Chitwan Tour, Jungle Safari and Tharu Cultural Safari
By: Michel Kelly
Beep, beep, beep, beep. That’s an alarm. At 4:30am. No, not kidding. Kathmandu roads are such that you need to get the jump on them. If they wake up before you, expect any trip outside the valley to be more stationary than mobile. Particularly when your selected mode of transport is a large bus - both the perpetrators and victims of mammoth traffic jams.
Today, Chitwan is my destination - a six hour drive at the best of times. With dreaded roadworks covering kilometers of road, and stops for breakfast and lunch, expect to settle in to your seat and get comfortable. A nap or two will be inevitable and welcomed after a zombie-like rise before the sun shines.
On the surface, the bus ride to Chitwan sounds gloomy. When you wake up, the still night sky is gloomy. Nothing to see here. However, like many things in life, the experience itself bests the perception, and the journey is indeed worth paying attention to enroute to the destination. And, at under $10USD per ticket (as opposed to the $120USD flight), you’re buying yourself a few extra nights on safari to search for that elusive tiger.
The best (and potentially worst) thing about travelling as a local is the food. Stopping for breakfast and lunch at very traditional outlets means you’re getting delicious Nepali cuisine. I can’t handle my spices though, and so a simple bowl of flavoured rice can easily become inedible to a burning hot tongue. Pack your medicines - just incase something upsets your tummy. A bus trip through India with Delhi Belly taught me the perils of being unprepared. I’d recommend adding motion sickness tablets to your repertoire, because combining an upset tummy with a bumpy ride is not fun.
And yes, the ride is bumpy. As you approach Chitwan, roadworks considerably slow your progress and you’ll be bouncing in your seat a little as tar gives way to uneven dirt. I was warned about this stretch of roadworks, and I found I’d hyped it in my head. The reality was the trip was nowhere near as bad as I expected. I don’t sleep easy on travels, and I slept through part of the roadworks: that’s saying something.
For your dedication to land-based travel, you are treated to a rugged beauty which I have not seen anywhere else. The landscape reminded me of a cross between the dirt-red outback of Australia and the lush green rice paddies of Indonesia. The clay underneath is red, and the green of the trees and grass muted, creating a desaturated hue off which the bright green rice fields pop. Incredible. Then, just as you get used to that scene, the farmland gives out to a wide, powerful river which somehow manages to look dirty and brown and clean and blue both at the same time. I suggest you try to sit on the right hand side of the bus so you can see it properly. I wasn’t so lucky.
Between naps, great (and cheap) Nepali street food, the incredible scenery and, of course, my downloaded Spotify playlists, I found the ride to Chitwan to be strangely enjoyable. Yes, it was bumpy, and yes, it was long (around 9 hours door to door), but when I reached my destination at 2pm, I was well rested, well fed, a little more cultured to the Nepali experience, and still had the cooling afternoon and evening of a very hot day to explore my new surroundings.
Jungle Villa Resort Review:
Nestled deep within the Kasara region of the Chitwan National Park, Jungle Villa Resort is both a comfortable and exhilarating stay on the very edge of the Nepali jungle. Staying there is both a cultural and natural safari, leaving guests with an abounding understanding of the land they step on, the animals they see and the indigenous people of Chitwan they spend time with.
The first thing I noticed is the chilled cold air conditioning in your two-bedder room - because it’s usually so hot in Chitwan. Temperatures will near and may exceed 40 degrees celsius in the hotter months of the year, and so being able to enjoy the cool air in your clean and comfortable room is a must. The room itself is fairly standard - it misses nothing, yet adds nothing unexpected - because you’ll be spending most of your time outside of it. The air is cold, the bed is comfortable and the WiFi is free. Tick, tick and tick.
The resort itself is lush, with many of the local flora surrounding the cabins. Time and effort has been taken to blend the resort into the environment, with animals frequently making the trip up and into the resort at night time; you’ll be advised not to step out at night. A short walk will land you in the dining hall and common deck which overlook the Rapti river, a real feature of the resort’s landscape and a very popularwatering hole for all denizens of the jungle. It’s here you’ll enjoy the beautiful food prepped for you by dedicated chefs and brought to you by cheery waiters - one of whom took it upon himself to teach me some basic Nepali words which I still use today. There appeared to be one evening our activities look a little longer than expected, and thus we were late to a cooling dinner, though aside from this, the service and facilities were both beautiful and exceptional.
A drinking Rhino was a little too far for my rather average DSLR to capture, but she did alright of capturing the sunrise from my self-titled “Brekkie Balcony”.
The Animal Safari
This is a safari with no beginning and end. You don’t hop on a jeep/elephant and begin looking out for animals as you whip/saunter through the dense thickets of forest you find yourself in. The search begins the moment you open your eyes, and the earlier you do, the better. Animals come out of their dens and into the dim light of dawn and dusk to drink and explore, and with the Rapti on your doorstep, you’re likely to see some incredible sights from the deck over some breakfast. My first sunrise was graced with the beauty of a One Horned Rhinoceros and a family of deer taking a drink on the river - not to mention Jungle Kali, one of the resorts elephants enjoying a swim.
