Why is it that the best places are often the hardest ones to get to? Travelling to Bardia National Park in Nepal (sometimes spelled Bardiya) is no exception. It takes at least 15 hours to travel to Bardia by a gruelling and bumpy bus ride from Pokhara or 17 hours from Kathmandu. But it’s worth it, we promise! This is because Bardia is the natural home to majestic royal Bengal tigers where you may see them the way they are meant to be seen: wild and free.
If you have been social distancing properly, you will have no doubt heard of the red-necked trainwreck of a Netflix docuseries called Tiger King. It follows the impossible to conceive antics of among others, Joe Exotic, a tiger cub breeder/makeshift zoo owner from Oklahoma, and his nemesis Carole Baskin who runs the Big Cat Rescue in Florida. While the series launched a thousand memes as well as dozens of theories about what Carole did with her husband, lacking from the discourse seems to be a discussion about what is actually best for big cats.
Throughout the series, humans behave like beasts by showing a callous disregard for the captive animals in their care. Joe tears a brand new baby cub away from its mother through a chain-link fence and tosses meat en masse to groups of tigers causing them to fight each other for food. In that scene, an emaciated white tiger with its ribs visibly poking through its hide barely manages to steal a small cut of meat. Joe is repeatedly seen hitting or even firing his gun at the tigers. Never mind the fact that wild tiger’s range is up to 650km (400mi) so none of the animals at any of the zoos or sanctuaries are actually living a life that’s anything like their non-captive relatives. While there are responsible, accredited zoos out there, the tiger attractions featured in Tiger King are not among them. Even Joe Exotic himself when surrendering two chimpanzees that he kept in separate cages for ten years recognizes some of his mistakes as he sees them finally getting to caress and groom each other in the sanctuary. “I deprived them of that for ten years.” he says. Yes you did and what you subjected them to for ten years was animal cruelty.
Nevertheless, many of these wild animal attractions remain open but we do not recommend that anyone give their tourism dollars to any of these operators and are saddened that the US allows them persist.
The good news is that there are true tiger sanctuaries in the world and we were fortunate enough to visit an absolute gem of one in Nepal last year before Covid-19 made travel obsolete for the time being. Bardia (aka Bardiya) National Park is a special place dedicated to preserving wild tiger habitat and where you can walk in their footsteps and catch a glimpse of them uncaged and free if you’re so lucky.
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Established in 1988, the 968km square km area of Bardia is one of Nepal’s largest wilderness refuges and is home to an increasing population of majestic royal bengal tigers. While the tigers are Bardia’s resident celebrities, you can also see wild Asian elephants, one-horned rhinos, leopards, enough species of birds to earn it the title of an Important Biodiversity Area, as well as two species of monkeys, and several kinds of deer. With its impressive ecological catalogue, Bardia is an under-visited gem in the Terai region that is absolutely essential to the survival of tigers who have lost over 93% of their historical range according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
Unfortunately, many tourists skip visiting this amazing place but if you’re looking to have an ethical wildlife encounter with some iconic Asian animals and to get away from the crowds found elsewhere in Nepal, then Bardia is the place to be! In fact, the park was even visited by Leonardo DiCaprio back in 2010 and he loved it so much that his foundation is partnering with the World Wildlife Fund to take steps to double tiger populations in the Terai by 2022 which is the next year of the tiger.
Tigers are such an amazing, iconic species it would be devastating to lose them. Spending time in Bardia is a great way to help their survival by supporting responsible tourism. So skip that wretched Tiger (Torture) Temple in Thailand and see them the way they were meant to be seen in Nepal.
Getting to Bardia
This is the worst thing about Bardia National Park, but it gets better from here. Bardia is about 570km southeast of Kathmandu but due to Nepal’s notoriously rough roads, it will take about 12 hours of driving in a private Jeep or 17 hours on a bus to arrive there. Flights are not much better, but first, let’s talk about buses and Jeeps.
Jeep to Bardia
The private Jeep can be arranged with a local agency but it will cost about $500usd so it is a very pricey option. This is best if you have a group that can fill up each seat in the Jeep to save on costs a little.
Bus to Bardia
The bus is by far the cheapest option but you have been warned, this is not the most comfortable option. Nepal is still a very poor country with many roads in dismal condition and decrepit buses that will leave you longing for the luxury vessels of say, Chile or Argentina.
Avoid sitting at the very back and very front if you can, be aware that pee breaks are just a stop on the side of the road, and be prepared for a long bumpy ride. There may be a cheesy Bollywood movie playing at volume 11 for most of the journey too. Nevertheless, it’s a great way to have an authentic Nepal travel experience and the cheapest way to get to the park.
You will not have to wander around Thamel in Khatmandu long to find a place selling bus tickets. You could always go to the bus station and buy your ticket yourself but the savings may be quickly be eaten up in taxi fares, so feel free to shop around and bargain a little until you find your best price.
The same goes for travelling to Bardia from Pokhara. You can buy your ticket from a storefront and then take the bus from the “old bus station”, also known as “not the tourist bus park”. In other words, you catch the bus from a different place than where you would take the bus to go to the Annapurna region or Kathmandu.
