Food for thought! This phrase applies to me completely.
I love to experiment with food and thankfully 2013 was kind to me and she took me to as many as 13 different countries. I am an eggetarian traveler, which puts curbs on the sheer variety of food that I can taste, but it doesn’t limit me in tasting interesting vegetarian and eggatarian foods that please every one of my taste buds. (Note, I consume dairy products and nuts too). I am sure they can even arouse the taste buds of a meat lover too.
The list goes in reverse order from the country I visited most recently and at the very end of this yummy selection, you will find my favorite dish of 2013. So go on and let your mouth water.
It comes as no surprise that my favorite food in the land of chillies is made from chillies. It is one of the most popular dishes of this Himalayan kingdom and is also the country’s national dish. It is Ema Datshi, a dish made from Bhutan chillies (either red or green) and served in a thick cheesy broth along with red rice. Additionally red chilly sauces and a radish salad is served with this dish. While this is my best food from Bhutan, I also like Kewa Datshi (Potato and Cheese) and Mushroom Datshi (Mushroom and Cheese). Just writing about it is making my mouth wander to the cold climes of Bhutan.
Well, we all know the importance of Thai cuisine in international food. After Indian food, my next favorite cuisine has to be Thai. While Maasaman curry makes me forget everything around me, I like Tom Yum ka soup, the bamboo sticky rice and the very famous Pad Thai too. And nothing like a well made Thai iced tea or iced tender coconut water to wash it down. Oh! I was in Thailand 4 times this year and each time I gorged on these foods. I hope 2014 gives me more opportunities to visit this sensational foodie country.
Cambodian food may not be noted for its vegetarian fare as they specialize in fishes, frogs, crocodiles, insects and more. But, I have favorites here too. The vegetarian version of their traditional Amok dish ranks right on the top. But, I have a sweet spot in my tummy for their milk dessert made out of palm fruit, condensed milk and powdered ice. I liked this dessert so much that I had it after lunch 9 days in a row.
This is one country where the food is so similar to that of India. The Roti Canai (pronounced Chanai) served with plain dal (lentil soup) has to be one of my go-to dishes here. Simple, filling and yet so tasty. And sweet milk tea (hot) is the perfect drink to accompany this simple meal.
To be honest, Philippines as a country doesn’t have a concept of vegetarianism. There are vegetarian only restaurants, but they are few and far between. I did manage to find myself vegetarian dishes, but they were simple and more international in nature. The locals love their meat in everything including vegetables. Since I have to give a favorite, it has to be the rice wine that is surprisingly strong and goes well with a simple meal of plain rice and some veggies at the rice terraces of Batad. The landscapes of this country make up for its lack in vegetarian food!
Singapore is food and food is Singapore. You will get this vibe as soon as you arrive in this country. Food stalls, an urge to eat and conversations revolving around food will not be seen more anywhere else in the world. The people of Singapore love to eat and this can be found everywhere in this island country. Singapore Sling is world famous. While Little India offers a lot of Indian vegetarian food options, I prefer the Pumpkin soup and chinese sauteed vegetables cooked in a Chinese vegetarian kitchen. The Pumpkin soup especially makes me want to fly to Singapore right now.
This is one country where I was genuinely surprised with the sheer variety of vegetarian food options. Gado-Gado, Lotek, Tek Tek Surabaya, Nasi with Sayuran and more. If you can handle peanuts, then the peanut sauces of Indonesia will take vegetarian food to a different level altogether. It makes snacking so very healthy and filling and nothing better than Gado Gado in that department. I am sure I had Gado Gado more than 50 times in the 50 odd days that I spent in Indonesia this year. And the warungs of Indonesia totally rock. I would recommend them to all foodies. And the Es Teh Manis is the perfect drink to accompany a spicy local dish.
Now, this is one more country that offers a great many vegetarian delights owing to its Indian influence, Persian connection and its own local food. I completely dig the pickled tea leaves salad and Hin Tou. These are traditional snacks from the Shan state of Burma and are my absolute favorites as snacks and full meals. In terms of dessert, I like the thick and colourful Falooda that tastes like heaven on a hot day.
Again a fish loving country thanks to the mighty Mekong, but one of my favorite South East Asian foods is from this country. It is the super spicy Bamboo salad. I love chillies, but I remember how much I cried while I had these bamboo salads and in spite of that, I had these salads more than 10 times with sticky rice. I would have had more of them, but unfortunately for me, I couldn’t find them everywhere. My trick to counter the heat factor of this dish is to down it with some locally made rice whiskey. A perfect way to relax and nothing better than Laos in that department. For some reason, I also liked the simple egg sandwiches cooked on the streets of Vang Vieng too.
The pho is the most popular food of Vietnam and I am sure I would have loved it too if it had a lot of vegetables in it, but unfortunately it has a lot of pork and/or beef in it. Apart from the vegetarian restaurants and the ones that sold mock meat, I think I liked the simple morning glory with steamed white rice. I also liked the steamed rice dumplings with panda flavor in it ( found more of these in Hue and Hanoi).
I haven’t been to Portugal as yet, but of all the places I have been to, I think the best egg tarts that I have had are from Macau. My heart nearly stopped with a feeling of déjà vu as these egg tarts melted in my mouth. Macau doesn’t have much in terms of vegetarian food, but these egg tarts make up for this slack with its super taste and texture. The cookies of Macau come a close second.
I still remember that Egg plant and rice served in a hot pot at Causeway Bay. That dish destroyed my perception that Hong Kong doesn’t have local vegetarian food. As a city of international standards, Hong Kong offers many options to the vegetarian traveler, but those on a budget, even the food streets and night markets of Hong Kong offer a lot of Cantonese vegetarian dishes that are really yummy!
The stinkiest food in the world is also my favorite food of Taiwan. It is stinky tofu. The stench is over-powering, but it tastes great with clear soup and rice. A close second would be the tea leaves fried rice. The curries at Tokyo curry are also good and a dessert at coldstone creamery is also great. But, if you want true local vegetarian food, you have to hit the local night markets that seem to be everywhere. The vegetarian options might be limited, but it is quite an experience and this is where the stinky tofu is found the most.
