The West of Nepal is an often forgotten part of Nepal. It’s flatter, very green and the infrastructure is less developed. There is one ‘proper’ road from West Nepal to Kathmandu, the rest of the infrastructure is pretty underdeveloped and it’s hard to get from point A to B. Since we (Karen, Elias and I) only had about a week to explore West Nepal, we decided to stay in the South West, close to the main road towards Kathmandu. If you have more time, it’s definitely worth looking into visiting Rara Lake, it’s supposed to be a magical place but not so easy to get to.
Bardia National park
Bardia and Banke National park are two connected natural reserves that are home to many wild animals. There are about 37 rhinos, 89 tigers and over 100 elephants. The other famous national park in Nepal is Chitwan. This park is a lot easier to reach from Kathmandu so it’s often chosen over Bardia, but there are good reasons to visit Bardia instead of Chitwan.
Why you should choose Bardia National park over Chitwan
Chitwan is a very popular National park, since it’s easy to reach from the capital, which means that it is a lot more crowded with tourists. There are many jeep tours and the park is less quiet. This is probably why the tiger population is growing in Bardia and declining in Chitwan. Also, in Bardia you have more chance to spot a tiger since the population is more concentrated. Tigers are very shy animals so a walking safari tour in Bardia is perfect to spot one.
How to get there
We arrived in Nepal from the Western border in Mahendranagar. We’d hardly slept that night but decided we didn’t want to stay in Mahendranagar and quite randomly chose to visit Bardia. From Mahendranagar there are plenty of buses to the East. To get to Bardia National park you need to get a local bus to Ambassa and take local transport to Thakurdwara, the closest village to Bardia. If you come from Kathmandu, you need to take a bus to Mahendranagar and get off in Ambassa. I read that there are also direct buses to Thakurdwara from Kathmandu. The other (expensive) option is to fly to Nepalgunj and take a jeep or local bus to Thakurdwara.
The bus from Mahendranager to Bardia took about 5 hours and cost 350 rupees. It was quite a smooth ride, until we got off in Ambassa. The last bit was 13 kilometers over a gravel road with a tuktuk. We got picked up by a driver arranged by our guesthouse. This cost 500 rupees but in the end we discovered that we could’ve paid a lot less if we’d just haggled a tuktuk at the bus stop.
Where to stay
We arrived in a true paradise-like area. It was quite hot, very flat but very beautiful and green. We stayed in Bardia wild planet jungle retreat. They have cute little cottages, one of which was perfect for the three of us. We were happy to have found a quiet place in paradise. The owners were very nice and accommodating but a little bit too willing to sell their safari packages. When we arrived we’d traveled over 24 hours without much sleep and the last thing we wanted was sales talks about expensive safari packages. We definitely didn’t want to make any rash decisions and decided to have a rest day the next day. There is not much to do around but just taking a walk, doing some yoga and having good food was all I needed.
Walking safari at Bardia
All rested, we decided to book a walking safari. The night before, they’d been telling us it would cost us 5000 rupees for a day-safari, including entry tickets to the park, breakfast, lunch, snacks and a guide. Even though we’d been telling them that was too much for us, we had to discover for ourselves that there was another option: a safari with a non-English speaking guide for 3500. First they tried to charge us extra for the food but our bargaining skills were on point after India and we got everything included in the 3500.
After a banana pancake breakfast we left the hostel at 7 am, our lunch and water was packed. Our guide seemed very friendly and we all got a stick to protect ourselves from animals (mostly monkeys, we assumed). When we entered the park we started to hope that our guide spoke enough English to give us some instructions in case we would come eye-to-eye with a tiger or an elephant. Luckily it turned out he did. He told us that rhinos can’t see further than 35 meters so anything further away than that was a safe zone. If we would encounter one closer: run for your life and climb a tree higher than 5 meters. When you encounter a solo elephant: run for your life and leave your backpack behind to confuse the animal with your scent. Or climb in a tree higher than 5 meters. When you encounter a tiger: don’t turn your back and run away but keep eye contact and slowly walk backwards. I was seriously hoping I would never have to do something like that because I don’t think I would stay that calm, staring straight into the eyes of a tiger xD.
But the only thing we got attacked by were leeches. After just a couple of minutes of walking in the high grass Karen started screaming and we discovered a leech on her foot, digging its way in to her skin. Elias had to get it out because she was too scared to grab it. This happened about 2 more times and at some point, while we were quietly sitting on a tiger-view-point, I saw one leech dropping out of the tree and right into Elias’ neck, who was sitting next to me. A bit gross and scary.
