SEEING BENARES IS DIFFERENT FROM EITHER HEARING OR READING ABOUT IT! *

Varanasi in 36 hours

We still prefer referring to Varanasi as Kashi. The word ‘Kashi’ conjures up images of ancient India. After all, didn’t Mark Twain say, Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”?

Ganga Aarti, Dashashwamedh Ghat
The iconic Ganga Aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat

We made our way to Varanasi on a January long weekend. We had to cancel our original train booking as it was running late. (Winter can be a little risky time to travel in north India, as flights & trains get disrupted due to fog.) We flew to Lal Bahadur Shastri International Airport located in Babatpur, 26 KMS from Varanasi.

The First 12 Hours

The highway from Babatpur to Varanasi was under construction then; so, it took us a while to get to our destination. But the construction has been completed in November 2018.

New Vishwanath Mandir, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India
Colors of Benares New Vishwanath Mandir

Our first evening in Varanasi was reserved for a boat ride on the River Ganges. It had been a childhood dream for us to take a boat on the Ganges & watch the Ghats. As the Sun set, we made our way from the Assi Ghat to the Dashashwamedh Ghat. The gentle swaying of the boat was accompanied by the boatman’s stories. The Ghats twinkled as we floated alongside. Our hearts could not possibly be fuller.

At sunset every day, the Dashashwamedh Ghat is lit up. Priests line up for a magnificent spectacle wherein the Mother River is worshiped. We felt blessed to be watching the iconic Ganga Aarti. The aarti time makes the Ghats (& the river in front) crowded; so, ensure you get here well in time. It was a heady feeling to be a part of faith at this scale. Watching the aarti from the boat was a surreal experience too!

From the Dashashwamedh Ghat, we moved inland through the maze of lanes that are famous for small temples, eateries, shops & what not. We did not have a set agenda but as our tummies were rumbling, we stopped at Bana Lassi. We tried a Plain Lassi & a Banana Lassi. Both were lip smacking good. The cafe had a bohemian touch with floor seating & painted walls – Bob Marley featured too. The place appeals to foreign tourists. Indian youngsters would feel at home here. We could imagine curling up with a book & trying out all their lassi flavors!

lassi, bana lassi, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
Our lassis at Bana Lassi

We roamed the Varanasi streets. The abundance of color on the roadside shops dazzled us. Look out for handicraft centers having figurines of gods & goddesses. You will be struck with the variety in color, material & size!

It was time to call it a night after some more yummy in our tummy. Varanasi is known to have one of the tastiest street foods. To validate this, we headed to Kashi Chaat Bhandaar. This place is so good that even a non – street food lover like us returned to eat more. A small, easy – to – miss shop with a handful of tables for seating. Most customers prefer to stand outside, on the road, to gobble up the goodies. The Golgappa, Gulab Jamun, Kulfi Falooda, Potato Tikki Chaat, & Samosa Chaat knocked us off. We may return to Varanasi just for this!

It was a cold January night. Chai would help us sleep better. (Well, there doesn’t really have to be a reason to have tea.) At the Assi Ghat, a kiosk called ‘Taste of Banaras‘ offered us delicious kulhad chai.

Happiness, kulhad chai, cold night, taste of benares, assi ghat, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
Happiness is… A kulhad chai on a cold night!

The Next 24 Hours

We had traveled over the Makar Sankranti long weekend. It’s considered auspicious to take a dip in the holy river, but, with the chill, we just bowed our heads. However, we did enjoy watching the kite flying.

We hit the road soon after. The best way to get around Varanasi is on foot or take a rickshaw. Our first stop was the Tulsi Manas Mandir. This is a newer temple. It is built on the site where the Ramayana was written. The gardens around the temple were clean & well-maintained.

tulsi manas mandir, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
Tulsi Manas Mandir. That blue!

The Sankat Mochan Mandir is dedicated to the monkey god, Lord Hanuman. As if on cue, there were a lot of monkeys roaming around. While they mind their own business, it’s a good idea not to engage with them. The temple itself is divine. It has a calming effect. It is, probably, the second popular temple in Varanasi, after the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir. There are lockers made outside the temple where it is mandatory to deposit all your belongings, including cellphones.

The Banaras Hindu University has beauty & history at one place! BHU, of course, is legendary. It was a pilgrimage of sorts to come here. The campus took our breath away with its cleanliness, greenery, & wide roads. This is one of the oldest universities in India, & you can almost feel the history when you stand in the campus.