And my favorite food of 2013 is the very spicy Ema Datshi of Bhutan that is served with red rice and radish salad. The national dish of Bhutan has found its way to the top of my list, but each of the above dishes were a treat for my taste buds. Thank you 2013 for being my foodie year!
Tuesday, December 31, 2013
Food for thought! This phrase applies to me completely.
Tuesday, December 24, 2013
Typically tourists don’t walk from Punakha to Wangdi Phodrang, two river side valley towns that are known for its history, red rice and hydroelectric projects in Western Bhutan, about a couple of years from Thimphu. It is about 30 kms by road and a share taxi only costs INR/BTN 100 for this 30 minute journey, but I was piqued by a statement that some locals made, which is most of the school kids walk from Punakha to Wangdi during school holidays and festivals.
This caught my interest and after digging a bit deep into this, I found out that there is a much shorter abandoned road and also a walking trail by the side of the river that leads from Punakha to Wangdi Phodrang.
This route takes you from Punakha Dzong to the second longest suspension bridge in Bhutan and then to the Punakha countryside that is covered with golden yellow rice fields. On the other side of the trail is the azure waters of the Mochu and Pochu rivers that join at the Punakha Dzong.
The waters of this river is so clean that you can see a lot of migratory birds on this trail and those include the Ruddy Shelducks, Cormorants, Stilts and more. Also, on the terrestrial side, there are many interesting and colourful Himalayan birds. If you are a birder, then this trail should be on your must do list in Bhutan.
Even if you are not a birder, the landscape is full of mountains, a fast flowing river and lots of golden yellow fields with traditional Bhutanese houses in the middle. This makes for some great sights and thus presents great photography opportunities.
In terms of distance, I think the trail is about 12 kms with a little bit of ups and downs, but mostly flat. If you take it easy, stop for a lot of photos and breaks, then you should be able to walk between these two rich valleys within 3 hours and if you are in a hurry, you can do it in 90 minutes. If time is not of essence and you wish to experience the Bhutanese countryside with its greenery, birds and colourful people, then this hike is very much recommended.
Saturday, December 21, 2013
The valley of Punakha is a very scenic place. In addition to its natural setting, it is also known for the 2nd longest suspension bridge in Bhutan. Set very high on a fast mountain river, this bridge is perfect for those who wish to get their heart pumping with excitement. This suspension bridge connects the town of Punakha and the Punakha Dzong with the smaller villages surrounding the Punakha town.
I crossed this bridge too while I walked from Punakha to Kuruthang on the other side of the river and through the rice fields. After crossing this bridge, I saw these Buddhist monks from the Punakha Dzong cross the same suspension bridge and couldn’t miss this interesting moment of these red robed monks and the long suspension bridge in the background. If you ever go to Punakha, do not miss to get on this bridge. I will be a fun walk.
Thursday, December 19, 2013
The new year of 2014 is bringing a new entry to the blog. It has been one of those things that I have procrastinated for a long while and I know a lot of you have hated me for it. But, as promised last month, I am launching my blog’s very own email newsletter in the new year. I am calling my newsletter the ‘Travel Club’ as it will cater to all our interests that revolve around Travel and the many sub categories under it. And the best part is that this email newsletter (Travel Club) is available for free and anyone can join.
The one thing that I plan to keep special about this newsletter is that it will showcase information that will not be available on the blog. So, in its own special way, it will be unique. So, the people who are not subscribed to the newsletter will miss out on that awesome travel information.
To start with, I plan to keep this newsletter a fortnightly affair and depending on feedback from you readers, I will either make this weekly or monthly in the future. Through this newsletter, I plan to share the following with you. It might be just one of the below or a combination.
1) Unique destination stories
2) Pertinent travel, visa and photography tips
3) International Destinations that are either super special or friendly to Indians (visa, wallet, etc.)
4) Vegetarian delights from around the world. I want to prove that a vegetarian like me can also easily travel around the world
5) As has been the norm, I will bring in my collection of special world travel photos
6) Going forward, I intend to run competitions and contests and there will be a lot of goodies to be won at the end of it
7) I am planning a lot of launches in 2014 and the newsletter subscribers will be the first ones to hear about it
8) As I keep traveling, I come across insane travel offers and flight deals. The newsletter subscribers will be the only ones to hear about it.
A lot of you (my readers and fans) do not find the time to regularly follow my frequent blog updates. Hence, for you, I plan to keep a section on my newsletter that gives you a snapshot of the key things that have transpired in the blog in the last 15 days. This section will be in addition to the overall unique newsletter content.
As with most other newsletters, if you like it, you can share it with your friends, family and social network and if you don’t like it, you can go ahead and unsubscribe from future mailers. It is as simple and transparent as that.
I want to keep every version of the newsletter different and unique and will look to your comments and suggestions to keep it improving.
If you are interested, go ahead and sign up to the email newsletter and get ready to enjoy the travel club benefits. I plan to be super kind to my newsletter subscribers, so make the most of it
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
Lisbon is a gem of a city yet Portugal’s capital is still considered a hidden secret compared to popular Portugal regions such as the Algarve. Cosmopolitan Lisbon offers many cultural delights and historic attractions but it’s also a city that exudes a youthful and vibrant atmosphere.
Lisbon offers a frankly stunning location on the banks of the River Tagus on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. The city’s gothic architecture, antique trams and leafy, narrow winding lanes offer a charming atmosphere rarely found in other destinations. A Lisbon short break may be ideal for sightseeing and relaxation but it also has plenty to offer lovers of nightlife and food. If you are still looking for your favorite European city then this enchanting city definitely deserves a visit.
