Day 61 – Location: Chitwan National Park, Terai Region; Nepal
I arrived at the Damside bus station around 6am and piled onto a tourist bus for Chitwan. This bus actually had decent seats and enough leg room, a rare luxury in Nepal! There was some mix up with the bookings causing a big argument with a group of French tourists and the bus operators. Basically there weren’t enough seats for the people. The arguments got heated as some people refused (quite rightly) to give up seats they’d booked in advance to make way for the French. In the end about 8 people were crammed into the back row, and someone always had to sit on a little stool in the aisle. The hubbub pissed me off, I was tired and I was just thinking – have you people ever been on a local bus? You should be happy to have room to stand!
This French group, mostly in their 50’s, were classic tourists, exclaiming loudly whenever the bus went over bumps and gasping in horror at the usual Nepal crazy overtaking maneuvers. You’d think they’d be used to it as they’d been trekking already, but apparently not. I was sat next to a classic stereotype French man, fat and who didn’t speak English who talked loudly to his friends at the start, and then got engrossed in his book which the title translated as “Tragedy on Everest”. A nice light read then. He seemed like a decent chap though and we communicated a bit with our terrible knowledge of each other’s language (you’d think after 5 months working in France I’d at least be able to have a conversation, but that’s Meribel for you!).
As usual there was no view, not having a window seat. Along the main road back to Kathmandu we forked right to the South towards the Terai region. You could glimpse big rocky hills covered in forest lining the gorge we were traversing, reminding me of Thailand. After about 4 hours we got into the heart of the Terai where the terrain was very flat. It’s the source of most of Nepal’s wealth with lots of industry and farming. We passed vast fields where harvesting was taking place with modern tractors and teams of people threshing rice and stacking it into big house-shaped piles for drying. The scale of their operations completely dwarfed the terrace farming I’d seen in the North and the landscape was dotted with stacks of rice and endless fields. We passed through a busy, dusty town and soon afterwards, after some more fields arrived in a dusty bus park where throngs of touts and drivers massed outside the bus door to greet us.
As I was on a package I didn’t have to contend with the hassle and found my driver easily. He drove me and some others in a jeep into the small town of Saurhara, the main tourist settlement in Chitwan. It was full of lodges and shops. We bumped along the untarmacked road to my lodge, Jungle Wildlife Camp. There are so many lodges that like in the mountains they run out of name ideas quickly. Jungle Lodge. Wildlife Hotel. Jungle Wildlife Hotel. Jungle Safari View. Tiger Lodge. You get the idea. Just remembering your correct lodge name is hard enough! Anyway, the lodge was right on the banks of the main river, which was pretty nice. An outdoor seating area lined the bank and on the other side of the river was tall green grass. Beyond that was a treeline with trees that reminded me of the ones from Africa but much more densely packed. It was pretty quiet with only a few other tourists chilling out having lunch.
My room was pretty good compared to what I’m used to now, I took my all-inclusive lunch (with all inclusive tiny glass of lemonade, of course you have to pay for extra drinks beyond that!). I rested for about an hour, knackered after the sleepless bus journey. Then I had a village tour from a local guide, a young guy called Narayan. Joining us was another package tourist, a big guy in his early twenties called Reznas, from Denmark. Narayan led us around the town showing us the local houses made from bamboo and mud, with little holes made in the latticing for windows. There were ducks everywhere, way more than I’d seen elsewhere in Nepal. The place was dotted with old style water pumps with the handles where people washed and collected water. The Terai region was only heavily populated in the last 30 or 40 years due to Malaria getting mostly eradicated. Before that only these local people could survive, having built up a natural immunity to the disease (or “Special Immunity Power” as Narayan called it!). Apparently eating chilies all the time helps. I’ll have to try, maybe I can banish my mosquito problem.
We walked into the main town which was fairly typical. There were tourists everywhere. Horse and carriages, and Ox’s carrying carts with tourists trotted along the street. Narayan said when he was a kid there was only about one guest house here. We reached the Chitwan information place, a boring collection of information boards about the park, with a few trinkets like tiger footprints and elephant skulls. There seemed to be a lot of British tourists here. We walked through some woods to the river, passing near to an elephant camp where you could see the big beasts from afar, tied up under big shelters.
We strolled along the tall riverbank walkway looking at the sunset. Over the river were swathes of big grass plains with trees in the distance. We weren’t alone; the place was thronged with groups of tourists enjoying the same view. Further along was a collection of bars at a beach where long wooden canoes seating around 10 people were ferrying tourists across the river with paddles and poles, where people emerged from safari walks from the long grass, which was higher than a person. We saw some crocodiles chilling out on sandbanks in the river. We watched the sunset from the beach. It was really touristy but quite a nice view. After the sun vanished we walked a few minutes to the hotel. It seemed we’d got lucky with our location, there were only a few other lodges on the river. Over a dinner of Dahl Baht we met a German guy in his 40s called Marcus, who had some heavy duty camera equipment. At the same time and place we’d just been, he’d spotted rhinos in the long grass across the river, and had the photos to prove it! I was annoyed we’d not spotted them. He had a nice big zoom and some great photos from along the river.
After dinner me and Reznas were escorted to a packed hall in the town centre to watch the Tharu Culture Show. The commentator was hilarious with a really weird voice, you could hardly understand him. Me and the other British teens in front of me couldn’t stop laughing at his odd sing-song introductions. The show turned out to be very entertaining. First off a load of guys in white dress and bandanas did a stick dance, smashing the sticks off each other in rhythm in a fighting dance.
Then some girls in great dresses did a singing and clapping dance. There was a fan dance and another stick dance. At this point I was puckish and decided to try some chewing tobacco stuff I’d bought in a sachet in Pokhara. The main ingredient I later learned is Beetlenuts. It’s pretty popular here and is sold in branded sachets in most shops. Anyway, I wasn’t prepared for the effects. It was a collection of brown hard bits, I stuck the whole lot in my mouth and chewed. After about ten seconds it tastes really horrible, and you produce loads and loads of saliva. It was disgusting! I needed to spit it out or I would throw up, so shouldered my way out of the hall and spat it all out outside. Of course you’re supposed to spit it out anyway, but I don’t think most people eat the whole pack at once!
I came back inside and soon after got a pretty good mild buzz effect as I picked bits from my teeth. The effect lasted for the next few songs, and was enhanced by how utterly bizarre the next acts were. First was a peacock dance where a person inside a big round peacock costume trotted around the stage swinging the neck up and down. It was hilarious. The best bit was at the end where the tail opened up unexpectedly. Me and Reznas were in stitches. Next was a death ritual celebrating the life of the deceased – but featured a camp man in weird clothes who danced very bizarrely and with funny facial expressions, who loved the attention of the audience. It’s probably not supposed to be funny, but it was. The show finished off with some spectacular whirling long stick dances and a fire dance in the dark with sticks reminding me of the beach fire shows in Thailand. One of the guys was so fast his fires went out! The other guy dropped his at the end on the floor and it had to get beaten out. The whole show was a bit ramshackle with the performers not really knowing what was happening most of the time. At one point a girl put down the microphone and it rolled along the whole stage drowning out the performance with the noise! Brilliantly entertaining.
We walked back in the dark (no street lights here) and had a beer with the other lodge guests outside. There was an old French couple, an American woman and the German guy, sharing travelling stories and Nepal experiences. We called it a night early as we had a dawn rise tomorrow.