Offbeat adventures in the Western Ghats

If there’s anything my father and I love as much as we love travelling, it’s planning our next trip. We love checking train routes, flight schedules and in my case, long weekends or days when we can get the cheapest connecting flights. While our travel lists are usually always ready so that we can make the most out of every place we visit, an unusual 5 day break earlier this year gave us the opportunity to embark on a spontaneous holiday that gave us the best of history, culture and natural beauty.

I had a 5 day break from college in February and it had been quite some time since my parents and I had travelled together. Having visited Coorg in 2018, Chikmagalur, a lesser known region in Karnataka known for its coffee plantations, was on my list. Similarly, my dad had wanted to visit Shravan Belagoda, Belur and Halebidu since the longest time. We decided to club the destinations since they were all accessible by road and booked all our tickets less than a week before the trip, without thinking twice.

Shravanbelagoda, Belur and Halebidu all consist of historical monuments. History nerds who enjoy slow travel can actually plan a short weekend getaway to just these 3 places. We took flights from Bombay to Bangalore and from Bangalore we first drove to Shravanbelagoda, which is an important Jain pilgrimage site. To reach the top of the site, you need to complete a short 30-40 min hike. At the top, you are greeted with beautiful lake views and huge Jain statues. This one is totally worth the climb.

Halebidu, which was our next destination is a complex of temples known for its intricate carvings. I definitely recommend taking a guided tour here in order to appreciate the beauty of each temple. There’s a reason that the temples in South India are known for the magnificent architecture and Halebidu will remind you of that.

Belur, our last stop for the day, has an impressive temple with a massive Gopuram that will charm staunch atheists. We witnessed a beautiful sunset from Belur and the vibe at the temple reminds you of how positive and liberating faith can be.

After visiting all these 3 three places in one day and keeping ourselves fuelled with unlimited dosas and strong filter coffee, we headed to Chikmagalur. My parents and I were on this trip without my sister and co-incidentally, Chikamagalur means the town of the younger daughter!

If you’ve been to Ooty or Coorg, you would know that these places are not confined to a town or a single city; it’s an entire region. Similarly, in Chikmagalur, most of the viewpoints, waterfalls and lakes are outside the main town. You may however choose to stay in the main town for easy accessibility. We stayed in the main town for 2 nights. We stayed at Aadrika, a lovely property 500 metres from the KSRTC bus station. The rooms were incredibly spacious and the restaurant had great variety. They also have a cute coffee shop on the ground floor.

If you’re in the town area, you can visit the coffee museum which is very well-maintained and highly informative. You can also pick up filter coffee blends from Panduranga Coffee Roasters. The main market area also has a government establishment set up wherein they provide local meals for INR 10! We had dinner at the no-frills set up and I can vouch for the taste and the hygiene!

Outside of the Chikmagalur town area, here are the things you must do:

  1. Stay at a coffee estate for a night. We stayed at Coffee County which is in Kaimara. We paid INR 2200 per person and that included stay in a beautiful bungalow, a coffee tour, a bonfire and 3 delicious meals. Their egg curry and barbecue pineapple are to die for! The caretaker also organizes road trips on demand and took us to lakes that we couldn’t even find on a map!
  2. Visit the Baba Budan Giri range and hike through it. This is an easy hike which you can complete within a couple of hours.
  3. Catch a sunset at Mullyangiri, the highest peak in Karnataka. It is absolutely mesmerizing and the hike to the top is totally worth your sweat.
  4. Visit Hebbe Falls. We couldn’t do this one since there was a Tiger census going on in the nearby area, but Hebbe Falls is said to be the best waterfall in the region.
  5. Jhari Falls and Kallathi Falls were the two waterfalls we visited but they weren’t that appealing, to be honest. Both were crowded and badly maintained but if you have to visit one, I’d suggest Jhari Falls.
  6. Visit the Kemanagudi range and the garden nearby, if you have extra time.
  7. Head to the Hierekolale Lake and Ayyankere Lake to soak in some serenity.
  8. Kudremukh National Park promises great views but we couldn’t visit it since it requires several permits from the Forest Department and offers restricted entry. If you’re an avid trekker, you could plan in advance and get a permit.

We initially planned on keeping our last day in Chikmagalur for Kudremukh and Hebbe Falls before we headed to Hassan, a town 3 hours from Bangalore, since our return flight was from Bangalore. But since both these places couldn’t be visited and we explored everything else, we found ourselves scrolling through blogs and TripAdvisor suggestions for hidden, lesser known spots. In my personal opinion, I’ve always seen that some of the best parts of a city or region are not amongst the top 10 sights that you see on these online portals. You really need to dig deeper and find places that you think are great finds.

We ended up finding 2 really interesting places that I never knew of before that day. The next day, we embarked on a quest to find those places and unravel their beauty.

Our first stop was Manjarabad Fort, a star-shaped fort that Tipu Sultan had rescued and built. The fort is massive and even in February, we could see greenery all around the area although the interior of the fort would be much more beautiful in monsoon. If you’re looking for a lesser known spot that puts you back in time, this is it.

My favourite spot, however was our second find in a small village called Shettihalli. We navigated through kaccha roads, through fields to reach the Shettihalli Rosary Church, a 19th century church by the river. It was rescued by French missionaries and presently is in a semi-ruined state. The church against the backdrop of the river presents a brilliant view and watching it, in that moment, we knew we’d stumbled upon a gem. Taking the road less travelled has its benefits and we were reminded of that in the most visually pleasing way possible.

After a rather adventurous day, we headed to Hassan for a night halt. The next day, we chose to travel in a non-AC Karnataka Sarige bus which got us to Bangalore in just 3 hours! Public transport is truly changing its reputation in India and how.

Since the entire trip was spontaneously planned, we paid more at some places which could be avoided if we had planned earlier. We ended up paying around 25K per person for a 5 day trip which includes airfare, all meals,accommodation including the coffee estate and transportation in by car.

