Bhutan

Have you heard the one where Neil Armstrong lands on the moon elated about being the first men there; only to be greeted by a Malayalee who had already set up a tea stall there!

I kept thinking of that joke in Bhutan and often wondered if it may actually have been true.

While the two main cities of Thimpu and Paro are pretty accessible, many other places are real interior. And by interior I mean a 3 day hike with just extremely narrow scary roads.So you can imagine our surprise to hear that a whole lot of Malayalees live there.Seriously malayalees are everywhere!!!

We visited Bhutan as an extension of our N.E India holiday many eons ago and so to say this post is way past overdue is to put it very very mildly. But a few friends have been pestering me to put up a small something about my Bhutan holiday so I figured why not?

Bhutan is indeed an extraordinary paradise with one foot set firmly in its rich cultural past and the other poised over an attractive modern future.Its pristine and idyllic surrounding has led to its being often called the last shangrila. In fact there are several valleys in Bhutan that lie in a time warp even today, ready for the time they will be called upon to act as the vaults for the culture of humanity.

To visit Bhutan non-Indians need a visa that is arranged only bu tour operators. Indians are not required to have a visa but need a permit issued at the entry point.We defence folk however need not a letter and our I-cards and so we waltzed right in wearily made our way in. We had opted to drive up to Thimpu from the border town of Phuntsholing.Is is possible to fly directly to Paro from Calcutta but friends told us the view was terrific- and it was- when ever we did get a chance to loot out, amidst the continuous rounds of kids and I throwing up at every turn…..Sigh!!

But all the weariness came to an end once we reached Thimpu.It was spectacular. Unlike most other capital cities Thimpu has no high rises and all buildings are built according to traditional Bhutanese architecture. This gives the place a wonderfully harmonious and symmetrical look. The main street is Norzim Lam which leads to the town center with its numerous shops restaurants etc.

Places to Visit in Thimpu

National Memorial Chortem– Located off Jangchhub Lam , this one’s definitely deserves a quick dekho. It impresses with its golden spires gleaming in the sun and its large white dome framed by the lazuline sky.Open throughout the day, this is one of the most public religious places in the country.

Next we visited the Changangkha Lhakhang, one of the oldest temples in Thimpu, dating as far back as the 15th century. The temple is dedicated to Avalokiteswara and its affords an air of peace and tranquility, located as it is away from the city. With colourful flags festooned all over, carrying their prayers on the wings of wind, there is a meditative calm about this place and time seems to stand still.


We then visited the Trashichhoe Dzong. This magnificent building carries an aura of regal dignity. We were however unable to go inside as it is closed on weekends. During the week too one can visit only after 5pm.

The Zorig Chusm school of Traditional Arts near the National Library is also quite interesting. The gift shop here as well as the one just outside has some very pretty crafts on sale. If you are artistically inclined you will really enjoy watching the various forms of art forms on display at the school.

The nearby Institute of Traditional Medicine( Serzhong Lam)as was also a rewarding experience.

The various herbs and other ingredients are neatly displayed here.It also has an out patient clinic where diagnosis and treatment is handled by trained doctors of traditional medicine. We too met a wonderful doctor and asked about my thyroid problem..however didn’t have the nerve to actually consume the medicines he gave me.


Our last stops for the day were the National Textile Museum at Norzin Lam and then the National Folk Heritage Museum. Both were OK but my older sons patience was wearing thin so we didn’t spend much time at both these places.

The next day we went to the Takin Preserve. TheTakin is Bhutan’s national animal not only because of its unique -albiet strange appearance but also because of the myth surrounding its origin.

According to Bhutanese legend the “Divine Madman,” Lama Drukpa Kuenley visited Bhutan in the 15th century. When people wanted to see him perform a miracle. He called for a cow and a goat for lunch. When he was finished, he placed the goat’s head on the cow’s body and commanded the amalgam to rise up and graze.This large animal which can weigh upto 1000kg has defied the efforts of taxonomists and biologists to classify it.

Shopping

Since the Bhutanese have been particular about retaining their traditional lifestyle, most of the ‘shopping’ must do’s revolve around the same. Clothing jewelery and handicrafts.

All Bhutanese are required to wear their traditional attire to offices, monasteries and on all formal occasions and this has given a fillip to their wonderful art of weaving as well as to the time-consuming but intricately beautiful embroidery.The piece de resistance are the textiles with the intricate designs tightly woven with brilliant yarns of cotton, silk or wool. While I was tempted to buy the traditional kira and gho, I decided to just be practical and bought couple of lovely materials.

Handicrafts like brass and copper ritual items, bells etc can be found at most souvenir stores.Bamboo is also widely available and I must mention the lovely ‘banchung’ basket made in geometric patters. Tangkhas with their detailed depiction of traditional iconography can also be picked up from the handicraft emporiums.Masks are also widely available and I picked up quite a few!
You could check out- Lungta Handicraft, or the ones on Norzim Lam as well as the open air market.

