In the evening sunlight, elephants lazily bathed themselves in the river as huge white dandelion-like clusters fell like snowflakes from the silk cotton trees above. As if we had drifted off into a dream, never had I envisioned writing alongside a watery marsh while children from the town laughed & splashed in their underwear, diving in & out of the river when they should have been bringing in the days fishing lines. It felt worlds apart from how we had arrived at our destination….
We weren’t convinced we had made the right decisions to schlep all the way out to Chitwan, the bus ride is not for the faint hearted. Our bus rumbled & rolled into a gravel(ish) lot after a grueling 8 hours (made worse by the seemingly never-ending construction) in a very small town where no proper “bus station” awaited, followed by an unceremonious drop off in the blistering heat. The “welcome committee” was 3-4 dozen guys hollering at you to sell a taxi ride or see if you are staying at their designated lodges; upon the realization that, you in fact are not & therefore of no use to them, an immediate chorus of “eh no” ensues. Now you wait on the side of the lot until a ride from your lodge finally arrives….at least this was our experience.
Within minutes of walking through our lodge’s “Namaste” gates we were completely reassured & actually booked an additional night’s stay to further delay our dreaded rumble back to Kathmandu. “Sapana” is the Nepali word for “dream”, certainly how I would describe this place. I don’t mean to steer you in the wrong direction & give the impression that we had just arrived at the poshest of places or were at some beyond words 5-star resort, but lodging in Nepal, especially Chitwan, isn’t somewhere I imagine the likes of Condé Nast Travel or Travel + Leisure writers popping in for a visit - but Sapana was a pure joy.
Somehow with an immense amount of luck we picked this little gem out of the never-ending buffet of options listed on booking.com, our usual hotel guru. Chitwan seems to be, in our opinion, one of those places where your experience will vary greatly depending on where you choose to lodge. Full disclosure, we were not there long & did not investigate other places on our own but there is nothing within a quick view that I would recommend to anyone confidently.
During our stay, we came to learn that Sapana was not only a lodge but an entire village community. The idea of one local man, Dhurba Giri, the lodge funds a non-profit side of development projects including a school & a fair trade workshop which employs women developing craft skills & financial literacy. Since, in previous lives, I have worked & studied in both Fair Trade regulation & worked for a Non-Profit Foundation I got a little overly excited about learning all I could about their operation & history.
Despite how it sounds we did not in fact travel on a 8 hour bus ride simply to wander into a nice village. Technically the main attraction here is the Chitwan National Park, a World Heritage site covering 360 square miles & boasting over 68 different mammal species. Basically, any reason to come to Chitwan & the only thing to do in town is to visit the park. A plethora of options are available to any traveler; visiting the elephant or crocodile breeding centers, canoe rides along the river to coveted bird watching spots, various “safaris” or even spend a night in a jungle cabin amongst the wildlife. We opted for a full day jeep tour of the park & they were not kidding when they said full day…. we spent almost 12 hours from start to finish riding around in an open top jeep searching out dozens of peacocks, numerous rhinos, a handful of wild elephants & in search of the beautiful Bengal Tiger, where perhaps 100-125 of the endangered species call the park home.
In the end, the giant cat eluded us (our guide hadn’t spotted one for almost 4 weeks either) but we came upon one lone black bear (apparently not that common) & 3-4 crocodiles guarding their newly laid eggs along a lakeshore. All in all, it was a beautiful day & couldn’t have been more enjoyable or adventurous.
As the park is your main attraction, there are only so many nights you can enjoyably spend in Chitwan without being ready to move on. While we enjoyed playing with “Romeo” (the lodge pup) & took advantage of some R&R from our trek, we could have easily spent a 4th night doing nothing or another day laying around the coffee bar; most travelers will find 2-3 nights more than enough to soak in a local experience. We too packed up & headed out… for anyone curious how the “ride” home went, we caved & purchased a last-minute plane ticket for the 20-minute flight to Kathmandu. Hands down the best money we’ve spent.