Getting around Lisbon
Lisbon is Portugal’s largest city but the center is fairly compact and easily traversed by foot. However, one of the best ways to enjoy the sights is to take one of the city’s traditional trams. Using the tram system means you can jump on and off wherever you like and in the process you can view some of the best Lisbon sights such as the city’s historic quarter, the Alfama, with its medieval streets and the majestic St George’s Castle. If you’re looking to view Lisbon from a different perspective then take a River Tagus cruise and see the city illuminated at night.
A city of museums
As you would expect from a capital city, Lisbon offers many museums most of which are the opposite of the sedate artefact houses found in other capitals. Head to the Belem district to enjoy modern and contemporary art in the Berardo Collection Museum or learn about the history of Portuguese exploration at the Museum of the Orient located at the Alcântara waterfront. Although not actually a museum, the well-preserved medieval Carmo Convent, which was almost ruined during the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, is worth a visit. Sunday is one of the best days to visit Lisbon’s museums if you are on a budget as many are free to enter.
Lisbon for food lovers
Unlike many other major cities, Lisbon has managed to avoid the tourist trap restaurants. This is a city where the locals dine out frequently and this is reflected in the low prices found in most restaurants. It’s hard to go hungry in Lisbon although you will usually have to wait until around 9pm or later until dinner is served. Traditional Portuguese cuisine is heavily influenced by the Mediterranean so expect plenty of spicy meats, poultry and seafood dishes washed down by some delicious Portuguese wine.
Lisbon may be a relaxing destination by day but at night the city does come alive and this is a destination where people love to party. For the most vibrant nightlife atmosphere head to the Bairro Alto region which, with its narrow streets, colourful buildings and buzzing nightlife, is reminiscent of party-loving Havana. During the weekday evenings and especially at the weekends, this area becomes a street party with the locals moving from restaurants to bars to nightclubs. Do as the locals do and sip the ubiquitous cherry liqueur known as ginjinha and spend some time listening to live bands playing traditional Fado music.
About the author: Travel writer Carrie Lincoln has been travelling through Europe for nearly all year.
Images by Chris Yunker and Ullisan used under creative commons license.
This temple built in the 7th century is one of the oldest temples in Bhutan. And it holds a lot of spiritual importance for the people of Bhutan as they believe that Guru Rinpoche (the founder of Tantric Buddhism) visited this temple and meditated here for a long while.
But, that is not the thing that appealed to me the most. The fact that the insides of the temple are completely decked in blue blew my mind away as I had never seen such bright colours in a Buddhist temple and the murals inside the temple just accentuated the blues so very well.
This temple is located just outside Paro at about a 15 minute drive away. It can either be visited alone from Paro or can be coupled with a visit to the Taktsang monastery as both these attractions happen to be in the same direction.
As with most of the Buddhist temples in Bhutan, one cannot take photographs inside the Kyichu Lakhang. In fact, you won’t feel like doing anything but sitting inside and staring at the statues, the murals and the paintings. The rich colours and gold completely overpowers you.
Just as soon as you enter the temple compound, you will see two orange trees with big orange fruits on them. It is believed that these orange trees bear fruit all year around. This is one of those temples you should not miss while visiting the Paro area of Bhutan.
Tuesday, December 17, 2013
The rich valley of Paro offers a surreal Himalayan experience, but in addition to this town there are other interesting things that one can indulge in and around Paro. I was there last month and experienced all of this in person and highly recommending doing them on your next holiday to Paro.
1) Hike to Taktsang Monastery
Taktsang or Tiger’s nest is the highlight of Paro, if not Bhutan. And hence it comes as no surprise that it is on the top of my list. You can either hike or take a horse, but the hike is much recommended as you will get a short mountain trek experience. Taktsang is about a 30 minute drive from Paro and then to reach the monastery, one has to walk 2 hours. It is a fairly steep climb ending up in a steep flight of steps.
2) Watch Snow capped Jomolhari from the ruins of Drugyel
The Jomolhari peak is always snow capped and the locals worship this peak. I worship it too as it stands separate and majestic against the other bleaker landscape. It is best seen from the Drugyel area and while you see this peak you can also explore the ruins of Drugyel Dzong and the more sparsely populated countryside. Drugyel is about a 40 minute drive from Paro/
3) Soak in the World of Blue at Kyichu Lakhang
This has got to be one of the most beautiful temples of Bhutan. I call it the BLUE temple as the entire temple is colored blue. It is a very different Buddhist temple and is very much recommended. It is also one of the oldest temples in the Himalayan kingdom. This temple is about 10 minutes drive from Paro.
4) Watch sunset view of Paro town from Paro museum
The best views of Paro town, the river passing through it, the golden rice fields and the entire valley can be seen from Paro museum. Either you drive upto the top or take the more scenic winding route from the cantilever bridge over the river through Paro Dzong and to the Paro Museum. The views from here get great after a couple of hours after lunch and are best just before sunset.
5) Cross the suspension bridge to reach the Iron Horse temple
In between Paro and Thimphu is a temple called Tachogang or the Iron Horse temple. It is situated on a hillock opposite the Thimphu-Paro highway. But, the best experience about this temple is the super shaking suspension bridge that allows you to cross the river. The suspension bridge does not have any solidness on its floor and is a mesh of wires. Crossing it is quite an adrenaline rush, albeit for a short time. The temple also offers a great backdrop against the mountains.
6) Watch Druk Air take off and land from opposite the Paro airport
It is very rarely that one gets to see the bird’s eye view of an airport from land. But, in Paro, you can precisely do that if you go to the other highway that sits on top of a hill opposite the airport. Here, you can watch in these planes take off and land and those sights offer a very different experience.
This post is applicable primarily to Indian nationals and to citizens of Bangladesh, Nepal and Maldives. Basically, these costs hold good for those who can travel independently in Bhutan. For the other countries, the government flat rate of USD 250 per day applies and they have to travel in the company of a government authorized tour operator.
During my recent 3 week backpacking trip to Bhutan, I covered most of Western and Central Bhutan. As with all my other travels, I traveled independently without any prior bookings or planning. This helped me assess the various options associated with travel costs in Bhutan and the below post aims to lay it out for you in a simple manner.