This holiday reminded me that there’s a joy in both spontaneous travel and planned travel. Our generation is completely swept off by YOLO trips that they fail to understand the importance of saving money and maximizing on resources while travelling. On the other hand, there are people who will stick to a rigid itinerary and not want to go beyond what the travel guidebook says. I believe a good holiday requires a mixture of both. While I absolutely enjoyed my stay at the coffee estate, writing in my diary under the stars and gazing at the sunset at Mullayangiri, things that we had planned on doing, the joy of discovering Shettihalli Church was unparalleled. I now feel that one must travel responsibly, have the basics sorted so that beautiful detours such as these can be accomodated. In the end, it’s all about enjoying what where you are and maybe discovering something new.

If you too, like me are seeking less explored, offbeat places to travel to, head to Chikamagalur. Seek some quiet in a coffee estate or go hiking in the Western Ghats; engage in enlightening conversation with the locals or chase architectural marvels. Stay responsible but keep that window open for spontaneity to creep in. Be Khanabadosh.

Tears of hope in Vietnam

When my sister said she wanted to travel with me to Vietnam a month before her wedding, our entire family asked us why we wanted to go out of the country so close to the wedding. It took some convincing but we managed to book a 5 day trip to Vietnam. 

While I usually enjoy researching about a new place before visiting it, I was swamped with  exams and could not read about Vietnam’s dark history, its war and its hopeful resurrection before visiting it. I only prepared myself for beautiful French architecture, insane coffee and mango with sticky rice.

On my second day of Vietnam, we visited the Cu Chi tunnels where I crawled inside a tunnel that people used to hid in during the war. I vividly recall walking for 5 mins inside those tunnels and feeling extremely nauseated along with a tryst I experienced with claustrophobia. To think that people hid there for days, weeks and months at end gives me the chills, even today.

Immediately after that, I visited the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and when I entered the exhibit room that had images and audio recordings of people who suffered from illnesses and injuries from the war and who were victims of the hazards of Agent Orange, the deadly chemical that the Americans unleashed on the Vietnamese and the latter bore its heart-wrenching repercussions. Towards the end of the exhibit was a letter that was written by a teenager who was a descendant of one of the victims of Agent Orange; and as a consequence of the far-reaching effects of the chemical, was born with abnormalities. The letter was addressed to Barack Obama, the then President of the United States of America. The boy asked him if, when he spoke about equality and ensuring equal rights for all, did he also remember the thousands of Vietnamese people who were victims of the cruelties that the Americans subjected them to. As I read the letter, I could feel an amalgamation of anguish, a sense of despair over the horrendous past yet a tinge of hope, for a brighter, happier future. The young boy did not even for a word, convey any anger or scorn in his letter; rather, a heartfelt plea to work and ensure world peace. I broke down after reading the letter and it took some time for the goosebumps on my body to go away. 

An image of Vietnamese kids being chased during the war
The letter written by a Vietnamese youth to Barack Obama

On my last day in Vietnam, my sister and I decided to go for a walking tour in Hanoi as we believe that walking through a town or city is the best way to truly capture its essence. We usually go for experienced walk experts but this time, we spotted a kiosk  which was providing free walking tours.

Students who want to get into the tourism industry in Vietnam offer free walking tours to foreigners so that they get to improve their English speaking skills. We signed up for the walk with low expectations because we’d already seen most of the popular places in Hanoi. When we started the walk, our guide, who was a girl as old as me left the big lanes and led us to streets with spice markets, medicinal herb markets, showed us a small house where Ho Chi Minh lived for some years and showed us everything that Google might not be ever able to show us.

On the way, she asked my sister about Indian wedding rituals and our culture. We also met 2 Israeli girls who had finished school and were travelling around Asia for 6 months. My sister and I claimed to be ‘explorers’ and ‘offbeat travellers’ but this level of local interaction was something we had never had before. We asked our guide about the war and its effects and she did not shy away from speaking about it. In her voice, I sensed the same optimism that the letter in the museum had; that touched my heart. I’d always heard that tough times make tough people but after travelling to Vietnam, I strongly believe that a small amount of optimism goes a long way, it helped Vietnam develop itself after so many struggles; it reminded me of everything we can do, everything we can be, every world problem we can solve with a mixture of optimism and hope. This  is something no book could have taught me. Travelling, though, did ingrain that in me. And I will never forget. 

The mountains, less travelled

The mountains evoke in us, a feeling of adventure, transforming us into enthusiastic beings, who are ready to go ‘Carpe Diem’ on everything around us. Just like Ved from Tamasha, we unleash all the madness we store up during our 9-5 routine, when we reach the mountains. The 18 degrees in our corporate offices or coaching classes will never be able to match the cool breeze of the hills, right? The maggi tastes completely different in the mountains, chai is your best friend and we all have our Bhuta Parvat moments like Bunny and Naina from YJHD when we embark on a hike. But is that all that mountains are about?

As millennials and Gen-Z, we’re exposed to numerous images, visuals and stories from places like Shimla, Manali, Dalhousie, Nainital, Mussorie and Dehradun. But often, due to several reasons, our idea of mountains and mountain communities ends there. When our parents’ generation used to travel to these places, it took time, planning and a lot of efforts to reach these place; hence people were careful, conscious and so respectful. Our generation, and I hate generalizing but this must be said, has so many things at our disposal. Shimla is just a 3 hour drive from Chandigarh Airport, Dehradun is accessible by flights, Manali is just an hour away from an airport and Dalhousie and Khajjiar probably have more tourists staying there than locals. The increase in resources available to us isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the fact that the convenience makes us less grateful and extra-careless, is what pollutes these places.

My father loves the Himalayas and covered all the above mentioned places 15-20 years back. So when we were discussing where to go during the Good Friday weekend this year, he was very clear that he did not want to go to an overcrowded hill station. He had been eyeing the Baspa Valley circuit, popularly known as Sangla Valley. He enticed us with the idea of having just snow-capped peaks all around us for 4 days. Who wouldn’t be sold for such an idea in peak summer?

Baspa Valley or the region of Kinnaur. consists of several villages and towns along the Baspa river, which is a tributary of Sutlaj. We wanted to visit smaller, lesser explored towns and we put in all our efforts to steer clear of tourist hotspots.

