Bali Basics

Before we headed to Bali, we had a lot of confusion about its geography & location. Was it an island? Was it a part of Indonesia? How big was it? Blame it on ignorance. And, there’s no better antidote for ignorance than travel.

Once we’d been there, many contacted us when they were planning their own trip. We realized then that we’d not been alone in our confusion & ignorance. Everyone who reached out to us knew Bali was a place to visit, but how’s Bali further divided, which are the areas to stay in/ visit, no one had a clue.

It was almost déjà vu for us, for we’d been equally clueless. After helping a few folks with a better picture of how to place their Bali holiday, we thought we should just put it down in a blog post.

First Up…

Indonesia is a country in Southeast Asia. It’s made up of volcanic islands. Beaches & Komodo dragons are just two of the many things Indonesia is known for. Out of the 18,000+ islands that this nation has, the largest is Sumatra. (Technically, it’s New Guinea, but it doesn’t belong to Indonesia exclusively.)

indonesia, map
Bali vis-a-vis Rest of Indonesia

Bali is the 13th biggest, just about 1.14% the size of Sumatra. And yet, it’s made such a name for itself in the travel world. Bali is a great way to remind ourselves that we mustn’t underestimate anybody/ anything!

Coming to Bali Now…

Bali is a province of Indonesia, & is divided into regencies. Each regency has a capital.

Regency Capital
Denpasar City Denpasar
Badung Regency Mangupura
Bangli Regency Bangli
Buleleng Regency Singaraja
Gianyar Regency Gianyar
Jembrana Regency Negara
Karangasem Regency Amlapura
Klungkung Regency Semarapura
Tabanan Regency Tabanan

Source: Wikipedia

bali, map
Bali Bali

The above map clears it out right away that it’s South Bali that has the most tourism. South is where the beaches are, along with the nightlife. As you travel north, the forests of Bali start emerging. But before that is the place where you get a taste of the culture of Bali. Further north are the regions you would visit if you’re keen to see volcanoes.

Okay, let’s take it one at a time.

Denpasar

Denpasar is the capital of Bali. The city can easily be called the gateway to Bali due to its proximity to the Ngurah Rai International Airport.

Denpasar has a close association with history. In 1906, almost a thousand Balinese committed suicide to avoid surrendering to the invading Dutch troops. The Taman Puputan square is a memorial for the Balinese who laid down their lives.

Denpasar is home to the Turtle Conservation & Education Center, & the Bali Wake Park (wake-boarding anyone?).

Serangan

Serangan is a part of Denpasar. It is an island known for its turtles. Serangan is connected with the mainland by a road bridge.

There are numerous yacht operators here that conduct day trips/ cruises.

Serangan is also home to the Serangan Beach (secluded).

Seminyak

Let’s begin traveling south from Denpasar. The first town you will hit is Seminyak, a suburb of Kuta in the Badung Regency. You can find luxury hotels, spas, high-end restaurants etc. here. Sunsets are a busy time here with bars offering sun-downers on the beaches.

This is also where you will find gorgeous villas for your accommodation needs. We stayed at a heavenly villa called Villa Teman Eden. It was love at first sight! The pool is the highlight but the rooms were spacious with all amenities available. The prettiest bathrooms! Fantastic location! (Also read our piece on our Airbnb experiences featuring Teman Eden.)

Airbnb, Villa, Bali, Teman Eden
Villa Teman Eden

Seminyak is home to the Double Six Beach & the Kayu Aya Beach.

Color, kite, Double Six Beach
Colorful kites at the Double Six Beach

Kuta

Moving further south, you will hit Kuta (Badung Regency), the nightlife hub of Bali. At any time of the day or night, the atmosphere here can only be called electric.

Kuta used to be a fishing village, but also one of the first to start developing for tourism. The Kuta Beach is the most well-known (& thus the most frequented). Being on the west coast, it’s a great spot for sunset watching (& sun-downers!).

You can find luxury resorts, clubs & the like located along the Kuta Beach. And, surfers! (Do you know that surfers massively helped in restarting tourism in Bali post the bombings?)

Sightseers prefer to stay at Kuta (or its suburb, Seminyak) as this is where the action is! Consequently, a few of the best accommodation options can be found here, specifically villas.

Kuta is home to the Satria Gatotkaca Statue & the Waterbom Bali (water slides anyone?).

Jimbaran

Further south is Jimbaran (Badung Regency), a fishing village. Its Bay has calm waters.

Terrorism is an ugly part of the world today. In 2005, suicide bombers attacked a couple of popular restaurants in Jimbaran. But, the wonderful part about the world also is, it bounces back! Bali is a great example of that.

Jimbaran is lined with live seafood counter restaurants. At these restaurants, you can select the live seafood you wish to eat. It will be immediately prepared (generally grilled) & served.

If you’re seeking affordable accommodation options, Jimbaran is the place to try.

Jimbaran is home to the Samasta Lifestyle Village (lots of entertainment) & the Tegal Wangi Beach (hidden beach).

Pecatu

We’re now at almost the south western end of Bali. Pecatu (Badung Regency) is where you’ll find a hilly landscape. The hills shield the beaches, making this area popular with nudists. Pecatu is also the area that’s almost exclusively developed by the private sector.

Pecatu is home to the Uluwatu Temple (a spiritual pillar of Bali) & the Suluban Beach (exotic!).

Kecak dance, Uluwatu Temple
Kecak dance at the Uluwatu Temple

Nusa Dua

Let’s travel east from Pecatu to Nusa Dua (Badung Regency), the water sports area. On the southeast coast of Bali, the sandy beaches are a great backdrop for different water sports like banana boat, parasailing, sea walking & snorkeling.

A sub-district of Nusa Dua is Tanjung Benoa. A peninsula with beaches on three sides – dreamy enough?

Nusa Dua is home to the Nusa Dua Beach & the Museum Pasifika (all things artsy).

Kerobokan

Start moving northwest now. Beyond Denpasar is Kerobokan village (Badung Regency).

The Kerobokan Prison is the stuff legends are made of. Thrill seekers find ways to spend a night in the prison, to experience the notoriety first-hand. For the non-thrill seekers, there are night markets to explore.

Kerobokan is home to the Batu Belig Beach (whattay calm) & the Petitenget Temple (wards off dark forest spirits).

Beraban

Moving further northwest, & closer to the west coast of Bali, you will arrive at Beraban, a village in the Tabanan Regency.

Beraban is home to the Tanah Lot Temple (you can’t not have seen a photo of this place) & the One Bali Agrowisata (chocolate & coffee plantation).

Tanah Lot Temple
The Tanah Lot Temple

Gianyar

Let’s head a little northeast now & come to Gianyar, the seat of the Gianyar regency. It is a town that has preserved its natural & traditional heritage well. Once you’re done with the heritage sightseeing, you can relax on the beach.

Gianyar is home to the Cantik Agriculture (coffee anyone?) & the Bali Bird Park (bird-watching alert).

Coffee, tea, Cantik Agriculture
Coffee & tea tasting at the Cantik Agriculture

Ubud

In the Gianyar Regency itself, towards the northwest, is the cultural center of Bali, called Ubud. The town is located in the uplands. Anything that has to do with Balinese tradition can be found here.

Rain-forests and terraced rice paddies surround Ubud while Hindu temples form the main attractions of the town.

Ubud is home to the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary (Balinese Long – Tailed Monkeys. Squee!) & the Puri Saren Palace (erstwhile official residence of the royal family).

Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary
The Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary

Kintamani

Moving far north from Ubud, you will come to Kintamani (Bangli Regency). You can view the Mount Batur from the village. It is the place from where the breed ‘Kintamani dog’ (only official breed in Bali) originates.

Lake Batur
Lake Batur

Kintamani is home to the Mount Batur (active volcano) & the Lake Batur (crater lake located along the Ring of Fire of Mount Batur).

Nusa Lembongan

Southeast of Bali is the island of Nusa Lembongan (Klungkung Regency). It is famous as a side destination for mainland Bali visitors. Nusa Lembongan is surrounded by coral reefs with white sand beaches. Day cruises from the mainland to the island are worth opting for.

Clear ocean, coral reef, Nusa Lembongan
Clear ocean & coral reef at Nusa Lembongan

Nusa Lembongan is home to the Devil’s Tear (cliff jumping anyone?) & the Mangrove Forest (canoe ride).

With this, we end our short guide to the way Bali is structured from a sightseer’s viewpoint. By no means is this list exhaustive. We’ve tried to cover the areas that we’ve personally experienced.

Other Bali Basics…

  • Bali traffic is quite bad. We stayed at Seminyak, & chose to spend a day in Ubud. The traffic from Seminyak to Ubud was awful. This is the reason sightseers choose to break their stay into two places – Seminyak/ Kuta & Ubud.
  • Bali is economical for Indians. Except for the airline fares, all our expenses were similar or even less than what we would spend in, let’s say, Goa, on a similar kind of holiday.

In our next blog post, we’ll share our favorite Bali attractions.

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Beat The Heat! – 2

A few folks reached out to us to know more about the three destinations we recommended in Part I to escape the Indian summer. Glad we could be of help! But, three destinations are inadequate for six months of the intense north Indian summer. So, we bring three more long weekend getaways from Delhi. All the three are in the Himalayas, yet are quite different from each other!

Dharamshala

The home of the Dalai Lama & the Tibetan Government in exile is technically not a long weekend destination, i.e., three days will be insufficient to do justice to it. But something is better than nothing!

Fly to Gaggal, or take a train to Pathankot, or drive down to Dharamshala, the serene Himalayan town is more accessible than ever before.

We have a soft spot for all things Buddhist. Thus, liking Dharamshala came naturally to us. If you are of a spiritual bent, you will benefit from a visit to the Namgyal Monastery, the largest Tibetan temple outside of Tibet.

If, instead, you are one who prefers the outdoors, you can take the long but picturesque walk to the Bhagsu Waterfall. But, let us caution you – the waterfall & the Bhagsu Nag Temple can get crowded.

And then, there is always the option of sit back & sigh at the stunning views of the Himalayas.

We stayed at Sterling Dharamshala but we believe there are better options available like Hotel Norbu House and The Divine Hima. We drove from New Delhi to Dharamshala which became a little tiring as the distance is >500 KMS.

Our original trip of fours days had to be cut short by a day due to an accident. It only makes us determined to return to Dharamshala soon!

Jim Corbett National Park

OK, this is an uncommon choice to ‘beat the heat’ as the Jim Corbett National Park itself attains temperatures of 40+ degrees Celsius. But this is the best time to spot the big cat. Thanks to the extreme heat, many watering holes dry up, forcing the animals to congregate at the few that remain. Thus, summer turns out to be a great time to spot most animals near water bodies, including the tiger.

If you are like us (hate summer), let us reassure you that because of the greenery, the Park still remains bearable. Safaris take place in mornings & early evenings. So, take out the broad brimmed hat, slather on the sunscreen, put on the glares & head to Corbett.

And, again, if, like us, you dislike crowds, fewer tourists visit the Jim Corbett National Park in the summer, making it a more private experience for those who do.

You can get from Delhi NCR to the Park in about six hours, eight in case of traffic.

In our two visits, we stayed at Kanwhizz HUM TUM Resort (yes, that was its name but now it is called La Perle River Resorts), and The Riverview Retreat. Both are on the banks of the River Kosi but we recommend The Riverview Retreat. You can walk to the river and spend time in solitude, listening to the sounds of nature.

Kanwhizz HUM TUM had cabanas next to the Kosi. We enjoyed a candlelit dinner in one of the cabanas.

candlelit dinner, river kosi, kanwhizz
Great way to end day – Candlelit dinner by River Kosi at Kanwhizz

Be careful of the scams operating in Jim Corbett National Park in the name of safaris. Agencies like Travel Tiger Track can cheat you by showing you zones like Sitabani (hardly a wildlife reserve) in the name of tiger safaris. No permit is needed for this ‘zone’. Private vehicles are allowed. There is a tea stall inside where visitors can not just have tea but biscuits, mixtures & instant noodles. Smoking is allowed too. No guide is needed to visit Sitabani.

Around sunset, visit the Garjiya Devi Temple, located on the other side of the Kosi. You cross a foot over bridge to get to it. To get to the shrine, you will climb steep steps. The shrine is small but the idol is beautiful.

