Chitwan National Park: Nepal’s big jungle filled with wildlife, touts and tourists
I’m going to go to Chitwan. I have to go to Chitwan. I should go to Chitwan. Those were the thoughts filling my head before arriving in Nepal. Chitwan national park was a place I never visited back in 2007 on my first visit. Filled with jungle, tigers, rhinos, elephants and all manner of adventure I’m not sure why it never appealed to me back then.
I think it had something to do with not liking the idea of “elephant rides” safari’s, and having recently left west africa where I’d seen so much without a hint of touristic endeavors. There’s something about seeing real wildlife in the wild as opposed to taking an elephant tour to see it. Silly notion, but aside from random strikes preventing buses from getting there I couldn’t think of another reason why I never went.
That is until this trip. Reading about getting to the park, the mandatory tours, the elevated “western” pricing and all manner of environmental excuses.
Yes … I began to recall very quickly those were the real reasons I did not and still was that inclined to go.
But after spending this much time in Nepal, I also felt an obligation to see this place. And possibly verify if my instincts were correct in the first place.
How to get to Chitwan National Park from Kathmandu
I won’t bore you with the step-by-step details here. I’ve actually written up a comprehensive guide on how to get to Chitwan National Park here if you are interested. Instead I will repeat what was repeated to me for the period of at least two-weeks by some locals.
“Banda, no bus.”
“Namaste! Banda, no bus!”
Yes, Nepal’s constant strikes both national and regional kept blocking the days I wanted to go or move on from Chitwan. A direct bus to Sauraha, the town beside the park, is what I wanted. No full day in a micro van for me. A four-hour bus. The problem was there were strikes happening all across the country so it could take me 2 -3 days of random stops from my reclusive abode in West Nepal to South Nepal. So I waited until I heard …
“No banda this week!”
And I left!
Arriving into the worst of tour bus stops in Sauraha
One of the problems of being in a country so long as a tourist is that you tend to think you know the way around the place quite well. And, for the most part I do. But I’ve never been to Chitwan/Sauraha. I read up about it and learned of the crazy priced daily tickets for the park and to avoid going into it. Stay in the town. One problem: where was the bus stop?
Somehow no one could tell me this simple thing? Where did the bus drop you? Silence. This is never good. It means, we either don’t know, or something is up. The solution?
“Book with my friends guesthouse sir, he pick you up for free?”
My turn to stay silent. No chance. It was too much money. Or at least it was an elevated price compared to the reality of guesthouse prices in Nepal.
Making my way to Kathmandu I boarded the 7am bus to Sauraha paying for my ticket on the spot to avoid guesthouse commissions. No big thing. There were four buses in our convoy. All of which seemed to be 50/50 local and tourist. One stop later for lunch and by 2 pm we arrived into an open dirt field with various 4×4’s bounding in behind us. Not a good sign.
Made worse by the bus driver refusing to tell me where we were. Thankfully a local man told me this was indeed Sauraha.
The bus stop was in the middle of nowhere and already surrounded by brochure waving Nepalese guesthouse owners.
I was trapped.
Where to go when you are surrounded by touts in the middle of nowhere?
Brushing aside all manner of tout I pushed my way to the baggage compartment outside the bus. To my left the touts were plucking up young tourists while touts waving signs with people’s names found their clients. If you’ve ever been in this situation you’ll know that one now has a choice.
Locate another lone tourist or start walking.
“Ten rupee we take you to Sauraha,” yelled one tout.
“Cheap guest house, only 500,” ranted another.
“Free lift, you come with us,” they went on.
I looked around. The bus park was really in the middle of a field with nothing around. No signs, no nothing. I visualized the map in my head. Get to the main road. So I walked down the dusty path as jeeps roared and clattered by with tourists holding on to metal railings for dear life. I could swear there were smirks from a few at the lone man who never booked ahead disappearing under their exhaust fumes.
I grumbled. Shook off a few more touts and continued to march on towards the main road as the sun grew ever hotter. My gut was telling me this was not going to end well.
It was right. At the main dirt road at the top of the field there were at least ten sign posts. One told me to go right for Sauraha which was good. Unfortunately there were another two telling me to go left and several others that mentioned “best Sauraha guesthouse”.
The road in either direction didn’t tell me anything.
“We go past Sauraha, 5 rupees only,” said a man from the last jeep as it rumbled past.
I nodded. Well, it was only 2pm. What could go wrong?
The jeep to the “best” guesthouse in Sauraha
On board the back of the jeep were a group of four other travelers. None of whom really wanted to say hello. Instead they talked to themselves and pretended the gate-crasher wasn’t there.
“You’re going to Sauraha?” I shouted over the din of the jeep.
Two ignored me, one looked over and pretended not to hear and I caught eye contact with the bearded one. He looked embarrassed.
“Are you going to Sauraha?” I repeated as if talking to someone with a slight learning impairment.
“I don’t know,” he finally shrugged. “We just booked a room at this place.”
“Oh,” I replied. “Do you know the name of it?”
“Sunshine river lodge, I think.”
And indeed five minutes later we were at Sunshine something lodge where everyone piled out. There was no sign of a town anywhere. Just a lodge surrounded by some trees. I boarded back into the jeep and repeated “Sauraha” to one of the drivers. He nodded, waved and we waited.
“You want stay here?”
Here we go. “No thanks, Sauraha village.”
“Okay.” The jeep started and we were off again sans unsociable tourists.
Ten minutes later and we pulled into a brand spanking new guesthouse near the river. Finally I had something to get my bearings. The driver got out and walked over to the guesthouse door. I knew this would be his last stop.
“800 rupees a room,” he said nonchalantly while lighting up a cigarette.
“No thanks, too much.”
He shrugged before walking over to some of his mates by a garden table. I’m guessing this is where some people might have got a little worried. No one was talking. Nor asking for their five rupee fee to nowhere. And no town. Me too.
If it wasn’t for the river I’d have been asking which direction I should go. Taking out my photocopied map I walked out of the compound and back up the road we had come down on. Time for a long walk back.
Sauraha: a package tourist friendly town
I’ll save the long walk in the heat trauma for another day’s story. All in all it took about 40 minutes but I slowly made it back along the same road until I got to an elephant statue that told me to take a right for Sauraha. I wasn’t too far away from tourists I guessed as a real life elephant sauntered passed me while I stopped off for a cooling drink and directions at a local store.
“100 rupee taxi?”
Elephant taxi? If it had been back at the bus stop I might have said yes. As it turned out I was already on the main road. Stopping once again I had lunch and then made my way from guesthouse to guesthouse asking for prices.
Finding cheap (good) accommodation in Chitwan/Sauraha
This was a package tourist town. Meaning nearly every guesthouse or hotel I visited was trying to sell their jungle treks, elephant rides and tiger spotting tours with my room. Even my own great hotel search page only came up with more resort style options than cheap basics. This was an on the ground job.
I found two suitable places to stay. One opposite the other. It took 15 minutes going back and forth but I’d got the prices of tours and accommodation to just about everything I needed.
Some more bargaining and finally a Mr. Ali caved in to my “No other tourist is staying here / I’m going to stay here a while.” bargaining card.
One room, private bathroom and free breakfast 250 rupees. It had a generator too along with WiFi that reached my room.
Okay, now I was happy.
Package tours only please: What to do in a town where they don’t want independent tourists?
Thinking of going to Chitwan National Park? I’ve written a complete guide on getting to Chitwan easily so you don’t have to go through the above! Read it here: How to get to Chitwan National Park Nepal
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