Breakup of my Bhutan Expenses
In total, I spent INR 27,000 or roughly USD 440 for 20 days. This equates to a daily burn rate of INR 1350 or USD 22. This included the following:
1) Hotel accommodation (shared with another friend) – Roughly hotel prices were INR 1200 per night, though we paid lower at a couple of places. This is the Indian price and costs are known to increase during high season. These 1200 INR hotels are run of the mill decent budget hotels with basic and necessary amenities and located in the heart of the city/town. Some nicer properties and homestays are located outside the city and cost between 3500 and 8000 INR.
2) Food: Since it was cold and we walked quite a bit, we need to keep refueling ourselves with lots of food and beverages. A typical day expense would be INR 500 per person for all meals included. This would be at a decent restaurant. If you wish to eat at a fancy restaurant, the costs would go up by say another 20%.
3) Local Commute: It is here that the costs vary. If you take the slower and less frequent buses, you pay the least. The share taxis cost a bit more, while privately hired cars cost the most. I took a combination of all the 3 and it roughly worked out to INR 250 per day, though some days I paid nothing and some days I paid 4 or 5 times that amount. If you hire a vehicle you will pay roughly INR 20 per kilometer of travel. Such a car can handle 4 people. I am not sure about larger group costs.
4) Entrance Fees: Except for the Trongsa tower museum, I didn’t have to pay entrance fees anywhere.
5) Permits: Permits are free for Indians.
I shopped for about INR 11,000, but haven’t included that in the expense breakup above. You should keep some money in hand for shopping in Bhutan as there are a lot of things that you can carry back home. Silk, handicrafts, stamps, bamboo ware and more such interesting items can be shopped here.
I hope this post helps you plan the budget for your next Bhutan holiday. Do feel free to drop in your questions through the comment form below and I would be happy to address them for you.
Wangdi Phodrang, a town in Western Bhutan is known for its hydroelectric projects and red rice. It is also an ideal place to stopover on a journey from Thimphu to Trongsa while you explore Punakha enroute. I landed in this town after a trek along the river from Punakha to Wangdi. The town where all the tourist infrastructure is available is called Wangdi Bajo and that is where I stayed. I stayed just one night and one day at the SNS Lodge here and the below review is based on this recent experience of mine.
1) The SNS Lodge is possibly one of the better hotels in this small town.
2) It offers all the amenities typically offered by a decent business class hotel, like clean room, hot water, room heater, tea/coffee maker, television, etc. And all this for INR/BTN 1200 per night for Indians.
3) They even provide free wi-fi.
4) The hotel is located right in the heart of this small town and hence all necessary amenities (taxi stand, restaurants, shops, etc.) are all located close by.
5) The hotel has an in-house restaurant that dishes out good food.
6) The reception and the rest of the hotel staff are very professional and helpful.
This is a great budget place to stay at Wangdi Bajo. Definitely worth the money and perfect for a comfortable stopover.
Monday, December 16, 2013
If you are visiting Bhutan as a tourist, you are expected to see this place. It is believed that your sins will be washed away if you hike to this monastery. It is also believed that Guru Rinpoche flew on the back of a tigress and meditated in a cave here. It is also said that the cliff face resembles a tiger.
As you can see, this place is definitely special for locals and tourists alike. It has to be the most touristy place in the whole of Bhutan, but that is definitely not bad as this place has a lot of things working in its favor. First, it takes a good 90 to 120 minutes to climb to this temple. These 90 to 120 minutes takes you through pine trees and offers you stunning mountain vistas. Then, you have a steep flight of steps down and up and then the temple itself.
This place also known as the tiger’s nest is one of the must do’s of Bhutan. If you cannot make the climb for whatever reasons, you can hire a ride on one of the mountain horses. But again, the horse only takes you up to a guest house and you will have to cover the steps by foot. Inside the monastery, no electronic devices are allowed and this includes the camera and mobile phone. But, the lack of gadgets hardly makes a difference as the aura of this place is so strong that you can just sit cross legged on the floor and look around at the murals, the lamps burning in front of you and the vividly designed and decorated Buddha statues. Else, you can simply meditate.
It is best to begin the trek by 7 AM if you wish to escape the harsh mid morning sun. This will also mean that you reach the lodge for tea on your way up and for lunch on your way down. If you wish, you can skip having lunch here. A good pair of shoes are recommended, though boots are necessary. Walking sticks are available on hire at the start of the trek. Once you have finished the trek, you can either take your vehicle back to Paro or go via Kyichu Lakhang, one of the oldest temples of Bhutan.
When heading off on your annual summer holiday, a hectic, stressful airport is probably the last thing you'd ask for. With long queues, large crowds and little time to spare, a crowded airport is, sadly, part of most Brits' summer holiday journeys. This unique guide gives you the best advice, tips and tricks to conquer the journey, and make it that little bit easier to handle.
Getting to the Airport
London Luton Airport is in more of a central location than Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted, and is easily accessible from all parts of the country, whether it be the North, South or the Midlands. If you do live in Central London, great. There are regular rail services operated by First Capital Connect from London Bridge, City Thameslink, Farringdon, Blackfriars and St Pancras International. If you live elsewhere, don't worry, as trains to Luton Airport operate from all over. Take note that there will be a bus transfer from Luton Airport Parkway train station directly to the airport after you get off the train. Travelling by coach is also a good idea, because there are plenty of services run by National Express and Stagecoach from some key towns and cities and Central London itself to the airport. It's a good idea to check this information on the National Express website.
Many people going on holiday each year prefer to get to the airport using their own car, mainly for the added sense of ease, reassurance and convenience. Airport parking at Luton Airport is renowned for its good value for money and low prices when booked early - this is especially the case with parking specialists ParkBCP. If you do this, you'll save 50% or more, and pay significantly less than you would if you chose not to pre-book. If you're going away for 1 or 2 weeks, the Long Term Parking option is suitable for you. The car park is situated just 10 minutes from the terminal and Luton Airport Parking offers a 24-hour bus transfer service after you've parked your car. The Luton Airport website offers more detailed information about prices and the locations of the car parks, so it's important to check this out before you book!
