Sundarbans National Park: A Complete Guide

Sundarbans National Park by boat.

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Sundarban National Park

Address
RVPM+8MW, Kolkata, West Bengal 743370, India

Sundarbans National Park—a UNESCO World Heritage Site— is best known for its magnificent tangle of mangrove trees, encompassing the largest mangrove forest in the world. The park spans 10,000 square kilometers (3,861 square miles) at the mouth of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers, which separates the countries of India and Bangladesh and borders the Bay of Bengal. Approximately 35 percent of the park lies in India, and the remainder is located in Bangladesh. On the Indian side, 102 islands are located within Sundarbans, and just over half of them are inhabited.

The word "sundarban" means "beautiful forest" in the local Bengali dialect. This swampy forest provides a home to a rare breed of Royal Bengal Tigers know to be strong swimmers. Long stretches of nylon net fencing have been installed on forest boundaries to prevent the tigers from venturing into the villages, as it's the only place in the world where tigers still hunt humans for food. Don't go expecting to see one though, as the native tigers usually remain hidden within the park's tiger reserve, a core zone where commercial and tourist activities are prohibited. Along the outskirts, in the Sajnekhali Wildlife Sanctuary, however, visitors can expect sightings of various reptiles, monkeys, wild boar, rare birds, and deer.

Things to Do

The real enjoyment of visiting Sundarbans National Park comes from appreciating its pristine, natural beauty. Sadly, some people are disappointed by their visit, usually because they go with high expectations of spotting tigers. Wildlife spotting is hampered by the fact that you cannot explore the national park on foot or by vehicle. There are no jeep safaris and boats cannot touch down anywhere along the river banks inside the national park.

Instead, take time to wander through enchanted villages, discover the local way of life, and take part in cultural performances. You can even sample honey collected by local villagers in the Sundarbans region.

Tourists can also visit the game watchtowers, the most popular of which—due to their proximity—are Sajnekhali, Sudhanyakhali, and Dobanki. Or, spend the day cruising the waterways by boat on a wager-guided safari, in search of monkeys, crocodiles, water monitor lizards, wild boar, otter, spotted deer, and birds.

Watchtower Sightings

Watchtowers located throughout the park provide a way for visitors to safely view wildlife. Three easily accessible towers offer DIY, hassle-free nature viewing for independent travelers. Sajnekhali is a favorite watchtower of birdwatchers, Sudhanyakhali offers you a decent chance of seeing tigers and spotted deer, and Dobanki has a 20-foot-high enclosed canopy for panoramic views of the park and its wildlife.

Other remote watchtowers require a full day of travel by boat to get to, but the reward for the journey is a pristine natural experience, free of crowds. Burir Dabri watchtower is located on the Raimangal River. It's notably picturesque and has a canopy walk over the mangroves that leads to a viewpoint. The ruins of a 400-year-old temple can be found at Netidhopani watchtower. Visitor numbers are limited here and special permits are required. Bonnie Camp is the highest watchtower in Sundarbans, at 50 feet tall. This scenic watchtower takes about six hours to reach from Sajnekhali, yet a rest house provides an overnight stay. Jhingekhali is located on the easternmost fringe of Sundarbans National Park and is often overlooked for its extreme remoteness. Still, this watchtower offers you the best chance of seeing a tiger, as well as several species of rare birds.

Organized Tours

There are various ways to go about visiting Sundarbans National Park, and for those who find independent travel to be logistically complicated, an organized tour provides a good option. Organized tours offer a predefined itinerary, including day tours, overnight tours, or multiple-day tours, with accommodations included. Guided tours typically include safari-style boat trips on the waterways to visit watchtowers and villages. And, most tours originate from Kolkata and drop you back off in the same location.

Before embarking on an organized tour, keep in mind a few considerations, like flexibility and privacy. Boat trips organized by hotels and tour operators will usually book a full group of people. Depending on the group's demographics, this could mean a noisy and boisterous experience that spoils the serenity of your visit. Additionally, the bigger boats are not suitable for the narrow waterways, where you're more likely to spot the park's wildlife. If this is a concern, it may be best to make independent arrangements and hire a private guide.

