Almost 15 hours of travel yesterday got us barely into Nepal where we stayed at Club De Novo in Butwal. It was dark when we arrived so we saw little of Nepal. That would change today.
We woke at 6:00 am and went down for breakfast at 7:00 am. By that time the sun was shining in a blue sky and we could see tall tree covered hills nearby. The air was fresh and there was no apparent layer of dust. Those things marked Nepal apart from India.
After breakfast we completed packing and checked out. By 8:15 am our small bus was loaded and heading for Lumbini, birthplace of the Buddha. From there we would go to Chitwan. Ruby explained that today and tomorrow would be in the flat part of Nepal and we would see the mountains later in the week.
The road out of town looked cleaner than we had become accustomed to over the past weeks and the shop fronts seemed better kept. Houses along the way were substantial 2 and 3 story plastered brick painted in bright colours and decorated with tiles and other devices. The houses and their surroundings seemed clean and well cared for.
As we drove on what we thought must be the main road to Lumbini we passed a number of robed monks walking in the same direction. We assumed they must be pilgrims. Further along we turned onto a less major road and drove through an area covered with paddy fields for rice and occasional small plots of wheat or barley.
When we reached the Lumbini complex we followed a road to the centre where Ruby acquired our entry passes and I bought the necessary camera permit for 240 (Nepalese) rupees (about $3 AUD). Then our driver took us up what will be the main access road but was now under construction to an entry gate nearest the Mayadevi temple.
We walked about a km on a gravel road that was mostly dry and dusty but had 100 m or so of mud where water had been used to lay the dust. There was a small shed 50 m or so from the temple entrance where we deposited our shoes and socks before we could enter.
Mayadevi was the mother of Buddha and the temple marks the exact location, a stone under a glass case in the centre, where she gave birth. According to legend she did so standing while reaching up with one hand to hold the branch of a tree. As well as the birth stone the building contains ruins of buildings dating back to 300 BC. We walked through on a boardwalk, pausing to see the stone.
There was time outside to wander about. We sat for a while in the shade of a bodhi tree which was grown from a sapling taken from the tree under which Buddha was meditating when he achieved enlightenment. The trees were strung with Buddhist prayer flags from different countries.
We walked back through the mud and dust to board the bus. By then it was about 11:00 am and time to head east toward Chitwan National Park, our destination for tonight. Our route was mostly through rural areas with small settlements separated by areas of farmland. The roads were mostly sealed but there were some rougher stretches that were being constructed or repaired. Traffic was steady but, unlike in India, there was no constant honking. To the north we could see a range that would look impressive at home but is probably not so here. There were white clouds appearing above the range and the air all round was hazy.
Around 1:00 pm the bus began climbing the mountain range. On the way up we passed a truck with a large LPG tank that had been going down until it got one wheel over the edge and came to a halt. There were several people working on a solution.
Near the top we stopped for lunch at a place selling local food. Ruby had taken orders earlier for Nepalese Thali or vegetable soup with noodles. We both had the latter since we expected local cuisine for dinner. We ate on a balcony with a view over steep slopes covered in jungle.
After lunch we followed the road as it descended and crossed a river near Dumkibas. We continued on gently sloping road for some distance through forested countryside. A bit after 2:30 pm we turned off the main road at a village, drove through an arch announcing Chitwan National Park, and onto a bumpy track. Around 3:00 pm we arrived at Tharu Community Lodge, our accommodation for the next two nights.
Ruby had explained earlier that the tour used to use nearby accommodation but GAdventures decided to invest in a community project that assisted local people to build and operate the ‘home stay’ lodge as an opportunity for women. The units are simple but comfortable and there is opportunity for guests to experience local culture as well as the natural attractions of the park.
A group of women in traditional costumes welcomed us with colour spots on our foreheads and garlands around our necks. We were invited to sit and offered drinks. Keys to rooms were distributed and our bags taken for us. Then we had time to relax for an hour or so before the afternoon activity.
At 4:30 pm we gathered for the optional cycling tour of the local area. Almost the whole group had decided to go so there was some shuffling about as we selected ’best fit’ cycles and helmets. Some basic adjustments like seat height were made for those, like Majella, who really needed them but mostly we made do.
There were some, not many, sections of sealed road on our route and some smooth clay but mostly it was bumpy gravel with potholes and ruts. We had to watch carefully where we rode. Along the way we met a few cars and motorbikes, a lot of other cyclists and pedestrians, a pair of elephants, tractors, and buses. People along the way, especially children, greeted us with a cheerful namaste, hello, or bye.
We had thought on the way in that we were in a rural area but we discovered as we cycled that it was more like suburbia. There were fields all round growing crops but few large gaps between groups of houses and each group seemed to have at least one with an open shop front selling basic supplies. At one point we passed through a group where every building was a store of some kind including a fashion store and a computer repair store.
Around 5:30 pm we reached the bank of the Narayani River where we were going to watch the sunset. Some of our hosts were there with Ruby, chai, and biscuits. We enjoyed chai and biscuits while we watched the sunset and the boats and birds on the water. Someone spotted a crocodile in the water and a rhino on the far bank.
We set off again to cycle back while there was still light enough to avoid the worst bumps on the road. Our earlier route had been round about to allow us a broad view of the area so the direct route back was shorter. We were back with time to rest before dinner which was included tonight.
By 7:00 pm we were gathered in the community room where dinner would be served and being dressed, just our top layers, in local dress – a wrapped skirt for the men and sari style wrapping for the women. We were invited to sit on chairs outside where we watched the performance of four dances by a group of women accompanied by two men with drums. The first dance involved skilful wielding of metre long sticks while dancing at pace. The sounds of sticks colliding emphasised the need for dancers not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The other dances were just as energetic and skilful with the last involving dancing while balancing a pot on the head. The performance finished with a dance that was simple enough they could invite the audience up to join them. We were gasping after five minutes and wondered at how they kept it up for so long.
Dinner began with fermented radish soup served with naan. It tasted better than the contents might suggest and we enjoyed it. A sample of rice wine was served as we were asked about drinks from the bar. I did drink mine and Majella’s but I don’t think the samples encouraged any sales. Main course was Nepalese thali – plain rice, roasted egg in sauce, curry chicken, pickle, spiced vegetables, and lentils. It was tasty but more than any of us needed. We did our best. Dessert was halva with some small pieces of fruit.
By that time we were all tired and full. Everyone was happy to push breakfast to 8:30 am to allow for catch up sleep.