We started from Chandigarh and had 3 towns on our list, Narkanda, Chitkul and Kalpa. While I was excited about all the 3 towns, once we started driving, I realized that the entire journey was so scenic, it brought to life the phrase “Safar khoobsurat hai, manzil se bhi”

NARKANDA

Narkanda is a 6-7 hour drive from Chandigarh and is a quaint town which offers a sizeable amount of views. As soon as we reached Narkanda, we dropped our bags at the hotel and headed for Hatu peak, 9 kms from Narkanda. The road to the peak felt like a roller-coaster ride with a terrific adrenaline rush but the minute we reached the top, I knew it was worth it. We seemed to be caught in a maze of clouds and peaks, with just a temple of Hatu, the goddess to keep us company.

After getting back from Hatu, we headed to Tani Jubbar Lake, just because we had time at hand but we ended up loving that decision; the lake is uncommercialized and unexplored. We were only surrounded by a handful of locals from the neighbouring villages and we were reminded of the fact that we should always be up for new things and it is only when we are open to novelty that we get surprised in the most beautiful way.

CHITKUL

While to most of the country, Sangla Valley had mainly been about Sangla town, Zostel put Chitkul, the last inhabitated village before the Indo-Tibet border, on the map, with its property last year. So when my dad said we should stay in Sangla for a day, I suggested staying in Chitkul instead. To be honest, I had my apprehensions about taking my parents to a Zostel; I’d been to the one in Panchgani before and while it was beautiful, the crowd consisted mainly of Gujaratis who want to get drunk. I’d informed my parents that we might meet people whose mindset wasn’t like ours and they were prepared. But when we reached Chitkul and saw the Zostel, we realized that it is a place that is so difficult to reach, it requires planning and various resources so whoever comes here will not just be here to get drunk or smoke pot or do anything they can do in their hometowns as well. My dad started speaking to a traveller from Colombia who was in India for 100 days and had been staying in Chitkul for 7 days, going out for hikes with different groups daily. People my age wouldn’t usually start talking to a foreigner because they’d feel people around them would label them as being ‘firang-crazy’ or starry-eyed but for my father, what mattered was that he was getting to know about a completely different culture by speaking to that person.

Parents chilling along the Baspa river

The glorious Baspa river flows right by Zostel and you can walk to the riverbed, which is a 2km walk. The riverbed is so peaceful, you’d not want to leave. We also walked uphill to the village monastery where we were served the local rice wine. At night, it got quite cold and for some time, I refused to let go of the heater but when I finally stepped out of my room, I witnessed the most mesmerizing moonrise. The moonlight cast on the snow-capped mountains almost made my heartbeat stop. It is an experience no camera lens can contain.

The mighty Baspa river surrounded by snow-capped mountains
dal makhani
paneer
egg curry
A delicious North Indian meal at Zostel

The next morning, I revisited the riverbed alone and enjoyed several moments of calm. When I came back to my room, my dad revealed that he found a new hiking trail and so we immediately went to explore that. It led us to a foot overbridge on the river which we crossed to find a road that had been snowed in and hadn’t been tread on. The best part about Chitkul was that you could embark on these short walks, trails and hikes and you could be assured that it would be fruitful.

a short hike led us to this beautiful foot-over bridge
sunrise from Zostel Chitkul

When we left Chitkul, we were afraid that after seeing so much natural beauty, our next destination would be very underwhelming. But we were so wrong! Kalpa is a small town, 7 kms from Reckong Peo, one of the headquarters of Kinnaur and the gateway to Spiti Valley.

We stayed at The Grand Shambala, a family-run establishment; the moment we entered, we felt engulfed by the snow-capped peaks. For at least 2-3 hours, we just sat in our balcony, sipping honey lemon tea, enjoying the view accompanied by Kinnauri women chatting and singing folk songs.

We left our hotel in the evening to meet Shyam Sunder Negi, who voted in Independent India’s first elections and today, is India’s oldest voter, at 102. When I told him that I was about to cast my first vote in less than 48 hours, his eyes gleamed with pride and he continued to tell me about how important it is your exercise your vote. As we sat in his humble yet traditional Kinnauri home, I felt a bunch of emotions- happiness, privilege, pride, all at the same time! It has to be the best local interaction I’ve ever had.

Shyam Sunder Negi’s home in Kalpa

Before going back to our hotel, we decided to visit some of the so-called view points that we’d come across on Google. But it was only after failed attempts at finding beauty in Kalpa’s suicide point which, in my humble opinion was true to its name and gave no other value, we realized that in small, remote villages like Chitkul and Kalpa, the entire region throws mind-numblingly beautiful views at you. You don’t have to chase views, you get to savour them wherever you go, in places like these.

Roghi village suicide point which was terrible

We had delicious dinner at our hotel that night, accompanied by soulful conversations with a solo traveller from Mexico. It is heartwarming to know about your country from the eyes of someone who is new to your culture and traditions! Such discourse often makes me proud of my rich heritage and aware of the challenges it faces; most importantly, I’m always reminded of how I can contribute towards carrying forward cultural and historical narratives of my country.

Mornings in Kalpa

The next day, post a short souvenir shopping session wherein we picked out exquisite Kinnauri shawls, we embarked on a 10-11 hour long road journey to Chandigarh. The journey might make you feel nauseous and those who experience frequent motion sickness must definitely keep their medicines handy. We caught a train from Chandigarh to Delhi, took a flight from Delhi to Ahmedabad the next day and then drove to Baroda just in time for me to cast my first vote as Shyam Sunder Negi’s words and his warm smile stood still in my basket full of memories.

LOGISTICS

Transport

We took one flight from Bombay to Chandigarh which came up to INR 6K, booked it 3 weeks prior for travel in mid-April. Our return flight was from Delhi to Ahmedabad which came up to INR 3K

We hired a driver for the road journey which was a great idea. The agency is based out of Ambala and go almost everywhere around Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. We paid 14K for 4 days, 800 kms.
Anil Dizar- +91 7404134045

Accommodation (For 3 people with breakfast)

Hotel Sara, Narkanda- INR 3000
Zostel, Chitkul- INR 3000 (dorm beds are even cheaper)
The Grand Shambala- INR 6500 (suite, with breakfast and unlimited dinner)

The entire trip came up to INR 25000 for 4.5 days. You can save more on flights if you book a couple of months in advance. I’d definitely recommend a car if you’re travelling to such remote parts with limited time. If you have extra time, you must however try to attempt the Jorkanden trek in August and the hike to the last checkpoint in Chitkul. Since Chitkul is at a great height, you might feel breathless even after covering short distances, so be careful- stay hydrated and eat well.