Where to Camp

Due to the wildness of this national park, primitive camping is not permitted on the grounds and many of the regional "jungle camps" do not offer tented options either. The one exception is Sunderban Tiger Camp, an eco-resort that offers glamping in canvas-covered huts. Each hut is 261 square feet and can accommodate up to four people on twin beds with Wellness Health Rest mattresses. Each hut has a western-style toilet, cold showers, and a hot water geyser option. Purified water, free Wi-Fi, and a wake-up service are complimentary with your stay.

Where to Stay Nearby

Given the ecological sensitivity of the Sundarbans area, most accommodations are simple, rather than luxurious, with an eco-friendly focus and a village feel. Power is limited (many hotels run on either solar or electricity produced by a generator), and the bathwater is not always hot. You can also book a houseboat for a completely different experience.

  • United 21 Resort-Sunderban: United 21 offers 18 deluxe, standard, or triple-bedded rooms set in a serene jungle atmosphere. All rooms come complete with air conditioning and modern amenities. An on-site restaurant provides a sampling of several Indian cuisines and jungle safaris can be organized upon request.
  • Sunderban Mangrove Retreat: Located in the Jamespore village on Satjalia island, this serene eco-friendly stay sits on the bank of the river. Choose from one of four air-conditioned executive rooms, eight air-conditioned, double-bedded cottages, or ten non-air-conditioned huts. This pristine property has four on-site ponds for fishing, and the restaurant provides local cuisine, including a catch of the day like crabs, prawns, and a wide variety of fish. The Mangrove Retreat also has two motor-driven boats that you can book for a wildlife water cruise.
  • Sundarban Houseboat: Book a one-night, two-night, or three-night stay, complete with a tour, on a Sundarban houseboat. Rooms on the boat come complete with air-conditioning, LED televisions, attached bathrooms, and freshly-cooked, exotic meals. Multi-day tours include island hopping and visiting remote villages, cruising the mangrove forest, and stopping at the watchtowers.

How to Get There

Sundarbans National Park can only be accessed by boat, as the main entrance is on Sajnekhali Island, where all entry fees are paid. It's located about 100 kilometers (62 miles) southeast of Kolkata in the state of West Bengal, where Netaji Subhash International Airport at Dumdum is situated.

Unfortunately, independent travel to the park is quite laborious. It's best to go either by boat, car, or bus, as the train—a local train that does not take reservations—may be very crowded. You can drive from Kolkata to Godkhali, Sonakhali, Namkhana, Canning, Raidighi, and Najat. Once you arrive, take a ferry or hire a boat to Sajnekhali.

Public buses depart hourly (starting at 6.30 a.m.) from Kolkata to Sonakhali on a three-hour ride. From Sonakhali, take an auto-rickshaw to Godhkali, the gateway village to Sundarbans, and then another boat to Sajnekhali.

Accessibility

Because Sundarbans National Park is remote in nature and surrounded by water, handicapped individuals must book an outfitter who offers special services that cater to their needs. One such option is Rudra Nature’s Sprout Boat. Nature's Sprout offers packages for "differently-abled" individuals that journey only to accessible destinations, while catering to the medical needs of its travelers. They also provide doctors and emergency equipment, should something go array.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Foreigners need a permit and a valid passport to enter Sundarbans National Park. A permit can be obtained from the forest department at Sajnekhali or at the West Bengal Tourism Office in Kolkata. If you travel with a tour company, they will make these arrangements for you.
  • There's a boat entry fee for all park zones, and it's compulsory to hire one guide per boat.
  • Pack warm clothes if you're visiting from November to February, as the weather is cool and dry.
  • During the summer (March through June) expect hot and humid weather, and July through September brings rains along with the monsoon season.
  • All plastic is banned in this region, although this rule has been difficult to enforce. Leave plastic water bottles and bags at home, and don't litter.
  • Make sure to carry plenty of cash, as there are no ATMs in the park.
  • Watchtowers are enclosed by fences and are often full of loud, boisterous tourists.
  • Most people spend at least one night at Sundarbans. By staying longer, however, you'll be able to visit more areas, walk or cycle around the villages, go bird watching, and see cultural performances.
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Sundarbans National Park: A Complete Guide