Once we arrived at the bus station, we were quickly told that we didn’t have the right tickets by the first guy who greeted us and then told by another guy who walked over that everything was fine and our bus was indeed the right one. The taxi driver just shrugged and said: “This is Nepal for ya, there’s never a process.”
Be sure you tell the bus driver that you’re disembarking at Bardia so they’ll make the stop. Many people on the journey will be going to the Indian border so it’s important to get off before them. This, of course, is going to be in the middle of the night.
Read our tips for overnight bus travel for some ideas on how to make this journey a little more comfortable because you’re in for a long haul and be prepared for a kind of sketchy disembarkation on the side of a highway in the early morning hours. We recommend getting a local sim card when travelling through Nepal.
After you disembark, your lodging will either provide a roadside pickup or will charge a small fee for one. We were quoted $6usd for a tuk-tuk but our lodging picked us up free of charge, however not without some minor drama. We almost got into a tuk-tuk claiming that he had been sent by the property so we would have ended up having to pay lord only knows what for a ride that was provided by our lodging. In the end, Mr. B’s son eventually picked us up claiming that he was late because the “road was being repaired”. We took a very bumpy alternate route back and finally got to lie down in our room at 6:00 am.
Flight to Bardia
There are no direct flights to Bardia, but you can take a flight from Kathmandu to Nepalgunj . We are not aware of any flights leaving Pokhara as of 2019.
The flight is a short one but from there it’s another 5-hour drive to the park. Most hotels we talked to charged about $50usd to be picked up from the airport.
Where to stay in Bardia National Park
There are a variety of options for where to stay in the villages near Bardia National Park, including homestays. We stayed at Mr. B’s which is a great budget option with a nice garden and delicious food in the restaurant. We paid extra for a room with air conditioning which took off the edge, but it didn’t work very well and the temperature reached a staggering 45 degrees during the day! Even with the fan and “AC”, we were still pretty hot. Be prepared for excessive heat and remember that the best way to see tigers is when you’re sweating in their natural habitat.
If DIY travel is not your thing, some of the local tour agencies found in Thamel (Kathmandu) or Lakeside (Pokhara) can organize safari tours for you, or you can prearrange ahead of time here. We found it easy enough to organize our visit without a tour.
How to See Tigers in Bardia National Park
Now for what you came here for: the royal bengal tigers! They are the undisputed stars of this amazing place, but you can also see monkeys, elephants, rhinos, many species of birds, deer, and if you’re really lucky a leopard or super rare gangetic dolphin.
The absolute best way to see them is to do a walking safari where you follow in their footsteps with a guide and wait by their favourite water crossing spots. Most lodges will be able to arrange a guide and/or transportation to and from the park.
We ended up choosing to stay at Mr. B’s because Philip’s foot was still broken and he mentioned being able to accommodate differently-abled people on his website. I wish I could remember the name of the guide he provided, but all I can say is that he was wonderful. He was so knowledgeable about the animals and the history of the park and worked tirelessly to make sure Phil was comfortable.
Walking to and from the different water crossings and fields is a great way to spend time in the park but there other activities such as rafting, and driving safaris.
The rafting was a very beautiful way to see the park and it kept Philip off his foot, but unfortunately, we did not see any of the charismatic megafauna despite spending a whole day floating through the park. We even spent an hour on the banks eating our packed lunch at a favourite crossing spot hoping for the tiger to appear, but no such luck. One thing for sure is, if you were lucky enough to see any animals, the pictures that you would be able to get from the river would be incredible!
The following day, we were lucky that there were some researchers in the park that day so Mr. B arranged for us to hitch a ride on a car to a spot where tourism vehicles aren’t allowed. We spent the day waiting at a water crossing and were delighted to see our first tiger in the park. She appeared between the grass in between my scanning the horizon with my binoculars and swam across the river in a matter of seconds. It was a brief but spectacular sighting!
In the afternoon, we were delighted by the rare sight of two bull Asian elephants bathing together in the river. One poor chap had his tail lopped off by poachers, but he seemed nonetheless happy to splash around in the water. Once again, seeing Asian elephants this way is much preferable to some of the heinous captive elephant tourism that you see in Thailand for example.
It’s important to note that there aren’t many routes through the riverine forest where the tigers hang out, so while we were lucky to get a ride to a crossing that day most other driving safaris will take you through the sal forest which is less exciting. Walking really is the best way to see the tigers if you can do it.
To finish up our time in Bardia, I spent a half-day in the park with the guide on my last day in and saw another tiger and my first one-horned Asian rhino in the wild. Overall, it was a very successful trip to Bardia!
We were there for 4 days but you could probably have a good look at the park in 2. We just really wanted to make sure we saw the tigers, and the village is a charming place that moves at a slower pace which makes it good for relaxing. While the Himalayan peaks amazed us as we expected they would, Bardia ended up being one of our favourite places that we visited during our trip, and we were so impressed by the Park’s staff dedication to protecting the majestic royal bengal tigers. If you don’t make it to Bardia during your first trip to Nepal, remember the country’s tourism slogan: “Once is not enough.”
Visit Bardia National Park
While we know you won’t be able to visit Bardia National Park in the next little while, we do encourage you to keep it on your bucket list and use your tourism dollars to support the good kind of tiger spotting after the world reopens to travel!