Leaving the dust behind, we took a short flight (after a long delay) to Pokhara, the second largest city in Nepal. Riki and I had been here a week before for our trek so we knew our way around. It is much quieter than Kathmandu, but still has its fair share of loud dog gangs. A lot of treks leave from Pokhara, so there are many tourists and many outdoors shops.
We took a taxi to Devi’s Falls, which is pretty dinky until you go across the street and down into the cave to see where the falls ends. From there, we took another taxi up to the World Peace Pagoda. Riki and I had done the two hour hike up to it before in preparation for our 5 day trek, but we didn’t have that kind of time. The taxi drivers were not too pleased to go up and insisted on waiting up there to take us down. A good thing too because the road is very bumpy and no other taxis were waiting for passengers. We had lunch at the top and even got a few good glimpses of the Himalayas. That afternoon, we went to the Old Bazaar neighborhood of Pokhara. There was not much happening, but it did have some old architecture from the 1700s, similar to that of the Durbar Squares we had visited in Kathmandu.
On Wednesday we took a van to Chitwan National Park. This was along the same “highway” we had taken the bus on from Pokhara to Kathmandu. We saw the remnants of an accident that had happened more than month ago – a giant truck and a tiny car had collided, caught fire and killed 5 people. Accidents are common along this road and you can often be stuck for hours waiting for an accident to clear, as there are no other roads to take. It is one lane in each direction and people pass each other along curves and uphills in the worst possible places. Many times you are right on the edge of a cliff too. But 4.5 hours later we arrived safely in Sauraha and had much needed beers overlooking the river.
Now this is where it gets awesome, in my opinion. We took an early morning canoe ride in a hollowed out tree trunk down the river. We sat in very uncomfortable little seats in a leaky boat. Pretty sure the sole purpose of our second guide was to bail out water. We saw lots of birds, including some kingfishers, black cranes and ducks from Siberia. When we got out of the canoes, we took a short walk through some forests and saw some large spotted deer. The culmination of this tour was a visit to the Elephant Breeding Center, where they have loads of mother elephants chained to posts and their babies roaming freely. They don’t keep any males here and rely on males from the wild to impregnate the domesticated females. There was a 2 month old baby elephant (already over 70 kg / 150 lbs) who was very playful. In the trees nearby there were three spotted owlets. We had to look hard to find them but once we did, we could very clearly see there big eyes watching us. Very cool. There was also a very friendly cat who followed me all the way around the center. Don’t tell Riki, but I petted it. It looked pretty clean and I can’t resist when they roll over on their backs to be scratched. Oh, and Riki got leeched! (On his stomach oddly enough)
That afternoon we took a jeep far into the park. We had to take a short canoe ferry across the river – more uncomfortable little seats – and then all piled into an open-topped jeep for the bumpy ride through the park. Despite the noise from the jeep, we were able to get pretty close to two types of deer, two boars, two types of monkeys, peacocks AND 2 rhinos! We were very excited about the rhinos, having been told that we may or may not see them. It is all luck as to what you see. There are over a hundred tigers in the forest, but you rarely see them. One of our guides had seen 4 in the 3 years he had been a guide. We also stopped at a Crocodile Breeding Center, where they have perhaps the ugliest crocodiles. They have long skinny snouts, which are often damaged as they bite each other when competing for the same fish. Don’t worry, they grow back, but slowly. The Gharials are endangered so they have had this center since the 1970’s to increase their population.
The next day was even better. We got up super early – because thats the best time to see the animals – and hopped on an elephant for a hike through the forest. The theory is that the wildlife is used to hearing elephants stomping around, so you can get closer to them than the jeep. And closer we got. We were within 20′ of a rhino.
It was a bit bizarre though because there were perhaps 30 other elephants all piled with tourists looking for the same things, so when we saw the rhino, all the elephant drivers hollered and raced toward him. He was almost surrounded, but seemed ok about it for the most part. Then we stomped off in search of other animals. There were a few elephants whose passengers were less than quiet, but our driver made a point to split away from them and find another path so we could spot some animals. I doubt those people saw much, as they were shouting to each other the whole time and probably scared everything away. We saw more cranes, deer and a monkey herding some deer.