My sojourn in Kinnaur reminded me of the beauty of unexplored places that are free from the perils of commericalization. In an age when every place has tons of check-ins, plenty of bucket lists and private tour packages, this holiday reminded me of the charm that offbeat spots hold. It’s heartbreaking to see beautiful places like Shimla, Manali, Kasol get overrun by tourists. I was completely shook when I read that restrictions had been imposed on camping overnight in Kheerganga. But now that I think of it, it is upto us as travellers, nature and culture enthusiasts to ensure that we travel responsibly. Instead of getting into mindless squabbles like ‘Tourist vs Traveller”, it is important to respect the place you’re visiting and ensuring that when you leave, the place is as clean and charming as it was when you reached. Sustainable, responsible travel is the need of the hour. If you’re travelling to Kinnaur, try parking your bike or car in a spot that doesn’t obstruct locals. Be respectful when entering monasteries. Do not throw waste near the riverbed. If you want a picture with your cuppa noodles against the mountains, make sure the box of noodles finds a proper dustbin. In places as inaccessible as these, try helping out the locals in whatever ways you can.

Travel to Kinnaur for the beautiful road journey, the numerous hiking options, the stunning Baspa river, the moonrise that gives you chills and for the feeling of being somewhere that’s so surreal, it seems out of the world! Go experience for yourself. Be Khanabadosh.

A rainy affair in Meghalaya!

There’s something about monsoon that charms you like nothing else. Heavy showers, the excessively green surroundings, piping hot bhajiyas, samosas and coffee while staring at the rain- these are invaluable experiences we’ve all grown up with. However, travelling during monsoon is an experience like no other, especially when you’re travelling to a place that holds records for high levels of rainfall.

Meghalaya literally translates to ‘Abode of Clouds’ and is one of the most beautiful states in the country, as far as natural beauty is concerned. It also boasts of communities with a rich cultural heritage. The three main tribes in Meghalaya are the Khasis, Garo and Jaintia and all of them are matrilineal families. Hence, visiting the state can also expose an individual to culturally different communities and can provide a fresh perspective on familial norms in India.

Most people visiting Meghalaya stay in Shillong, the capital and make day trips from there. Some people go as far as Cherrapunjee but that’s where their exploring ends. Sure, Shillong and Cherrapunjee are beautiful towns, but there’s so much more to see in Meghalaya’s tiny villages and border towns. When my parents and I planned on visiting Meghalaya, we also thought of staying only in Shillong and Cherrapunjee and doing a 4-5 day trip. But when we started reading more about the state, we realized that there were many other places that were less explored and were absolutely stunning! So we decided to go to Meghalaya for 7 whole days in order to experience the essence of the state, its beauty and its culture in the most wholesome manner.

My brief itinerary with highlights is as follows:

Day 1 and Day 7- Shillong- We stayed here on our first night and our last night. While in Shillong, visit the Don Bosco Cathedral, experience local music in Cafe Shillong and Dylan’s Cafe, go to Elephant Falls,Ward’s Lake, Phan Nongliat Park and gorge on delicious street food in Police Bazaar while also buying bags, mats, coasters, etc made from jute and bamboo. DO NOT go to Bara Bazaar. You won’t find any souvenirs here and if you’re a vegetarian, you might not be able to bear the excessive amounts of meat hung all over the road and the stench that accompanies it.

Day 2- Mawsynram- This tiny town about 3 hours from Shillong, overtook Cherrapunjee as the wettest place on the earth a few years back. It’s a beautiful settlement and the road to Mawsynram is lovely. Stop at the Mawphlang Sacred Grove on the way to Mawsynram and go for a full tour of the forest in Mawphlang. It’s an incredible experience, where you’ll actually feel like you’re in another world. It’s an incredibly underrated experience and you’ll not want to leave the dense forest, the gurgling streams and the beautiful mushroom plants all over you! Once you reach Mawsynram, enjoy a hearty meal with your hosts and walk around the small town whilst enjoying the rain. Our host, Sankrita, also introduced us to Thrin, a 95 year old woman who doesn’t consume water; she thinks it’s tasteless. She used to be a butcher, walks without footwear and up until recently, used to bathe in the river nearby. Thrin couldn’t speak English or Hindi, but meeting her felt so nice, so enlightening, the warmth in her smile and the glint in her eye is what makes her a person I will not forget.

Day 3&4- Cherrapunjee- You must visit the Mawkdowk Dempey Valley Point which will be on your way to Cherrapunjee. You might have to climb down around 300-400 steps to the view point but it’s definitely worth it! Once you reach Cherrapunjee, you must visit the Nohkalikai Falls which is the tallest plunge waterfall in India, and the Seven Sisters Falls. Since we went in the monsoon, we had to wait an entire afternoon since both the falls were covered in fog. But the moment the fog cleared up in both the places, we were mesmerized by the waterfalls! I loved Nohkalikai and if you have time for only 1 waterfall, I’d suggest this one!

You must also visit the Mawsmai Caves. They could do with some maintenance but the experience of exploring the cave was quite interesting and we really enjoyed it!

Caving in Mawsmai Cave
The spell-binding Nohkalikai Falls
The Seven Sisters Falls
The fog over Mawkdok Dempey Valley View Point

Cherrapunjee is also famous for living root bridges. These are bridges made by ancestors of the Khasi tribe. The root bridges are located on the outskirts of Cherrapunjee. There are quite a few single root bridges but only one double decker living root bridge which is the only one of its kind in the world, is located in Nongriat. The hike to the double decker root bridge starts from Tyrna, from where you first walk around 2500 steps downwards to reach the single living root bridge and then another 1100 steps to the double decker living root bridge. The hike takes 5-6 hours in total, both ways. Since it is a strenous hike, this one is barely crowded and we did not see more than 10 people throughout the hike. You will be greeted with stunning greenery and beautiful waterfalls along the entire trail and the waterfall near the double decker living root bridge will make all your exhaustion go away. I’d definitely recommend this hike! However, in the monsoon, it can get extremely humid so you must carry napkins, a towel maybe and keep consuming lime water with lots of salt throughout.

