They’ll have you thinking you have to pay for the fancy tours going into Chitwan National Park. To get the guides and ride the elephants to see the one horned rhinoceros(rhinoceri?). To stay in the all inclusive resorts with river bank sunset views. This can all feel discouraging and well, if you’re like us – traveling for a long time and penny pinching for sustainability of unemployment, you probably won’t be so keen on splurging for the park unless you really love the one horned rhino and can’t resist an opportunity to get up close and and spy one. Most likely unlikely.
We went to Chitwan unplanned(this seems to be the theme of this trip), as the road east from Katmandu is in atrocious condition, even by Nepalese standards, and the the buses don’t follow the logical route we had mapped out. Maybe some intrepid local buses do, but we weren’t all that enthusuasic about pushing the issue, given the track history. Instead, the typical course backtracks west a bit along the Prithvi Highway(I’m still dreaming of an “I survived the Prithvi Highway” T-shirt. It think it would be a huge hit in Thamel along souvenir row) and go south to Chitwan. From there one would catch a bus east toward the Indian border to access Darjeeling, Sikkim and the Northeast states.
Since the entire trip would take a million hours we made the stop. We weren’t disappointed. The town was not at all what we had imagined – built up and exploding with sleek hotels and too many tourists. It was really mellow with little traffic and friendly, helpful folks.
This is a post about how we did the Chitwan on the cheap. We arrived by bus in Sauraha and from the station a shared jeep took us to the main drag. There are tons of hotels around, and I don’t know when the high season is, but it doesn’t seem to be March because getting a room was a breeze. One place caught our eye, and we had the hotel man show us a room. He walked us to one way in the back. It’s the same routine, by the way: hot water? Wifi? How much? 1300 Nepal Rupees*. Our budget is only 800NR, we tell the man. Then he brings us to a different room, not unlike the room we just viewed, and the price is 800NR . This has been a very good tactic, however, at some places in India they have the prices written, printed and laminated, so haggling is a bit harder. Even so, you can always make some kind of deal like not turning on the AC or taking a small room without windows(uh, no thanks). It’s always worth it to try to get a lower price. Plus, haggling is fun! Sort of.
After settling in to the room we rented some bikes. The prices, again, can be negotiated. We got the bikes for a couple of days and had a great time pedaling around the neighboring villages to have a closer look at things. It felt great to be back on a Neelam in all it’s upright relaxo glory. There are cows and goats and water buffalo and rice fields and rivers. The houses are neat with palm thatched or dried rice bundle roofs and maybe clay or mud walls – not totally sure, but we are always down with cruising and gawking, especially on the bikes.
Because of all the elephant jungle trips there are tons of domesticated elephants and their men lumbering along the roads around town, so you can enjoy them up close, probably more so, even if you aren’t riding them. At the elephant breeding center, which is a small donation, you can see the elephants at meal time. We had mixed feelings about seeing the great beasts chained in stalls, but we’ve never been up close to see elephants going about their business. How do they choke down those giant balls of dried brown grasses? How are the babies so ridiculously cute?
There’s a path along the river at the end of town. Rhinos and crocodiles hang right near the path in the river, and don’t move for hours, so you can get a good look at them. In the morning you can see the tourists loaded upon the elephant backs, four at a time, which looked much more boring that it originally sounded. It felt like we had the inner scoop for looking at the same rhino without having to be a part of that scene. Ha!
The atmosphere is really beautiful. After the great sunset we got our set khana(set meal) at one of the dozens of restaurants in town. This is the best deal going in Nepal: Rice, dahl, vegetables and pickle. The cook comes out to offer seconds, thirds, whatever you can eat! The quality does vary between restaurants, as with anything, but the dahl is good everywhere and the whole meal costs under 200NR per head.
Next day the goal is to get to elephant bathing time. It goes down from 10:30-11:30 every day and the spot is accessible by foot right off the drag. For 100NR you can get right in there and board an elephant. The man tells the lovely pachyderm to spray you with her trunk, and she complies, leaving you refreshed and cracking up. Then it happens again and again. You’re right there on the elephant fascinated by the rough thick skin and sparse, course head hairs. This has got to be the most fun 100 rupees can buy. At night there’s a Tharu culture show, a traditional dancing and singing performance. We decided to go to “give them a little business” since there were so few people in town and we were afraid no one would show. Well, we showed up, and to our surprise, easily a hundred people also showed up. We had no idea it was going to be so popular, and were super happy to see that it was. The hit of the show was the peacock dance, in which a man in a peacock suit dances and flirts with the crowd. Very entertaining.
Anyway, this is how we had fun in Chitwan on the poor man’s safari. I’m not sure you could have a better time in the park, unless maybe you saw a tiger, which you most likely won’t according to the stats (Seriously though, who even wants to see a tiger? They eat people.). We were able to see all the animals we hoped for and felt pretty darn satisfied for beating the system.
*For reference, a US dollar was exchanged for 107 rupees at the time of our visit.