Little Bambi
Little Bambi

Pangot

Falling under the Nainital district & the Naina Devi Himalayan Bird Conservation Reserve, Pangot (or Pangoot) is a village known for its bird watching. Its beauty lies in its picturesqueness. The village, though barely 15 KMS from Nainital, is fairly remote.

Pangot is a birdwatcher’s paradise, courtesy the hundreds of bird types found here. Oak & rhododendron forests attract the eye. If you like all-weather destinations, this is the place. Like most of our other recommendations, please do not expect a list of things to do/ see in Pangot. It is a place of calm & quiet. So, if you love nature, make your way to this village which, along with birding, offers scope for activities like mountain biking too.

Pangot is a village; expect limited number of accommodation options. We stayed at The Nest Cottages which we liked for its location. Away from ‘civilization’, you can enjoy solitude. Your neighbors are birds, dogs & monkeys.

The cottages are standalone, reminding of English novels with their slanting roofs & wooden interiors. Excellent service, home style vegetarian food. The owner is a sweet old man, lovely to converse with.

We did not have to step out of the property to see birds; many kinds greeted us right in the common area. Hardly any network & an erratic TV meant tranquility. Did we mention they have a well-stocked library?

Another accommodation you can consider is Jungle Lore Birding Lodge.

You can get from Delhi NCR to Pangot in about seven hours, nine in case of traffic. Do not forget to halt at Nainital to do some boating at the Naini Lake or to have a delectable meal at Sakley’s Restaurant & Pastry Shop.

Beat the Heat!

Come April & the Sun starts its mercilessness on the hapless souls of the National Capital Region. Right till September, it becomes a matter of hot, very hot & unbearably hot. In these six months, at least one getaway is needed to cooler environs.

Aren’t we thankful that the Himalayas are a stone’s throw away? So, to help you tolerate the weather, we bring three relatively unknown, long weekend getaways from Delhi. All the three are in Uttarakhand, in the Nainital district, yet are as different from Nainital as chalk from cheese!

Jeolikot: It was a never-heard-of-before village for us till we made our way here. Jeolikot is located close to Nainital, & yet, is far removed from the chaos that Nainital can be during the tourist season. It is a great place for flower lovers & lepidopterists.

jeolikot, mist
Misty Jeolikot

Visit Jeolikot for a picturesque view of the Himalayas. It is not a place where you rush around to ‘see’ spots. Rather, grab a book, or put on your favorite music, or carry a board game, sit facing the mountains, grab a cup of ‘chai’ & life is sorted.

outside, cozy, morning tea, sitout
Outside our room, a cozy spot to sip the morning tea

Located a little down the hill from the main road, The Cottage is a cozy home stay reminiscent of the bygone colonial era. Its red roof exudes an old-world charm. The shimmery blue & white porcelain crockery make up a large part of the decor. A decor you will be tempted to take home!

To top it, Ms. Bhuvan Kumari’s impeccable hospitality & warmth. Over mugs of tea, she regaled us with stories ranging from leopards to winter soirees. The best part – dogs! When we visited, there were three adorable & friendly doggos.

greet, dog
Greeted by ‘Nanhi Bai’

We tried to get to Nainital but, being an extended weekend, we could not get past the traffic jam. Instead, we turned towards Bhimtal, had lunch at a dhaba from where the Bhimtal Lake was faintly visible, & returned to the calmness of Jeolikot.

bhimtal
Spot Bhimtal in the distance

We recommend – do not bother with Nainital & the like. Head out for a stroll in Jeolikot itself. You will come across giggling kids, grazing horses, plenty of flora, & wild berries. Try the Chicken Roast at The Cottage, and pick up souvenirs from Kilmora.

You can get from Delhi NCR to Jeolikot in about seven hours, nine if there is traffic.

Sattal, little known, picturesque
Sattal – So little known, & thus so picturesque!

Sattal: A village deriving its name from the lake it encircles, Sattal is near Bhimtal, but is less known. True to its name, the ‘lake’ is actually a combination of seven lakes, each quite pristine. Forests surround the lakes.

mind, reel, gorgeous
Our minds reeled with all the gorgeousness.

Given the ecosystem, birds thrive here, making Sattal a paradise for ornithophiles. We spent our time birding. Ask for directions to get to the bird watching spot, the Studio. It is a downhill walk, with no restrooms in the vicinity. As birding is a time-consuming activity, this is something you need to be aware of. Also, note that bird watching needs a lot of patience & silence. You make one movement/ sound, & the bird would have flown off.

It was our first birding experience; we were lucky to spot jungle myna, blue whistling thrush, grey wagtail, red-Wattled lapwing, oriental turtle dove, orange flanked bush robin, grey-headed canary flycatcher, black bulbul, verditer flycatcher, white throated laughing thrush, slaty-headed parakeet, ultramarine flycatcher, Himalayan bulbul, & black headed jay.

Located in a nearby village called Suriyagaon is Naveen’s Glen, an estate comprising apartments, cottages & villas. It is run by Ms. Nitya Budharaja & her family. The rooms have been done up warmly. A personal touch is evident in every aspect of Naveen’s Glen.

Naveen's Glen, garden, bloom
Naveen’s Glen garden in full bloom!

To top it, there is an absolutely stunning view of the sunset from the garden. We spent many minutes chatting with Ms. Budharaja, getting recommendations from her for bird watching & for food.

sunrise, sunset, Jo Walton
“There’s a sunrise & a sunset every single day, & they’re absolutely free. Don’t miss so many of them.” – Jo Walton

The best part – again dogs! When we visited, there were three adorable & friendly doggos.

It does not snow in Sattal; so, it is accessible throughout the year. You can get from Delhi NCR to Sattal in about six hours, eight in case of traffic. Naveen’s Glen is located off the main road, the last few kilometers are devoid of human habitation. But, do not worry – you are on the right track.

Nathuakhan, Dusk, changing colors, amaze
Nathuakhan Dusk – The changing colors amazed us.

Nathuakhan: Falling under the Ramgarh block, Nathuakhan is essentially a village. & therein lies its beauty. It offers appealing views of the sun caressed Himalayan ranges which are dotted with soaring trees of pine, birch & many others.

clear day, snow-capped mountain, entice
On clear days, the snow-capped mountains entice…

The mountainous terrains, fertile valley and dense cover of abundant forest make Nathuakhan a place to rest and enjoy solitude away from the city buzz. The mountains may get your creative juices flowing; so, whatever your artistic inclination, carry it along.

Summer, Flower, wilt
Summer had arrived. Flowers had started wilting.

If you like to work your limbs, there are a number of walking trails nearby. Keep a lookout for members of the feline family. For those who like their poison on-the-go, Nathuakhan has a country liquor store with few English brands available. So, if you have superior tastes or are fussy, we suggest you carry your alcohol.

Country wood cottages augment the beauty of Nathuakhan. Bob’s Place is one such. It is nestled away from crowds, provides comforting food, and does not compel one to do anything. Bob’s Place has standalone cottages erected in a multi-level manner. The highest ones command a view of snow-clad peaks of the Himalayas. The lower ones have sit-out areas but the view gets diminished by the foliage.

Our cottage had a fireplace, a blanket and a heater. The food we ate did not taste any different from what we eat at home. The ‘poha’ we had for breakfast was quite different though, and wonderfully so. It was made with ‘khada garam masala’. People who have eaten the Indian-style meat can identify how good this would taste. The ‘masala chai’ was free-flowing too. Special mention of the chicken fry we got as our finale dinner. Do ask for it when you head to Bob’s Place.

You can get from Delhi NCR to Nathuakhan in about nine hours, eleven in case of traffic. Do not forget to pick up shawls, stoles, herbs and pine needle decorations from Kilmora, and fruit spreads from Himjoli.

(You can read our full blog post on Nathuakhan here.)

So, go ahead & beat the heat!

Orchha – A Photo-log

betwa, river, betwa river
Till we’ve our Betwa…

We blogged about Khajuraho in our last post. Khajuraho is still a known name on the tourism circuit. Orchha is the real surprise! We ourselves came to know about Orchha when we were researching for our travel.

Chhatris by the Betwa

On our maiden trip, we spent a little less than a week exploring three destinations – Khajuraho, Panna Tiger Reserve & Orchha. Here, we take you through Orchha with our photo-blog.

An incredibly historic town, Orchha was founded in 1501 by Rudra Pratap Singh, a chief of Bundela Rajput descent. The town is settled on the banks of River Betwa. It is worthwhile to spend a couple of days here as there is a fair bit of heritage to ogle at.

Orchha Fort

Orchha Fort
Orchha Fort

Sheesh Mahal

Sheesh Mahal
Sheesh Mahal

We stayed inside the fort! Our preference is always a heritage hotel. So, the Sheesh Mahal, was a natural choice. The palace has been converted into a hotel & is run by Madhya Pradesh Tourism.

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The Maharaja Suite – Justified indulgence, isn’t it?
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Private sit-out of the Maharaja Suite
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Regal bathroom
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Royal WC – Built on a tower of the erstwhile palace, the seat offers a commanding view of pretty much the entire town

Evening light & sound show

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Evening Light & Sound Show

Since we had reached in the evening, we started our Orchha sightseeing with the Light & Sound Show. This takes place in the Fort complex once the Sun sets. The sounds & the stories – both will astound you. The history of Orchha is narrated, a compelling one too, complete with tiger attacks & musical numbers.

We found this show to be better than the one in Khajuraho.

Jahangir Mahal

history, emotion, jahangir mahal, orchha fort, orchha
History may be serious business for others. For us, it evokes our purest emotions! @ Jahangir Mahal

Our first morning in Orchha began with the Jahangir Mahal. This palace was built by the Bundela ruler, Bir Singh Dev, in honor of Prince Jahangir, who came & stayed here for one night.

beauty, heritage, jahangir mahal, orchha fort, orchha
The government & the public must dedicate themselves to preserve the beauty & the heritage of Orchha.
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One night alone! Far from being a wasteful expenditure, the Jahangir Mahal is a beautiful palace.
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The Photographer’s Muse
symmetry, jahangir mahal, combination, mughal architecture, rajput architecture, emotion, orchha fort, orchha
The symmetry of Jahangir Mahal, the combination of the Mughal & Rajput forms of architecture and the emotion with which it was constructed are worth learning from…
door, orchha fort, orchha, madhya pradesh
That Door Though!
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Leading ourselves from darkness to light…
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The Orchha Fort can give competition to any fort of Rajasthan, if marketed well.

Rani Mahal

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The ceilings & walls are decorated with frescoes.

Rani Mahal was the queen’s quarters. A series of frescoes depict the Dash Avatar (10 incarnations) of Lord Vishnu.

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The state of preservation of the frescoes is worth seeing.

Chaturbhuj Mandir

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Chaturbhuj Mandir – the temple without its deity!

Legend has it that the temple was originally built for Lord Rama who was being brought from Ayodhya to Orchha. He, however, refused to budge from the spot where He was first put down. Another temple was built for Him there (now called the Raja Ram Mandir). A Lord Vishnu idol was established in this temple subsequently & given the name Chaturbhuj (literal: ‘one who has four arms’, referring to Lord Vishnu).

chaturbhuj mandir, tapering conical layout, exterior, decorate, lotus, orchha, madhya pradesh
The Chaturbhuj Mandir is built in a tapering conical layout; exteriors decorated with lotus symbols.
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We can stare at ruins all day long…

Raja Ram Mandir

Raja Ram Mandir. orchha, madhya pradesh
Raja Ram Mandir

This is the new temple that had to be built for Lord Rama.

lord rama, worship, king, god, raja ram mandir, orchha, madhya pradesh
Where Lord Rama is worshiped as a King, rather than as a God.

One of those rare temples where Lord Rama is worshiped as a King, rather than as a God (condition the Lord had kept when He agreed to come to Orchha from Ayodhya). Hence the name – Raja Ram Mandir!

Since He’s the King, He gets a guard of honor every evening, at the time of the evening aarti! This is not something you see every day. So, brave the crowds & go for it.

Laxmi Narayan Mandir

laxmi narayan mandir, owl in flight, orchha, madhya pradesh
The Laxmi Narayan Mandir is built in the shape of an owl in flight. Why an owl you ask? Because it is Goddess Laxmi’s vehicle.

Dedicated to Goddess Laxmi, this temple is built in a blend of temple and fort architecture.