Eat

Bhutanese food is not for the weak palate….Traditional Bhutanese food almost always features spicy red or green chillies so while I do love SPICY food the rest of my family doesnt ..so we we just went to a few places and didn’t explore as much as I would have liked to.
Cheese is another common ingredient and ema datsi a spicy chilli cheese combo is a regular favourite.

We visited Bhutan Kitchen a lovely place if you plan to sample Bhutanese cuisine. We also went to the Swiss bakery and Art Cafe (the lemon sponge is to-DIE-for!)

Paro
Since we did not plan to stay overnight at Paro, we left Thimpu early and we were back by late evening.

Paro is a stunningly beautiful valley- a patch work of lush green fields with a clear meandering river running through it and surrounded by mountains and azure skies.
Paro is where the magnificent airport complex is located. Paro is charmingly rustic and tranquil.Roughly in the center lies the Paro Dzong.It is s definite must see. Next we proceded to Dungste Lhakhang that lies across the river. It is possibly the only ancient temple that is built in the shape of a chorten.

Paro Airport


The Ta Dzong is another wonderful experience. It now houses the National Museum– a repository of not only precious works of art but also costumes, armour, and other hand crafted objects. The museum visit gave us a good snapshot of the rich cultural heritage of the country.It is a HUGE 6-floored circular building and will take you the better part of the day to negotiate.Once outside it is nice to just walk around and absorb the pristine beauty of the place. Our last stop was the historic Kichu monastry– one of the 108 monasteries that were miraculously build by the King Songten Gampo in just one night.

One BIG regret I have and will continue to have was that we didn’t climb up to Taksang. Often called Tigers Nest, this monastery is perched precariously at the edge of a 1,200 meter cliff. It is fairly steep climb and could take one a few hours to get to the top. Since we were traveling with kids we were advised not to take the chance but the view from the top is supposed to be most memorable and awesome and I hope to climb it some day!

Punaka and Dochu La

We left pretty early for this leg of our Bhutan trip as we wanted to catch the view on a clear sky. The view of the eastern Himalayas from Dochu La is possibly one of the best in the country. Although it is only 22 km to the to it took us almost an hour as the road has many twists and turns. My older son understandably didnt want to go as he was quite fed up driving on curving roads. We were initially in two minds but decided to go at the last minute. and Im so glad we did go as it was the most beautiful part of our holiday.

There are 109 chortens in Dochu La in three tiers of forty-five, thirty-six and twenty-seven circumscribing a single larger chorten. It was build as a visible symbol of prayers to the gods to protect their country.

Opposite this there is a beautiful monastery that you should visit.

From this lofty spot it is downhill for 38 km till you reach Punaka.

The main attraction here is the Punaka Dzong or Palace of Great Happiness. This extremely impressive fortress was built as far back as 1637.

The Punaka Dzong cuts a striking picture with its imposing walls rising up from the tumbling clear waters of the river and framed against the blue skies- the rows of delicately flowering jacaranda trees around it provide a beautiful colour accent.

Approached by a suspension bridge the entire dzong is 180m long and 72m wide.

It has several courtyards and one can view several spectacular carvings as well as painting here.

Just down the road from the dzong there is a park where we had a lovely quiet picnic.

Tips and other Information

Indian Currency can be used in Bhutan, however , denominations beyond Rs 100 are not accepted.

PNB(Punjab National Bank) has a joint venture in Bhutan called The Druk PNB, and money can be withdrawn only if you are PNB account holder. Besides this money through ATM’s are a no-no. You have branches of the ATM in Pueunshilling and Thimpu. So either carry money for the entire trip in denominations of Rs 100 or open an account with PNB. We learnt this the hard way as we wanted to fly back from Paro and obviously we didnt have the entire air fare for 4 of us in Rs 100’s!

Credit cards are seldom accepted by traders including the biggies like Druk Air. So plastic money doesn’t work in Bhutan. So plan in advance as far as money is concerned.

I have a few telephone numbers of guides/drivers. Hope they are useful…

Mr Karma is a driver/guide..he speaks english and is a fun and helpful guy.
His number is 0017771105. If you are planning to drive up from Phuntshuling then he’s the best guy to contact.

Mr. Kencho is another person whose car and driving skills we used within Thimpu and fro our day trips to Paro.
His telephone number is 17630595.

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Travelling with the Teesta- Gangtok

We have always wanted to visit atleast one North Eastern state in India. But it was only once we were on the flight to Bagdogra did I truly believe we were finally going.

The first few days are still bit of a chaotic blur( I AM married to Mr.LAST MINUTE, after all!!)

We took the road from Bagdogara to Gangtok(124 km) though one can also get there by train from the nearest(148 kms) New Jalpaiguri railway station. But which ever route you take, the view will of the mountains and the gushing, foaming white-water Teesta will continuously entice and accompany you.

Traveling with kids is never easy and driving around with kids who are car sick even less so. Inspite of the regular puke-stops we had to make ,the beauty of the place seemed to keep everyone is high spirits.

And once we got to Gangtok the effort of getting there seemed worth it.