The single living root bridge
Double Decker living root bridge

Day 5- Dawki and Mawlynnong- Dawki is a border town at the Meghalaya-Bangladesh border. The Umngot river is one of the cleanest rivers in India and it connects Dawki with Meghalaya. You can explore the river on a boat any time of the year, and post November, you can choose to go kayaking, snorkelling, scuba diving or swimming too. In the monsoon, the only option we had was boating so we set out on an hour long boat ride. The water was very clean and although the weather was slightly warm, we enjoyed every bit of the ride. We could see Bangladesh on the other side of the river and it felt like meeting a long lost relative you’d severed ties with! The boat ride was incredibly peaceful and the serenity bowled me over. I’d definitely recommend a visit to Dawki!

We then headed to Mawlynnong, which is the cleanest village in Asia for more than 15 years now. Most people just make a day trip here, but staying there overnight made us realize that cleanliness here is more of a choice than a forced norm. People here genuinely want to maintain their surroundings which is why they consciously work towards making their village clean. Mawlynnong also has a single living root bridge and since it’s very accessible, it was thronged by crowds who were very loud. For me, that root bridge was a very average experience after having hiked to the double decker bridge without any crowd.

Walking in Mawlynnong and interacting with the locals, eating local thalis, learning about the town from our host, made for a lovely day! We stayed in a traditional Khasi style hut, my dad tried playing cricket on the main road with kids, I spoke to a German traveller staying there, in basic German and we absorbed the beauty of Mawlynnong in the rain. It also made me realize that rural tourism or village tourism is one of India’s hidden gems but also one of the best parts of travelling here. In that little town, while I was sipping tea, staring at the light showers and the greenery, I finally understood and experienced the true meaning of ‘time standing still’.

Day 6- Umiam Lake

We left Mawlynnong and first visited the Laitlum Grand Canyon. The road to the Canyon was in very bad condition but the moment we reached there, we forgot all the trouble we faced, for we witnessed such grand views from the Canyon. You could stay here for half an hour, an hour, 2 hours, depending on how much time you have, but one hour is good enough for a visit here.

We then headed to Umiam Lake, a huge lake 20 kilometres from Shillong. We checked into Ri Kynjai, a fantastic property with gorgeous views of the lake. The property has well-marked trails if you’re up for a short hike, their restaurant has a mind-blowing view of the lake and their spa is lovely, I got a foot massage since my feet were sore from the root bridge hike. We woke up the next morning and set out on a trail to the lake and we really enjoyed the entire walk and the views in the end! Although pricey, this property is worth staying in!

The gorgeous Umiam Lake

We came back to Shillong on the seventh day and on the eighth day, we flew back.

Logistics-

Flights from Ahmedabad to Guwahati and return flight from Guwahati to Ahmedabad.

Accomodation-

We stayed at beautiful hotels and took Airbnbs in Mawsynram and Mawylnnong. The links to all are as follows

Shillong- http://www.cafeshillongbnb.com/ http://www.kaizun.co/

Umiam Lake- https://www.rikynjai.com/

Cherrapunjee- http://lakuparinn.com/ (The hotels in the centre of the town are very basic, if you want to go for a more luxurious option, check our Polo Orchid Resort or Jiva Resort)

Mawlynnong- https://www.airbnb.co.in/rooms/22595239?source_impression_id=p3_1564301665_pGR3sHAqF%2B1r%2FFBI (Great hospitality and a lovely family)

Mawsynram- https://www.airbnb.co.in/rooms/13506791?location=Mawsynram%2C%20Meghalaya&source_impression_id=p3_1564301728_XUuh1NXjKKFzkxRc&s=JehgQbc8 (Sankrita was an amazing host, she made delicious local food for us and the house was beautiful, loved their book collection too, it has a lot of books on Khasi families)

Local food- If you’re a vegetarian, you might not find too many options, but you won’t face any major problems. Airbnb hosts are usually quite considerate and prepare vegetarian meals. You must try Jadoh, which is rice with ginger, turmeric and pepper. Red rice is very popular in Meghalaya and they eat it with lentil curries. In Shillong, you will find veg momos, jhalmuri, egg rolls and ragda pattice on the street for as low as 20 bucks!

The weeklong trip cost us around 30-35K including everything and was worth every penny. We met incredibly welcoming hosts, experienced how the Khasi community in Meghalaya lives and it taught me so many things. The way they co-exist perfectly with nature is astounding, yet so simple. They thrive on natural beauty, instead of destroying it like we do in so many concrete jungles. My week in Meghalaya reminded me of the importance of being close to nature and spending time outdoors.

I also promised myself to read more about matrilineal families and how they function, since that is significant part of the culture in Meghalaya.

The more important lesson was the one we learnt through a German traveller in Mawlynnong. She was there for a week and when I saw her sitting with the daughter of her host with a pen and paper, I thought she was teaching the little girl something. But it turned out that she was learning Khasi from her hosts. Someone who is not even from our country was so enthusiastic to learn a new language and know about a different community; however when most of us travel to remote places like the North East, we do it on travel packages and even though the landscapes stay with us, the culture never does. We go back to our routines and keep making fun of people from the North-east, using inappropriate slang at times and not capturing any element of their culture. How many of us include them in our identity of our country? How many of us try to tap into what their culture is? Does that fit our idea of a mainstream Indian identity? These are questions we need to ask ourselves not just when we visit the North East, these need to be things we think about. The German traveller taught me that travel is as much about language, culture, social customs and identity as much as it is about mountains, lakes, monuments and food.

Visit Meghalaya, not just for the mind-numbingly beautiful vistas but for the people. Go beyond Shillong, stay in Mawlynnong, experience rainfall in Mawsynram and try your hand at boating in Dawki. Leave crowded routes and challenge yourself by hiking to the double decker living root bridge. Try leaving pre-conceived notions behind and try to absorb and learn as much as you can. You’ll definitely end up coming back wiser. Explore Meghalaya for real and you’ll be amazed at what you discover. Be Khanabadosh!