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The walls are decorated with murals, showing mythology & Bundelkhand history, with the colors of the frescoes still retained.
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Krishna with his Gopis
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Ogling at frescoes should be a FT job.
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What explains our fascination with heritage?
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Okay if not FT, at least a part-time job!
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A town as small as Orchha & yet, keeping the history of the Bundelas absorbed deep within its bosom…
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The temple, along with its paintings, is a spectacle.

Cenotaphs

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Outstanding monuments with well-kept gardens adding to the charm…

Located beside the River Betwa, the chhatris (cenotaphs) have been built on the spot where the Bundelkhand royals were cremated.

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The sunset against the backdrop of the chhatris is a treat for sore eyes.

Each Chhatri is a little different in design, showing the architectural brilliance of the ancient regional craftsmen.

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This is what we witnessed – Sun disappearing behind the Cenotaphs…

Sunset at the Betwa River

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Tourists & locals alike congregate on the bridge every evening to soak in the sight…
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As He goes, He throws his warm glow on the surface of the river. She shimmers & lights up, and bids Her lover goodbye…
toilet, swachh bharat abhiyan, clean India, orchha, madhya pradesh, india
Translation – I’ll not marry my daughter in a household where there’s no toilet.

Bonus

Maharani Kamlapati Chhatri, dhubela, madhya pradesh
Maharani Kamlapati Chhatri

If you travel from Orchha to Khajuraho by road, detour to Dhubela to visit the Maharaja Chhatrasal Museum & the Maharani Kamlapati Chhatri.

Chhatrasal was only twelve years old, when Aurangzeb attacked his father, Champat Rai. The latter was killed in a battle in Malwa. On growing a little older, Chhatrasal saw an opportunity to earn a name for himself by joining Aurangzeb’s army. However, soon his conscience started pricking him to take up the sword against the Mughals rather than for them. Chhatrasal escaped from the Mughal camp and made his way to the Deccan to meet Chhatrapati Shivaji. He intended to join Shivaji’s army, but the latter stirred his patriotic feelings for the liberation of Bundelkhand from tyrannical Mughal rule. Inspired by Shivaji, Maharaja Chhatrasal Bundela returned to Bundelkhand. He attacked & won the Mughal forts of Gwalior, Chitrakut, Kalinjar, etc. Twice Maharaja Chhatrasal was defeated by Aurangzeb’s armies but he would get back on his feet soon. When Aurangzeb died in 1707, Maharaja Chhatrasal governed a huge tract of land in Bundelkhand, comprising forts like Sagar, Jhansi, Sironj, etc. [Source]

The Maharaja Chhatrasal Museum was, thus, established in 1955 to honor the Bundelkhand king.

Maharani Kamlapati was Maharaja Chhatrasal’s first queen. Her cenotaph is an octagonal structure situated on a platform on the bank of lake Dhubela.  

Tips

Orchha is best visited in the winter months – October to March. The weather is salubrious to walk around. The monuments become more radiant when the winter sun rays fall on them!

Orchha can be reached via the Khajuraho airport or the Jhansi railway station. We opted for a train to Jhansi – road to Orchha – road to Khajuraho – flight to Delhi.

Orchha is a paradise for architecture/ art/ history/ photography enthusiasts. However, if you are someone who yawns at heritage, pass!

The Bundelkhand region made a place in our hearts!

KHAJURAHO – A PHOTO-LOG

Madhya Pradesh must be the most underrated tourist destination in India. The centrally-located state has nature, heritage, & art. Yet, we neither hear much about it nor see family & friends visiting MP. We ourselves were oblivious of all that the state has to offer till we made our way there.

temple, story
Each of the temples has a story behind it.

On our maiden trip, we spent a little less than a week exploring three destinations – Khajuraho, Panna Tiger Reserve & Orchha. Here, we take you through Khajuraho with our photo-blog.

wonder, temple, construct, modern technology
We wonder how the temples were constructed then, when no modern technological marvel was available…

Khajuraho was a seat of the Chandela rulers’ authority. They built numerous temples in the town in the 9th and 10th centuries. Today, the group of temples is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

logo, UNESCO, group of temples
The logo made by UNESCO for the Group of Temples
scene, battle, daily life, shringar, meditation
Scenes from battles, from daily life, from shringar, from meditation to many more…
temple, back, craftsmen
Make it a point to go around the temple to the back; you will realize the craftsmen did not neglect the backside either!
khajuraho, erotica, hype
Khajuraho being only about erotica is a hype!

Erotic sculptures do not make up even 5% of the total. The guides will ask you if you are okay seeing & knowing more about them before they point them out to you.

temple, visit, sunrise, sunset
The temples are best visited at the time of sunrise/ sunset.

The golden hour is a good time for photography too.

excavation, old temple, unearth
There are excavations still going on & new old temples (!) are being unearthed.
jain temple
Jain Temples

Since the Jain Temples were built around the same time, their architecture is strikingly similar to that of the Hindu temples.

Chaturbhuj Temple
Chaturbhuj Temple

The standalone Chaturbhuj Temple has a well – preserved idol of Lord Vishnu.

sun rays, temple, light, ethereal glow
When the sun rays fall on the temples, they light up with an ethereal glow.

Western Group of Temples

lord ganesha, sculpture, mesmerize, eye for detail, craftsmanship
Look for a Lord Ganesha sculpture to be mesmerized with the eye for detail & the craftsmanship.

Even the roll of His tummy fat has been sculpted with precision!

lakshmana temple, well preserved, exquisite sculpture
The Lakshmana Temple is well-preserved & has exquisite sculptures.
Kandariya Mahadeva Temple, Lord Shiva, grand
The Kandariya Mahadeva Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, is easily the grandest!

It is built in the shape of Mount Meru, the source of creation of the world.

parvati temple, relatively new
The Parvati Temple (in the foreground) is a relatively new one.

It was built by one of the last Bundelkhand kings when the British were instigating religions against each other. To promote harmony, the king built this temple adopting the styles of architecture from Hinduism, Islam & Buddhism. The leftmost is a Hindu ‘shikhar’, the middle one is a Buddhist style pagoda, & the rightmost is an Islamic style dome.

temple, unique
Each of the temples has a uniqueness about it.

A light & sound show takes place in the evening at the Western Group of Temples. You can opt to see that to understand the regional history better.

temple, architecture, beauty, awe
Each of the temples has an architectural beauty that left us in awe.

Tips:

love, silhouette, sculpture
We loved the silhouettes the external sculptures made.
  1. Khajuraho is best visited in the winter months – October to March. The weather is salubrious to walk around the temples. The temples become even more radiant when the winter sun rays fall on them!
  2. Khajuraho has air connectivity. Delhi – Khajuraho – Varanasi is a preferred route by tourists. We, however, opted for a train to Jhansi – road to Orchha – road to Khajuraho – flight to Delhi.
  3. Khajuraho is a paradise for architecture/ art/ history/ photography enthusiasts. However, if you are someone who yawns at heritage, pass!
khajuraho, paradise, architecture, art, history, photography, enthuse
Khajuraho is a paradise for architecture/ art/ history/ photography enthusiasts.

Khajuraho left an indelible mark on us…

worship
Note: Apart from one temple, worship is not permitted in any of the others.

Masai Mara National Reserve – All The Practical Stuff!

When we began our research for the Masai Mara National Reserve, we found information to be scattered across the Internet. Climate information at one place, visa at another, what to carry at yet another… We made a mental note then itself that we would list down the useful bits at one place when we got back!

So, without much preamble, listing down the top 10 things you need to keep in mind if you are planning a trip to the beautiful Masai Mara.

‘Spotted Land’

1. Best Time to Go – We will not get into what the Great Migration is. But just suffice to say that it is the BEST time to visit the Mara if you want to see thousands of animals. July – September is the time when the wild beasts move from Tanzania to Kenya; they return to Tanzania in January – March.

Jul – Sep is the busiest time of the year for the National Reserve. So, make your bookings well in advance. The costs will be inflated in this quarter, but if you delay, there is a likelihood of not getting accommodation/ vehicles at all. We finalized our trip in June to travel in August! <facepalm>

2. Getting There – There is no direct connectivity to the Reserve. The closest international airport is Nairobi. For Indians, while there are direct flights from Mumbai to Nairobi, this does not hold for New Delhi. There are innumerable options available for hopping – either through Mumbai or to one of the many cities in the middle east.

big 5, cape buffalo
Our first Big 5 sighting! The Cape Buffalo, a distant cousin of our very own Bhainsa!

We chose the route of New Delhi – Muscat – Nairobi by Oman Air.

3. Visa for Indians – Kenya has a convenient e-visa system. Go to the visa website, create an account, fill out the application form, & pay the visa fee online. Once your e-visa is approved, you can download the PDF on your handheld device to use during immigration.

As a tourist, you will be eligible for a Single-Entry Visa.

african bush elephant
It’s said the African Bush Elephant has ears resembling the map of Africa. We can see why it’s so…

4. Yellow Fever Vaccination – The Yellow Fever Vaccine is needed by those traveling to certain African countries. There are specific places that are authorized to give this vaccination – a simple google search will throw up the names. However, note that each of these places have either a booking system or a specific day/ time when they give this vaccine. So, it is not like you can simply walk in & get this done.

We got ours done at Public Health Lab Building, Delhi. There is a registration window lasting till 10:30 AM; the vaccination begins at 11 AM. If you are aware of your allergies (especially egg – related allergies), please let the officer-in-charge know upfront.

Please note – you have to carry your passport for the vaccination.

sunset
Suckers for sunsets – that’s what we are!

5. Weather – Being close to the Equator, the weather is cooler from July to September. It is cold in early morning & late evening. For our sunrise & sunset safaris, & for our dinners, we would step out with a jacket.

We recommend carrying a light jacket at least; it will be useful in the Savannah (the temperatures can be even lower there). Typically, these months also see a bit of rainfall but we were lucky to have avoided it.

The Jacuzzi looked inviting as the Sun shone overhead. But the moment we got in, we froze to our bones & emerged promptly with chattering teeth.

african hoopoe
The African Hoopoe asked us to say ‘hi’ to the Eurasian Hoopoe found in India.

6. The Sun – The weather is pleasant but the direct Sun is strong. Walking in the Sun made us sweat like pigs. But the moment we entered the shade, it became nippy. Also, the wind was never hot. We recommend carrying a cap/ hat & sunglasses.

7. Travel Agency – As it was our first trip to Africa, we were unsure of what to expect. We felt it practical to use a travel agency. We found agencies ranging from INR 3L to INR 10L! So, irrespective of your budget, you will be able to find an agency.

We availed the services of Kiboko Kenya Safaris; read our review here.

masai giraffe
“Where are you going sister?” “Don’t you know? There’s a sale going on in Zara!”

8. Accommodation – There is no dearth of accommodation in & around the Masai Mara National Reserve. Unlike India, where staying inside forest reserves is not allowed, the Masai Mara has plenty of options inside the reserve itself. In terms of quality, there is no difference. However, the camps/ resorts within the national reserve come with an added bonus of animal noises at night!

We stayed at Sentrim Mara -& had a great time there.

9. Food – A complete nonissue! Many people are wary of traveling to Africa as they have preconceived notions about the food. If you have any such notions, dispel them immediately. We did not have any problem of finding food suitable to our palate. African, European & Indian foods are available aplenty.

rhinoceros
A rhinoceros crossed the road & attempted to climb back up on the other side. It was a struggle for the rhino, but for us, it made an amusing sight…

Kenya has a sizable Indian diaspora; thus, Indian food is extremely common. Plenty of vegetarian options available too!

10. Clothing – Like with any wildlife safari, it is better to wear earthy, muted tones. Wear fully-covered clothing to prevent insect bites & sunburn/ tan. We wore full-legged pants on all the days, yet got bitten by microscopic insects.

11. Bio Breaks During Game Drives – We were worried about the loo aspect as we are high water drinkers. The sunrise/ sunset safaris last for two hours typically. That is a manageable time for not using a loo. In a full day game drive, the driver makes two stops, at intervals of about three hours.

migration, wildebeest, zebra, tanzania, kenya
Wildebeest & zebras had started making their way from Tanzania to Kenya. Zebras are the smart/ opportunistic ones in this scheme… They follow the wildebeest’s lead to get to Kenya, & once here, abandon the wildebeest (who have the memory of a goldfish & sometimes end up going back the way they came)!

