The name "sundarban" is translated to mean "beautiful forest". A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Sundarbans National Park has a magnificent tangle of mangrove forest that's the largest in the world. It's spread over approximately 10,000 square kilometers at the mouth of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers between India and Bangladesh, and bordering the Bay of Bengal. About 35% of the Sundarbans lies in India and the remainder is in Bangladesh. The Indian part is made up of 102 islands and just over half of them are inhabited.
What also makes the Sundarbans unique is that it's the only mangrove jungle in the world to have tigers -- and, they're strong swimmers! Long stretches of nylon net fencing have been installed on forest boundaries to prevent the tigers from venturing into villages. Most residents of the Sundarbans know someone who's been attacked by a tiger. Don't go expecting to see one though. They're very shy and usually remain well hidden.
The Sundarbans National Park sits within the larger Sundarban Tiger Reserve, which was created in 1973. All commercial and tourist activities are banned from the park's core area. A major part of the park's buffer zone consists of the Sajnekhali Wildlife Sanctuary, which is renowned for bird watching. In addition to tigers, the park is full of reptiles, birds, and other animals such as monkeys, wild boar, and deer.
The Sundarbans can only be accessed by boat. It's located about 100 kilometers (62 miles) southeast of Kolkata in the state of West Bengal. The nearest railway station is in Canning. The road goes up to Godkhali (around two and a half hours drive from Kolkata), which is known as the gateway to the Sundarbans. Gosaba Island, opposite Godkhali, is one of the major inhabited islands of the Sundarbans region, complete with hospital.
The actual entrance to the Sundarbans National Park is further in on Sajnekhali Island, where there's a watchtower complex, museum, mangrove interpretation center, turtle farm, crocodile enclosure, and head office of the Forest Department. This is where entry fees are paid.
The Sundarbans has two other wildlife sanctuaries apart from Sajnekhali Wildlife Sanctuary. They are located at Lothian Island and Haliday Island.
Sundarbans Permits and Fees
Foreigners need a permit to enter the national park and must provide their passport as identification. The permit can be obtained from the Forest Department at Sajnekhali or the West Bengal Tourism office, 2/3 BBD Bagh East (near the post office) in Kolkata. If you travel with a tour company, they will make the arrangements for you.
The park entry fee is 60 rupees for Indians and 200 rupees for foreigners. There's also a boat entry fee of 400 rupees per day for all zones, except for the interior Netidhopani zone (the fee for this zone is 800 rupees). It's compulsory to have one guide per boat, costing 400 rupees for Indians and 700 rupees for foreigners.
How to Visit the Sundarbans
When planning your trip to the Sundarbans, there are some important things you should consider in order to have a good experience. As there various ways you can go about visiting the Sundarbans, be sure to choose the one that best suits you. The options are:
- Travel completely independently. You can book a private boat that you can cruise around and sleep on. Or, stay at the Sajnekhali Tourist Lodge, operated by the West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation, and arrange private day or half day boat trips.
- Stay at a hotel or resort. There are limited options for accommodations at the Sundarbans. Hotels and resorts will usually provide transport from Kolkata, and offer various tours and culture programs that you can choose according to your interests.
- Take an organized tour. These are predefined group tours with fixed itineraries, and can either be day tours, overnight, or multiple nights with set accommodations included. They typically include boat trips through the waterways to visit watchtowers within the national park, and village visits on longer duration tours. You will be picked up from Kolkata and dropped back there.
Key considerations are flexibility and privacy. Keep in mind that the boat trips organized by hotels and tour operators will usually have many people on them. They may be noisy and spoil the serenity. In addition, the bigger boats are not able to go down narrow waterways where you're more likely to spot wildlife. If this is a concern, it's best to make arrangements independently.
Although it's possible to go on a day trip from Kolkata, most people spend at least one night at the Sundarbans. A day trip will enable you to explore the waterways by boat but staying longer you'll be able to visit more areas, walk or cycle around villages, go bird watching, and see cultural performances.
Options for Traveling Independently
Unfortunately, independent travel is quite laborious. It's best to go either by car or bus, as the train is an unreserved local train and may be very crowded. Popular routes are:
- By Car: Drive from Kolkata to Godkhali. From there it's best to take a ferry across the water to Gosaba, take a cycle rickshaw to Pakhiralay village on the other side of the island (it's a really picturesque, albeit bumpy, ride past mud houses and palm-fringed ponds), and then take another boat to Sajnekhali. It's possible to hire a boat and go straight from Godhkhali (two hours), although it's costly.