What we liked about the new Vishwanath Mandir was that it was orderly & did not have the same chaos that other temples do. There were proper queues formed & the darshan was managed by officers. The temple is in the middle of the BHU campus & its own precincts are huge. This is a new temple & maintained quite well. Have a cold coffee with ice cream at its entrance.

new Vishwanath Mandir, shikhar, banaras hindu university, bhu, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
The Sun plays with the new Vishwanath Mandir shikhar.

The Nepali Mandir was on our must-see list. The temple is built as a replica of the Pashupatinath Mandir. It was a hidden gem as even many locals did not know about it! It was, thus, a little difficult to find. (P.S. It is on Lalita Ghat.) But once here, we fell in love with the woodwork.

The Nepali Mandir was constructed by one of the erstwhile Nepali kings. The temple is different from all the other temples in its architectural style, materials used etc. The terrace is a good place to view the river. (There’s an entrance fee for foreigners.)

It is a lifelong dream of many Hindus to visit the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir. Glad we got a chance! The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva, one of the principal deities in Hinduism. The Kashi Vishwanath Mandir is in a narrow gully with a heavy police presence.

Many ‘priests’ will approach you for a hassle-free ‘darshan‘. You can opt for them if you want to cut the queue & do not mind parting with some money. Better to fix the amount with them beforehand. Our ‘priest’ made us buy a few offerings, got a locker for us to deposit our stuff & to remove our shoes. He, indeed, took us through some other gate where the line was shorter.

Once inside, he took us to the various parts of the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir, made us worship & told us the significance of the temple. Beware: these priests have tie ups with the priests inside. So, they will make you complete a worship & ask you to donate large sums of money. It is OK to say no or give only what you want to give.

It was good to be able to visit the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir, but it would have been better if there was more discipline inside. Once out after the darshan, you can feast on ‘malaiyo‘ – a thick, creamy variant of curd, available in the gullies connecting the temple to the street. Yum! After all, every puja must be followed by pet – puja.

Kashi Vishwanath Mandir, malaiyo, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
No photos of the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir but chandan courtesy visit to the temple. Gorging on ‘malaiyo’…

(Disclaimer: The area around the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir has been cleaned of encroachments & been beautified.)

We ended our evening at the Assi Ghat. Cultural events keep happening here. The Ganga Aarti takes place at the Assi Ghat too. But as it is not as famous as the one on the Dashashwamedh Ghat, it is less crowded. We got front row seats to view this engrossing event. Morning after morning, evening after evening, it is only faith that makes this possible.

We had heard since childhood that the Banaras Ghats were not fit to step on. However, we did not encounter any such filth. All the Ghats have steps leading to the river. While hawkers & mendicants still throng these steps, there is no stinking dirt as such.

Banaras Ghats, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
The Banaras Ghats have a life of their own!

We loved Varanasi. Delightfully vibrant! Spiritual & all-encompassing!! We understand now why people choose to spend their last days here. Kashi stole our hearts & left us wanting for more. To (mis) quote Arnold Schwarzenegger, “We’ll be back”.

Accommodation

We wanted to stay near the Ghats but had a difficult time finding a suitable accommodation. Thank goodness we chanced upon Hotel Banaras Haveli! It is located at a walking distance from the Assi Ghat. We could spot the Ghat & the River Ganges from our room.

River Ganges, hotel rooftop, hotel banaras haveli, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
View of the River Ganges from the hotel rooftop

The room was comfortable with all required amenities available. Breakfast was served on the rooftop restaurant which was a great way to start the day on a winter morning. The hotel reception guys also arranged a boat for us for the evening boat ride. They also provided the airport pick & drop. All in all, a good choice!

With the Ghat being next door, & with rooms offering a view of the Ganges, we do recommend this hotel.

* Quote from The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna

Statue, Madan Mohan Malviya, Banaras Hindu University, BHU, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
Statue of the Late Madan Mohan Malviya at the Banaras Hindu University

A Girl Who Travels

I was nine when I went on my first school trip. More such school/ college trips happened when I was 15 & then 20. I traveled alone to attend my friends’ weddings in Kerala, Tamil Nadu & Uttar Pradesh when I was 25-26. Those same years, I visited Thailand & to Bordi with just my girlfriend.

I went on a solo trip to Australia when I was 27, to Gangtok when I was 32, & to Ladakh when 33. I visited Beijing with my girlfriends when I was 29, Bhagalpur with my mother when 31, & Goa with my niece at 32.

sightseeing, ibrahim shah tomb, bhagalpur, bihar, india
I go sightseeing at the Ibrahim Shah Tomb, Bhagalpur.

