayambhunath is awash in character and history. Second only to Boudhanath in Tibetan Buddhism in Nepal, this site is considered by some to be the most important of all Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the Kathmandu Valley, but is revered by both Buddhists and Hindus. Swayambhunath is made up of a large stupa and a number of temples and shrines (and more recently a Buddhist monastery) – all perched on a hillside with sweeping views of the Kathmandu Valley. Throw in vendors selling beautifully crafted Nepalese made goods, the sounds of sacred chants in the distance, and birds circling high up in the air and Swayambhunath runs a close second to Boudhanath.
And of course, you can’t forget the sacred monkey population that roam within its borders. Clearly comfortable with humans, the macaque monkeys meander freely through the pathways and jovially swing from the branches high above. There was one vendor selling some sort of food to feed the monkeys, but contrasted to a place like the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud, Bali, where the monkeys have come to rely on the constant flow of bananas being fed to them by tourists, the monkeys at Swayambhunath seemed more independent and less interested in the humans exploring their home.
Now, read any guide book about Kathmandu and it will tell you that a visit isn’t complete without experiencing its Durbar Square. One of three Durbar Squares in the Kathmandu Valley and all UNESCO World Heritage Sites (the other two found in Bhaktapur and Patan), Kathmandu’s Durbar Square dates back as far as the 3rd century. Technically defined as the plaza in front of the ancient royal palace, it is also surrounded by stunning examples of Newari architecture in its adjacent courtyards and temples. We had visited Bhaktapur Durbur Square the day before, so our expectations were quite high and albeit a bit let-down by what we found. What it may have lacked in the charm of Bhaktapur, it surely made up for in dynamic chaos. Surrounded by produce vendors and constantly awash in the sound of honking taxi horns, Kathmandu’s Durbar Square was bustling. Also aided by the fact that we had arrived via a death defying rik-shaw ride through the city, dodging in and out of cars wasn’t how we wanted to spend our evening, so we ended up on roof terrace drinking beers and taking it in from above. Unfortunately, by the time we were ready to brave the crowded streets again, the sun had gone down, so the rest of our tour of Durbur Square and its surrounding buildings was quick and in the dark. As was our walk home – we definitely weren’t going to go rik-shaw riding through the streets of Kathmandu without the sun to guide us.
Mentioned above, Thamel is Kathmandu’s backpacker hub and is thus chalk full of good restaurants and shops. In my opinion, it’s worth spending an evening/night there as a convenient jumping off point for other destinations (as there are many buses leaving nearby) and to get your fill of Nepali handicrafts, but that’s about it. Nepal is too beautiful a country with too genuine a population to confine yourself to its most chaotic, least personable locale.
As you see, despite the dirty air, Kathmandu is full of pure charm and it is just a taste of what the rest of Nepal looks and feels like. Fortunately, no matter how you get in or out of the country, Kathmandu will most likely be on your path at some point – when you do see her, please pick up some extra Nepalese hand warmers for me (in no less than two uses, mine have been lost).