- By Bus: Public buses depart hourly (first departure at 6.30 a.m.) from the Babu Ghat Bus Terminus on Strand Road in Kolkata and go up to Sonakhali (three hours). Note: the bus terminus is being shifted to Santragachhi on the Kona Expressway in Kolkata. From Sonakhali take an auto rickshaw to Godhkali and proceed as above. You can also take a boat to Gosaba (one and half hours), cycle rickshaw to Pakhiralay, and boat to Sajnekhali. Or, take a boat to go strait to Sajnekhali (three hours).
- By Train: Go from Sealdah station in Kolkata to Canning (around two hours) and take an auto rickshaw or shared vehicle to Godhkali, then onward as above. Alternatively, take a boat to Sajnekhali from Canning (five hours).
Boats and guides are available from Sajnekhali for half or full day excursions through the mangroves.
Private and shared boat trips of various durations (including overnight or multiple nights) can also be arranged from Canning, Sonakhali, and Godkhali. If possible, take the boat from Godkhali because it's much closer to the national park entry point. For convenience, choose a package that includes both boat and food. India Beacons offers boat rentals.
Options for Staying at a Hotel or Resort
Given that the Sundarbans is an ecologically sensitive area, accommodations are more simple than luxurious, with an eco-friendly focus and village feel. Power is limited (it's either solar or produced by a generator) and water is not always hot. Take a look at these top Sundarbans hotels and resorts to see what's available.
If you're interested in standard budget hotels, you'll find many in the Pakhiralay village area on Gosaba Island (the main island before the entrance to the national park).
Options for Organized Tours
Options for visiting the Sundarbans on a tour include everything from luxury cruises to backpacker-style adventures. Here's what top Sundarban tour operators have to offer.
When to Visit
From November to February, while the weather is cool and dry. (Be sure to bring warm clothes). Summer, from March until June, is very hot and humid. The monsoon season, from July to September, is wet and windy.
What You Can Expect to See: Watchtowers and Wildlife
Sadly, some people are disappointed by the Sundarbans, usually because they go with high expectations of spotting wildlife -- especially a tiger. Wildlife spotting is hampered by the fact that you cannot explore the national park on foot or by vehicle. There are no jeep safaris. In addition, boats cannot touch down anywhere along the river banks in the national park, apart from designated watchtowers, and must exit the park boundaries by 6 p.m. (If you are staying aboard a boat, it will dock in the waterways outside the park, most likely close to a nearby village).
The watchtowers are enclosed by fences and the reality is that they're often full of loud, boisterous tourists.
There are a number of watchtowers that can be visited. However, some of them are far away and can require a full day return trip by boat. The most popular watchtowers, due to their proximity, are Sajnekhali, Sudhanyakhali, and Dobanki.
- Sajnekhali: As mentioned above, this is the main watchtower complex. It's a favorite of birdwatchers.
- Sudhanyakhali: This watchtower is where most of the tigers are sighted. There's also a pond frequented by families of spotted deer.
- Do Banki: This watchtower is renowned for having a 20 foot high enclosed canopy walk that extends for around 150 meters.
- Burir Dabri: This remote watchtower is located on Raimangal river adjoining Bangladesh, around five hours from Sajnekhali. It's notably picturesque and has a canopy walk over the mangroves that leads to a viewpoint with a panorama of Bangladesh. There's also a mud walk.
- Netidhopani: The ruins of a 400 year old temple can be found at this watchtower. Visitor numbers are limited and special permits are required.
- Bonnie Camp: The highest watchtower in the Sundarbans, it's 50 feet tall. This scenic watchtower is located close to the Bay of Bengal and takes around six hours to reach from Sajnekhali. There's a tourist rest house where you can stay overnight.
- Jhingekhali: This watchtower is located on the eastern most fringe of the Sundarbans, and it's often overlooked for its remoteness. It's quiet there, which boosts the chances of seeing a tiger. There are also many different kinds of birds.
I spent a day on a boat cruising around the waterways of the Sundarbans National Park and intermittently saw monkeys, crocodiles, water monitor lizards, wild boar, otters, spotted deer, and birds along the shores. The rest of the time, it was just water and trees!
What You Must Keep in Mind
The real enjoyment of visiting the Sundarbans comes from appreciating its pristine, tranquil natural beauty, rather than sighting animals. Take some time to wander (walk or cycle) through enchanting villages and discover the local way of life. Sample some honey, which is collected in the Sundarbans.
Plastic is banned in the region, although the rule has been difficult to enforce. Make sure you don't litter. In addition, remain as quiet as possible so as not to create a disturbance.
Be sure to bring plenty of money as there are no ATMs, apart from the State Bank of India at Gosaba.