I roam around my city all the time for sightseeing, either alone or with my mother. Lastly, from the time I began my post-graduation till my early retirement from the corporate sector, I traveled alone for work.

Why do I list these? Because, I acknowledge that a female traveling, in India, is still a big deal. A female traveling solo, an even bigger one! An older male friend recently asked, “Why do women prefix their trips with ‘solo’? Why can’t they just say that they are going on a trip? Like men do!”

I had not come across this question earlier, but the answer hit me in a split second. It was because every time I have mentioned – ‘I am going on a trip.’, the first response is a question – ‘with whom?’ I guess so is the case with most girls, which makes us want to #SoloTrip.

nathu la, furry, dog, sikkim, india
On the way to Nathu La (Sikkim), I met this brat. Like it happens with all furry creatures, I befriended this pocket sized terror…

Women are brought up to believe that the world is a dangerous place. That they are better off within the confines of their homes, or only when accompanied by men. I have rebelled against this for as long as I remember. The world is only as bad or as good as we want it to be.

In all my solo travels, I have been treated with curiosity (sure) but also with awe & respect. Despite being an introvert, I have got into more conversations with strangers when traveling alone, than when in company. I have felt freer on my journeys alone. More introspective. More at peace!

And I wish more girls experience these moments of exhilaration for themselves.

sightseeing, Beijing
Fresh & raring to go sightseeing in Beijing

P.S. I thank my parents for instilling this independent spirit from an early age. They never stopped me from undertaking any kind of travel. Also, my spouse who encourages (not ‘allows’) me to travel solo every now & then.

A Walk On The Rajpath

Winter is a great time to go sightseeing in Delhi. Before winter 2019 begins, we felt we must finish blogging about our winter 2018 sightseeing!

To begin, we post about Rajpath today. Ideally, we should come to the most important road in India to see the Republic Day Parade. But, thanks to our apprehension of crowds, we’re better off watching it on the TV, at home… Apart from 26 January, we can come here any day!

Ever since we’ve discovered birding, we notice far more birds now.

With time, we’re managing to identify birds too. Nature will be our salvation…

A glimpse of the Rashtrapati Bhavan from the outside in 2018. The flag on top means the President of India is in the house… We aimed to walk from the gates of the Rashtrapati Bhavan to the India Gate, covering the stretch of Rajpath that’s a familiar sight, thanks to the Republic Day Parade!

Raisina Hill houses India’s most important government buildings. Consequently, it’s often used as an equivalent for the Government of India…

While we popularly know these as North Block & South Block, together they’re known as the Secretariat Building.

Sandstone jaalis & carved elephant heads give the renaissance dome an Indian touch. Also note the chhatris… This is where the Government of India is housed! Situated on the Raisina Hill, the North & South Blocks are symmetrical buildings.

They sit on opposite sides of the Rajpath axis & flank the Rashtrapati Bhavan… It’s well-known that Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens was responsible for town planning & (what’s now) Rashtrapati Bhavan construction!

His second-in-command, Herbert Baker, is forgotten, even though he was the one to design the Secretariat Building, New Delhi.

The term ‘Raisina Hill’ was coined after land was acquired from 300 local village families.

Relations between Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens & Baker deteriorated. The hill in front of the Rashtrapati Bhavan obscured the view of the Rajpath & the India Gate… Only the Rashtrapati Bhavan dome was visible from far away!

Sardar Bahadur Sir Sobha Singh was an Indian civil contractor, prominent builder & real estate developer.

President’s Estate, South Block, India Gate, Rashtrapati Bhavan & Vijay Chowk – Sir Sobha Singh has left behind a rich legacy. Wonder if Sobha Realty is related to the man…

Herbert Baker used the Indo-Saracenic Revival architecture to design the Secretariat Building. Love how Indian touches were added to it…

As we began walking down Rajpath, towards the India Gate, we looked back at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

The largest residence that any head of state in the world has, the President of India has it.

As we stepped down from the Raisina Hill, on either side of the Rajpath were fountains set in gardens.

The ceremonial boulevard runs not just till the India Gate, but till the Dhyan Chand National Stadium.

The Sansad Bhavan is the house of the Parliament of India, containing the Lok Sabha & the Rajya Sabha.

Salute to the temple of democracy.

The Rajpath is lined on both sides by huge lawns, & rows of trees.

We remember a time when these lawns used to be abuzz with activity. You could find every kind of street hawker selling her/ his wares here… It’s been curtailed now! Areas have been designated where hawkers can pitch their goods.

