We travelled almost 8 hours by car. Meandering and sometimes very dusty, these snaky Himalayan roads run through the mountains and along a few rivers and their tributaries. We stopped several times. For refreshments (read toilet-breaks), clicking pictures, collecting pebbles as mementos from the banks of the Trisuli river, for Mr Driver to freshen up, to visit the Manakamana temple in the Gorkha district, another sacred Hindu place of worship and finally arrived at Chitwan. Chitwan is one of the last remnants of the Terai – the fertile strip of grasslands and forests which at one of point time stretched along the northern border of India from the Indus river in the west to Burma in the east along the foothills of the Himalayas. Chitwan is only 150m (492ft) above the sea level as compared to 1,350m (4,430ft) – the altitude of Kathmandu where we were based the previous few days.
We were booked in the eco-lodges of Machan Paradise View, a safari resort in Jagatpur, Chitwan. A mere 5 minutes walk from the Royal Chitwan National Park which has been cited as an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984. So here goes another tick on my list of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites that I have visited. Occupying more than 900 sq kms of Terai lands which is rich in flora and fauna, this is one of the last refuges of the endangered single-horned Asiatic rhinoceros (estimated at 400) and also the Royal Bengal tiger (estimated at more than 90). I did feel 90 was a very small number for such a regal animal. A shame indeed!
The Royal Bengal happens to be any Bengali’s official relative as they are also found in the mangrove forests of Sunderbans in Bengal. Plus, add to the fact that most of us affectionately call the Royal Bengal - Baagh Mama or the Tiger Uncle. So this was going to be a momentous occasion – NRBs (non-resident Bengalis) coming all the way from Dubai to meet other NRBs, settled in the forests of Nepal!
Machan Paradise View Resort, Jagatpur, Chitwan
Wildlife Safari Resort; Full-Board; Eco-jungle lodging; In the forest, on the plains and by the river
The Stay, The Food, The Experience
Ideally, Chitwan is a 5 hour drive from Kathmandu. It’s a different matter altogether that it took us more than 8 hours! By the time we arrived we were late. Are you asking ‘Late for what?’ Well, when we were told that our package in Machan included full-board meals and all the wildlife activities (‘Don’t worry Madam – they will give breakfast, lunch and dinner plus the time-table for everything that you are expecting to do’ – our guide Mr Shrestha had previously told us while leaving from Kathmandu), we obviously hadn’t understood the meaning of what this time-table would entail. A time-table in Machan means serious business – it is literally a program chart starting with a briefing session which chalks out all the activities that we would be doing at various time-frames over the the next two days, all jotted down to the last T on a blackboard!
The time-table for us (Mrs Ishita x 2+2) looked like this:
Morning – NA (since we were expected to arrive by Lunch); 4:30pm – Tharu Village Walk; 7:30pm – Dinner
6:30am – Jeep Safari & Canoeing; 9:30am – Breakfast; 1:30pm – Lunch; 4:30pm – Elephant Safari; 7:00pm – Power-point Presentation on Chitwan; 7:30pm – Barbeque Dinner followed by traditional Stick Dance performed by the Thiru farmers
Day of Departure:
6:30am – Bird Watching…… What? No sparing us even on our departure day?
We arrived at Machan at 3pm, way past their official lunch time. The Z-SISTERS were worried. To be frank, even I was. The nearest village was a 10 minutes walk from Machan and the nearest main road was almost 20 kms away! And frankly I don’t even remember seeing any type of brick structure which might even remotely be termed as a ‘shop’ selling any kind of food in the last 1 hour of our journey while driving to Machan. All I could remember were occasional haystacks in the green pastures or the tall forests of Sal trees.
As we entered and parked, we were greeted by a warm smile of the Resort Assistant. He told us that though the regular lunch hours were over he would organise some food for us. He led us through the forests along irregularly cobbled path amidst the chirping of birds, the wheezing of crickets and finally reached the reception. Technically, the sound emitted by crickets are also called chirping but somehow the way my mind is wired up, it is the birds who chirp and insects make sounds! We were received at the bar. Cold lemonades, hot towels and a whirring fan dangling from the ceiling welcomed us. We felt like mini explorers – exhausted after reaching our final destination. Instead of going into our rooms we went straight to the dining room for lunch. A huge room with unexceptional high ceiling, the walls had folk art painted on them by the local tribal artists. All colour that have been used were vegetable colours!