For us, one of the stops was in a lodge where the loo was clean & easy to use. The other stop was in a public facility, which was basically a hole in the ground! We dehydrated ourselves a bit to avoid getting our bladders full.

But we will advise against not drinking water at all, because the Sun will compel you to. Drink in moderation, so that you do not end up uncomfortable.

12. Safety – We traveled during daylight hours. Our driver stopped at respectable places. Safety was not a challenge for us, neither should it be for you.

cheetah, grassland
See the cheetahs lazing in the grassland…

In the reserve & the camp, pay heed to security warnings issued by the guide/ management. You are in wildlife territory. Leopards & hyenas are known to wander into human areas. Maybe they are as curious about us as we are about them!

13. Game Drive – Drives are carried out in two kinds of vehicles – vans & Land Cruisers. While both are customized for game watching, we feel the Land Cruiser is a more comfortable, more spacious, & thus, a better option.

Also, you can opt for a dedicated vehicle or a shared one. The dedicated vehicle is expensive undoubtedly, but it is value for money. We had a dedicated vehicle with just the two of us in it! It made our movement within the vehicle to take photos from different angles extremely easy.

There’s no bigger source of GK than travel! We figured how a Land Cruiser could be converted into a safari vehicle, with a detachable top.

There are three kinds of safaris – sunrise, full day & sunset. The sunrise & sunset game drives last for a couple of hours. The full day drive is from 8 AM to 3 PM.

a. Sunrise Safari – You enter the Masai Mara National Reserve a little before the sun rises. Witness the sunrise against a backdrop of wildlife & acacia trees. The hot air balloon rides take place at this hour, & make for pretty photographs.

The sunrise game drive is the best time to see the big cats in action, as well as nocturnal animals heading home. We saw a hyena, a jackal & a serval cat slinking away after a night of notoriety. We then saw a display of ‘Might Is Right’ between a honeymooning lion & lioness, and a cheetah. Read this story here.

african pied wagtail
An African Pied Wagtail refuses to turn its head.

i. Birds Spotted – Common Ostrich, Yellow-Fronted Canary

ii. Mammals Spotted – Plains Zebra, Cape Buffalo, Thomson’s Gazelle, East African jackal, African Bush Elephant, Cheetah, East African Lion, Masai Giraffe, Wildebeest

b. Full Day Drive – Alfred got our lunch packed & we headed out for a day of wildlife spotting. This safari is great to see the most number & variety of animals.

lion, lioness, grassland, camouflage
Quite difficult to ascertain lions & lionesses in the grasslands, so perfect was the camouflage

i. Birds Spotted – African Pied Wagtail, Yellow-billed Ox-pecker, Common Ostrich, Rufous – Naped Lark, African Wattled Lapwing, Cinnamon-Chested Bee-Eater, Greater Blue-Eared Starling, Yellow-Fronted Canary, Slate – Coloured Boubou, Hildebrandt’s Starling, Egyptian Goose, White-Bellied Bustard, Scaly Francolin, White-Backed Vulture, Lilac Breasted Roller, Red-Cheeked Cordon-Bleu, Superb Starling, Abbott’s Starling, White-Faced Whistling Ducks, Yellow-Billed Stork, Maribou Stork, Lappet-Faced Vulture

ii. Mammals Spotted – Thomson’s Gazelle, Black Rhinoceros, Impala, Plains Zebra, Wildebeest, Hippopotamus, Common Eland, African Bush Elephant, Olive Baboon, East African Defassa Waterbuck, Warthog, Coke’s Hartebeest, Masai Giraffe, East African Lion

iii. Reptiles Spotted – Agama Lizard, Nile Crocodile

yellow billed ox pecker
Yellow-billed Ox-pecker neighbors look on enviously

c. Sunset Game Drive – This afternoon/ early evening drive is the time when birds are returning to their nests & herbivores have stuffed themselves full! The afternoon Sun is not conducive for the Big Cats; you find them hidden under bushes (lion), hidden in the tall grass (cheetah), or plain hidden (leopard)! So, do not expect to see great action from the Big Cats now. However, the sunset hour is a good time to see raptors.

i. Birds Spotted – Lilac – Breasted Roller, Superb Starling, African Hoopoe, Tawny Eagle, Ruppell’s Vulture, Bateleur, African White-backed Vultures, Ring-Necked Dove, Anteater Chat, Yellow-Throated Longclaw, Bare-Faced Go-Away-Bird, African Wattled Lapwing, Little Bee-Eater

ii. Mammals Spotted – African Bush Elephant, Plains Zebra, Masai Giraffe, Wildebeest, Common Eland, Cape Buffalo, East African Lion

rufous naped lark
A Rufous – Naped Lark ready to take off

14. Road Condition – From Nairobi, if you take the road to the Masai Mara National Reserve (the alternative is an aircraft), be prepared for bad roads. When we say bad, we mean ‘India of the 80s’ bad. The last 50 kms to reach the Masai Mara are nightmarish.

Kenya is sparsely populated. So, you do not see many human beings, but certainly Chinese trucks. Thanks to the rapid construction, trucks ferrying goods can be seen. You can spot under construction highways, railway lines etc.

While we did not see any animals on our way to the Mara, but the day we left from there, in the early morning hours, we kept spotting wild animals for many kilometers, even after we had exited the reserve area.

cinnamon chested bee eater
A Cinnamon-Chested Bee-Eater had to be clicked!

15. Tipping – Kenyans expect a tip, & can be blunt about asking for it. Ensure you have adequate change on you.

Phew! We believe we have covered all the practical aspects that we wished we knew before going. If there is anything more you would like to know, please feel free to leave a comment; we will answer it to the best of our knowledge.

MASAI MARA TALES

For somebody who has grown up watching the nature & wildlife channels on television, the Masai Mara National Reserve was a must-have on the bucket list. Thus, when an ex-colleague, now working in Nairobi, asked us to come over, specially as the migration season was on, we did not have to think twice. It also meant that our planning & reservations were being done at the last minute, implying fewer options and/ or higher fares. But we knew we might not get a chance again anytime soon. Before we could digest the fact that we were (finally) visiting the Masai Mara, we were on a plane bound for Nairobi via Muscat.

Getting to the Mara from Nairobi is possible both by air & by road. We chose road as we have been lifelong believers of ‘the best way to see the country is by road’. But if you want to save time, you can choose the flight option. Tiny air crafts land on airstrips made inside the national reserve, giving a chance to see the vast land aerially. But, do note, as these are the small air crafts, there are luggage restrictions. Check before you book!









A Common Eland reminded us of the Indian Blue Cow. #InternationalCousins

Within the reserve, as well as right on the periphery, there are innumerable accommodation options available. The ones within have an added advantage of the visitor being able to sleep amidst the wilderness, listening to the wildlife sounds all night long. We chose a camp at the periphery, thanks to, well, our last-minute booking. But we do not regret it, as our hearts were full with all that we saw during the daytime. Speaking of accommodation, camps are available in both luxury & mid segment, to suit all budgets.

With the details out of the way, let us come to the Masai Mara National Reserve itself. Imagine an unending stretch of land in front of you, with golden grass swaying in the breeze, a blue sky overhead, and here & there a spotting of acacia trees! Turn left, or right, or around, & the same vista greets you. The golden grass reminds you of wheat fields. The clouds twist & turn into different shapes. And a giraffe chomps on the thorny leaves of the acacia tree! Remembering our first sight of this vast grassland, & writing about it, still gives us Goosebumps!

So, Mara stands for ‘spotted land’ in the Masai language. Rightly so, as the monotony of the flat savanna is broken by the spotting of the flattop acacia trees. When the light is right, clouds cast their shadow on the land, causing a spotting of a different kind. And when the migration is underway, animals spot this gorgeous grassland.

Enough & more has been said about the Masai Mara. So, instead of the generic, we would like to share a few experiences we had.

A leopard had hunted a wildebeest & hung it on a tree for some leisurely eating later. As the day was too warm, the leopard had receded into the shade. When we chanced upon the carcass hanging from the tree, we noticed a White-Backed Vulture sitting next to it. Around the vulture flocked many Lilac-Breasted Rollers. But none of the birds touched the carcass. The birds were waiting for the leopard to finish eating the wildebeest. When pieces would fall on the ground, the vulture would snag its share. And when the carcass rots, the rollers would move in to eat the maggots. There could not be a better example of animals working on the principle of symbiosis.

The second realization for us was the ‘survival of the fittest’. Such an oft-used term, and still when we saw it being played out, it gave us chills. Once July begins, the Kenyan side of the Mara River becomes greener. Herbivores cross the crocodile-infested river and come over to the Mara to give their young ones a better chance at survival. This phenomenon is called The Great Migration. Now, imagine, a river teeming with brutal, hungry Nile Crocodiles. A herd of wildebeest anxiously stand on the edge of the river, debating whether or not to cross. The choices are being eaten by the crocodiles if they do, and death by starvation if they don’t. They take a chance & dash through the river. In the process, the slow and weak ones get snapped up by the crocodiles, & a few get caught in the stampede. But most cross! Nature eliminates the weak, & the fittest survive. Ruthless, but natural!

A White-Bellied Bustard tried to blend in with the grass but… caught you!

On a sunrise safari, we missed a hunt by a few minutes. A cheetah stood tall over a dying impala. Ideally, it should have sat down & feasted. But its ears were pricked up. The cheetah was, rightly, on high alert. A lioness had smelt the blood and was making her way towards the cheetah. The fastest animal in the world was no match for the Big Five member. It scooted, leaving its prey for the lioness. She staked claim on the impala, lapped up a little blood, but did not eat either. What was the matter? It turned out she was on a honeymoon, & was waiting for her mate to partake the food first. The king of the jungle walked in with a swagger, & dragged off the impala into the bushes. The lioness looked on, forlorn. At a distance, the cheetah rested its tired limbs, brooded over losing its meal, but glad to be alive! We had heard stories of the dominance of the Big Five; we now had one of our own.

There were so many more such eyeopeners. The ink may run dry, our national reserve stories would not. Stories of the Elephant calf mocking us, the Rhinoceros casually strolling on the path, the beautiful Zebras running along with our vehicle, the Giraffes cocking their ears at us, the Wildebeest walking in a straight line, the Ostrich looking for water, the Lion cubs cuddling, the uncountable varieties of birds posing readily for us, the Hippopotami sunbathing, the Agama Lizards darting around us, the Warthog hiding on seeing us, the East African Jackal being curious about us, five Cheetahs popping out of the grass when we expected only one…

If you have the time, try to go for all the kinds of game drives – sunrise, full day, & sunset. Each has a USP. E.g., the sunrise drive is the best time to catch the Big Cats in action. The sunset one is most suitable for seeing the raptors. We also chose a private vehicle, which meant we were the only ones in it. Sure, it was expensive, but we wanted an unhindered view of the savanna & the wildlife.








We like beings like these – bruised but not broken… Go Lioness!

Lastly, a visit to the reserve is incomplete without visiting the Masai village. You can meet the tribes people, understand their customs, see their distinctive outfits, buy traditional handmade beaded jewellery & participate in their traditional jumping dance. It is not something one can forget!

Ever since we returned, we have encouraged everyone, specially those with kids, to go to the Masai Mara National Reserve. The beautiful land can teach us a thousand lessons on why the environment must be respected. The timelessness of the Masai Mara, the vastness of the grassland, & the coexistence of different species – if these are not what dreams are made of…

So, What’s Airbnb?

Every now & then, a new phenomenon catches the world’s attention. If it is a fad,it dies down naturally. Else, it goes on to create history. Airbnb, to us,falls in the second category. We had been reading & hearing about Airbnb but our inhibitions were preventing us from trying it out. Will a stranger’s house be clean & hygienic? Will it be safe? But then came a time when we were unable to get a hotel for our travel. After exhausting all the hotel options on TripAdvisor (our love for TA needs to be another blog post), we perforce switched to Airbnb. We chanced upon a two-bedroom cottage in our destination.Looked pretty & reasonably-priced too. The questions still nagged our minds but we went ahead & booked. & that was a life-changing decision for us…

shepherd, hut, host, family, homemade, food
At the shepherd’s hut, we sat with our host’s family to have homemade food!