The Rajpath is also used for key Indian political leaders’ funeral processions.
We’ve to give it to the Delhi horticulture department.

It does a great job of maintaining the greens, & of ushering in color.

Finally, the India Gate.

The India Gate was designed by Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens. Its architecture is quite like the Arch of Constantine, the Arc de Triomphe, & the Gateway of India… On 10 February 1921, the Duke of Connaught laid the foundation stone of the India Gate!

Our symmetry obsession is satisfied, seeing the neatly stacked rows of plants, with not even one out of place.
Flags of the Indian Armed Forces at the India Gate
The India Gate has become a symbol for India.

The India Gate is also a popular spot for civil society protests. This war memorial evokes emotions – the senselessness of war, & yet, a passion for the nation…

No walk is complete without satisfying grub in the end.

Penne A la Vodka at The Immigrant Cafe 2.0
Kadhi Chaawal Arancini at The Immigrant Cafe 2.0

The Arancini was an interesting take on the humble kadhi chawal.

With our hearts & tummies full, we plotted our next heritage outing.

A Day on A Boat

To end our Bali blog posts series (see posts 1, 2 & 3), what can be better than to write of the day we spent on a boat, out in the ocean? It’s an experience we highly recommend. When your bones are tired from visiting temple after temple, or from partying too hard, a day sunning yourself on the boat is just what the doctor ordered.

Blue, green, aquamarine
Blue, green, aquamarine…

The Facts

We knew beforehand that we wanted to spend a day just chilling. After all, it’s not everyday we’re privy to turquoise waters. So, we scoured the internet for boat/ yacht day trip service providers.

Unfortunately, many of them proved to be exorbitant. But then we came across Indo Charters (Pulau Luxury Charters) which fit into our budget. We started interacting with Jesse on email, who helped us with all the information.

view, nusa lembongan
What we bring back with us are these views…

All charters of Pulau Luxury are private. This means the vessel & accompanying crew are privately yours. So, if you’re a big group, you can be assured of an exclusive, wonderful time.

Or, even if you’re a couple, (& have the buck to spend), you can enjoy a day living the life of a millionaire.

Pulau Luxury Charters has two boats – Haruku & Rhino 1. We opted for the Rhino 1. The total cost we incurred for eight adults was USD 1,165. The cost included food (snacks, fruits, lunch), beverages (soft drinks, water, beer, champagne, wine), snorkel equipment, raft, fishing equipment, towels, cruising permits, boat fuel, certified skipper & crew, vessel to shore tenders, life jackets, insurance, & return villa transfer in a private air-conditioned vehicle. We could also bring our own F&B.

bliss
Bliss…

The Experience

We were picked up at 8 AM from our villa in an air-conditioned vehicle. We were at the Serangan Harbor for a 9 AM start.

The Rhino 1 turned out to be a beautiful boat. It’d individual undercover cushioned banquette style seating down the sides of the cabin, & an open deck at the bow & rear. The Rhino 1 also had a rooftop level for lazing in the sun, & a freshwater shower & electric flush toilet. Further, it’d a great on-board sound system for music. The Rhino 1 was comfortable for a day out.

We’re ready to roll!

As we set sail, we enjoyed light snacks, tropical fruits, & chilled beverages on-board. We relaxed listening to music. We enjoyed the scenery. We did some fishing. Once moored, we snorkeled in a bay with clear water. We lolled about on the inflatable raft.

We sailed over to the island of Lembongan. We had lunch at Villa Wayan Restaurant where we enjoyed fresh barbecued food. We arrived back to the harbor in Bali at 5 PM & were transferred to our villa.

Both the crew members – Nanik & Shiby – ensured we’d a good time & took care of us. However, we did miss the champagne & the wine; these weren’t on-board.

coral, fish
We halt to view coral & fish.

What & Where We Loved Eating In Bali

How can travel be complete without food? Now that you know where to stay in Bali, & what to see/ do, it’s time for the restaurants we loved. As before, the below eateries are tried & tested!

Breeze at The Samaya Seminyak

Breeze, ambience, overpower, sense
Not many pics of Breeze as the ambience overpowered our senses…

The Samaya is a resort in Seminyak. Breeze is its beach side restaurant overlooking the Petitenget Beach. The beachfront setting means lunch with a view/ dinner with a breeze.

We’d dinner here. Soft fairy lights lit up the perimeter of the restaurant while tealights at the table ensured we could see our visually – appealing dishes too. Plus, our meal was accompanied by the sound of the waves!

We experimented with a variety of meat dishes. All turned out to be delicious, specially the Bebek Goreng (a classic Balinese ceremonial dish).