Lunch was served almost immediately. Amazing, amazing, simply amazing! A clear ginger-vegetable soup that re-energised us immediately followed by a plate full of pasta, sautéed vegetables, a grilled chicken whole-leg covered with onion sauce and some fried potatoes. The fried potatoes were really delicious, slightly ketchupy and spicy at the same time while the chicken was soft and succulent. We were hungry for sure. But even if we had lost all our senses we could feel our sixth sense telling us that food was going to be something else here. An absolutely wholesome experience. I tried asking for the recipe of the fried potatoes. The Chéf was a shy gentleman (or was he a boy?), too shy even to accept our compliments. Via translations and after a game of Chinese whispers, I gathered he had just fried boiled potatoes in some white oil along with onions and added ketchup, curry powder, pepper and salt. That’s it and voila! The waiters found the entire episode pretty amusing. And the waiters were well, really waiting on us, serving us in a way that reminded me of my Mummy serving me lunch when I used to come back home from college. Always waiting for me to ask for more!
We seemed to be the only ones in the resort. There were no other tourists in sight, as if the entire resort had gone into an afternoon slumber. Please, please tell me that we were not the only ones. As we found out later, we were not and I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Machan was all about it’s staff. A person was appointed for maybe 2 families, who would look after them from morning till night. Suraj was designated for us. He talked about his forest, his animals and his Resort. He was an expert naturalist, a keen photographer and was from the nearby Tharu village. Starting from our morning tea, hot chocolate for the Z-SISTERS to taking us for all the wildlife safaris, he was with us. He asked me questions about my camera, what shutter speed I used and how to take good wildlife pictures. He said that a friend had gifted him a Nikon SLR without any batteries and every battery that he had bought over the net were spurious. I was slightly confused but considering the amount of knowledge he really had on photography and the amount of love he had for his forest convinced me that he was probably telling me the truth. Well, more on that on a future post.
For now, it’s only about our stay in Machan, watching the sunset over the grasslands and the forest from the Sunset Point/Bar, the homely food amidst the rigid time-table and interacting with the villagers and getting to know the forest.
Starting from the time we entered the cobbled gates…
Rooms here were named after birds – Minivet, Oriole, Bulbul, Parakeet, Hornbill, Barbet, Trogon, Egret! We were assigned Minivet 2. The rooms were clean, spacious and basic with en suite bathrooms. This was an eco-friendly resort adhering to the principles of responsible tourism. We have previously stayed in a few Eco-friendly hotels and resorts with varying degrees of luxury and comfort. Most of the time we made a conscious effort to choose such accommodations while making sure that the Z-SISTERS were comfortable and enjoyed their holidays instead of ending up students on a crash course on responsible tourism! Whereas our stay in the Tea Factory Hotel in Nuwara Eliya, Srilanka was very luxurious and unique, the Rafters Retreat in Kitugala was very basic but absolutely magnificent and both were Eco-friendly.
It was tough explaining to Big Z why there were no televisions in the room. The objective here was to be at one with nature, which every staff in Machan made a point to initiate us into, all the time. Step outside the rooms and you’ll be looking through the Sal forests into the Rapti river. Grasslands sweep into the north to the Mahabharat range and jungles extend south to the Churia Hills. Apart from the endangered Asian one-nosed Rhinos and Royal Bengal tigers, the Royal Chitwan National Park is home to many more endangered species and wild animals like leopards, sloth-bear, Indian Bison, Wild Boars, Sambar, Chital, Hog, Barking Deer and many more. Over 50 different species of mammals, 400 different species of birds, 65 different types of butterflies can be found here and 70 different types of grass including the famous Elephant Grass Savannah grow here. The fact that Chitwan is among the last surviving examples of the Terai, it deserved all the respect and bewilderment of whoever has the slightest opportunity to experience this. It’s amazing just to think that even 40 years back the entire Terai was like Chitwan. If we needed a television here for entertainment that would be the biggest shame of all!
That evening we went to the nearby Tharu village where the Z-SISTERS were confronted with a different world altogether. The villagers were much used to tourists and lens flare, the children were nevertheless very excited to see us. This is one experience that I have already captured separately accompanied by a 3-minute video.