Since then, we have stayed in four Airbnb accommodations – a cottage in the Himalayas, a villa in Bali, a flat on the Indian west coast & a shepherd’s hut in the Himalayan foothills. There was no reason for us to dislike any of these. While the cottage was a little away from the town center, it had an incredibly homely feel. The villa in Bali, of course, was outstanding. The flat on the west coast was like a regular apartment but you could see the Arabian Sea from there. & the shepherd’s hut gave us a chance to interact with his family & understand their customs. In all of these, there was the owner/ a caretaker to help us with food.

So, for the uninitiated, Airbnb aggregates bed & breakfast services across the world, & in every possible price range. From the backpackers’ hostel to the luxury travelers’ state-of-the-art mansion, Airbnb has got it all.

A cottage in the Himalayas – Our first AirBnB experience – A winner!

You can choose to have the entire place to yourself. Or you can have a private room but share the common space. Or you can stay in a shared space, like a common room. We have, till now, only chosen accommodations where we had the entire place to ourselves.

So, Airbnb is cheap. Hold on! What? Please do not have this notion. A few Airbnb accommodations can cost as much as a five-star hotel. We did a sample search for a not-very-touristy destination, Gwalior. The available options, for four adults, ranged from INR 900 per night to INR 6,000 per night. But what works in the favor of Airbnb is that the more people you are & the longer you stay,the cheaper the options become.

Apartment, Indian West Coast, Arabian Sea
An apartment on the Indian West Coast – Spotting the Arabian Sea in the distance

We also like their security features. The hosts are verified & so are the guests. We had to upload our photograph & a photo id. We could book the accommodation only if the two matched. It gave us some comfort that there may not be a psychopath on the other side.

What must be remembered – it is not a hotel. So, do not expect 24*7 service or‘tandoori’ food or room service etc. Think of it as staying in someone’s house.

So,go ahead, create an account & book. Do not forget to share your experience with us.

OUR MAGIC MOMENTS PRESERVED

We don’t really remember what prompted us to try Zoomin in the first place. In 2009, we created & ordered our first product – a t-shirt!

That started our love affair with this online photo service provider. Over the years, Zoomin has made even our ordinary photographs look excellent in print.

We have tried almost every product it launched – Photo Books, Canvases, Posters, Mugs, Magnets, & even a notebook!

A Lay Flat Photo Book with our photos from the Chamba District trip
A Lay Flat Photo Book to preserve our Chamba memories

Anyone who loves their photos will know the nightmare called ‘Crashing of The Hard Disk’. Sure, there is Facebook & Instagram, but what if, tomorrow, you wish to quit social media?

There are also many who prefer to flip through albums, either by choice or due to limitations (e.g. the elderly who aren’t technologically-savvy). For each of these scenarios, Zoomin comes as a savior.

So, what do we love about Zoomin?

We visited the Rashtrapati Bhavan & stored it in a Flip Book!
  • Speed – At times, we have placed an order in the morning & received the product the next evening! Perhaps, with their business growing, they may be unable to maintain such a turnaround time, but it is still better than many traditional eCommerce websites.
  • Creation Ease – You sign up on the Zoomin website, upload photographs into an album on the portal, choose the product & theme, place your photos into templates, write your captions & voila! You are done.

There are many optional effects & features available, but if you are like us, you would prefer to keep it natural.

A Photo Book for the time we spent lazing in the jungles & the mountains!

We tried Canva, another leading photograph printing website recently & gave up within 10 minutes due to the navigation difficulty.

  • New Designs/ Products ALL THE TIME – Zoomin is one of those companies that continuously evolve. It is always coming up with new designs & products.

Since October, Zoomin has been bringing new Easy Book covers based on monthly themes. These covers are designed by doodle artists & sourced designers. For November, Zoomin has festive covers. We cannot wait to get our hands on the new theme-based Easy Books.

Zoomin has recently introduced Decorative Clips to go with Square Prints. We think these look chic. And for those who like to dirty their hands, it has come up with a DIY Photo Display Kit.

Tripping on these Clips!(Image courtesy Zoomin)

Zoomin is launching Felt Boards & Calendars in Square Prints size with new designs by November – end. Hats off to their design & product teams!

So then, what should you try on Zoomin?

  • Photo Books – Our absolute favorite! A Photo Book is an album that you can create for your trips or for an occasion or even as mixed bag of memories. The high-quality paper gives a glossy look to the photos.
Our Sikkim Book!

Photo Books are available as Flip Book, Hardcover & Lay Flat. Prices begin at INR 329 which, in our humble opinion, is value for money.

  • Canvases – We recently tried this & are hooked for life. You can create wall art using your own photographs. They come printed on quality canvas material & already mounted. You can hang them up as soon as they arrive; no hassle of framing.

Our travel photos turned out to be even more beautiful when canvas printed.

Goa, Hawaii & London on our wall!

The newest Zoomin offering is Square Prints. When we were approached to try these out, we could not say no. A set of 12 photographs, looking like Polaroids, arrived promptly in our mail. To put these up, we chose a vertical magnetic rope. (The other choices were horizontal magnetic rope & washi tapes.)

We were super impressed with the Prints. Made on top quality stock paper with a wonderful finish, the Square Prints breathe life into the photos.

The Masai Mara wildlife on our Square Prints
Our Travel Wall looks Solid!

We cannot say the same about the magnetic rope. The Square Prints are on a thick paper & too strong to be held in place by tiny magnets. Also, we felt the magnetic rope is child & household help unfriendly. Perhaps, washi tapes would have been better.

Three boxes full of albums covering our travels & important memories, & we still haven’t got enough. Zoomin is one service we fully vouch for. Convert those memories to keepsakes right away!

Remembering our West Coast road trip!

(P.S. Did we mention Zoomin has good deals going on throughout the year.)

Cruising Along The Indian West Coast

The 2009 edition of Outlook Traveler spoke of the Mumbai to Goa drive enjoying cult status. The NH17, fondly remembered as NH66, ran along the western coast of India. At a few places, it came at a stone’s throw distance from the Arabian Sea. It sounded exciting.

Arabian Sea, Maravanthe
This is how close to the sea we would drive at times…

So, for our 2017 annual domestic trip, we chose the Western Ghats & the Indian west coast. It was in line with our lets-see-the-country-at-least-before-we-die plan. When we started studying about the NH66, we found that it ran from Panvel to Kanyakumari. We were thrilled! We had ~10 days to spare. We could do a longer stretch than just Mumbai to Goa.

After extensive research & iterations, we narrowed down to a return trip of ~2,100 kilometers: Mumbai- Ganpati Phule- Gokarna- Kannur- Karwar- Panchgani- Mumbai.

The only reason we could not go till Kanyakumari: we had to return to Mumbai to drop off the rented self-drive car. Self-drive car rentals in India do not have the feature of different pick & drop points yet. & 10 days were inadequate to go till Kanyakumari AND return to Mumbai. So, the remaining stretch in maybe another trip!

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In South Karnataka & North Kerala, we crossed many backwater channels…

 

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Maravanthe Beach… unknown… where the only people who stop to frolic in the waters are truck drivers hailing all the way from Punjab, Bihar & the Northeast.

Most of our road trip was on the NH66. Here & there, we touched SH92 (in Maharashtra), SH34 (Karnataka), NH48 (Maharashtra), & the Mumbai- Pune Expressway (Maharashtra). SH92 connects the NH48 to the NH66, traversing through villages to give you a view of rural Maharashtra. SH34 is a beautiful, well-maintained hilly stretch running through the Kali Tiger Reserve & Dandeli, the river rafting paradise of west India. NH48 & Mumbai- Pune Expressway are typical highways: wide roads, straight-line driving & limited scenery.

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SH34 | Crossing the Kali Tiger Reserve – A wonderful green belt with smooth roads

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After NH66, NH48 was boring. Not many turns, not much scenery…

But this post is about the NH66. On our first stretch (Mumbai to Ganpati Phule), the highway zigzagged through the Western Ghats. It being the monsoon season, the Ghats were lush. We saw more shades of green than we thought existed. So much so, that after a while, our eyes sought colors other than green.

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green green everywhere

Once we started from Ganpati Phule (till Kannur), we encountered the reason NH66 is considered so highly. We drove parallel to the Indian west coast. We felt the sea breeze.

At places, the Arabian Sea was right beside us. One such place was Maravanthe: to our right was the Arabian Sea & to our left, the Suparnika River. Essentially, we drove on a thin strip of land.

river suparnika, arabian sea
Left: River Suparnika. Right: Arabian Sea

All along the highway were fishing hamlets. We halted just about anywhere & asked for the day’s catch to be cooked for us.

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Not really the fishing hamlet food (as we would gobble that up quickly) but you get the drift…

Also pleasing to the eye were the intricately carved & colorfully painted temples. The gopuram of each of them carried gods & goddesses of all kinds, & of more colors than found in a child’s box of crayons.

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Ornate designs on temple gopurams… Hats off to the artist!

There cannot be words better than photographs. So, leaving you with our captures of NH66.

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We spotted the Sun going down behind a stretch of green…

 

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Merging like the palm fronds do with the rocks do with the sea Or standing out with our architectural splendor, be it a church, a school or a temple…

 

contrast, strike, tar, road, shade, green
The contrast could not be more striking The tarred roads Against the many shades of green…

The Journey, The Traveler

What is it about travel that entices me so? Be it global or national; by air or rail; long or short; with family or friends; official or personal – every single time, my eyes light up. It is not just about travel; it is also about the thoughts that rush to me when I travel. This dawned on me during my travel for an engagement to the hinterlands of UP.

When I tumbled my way in the Bolero from Jagdishpur to Lucknow at sunset, there was a smile on my lips. ‘Riding into the sunset’ was the theme in my mind. The roads were neither great nor poor; yet, I was at peace. I had seen rural youth learning skills to become employable. Their sincere faces were etched in my mind. When I closed my eyes, I could visualize them toiling under the hot asbestos roof, trying to make themselves productive. I thought of us, the privileged ones, how we still curse our lives…

symmetry, like, bada imambargah, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
symmetry to my liking

When I traveled from Raebareli to Lucknow, my thoughts wandered to the video I had seen of the poorest of poor. They strove to make a better life. They fought to overcome the odds. In a land where women are still exploited, harassed and oppressed, it was heartening to see groups of women come together to rise from the ashes. Even at a towering 5’8″, I felt small in front of them.

In Amethi, I stayed at a guesthouse which was austere but the hospitality freaked me out. The cook stuffed us with the tastiest food possible. The tehzeeb, I realized, was not limited to Lucknow alone.

Lucknow brought back a sense of belonging, though, frankly, I did not remember a thing from my childhood. Still, it felt like home. Tunde kebab and kulfi at Aminabad, walk at Hazratganj, sightseeing at Bada Imambargah, crossing Cantt, kulfi at Chhappan Bhog, Chikankari shopping at Chowk, Walk in Ambedkar Park, and kulfi (again!) at Nishatganj – spread over 5 days. Courtesy from the most unexpected of quarters. Masha-Allah! Being disappointed with the ‘sandstonification’ of Lucknow. And still being enchanted with how Laxman ka Teela became Teele wali Masjid!

restore, bada imambargah, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
much needed restoration work going on…

I had thought that the beauty of Bhutan brought out the poetess and thinker in me. But I realize it happens to me every time I travel somewhere.

 

History comes alive, Battles of yore resound

The walls conceal mysteries infinite, I realize as I walk up the stone steps;

The India of today, not very different

Similar battles, similar mysteries, I realize as I walk down the stone steps.

The Land of Happiness – Part III

Back again! We are sure you have read Part I & Part II, but if you’ve not, trust us you’re missing out on a virtual tour of Bhutan! Now, finally, Part III, which is the final part of our Bhutan travelogue. Let’s begin.

7.    Thimphu

heart of the city, clock tower square, nightlife, food life
The heart of the city, the Clock Tower Square. This is where the nightlife & the food life happens yo!

The drive from Paro to Thimphu is a treat for the senses – Winding roads between the lush green mountains; The peaks above & the Paro River thundering below. We are struck by the similarity between Bhutan and Scotland. On curves, we feel we are on our way to Hogwarts. We will turn around the corner & there will be the Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft. Sigh! Every bend brings that image to mind.

We cannot stop clicking but the pictures do not justify the beauty we encounter. We want to stop next to the river & take in its roar. There does not seem anything mightier than a river in its fury thundering down the mountain.