Our server was courteous & helpful. A great meal in a nutshell! Even if you’re not staying here, Breeze is worth visiting for a meal.

D’Joglo Beach Bar & Restaurant

D’Joglo Beach Bar is located on the Double Six Beach in the Seminyak – Kuta area. After chilling at the Double Six Beach, we were casually walking around when we noticed this restaurant, & thought of giving it a try for lunch.

nourishment
All that walking on the beach & sunning ourselves made us seek nourishment.

D’Joglo has both indoor & outdoor seating. We sat inside as it was quite warm. It’d a decently-functioning WiFi.

The highlight of our time here was the melee of colorful drinks that arrived at our table. Bali Beauty, Lime Crushed, Long Island Iced Tea, Strawberry Crushed, Tequila Sunrise, & Watermelon Crushed made for a pretty picture.

The food was scrumptious too. Our mouths are watering thinking of Ayam Sambal Matah, Grilled Prawn, & Grilled Snapper. Certainly, a place to have a good time.

The ocean a stone's throw away
The ocean a stone’s throw away

Caution – D’Joglo may not accept cards/ dollars.

Jimbaran Bay Seafood

Jimbaran Bay is a cluster of restaurants situated right on the white sand beach. You eat your meal looking out to the Indian Ocean.

It’s a haven for seafood lovers. As you enter any of the restaurants, you notice counters stocking fresh fish & seafood. You can choose which exact fish/ seafood you want prepared for you. Once you select, the fresh catch is prepared on a live counter, typically grilled. while waiting for your fish is ready be served.

Barakuda, Baronang, Garupa, King River Prawn, Mubble, Sea Prawn, Super Crab are just a few of the kinds of sea food you can choose from.

Caution:

  1. Don’t expect anything else on the menu apart from seafood.
  2. The service is kind of slow; so, ensure you are well spaced on time.
  3. Vegetarians & those who don’t fancy seafood can get queasy here.

La Favela

La Favela is located in the busy Seminyak area. We came here to celebrate a friend’s birthday. It was also our last night in Bali. Glad we chose this bar as it made our night memorable.

Mediterranean
Mediterranean – style

La Favela has really cool interiors, in line with its Mediterranean theme. Even though we were a big group, we got a table readily, & had a good time with the F&B. The staff ensured we were in good spirits. A good thing is – you don’t need to be in a defined dress code here. Just walk in & enjoy!

Made’s Warung

A ‘warung’ is a small family-owned café/ restaurant. Made’s Warung is one of the older restaurants in Bali. It has outlets spread across the island but our experience is of the Ngurah Rai one.

We’d breakfast here before boarding our flight. It serves both Balinese & International cuisines. The food was scrumptious, specially the Cheese Omelet.

The service was efficient & quick. This is all the more critical when you’ve a flight to catch. We were a large group but the servers managed us effortlessly.

Revolver Espresso

cinnamon roll
A cinnamon roll to-die-for!

Revolver has got its basics right – amazing atmosphere, delectable food, exceptional service, & good coffee.

The café is tucked away in a lane off the main Seminyak street. The look & feel will remind you of a bar, rather than a café. But don’t let that fool you. Its coffee (& coffee – based drinks) is fantastic. Of course, to keep up with the times, it now does transform into a bar post 6 PM.

We were here on our last evening for a round of coffee. Its Cinnamon Roll was absolutely melt-in-mouth. The ambience is what you’ll call kitschy! Our server was friendly & ensured we’d a good time. Cool place!

sisterfields
upside-down

Sisterfields

Sisterfields, in Seminyak, is a place where you can eat at any time of the day in a completely relaxed, café – style setting.

We were here for breakfast on our last morning. The place was teeming with patrons. & we soon realized why. The beverages were refreshing. Still remembering the Strawberry Milkshake… The food was appetizing too – Eggs Your Way, Omelette, Tacos etc. – sigh!

breakfast, Seminyak
The last breakfast at a famous breakfast spot in Seminyak

The place was buzzing with activity. So good!

Caution:

  1. You may have to wait for a table.
  2. Service may be slow due to heavy footfall.
local cuisine, the paon
There’s something about local cuisines.

The Paon

The Paon seemed like an unassuming restaurant on the main Ubud street. We walked in with growling tummies & had a good time here trying different dishes. Luckily, there weren’t too many other patrons which meant we got great service.

The Chicken Mie Goreng was yummy. Crispy Hash Brown, Grilled King Prawn, & Pelalah were good too.

ultimo
Cheers!

