Come meet the elephants by signing up for a stay at Tiger Tops Tharu Lodge, on the western edge of Nepal’s Chitwan National Park. This rustic retreat is strictly for intrepid sorts; there are few frills at this lodge, but what it lacks in tech, it more than makes up for in resident pachyderms, whose mahouts will help facilitate new friendships, as you get to know them all by name (and personality) as they roam wild in their 18-acre corrals. Days are spent rumbling in the jungle, with jeep drives out in search of Bengal tigers, one-horned rhinos and real-life Baloos (aka sloth bears). Come night, gather around the fire for social sundowners with your fellow explorers, before communal meals in the main hall.
Noon, but flexible, subject to availability. Earliest check-in, 9am, also flexible.
Double rooms from £134.13 ($186), including tax at 24.3 per cent.
Rates usually include all meals.
Tiger Tops has its own charitable school on-site, there’s an organic farm attached and it’s also part of an anti-poaching patrol.
The hotel closes during monsoon season, from the middle of June to mid August.
At the hotel
Free WiFi in communal areas, laundry, car park. In rooms: free bottled water, locally made bath products.
Our favourite rooms
The lodge has rooms made using traditional Tharu techniques, and a series of jungle-flanked tents. Unless you’re really feeling the call of nature, go for the Traditional Rooms: request the one at the end for windows on every side, or, if you think you’re going to be afraid of your jungle neighbours after dark, opt for a room closest to the dining hall.
There’s an unheated pool in the gardens.
You’ll need jungle-approved attire: brown, taupe and khaki colours, long trousers and full-sleeve T-shirts, sturdy (snake-proof) shoes, fleeces for the evenings (from mid November to early March) and a head torch if you want to earn extra nerd points.
All of the rooms are on the ground floor, but the jungle terrain will be tricky for wheelchair users.
All ages are welcome. Traditional Rooms have an extra single bed and the Safari Tents can have twin beds added on request. Babysitting is available with a day’s notice.
The lodge has its own organic farm and produces lots of the ingredients on-site. Solar power is used, and the bath products are made nearby. The furniture was built by local carpenters and Nepalese tailors stitched the staff uniforms.
Swap stories with your fellow intrepid travellers at the communal table in the main hall. At lunch, eat in the garden under the mango tree.
Camouflage colours: you won’t even have to switch out of your adventuring gear if you don’t want to.
Guests all convene in the evenings following days out in Chitwan: after drinks around the fire, dinner is served either at a big communal table or in a more cosy corner if you prefer. If the weather’s fine, tables are set up outside, too. There’s no menu, but dietary requirements are taken into account. Some nights the dishes will be Nepalese, other nights they’ll be Western. All of the food is seasonal and many of the vegetables will have come straight from the grounds.
There’s no bar, but drinks are served in the main lodge – there’s a choice of imported favourites along with some local spirits. And if a regular aperitif won’t cut it, sign up for an elephant sundowner instead: join the hotel’s herd at bath time, when they play in the mud and catch up, while you watch on with your jungle juice.
Breakfast is available between 6am and 10am. The restaurant and bar stay open all day, until 11pm.
Tiger Tops Tharu Lodge is in southern Nepal, west of Kathmandu and close to Chitwan National Park.
Bharatpur Airport is closest: the 50-kilometre drive should take an hour and 15 minutes. Hotel transfers cost 3,500 rupees a person each way. Domestic flights from Kathmandu land at Bharatpur regularly and time in the air is only 20 minutes. It’s also possible to fly down to Bharatpur from Pokhara Airport, a 20-minute flight away.
From Kathmandu, it’s a five-hour drive, but you need either a Nepalese driving licence or an international permit and car hire isn’t often available, plus the road conditions can be more than a little hairy – it’s easier to hire a vehicle with a private driver. There’s a free on-site car park.
Tourist buses set off from Kathmandu and Pokhara daily, and will stop at Bharatpur if you ask nicely. Hotel staff can greet you here, from where it’s an hour’s drive to the camp.
Worth getting out of bed for
Shotgun the hammock for an afternoon siesta, cool off from the jungle heat in the pool or settle in under the shade of a mango tree for a leisurely read.
This is one for the wildlife lovers – stalking the jungles of Chitwan National Park are one-horned rhinos, sloth bears (like Baloo) and Bengal tigers. Knowledgeable naturalists are on hand to accompany your jungle excursion. The hotel is Nepal's first and only place to offer responsible elephant experiences (you won't be heading off on an elephant-back safari here), and the herd's welfare is paramount. They have a whole 18-acre enclosure to themselves and live a truly peaceful pachyderm life, that you can be a fleeting part of guilt-free. The lodge can arrange open-top jeep safaris and cruises down the Narayani River, walks with your new-found elephant friends and hikes through the jungle canopies to spy some strangler vines. It can also organise trips to a neighbouring village, where you’ll be able to spend some time with the indigenous Tharu people, learn about their way of life and check out their traditional building methods (which are similar to the hotel’s, but on a much smaller scale). There’s good news for twitchers: Nepal has no fewer than 848 species of birds, and you’ll be able to spot a fair few of them here.
Further afield, Lumbini is a three-hour drive from the lodge, but it’s worth the trek to see the pilgrim site’s many temples – including Maya Devi, which is thought to be the birthplace of Gautama Buddha.
You’re in rural Nepal now, Toto – the lodge is your best bet for miles (and miles).
Every hotel featured is visited personally by members of our team, given the Smith seal of approval, and then anonymously reviewed. As soon as our reviewers have returned from this campside hotel in Nepal and unpacked their cork hats and binoculars, a full account of their jungle break will be with you. In the meantime, to whet your wanderlust, here's a quick peek inside Tiger Tops Tharu Lodge in Chitwan…
In a landscape this spectacular, it’s a relief to see the preservation efforts made by the enterprising sorts behind Tiger Tops Tharu Lodge. Going strong since the early 1980s, when the current custodian’s father built the family-run rustic retreat on the site of a hunting lodge set up by two Texans in 1964, the lodge is the biggest of the traditional Tharu-style buildings in Nepal. The forests and grassy plains of these Terai lowlands are the favoured stamping ground of several rare mammals, including one-horned rhinos and Bengal tigers. Baloo is also partial to these parts: sloth bears are likely to star in your daily safaris. There won’t be an elephant in the room, but one will never be far, since the greatest guests are undoubtedly the resident pack of pachyderms, whose natural antics provide hours of entertainment at this low-tech lodge. You'll come to know and love these large land animals, learn their names (and personalities), stroll through Chitwan alongside your fave and discover their unique role in Nepal's ecosystem. You won't be riding any, since the lodge is the country's first and only company offering responsible elephant experiences and the herd's welfare comes first. This is feel-good tourism at its finest, especially now you're mates with Babar, Dumbo and co. An elephant never forgets – and neither will you.