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While it was the trekking that brought us to Nepal, we were looking forward to a well-rounded itinerary that included culture, wildlife, history and adventure. To hit the wildlife component, we planned to visit Nepal’s most well known National Park – Chitwan National Park. Once we arrived in Nepal, we started to doubt if it was worth the effort and time to get to Chitwan.
In this post we are going to weigh in to answer the “Should you visit Chitwan National Park” question as well as offer lots of helpful information for those visiting.
You can also read about the other places we visited in Nepal:
- 1 About Chitwan National Park
- 2 When to Visit Chitwan
- 3 Chitwan Safari Options
- 4 Our Chitwan National Park Safari Experience
- 5 What to Bring on Safari
- 6 Other Things to do in Chitwan
- 7 Travel Insurance in Nepal
- 8 Shopping in Sauraha
- 9 Chitwan National Park Hotels
- 10 Getting to Chitwan
- 11 How Much Time to Spend in Chitwan?
- 12 Chitwan National Park with Kids
- 13 Our Verdict – Should You Visit?
About Chitwan National Park
Chitwan National Park is a protected jungle area filled with wildlife in the Terai region of Nepal, right along the Indian border. It is steamy and tropical and a completely different climate and terrain from the Himalayas.
While it was once a popular hunting ground for royalty, in 1973 the National Park was created and in 1984 it became a UNESCO World Heritage site. Unfortunately while the founding of the park was to protect the remaining endangered animals there, the Tharu communities were forced off their lands and treated inhumanely by the military.
The animals that get the most attention at Chitwan are tigers and rhinos, although there are many other game and bird species to be seen. While the allure of seeing a tiger was present, after reading the guidebooks and blog posts, we understood the chance of seeing one in the wild there was almost nil. Our group had been on safaris in Africa and Asia before and we wondered if we might be disappointed if we didn’t seen any big animals.
The main tourist centre of Chitwan is Sauraha, a dusty, sleepy village that lives on tourism. Other than wildlife spotting, there isn’t much to do in Sauraha besides sitting by the river and enjoying a cold drink.
When to Visit Chitwan
Chitwan National Park is open throughout the year, but the weather dictates what you will likely see at different points in the year.
February to April is the best time of year to see the larger wildlife as they come out to the water holes due to the hot and dry weather. This is when you have the best chance of seeing a tiger, but remember that still means almost no chance! We visited Chitwan in April.
November to January is also a good time, is quieter and not as hot.
June to September is monsoon season in Nepal and also very hot. Wildlife is harder to spot as they move deeper into the cooler jungle.
Chitwan Safari Options
There are four main options for seeing wildlife in Chitwan. In addition to paying the cost of the safari, you will be required to pay the 2,000 rupee/person/day ($24 CAD) National Park fee (children under 10 are free).
Trekking Safari on Foot – half-day, full-day or multi-day walks are available. Since we were traveling with kids, this wasn’t an option we considered, but it could be a really cool experience. You go with a guide and everything is included. Meals are fairly basic and you will sleep in jungle lookout towers or tents. Prices start at 2,500-5,000 rupees per person ($30-60 CAD) for a day trek, based on a group of 4.
Jeep Safari – we did a full-day jeep safari and this is what I would recommend as the best way to experience Chitwan. It allows you to go deep into the jungle with the best chances of viewing all wildlife, but be prepared for a very long day with lots of driving. We paid $190 CAD for our group of 10. Unfortunately these safaris are priced per vehicle, so it can be expensive for a smaller group. I would suggest trying to meet up with others to share the cost, at your hotel or through the tour company. It is also possible to do 2 or 3 day jeep safaris. I will talk more about our jeep safari experience below.
Elephant Safari – you can do a private or government jungle safari by elephant in Chitwan, but riding elephants is controversial in Asia. While strides have been made to improve the conditions that the Chitwan elephants work under, chaining and metal hooks are still used. Therefore we do not recommend elephant safaris in Chitwan, but if you do want to spend time in the company of these gentle giants, there are other ethical options available (mentioned below).