Ultimo

A large group of us were here for dinner on our first night in Bali. While the ambience was kept soft & soothing, the buzz from the patrons overpowered it. For us, it was a testimony of Ultimo being good. The service was good.

We have to mention Bruschetta Bread, Panacota, & Ultimo Pizza – these were absolutely tasty.

food, Orson Welles
“Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.” ― Orson Welles

Now that you know where to stay, what to see, & what/ where to eat, do you want to know how we spent a day on a yacht in Bali? Stay tuned!

What We Loved Seeing In Bali

We hope Bali Basics turned out to be helpful to you. Now that you’ve figured out where you want to stay on your Bali holiday, we help you with the sights we saw in Bali & loved. The attractions below are tried & tested, & advocated (& not mentioned in any order of preference)!

Beaches…

morning, chill, kayu aya beach
Morning spent chilling at the Kayu Aya Beach

Bali is, of course, all about beaches. So, it doesn’t really make sense for us to get into these. Nonetheless, we visited the Double Six, the Kayu Aya, & the Nusa Dua beaches.

Double Six Beach

In Seminyak, as a subset of the Seminyak Beach, is the Double Six Beach. It is a relaxed one offering umbrella rentals & a chill ambiance. Perfect for just sitting & watching the activity happening around you & the Indian Ocean. The water wasn’t too cold when we visited; so, one could opt for a dip.

sunset, double six beach
A riveting sunset at the Double Six Beach

Sunset is when the crowds start thronging in. Being on the west coast, the Double Six Beach offers stunning sunset views. The Beach is also home to La Plancha Bali, the beach bar that’s famous for its colorful parasols & beach bags.

Kayu Aya Beach

Kayu Aya Beach is a part of the Seminyak Beach. It is located behind Ku De Ta.

blue sky, Kayu Aya Beach
A blue sky at the Kayu Aya Beach

The beach is peaceful with quiet activities available like body art & kite-flying. Or you can simply carry your book & relax. The ocean was fairly calm when we visited; a few splashed around in the water. There are a few restaurants nearby if hunger strikes.

However, at one spot, we saw of stream of black water coming from inland & getting released into the sea. Not good! We must keep our beaches & oceans squeaky clean.

Nusa Dua Beach

cheer, kite seller, Nusa Dua Beach
A cheerful kite seller at the Nusa Dua Beach

The Nusa Dua Beach is one of the public beaches in Nusa Dua.  The general public can access this beach to try their hand at water sports. However, we found the prices to be expensive here. (Goa has better prices!) Having said that, the water sports facilities (changing rooms, toilets, waiting areas etc.) are well-developed at the Nusa Dua Beach.

Being on the east coast, you can get magical sunrise views.

Heritage

Silver jewelry, UC Silver
Silver jewelry being made at UC Silver

Our favorite bit! Bali is a treasure trove for those inclined towards culture, heritage & history. Dance, metalworking, & painting are just a few of its mainstays. Bali has had a Hindu influence from ancient times, which reflects in the scores of temples found on the island. In fact, Bali is called the island of a thousand temples.

Puri Saren Agung

The Puri Saren Agung is better known as the Ubud Palace. The palace is in the heart of Ubud, with restaurants all around it. The road that it is located on is busy; so, note that you will not get a parking spot here.

puri saren agung
Ceremonial Chairs at the Puri Saren Agung

The Puri Saren Agung is the residence of the royal family of Ubud. The architecture is preserved well & is worth gaping at. The rust & grey-colored buildings are set amidst a charming garden.

Entry is free; so, you can go in & click photos. However, there is a lack of printed information in the Palace, making it a guesswork for sightseers.

Satria Gatotkaca Statue

Ghatotkach Temple, Himachal Pradesh, India
Ghatotkach Temple in Himachal Pradesh, India

You can’t miss this statue. You’ll cross it once you’re on your way from the airport to your accommodation in Kuta/ Seminyak. The statue depicts Gatotkaca, the courageous son of Bheema (one of the Pandavas in the Mahabharata, the Hindu epic) & Hidimbi (a man eater who wanted to eat Bheema but, instead, fell in love with him).

Gatotkaca was powerful & had magical powers. He not only helped the Pandavas win the Kurukshetra war in the Mahabharata, but also sacrificed himself as a victim of Karna’s deadly weapon that could be used only once (which Karna was saving for Arjuna, Gatotkach’s uncle). Hence, he is regarded with respect in Hinduism.