Centenary Farmer’s Market – The Market is frequented by farmers from all over Bhutan, Friday to Sunday. They set up stalls to sell their fresh produce. You can find dairy products, grains, fish, fruits, vegetables, & spices. A few interesting items are betel nut, cordyceps, & incense.

glad, farmer's market
Glad we made our way to the Farmer’s Market!

The colors & smells tantalize. The noteworthy bit is, despite being a wet market, there is not an ounce of filth anywhere. Be sure to pick stuff – organic done right!

Changgangkha Temple – This 13th century temple is significant as the Bhutanese come here for their children’s naming. You have to climb a steep flight of stairs that will knock the wind out of you. But, once at the top, it is serene.

Bhutanese temples are unassuming structures with the focus completely on spirituality.

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Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

Folk Heritage Museum – This is a four-storied traditional Bhutanese house, showing the typical way a Bhutanese family lives. You enter the cow shed as soon as you enter the house – Surprise! The 1st floor is a storeroom, the 2nd is a kitchen and the 3rd is the living quarters.

The stairs are so steep that the only thought in our minds while climbing is ‘I shouldn’t fall.’! Each step is hardly a few centimeters wide. Where do we place our feet?

We are allowed to pluck an apple from the in-house apple orchard – Good! This is something you will find all over Bhutan – rows after rows of fruit trees and absolutely no restraint on reaching out & getting one for yourself.

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Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

Institute for Zorig Chusum – Do you know the Bhutanese train their youngsters for three-five years on handicraft? That is what we discover. Rooms of wood-carving, sculpting, embroidery etc., full of bright young ones, girls & boys alike. The sculptures are intricate & beautifully carved. But expensive!

This is a trend in Bhutan. We later go to the Handicrafts Emporium where no handicrafts are cheap. A small key chain costs Nu 300 (~Rs. 300). Exorbitant! Is it because it is hand-crafted or because of foreign tourists? The only articles that are value-for-money are pashmina shawls (which are imported from India!). Even deep into the country, the prices do not drop.

Kuensel Phodrang (Buddha Point) – The most exciting part of the day – On our first visit, the Buddha statue is still-under-construction. From this high mountain top, the view is panoramic & breathtaking. There is hardly any crowd.

Bhutan Monk-
Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

We are surrounded by mountains on which clouds have descended. Below us, the capital sprawls quiet and sparse.

On our second visit, while the main structure has been completed, the surrounding structures are still being built. The 51.5-meter bronze statue is three-storied with several chapels. We visit the interior which contains another 1,25,000 Buddha statues. It has a large courtyard, used for festivals/ prayer gatherings.

The main entrance is through a flight of stairs. But, a different approach, from behind, leads you right to the statue.

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Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

Mini Zoo (Motithang Takin Preserve) – It houses the Takin, the national animal of Bhutan. It is a unique animal with the head of a goat & the body of a cow. The takins are protected in the middle of the preserve with a walking trail that goes along the periphery. We are not inclined to walk; so, we stay put.

To our delight, they start descending towards where we are as it is their feeding area & time. Without moving a muscle, we see about 30 takins. They are gentle. Though not great in the looks department, takins are unique & a matter of pride for Bhutan.

You can see a few other animals like the sambar deer & the Himalayan serow. Please don’t tease the animals or make any loud noises.

takin, national animal of bhutan, cow, goat, interesting
Takin – the national animal of Bhutan. It’s part cow, part goat. Extremely interesting!!

National Library – Rolls and rolls of manuscripts await us. The manuscripts are in Dzongkha, but books in English and Hindi are available too. It is a treasure trove for people who seek to read up on Buddhism. We browse through books and look at photographs placed within the library.

National Memorial Chorten – Believers continuously move around the central stupa, turning their hand-held prayer wheels. Construction of this landmark was the idea of the Third King of Bhutan. He wished to dedicate it to world peace and prosperity. However, the monument got completed in 1974, after the King’s death.

Good place to take portraits but click only after seeking permission!

prayer wheel
Prayer wheels… something we can never get enough of!

Semtokha Dzong – The first Dzong of Bhutan, it is small with a beautiful monastery. It houses the Institute for Language & Culture Studies. The Semtokha Dzong does not house government offices.

Trashichhoedzong – It is the governmental & religious center, the site of monarch’s throne room and the seat of the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot). This monument is built without nails or architectural plans – Fascinating! The monastery houses a giant Buddha statue.

Our Accommodation Pick – On the Thimphu River bank is a resort called Terma Linca. It is as warm as it is beautiful. We receive personal attention & peace. If you seek tranquility, you must come here. The only sound you hear is the roar of the river or the whooshing of the wind.

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Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

The evenings are spent in front of the river, sipping our poisons. Our ecstasy knows no bounds. Amazing location, awesome amenities, brilliant service!

 

8.    Trongsa

In the olden times, Trongsa was the center of Bhutan. Just by closing the gates of the Trongsa Dzong, the country could be effectively bifurcated. It is little wonder then that, historically, & even today, Trongsa is considered important politically.

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Mankind, ultimately, is doomed… A forest fire as we approached Trongsa.

Before being crowned as the King, it is mandatory for the Prince to serve as the Trongsa Penlop (Governor).

Ta Dzong – It is another watchtower converted to a museum. It is accessible by a vehicle but within the museum, there is a fair of bit of climbing to be done. We love the structure of the watchtower itself – a massive circular building.

The museum houses a collection of historical artifacts of the royal family & Buddhist art. The visit starts with a short AV about the royal family of Bhutan. The displays include treasures like the 500-year-old jacket & football boots used by the teen-aged fourth king. There are two temples inside the Dzong too.

foreground, trongsa dzong, background, ta dzong museum
In the foreground, the Trongsa Dzong. In the background, the Ta Dzong museum.

Photography not allowed!

Trongsa Dzong – The Dzong looks spectacular irrespective of where you see it from. We say this because you get a view of it from everywhere in Trongsa town. Imagine a massive white fort on top of a ridge with a sheer drop on one side – Impressive!

Do not forget to look for arrows in the cypress tree outside – remnants of the Duar War. Once inside, think stones – big, beautiful stones – stone stairs, stone walls, courtyards paved with stones…

love, sunlight, filter, tree, light, dzong
We love how the sunlight filters through the trees to lighten up the dzong… ❤

Our Accommodation Pick – In this small town, you may not find too many accommodation options. Yangkhil Resort seems the best & biggest. While coming from Punakha, you will reach it before the town.

As the Yangkhil Resort is located on a mountain face opposite Trongsa, you get great views, including a view of the Dzong. It has multiple gardens inside, which provide photo ops. The rooms & bathrooms are spacious & adequately equipped.

It will be good to have a heater in the bathroom, as the temperature difference between the room & the bathroom is quite stark. The balcony is small but with a good view. The food is decent; the Resort has a bar too. There is Wi-Fi but it is patchy.

favourite, frame
Many of our favorites in one frame…

 

9.    Wangdue

Wangdue Dzong – It is built perilously on a cliff, looking ready to drop any moment. In collaboration with India, the Dzong is being conserved.

Our Accommodation Pick – The Punatsangchhu Cottages is next to the Punakha River. The river is silent unlike the Thimphu River. Our minds utter ‘Serenity’. Rooms are not too big but are well-equipped & have great views. River-side log seats are available for enjoying an evening by the river.

reach, cottage, name, punatsangchhu
Reaching our cottage… the name’s Punatsangchhu

Brilliant service by the courteous & warm staff. Food is delicious. WiFi works but is erratic.

 

With this, we end our Bhutan travelogue. Hope it is useful to you! Bhutan is one of the easiest international vacations Indians can take. So, do not delay further! An itinerary we suggest is:

Day 1: Land in Paro. Drive to Thimphu. Overnight in Thimphu.

Day 2: Go sightseeing in Thimphu. Drive to Punakha. Overnight in Punakha.

Day 3: Go sightseeing in Punakha.

Day 4: Drive to Phobjikha Valley. Overnight in Phobjikha Valley.

Day 5: Go sightseeing in Phobjikha Valley.

Day 6: Drive to Trongsa. Overnight in Trongsa.

Day 7: Go sightseeing in Trongsa. Drive to Bumthang. Overnight in Bumthang.

Day 8: Go sightseeing in Bumthang.

Day 9: Fly to Paro from the Bathpalathang Airport. Overnight in Paro.

Day 10: Go sightseeing in Paro/ go hiking to the Taktsang Palphug Monastery. Overnight in Paro.

Day 11: Fly back home.

 

Log Jay Gay!

The Land of Happiness – Part II

And we are back! If you are yet to read Part I, do so right away. We received feedback that it was too long. Unfortunately, we do detailed, tell-all posts. So please bear with us. On our part, we have cut this part down! By a few words 😀 So let’s get on with it.

3.    Punakha

windmill, punakha
Windmills on the way to the Punakha Valley

Punakha was the old capital of Bhutan & the government seat till 1955. It is on the way to Punakha that the King crosses us on a bicycle, His envoy following him. While cars stop & hawkers stand up in respect, the King’s simplicity touches us. A monarch riding a bicycle – Down-to-earth & Fit!

Chimi Lhakhang – Imagine a walk through a village with houses that have erect penises drawn on them. You cross terraced farms. You walk uphill with nothing but the wind to give you company (& a few pilgrims/ other tourists).

The Chimi Lhakhang is not in Punakha, but in Lobesa next door. It is on a hillock. The Lhakhang has the legend of the ‘Divine Madman’ behind it. The Divine Madman or Drukpa Kunley was a Buddhist preacher who spread enlightenment through his sex life!

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Huff & puff we go…

A phallus (called ‘Thunderbolt of Flaming Wisdom’) is the symbol of the Divine Madman. Couples flock to the temple when they wish to conceive. They have to undergo a ritual that may grant them the boon of a child. We are fortunate to witness such a ritual.

A couple offers prayers inside the temple under the supervision of a lama. Then, the wife circum- ambulates the temple carrying a large wooden phallus, with her husband in tow. There is an album kept inside the temple which contains photos of all the success stories! It seems not just the Bhutanese, but global citizens have benefited from the blessings of the Divine Madman.

Punakha Dzong (Pungthang Dechen Phodrang Dzong) – Dzongs are mysterious places. The beauty is in the seamless integration of religion & state. The Punakha Dzong is built at the confluence of the Po Chhu & the Mo Chhu.

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Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

After being damaged by fire & earthquake, the Punakha Dzong has been restored by the present King. The bridge on the confluence is a scenic treasure. Standing on it, you can see the Dzong on one side, & lush green mountains on the other three.

As the Punakha Dzong serves as the winter residence of the Central Monastic Body, visiting hours may be curtailed; check before going.

Suspension Bridge – It is one of the longest suspension bridges in Bhutan. You have to walk a bit to get here which builds your excitement. It is impossible to not feel an adrenaline rush. The Bridge is the ‘fear-factor’ of Bhutan.

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Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

Perched above the Po Chhu, the Suspension Bridge sways due to the wind. You will feel yourself wobbling! It was once the only way to reach a village across the river; as roads are built now, it is more for tourism.

What will amaze you is the ease with which locals cross the Suspension Bridge, as if they are walking on solid ground. Suit up, walk the Bridge, enjoy the views, and click the water & valley below!

Our Accommodation Pick – The RKPO Green Resort is a luxury resort situated in Lobesa, on Punakha outskirts. The Chimi Lhakhang is at a walking distance. Hills & terraced farms can be seen sitting inside the Resort. It looks beautiful but there is walking & climbing to be done.

picturesque, bridge
If there’s a picturesque bridge, we shall click it!

Rooms & bathrooms are spacious & well-equipped. Wi-Fi works well. A special mention of the bathroom which has a shower cubicle & a bathtub and is nothing short of luxury. Good F&B and service!

 

4.    Dochu La

When you travel east from Thimphu, you stop at Dochu La. At 3088 m, it has 108 stupas. Our four stops (since Dochu La lies on the East West Road, you have to cross it) here help us see four seasons – rainy, cloudy, sunny & snowy!

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Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

On our first halt, clouds descend on the road leading to Dochu La. Not fog, not mist, but clouds! One of our bucket list items gets checked! At the La, it is raining & cold? Brr!

