How to DO Chitwan National Park
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.