Keep moving forward

An ode to Bombay!

The word ‘Bombay’ evokes a multitude of emotions in the heart of every person who has lived in the city, who has experienced it and given his/her heart to the spirit of the metropolis. Bombay is an emotion greater than all the songs and stories that center around it. It gives calm to some, chaos to others. It gave me what any 18 year old looks for- it gave me meaning.

I was pretty clear by the time I was 16 that I wanted to go to university in Bombay. The thrill of moving out, doing your own things, taking responsibility for your own mess- all these experiences enticed me. Just like Aisha in Wake Up Sid, for me, being scared was never an option. I wanted to be in Bombay and when I was there, there was no space for fear.

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Bombay taught me so many lessons, one of the most important one being that expectations are pointless. It’s futile to hold high expectations from anything or anyone, especially from Bombay. the city accepts you if you accept it, unconditionally. If you expect only perfection, the city brings you down from your pedestal and sets you up on a never-ending date with reality. If you give your best and let go of your inhibitions, the city showers you with happiness, purpose and people you can call family.

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Believe it or not, but for me Bombay has been a city of outsiders. It is a melting pot of so many cultures; most of the people you meet are either new to the city or have parents or grandparents who moved to the city. The thing about outsiders is that they’re wired to be tough. Their hopes and aspirations make them stronger and more resilient. Their tolerance for rejection, diappointment and failure is extremely high because for them, their goals hold utmost importance. Bombay’s magnetic force owes its existence to these powerhouse outsiders who made it big and whose success stories led to the city being called the ‘City of Dreams’.

There is not one singular moment when I fell in love with the city, but so many incidents that made me proud of my decision of moving to Bombay.

In 2016, in my second year of college, I took a train from Grant Road to Vile Parle, which is where I stayed for 2 years. It was around 3 pm and so the train wasn’t crowded. A lady got into the train at Dadar, which is probably the busiest station on the Western line. Normally anyone would’ve expected her to take a few moments to rest and take a seat in the train, since empty seats in a Bombay local are very rare. But instead, she put on her earphones and stood at the edge of the compartment to feel the cool monsoon breeze. She kept walking around the compartment, making calls, not even sitting for a minute. She seemed so happy, so content and the moment the breeze hit her face, all her exhaustion seemed to wear away. That moment I promised myself that I needed to document this memory whenever I write about Bombay because THIS is a very important characteristic of anyone who lives in Bombay. Here, rest isn’t sleeping and relaxation isn’t about lying on your back and not doing anything. Your few moments of rejuvenation could be the light breeze or a chance encounter with a stunning Bombay sunset and that gives you the strength and the courage to keep going.

Last year, my phone was snatched from my hand when I was in an auto at 11:30 in the night. This happened 3 days after I spent 3K on repairs. The next day I was distraught. I was in a cab, going home after college and I was speaking to my family via a spare phone; my mom was shouting at me for being irresponsible and unorganized and I was overwhelmed by the scare I had the previous night and the guilt of getting my phone stolen. I broke down and started sobbing. The cab was stuck on Peddar Road, one of the busiest roads in South Bombay. The taxi driver asked me what happened and I told him my phone got stolen. He listened, without any judgement. As I stepped out of the taxi, he told, “Beta phone naya aa jayega, chinta mat karna, rona mat”. His voice had undertones of empathy and care and I wondered how did he even manage to care about a girl’s phone being stolen when he probably had so many more things to worry about. Contrary to what a lot of people think, Bombay’s struggles and problems make you feel more deeply for the struggles of everyone around you. It toughens you up, surely, but also sensitizes you to life and its mysterious ways. These paradoxical behaviour patterns, only Bombay can imbibe in you.

I think an ode to Bombay is painfully incomplete without the people in Bombay. I have made so many friends in Bombay, friends whose door I’d show up at without notice, friends whose families welcomed with open hearts, friends who were always up for Carter Road or Bandstand at midnight, friends who pulled all-nighters at Marine Drive, friends who woke up for breakfast, friends you could do anything and everything with. In Bombay, where there are so many outstation students, hanging out or chilling is not limited to sitting in a cafe or going clubbing. I had friends I’d go to Reliance Fresh with every week to stock up on groceries, I had one friend I would run to when anything happened to my laptop or phone, I had 2 friends who took the local with me everyday for 2 years, I had friends who I shared the cab with when I stayed near my college, 3 friends who would always meet me at Haji Ali at night, 2 friends who were my chaat buddies in Juhu and one friend who walked with me to the chaat guy in South Bombay and then to Noble Chemist for fancy groceries. I also had 2 friends I’d meet on alternate Sundays, first for a walk at Amarsons and then to Dev’s Momos, one of the best momo joints in Breach Candy. Bombay teaches you that friendship, as opposed to what we see on social media, is beyond aesthetics and hashtags, Bombay helps you open up to people, cry, break down, be truly vulnerable in front of your friends because as hard as the city tries to be an ‘individualistic’ space, it is the crowd that eases you out. That kind of crowd, you never get anywhere else. That crowd is what you call family.

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What I’m about to say now may sound cliched to anyone who has lived in a Tier 2 or Tier 3 city, but from experience, I can say that in smaller towns, you have lesser chances. You may screw up once and your reputation may tarnish, both personally and professionally. Don’t get me wrong here, I hail from a Tier 2 city and I moved back to Baroda because I see a lot of scope here. I see the creativity, the talent and the potential, which several Tier 2 cities can boast of. But with a city like Bombay, you never run out of chances. My point here can be summed up by a dialogue from Hasee Toh Phasee

“Chance humesha second last hota hai, last nahi”- In Bombay, because of the sheer population, there will always be unlimited opportunities, more chances to goof up and eventually get it right. I have friends doing everything from advertising to medicine to rehabilitation training using Kathak techniques to hosting events to practicing behavioural psychological techniques- and Bombay welcomes all these interests and passions and lets them flourish.

