Nepal is synonymous with its mountains, especially so with the world’s highest peak. It is then only natural to think of the erstwhile kingdom as one that only boasts alpine and tundra landscapes. But its abundance of nature based places of interest are more diverse. In fact, a large chunk of Nepal’s topography is tropical, with warm temperatures and dense forests. Several of these have been designated as reserve forests and the Chitwan National Park is the country’s oldest.
Originally called the Royal Chitwan National Park, it was formally opened in 1973. The term ‘royal’ was dropped from its name after Nepal’s monarch was ousted following a long spell of political turmoil.
Chitwan is now recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, more so for its successful conservation of the one-horned rhino and the Bengal tiger. Their numbers have seen fair increases over the past five decades.
In a former guise though, Chitwan was the playground of royals and aristocrats. As with maharajas, it was their very own shikaar–or hunting–territory.
Simple, yet specific driving pointers
The bulk of tourist accommodations in Chitwan have been built in two villages — Sauraha and Pathiani. We decided to drive to Sauraha during the Durga puja break of 2018. Personally, I’d already driven to and from Kathmandu on at least three occasions. I was, therefore, familiar with the route up to Hetauda — a major industrial town in Nepal.
The earlier access to Kathmandu meant crossing Hetauda. From there, a short but steep Dakshin Kali route took about 3.5 hours to the capital. But large vehicles could only take the route from Hetauda via Mugling. And Sauraha was along this latter road.
Although I had access to Google Maps, a friend’s simple, yet specific, instructions were adequate. He told me, “Turn left from Hetauda and keep driving until you see a concrete rhino. Turn left from the rhino.” Armed with this advice, my parents and I set out from Siliguri on a warm October morning in 2018.
To Karvitta and onward
The Indo-Nepal border has two towns — Panitanki on the Indian side and Kakarvitta in Nepal. While Panitanki is a choc-a-bloc centre with a railway track adding to its traffic woes, Kakarvitta feels airier in comparison. What is also interesting news for gambling enthusiasts is the presence of a proper casino or two there. There are also numerous restaurants serving up fried and barbecued delights.
Driving into Nepal was an easy affair prior to the pandemic. All it needed was a permit for one’s vehicle, which was issued against payment of INR350 for each day of stay in the country. Besides, there are no fees or visa requirements for Indian visitors.
The drive across Nepal’s Terai region was mostly uneventful. The road surface was pothole free mostly and there are relatively lesser four wheelers. But there are motorcycles aplenty and it does take a fair bit of concentration to drive on this narrow single-lane highway.
We stopped for tea after crossing the Kosi. This was when I also caught sight of fresh fish being fried. I knew I had to sample some. In hindsight, chai and fried fish wasn’t the ideal combination.
Following lunch at Bardibas, we reached Sauraha just after sundown — at around 6:30 pm. The place we were booked at was called Chautari Garden Resort. However, Murphy’s Law almost always ‘sides’ with me and I must explain why. Along the road leading to Sauraha from the concrete rhino, there were large sign boards with the names of all hotels and resorts in the village. All except the one we were to stay at. This led us to question ourselves if we’d made a booking at some non-existent place.
However, as we continued along, we asked two motorcycle borne gentlemen for directions. Their response was a pleasant surprise. Instead of giving me directions, they simply asked us to follow them and led us right to the resort.
We were glad to discover it was a beautiful, well maintained place. While Mum took time freshening up, Dad and I were raring to visit town and begin partying in earnest.
A short while later, we drove to town and proceeded along the main thoroughfare. Flanking the main road were variety stores, cafes, handicraft stores and restaurants. Further along, as we approached the river, there were places serving sekuwa; this is the traditional barbecue preparation available across Nepal.
What immediately caught my eye was the neat store displays. For instance, every soft drink can had its label turned outward or each bag of chips stood upright. This sheer neatness was a visual delight.
We found ourselves a little open air restaurant by the riverside. The gentle breeze was a welcome addition, and the slow pace of life all around, felt ideal. Generous helpings of sekuwa and a couple of beers later, we returned to our resort and called it a night.
The following morning, we decided to explore town. None of us are too fond of sight seeing in the literal sense of the term. And so we simply took our time and strolled around. Now Nepal has packaged some mundane activities into “must-dos” with inimitable style. One such popular offering, and especially so with western tourists, was a bullock cart ride. Each one hour ride was priced at an astronomical INR1800.
We were, however, keen to try the jungle safari. Following lunch, we visited a tour operator and booked a slot for the next morning at 5:30 am. We spent the rest of the day lazing in a riverside restaurant, while drawing comparisons to Kaziranga National Park in Assam. On the same right, we stopped short of comparing it to Lataguri in North Bengal. Lataguri really is a disappointment in all respects, although a “big-city apartment dwelling” traveler may find it to be their spot for some soul searching.
Chitwan’s simplicity is its USP
The jungle safari was rather basic in comparison to how well some of the other activities were packaged. Nonetheless, we spotted a snoozing rhino, a few spotted deer and many gharials in the water body that ran alongside the park’s dirt road. Gharials are reptiles, close in resemblance to crocodiles. They are native to India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar. However, their numbers have declined considerably and Chitwan is now among the few areas where their populations thrive.
Having visited Kaziranga several times, the safari in Chitwan was a tad underwhelming. But aside from this one minor shortcoming, Chitwan was far ahead of any national park I have visited in northeast India.
Later that afternoon, we feasted on a Thakali meal. In fact, good food was a major highlight of this trip. Each location offered a great experience and even the in-house restaurant at our hotel served up delicious fare. We were also fascinated when we learnt our host was a South Korean lady. She’d visited Nepal eons ago, fallen in love with the place and then she married a local. Together, husband and wife were definitely living “happily ever after”.
The three nights at Chitwan passed by in a jiffy. While there was nothing extraordinary about the place, I definitely see myself going back. Perhaps, I do want to sample an ‘exotic’ bullock cart ride. But more than anything, the diversity in cuisine, friendly locals and Chitwan’s slow pace have together carved a special place on my mind.