An Elephant and her Mahmout: Jungle Kali just prior to a refreshing dawn swim in hot Chitwan.
From there, you’ve got a day of animal activities in-front of you. You’ll be able to ride an elephant or a jeep out through the jungle in search of more creatures, you’ll canoe downstream amongst the sunbaking crocodiles to the crocodile conservation and breeding grounds, you’ll take a leisurely stroll, eyes aimed at the sky in search of feathered varieties and spend time learning about Jungle and Villa Kali, the resort’s elephants, before the treat of the stay: bathing them in the river.
The Crocodile Conservation grows these crocs until they’re old enough to handle the wild, and keeps 12 female and 1 male adults for breeding.
Throughout these activities, the in-house Naturalists will be teaching you all there is to know about what you’re looking at, keeping your brain working as far as your eye can see. Their knowledge of the flora and fauna in Chitwan made the experience so much more than I expected, and I left both impressed at their knowledge of the jungle and, surprisingly, my own.
The Cultural Safari
The animals predate them, but the Tharu people are an institution in this region as well. Relocating here in the 12th century from Rajasthan, India, these people only managed to survive the malaria-infested area because of the sheer amount of spice they ate; their bodies literally burn the disease before it can burn them. The malaria has long since (predominantly, I didn’t get a malaria vaccination but doctors advise it) left the region, though the Tharu remain. A walk through the local village will show you both the resourcefulness and resilience of their people, and the joy they get out of the many celebrated festivals in Hindu culture.
The resourcefulness of the Tharu people is epitomised by the way they build their houses.
Speaking of, the final night of the stay brings a group of local Tharu dancers to the resort to perform dances saved for both times of war and celebrations. The dancers move with a grace that is often seen in South Asian dancing, and they wield their instruments with poise and electricity - a special sight to behold.
It’s fitting however, that after so much looking, listening and learning throughout the previous days, the night and your stay will end with participation, as the girls invite guests up to dance one by one until the entire resort is moving to the sound of beating Dholak (drums).
Chitwan Jungle Safari
With a glorious yawn, I sauntered out onto the common deck, where breakfast would soon be served. The sun could not yet be seen on the horizon, though night had faded into the soft break of day. The air - cool - protected me from the heat to come later in the day.
Dawn, they say, is one of the best times to spot animals on safari. Rhinos, tigers, deer, even birds; they come out in the cool beginnings and endings of the day (and at night) to drink and survey their homes, scouring for next meal.
Now, that’s a safari sunrise.
It’s no surprise then, to see the local fauna from this deck in the morning, directly above the Rapti river, a popular waterhole for the pundits of the jungle. It’s also possible to organise a dawn time elephant-back safari for a closer look at them in their habitats. For personal reasons, I preferred to have Jungle Kali, one of Jungle Villa’s Asiatic elephants, brought to the river to sit with me as the sun rose. As I sat on the deck and watched one majestic creature rip off a tree branch for breakfast, I spotted another across the river, enjoying a morning treat.
A Rhinoceros: and I hadn’t even needed to leave the deck. Too far for a photo yet close enough to get the heart pumping. Later in the day, we passed a rhino’s footprint; I thought it was an elephant’s. These creatures are huge in size, though not in numbers. Poachers across the Indian plains and Nepali jungles have reduced their numbers to just over 3500, with 506 of these creatures living in Chitwan National Park, as they are hunted for their horn, said to possess medical properties which make them extremely valuable.
As Jungle Kali entered the water for a relaxing morning bath, the sun rose above the horizon, and the river split into a thousand glistening, orange shards. A sight you won’t see outside of this beautiful Kasara-based lodge, that’s for sure.
Before breakfast, there was still some sightseeing left to do yet. A bird-watching tour had been organised, an activity I entered with an amount of trepidation. We took a walk up the river, noting small sparrows playing in the shrubbery either side of us, gangly storks walking along the shallows of the river and dazzling kingfishers - in all their shapes, sizes and hues - soared overhead. I realised I have never really taken much notice of these creatures and never appreciated their ability to sustain themselves in mid-air. At its worst, birdwatching was a chance to talk a lovely walk in nature. At it’s best, spotting a gallant flock of kingfishers dive overhead in formation sent wonder through my system.
The day, only half over, reserved a few more surprises. A short trip in an open-back jeep had us cruising back downstream towards the resort in a canoe, scouring the edges of the river for freshwater crocodiles. Unsure of what to expect, I was a surprised when those we saw were quite small. They resembled nothing of the beasts I had become accustomed to and scared of seeing in videos on YouTube. The reason for their size would be explained later in the day, when we reached our destination, moored the canoes and made a short trip through the jungle to our destination; the crocodile conservation and breeding centre. We learnt there that many of the crocs don’t make it out of their eggs as the predators around the river, and the most of the reptiles we saw in the river had recently been released into the wild as younger, smaller adults.
Oh dear, is it opening it’s mouth? Oh heavens, it’s opening its mouth. Can we paddle a little faster.