The capital of Sikkim, a small state (7096 sq.km.)in India, Gangtok, aptly meaning ‘hilltop’ left me impressed not only because of its pristine beauty but also largely because it was sooo clean; probably the cleanest city in India. Plastic bags are forbidden and this rule is actually enforced unlike in other cities. We took a taxi and did our sightseeing over a span of 2 days. The taxis here are the main mode of transport.

You can choose the number of touristy places you want to visit and you are charged accordingly. For our 7 point agenda we were charged Rs 1000 in total. However I do feel that the one can easily cover the main tourist spots in a few hours and then explore the place and travel the less trodden path for the rest of the stay.

First we visited the Do-Drul Chorten( Stupa) with its gold plated spire that was built by the revered Trulshi Rimpoche, head of the Nyingma order of Tibetan Buddhism in 1945.It is one of the most important stupas in Sikkim and has 108 Mani-lhakor or prayer wheels.

It is believed that turning these prayer wheels will invoke Buddhisattva and is supposed to have the same benefits as chanting prayers.

We glimpsed lamas young and old working and studying.

The Namgyal Institute of Tibetology nearby, houses rare artifacts and a million Buddhist manuscripts, statues and books.

What I really did enjoy here was the collection of antique jewelry and precious stones as well as the typical Tibetan architecture and art work at the Institute. We bought a lot of lovely souvenirs from the wonderful store near it.

The Ropeway at Deorali market too is a major tourist attraction. However I was not very impressed and the cable car was way too crowded for us to feel comfortable.

Nevertheless it does afford a birds view of the city including the lovely Assembly. Other places we visited were the Flower Exhibition centre which had numerous local flowers

and plants on display and Hanuman Tok, from where we had our first clear view of the mighty ‘Mother of Pearl’ Khang-Chen-Dzod-Nga (Kanchenjunga)

While I really wanted to visit Nathu-la Pass, it was closed due to landslides and we missed a wonderful chance to visit. Remember that one need to make a pass a day earlier.

We did however visit a couple of other monasteries such as the Rumtek Monastry and Enchen Monastry. both of which were we enjoyed tremendously.

The sight of the fluttering multi-hued prayer flags that one finds all over is so comforting, don’t you think?

Prayer flags form an integral part of Sikkim’s landscape and have a unique beauty about them and are believed to bring peace and happiness to all.

Places to Eat- The only place worthy in my view of much talk was Allens Kitchen.

The small restaurant was widely recommended and while the food was good especially the momos, what really struck us as unique was the decor and style of the place very TGIF-ish but in a quaint and cozy sort of way.

Shop– Hmmmm..honestly we didn’t do a lot of shopping.

Though the stone-paved MG Road is a GREAT place. It’s a walk only road, much like Shimla’s Mall Road. There are three main markets: Old Market, New Market and Lal Markets .


The road has most branded stores a couple of nice cafe’s where one can sit back and watch the interesting and beautiful people go by:)

What we found and did buy were great footwear, and traditional items such a Thangakas (embroidered silk religious scrolls) and prayer wheels.

In short a lovely town that I would sure love to visit again….

Fort Aguada and some Desi Food at Fidalgo

One of the touristy things to do when in Goa is to visit the splendid Fort Aguada, located in North Goa.
And although we have lived in Goa for 8 years in total, I’ve been to this fort just twice.
It’s a don’t-value-what-you-have syndrome which I’m sure many of us suffer from.
Take the Jewish Synagogue in Kochi for instance. I’ve lived in Kochi most of my student life and I’ve been there-ONCE!! Now how AWFUL is that!

One of my many resolutions for this year was to explore places around me (as opposed holidaying to distant places).
Here are a few glimpses of the Fort as I saw it a few weeks earlier.

The fort, situated at the mouth of the Mandovi River was built by the Portuguese in 1612 to protect old Goa against the Dutch and Marathas and check access of enemies into the River Mandovi. It is home to several natural springs and that’s how it got its name-Aguada meaning Water in Portuguese.

The beaches of North Goa extend from Fort Aguada, in an almost uninterrupted 30 km sandy stretch ,to the border of Maharashtra.

The fort now houses the central jail and has one of Asia’s oldest lighthouses, a four-storied structure looking over a vast expanse of sea, sand and palm trees.


Whenever we do eat-out here in Goa we always prefer to eat at the beach side shacks instead of the usual restaurants in the city. The only time I do relent is when Hotel Fidalgo is one of the options.

The food is EXCELLENT and the hotel looks real nice post-renovation. It is situated right in the heart of Panjim on 18th june Road and has 6 restaurants to chose from( Bhojan, Legacy of bombay, Mirch masala ,Chilli n Spice amongst others).

The last time we went we decided to eat at Mirch Masala, which serves Indian food.

We started off with a chicken clear soup ( as I was supposed to be on a diet).It was delicious and I could have had buckets of this soup.

For starters we had the Chicken Pahadi Kebab(Rs 220) and the

Delhi chaat(Rs 95).
The Kebab was mouthwatering and its something Im looking forwad to ordering next time too.

The main course was just some Butter Naan, a mughlai chicken(240) and a paneer dish(130) and a chicken dum biriyani(Rs 270).

Everything was yummy and I hope to try the other restaurants in there too…

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