Three of the group headed back to Kathmandu and the rest us arranged for a long afternoon hike through the forest, in hopes of catching sight of more animals. The hike began by crossing a small river in our bare feet, which we were less than thrilled about as the water in Nepal is not very clean. But we made it across and were in an area where we would see no other people for the next 4.5 hours (except for one person, more later). The rule of the park is that you have two guides no matter how many people are in your group. We only had four, but we had one guide in the front and one guide in the back. I thought this was a bit excessive, until 10 minutes into our walk when the guide in front holds up his hand to stop and we hear loud rustling in the grass ahead of us. Turns out, about 50 feet in front of us is a mother rhino and her 6 month old baby. These are very dangerous as the mothers can be very protective. So we were ordered back and I’m picking out the closest tree I can climb in case things go wrong. But the baby catches our scent (good noses and ears, bad eyes) and goes tramping off in the other direction. Soon the mother does the same and we continue along our intended path. The guides take us to a watering hole, where they have once seen 14 rhinos bathing at the same time. We only see one so we get a bit closer to get a better look. We were up on a bank, so its pretty safe because the rhinos are slow in the water and when they are bathing, they are very relaxed and just want to bathe. Not likely to chase you. So we get closer and another rhino (large male) emerges from the water. The guides get very excited and then we see another one. A tiny baby! Maybe 2 months old playing in the water behind his mother. This was way more than we could have hoped for and we spent a significant amount of time taking pictures and watching the baby play with its mother. All the while, the second guide is checking behind us to make sure the other rhinos are not going to come up and surprise us.
After about half an hour, the mother and baby head back into the grass and we move on. We are walking through a flat, open area where deer come at sunset and I’m thinking about how I can’t wait to tell people about the baby rhino when we are stopped dead in our tracks by a very loud, very close, warning growl. The guide in front immediately signals us to be quiet and wait. I am straddling a log and thinking we are about to see a boar come running out at us. So I picked out another tree to climb. This wouldn’t have done me any good as what we heard was a tiger about 20 feet away. Apparently, we had woken him from a nap and he was making sure we knew he was there and wouldn’t disturb him. So we backed up and waited to see if he would come out. The head guide pointed to the brush where the growl had come from and told the younger guide to go check it out. He was kidding. The young guy wasn’t amused. Tigers are not as dangerous during the day though. They are usually seen patrolling their territory during the day and mostly feed at night. He didn’t come out so we found another path and continued on our way. We went through some thick underbrush and appeared to go in circles for the next few hours. At one point we heard wood cracking and the guide shooed us back as he thought it might be a wild elephant (can be dangerous). Turns out it was a domesticated one with a rider collecting firewood, lucky for us. We saw more deer, two mongeese (mongooses?) and some peacocks. Riki got another leech, on his ankle this time. On our way back, walking through some tall grass we were again stopped in our tracks by the guide because just ahead in our path was a very large rhino. Our lead guide took a large and banged it against some grass and when that didn’t work he threw the stick into the grass in front of us to make sure the rhino went the other direction. He stomped off and so did another rhino, which was didn’t see, only heard. They are usually solitary animals, so it was a bit strange for there to be two together and not just bathing. We made it back to the river and removed our shoes again. My dad discovered a blood-soaked sock, as he had also gotten a leech and I found a red tick on my knee.
All in all, a very successful few days. Tiger spottings are incredibly rare and we were lucky to have even heard one. We took the tourist bus back to Kathmandu the next day and proceeded to do all our touristy shopping (Mom & Dad have an extra suitcase for our stuff) in Thamel. We found a place that uses recycled trash to make all sorts of things. I got a purse made out of woven cotton and inner tubes and my mom bought some ornaments made from Ramen packages, whose profits benefit women. On our last day we went carpet shopping and picked out a green (shocking) hand woven Tibetan one that is small enough to fit in the suitcase. We had a goodbye dinner with the family who arranged a lot of our travel in Nepal and then booked it for the airport for a midnight flight back to Bangkok. The security is bizarre in Kathmandu – they barely look at your bags, but we got patted down three times.
And now we will begin our adventure where we intended to in September, going to northern Thailand and meandering around to Laos, central Vietnam to south Vietnam, and over to Cambodia. Suggestions for after that are greatly appreciated!