Category Archives: Asia

The magic of Bhutan – Savitha Subramaniam, The Wanderers

Valleys of Bhutan

Albeit a little late to sit down and pen my thoughts about Bhutan, I had no one else to blame but me – simply because Bhutan, the land of the Thunder Dragons still had ‘that’ effect – which had me at loss for adjectives about the place. That, and ofcourse, the post vacation hangover – which translates into getting back into the routine.

 

But as I sit down to pen this blog post, my mind is flooded with the images of Bhutan – The land of the Thunder Dragon; The country which measures the happiness of its citizens ; One of the claimants to the title- Shangri-la! Anyone who visits this tiny Himalayan kingdom nestled between the two Asian giants (India and China) would be blown away by its beauty, culture and serenity.

 

As someone who believes that travel is an experience, a journey and not just visa stampings I take a lot of efforts to plan my vacations. It’s important that the travel is enjoyable and appealing to the varied tastes of my husband, my two kids and myself. Vacations and destinations have always been very close to my heart – simply because I feel that it is escapism from the normal rigours and the highlight should be fun filled family time.

 

And, lo behold came Wanderers – who understand the kind of traveller you are, your expectations, budgets and adds their own expert advice to it. And in this case, I had Alifiya – my little vacation genie, if I could call her that! With the Wanderers, the destination holds a close thread to their heart. And the magic of the country begins from the moment they sit across and bring the country alive with their words.

 

Bhutan is awe inspiring from the moment you start flying over the Himalayas and land into a breathtaking valley. I felt like applauding the pilot for that amazing flight. The itinerary was not too rigid and we were ready to put our feet up and enjoy.

Butter paint - Taktsang Monastery

Due to weather vagaries we couldn’t do the hike to Taktsang monastery. But the trips to Thimphu, Punakha, Wangdue, Bumthang and Trongsa exposed us to the beauty of this nation and their culture. And the view of Taktsang left us in awe! The hypnotic quality that the place possesses is something that the guide books could never do justice.

And of course, we had a fantastic guide and a driver – which made the trip all the more pleasurable. Extremely helpful and resourceful, they knew the ins and outs of the land and little quaint details which I’ve believed is very important to making your trip memorable. Excellent hotels and I would recommend the Kyichu properties which definitely gets thumbs up from us! Indian vegetarian food is available at most good hotels and resorts. And what helps is also the fact that the Bhutanese have lot of regards for Indians and it feels nice to see their warm hospitality.

 

Travel books, magazines, blogs and websites don’t do justice to any place. Because, if you have to feel the magic of the land, you need to pack your bags and head out. Let the country envelop you in its folds…let the magic of the monasteries and the snow capped mountains mesmerise you.

 

Simply put – you must visit the country to enjoy it.
Bhutan is a jewel in our neighbourhood. You don’t need a Visa to travel to Bhutan from India.  Between penning my thoughts and going back to the captured images, I’m promoting Bhutan as a destination to all my friends. And if a tailor-made trip is what you have in mind, then the Wanderers is your destination.


Top Eight Things to do in Dubai

Top Eight Things to do in Dubai

Now this is one city that sure knows how to hit the headlines. The magical lure that the city has leaves us asking for more. Futuristic, surreal, yet holding an old world charm – there’s so much do…so much to see…so much to absorb…

1. Shopping Paradise

Ask a shopaholic and the Dubai Shopping Festival is a page out of his/her fantasy. Year after year, the festival just seems to get on a better footing. And that leaves me intrigued. Sure, the shops are familiar and no cheaper, but there’s just something about shopping in Dubai which beats any other country – the shopping experience is built on a platform of unrestrained fantasy, offering surreal attractions to lure you (and your credit card) in. Just to give you a flavor, The Souk Madinat inside the Madinat Jumeirah Hotelboasts its own waterway to transfer people from its shops, bars and restaurants to the neighboring clutch of hotels or The Mall of the Emirates which has a bona fide ski slope.

Dune Bashing with Hatta desert trip: Most tourists do the typical afternoon dune bashing at the overcrowded dunes followed by dinner and belly dancing. This can be quite a tourist trap, though first timers seem to enjoy this. Personally, I would recommend that you go to Hatta, one hour’s drive from Dubai City where the ancient fortress village of Hatta is located. It is the home of the Hatta Fort Hotel, Dubai’s only mountain resort complex. The drive is as fascinating as the destination itself, taking the visitor through burnished sand dunes and mountains varied in colour. Tours cover the recently renovated old fort and a trip through Wadi Hatta with its lush greenery and diverse wildlife. The village, which is more than 200 years old, and Juma Mosque, which stands amid palm groves, are other tourist attractions. And if you are looking for a ‘out of the world’ desert safari, then head out to Najwa – albeit a bit more expensive, but the spectacular desert scenes and thin crowd promise you a journey of a lifetime.