Our first day in Machan was signed off with total exhaustion and intense satiation. Each meal in Machan was like a warm greeting from our shy Chéf. Dinner consisted of freshly made Chappatis (Indian flat bread made with Wheat-flour) in a traditional Tandoor (clay oven used in cooking and baking) where the heat is generated by wood fire. Breads served for breakfast or soup-breads served during lunch the next day was all prepared in this Tandoor, imparting a different aroma and a freshness zing! The Chappatis were accompanied by a light Masoor Dal/Orange Lentil Soup, a Potato and Peas Curry, a String Bean preparation and followed by a slightly spicy Chicken Curry. Big Z went crazy over the Bean preparation and S went head over heels with the Chicken Curry. So I pestered our shy Chéf (the person on the extreme right in the picture below) once again and took the recipe. By this time they were probably expecting me to do this, so without any game of Chinese whispers, the recipes unfolded onto soft paper napkins. Post-Nepal, we have tried cooking both of these with great success. Multiple photo-shoots after, these two recipes have joined my blog-queue!
We were told that the next day our wake-up call would be at 5:30am and at 6:30am we would be going into the jungles on a jeep Safari. That would be followed by canoeing in a traditional dug-out canoe, down the mildly crocodile infested Rapti river! We would come back for breakfast at 9:30 and at 10:30 there would be an Elephant briefing programme. After lunch at 4:30 we would be going forour Elephant Safari which would then be followed by a slideshow, Barbeque dinner and traditional stick dance by the Thiru farmers. Please note that these Thiru people are not same as the Tharu people that we visited on our village walk.
And sure indeed the next day we were woken up sharp at 5:30am and started on our activities as had been chalked out earlier. To the utter disbelief of the Machan staff, we actually opted out of the Elephant briefing programme as we had quite an elaborate session of it last year at Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in Srilanka!
Instead we just ‘did nothing’. The Z-SISTERS lay on the hammock while we, for the first time had a chance to look at the bar. Wow! There was a huge fridge in the corner which Mr Bartender informed could stock upto 150 bottles. ‘Wow-w-w!’ we all screamed in unision when we saw the number of stacked bottles inside. On hindsight this shouldn’t have surprised us at all. I guess, when a resort is tucked this far away – away from human pry and hidden in the jungles, they need to be stocking up these many drinks and beverage bottles at any given time. The cocktails had interesting names – Tiger’s Bait, Tiger’s Paw, Machan Special, Mango Mugger, Jungle Tea, Cold Summer Night, Rhino Delight. Mr Bartender was highly motivated by our interest in them and asked Big Z to write down what went into each Cocktail and the exact break down. ‘Baby, write down, write down. I tell you this is good drink!’ The Bar was a surprise delight, the big Fridge being it’s star attraction.
‘Doing nothing’ made us explore the resort itself – the veins of the creepers forming artwork on the walls, a single bright flower popping up occasionally here and there and brightening up the lush green foliage. It also gave me the opportunity to venture into the kitchen to see what was happening for lunch. And how our shy Chéf was doing. The kitchen was huge. Our shy Chéf also spilled out a secret – a special Barbeque dinner was being organised for that night. I had chosen the best time to do all investigation as the entire resort was deserted once again with each tourist being pre-assigned one programme or the other – if not Bird watching, then the Village walk. If not Village Walk, then the Elephant briefing. If not Elephant briefing then the Power-point presentation on Royal Chitwan National Park and all it’s animals…
Investigating the kitchen and the traditional Tandoor… Bread, Chappatis, Naans – everything were made in the traditional Tandoor. It was taking long to set up the fire in the Tandoor. They were going to half cook all the marinated meat for the night’s Barbeque. Everybody seemed excited. As if they were having a Barbeque Dinner for the first time. And this was something I noticed in all the staff of Machan. They were always telling us in a very excited manner what plans were in store for us. As the other tourists came back from their respective activities Lunch was served. Breakfast and Lunch were set menus while Dinner was more of a little Buffet spread. While the Lunch was predominantly Continental – Soups, Sautéed vegetables, Breads, Grilled Chicken and Pasta (on our first Lunch), Mashed Potatoes, Grilled Veal and Rice (on our second Lunch). Dinners were spicier, with the dishes cooked in the Indian/Nepali manner. The Barbeque consisted of Chicken and Lamb Kababs, Grilled Pork with a delicious Barbeque Sauce, Potato Curry, Nans and Rice. The night also saw our shy Chéf turn into the Chéf that you would probably expect – with Chéf’s hat and all!
As the night set in, for the first time I saw all the other tourists gathered around sitting in a semi-circle to watch the farmers from the nearby village perform folk dance with sticks. These people were called Thirus (not to be confused with the Tharus that we visited on our village walk the previous day). They were probably called the Thirus as they had migrated from the Thar desert region of Rajasthan, in India.