On the second stop, we are above the clouds, rather than among them. Unbelievable or magical! Why do people associate cold/ fog/ mist/ clouds with ghosts? They are beautiful natural phenomena – you know what is ahead & still do not know, and vice versa. It makes you apprehensive but pushes you to move ahead.

On our third stop, the sky is clear. We see the snow-clad mountain peaks of the Himalayas, prominent against the sunny sky, including the highest peak, Mt. Gangkar Puensum. If you see this panoramic view and do not utter the word ‘splendid’, have you even visited the Dochu La?

Gangkhar Puensum
The highest peak, Gangkhar Puensum, visible towards the right.

Our fourth stop is the one which fills our hearts with delight. The Dochu La is sprinkled with snow! While a heavy layer will be nicer, we are grateful for what we get. Our teeth chatter and we hug ourselves to ward off the cold, but we also sigh with contentment.

Dochu La Lhakhang – It is locked but our perseverance pays off. Or maybe we annoy the monk enough! He unlocks the Lhakhang & shows us inside. It is beautiful. The temple houses the idols of Buddha, Guru Rinpoche & Guru Shabdrung (the three main figures worshiped in Bhutan).

Apart from the beauty of the idols, the Dochu La Lhakhang is covered with paintings from Buddhism. You are bound to find yourself having a conversation with the Almighty…

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Such structures dot the entire landscape of Bhutan. Initially, you want to click them all… But, soon, you give up!

Lampaneri Park – A walking trail invigorates us. It is unmarked. We feel we are lost. Maybe we should retrace our steps. We may face a wild animal but no, we are the wildest animals here!

 

5.    Flying from New Delhi

Rush to the airport to grab the port side window seats. Why? Because you fly parallel to the Himalayas & get to see the majestic Mt. Everest. So, get seats on the left side of the craft. As destiny has it, both the times we fly, the day is cloudy. We see a few snow-capped peaks, but the glorious Everest eludes us. The peaks provide some solace & remind us of chocolate brownies with vanilla ice-cream!

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Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

 

6.    Paro

Paro is a historic town with sacred buildings scattered throughout. You cannot escape it if coming by air as Paro has the sole international airport. Speaking of flying, the landing is exciting! The small craft swerves between the mountains and just about manages to navigate the hilly terrain. Edge of the seat moment for many!

Our drivers and guides greet us with the customary white scarf called ‘khada’. They are extremely warm, knowledgeable & speak fluent English & Hindi.

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Bhutan takes its nature extremely seriously.

Kinchu Monastery – Prayer wheels! We turn them all. Bhutan is a spiritual retreat for us. If you are looking for inner peace, Bhutan is just the place. An old monk guides us to completion along with circum- ambulation of stupas. The monk does not know English/ Hindi. We do not know Dzongkha. But then, spiritualism does not need a language.

Paro Airport Bird’s View – You have seen the approach from the aircraft. Now see it from outside. You will appreciate the dexterity pilots need to maneuver this terrain.

Paro Dzong (Rinpung Dzong) – Its beauty & importance can be emphasized just by mentioning that it is on the Tentative List for UNESCO inclusion. You can spot the massive walls from afar. Inside, the steps leading to the prayer room are STEEP!

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We wish we could carry back these glorious structures.

Paro Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) – The Paro Taktsang is perched on the edge of a cliff. It is the abode of Guru Rinpoche. Legend has it that He arrived at this cliff on a flaming flying tigress & meditated.

The Tiger’s Nest hike is the most awaited part of our trips! It is, approximately, a five-hour return climb. There are no paved roads; only an almost vertical, muddy trail through beautiful pine forests, trees decorated with Spanish Moss and fluttering prayer flags. Watch out for the mule poop though!

You walk the muddy path uphill for 90% of the distance, then approximately 1000 steps down, pass next to a waterfall, & lastly 1000 steps up to the Paro Taktsang. Within minutes of starting, you want to give up. It is the most difficult hike we have ever come across. Vaishnodevi is child’s play in front of this.

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Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

There are moments when you want to return to the comfort of the hotel. But, if in a group, keep egging each other on. Try telling yourself – ‘The Tiger’s Nest is just around the corner’. Deep within us, we know we do not want to surrender; we want to push ourselves.

Most people return from the cafeteria which is two-thirds of the total distance. If you are not an active person, the Paro Taktsang hike is torturous. Once there, we gaze at Guru Rinpoche’s idol. He is fierce; inner peace is not really what we can ask Him for. Instead, we ask for strength to navigate our way down.

On our way back, when we are climbing the 1000 steps up, there are moments when we feel we will collapse. Our legs tremble. There is no choice but to keep going. Downhill has its own challenges. It is slippery; our knees have to bear our weight, acting as brakes, clutch, gear etc. But downhill is still easier (like always).

cliff, beauty, forest, blue pine, rhododendron
Hangs on a cliff above a beautiful forest of blue pine & rhododendrons

All along the way, fellow hikers wish us luck or encourage us. We meet people of varied nationalities-Singaporeans, Japanese, French, Americans. All other nationalities greet us except Indians. Not to say we greet them but does this imply that Indians are less courteous or just that we keep to ourselves?

We are thrilled to see our cab in the parking lot, & ecstatic to reach our hotel. We collapse into a hot bath, soaking our dead muscles & feeling the fatigue leave our bodies. A difficult climb but the sense of achievement at the end is worth it.

Food for thought – why are the holiest places in inaccessible regions? Or do inaccessible places become holy? The chicken & egg story!

construct
How, back then, did they manage to construct something like this in a place like that?

Ta Dzong – Every Dzong had a watchtower that would be at a vantage point to notice any threat to the Dzong. Two of these watchtowers have been converted to museums which are fantastic for history & mythology lovers. Floors after floors of artifacts, idols, pictures, etc.

A floor is dedicated to Thangka paintings depicting Buddhist deities. Descriptions are provided for each. If you have neither interest nor patience, do not come here. An Indian family crossed us while we were reading the descriptions (we read all!). A woman in the group said “isko padhega kaun?” (“Who will read this?”)

We wanted to retort but let it be. Not our problem if she wishes herself/ her family to remain ignorant!

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What used to keep a watchful eye, today serves as a museum.

Our Accommodation Pick – A little ahead of the city center, nestled next to the Paro river is a beautiful heritage hotel – Zhiwa Ling. It has a pleasing traditional architecture. Quite beautiful from the inside. There are beautiful carpets exhibited that can be purchased.

Choose from archery, meditation, spa & fitness, prayers, & souvenir shopping. The premises have fruit-laden trees; we can pluck & eat. The hotel has a kitchen garden which provides fruits & vegetables for the dishes. It has cottages a distance away from the main building. Spacious, well-lit, well equipped rooms with fantastic views.

The restaurant has a limited & expensive menu but breakfast spread is good. Room service menu is more VFM. Good service, courteous & warm staff. We spend hours exploring & clicking. You need not do much – roam around, dine & retire…

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Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

 

Will be back with Part III soon!

The Land of Happiness – Part I

Ever since Bhutan opened itself to the world, there has been a certain aura around it. Proximity to India and the much-acclaimed natural beauty are added incentives. We have now been to Bhutan twice – once during the monsoon and then during winter.

Before we get into the describing the magical kingdom, a few essentials:

Travel Agent – We realize online bookings are difficult. So, we opt for a travel agency. We go with Wow Bhutan Travels which we also highly recommend. We also come to understand that a guide & a driver are mandatory for tourists. Thus, you may consider this option for ease & peace 😊

civilization, city, town, bhutan, river
Like all civilizations, all the major cities & towns of Bhutan are situated alongside rivers

Visa –Indians do not need a visa but do need to carry either the passport or the voter identity card. Our travel agent gets an e-permit issued for us which entitles us to visit beyond Paro/ Thimphu. The e-permit saves us time at the Paro immigration too. Find more details here.

Flights – If you are flying, there are only two airlines to Bhutan – Druk Air & Bhutan Airlines. We recommend Druk Air – More reliable as it is the national carrier & has been operating for many years now.

Hotels– Hotels are available for every budget. Bhutanese have a high service orientation; even basic hotels are clean & comfortable.

Bhutan--2
Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

Accessibility – If you are a sedentary person, it will be good to start physical activity if you intend to visit Bhutan. There is a considerable amount of walking required. Even within structures, you will encounter stairs & inclines.

F&B – The most common dishes are Sewo Marp (steamed Punakha red rice), Josha Maaroo (minced chicken and peas), Ema Datsi (cheese chili), Doma (betel leaf), & mixed vegetable curry. Bhutanese like their food SPICY!

If you plan to have food outside your hotel, ensure you make it early; restaurants close by 9 PM.

Bhutan also has local whiskey and wine brands. Try them out.

Glossary of Terms – To ease your reading:

  1. Dzong – A fortress that now houses administrative offices & religious seats
  2. Lhakhang – A temple
  3. Chhu – A river
  4. Gonpa – A Buddhist monastery or temple

authentic, Bhutanese meal, Spinach, Pork, Rice
Our first authentic Bhutanese meal – Dry Fried Spinach, Kewa Datshi, Mixed Veg, Pork Ribs, Seekam Paa, Spinach Soup, and Sticky Rice. Delish is an understatement!

Weather – In the rains, the mountains are lush green. August is called the ‘summer-monsoon’ month; the maximum temperature is 25℃! In contrast, in our January visit, the land looks bereft of greenery but has a natural arid beauty. Be ready to shiver any time of the day or night.

Hot Stone Bath – Something that is a must-do in Bhutan is to get a hot stone bath. It is a traditional Bhutanese therapy, aimed at a number of medical benefits. Water, traditionally taken from a river, is heated using hot stones.

The stones come from the rivers/ streams too and are roasted over open fire/ kilns. You will lie down in a wooden tub filled with this hot water. Your host will adjust the temperature based on your comfort, adding more hot stones or cold water. S/ he will add medicinal herbs to the water to help you relax.

You can opt for both private & public experiences of the hot stone bath. If opting for a public experience, take a bathing suit with you. The temperature outside is freezing but we do not feel it as long as we are soaked in the bath.

 

With the facts out-of-the-way, how about insights?

Bhutan is for nature lovers. If you are one, take your backpack; start moving on the streets (or ‘Lam’s). If you are a driving buff, drive into Bhutan & keep driving within. You will not be disappointed.

Bhutan--4
Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

We speak with all the locals we come across. They tell us interesting facts about Buddhism & Bhutan. Did you know – according to Buddhism, India is considered the center of the earth? Is it because Buddha attained Nirvana here or did Buddha attain Nirvana here because it is the center of the earth? The hierarchy of the holiest places for Buddhism is India, Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan.

Something that surprises us is the harmony in which all living beings co-exist here. Pigeons are unafraid of cats; cats of dogs; dogs of cows; & all of these of human beings. What brings this symbiosis? Is it due to the respect that Buddhism propagates towards all living creatures? Animals are docile & quiet. We can understand human beings treating the animals well but animals also treating each other well? It is a mystery.

The overwhelming women employment stands out. The hospitality sector majorly has women, who also work late into the night. They are given the respect they deserve and treated as equals.

notice, sad, urban, spare
We notice, with sadness, that urbanization doesn’t spare anyone…

The cities & towns are seeking modernity while not discarding traditions. Thanks to the mandate on architecture conforming to the Bhutanese style, the country looks as if you have stepped back a century.

Bhutan is a cleaner, colder, healthier, prettier, and quieter version of India. With Tata, Eicher, Ashok Leyland, Bharat Petroleum, Indian Oil, Maruti cars, we feel we have not left India but still have left India.

 

Getting to the specifics of our visits, we have visited Bumthang, Paro, Phobjikha Valley, Punakha, Thimphu, Trongsa, & Wangdue. We hope to transport you to the Magical Kingdom through this blog, as well as provide a few helpful tips. We rank each of these places in our order of preference.

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Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

For each place, we further provide the attractions and our accommodation picks. Here we go!

 

1.    Phobjikha Valley

Phobjikha is a glacial valley in the center of Bhutan. It is famous for the Black-Necked Cranes that migrate here during winter from Tibet. We love how the valley shape refreshes our geography lessons. In January-end, the land is arid but has a haunting beauty.

The Phobjikha Valley is the only place where we encounter snow & bitter cold; our vehicles refuse to start in the morning. Compared to the rest of Bhutan, it comes across as undeveloped; but that just adds to its appeal.

January, shade, brown, green, dominate
In January, shades of brown & green dominate.