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A lot of people think that there’s nothing more to Bombay beyond Victoria Terminus,Marine Drive or Gateway of India. They think Bombay cannot match Delhi or Calcutta in terms of historical or architectural value. Out of my love for the city, I decided to explore it as much as I could, I tried to uncover its beautiful secrets and that is when I realized that Bombay’s gems are for those who care enough to find them amongst the concrete jungle. I walked through Vasai Fort during the monsoon, hiked to the Kanheri Caves in Sanjay Gandhi National Park, spoke to an old Jewish man about Jews in Bombay in a synagogue, explored small Catholic settlements like Ranwar and lost myself in the beauty of Chimbai village, walked through Khotachiwadi, admired the Bhau Daji Lad museum, remained awestruck in all of Bombay’s stunning churches, climbed the Sion Fort, indulged in some quiet time at a Japanese Buddhist temple, climbed a hill in the middle of Andheri and did so many things that a travel portal or Instagram will not tell you about. In Bombay, you’re always travelling, always exploring. Each day is an adventure and if you seize it with all your might, you are rewarded with everything you wished for.

Bombay, for me, is something I can write about, without stopping. But the city’s charm lies in the fact that it doesn’t divulge its secrets all at once. It waits for those who are determined enough, strong enough, who really want to go beyond what is commonly said about the city. As a parting note, I just want to say that the city is beautiful. It gives millions of opportunities to people. In return, all it asks for is your help and support. The city is in a crucial state with the Metro construction, the Coastal highway which will possibly uproot the lives of the Koli community who are the original inhabitants of the city; the rains, the work going on around Juhu-Tara road. Please be a little more compassionate towards the city if you can. Bombay has a soul like any other human and that too needs healing when it is wounded. Ditch your cabs and take a train/bus once, try not throwing garbage the next time you’re in the National Park, don’t throw cigarette butts or empty alcohol bottles in the sea; please be aware of the consequences of the Coastal Highway and do something about it if you can. As citizens, it is our duty to give something back to the city that has given us so much. Like Aisha in Wake Up Sid, learn to take a step back and enjoy the city whenever possible. Work to make your city, your neighbourhood better. You might just end up falling in love with it all over again.

Leaving you with some songs that I listen to when I miss Bombay

Mumbai Nagariya by Lucky Ali

Iktara Male version from Wake Up Sid

Shaam Tanha by Agnee(featured in Wake Up Sid)

Ae Dil Hai Mushkil Jeena Yahaan

Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na Title Track and Kabhi Kabhi Aditi

Atrangi Yaari from Wazir

OK Jaanu Title Track

Also some of my favourite pictures/people from Bombay over the last 4 years and my favourite Bombay pop culture scenes!

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Bombay memories, in no particular order

Sunday evenings at Amarsons
All-nighter followed by South Indian breakfast

Last set has to be Bombay sunset pictures, one is just never enough!

Try opening your heart up to Bombay, it might just give you a glimpse of its rugged soul! Be Khanabadosh and give the city a chance to be yours. I promise you, it will be one lasting affair!

Goa- An alternate state of mind

Goa is a destination whose name itself has been used, misused and often abused by many. It is the so-called party capital, hippie holiday destination (Although Gokarna and Hampi are now giving it tough competition) it’s the millennial’s place to go to when you just want to chill, it’s a place to tick off your bucket list because of course, shame on you if you haven’t seen Dil Chahta Hai! That movie literally put Goa on the heart map of every young Indian.

I’d been to Goa when I was 3, so I don’t remember anything apart from making sandcastles and underground sand tunnels with my dad on the beach. 19 years later, my friend Jeanne, who lives in Panjim, called a bunch of us to visit her for her birthday. Richa, another friend of ours who is from South Goa, was already there. Tanishqa, Delice and I went to Goa from Bombay.

If you know me or have read any of my blogs, you know how much I love reading about travel, maximizing on my travel plan and exploring as much as possible when I’m travelling. I like to completely immerse myself into the culture and the vibe of the place I am in. I like balancing touristy things with lesser known hideouts and hidden spots. I love it when people have the same travel style as me but I’ve obviously had my share of holidays when my co-travellers had a completely different approach than me. Since this was more than a normal holiday, that we planned, we did have more local experiences since we stayed at Jeanne’s place, interacted with locals, we also had some restrictions in terms of time and places we could visit. Add to that the fact that not everyone had similar ideas of travelling and exploring. But the ingredients to a holiday are great experiences and important lessons that each trip teaches you! 

On the first day, we landed in Goa early in the morning and had breakfast at Jeanne’s house in Panjim. After we chilled with her family and her adorable dog for some time, we decided to take the Scooty and drive around some of the popular spots in Panjim.  We went to the Our Lady of Immaculate Church, which was quite pretty but extremely crowded and then went to the supremely popular Black Sheep Bistro for lunch. I would surely recommend this restaurant for a good meal with cocktails; do try their Feni cocktails if you go there!

We then went to Cafe Bodega, an artsy cafe, which is housed in the Sunaparanta Centre for Arts. The ambiance is lovely and so are the desserts! After filling our tummies with lots of good food, we went to Fontainhas, an old Latin Quarter in Panjim, where we had booked a walk with this company called Make It Happen. Our walk leader, Lata, took us on a 2 hour tour of the area, showing us the prettiest homes, quaint bakeries, beautifully maintained art galleries, charming chapels and ended it with a live music performance. She also gave us postcards that we wrote to ourselves and she posted them to us. Make It Happen also gave us fridge magnets as gifts. I would totally recommend a heritage walk of Fontainhas with them. 

Tanishqa, Delice and I then chilled at Bombay Coffee Roasters in Fontainhas and enjoyed some delicious coffee, after which Jeanne came and took us first to Joseph Bar, which is essentially a tiny room filled with drinks and stools outside, on the road, where patrons drink. It was a really unique experience, one that very few people know about. We then went to one of Jeanne’s relatives’ home in Fontainhas which had been one of our favourites during the walk. 

At night, Jeanne’s entire family came over to bring in her birthday. it was so much fun with them and it was a really nice experience for us, since we were not used to seeing an entire family bring in a birthday at midnight. It was a very interesting and endearing memory.