(Bonus – You can find a Gatotkaca Temple & a Hidimbi Temple (both perhaps the only ones) in Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India.)

pura tanah lot
Pura Tanah Lot

Pura Tanah Lot

Pura Tanah Lot is located on a rock formation called Tanah Lot. Tanah Lot itself means ‘ land in the sea ’ in Balinese. True to its name, the rock formation juts out into the sea, with azure water all around.

The Tanah Lot Temple is ancient & a popular pilgrimage spot. The Temple is a 16th C marvel, dedicated to Balinese sea gods (along with Hinduism influence). Thanks to the setting, it has become a cultural & photography destination as well.

Indian Ocean, Pura Tanah Lot,
The Indian Ocean that the Pura Tanah Lot overlooks

The Pura Tanah Lot is accessible during low tide when you can simply walk till it. The main temple is out of bounds for tourists but a small cave with ‘ holy water ‘ is accessible. The priests will expect you to donate & will give you a nasty look if you don’t.

There is another cave with a ‘holy snake’. Legend has it that venomous sea snakes guarded the Tanah Lot Temple from evil spirits. You again need to make a donation to see & touch the ‘holy snake’.

During a high tide, the Temple becomes inaccessible. Then, the Pura Penyawang, an onshore temple is used as an alternative. Don’t forget to visit the Pura Batu Bolong, a temple built on a rock formation, similar to the Pura Tanah Lot.

Pura Batu Bolong
Pura Batu Bolong

As you walk down to the Tanah Lot Temple, you will cross Balinese souvenir shops & restaurants. We’d some refreshing coconut water at one of the many stalls.

The Temple is located in Beraban in Tabanan Regency.

Pura Luhur Uluwatu

Sunset, Pura Luhur Uluwatu
Sunset at the Pura Luhur Uluwatu

Pura Luhur Uluwatu, another sea temple, is located on a cliff on the Indian Ocean, in Pecatu (Badung Regency). In Balinese, ulu means ‘ tip ’ & watu is ‘rock’. True to its name, the Uluwatu Temple is erected on the tip of a rock. The Temple construction year is disputed, but goes as far back as the 10th C.

It is dedicated to Lord Siva, one of the Holy Trinity of Hinduism. Legend has it that the Pura Luhur Uluwatu guards Bali from evil sea spirits. The Uluwatu Temple is accessible through a serpentine pathway. Sightseers end up taking an hour or more to reach the Temple as they can’t help halting at the numerous lookout points along the way.

It is surrounded by a forest with monkeys (who are believed to guard the Pura Luhur Uluwatu against negative influences). The Uluwatu Temple is scenic & a magnificent sunset spot. The Sun dipping into the ocean is something you will remember for years. Thanks to the setting, the Temple has become a splendid photography destination.

sunset, uluwatu temple
Sunsets to die for at the Uluwatu Temple

You need to cover your legs while visiting it. Sarongs & sashes are available at the entrance. If you’re wearing pants, you don’t need a sarong; a sash will do.

Kecak & Fire Dance

A Kecak & Fire Dance is performed every evening at a stage adjacent to the Pura Luhur Uluwatu, lasting an hour. The iconic Fire Dance was a high point of our trip. Against the sunset backdrop, the dance is magical. Dancers enact episodes from the Hindu epic, Ramayana. The background score is provided not by any instrument, but by the ‘chak’ sounds emanated by the performers.

dancer, Kecak & Fire Dance, Lord Hanuman
A dancer in the Kecak & Fire Dance plays Lord Hanuman

We loved the Kecak & Fire Dance from beginning till end. The chanting has stayed with us. The Ramayana episodes were enacted well. Seeing one of our epics beautifully enacted stole our hearts. Definitely recommended!

Go early if you want to see both the Pura Luhur Uluwatu & the Fire Dance. Or, even to get a good seat. Else, like us, you would have to sit on the floor & then have the inflamed husk coming toward you. Also, keep following the story in the pamphlet, else you’ll be lost if you don’t know the Ramayana.

Nature

Gunung Batur
Gunung Batur

At the cost of inviting sniggers, we state that Bali is a lot like India. That is, it’s something for everyone. (Of course, better weather. Of course, fewer people. Of course, smaller distances.) If you’re done with lounging on the beaches, or tired of visiting temples, you still have the option of soaking in nature.