Things to do at the Airport
There's lots to do at Luton Airport while you wait to board, all of which will be sure to make the waiting time run a little smoother for all the family. For those of you who enjoy a spot of shopping, Luton will provide you with a range of stores including MAC, Pandora, Kurt Geiger, Victoria's Secret, Accessorize, plus the duty-free shops with plenty of items on offer. If you'd like a bite to eat pre-flight, you can choose from Luton Airport's variety of restaurants and chic bars; Frankie & Benny's, Pret A Manger, Starbucks, The Real Food Company, Est Bar, Bar 10 and more. No matter how you choose to spend your waiting time at the airport, your journey from Luton is sure to be an enjoyable experience.
Now that you know a little more about Luton Airport, you'll probably feel more at ease about the upcoming journey. With its central location, good airport parking facilities and variety of restaurants, bars and shops, your journey at Luton Airport will fly by.
About the Author: Lucy West is a 27 year old creative writer. She loves words and the power they can have. She thrives on knowing her work is being read and enjoyed. After working for years in a job she didn't enjoy, she decided to travel, which in turn lead to a major career change. Upon returning she enrolled at Westminster University to study Creative Writing and so her new found love began. If you don't find her writing, she'll be in a yoga studio.
On my recent backpacking trip to Bhutan, I ended spending quite a bit of time in its capital Thimphu as I returned to it 3 times. Initially, I took the beaten path, then took the advice of some locals and finally simply wandered. As I did all of this, I came across parts of Thimphu that totally blew my mind. Hence, I thought it would be prudent if I wrote about it so that you can experience those things when you visit Thimphu.
1) Get closer to Thimphu’s deep spiritual beliefs at its National Memorial Chorten
We all know that Bhutan is a very spiritual country and its religion and tranquility bring people from far and wide. Even, if you are not the spiritual type or wish to indulge in it, just the sheer act of seeing it can give you goose bumps. The National Memorial Chorten is one such place. Young, middle aged and old people together pray at this memorial Chorten. The belief is so deep that you can feel the positive karma.
2) Have a hot cup of Thukpa on a cold night
This is for those who have a tough stomach. Every night around 8 pm, there are hawkers selling hot Thukpa (thick broth soup) on the streets of Thimphu. While the pork and beef ones sell the most, the vegetarians have the cheese Thukpa to taste. This hot and thick soupy drink is the perfect way to stay warm on a cold night in Thimphu.
3) Watch Thimphu sunset view from on top of Changkangkha Lakhang
As with most valleys, you have to be at a vantage point to see its best views. In the case of Thimphu that view can be seen from Changkangkha Lakhang, a beautiful temple located on top of a temple. But, the best view is primarily during sunset when you can see the whole city bathed in golden light.
4) Eat dessert at the swiss bakery
Thimphu is home to a lot of bakeries, but the one that has kept up its traditional flavors alive is the Swiss bakery that is located on Chorten Lam. This cosy place is ideal to have those rum cakes and apple pies along with a hot cup of coffee.
5) Visit the weekly market
No where have I personally seen a more clean looking vegetable market. People from all over Bhutan bring their wares here to sell. They sell rice, cheese, vegetables, fruits, trinkets, souvenirs and more. While the main market is located on one side of the river, the touristy souvenir market is located on the other side of the river. Both these markets offer a great photography opportunity and you can also end up tasting some rare fruits and vegetables.
6) Buy some famous stamps from the Thimphu post office
The stamps of Bhutan have been famous for a long time now. It would be surprising if a stamp collector did not have a Bhutan stamp in his collection. The best place to buy these stamps would be the Thimphu post office. One can either buy the regular stamps to send home through postcards or even buy the rare stamps from the antique collection.
7) Watch a game of archery at the archery stadium
Bhutan’s national sport is quite a gala event. The game of archery played in a manner similar to soccer, their traditional dances on hitting bull’s eye and the sheer exclamations of the players make for a great spectacle. Get yourself a wide brimmed hat, a pair of sunglasses, some knick knacks to munch and a bottle of water to enjoy a full archery game.
8) Buy some raw silk scarves at the Thimphu handicrafts emporium
Silk holds a very important place in Bhutan’s culture. And more than silk it is their unique designs that appeal to the eye. The hand dyed raw silk scarves are some of the best in that line of business. And the government handicrafts emporium is possibly the best place to take home some silk souvenirs.
9) Stroll along its main streets
It is a pleasure to walk along Thimphu’s quiet streets. There are a lot of shopping opportunities. You might be lucky to see some local dances. You can visit the painting museum, you can see some local artisans either paint or make their crafts, you can taste some interesting local food and basically see a whole bunch of sights that will keep you at rapt attention.
Sunday, December 15, 2013
When I was young and before these days of many travels, I, like most other Indians used to see the country’s attractions through the Indian movies. When I grew up, the television was full of Shammi Kapoor’s ‘Yahoo, chahe koi mujhe jungli kahe’ and Rajesh Khanna’s ‘meri sapno ki rani’. These songs very vividly etched Srinagar’s Dal Lake and Darjeeling’s toy train in my memory. I very clearly remember humming to these tunes when I was a kid and may be it was these songs that laid the travel foundation in me. When I started traveling across India, I visited many of these places and found out from the travel guides out there how the film crew had come here and shot the various movie and/or song sequences. Thus is the connection of the Indian film industry and tourism in India.
A couple of years ago, I went to a remote lake in Western Arunachal Pradesh called the Sangetsar Lake and it is located at about 12,000 feet. Initially, I could hardly find this place, but one of the locals told me that it is now known as Madhuri Jheel after some of the scenes of the Koyla movie were shot here. This movie featured Shahrukh Khan and Madhuri Dixit and apparently there was a song sequence here. The people of this place loved Madhuri Dixit so much that they renamed the lake Madhuri Jheel.
