And Chitwan is the best place to do so. The Royal Chitwan National Park, established in 1973, provides a great wildlife experience with its rich flora and fauna –read further for more details. The wildlife and the landscape are not as breathtaking as those found in Africa but still, the experience will stand out.
Chitwan is only 150m above the sea level. The place gets steamy from March-June, with peak temperatures reaching 43°C in the shade. Short grass makes Feb-May the best game-viewing season, but the autumn months are gorgeous, with Himalayan views, and in winter (December-January), Chitwan is pleasantly warmed compared to Kathmandu. The monsoon season (July-August) is intense, with pounding rain, swollen rivers, and luxuriant vegetation. While the rain isn't constant, the humidity is all pervasive.
Though one can visit neighboring Tharu villages in Chitwan, the major interesting focus of Chitwan is still the exploration of the Chitwan National Park.
A fully grown animal can be as tall as 180cm. In spite of army protection for these animals and severe punishment for harming them, rhino poaching is still a problem as every organ of the animal carries some (probably superstitious) value. The horn fetches about US$10,000 per kilo and is believed to be an aphrodisiac. The dung can be a laxative, the urine cures tuberculosis and asthma. The blood can help cure menstrual problems. The hide keeps away evil spirits. And so on.
Chitwan has about 150 Bengal tigers left of the one time 3000 or so. Though poaching is a serious threat, the real threat for these majestic animals is the gradual loss of its habitat. A male tiger requires almost 60km space, and a female one requires a third of it. Chitwan is simply not big enough to handle many tigers. It is rare for one to actually see a tiger, though looking for one is an interesting part of the trip.
Other wild mammals one may see are leopards, various types of deer, monkeys, sloth bear, and antelope.
There are several ways to do this; and if you stay there two to three days, as most tourists do, you can try them all out.
An elephant ride is the most popular way of exploring the Chitwan jungle. For about US$15, the government elephants take you around the jungle for an hour and half. There are two trips a day, one in the morning at eight and another at four in the afternoon. During peak seasons, there are long lines for tickets. Your lodge will normally get you one for a dollar or two extra. If you are staying at the luxury lodges inside the Park itself, they have their own elephants too. Note that, other than the elephants owned by these lodges, only the government runs elephant services inside the Park. Privately owned elephant rides (which go for cheaper rates) take you around the outside of the Park, where the chances of game spotting are far less.
Jeep safaris are also very popular. For US$15, they take you around for four hours. A great way to spot wildlife in areas further inside the Park which are less trodden.
Canoeing along the Rapti river is another option. With some luck you will get to see Gharial crocodiles, marsh muggers, and variety of fish. With a lot of luck you may be able to see a Gangetic dolphin. The trip is a paradise for birdwatchers with possible spotting of kingfishers, ospreys, and egrets. Chitwan is known to have 400 species of birds. For less than US$3-US$5, you can canoe downriver for about an hour, and take a three hour guided walk back.
Jungle walks through the jungle is a good way to spot game. Monkeys, birds and deer are assured; rhinos are less common (but not uncommon). A guide is recommended, and you can hire one for $3 per day (or pro-rated for shorter time). They can help you stay safe as well as point out interesting things.
For those who want a more extended experience, and are there for more than a couple of days, overnight jungle hike deeper into the jungle can be rewarding. Most do a two night hike. Designated camping spots inside the park cost US$5 per night. Guides cost US$6-US$8 for the trip. You may have to rent your camping gear in Kathmandu, because there aren't really any such facility in Sauraha itself.
There are regular daily flights to Bharatpur, about 25km from the Park area, and to Meghauli (US$75). The flights take about half an hour. One can easily get rides from the airports to the Park area. If you plan to stay in one of the expensive resorts inside the Park, your flights to and from Kathmandu will probably be included in your package.
Public buses go to Tadi from Kathmandu and Pokhara for about US$2 (twice the cost for more comfortable "tourist buses"). The ride takes about seven hours from Kathmandu, six from Pokhara. From Tadi, you will either have to cover the six kilometer distance to Sauraha on an ox cart (takes two hours to cover the distance!) or in a rented jeep for US$0.50. You can also rent a bike for about US$1 a day, or walk. On the way you need to cross a river which can be waded across during offseason, but during seasons with high water, local fishermen will ferry you across in their dugout boats for a couple of cents.
There are some who take a car from Kathmandu for the trip for an outrageous roundtrip price of US$100 (plus or minus US$50, depending upon your bargaining skills!). These are generally arranged by the lodges themselves. You can ask around in Thamel in Kathmandu. Another option is to rent a taxi in Kathmandu or Pokhara for about US$75 or less for a two day roundtrip travel. Split among two or three travellers, this can be reasonable.
Package organizers in Thamel will also arrange rafting trips to Chitwan. The trip normally starts at Mugling, 110km out of Kathmandu on the Kathmandu-Pokhara-Chitwan road. The trip itself is an easy river cruise that takes two or three days. The price ranges from US$30-US$75 per day. Before you pay up, shop around, bargain, and ask a lot of questions about the details of the arrangement.
The choices are of a wide range but, as usual, they fall in two general categories: luxury and budget. The luxury hotels in Chitwan are inside the Park itself. They cost about US$150-US$250 per person per night, and provide you quite an exquisite experience. Swimming pool, cocktail bars, safari ambience, organized game spotting trips, orientation by trained naturalists, and all. You will love it if you have the money. These luxury hotels generally package the whole tour for their price, including transportation to and from Kathmandu, meals, park entry fees, daily activities, etc. You need to make your reservations well in advance; if you are going to be there between November and February, the busiest season, a 6-12 month advance booking will be necessary.
The budget hotels in Chitwan are all located just outside the northern border of Chitwan National Park, in a village called Sauraha. Sauraha, in the past few years, is quickly turning into another Thamel or Lakeside. They range between US$3-US$15 per night; reservations are not necessary. Competition is so intense among the dozens of hotels that bargaining is very common. If you take the public bus to Tadi, touts who serve as agents to one of these budget hotels will pounce on you, don't give in. Check the hotel out yourself, and play one tout against another to get the best rate.
Some of the more upscale budget hotels in Sauraha also organize three day packaged tours of the area for about US$75-US$150 from Kathmandu. The price includes all basic expenses including transportation, accomodation, meals, tours of the area, etc. You can obviously do the same for much less, but if you want to go on these tours, the main tourist areas in Kathmandu and Pokahara have booking agents. Shop around, and bargain.
If you are staying in one of the luxury hotels inside the park itself, they provide you with excellent western meals. Except for the drinks and tips, the meals are normally included in your price.
Outside the Park, for those who stay in Sauraha, there are a few decent dining places in the main market place. As Chitwan becomes more and more popular among foreign visitors, more and more establishments are opening. The restaurants here don't meet the standards of Kathmandu, or even those of Pokhara, but they are manageable for a couple of days.