The conservation is managed with close links to the Jungle Villa Resort, and the unrestricted access and superior knowledge the Naturalists (your guides) have of the site and the crocodiles will leave you impressed with the care taken to help build up the population of these creatures in the wild.
Finally, to end a busy day of animal-exploring, we were treated to a very personal encounter with Jungle Kali, and her sister, Villa Kali. These elephants are owned by the Jungle Villa Resort and trained by in-house Mahouts, who, I will say from the outset, take magnificent care of them. Before we were allowed the experience of bathing them in the river, we were taken to the field they live in, and taught about the elephants; primarily the differences between African and Asiatic species. Having my mind firmly planted in ensuring Jungle and Villa were well treated, I scoured their bodies for signs of present mistreatment, and could find none of the tell-tale signs common on the maligned elephants found in other elephant tourism outlets in both Nepal and Asia.
Am I doing this ri- … Wait, aren’t there bloody crocodiles in this river? Eek.
Satisfied with their treatment and well-informed of their nature, the day ended as it started; with an elephant (or two) rolling around in the river, but this time I was given the opportunity to get wet too. The coarse skin of Jungle Kali belied his soft, yet cheeky nature, as she blew water out of her trunk for fun as I washed her. I must admit, the biggest drawcard of this experience was to spend time with an elephant, and this was a special moment for me, to top off a special day indeed.
Chitwan Tharu Culture
As part of the experience at Jungle Villa Resort, you will have the opportunity to go inside the culture of Chitwan, and understand not only the national park and the animals, but the people who have lived here for nearly a millennium.
The Tharu people are considered the indigenous locals of Chitwan. Hailing from Rajasthan in India, they moved up through the Indian plains in a time of war to find peace in the southern reaches of Nepal.
Since this time in the 12th Century, they have called Chitwan home, with their traditional diet, including heavy spices and snails, protecting them against the mosquitoes and their malaria which stopped any prior settlement in the region. In fact, travelling to the region was made difficult for those other than the Tharu and Indian cultures until USAID deployed a program to wipe out malaria in the area in the 1900s.
Through your stay on the edge of the Jungle, you’ll have the privilege of an afternoon tour in Ghaila Ghari, the local village near your jungle setting. Sahodar, the operations manager of the resort and my guide, had a true passion for the culture, and he taught me what felt like was everything there was to know about the Tharu way of life. The reality is we likely just scratched the surface!
The green pastures of Ghaila Ghari are a haven for harvests
I could school you on their marriage system, the beautiful festival of Diwali and the brightly painted fist-prints on walls around town, the impressive number of crops and fruits they grow and how often, how their market system of trade works, the connection between man and buffalo and their dedication to religion. Part of this cultural experience is seeing it as you learn though, and so part of the mystery must remain.
However, their resourcefulness warrants one literary description: the building of their houses. I was impressed, and fascinated at the way they built their homes using only four materials: dried grass, clay, cow dung and bamboo.
What speaks to resourcefulness more than an old-school Mortar and Pestle?
The bamboo, still used in so many countries around Asia for its strength and flexibility, serves as the frame of the house. A special mixture of clay and cowdung is then built and dried around the frame, creating the four walls. It’s important to note that only cow dung is used. Being a sacred Hindu symbol, the cow is revered by the Tharu people, and using their dung as part of their homes bring them safety and good luck. Finally, dried grass is bundled neatly on top, serving as the roof, and small holes are cut at vantage points in the walls to promote air circulation. Not bad, right?
Faithful Jungle Villa Resort Naturalist and Ops Manager, Sahodar, surveying the homes of the Tharu
By day, the young children learn and play in the local school, and as they grow older, they will go to larger schools in the town of Bharatpur to further their education. This is a simple town, though the children speak English enough to converse with them, and education is a priority to those in Ghaila Ghari.
By night, it would appear they dance (amongst other things). Perhaps the highlight of the stay occurred on the last night, as a group of local Tharu people came to dance for us and with us. By this point, I had met a group of Australians also staying in the resort, and we were treated to a memorable and rhythmic display of movement.
The four dances are used culturally on special occasions: Lati (war), Phaguwa (Holi), Tekara (Harvest) and Nach (Marriage), all with their own instruments, most notably Dang and Tekara, long and short bamboo sticks which were used in the Lati and Tekara dances respectively. The Tharu girls collided with their sticks in such a in such a coordinated and rhythmic fashion, it was impossible to take my eyes off the performance, and by the time they’d asked us up to dance with them, I only wished I could match their poise in an enjoyable ceremony. When they left, I was left wanting - I could have sat there and watched another four dances.
Typical Mike being a poser - with the beautiful Tharu dance crew and the other guests of Jungle Villa Resort
I wasn’t sure what I’d find when we left the resort to tour Ghaila Ghari. In the end, I found some things expected, and some things not so much. Smiling faces, chirpy namaste’s and magnetic dancing, I had thought I’d find in this bright and festive culture. What I didn’t expect was to learn about the intricacies of their way of life, and the resourcefulness of their culture. From the way they build their houses to the sheer number of different foods they can grow, these are a people who have learnt how to truly live off their land, and prosper in their way of life.
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