Similarly, there have been so many movie scenes and songs that have immortalized certain tourist gems of India. To name a few, Kerala’s Bekal Fort in Mani Ratnam’s Bombay, Karntaka’s Jog Falls in the Kannada Superhit movie Mungaru Male, Kerala’s Athirampally Falls in the recent movie Raavan, Ladakh’s Pangong Tso Lake in the climax scene of 3 Idiots, Goa’s Fort Aguada in Aamir Khan’s Dil Chahta Hai, Gujarat’s Rann of Kutch in Lagaan, Punjab’s mustard fields in Kuch Kuck Hota Hain and so many more.
A lot of these places really became heightened tourist attractions after the movies got released. So, there is no doubting the effect it has on the Indian masses.
There is this new travel guide book about India that has released in the market. It is titled ‘Filmi Escapes :: Travel with the Movies’. Lonely Planet India has been kind enough to send me a complimentary copy of this book and as soon as I opened up the packaging, I could hardly put the book down. The reason is simple. It brought back memories of my childhood, teenage years and adulthood through all the various Indian movies that I have seen. While personally, I have been lucky to visit most of these places in person, most of India just watches them through the movies. This book allows you to live those filmi moments in reality.
Filmi Escapes makes the movie connection, gets you interested, shares travel tips, travel highlights and provides information on hotels and restaurants in that place. In simple words, it helps you plan your filmi vacation. This is a very unlike Lonely Planet book and I have to congratulate Juhi Saklani, the author of this book and Lonely Planet India to have published a book with such a different, yet bold theme.
If you love Indian movies, love to live life filmi style and possess the interest to travel, then the ‘Filmi Escapes’ is for you. It is a simple and colourful filmi story through a travel guide book. A must have for all those who wish to travel India filmi isshtyle!!
Note: This is a personal review of mine based on reading this book and has in no way been influenced by Lonely Planet India, the author or anyone else.
Note: The photo in this post is courtesy of Lonely Planet India.
One more feature for the blog! This time by Hop Around India, a travel guide and portal specializing in India. These folks have named me #11 in a list of the top travel bloggers from India. As always, I am very elated to be in such elite company and I am sure you will like each of these travel blogs that talk about travel, India and the new surge of travel behavior from India. Thank you Hop Around India for the feature and Thank you to all you readers for getting me into this list. The next time will look to go higher up in such lists.
Saturday, December 14, 2013
I have a penchant for traditional bridges. Love the living root bridges in North East India, the tradition U Bein bridge near Mandalay in Myanmar, the cantilever bridges of Bhutan and basically anything that excites my senses or sends adrenaline rushing into my blood (like a swinging tall rope bridge over a winding mountain river).
Well, the cantilever bridges of Bhutan don’t have what an adrenaline junkie needs, but it has some serious background as it is deep rooted in Bhutan’s traditions. More or less every major town has such a cantilever bridge across its fast mountain river. Like most of Bhutan’s buildings, these do not have a single nail in them and some of them are well decorated inside. For example, some of them might have a mural of the famous wheel of life portrayed on its walls. It is also one of those places that offer a great opportunity for the photographer to see local life whizz past them.
Friday, December 13, 2013
Paro is one of Bhutan’s highlights. It has the country’s only international airport and the iconic Taksang temple is located a short drive away. But, if you are a backpacker or a budget traveler, then you have to stay right in the heart of town as that is where all the cheap hotels are. I stayed at Hotel Pelijorling that is located in the town for 2 nights and 3 days. The below review is based on my recent experience of staying here.
1) The hotel is located right in the heart of the town, which means that it is close to the market, the restaurants, the bus stand, taxi stand and all the shops.
2) At 750 BTN per night, the hotel offers small, but comfortable rooms that can sleep 2 people. These rooms come with attached bathroom and hot water.
3) During winters, you will have to rent a room heater and this costs an additional 200 BTN.
4) During winter, the water service is stopped to prevent freezing of pipes. This can cause a bit of a nuisance in the morning if you have forgotten to fill your water supply for your morning ablution activities.
5) The place doesn’t have any sort of internet connectivity, though they have a television in their restaurant area.
6) The hotel restaurant cooks up some delicious Indian food and their neighbor makes the best Bhutanese food in town.
7) If you plan on visiting the Paro Dzong and/or the Paro museum, you can easily walk it from this hotel.
8) The hotel reception does not offer any travel services, but they will come forward and help you get a good taxi deal, like how they helped me.
This is a simple hotel that has budget written all over it. But, it is comfortable and cooks up tasty food. In my mind, a perfect budget choice.
Thursday, December 12, 2013
Bhutan is a small country with a limited number of citizens and a restricted tourist population. Due to these two broad reasons, there are not a lot of commute options across Bhutan. And hence if you are going to Bhutan as a traveler or as a businessman, you have to keep this in mind as it will have a lot of effect on your travel plans and duration. And to add to this, the entire country has one highway that connects from the Indian border, moving to West Bhutan and all the way into Eastern Bhutan. Since most of the country is mountainous, densely forested and prone to landslides, road travel is much slower. Between Phuntsoling, Thimphu and Paro, there are broader roads, but the roads to the other cities of Bhutan are connected by single lanes.
But, having said all this, it is not inconvenient to get around Bhutan. It just takes a bit longer, but the country’s natural beauty and helpful people make it a memorable and rich experience.
The only international airport is Paro and only Druk Air and Tashi Air fly in. There is a domestic airport in Bumthang that is connected to Paro by Tashi Air. There are no daily services, but a domestic flight option is available.
In terms of ground transport, there are three main options, Toyota Coaster buses, share taxis and Toyota coaster/car hires.
Toyota Coaster Buses
These are equivalent of Bhutan’s buses and are the cheapest option. Though, they are fairly comfortable. The locals prefer this option a lot as it is very cheap. The only thing to keep in mind while booking these buses is that their tickets go out real fast and if you wish for even a single seat, you might need to book at least 24 hours in advance and if you want special seats like the single row seats, then may be 3 or 4 days. The Toyota coaster buses move at an average speed of 30 km/hr and are known to have some delay.