River Boat Safari – river boat cruise are offered in tours lasting 1-3 hours. The boats are homemade narrow dugouts and are best for visitors interested in seeing crocodiles or some of the 544 types of birds in Chitwan. All jeep safaris start with a short boat trip across the river, which was enough for us. Prices are similar to a half-day walking safari.
Our Chitwan National Park Safari Experience
They tell you over and over when you go to Chitwan not to expect to see a tiger and so we had no expectations. Since we were a group of 10, we hired a full jeep (10-person) for a full-day safari. Our English speaking guide met us on the banks of the river and we boarded a narrow dugout boat for the short river crossing (included in jeep safari cost).
We met up with our driver and eagerly boarded our jeep. The jeeps are well set up for wildlife viewing with raised seats. Our first wildlife spotting was peacocks hanging out in the trees – that was a first for us! We saw lots of peacocks as we headed deeper into the Park. Less than an hour into our safari as we were cruising along, a tiger walked across the path right in front of us. We were all in complete and utter shock and it took us a couple of seconds to register that, we were indeed seeing a tiger in the wild. He sauntered off, but one of the kids got a great video of him. We knew it was pretty special because the guide and driver were very excited and animated, taking photos. They said they hadn’t seen a tiger in over a month and reminded us how crazy lucky we were. We were gob-smacked!
Feeling giddy we continued on and saw a few one-horned rhinos, which are majestic animals. We saw many bird species that I can’t all recall, although I remember the hornbills and eagles. We saw three different types of deer, monkeys and some wild boars.
You don’t encounter wild elephants in Chitwan, but you go through many military checkpoints and can see the elephants the rangers use to patrol the Park.
We stopped to eat our packed lunch at a peaceful place long the river. Our hotel had packed us a simple lunch, which was perfect. Having successfully seen so much and traveled so far into the Park, the afternoon was spent mostly driving back to Sauraha. We did stop to watch some rhinos occasionally and the many deer and birds. I developed a fondness for this cool white bird that looked like sperm flying across the sky (I wish I could remember its name!) We stopped at the government crocodile breeding centre (100 rupees/$1 CAD) and had a quick look around and some very welcome cold drinks.
Our guide was great and along with the driver, were great at spotting wildlife. He was very knowledgeable about the animals and happily answered our questions.
We arrived back at our starting point 10 hours from when we first started, at 5 pm. After crossing back over the river, we found a bar to enjoy a cold beer overlooking the river. We were still savouring our luck and good fortune to have had such a successful safari, including seeing an elusive tiger. It was a long and exhausting day in the heat and dust, but definitely worth it!
What to Bring on Safari
- lots and lots of water
- lunch and snacks
- a wide brim hat
- mosquito spray (dengue and sometimes malaria are found in the Park)
- long clothes to protect from the sun and mosquitoes
- binoculars if you have them
Other Things to do in Chitwan
Sunset on the River – watching the sunset on a deck overlooking the river with a cold drink in hand is a must. There are a few bars and restaurants in town to choose from.
Walk Along the River – on the south side of Sauraha, you can walk along the river without paying that National Park fee. Crocodiles on the river and rhinos in the marshes can often be spotted. This was a nice and short activity to do when we first got there to get us excited about our safari.
See a Rhino Wander Down the Street – really this happens in Sauraha and happened to us. The rhino had no idea he was out of place and just wandered through town sniffing around.
Elephant Breeding Centre – most tour companies in town will encourage a visit to the government elephant breeding centre. Although conditions have improved, must visitors are disappointed by their visit. You can read the Tripadvisor reviews here. Elephants are bred here to work in the jungle, but are kept chained and show evidence of psychological damage. Entrance is 50 rupees ($1 CAD) and it will take an hour to walk there from Sauraha.