Unfortunately, we didn’t see any tigers at all. We did see scratch marks from a claw, tiger poo and tiger hair balls.. but no tiger. We’d been sitting still for hours, running in the heat for tens of minutes to different view points, we even ended up going back to the first spot…. but without any luck. No tigers spotted 🙁 Luckily, we did see 2 rhinos, one from no more than 50 meters distance! Those leathery, large animals are super impressive up close and it made my day.
We left the park during sundown and right before exiting we encountered a huge scorpion and some bambi deer.
We thanked our sweet guide, had a filling Dal Bhat 24-hour-power and a beer and went to bed. The next day we would wake up early again and travel to Lumbini.
Lumbini – Buddha’s birthplace
We wanted to make one more stop between Bardia and Kathmandu. We decided we wanted to have a look at Buddha’s birthplace: Lumbini. To get from Bardia to Lumbini you need to take a bus from Ambassa to Butwal (700 rupees), then a bus from Butwal to Siddhartanagar (50 rupees) and then a bus or local taxi to Lumbini (500 rupees). Quite the ride. The road between Siddhartanagar and Lumbini is horrible. After almost an hour of being shook and shuffled in the back of the tuktuk we arrived at our shabby looking hotel. Our tuktuk driver asked for tip by holding back the change and we were already quite annoyed and tired. Our hotel turned out to have a problem with their internet connection which meant they hadn’t received our booking. The only room they had left was a 4-bed dorm. Luckily we got it for a cheaper price but Karen already fled the hostel that same night because there were bugs everywhere and the bathroom was filthy. The atmosphere in Lumbini felt a bit funny as well, but it was dark so we hoped for a better impression (and a better hotel) the next day. We left that hotel as early as possible and booked a room in the same hotel as Karen. This was a really nice place with a lovely and helpful owner. We had our breakfast there (the only time I had a real Nepali breakfast), it was spicy and greasy, not really my thing in the morning.
We rented rattled bikes for only 150 rupees per day so we could cycle our way through the big park with all the temples. As a kind of tribute to Buddha many countries with a Buddhist tradition have built a temple in their traditional architecture there. You can cycle between temples from Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand and even France. Some temples are truly beautiful… but, no offense, I am a little tired of temples and after one I am like ‘yeah, yeah another temple, great’… After many months in Asia I have trouble appreciating the beauty of those religious palaces, which is why I usually skip temples. I’d rather not visit than under-appreciate them. So after a couple of temples we decided it was time for lunch.
It’s best to visit the Maya Devi temple in the late afternoon, during Golden Hour and sundown. It’s less crowded and more magical during this time. Unfortunately, our bikes were locked by Karen (who went on the Maya Devi tour) and she had the key. We were already tired and decided to stay at the hotel.
In summary, I was not a big fan of Lumbini. It’s very touristy: especially Chinese, Indian and Nepalese, not so many Western tourists. If you love temples it’s great, but still it felt a bit ‘fake’ to me, all those donated temples from other countries. And apart from temples there is not much to do and to see. If you are interested in Buddhism, it might be interesting to do a guided walking tour at Maya Devi to learn more about Buddhist history.
The next morning we took a bus to Kathmandu for 1050 rupees, arranged for by our hotel. Luckily there is a direct connection between Lumbini and Kathmandu, so we didn’t have to worry about taking 2 local buses and a tuktuk again.
Hotel problems in Nepal with Booking.com – TIP!
Fun fact: in Kathmandu we had hotel issues again. Elias and I booked a double room in a hostel that apparently didn’t have double rooms. Luckily they were very service-oriented and put us in a different hotel around the corner and offered us a free breakfast!
In Pokhara, the same thing again. We’d booked 2 double rooms (one for Elias and I and one for Karen and Jeroen) but they only had one. But somehow booking.com didn’t know that. After a long bus ride from Kathmandu we were very tired and wanted to get some sleep. When we got there and they discovered the error they started to stutter incredibly and explained us 3 times why it had happened and how they couldn’t help it. ‘All good but just fix it!’ Is what we were thinking. Elias and I got a 4-bed dorm instead and tried to lower the price for that room because obviously we wouldn’t have booked there if we knew we didn’t have a double bed. Still stuttering the man said that those 2 dollars were nothing for him so ‘if it made us happy’ he would lower the price. A little bit annoyed by the way they were handling this: making us look like stingy Westerners while they’d made a mistake, they also started talking about the tours they were offering right away. It must have been very, very clear that we just wanted to sleep, but apparently not to them. Horrible salesman if you ask me. I won’t share which hostel this was, just because the rooms were pretty nice and clean and I just wanted to share this story and give one tip: Don’t book with booking.com in Nepal; just look for the availability and then look up their phone number on google and make a reservation. Booking this way is often cheaper as well!
More about Pokhara in the next blog post!