A lot of Indian small cars/hatchbacks (Hyundai Santro, Maruti Alto, Maruti Wagon R, Hyundai i10) and larger jeeps (Mahindra Bolero, Mahindra Scorpio) provide their services on a share basis. Personally, I took the smaller taxis and they seat 4 people apart from the driver. It works for shorter distances and for shorter people, but is very tight for tall people and for longer distances. Typical rates for such small size taxis are: 650 BTN from Phuntsoling to Thimphu, 200 BTN from Thimphu to Paro, 250 BTN from Thimphu to Punakha, 500 BTN from Trongsa to Bumthang. The cost goes down during the lean season and goes up during the festival season. Most of these share taxis start before noon. The share taxis are reasonably faster than the coaster buses.
For those in a large group or for last mile travel, you need to hire a taxi. Depending on your budget and/or group size, you can decide on a hatchback or a SUV. Toyota Land Cruiser Prado and Hyundai Santa Fe are two luxury options. For large groups, an entire Toyota Coaster can be hired. The prices of these hires can be negotiated directly with the driver or the tour operator.
The one thing I noticed while commuting in Bhutan is that nearly all the drivers are honest and abide by the prices fixed by the government. They also display their ID cards and are also fairly dependable. Some of them are vey helpful too.
If you do not want motorized transport, you can walk most of Bhutan. The terrain is beautiful, though steep at most places and works in your favour if you have time at hand.
If you are a backpacker and/or budget traveler, you will either take the coaster bus and/or share taxi. If you wish for a luxurious option, you will hire an entire car and/or fly where possible.
Note: Most of Bhutan’s roads are mountainous with lots of winding turns. If you are prone to motion sickness, carry your pills with you. The best idea is to eat well and sleep through the journey. Some people have found success with smelling citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, etc.
Archery is Bhutan’s national sport. But, unlike the typical Archery sport, this one is played more in a communal fashion, something similar to soccer and is played with a lot of fervor by the Bhutanese men. The game is so popular in Bhutan that people take leave from school, college and/or work to participate in this sport.
Like soccer, there are 2 teams. Each team has about 5-6 members and the structure of the archery field is like the soccer field but only about 150m in length. At either end are target boards at which the archer needs to aim his arrows. Each archer gets 3 chances. If he misses, his team mates shout and gesture as to where the target is and how far his arrow was. This helps them correct their aim for the next arrow.
If he hits, then the entire team dances around the target. This is a traditional dance to signify that the target has been hit. For each zone of the target, there are points awarded to the team. For the maximum points, one needs to hit the bull’s eye. The team with the most points win. This sport is like soccer, but with the addition of some local traditions and dances. If you wish to watch a live archery match, either head to the archery stadium in Thimphu or plan to visit Bhutan in spring when archery competitions are held all over the country.
Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Bhutan is one of those countries that is perfect for the portrait or street photographer. The monks, the picturesque landscape and the rich dash of colours never let you know. And like any street photographer, I grabbed the opportunity to visit the weekly market in Thimphu that runs every week from Friday through Sunday.
In this market, vegetables, fruits, local produce, imported goods and typical tourist souvenirs are sold. The vegetable market is very well laid out and sells everything from chillies to lemon grass, cabbage to potatoes and more. It was during this exploration that I spotted this young monk having a simple contented look on his face and standing amidst the famous fiery red chillies of Bhutan.
Monday, December 09, 2013
Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan has a lot of sights and if you are a backpacker and budget traveler, you have to stay right in its heart so that access to all basic needs and sights is easy. During my recent backpacking trip to Bhutan, I stayed at Thimphu 3 times and a total of 5 nights. On those days, I ended up staying at Hotel Tandin, a clean budget hotel located on Norzin Lam and close to Thimphu’s clock tower. The below review is based on my recent experience of staying multiple nights here.
1) Since the hotel is located on Norzin Lam, it is located close to all the restaurants, shops, the bus station, the taxi stand, the immigration office and some of the key tourist attractions.
2) For a price of INR/BTN 1150 (Indian/Bhutanese price), one gets a spacious double room with television, room heater and hot water. While the room is very clean and comfortable, the room heater might not be the best for the cold months, but thankfully their blankets are top class.
3) This place is popular with Indian tourists and boasts of a great Indian kitchen. The food here is really top class. Personally, I tried their Indian and Bhutanese dishes.
4) The hotel provides free wi-fi, but the connection is patchy at most times.
5) The folks at the reception are helpful and possess enough knowledge to guide the tourist to the key attractions.
6) There is an ATM right below the hotel, making money matters easy.
7) The hotel is located right on the main street of Thimphu, but in spite of it, there is hardly an sound or disturbance in the rooms.
8) The hotel also provides taxi booking services, though I did not avail those services.
For its price and quality, this place is a value buy. If you prefer Indian food, look no further, as they are the best Indian restaurant in the whole of Thimphu. Even the king gets his Indian dishes from here.
Friday, December 06, 2013
I backpacked across West and Central Bhutan for 3 weeks and during this time, I noticed a lot of interesting things about this beautiful Himalayan country. During these 3 weeks, I visited Thimphu, Paro, Punakha, Wangdi Phodrang, Trongsa and Bumthang. In these 3 weeks, I walked, took public transport, took share taxis and interacted with a lot of Bhutanese people. I have listed down some of those random things to help you get a high level overview of this pristine mountain country and also make for a very interesting read about this heaven on earth.
1) The Land of the Peaceful Dragon, the Last Shangri-La, the Kingdom of Happiness are all popular names used to refer to Bhutan.
2) Their national currency ngultrum is on par with the Indian rupee, which means 1 ngultrum equals 1 Indian national rupee.
3) Ema Datshi (Chillies in Cheese paste) is the national dish of Bhutan. This is generally served with rice (white or red).