Elephant Bathing – at first glance, watching the mahouts bathe their elephants seems like a good ethical wildlife encounter. Since these tours pay the mahouts more than they earn working with the elephants, you are essentially paying for the elephants to get a much needed break. We paid 350 rupees ($4 CAD+tips) per person for the kids to do this activity and they did have fun getting wet with the elephants. But, the mahouts encourage riding and posing on the elephants in the water, which really took away from the experience for us.
Tharu Village Visit – the Tharu are an indigenous group in the area that you can visit. It can be difficult to find an “authentic” experience. You can see the traditional mud huts, how they make fishing baskets and the farming tools they use. Tours cost 1,000 rupees ($12 CAD).
Travel Insurance in Nepal
As soon as you start booking your trip to Nepal, make sure you have good travel insurance. We use and recommend World Nomads because they know and understand travel in developing countries. They offer medical, evacuation and baggage coverage in 130 countries for adventurous travelers.
Shopping in Sauraha
Shopping is much better and cheaper in Kathmandu or Pokhara, but there are a few interesting shops along the main street. Look our for woodcarvers, a local honey shop and fair trade store.
Chitwan National Park Hotels
Chitwan Gaida Lodge (budget) – we were happy staying here with friendly staff and a decent restaurant. Rooms are a bit older, but they do have cottages that work well for families. It is located a 5 minute walk from the main street in Sauraha. Click here to check the latest prices.
Tiger Tops (eco-luxury) – Tiger Tops has pioneered the conservation efforts at Chitwan and provides two wonderfully unique places to stay. Choose from Tharu Lodge, a wilderness retreat with a swimming pool or Elephant Camp, which provides an immersive elephant experience and safari tent accommodation. Tiger Tops is one of the best hotels in Chitwan. Both are located near a different part of the Park, away from Sauraha. Click here to check the latest prices.
Green Park Chitwan (mid-range) – a nice modern hotel with a swimming pool and attentive staff, this is a good choice for Chitwan National Park accommodation. Click here to check the latest prices.
Getting to Chitwan
Bus: Buses from Kathmandu to Sauraha take 5-6 hours, from Pokhara 5-6 hours and to Lumbini 4 hours. You can choose between the local or tourist bus. Tickets cost 700- 1,600 rupees ($8- 16 CAD).
Private taxi: You can hire a private vehicle to transport you to Pokhara or Kathmandu, which is quicker. Since we were a group of 10, we hired a van from Sauraha to Kathmandu and paid 14,000 rupees ($165 CAD) for the 5 hour journey.
Combine with River Rafting: From Pokhara, you can take a 2-day Seti River Rafting Trip with Paddle Nepal, that finishes less than an hour from Sauraha. This is what we did and it was fantastic. This eliminates the long bus journey between Pokhara and Chitwan. You can read about it here.
How Much Time to Spend in Chitwan?
Allocate 1-3 days to experience Chitwan National Park. We were there for 48 hours and that was the perfect amount of time for us. We did the full day jeep safari, elephant bathing, sunset drinks, walked through town and relaxed and tried to stay cool at our hotel.
Chitwan National Park with Kids
The main reason we opted to include Chitwan in our Nepal itinerary was to give the kids a safari experience. While our jeep safari was a really long day, they loved spotting and learning about the wildlife. Having done safaris in Sri Lanka when the kids were very young, I wouldn’t recommend coming to Chitwan with kids under 6. It is extremely hot and dusty and you will need to spend long amounts of time driving to see wildlife.
Kids over six will enjoy the experience and I would definitely recommend it for your Nepal with kids trip. It is a long drive just to get to Chitwan, but if you do the Seti River rafting trip from Pokhara, you end halfway to Chitwan, eliminating a long bus journey.
Our Verdict – Should You Visit?
We saw an elusive tiger, so of course I think you should visit! In all seriousness, while I don’t think it is essential to visit Chitwan National Park while in Nepal, it provides a completely different experience than the Himalayas. If you have the time to fit it into your itinerary and you haven’t been to Africa, put Chitwan on your Nepal itinerary and enjoy a Nepal safari.
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