Is it possible for an independent traveler to enjoy a package tour town?
If you’ve been reading here for a while you’ll know I’m a big fan of independent travel. While many people keep to different standards of “independent travel” my own definition includes no group tours, no follow the leader trails, no “tourist only buses”. The list goes on, but that’s about it.
Normally making your way to a place independently is a lot cheaper, offers a better experience and is far more fulfilling. Visiting Sepilok in Sabah, Borneo independently for a day on a local bus for a few dollars vs a lot more for a package tour is one recent example. Another is going trekking in Nepal by just getting a guide here when you arrive rather than booking online. The savings can run into many hundreds of dollars. It’s also one of the reasons I initially felt so devastated by the news that Nepal was going to ban solo trekking (they since reversed this decision – and I’ve updated the details).
That’s not to say all package tours are bad. They might suit some people on limited time frames. But in my experience. For what I like. They are not for me.
What to do though when you have no choice? Chitwan National Park in Nepal is a prime example of a place where they make it as hard as possible to enjoy yourself without taking a package tour.
What makes it so hard to travel independently to & around Chitwan National Park?
Getting to Chitwan National park is not really that hard. It’s the hassle of it that’s annoying. Let alone if you are on a strict budget. A simple shuttle jeep at the bus park or a sign post for the right direction could fix all this. The hassles keep coming though.
Try calling a guesthouse and asking how much their rooms are. You are told a flat fee, no bargaining.
Fair enough. Then you get the hard tour sales and the rooms become cheaper as the more deals are thrown at you. Of course no one tells you the exact price of the tour during all this. And, for the experienced you know that it’s better to bargain in person and not over the phone.
There’s no issue in getting a local bus to here. There is an issue trying to get from the bus to Sauraha town next to Chitwan. Touts bombard you with brochures the moment you leave the bus in the middle of a field. Don’t want them. Okay, bye, enjoy the 3km walk to town. If you turn left that is.
Again, it’s not hard. But it’s a hassle.
Now enter Sauraha town and start looking for a room. Rooms are secondary priorities here. They are cheap. The real money is made with jungle treks, elephant rides, rhino spotting and the list goes on.
Sauraha is not about the place but about the “package tour” you want or can afford to buy
Can I just go by myself into Chitwan National Park?
Okay so you took a local bus to Sauraha, got to local guesthouse and found a room that doesn’t include a hard sell Chitwan national park tour package. Great. Now how about that trek into the jungle to see rhinos and all manner of wildlife?
Well, you need a park ticket for a start.
Can’t you just jump over the fence? Sure. Well it’s a river not a fence in this case. You’ll need to cross it. But you can just the same. Just remember it’s a jungle. With wild rhino, tiger, crocodile and sloth bears to name just a few of the creatures that may be lurking in there. What’s more, the place has a lot of armed army patrols looking for poachers. Additionally most of the locals want you to pay for a guide as it supports the local economy and the chances are they will report you.
Finally if you do make it into the park by yourself then there’s the whole where to go now thing? Follow the river? Great, you’ll be bumping into trained park rangers who’ll spot you a mile away and bring you back before you’ve even seen an ant hill.
So yes, you need a ticket and should get a trained guide to get the most out of it and possibly avoid being shot/killed/eaten.
Can I get my own ticket and guide?
Yes, you can. Follow the main Sauraha road down to the Rapti river, turn left. Walk by the riverside guesthouses where the touts will start to follow you. Make your way to a dead-end. Find a tiny rocky trail and go left. By now at least one independent guide will have attached himself to you to make friends and tell you his sob story. Walk past the army post.
Don’t bother asking for the directions to the Chitwan National Park ticket office. The answer will be “yes.’ Just yes, no more. Unless you are a lone female in which case you’ll be positively carried to the office followed by a love “sob” story.
Once at the park office you can now buy your 500 rupees “foreigner” ticket aka “westerner” ticket. Or 200 SAARC or 20 rupee local ticket. You can also book an elephant jungle safari on one of the government elephants here. By the way your 500 rupee ticket is for one day only.
I’ve written a section on guide to Chitwan National park tickets here. It will help with how to make the most of this current rip off pricing structure.
Which is cheaper a Chitwan National park tour package or doing it yourself?
The touts vanish when you go up to the empty ticket counter. Feeling relieved that the touts have fallen back you peer into the museum beside it out of curiosity. One step in this direction though and they flock around again.
You will get an ear full of stories about being cheated by the government and having their licences taken and why hiring them as a guide will be supporting their village. Old laminated faded ID cards are flashed in front of you as proof of something and then it all becomes too much so you simply want to leave. Prices are offered to you. Take note of them.
Where to find the best price? Back at the guesthouse you look at the package tour menu, sorry, “brochure“. The prices are cheaper. Well except for that one tout who wanted to take me on a private walk to see the rhino around the corner from the museum. Emmm, no thanks.
Pricing tier for elephant safari (example) = Online booking: insane prices. Kathmandu prices: not so insane. Buy a ticket yourself 30-50% cheaper than Kathmandu. Buy from guesthouse in Sauraha with bartering – the cheapest, fastest and easiest option.