Cantik Agriculture

We knew Bali was famous for its coffee. So, when we got a chance to taste different kinds of coffee, we jumped at it. Cantik Agriculture is a cooperative of local farmers. The coffee bean is processed traditionally. We sampled more than 10 types with each having a strikingly different flavor than the other. The tasting helped us decide which ones we wanted to buy.

luwak civet
A Luwak Civet Image courtesy: Our friend Tushar Belwal

We sampled the popular Coffee Luwak, understood the process by which it’s made & saw the Luwak Civet from whom this coffee comes. (At that point of time, we were unaware of the probable conditions the Luwak Civet is kept in. Knowing better now, we would discourage our readers from opting for the Coffee Luwak. Or, at least find a place where Coffee Luwak is processed ethically.)

The farm had spices of different kinds & a shop where you can buy all their produce. It was on the expensive side but then, it’s once-in-a-lifetime!

Gunung Batur

Mount Batur, dusk
Mount Batur at dusk

Gunung Batur (also called Kintamani volcano) is an active volcano located in Bangli Regency. We visited the volcano at the time of sunset. The mist was settling in slowly, making the picture look surreal.

It’s famous for its sunrise trek, but we chose not to do it. The feedback we’d got was ‘the trek’s difficult’. But even from afar, the Gunung Batur looks spectacular. & who gets to see a volcano everyday anyway?

It got chilly at Mount Batur when we visited in the evening; so, do carry something warm.

Danau Batur
Danau Batur

Danau Batur

Adjacent to the Gunung Batur is the Danau Batur. The Lake Batur is a crater lake, located along the Ring of Fire of volcanic activity. The Lake is considered sacred by the Balinese. It is possible can take a winding road down to the shore.

Danau Batur is a striking color, no matter what time of the day you see it at. As you stand at any of the lookout points, the crisp mountain air & the majestic, crescent-shaped Lake Batur will stun you.

Mandala Suci Wenara Wana
Outside the Mandala Suci Wenara Wana

Mandala Suci Wenara Wana

Mandala Suci Wenara Wana is a natural habitat of the Balinese Long-Tailed Monkey. The Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary is a blessed site located in Ubud. We can summarize the Monkey Forest Ubud in one word – enchanting!

It was love at first sight for us – lots of greenery & Long-Tailed Monkeys (also called macaques). The Monkeys usually mind their own business but like they say for every living thing – don’t provoke them. The Forest is beautiful. The moss-covered ruins are lovely. The ruins are of Hindu temples (which are actually still in use).

Temple, Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary
Temple inside the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary

While the Sanctuary is well preserved thanks to a community-based management program, signboards displaying the history & significance of the ruins will be beneficial for sightseers.

In the next post, we’ll bring you a few of our favorite places to drink/ eat in Bali. Till then, happy sightseeing!

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 Kayu Aya 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.

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.

maharaja suite, sheesh mahal, orchha, madhya pradesh, india, indulge
The Maharaja Suite – Justified indulgence, isn’t it?
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Private sit-out of the Maharaja Suite
bathroom, sheesh mahal, orchha, madhya pradesh, india
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

evening, light, sound, show, light and sound show, orchha fort, orchha
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.
beautiful, palace, jahangir mahal, orchha fort, orchha
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

ceiling, wall, fresco, rani mahal, orchha fort, orchha
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.

preserve, fresco, rani mahal, orchha fort, orchha
The state of preservation of the frescoes is worth seeing.

Chaturbhuj Mandir

chaturbhuj mandir, temple, deity, orchha, madhya pradesh
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.
stare, ruins, orchha, madhya pradesh, india
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.

wall, decorate, mural, mythology, bundelkhand history, orchha, madhya pradesh
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?
fresco, laxmi narayan mandir, orchha, madhya pradesh
Okay if not FT, at least a part-time job!
bundela, history, orchha, madhya pradesh, laxmi narayan mandir
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

outstanding, monument, garden, charm, chhatri, orchha, madhya pradesh
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.

sunset, chhatri, orchha, madhya pradesh
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.

sun, cenotaph, betwa, orchha, madhya pradesh
This is what we witnessed – Sun disappearing behind the Cenotaphs…

Sunset at the Betwa River

tourist, local, congregate, bridge, evening, sight, betwa, orchha, madhya pradesh
Tourists & locals alike congregate on the bridge every evening to soak in the sight…
sun, sunset, warm, glow, river, betwa, shimmer, lover, goodbye, chhatri, orchha, madhya pradesh
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
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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!
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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Tips:

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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…

 

merge, palm frond, rocks, sea, stand out, architecture, splendor, church, school, temple
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.

Bhutan Budha-024628
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.

Bhutan-045389
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.

mankind, ultimate, doom, forest fire, approach, trongsa
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…

structure, landscape, bhutan, click
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.

bhutan, nature, serious
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!

glory, structure
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!

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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!

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