4) The people of Bhutan are passionate about 2 sports. One is Archery, their national sport and the other being soccer.
5) Both men and women love to chew betel nut, locally called as ‘Doma’. What I hate is that they spit is anywhere. Thankfully, the menace is lesser than in India and Myanmar.
6) The entire country of Bhutan is located in the Himalayas.
7) There is only one highway in the whole of Bhutan to handle road transport.
8) Most of the people of Bhutan know to speak Hindi (India’s national language) owing to their dependence on Indian TV.
9) Marijuana grows wild in a lot of places across Bhutan during certain times of the year. But, drugs are banned in Bhutan.
10) Because of the cold weather, the citizens of Bhutan love to drink alcohol right after breakfast. This is why, the government has a rule that states that alcohol be served only after 1 PM.
11) Cigarettes and cigarette smoking is banned in the whole country of Bhutan. However, smokers can be seen in pockets across Bhutan.
12) A lot of Bhutan’s food provisions come from India and to a certain extent from Thailand.
13) Indian food is very easily accessible and available in Bhutan. This Indian food is primarily East Indian or West Bengal/Bihar food.
14) More than 65% of the country is covered with forests, making it one of the greenest countries in the world.
15) The main industry here in Bhutan is hydroelectric power plants. Due to this, they have surplus power and end up selling it to India, its friendly neighbor.
16) There are 2 airlines in Bhutan. One is Druk Air, its national carrier (and the only one that flies into India) and Tashi Air, which flies to Thailand and in the domestic circuit (to Bumthang).
17) Indian oil companies sell petrol and diesel in Bhutan, but their prices are cheaper in Bhutan than in India.
18) Visa and mastercards are accepted at most ATMs across Bhutan (especially Bank of Bhutan and Druk PNB).
19) The weekly vegetable market in Thimphu is so clean that they can even beat the cleanliness standards of an urban shopping mall from India.
20) There are some insects available in the higher mountain reaches of Bhutan that go for as much as USD 25,000 per kilogram in the international medical market. This has led to a lot of people in Central Bhutan becoming very rich in a short time.
21) The main crops of Bhutan are rice (white and red), potatoes (white and red), buckwheat and radishes.
22) The people of Bhutan love their cheese and red meat.
23) A photograph of the king and his wife can almost be seen everywhere.
24) The people of Bhutan are very devout and believe in offering daily prayers to the Buddha.
25) There are a lot of forms of Buddhism prevalent in Bhutan, but Tantric Buddhism is the one that is most commonly followed.
26) The whole country of Bhutan doesn’t have a bus service. Instead, they run Toyota Coaster vans for public commute. The tickets on these vans are real cheap, though the journey time is a bit more.
27) The people of Bhutan hardly cheat and follow prescribed fares and guidelines implemented by the government.
28) B Mobile and Tashi Cell are the two mobile operators of Bhutan.
29) In a game of archery, the entire team dances and celebrates when their team member’s arrow has hit the target.
30) The people of Bhutan are very helpful to the tourist and always come forward to indulge in a conversation, helping with local tips and more.
31) Most of the year, this Himalayan country faces 2 seasons in a single day. It is cold in the mornings and night, warm and to certain extent hot during the day and the sun is especially bright during the day.
31) Both the men and women of Bhutan wear their national dress daily. The men wear a dress called the ‘gho’, while the women wear a kira.
32) Goods manufactured in Bhutan is slightly more expensive than similar ones manufactured in China, Bhutan or India due to higher minimum pay rates in Bhutan.
33) The Indian army patrols some of Bhutan’s borders with China.
34) The Border roads organization (Bro-Dantak) of India are responsible for building and maintaining the roads of Bhutan.
35) The whole country of Bhutan has less population than most of the Indian cities.
36) Liquor is very cheap in Bhutan. A bottle of wine costs 200 ngultrum, a big bottle of beer 50 ngultrums and their best whiskey (similar to bourbon) about 750 ngultrums.
37) Tourism is very restricted in Bhutan and except for India, Bangladesh and Maldives, the other countries need to pay $250 per day per person.
38) Most of the monasteries in Bhutan are situated on top of mountains or at cliff edges. It is believed that the arduous journey to the temple is supposed to act as a sin cleanser.
39) Bhutan and its forests are perfect for bird watching. The numbers and variety is mind boggling.
40) Like most of the mountain people of the world, Bhutanese mothers and fathers carry their babies tied behind them on their backs.
41) The cantilever bridges of Bhutan are quite a sight and so are its singing bridges, which offer great adventure.
42) The Bhutanese chai (tea) is very milky and sweet. However, their true local tea is suja or butter tea.
43) The Dzongs or the fortresses are where all the government activities take place. You can see departments like judicial, education, engineering and more.
44) All the kings of Bhutan hail from the Trongsa area.
45) The buildings of Bhutan do not have any nails in them and that’s why you will lots of round and large stones placed on their roofs. Their windows are also designed in such a way as to maximize sunshine.
46) As a country, Bhutan is laidback and hence things happen at a slower pace when compared to the world around it. This trait makes it ideal for those wishing for a relaxed holiday.
47) Bhutan has a lot of fast flowing rivers. While these offer great avenues for adventure sports, they are the bane of north east India and more so Bangladesh as they cause serious flooding downstream.
48) Except the inner sanctum of a temple, footwear is allowed in most other areas.
49) There is hardly any bureaucracy in Bhutan’s government. Things have been kept simple and transparent.
50) A lot of Bhutan’s fortresses and temples have caught fire in the past.
51) Momos are one of the most popular snacks across the country. Yak cheese comes a close second especially in the winter months.
52) The stamps of Bhutan are world famous and make for excellent souvenirs along with their woolen work (yatra), raw silk garments, bamboo work and antiques.
53) Most of the people of Bhutan send their kids to India and Thailand for higher education, but invariably all of them end going back to their home country to eke out a living.
Krathinchai and Tashi Deley!!