To avoid the hassles try using my Chitwan hotel search to see some examples of guesthouse prices in Chitwan that also offer package tours.
Jungle treks, elephant washing, tiger tours and rhino spotting in Chitwan all have their price
It’s been like this for years. If not for the insane Chitwan daily ticket price and the tiered tourist prices I wouldn’t object too much. Sitting with my fairly open guesthouse owner Ali: he spilled the beans on the pricing schemes in Chitwan.
There’s an elephant owners mafia in Sauraha apparently. It’s also multi faceted. From owners to the licensing committee to the National park committee to the Mahout committee (the elephant riders) the list goes on. In short it’s all tied up.
Jungle trekking rangers are all qualified and the ones with certification can charge a set rate. Of course they need to renew their license yearly and this comes from two agencies. Both hiking up the fee structure as they feel. That’s not including the government scheme for official park rangers which is also fairly convoluted.
Add to this the sad fact that the animals are disappearing from Chitwan due to mass tourism, poaching and exploitation due to mismanagement.
Without the animals there is no money to be made. Officials here know this. So it’s speculated that now is the time to squeeze as much money from the area as possible.
Chitwan National Parks slow collapse
About 10 years ago it wasn’t hard to spot a tiger in Chitwan. Rhinos and wild elephants were so plentiful they were more of a danger to villages than difficult to spot. Poaching of rhinos and tigers has played a key part in all this. And the government has taken action.
Army stations and caught poacher stories are evident everywhere. Though the army presence, it must be noted, is also due to Chitwan’s proximity to the volatile Terrai region.
The main contributing factor to disappearing wildlife in Chitwan today is the human tourist industry. It has forced the shy tiger back into the depths of the jungle as people in their daily hundred charge out to look for them.
Wild Elephants exist but you’ll be hard pressed to see them. Only stories. And although rhinoceros numbers are up they too are moving out into deeper jungle.
Chitwan is simply not as it once used to be and neither is Sauraha.
Elephant rides are no longer exotic treks into the quiet jungle. It’s like a mass tourist taxi station queuing up for one these days.
Giant tour buses roll up outside the elephant docking stations in Sauraha. Streams of package tourists roll out with cheesy grins. Squeal nervously as they board an elephant and wait for the main gate man to wave a flag as 20 or so elephants head into a certain section of forest for and hour or so.
I’m avoiding the word circus for a reason. But I can’t help it. An elephant safari in Chitwan can be pretty much like attending a living jungle circus.
I’ll take you on one shortly so you can see for yourself whether it’s for you or not. Stay tuned.
Sauraha’s over reliance on tourism
For a while things were good. New guesthouses sprang up and continue to do so every day. Everyone in the area either wanted to be a park guide, mahout, hotel worker or work anywhere where there were tourists.
The result today due to Nepal’s unstable government and over tourism has led to dwindling animal numbers and many of the guesthouses in Sauraha are empty.
As animals retreated into the jungle and national strikes crippled independent transport the package tours took over. Private buses power into town directly to the elephant / rhino jungle treks. Then either to “select” partner hotels or back to Kathmandu, Pokhara or Lumbini.
Package tours to Chitwan are easy to manage, charge and control. Local business not in the package loop try in vain to offer their own packages as they both think this is what tourists like and it’s become the only way to actually make money to survive.
It’s not working. The end result is independent tourists are finding it too much of a hassle to go to Chitwan/Sauraha and have no desire nor need to stay longer than need be. There’s little else to do here aside from jungle activities.
Everything is centered around the Chitwan National Park and wildlife. And they’ve completely overused and ground down this natural resource to the point of no return.
The future of Chitwan National Park & Sauraha
I don’t see Chitwan recovering anytime soon. I see it turning into some sort of Disneyesque safari park once some Chinese investor finally steps in to save/profit from it. There has already been talk of this.
Much like the killing of the Annapurna circuit by putting a road in to cater for those not wanting to trek the “trekking circuit” but drive along it. Or more recently the atempt at banning independant trekking in Nepal.
Just like those two examples Chitwan will also survive. Just not as we know it. Or perhaps not how we would like to see it.
Meanwhile Sauraha town will simply tag along.
By all means don’t let this article put you off visiting. Chitwan National Park still contains inklings of adventure. Particularly the walking jungle safari. But I think you might also shudder slightly at the package tour monotony that’s taken over here as you queue with 50 or so other tourists for your jungle elephant safari to spot a rhino.
I’m sure somewhere there is a business person contemplating how to fence in rhinos for “guaranteed spotting” to stretch out this park’s tourism lifespan another few more decades.
The irony is that at this stage perhaps the mass tourism that’s killing Chitwan and Sauraha, which also includes visits from independent travelers like me too, may also be keeping a town alive.
A rhino family protected. And a tiger from … well … extinction.
Perhaps the Chitwan National Park and Sauraha relationship is more a reflection of how our greed perversely can save an ecosystem and village once we’ve molded them into their most profitable forms.
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