The Gold Souk

Your trip to Dubai is incomplete without a jaunt to the famed Gold Souk. It doesn’t matter if you want to buy, but a walk into the souk is a must do. Simply to soak in the gold, diamonds, platinums and the semi precious laden stores.

The Burj al Arab

In a mood to splurge, then stay the Burj al Arab. It has been consistently voted as the world’s most luxurious hotel and one of the most photographed man made structures in the world. It’s the world’s tallest hotel, and probably it’s least subtle — gold-leaf is applied as liberally as undercoat, there’s a fleet of white Rolls Royces on the forecourt and dancing fountains in the foyer…but then, you didn’t come to Dubai looking for understatement! And if you want to just want to experience the flavor of the place, opt for a quiet dinner at their restaurant Al Muntaha?

 

Discover Dubai

The drive towards future has transformed the tiny little fishing village, but then a visit to the Bastakia Quarter has another story to tell – a little corner of Dubai which has managed to hold on to its old world charm. This quarter squeezes itself between the Dubai Creek and the buzzing Bur Dubai district – a mini maze of wind-towered buildings, a clutch of which have been transformed into art galleries and cafés. Discover the textiles souks – where you’ll find magnificent bolts of fabric. The old world charm of the quarter is mesmeric. And there’s nothing better than discovering this on foot.

Atlantis Dubai’s waterpark has everything from a Dolphin Bay where you can interact with dolphins to Aquaventure, a 42-acre area with slides, rapids, an area for kids, and a beach. If diving is of interest to you, whether you are experienced or a first-time participator, take advantage of the Atlantis Dive Centre and head to any number of dive sites off the coast of Dubai.

Go boating to avoid the traffic – cross the creek using a abra, one of the small wooden boats. Rustic flavor, but with the cool winds blowing, it’s magic and poetry interwoven! Try the shisha at one of the shisha cafes – definitely a must do!

A ride of your life –  Take a lift to the observation deck of the Burj al khalifa the tallest building in the world and we promise you it is an experience of a lifetime – heady, adrenaline rush…and more!  The best time – just when the sun sets. And following that, you cannot miss the mesmerizing musical fountain show.  End your evening with a dinner opposite the fountain over a glass of champagne.

 