We gathered around them sipping our drinks and munching on the crispy fried starters of Aloo Pakoras (Deep fried Potato balls dipped in a Gram-flour batter). It was a different world – far away from the busy city-life, under a star-lit partially cloudy sky. All of us joined in the folk dance, holding hands while we danced with people who lived in different worlds than ours and led different lives. For that one single moment, heartbeats from many countries across the world joined in the common rhythm of the Thiru drumbeats.
The next morning we were assigned Bird-watching at 6:30 am! Assignments even on the day of departure? There was no way we were going for it.Our earlier experience in bird-watching with the Z-SISTERS hadn’t been too great. Li’l Z’s excited screams when she sees a bird has always made sure that the birds flew away and there was nothing to watch. Though this wasn’t a major issue in our lives, it definitely was going to be for the ornithologists and others who expected to see at-least a few of the 276 species of birds officially recorded in that area.
I regret not having carried a recorder. I missed recording the birds’ chirping. Suraj who accompanied us for our safaris said he had atleast 290 recordings of different birds’ chirping. He promised to email me a few of them so that I could accompany this post with them. I am still waiting for him to send me.
Everybody asked us not to leave that day. An elephant who was expected to go into labour for the last 2 days still hadn’t given birth. Li’l Z wanted to see the new-born calf. So did Big Z. Both of them tried to persuade us to stay back for one more day. We promised them that we will come back to Machan once again some day. And this time we will not travelling by car from Kathmandu. We would simply fly in. There were daily flights twice from Kathmandu to Bharatpur airfield, 20 km from the resort.
The feeling was very different as we left. We had grown so attached to the people out there – something that has never happened before. It was a different world out there, as if gift-wrapped and preserved specially for each tourist to open up.
2 suggestions for Machan Paradise View from my side :
1) Please serve some special dessert after each meals. They did serve a dessert – an yoghurt, fresh fruits or a rice pudding. But considering that their food is really very very special, prepared with utmost care by the cute shy Chéf, the dessert in comparison turns pale. It was was practically missing!
2) They should have a more enthusiastic staff giving out the Slideshow presentation instead of a person just reading out the slideshows and staring at people who were entering late. Face it – we were all on holidays. No, this statement is not defensive at all – we were on time but some other tourists with little children weren’t. I understand if you are late for a Jeep Safari where you will be accompanying other tourists – but slideshow presentation is surely something that could be discounted.
Best Time to Travel
Short grass makes February – May the best game-viewing season. The autumn months are gorgeous with beautiful Himalayan views.
The Sign Off
We left Chitwan promising ourselves to come back again. I was carrying something very special. I persuaded one of the Thiru dancers to give me (well, not exactly for free and I did make a payment for it) the wooden musical instrument – the Rattler that he was using. Some of the dancers had these in hand. Hand-made from the wood of the Sal tree, I fell in love with it. The dancer was a bit confused as to how much he should sell it for. Perhaps Rs 500 (Nepali Rs) or may be Rs 700! He discussed the selling price with others and yes, decided on Rs 700. I paid him more than that and requested him to share the additional amount with the other dancers. I hope he did that.
And that Jhilli is with me – a gift for Big Z on her Birthday. We have trying to get her a musical instrument from each place that we have visited. She already has a small cute collection of musical instruments (please read this as tiny, indigenous ones and not as if we bought her a grand piano from Salzburg!)
Oh, I forgot to mention that the instrument is called a Jhilli. Such a sweet name isn’t it? Jhilli in Bengali means sparkling or a spark. I forgot to ask what it means in the language of the Thiru people. One more reason to go back to Chitwan, isn’t it?
Unblogging it all… Ishita
Enjoy more pictures of our stay in Chitwan. But please don’t use them.
Official Website: Machan Paradise View Resort
Books that I’ve taken help from regarding Chitwan info (apart from the internet)
A Golden Souvenir of The Himalaya – Author: Pushpesh Pant
Kathmandu Pokhra-Chitwan - Author: Thomas L.Kelly, Daniel Haber
Other articles on our Nepal trip
Where The Buddha Only Sees!
Daal Maharani Befitting the Queen (And Also Us) - Recipe
Sikarni Raan/Marinated Lamb Shank from Yak & Yeti - Recipe
Flying over Mt Everest – Nepal
The Abandoned Women Amidst Many Prayers