Chitwan National Park: The Complete Guide

rhino standing in a pond surrounded by bushes

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Chitwan National Park

GFM2+JXW, Sonepur 44200, Nepal
Phone +977 56-411024

Think of Nepal and you might immediately think of tall mountains and ancient temples. However, the Terai—the flat plains bordering North India—offers a totally different kind of experience. The Chitwan National Park is the most accessible of the national parks and wildlife reserves on the Terai. It's easy to reach from both Kathmandu and Pokhara, making it an ideal place to detour en route between the two cities. Chitwan is the stuff of jungle safari dreams; you can spot elephants, rhinos, gharial crocodiles, and even the Royal Bengal Tiger if you're lucky (although there's a higher chance of seeing them in the Bardia National Park, further west on the Terai).

The Indigenous people of the Chitwan area are the Tharu, whose culture, language, and cuisine is different from the Nepali cultures you'll find at higher altitudes. The Tharu have been marginalized by "mainstream" Nepal for centuries and many have been displaced from their ancestral land, but visitors today can find many opportunities to learn about Tharu life and culture from their villages near the national park.

Note that Chitwan refers to a whole district of Nepal that stretches way up into the hills. When making plans to visit the national park, make sure to specify that you want to visit the national park rather than just the district. Having said that, many of the activities discussed below happen outside the boundaries of the national park itself, and visiting Chitwan doesn't mean exclusively staying within the national park.

Chitwan National Park, Sauraha

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Things to Do

Most activities in the Chitwan National Park revolve around wildlife and bird spotting, and there are many ways to do this.

Jeep or Ox Cart Safaris

The easiest way to take a tour of the park is to join a Jeep or bullock cart safari. The former can cover more distance but is noisier and more likely to disturb the animals. Bullock cart safaris are more atmospheric, although not as comfortable. Reputable tours use experienced, highly knowledgeable naturalist guides who know a lot about the animals and birds, and the best places to go to find them depending on the conditions of the day. Note that some operators offer elephant-back safaris, however, they are not recommended for ethical reasons.

Walking Safaris

A fun alternative to the aforementioned safaris is to go on foot. This is a more peaceful option than going in a vehicle, and it can give you the chance to get close to some animals that might run away at the sound of a Jeep. However, there is a not-insignificant element of risk. Hundreds of one-horned rhinoceros live in Chitwan; although they are one of the park's main attractions, encountering an enormous rhino when you're on foot is risky, even with the best guides. Be aware of these risks, and perhaps leave the kids behind.

Canoe Rides

Riding in a traditional dug-out canoe along the Rapti or Narayani Rivers is a great way to see a range of birds, to enjoy the landscape in peace, and to get a good look at thin-snouted gharial crocodiles. These crocodiles are highly endangered but surprisingly common in Chitwan.

Cycling Through Villages

The Terai is flat and the villages and towns are small, so cycling is a great way of getting around and catching a glimpse of local life. Many hotels and guesthouses will offer bicycle hire or even guided tours. Rice and other crops are grown outside the national park boundaries, and a sunset bike ride is a lovely way to end the day.

Tharu Cultural Performances

The local Tharu people are proud of their culture and are happy to share it with visitors. Like elsewhere in Nepal, there is a lack of opportunities for young Tharu people and many (particularly men) migrate to the cities or abroad for work. Some Tharu cultural initiatives have been formulated as a way to keep young Tharu at home in their villages and to keep their traditions alive. Many resorts offer Tharu cultural shows with singing, dancing, and traditional dress. While they may sometimes seem a bit "touristy," they do help showcase and maintain the culture of a marginalized group.

wooden canoes lined up on a bend in a river with hills in distance

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Where to Stay

You can't stay within the boundaries of the national park itself (and with the range of wildlife, you probably wouldn't want to anyway!) but there are a couple of ideal bases for day trips into the park. The small town of Sauraha, southeast of Bharatpur, is the main access point for the park and has the greatest concentration of accommodation and tour companies. Travelers seeking a less touristy experience sometimes head to Barauli, located west of the park. Although there are fewer amenities there, the lodges and homestays are of very good quality, and you'll have a more peaceful experience than in Sauraha.

How to Get There

Bharatpur, the main city in Chitwan, is 93 miles from Kathmandu and 80 miles from Pokhara. Given the condition of Nepal's roads and traffic, the overland journey to or from either of these cities can take anywhere from three-to-four hours to a whole day. If you're in no hurry to get there and subscribe to the philosophy that the journey is more important than the destination, then going overland is a good way to experience the change in landscape between Nepal's mid-hills and the Terai. However, be prepared for traffic jams, headache-inducing roads, and some terrifying driving.

Tourist buses are the most comfortable way to reach Chitwan from the capital, and they're much safer than "local" buses. They're also affordable by international standards, and you'll find that most passengers are Nepali anyway.

Alternatively, you can hire a car and driver to make the journey. It's a more comfortable option than the bus, but much more expensive; higher-end accommodation will often offer this for an additional fee.

If you don't have the time or the constitution to travel overland to Chitwan, there's a domestic airport at Bharatpur. The airport offers flights to and from Kathmandu multiple times per day, but on a more limited schedule compared to Pokhara. Although the flights take barely half an hour, they are much more expensive than the bus, and it's not uncommon to spend all day at the airport waiting to board a delayed flight.

Tips for Your Visit

  • The Chitwan area has a totally different climate from other parts of Nepal that travelers generally visit. While winters are short, sharp, and often foggy, the rest of the year sees more humidity and temperatures several degrees higher than in Kathmandu or Pokharamuch. Pack accordingly with loose-fitting cotton clothes.
  • With the higher temperatures comes an increase in mosquitoes. The Chitwan area itself doesn't have a problem with malaria (some other parts of the Terai do) but there are occasional dengue fever outbreaks. Protect yourself from being bitten by using insect repellant, covering your skin in long clothes, and sleeping under a mosquito net or a ceiling fan.
  • If you're flying to or from Bharatpur, try to get on the first flight of the day. Flights in Nepal are often delayed due to the weather, and when they start up again, passengers are prioritized in the order of their flight departure time, from earliest to latest.
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Chitwan National Park: The Complete Guide