Postcard from Cambodia-Part 1- by Abhik Dutta

Postcard from Cambodia
Part 1:
Reaching Cambodia

April 2005.
April, they say, is the worst month to travel to Cambodia because of the heat. So, I being me, against all sane advice that I downloaded from the internet, decided to go to Siem Reap from Bangkok
by road.
The journey from Bangkok started on time. 8am
to be precise. The road to the Thai border Aranyaprathet (also known as Poipet) was like a smooth runway. In 4 hrs I was there.
Shortly thereafter all hell broke loose. Our group of five was made to sit outside a small eatery on the Thai side of the border. The agent’s agent (I shall call him ‘Bon’ as a local in these parts would pronounce the International super-agent) at the border initially gave all five of us in the van the Cambodia visa forms. The other four, I learnt later, were all on a ‘visa run’, where they’d do a small ritual of crossing the Thai border, getting a Cambodia visa and then exit Cambodia immediately to re-enter Thailand. A process that takes 2 hrs and 200meters to complete. It’s generally done by those who are working for a long time in Thailand
and need to renew their visas after 30 days or 90 days.
Bon came back in a while saying contemptuously, ‘You Indian’? (The emphasis on the second word was not lost on me).
I said,’Yep’.
‘No visa for Indian at border. Okay?’
I gave him my as-nasty-as-I-can-get look (eyes narrowed down, lips curled in a snarl) and croaked  ‘And why not?’.
He looked right through me and said ‘You pay me 2700 baht. I try for you. Ok?’
I would have none of his nonsense and said (in my suddenly acquired Thai accent), ‘No ok. I go wih you to immigration. No pay more than foreigner’. (Meaning the other 4).
Bon looked at me for a very long time (that usually means bad news at the border) and said slowly, ‘then you sit heah, mistah. Ok?’ He threw my passport and visa money on the table and disappeared from the restaurant.  Half an hour passed. I gulped 2 bottles of water and some tasty fried vegetables in Oyster sauce and made some conversation with Bon’s dog (I shall call him Bon-Bon), just to show that we Indians are a friendly lot and there’s no harm in letting a dog-loving-Indian cross the border into Cambodia.  Soon Bon came back with the visas of the other 4 travellers and asked me ‘Wha hab you decided?’ I said, ‘No pay more than foreigner’.
He was disgusted with me and disappeared again. I drank a little more and made more conversation with Bon Bon.
An hour passed. Bon returned and with his hands on his hips said, ‘Ok, you follow me’. Bon, me and Bon-Bon walked single file towards the border. We went past the market and took a left turn to reach the Thai immigration counter. After a 30min wait in the queue, the Thai official issued an exit stamp and I was on my way to the Cambodia
immigration counter, 50 meters away.
A huge gate with the slogan “Welcome to the Kingdom of Cambodia” stood out like a sore thumb. I prayed that this should not be the first and last glimpse of Cambodia. Bon caught up with me at the counter and asked me for the passport and 1500baht (actual visa fee is 20US$). I duly obliged and sat for another 30mins. It was hot and humid. The gun toting border guards were smoking and chatting away. I saw Bon-Bon crossing over to Cambodia
. What a dog’s life, I thought. Strange thoughts cross one’s mind during times of border crisis. I wondered whether Bon-Bon was born Thai or Cambodian. He looked quite Indian as well. Sullen and morose. Just like me. But at least he could cross. Bon came back to me and said, ‘here your pahport. Visa ok. Ok? Now you go to immigration and wait for me on the other side.’
At the Cambodia immigration counter, there was this crazy Japanese tourist (you can make them out by the large floppy hats, knee-length shorts, the omnipresent camera with a mile-long telescopic lens dangling around the chest) hugging all the border guards one by one and shouting ‘Better than sex, better than sex’. He looked ecstatic. I wondered what could have induced a well-dressed Japanese backpacker to hug the Cambodian border guards at two in the afternoon on a hot April afternoon and think of sex.
His story unfolded. He had arrived 3 hrs earlier and realised that he had lost his passport (the ultimate nightmare for a tourist). He searched for it on the Cambodian side, on the Thai side and on No man’s land in between. He searched for it inside his backpack, inside his T-shirt and shorts, inside his pouch. Inside his camera bag. Inside Thai and Cambodian loos. Everywhere. Soon, he came to believe that he would be required to spend the rest of his miserable life in No man’s land just like Tom Hanks in The Terminal. 3 hrs later he found his passport on his head underneath his cap! I understood why that moment felt ‘better than sex’.
In another 30mins (everything in Cambodia takes at least 30mins or 1 ‘dolaar,’ I learnt later), I was giving an angelic smile at the immigration camera and thanking the officer in bowed reverence. ‘Enjoy your stay in Cambodia
‘, he said. ‘Not many Indians cross this way’.  And he stamped and handed me the passport.
It was that simple. Indians do get Cambodia
visas on arrival at the border. Later, when Bon and I became friends for five minutes, he said that his stern gaze and the act of ‘throwing’ the passport on the table usually makes ‘third-world-country-travellers’ pay up whatever he demands!
Bon and Bon-Bon were both waiting on the Cambodian side. The former on a motorcycle. I bid a fond farewell to Bon-Bon (who couldn’t care less and trotted off to Thailand). I sat behind Bon and he whizzed off. Turning, he said, ‘Wehcome to Cambodia
, Ok?’ In the same breath he asked, ‘You tip me mistah, Ok?’ He seemed to know every second person we zipped past. Five minutes later he stopped outside a small tin-roofed building and said, ‘Your bus will come here and take you to Siem Reap’.
‘Its air-con, right?’ I shouted after Bon as his small frame vanished into the dust of Cambodia
. I faintly heard two words drifting out of the red haze, ‘Yeah, yeah’.  There were fifteen of us inside the tin-shelter. All of us bound for Siem Reap. An hour ticked by.
Soon the bus came chugging along and halted outside the shelter. There was a mad scramble as we tore, kicked, stamped, gouged each other apart to get the desired seat. We Indians were raised for moments like these. Second row, left window seat. The 3rd world passengers (Thai, Cambodian and me, Lone Indian ranger) all occupied the first few seats. First world tourists brought up the rear. It was 40degrees outside. And 40 degrees inside with the Air-con on.
It took at least an hour for the bus to start. We were packed like sardines in it. It was like a boiling cauldron inside. We left at 3pm.

In half an hour, the AC stopped functioning. Within the next half hour, the road disappeared giving way to a red-coloured, dusty, potholed path, I am ashamed to call a road. In another 30minutes, the diesel finished. And it took another 30minutes for the driver and his comrades to get a barrel of diesel from the undergrowth and fill up the tank.
I settled down for the inevitable. I opened the window to let the hot air from outside cool the interiors of the bus. In the distance I heard the thunder. It looked like rain. We were all smiling.
I was en route to what has been described as one of the Wonders of the World…the temples of Angkor Wat.