Visit the Phobjikha Valley during winter to see the graceful cranes & the crane festival, but even without the birds, you will love it. It has an idyllic setting; you can see the Sun rise behind the mountains, the village slowly coming to life, unpaved roads, greenery, calm & tranquil… There is nothing not to love.

If there is one place you should cover in Bhutan, it is this.

Black-Necked Cranes – They come in hundreds after spending their summer in Tibet. The Cranes arrive in September/ October & fly back in February/ March. If you are a bird watcher, you must visit the Phobjikha Valley.

crane, gangtey, perform, imitate, grace, move
There’s also a Crane Festival at the Gangtey Gompa, where performers imitate the graceful movements of the cranes.

The Bhutanese consider the Black-Necked Cranes (‘Birds of Heaven’) sacred. They are so particular about conservation that this entire area is devoid of overhead electric transmission lines.

The Black Necked Crane Visitor Center overlooks the protected area. This marshy land is the natural habitat of the Cranes. At the Center, you can use powerful binoculars to spot the birds. Tall & slender, they are no less than runway models!

Karma, a juvenile Black-Necked Crane who got injured and cannot fly again, is cared for at the Center.

karma, break, wing, rescue, dog, recover, friend, valley
Karma broke a wing & had to be rescued lest it be attacked & eaten by feral dogs. It is yet to recover fully, spending its days seeing its friends scattered around the valley.

Gangtey Gonpa – We love hearing the stories behind sacred sites. The fascinating bit about the Gonpa is that on arrival in the Phobjikha Valley, the Black-Necked Cranes circle it three times before settling down. They repeat the process while returning to Tibet.

To see this phenomenon, the footfall increases in September/ October. It almost seems like a pilgrimage but there can be a scientific explanation. The Gangtey Gonpa is the highest point in the Phobjikha Valley. The Black-Necked Cranes use it to do an aerial survey & choose the area they want to descend into.

The pilgrimage story sounds infinitely better, does it not?

architecture, colour
The architecture, the colors… Uff!

Our Accommodation Pick – At a walking distance from the Crane Center is the Gakiling Guest House. It commands a view of the Phobjikha Valley & has a good sunrise view. Do not expect a TV or any other mode of artificial entertainment.

The Valley, & so the guesthouse, are meant for people who want to immerse themselves in nature. The rooms & bathrooms are basic but adequately furnished, with ample heaters & blankets to keep off the cold. The balcony faces East; you can get sunrise shots.

You will find an old-school heater in the dining room, & hot stones to warm your hands. The F&B and service are decent.

evening, scene
Evening scenes

2.    Bumthang

Bumthang houses the highest number of ancient temples and sacred sites. But if, for a moment, we disregard the sites, the sights are enough to enthrall! It is a beautiful land; pine trees, open meadows, and animals grazing on the meadows remind one of Switzerland.

Bumthang, being fertile, you can find ample organic products here. Try visiting the breweries & cheese factories. It is one of the rare places in Bhutan with a domestic airport. We drive down from Trongsa; not a good decision as the east west highway is being broadened. But the drive is certainly scenic.

ascend, bumthang, drop, temperature, obvious
As we ascend towards Bumthang, the drop in temperature becomes all too obvious!

Jakar Dzong – If you go by the picturesqueness of Dzongs, this will be almost on top. ‘Jakar’ means ‘white bird’ which relates to its legend. When the building of this Dzong was being considered, a white bird flew high in the sky and settled on this piece of land, signaling that this was the location for the Dzong.

We love Bhutanese legends!

Jambay Lhakhang – The legend pertains to an ogress who was terrorizing the Himalayan regions. To pin her down, the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo built 108 temples on a single day. This is one of them! The Lhakhang has been repaired and rebuilt several times. It is a must – visit due to its antiquity.

You can see the elderly doing ‘parikrama’ of the small, unassuming Jambay Lhakhang. The Lhakhang & the neighboring areas are so silent that the only sound you will hear is of the giant prayer flags fluttering in the wind.

Kurjey Lhakhang – Compared to the other Lhakhangs we visit, this is large in size. It is considered as incredibly important as the main shrine houses the body imprint of Guru Rinpoche. A tall cypress tree beside the Lhakhang is regarded as His ‘walking stick’.

The aura in the entire temple complex is mystic when we visit. Dusk & chilly winds contribute to the mysticism. When you visit, keep your ears tuned for a wind chime outside the window of the main shrine. Its music will make you think someone is playing a flute. Do tell us if it does not amaze you!

jambay lhakhang, 108, temple, tibet, songtsen goenpo, day, ogress, earth, forever, love, legend
Jambay Lhakhang – one of the 108 temples built by the Tibetan King Songtsen Goenpo in 659 AD in a single day to pin down an ogress to earth forever. #WeLoveLegend

Mebar Tsho (Burning Lake) – According to legend, Terton Pema Lingpa (Treasure Discoverer) jumped into the lake with a butter lamp in his hand. He emerged holding a chest and a scroll of paper with the butter lamp still burning in his hand! The Lake is a sacred site.

The access to the Burning Lake involves a climb down uneven stone steps. Coming back up can be exhausting. Also, the boulders near the Lake are slippery; there have been accidents here. Be careful!

Our Accommodation Pick –We were originally booked for December but our trip got postponed to January. Despite remaining closed in January, the Jakar Village Lodge opened for a couple of days only for us, to honor our booking. That stole our hearts!

The Jakar Village Lodge is located a little away from the town. The approach is scary, but once inside, the hospitality will warm you. Rooms are well furnished with the deal maker being the heater in the bathroom! F&B are good.

You will have a good time sitting by the radiator & chatting with the friendly staff.

hotel, movie
When your hotel looks like it’s popped out of an old movie!

Back with Part II soon!

When Like & Dislike Co-existed

“Gar firdaus ae baruhe zamin ast, Hamin astu Hamin astu Hamin ast.” (If there is heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.) No reference to Kashmir can start without this quote. Yet, we are divided on our agreement with it.

There is no doubt that the Kashmir valleys are sights to behold. At the same time, are they the best there can be? Did Amir Khusrou travel the world before he bestowed Kashmir with this honor? Or even travel all of India?

No, don’t get us wrong. We are not doubting the beauty of Kashmir. We have seen it firsthand ourselves. But to call it paradise when you have worthy competitors is a trifle unfair, is it not?

gorgeous
Gulmarg – Such a gorgeous sight!

If we limit ourselves to India, we have found the barrenness of Ladakh, the rain-drenched hills of Himachal, the forts of Rajasthan, the sunsets of the Rann of Kutch, the backwaters of Kerala & many more to be equally beautiful, if not more.

Nonetheless, Kashmir captivates in a way that leaves an imprint on your mind for your entire life. We were fortunate enough to visit the beautiful cities & surroundings of Gulmarg, Pahalgam & Srinagar.

We were here around the Independence Day. Everybody cautioned us that it was an unsafe time to visit the valley. We felt this would be the safest due to heightened security; & we were right. While paramilitary & police presence is a common sight, on 15th August, there was a curfew-like situation which made our movement easy.

poem, Kashmir, memory
Gulmarg – All poems about Kashmir returned to memory.

Our first stop, Gulmarg, proved to be a pretty little town with the gondola being its claim to fame. A walking distance away from our hotel, Nedous, was the gondola station. The gondola took us to a staggering height.

Here, enthusiastic folks can try their hands at snow sports, while the lazy ones can sit & admire the scenery. On open meadows, we saw horses galloping. It brought back to mind the vivid descriptions that Enid Blyton would paint. Ah, the joys of childhood! Rolling green hills surrounded our cottage. Tall pine trees adorned these hills. We asked ourselves- who would say this is India? Looks more like Switzerland!

We believe what irked us about Kashmir was the attitude of most people & their self-defined rules. In Gulmarg & Pahalgam, we could visit the sightseeing spots only if we hired a local taxi. We were not allowed to use our Srinagar-registered taxi. What was the insecurity here? Why create this nuisance for travelers? Why differentiate yourself from your brethren? It is all Kashmir, is it not? You are all Kashmiris, are you not?

prettiness
Too much prettiness

On 15th, we moved from Gulmarg to Pahalgam, a distance of 145 kms. The roads were deserted and the only presence we saw was of security forces. At one check post, we were stopped by a group of men.

The leader, clad in a vest & khaki trousers, & with an automatic in hand, came up to our vehicle, peered inside & asked our driver if we were all tourists. Satisfied, he let us go. The driver told us he was a J&K policeman.

We were left wondering. He looked like a goon. He neither had a uniform on nor was he displaying an identification. How was a layperson to know who he was, & with what authority was he stopping us? We are afraid to say this but he may have been a militant.

cottage, Pahalgam, River Lidder
The area surrounding our cottage in Pahalgam – River Lidder providing the perfect way to spend a few days.

Our apprehensions abated once we reached the busy but picturesque town of Pahalgam. All the curfew we had witnessed on our route evaporated here. Even with a light rain, locals & tourists thronged the main street, rushing to eat, shop or just idle away time.

Sadly, our experiences at the three restaurants we tried –Trout Beat, Paradise & Heena – were quite poor. The worst was that the servers, chefs & managers did not seem to care that we did not enjoy their food or service.

We had thought Kashmiri hospitality would be something to write home about. We know a bunch of Kashmiris who have moved out of Kashmir, & they are warm & friendly people.

wisp, leaf
Wispy leaves

We had also only heard till date that Kashmiris refer to the people from rest of India as Hindustanis. We saw it firsthand there. In a restaurant in Pahalgam, a local picked up a fight with the restaurant manager, questioning him why were Hindustanis being served & Kashmiris were kept waiting! We wanted to say – brother, whether you like it or not, you are a Hindustani too.

Our bitterness evaporated with the sights that Pahalgam had in store. We stayed at Travelers’ Inn, a cottage which could be reached only by crossing a treacherous wooden bridge over an angry Lidder river.

On the land around the cottage, at any given point of time, five horses could be found grazing. Right in front of the cottage was the river, peaceful & crystal clear one moment, and angry & muddy the other.

Chashmashahi, purity, water
At Chashmashahi, pure water becomes impure just minutes after emerging from the ground.

Surrounding the cottage were mountains that started off green at the base and turned white as your eyes reached the peaks. It was one of those places where you could easily spend a few days just curled up in an armchair, in the sun, listening to the river, & reading a book.

The beautiful valleys of Aru & Betaab were nearby; so if you did feel like moving a limb, you could head here to soak in more natural beauty.

Another thing that annoyed us was not getting any product at MRP. It is no more a situation where Kashmir does not get tourists. It has an inflow all year round. It is perhaps because the rules that apply to the rest of India do not apply to Kashmir.

beauty, houseboat
We’d only heard about the beauty of the houseboats. When we saw it first hand, we didn’t want to leave…

Our last stop was Srinagar. We had an impression that Srinagar being the capital, it will be crowded and polluted with nothing to see. We could not have been more wrong. If you leave the heart of the city aside, the suburbs are beautiful & quiet.

The Dal Lake occupies a major part of the city and the promenade is a breeze to drive through. We opted to stay at Nigeen Lake, touted to be prettier & quieter. We had only heard about the beauty of houseboats. When we entered our Wangnoo Houseboat, we were so enamored we wished we could extend our stay. A plush setting with wooden interiors, the houseboat was fit for royalty. The canopied-bed was an added charm. The best part was the ‘home delivery’ of almost anything we wanted.

Srinagar offered Pari Mahal, Chashmashahi, and Hazrat BAL & Nishat Bagh to us. All those history lessons, all those story books, all those references in movies came back to us as we gaped unabashedly at each of these places.

kashmir, shikara
The symbol of Kashmir – the sleek shikaras

We finally found Kashmiri food that we loved. Ahdoos served us a wazwan that erased all the bad food experiences we had endured till then.

Our sojourn to the beautiful valley was short and sweet, with a little bit of spice thrown in. Our cameras managed to pick up colors we did not even know existed. We loved the kahwa even though the dishes did not excite us much. We brought back blackberries, firans, jewelry, kahwa, ponchos, saffron, walnuts and walnut tarts. Yum!

The natural beauty and the salubrious weather make it indeed a paradise, but when man interferes with paradise, it ceases to remain so…

Shout out to The Wanderbug for organizing this trip for us!

 

Images courtesy our friend & co-traveler, Tushar Belwal