On the second day, we had our first difference of opinion. Richa and Jeanne were going to get decorations done for Jeanne’s birthday party. I wanted to go to Calangute and Baga Beach and either Aguada Fort or Chapora Fort. Tanishqa didn’t want to do sightseeing and wanted to do the decorations and Delice was interested in going to the beaches and getting lunch there but had no interest in going to either of the forts. For about an hour, none of us did anything, just subtly kept on reiterating our priorities, like little kids. I was initially annoyed because I had come to explore Goa and it was disheartening to see that nobody else had that as their priority. But then I realized that making a sour face will only spoil my time and a part of travelling is reaching a mid-way and that everyone has different ideas of a good time; and sometimes doing what everyone enjoys doing. So Delice and I took the Scooty, went to Baga Beach, had lunch at Britto’s, which was pretty good and despite my low expectations, I really liked the food and cocktails there. The beach was average, much like the beaches in Bombay, but all in all, it was a good experience. On the way back, Delice and I stopped at a random field to catch the sunset. It was so pretty and peaceful and is one of my favourite parts of the trip, because these are things you do not expect, they just jump on you and that makes it even better.

The next day was the day of Jeanne’s party. Since we would have had to start getting ready for the party early,  we kept the day light. Tanishqa, Delice and I visited Miramar beach which is a 5 min walk from Jeanne’s home. It’s not a beach thronged by tourists so it was very well-maintained and clean. We really liked the beach and jumped and played to our hearts’ content because there was barely anybody there. What I love about beaches is that once you’re near a beach, you resort to your most childlike instincts and for some time, forget everything and just have fun without the fear of judgement.

We came back to Jeanne’s partially drenched and quickly changed and went to this beautiful sea-facing restaurant called Leda Seashells for lunch, accompanied by Richa and Jeanne. It has to be the most stunning restaurant I visited in Goa. The food and cocktails were really good, even by a vegetarian’s standards. After lunch, we took a million pictures by the sea, it was that pretty!

We later dressed up in our costumes and headed out for Jeanne’s birthday. Honestly, I never thought of myself as a costume party person but it was so much more fun than I imagined it to be. We played games, danced and ate so much. This made me realize that it had been ages since I’d attended a birthday party that involved something other than going to a pub or a fancy restaurant. I felt like this was one experience that I would have maybe never thought of, but one that I absolutely enjoyed.






I dressed up as the birthday girl herself!

The next morning, we all woke up late and were slightly tired because the party went on till late. I honestly had very little expectations for the last day because by then I’d told myself that everyone was on the trip for different reasons and so I was happy with whatever everyone wanted to do. But the moment I was ready with lowered expectations, I got rewarded; there’s this fort in South Goa called Cabo Da Rama which I really wanted to visit. Everyone immediately agreed to drive down to South Goa to visit it. We stopped for lunch at this place called Da Tita’s, which had delicious pizzas, I’d totally recommend it!

Cabo Da Rama has various points that one can walk to and since Richa is quite familiar with the area, she took us to the points that most tourists don’t know about. It was as mesmerizing as I’d hoped. We walked to 2 points, the first one gave us a lovely view of the fort and the sea and the second one was a walk down the fort to a point where the rocks met the sea. Richa begged me to not write about the place in my blog because for her, as someone who calls Goa home, the influx of tourists and the residue that they leave is a serious problem. This made me think about how we as tourists really need to stop treating Goa as a storage bin for our carelessness and our lack of responsibility. We need to acknowledge its beauty and do as much as we can to preserve it.

We stopped at Cavelossim Beach for a while and then drove back home. We ate a simple but yummy meal at a food truck near Jeanne’s home and headed home. At night we stayed up talking about basically everything and joking around with Jeanne’s younger brother who we basically thought was our baby brother by the end of the trip.After the successful all-nighter, we took our flight next morning to Bombay.

My trip to Goa taught me so many things. It taught me that every person sees a holiday differently. For Tanishqa, listening to music in Jeanne’s home and the costume party were the highlights of the trip. For Delice, Brittos and roaming around Panjim and the seafood were very memorable. I loved roaming around Fontainhas and Cabo Do Rama and chilling with Jeanne’s family; and for Richa and Jeanne, the fact that we went to Goa and they could take us around to their favourite spots was very important. I realized that complaining about something is NEVER going to make it better. Instead, the best thing to do in any situation is to understand what other people are saying and reaching a consensus. I also realized that for Jeanne, coordinating everyone’s to-do lists, especially mine, was a task, and she did it to the best of her ability. She was a lovely host and if I could visit her again in the future for her birthday, I’d do it, without a second thought.

The trip also taught me that Goa is what you make it to be. It has something for everyone, for each personality, for each interest. We spent 4 amazing days in a place known to be a party hub without visiting a single club because none of my friends are huge fans of drinking. We ended up eating lip-smacking food, visited beautiful churches, walked through idyllic settlements and ended up having such indelible memories. Goa is a place that makes you want to slow down, take in everything and appreciate it. It leaves you happy, relaxed and nostalgic. Goa is a state of mind that you’d want to be in now and again. Be Khanabadosh and visit Goa and tell me the million ways in which it stood out for you.

Why not Bhutan?

No matter how much travel, regardless of how many trips you take, a holiday with your friends which is completely planned by you is something you look forward to and something you want to make extremely memorable. We spend months saving for that one special trip for our closest friends and we want it to be just right.

The truth though is that like everything else, travelling is also far from perfect but it’s the imperfections that make every trip different. My first international trip with friends or our ‘grad’ trip as we called it, the one I had been wanting to go on since a long time, was a trip with my 2 friends from from school, Smin and Nupur. We were meeting Nupur after 3.5 years and this was a holiday we had saved up for, but it took us a long time to decide where to go. We wanted the destination to be just right, something that catered to all our interests and something that fit out budget. To be honest, we randomly came up with the idea of travelling to Bhutan and we did beat around the bush quite a bit, thought of other places, but ultimately, Bhutan was the only place we didn’t, or rather couldn’t filter out.

This was my first international trip with friends, without any adult supervision and so we had to book flights and accomodation well in advance. Bhutan is incredibly cold during the winter and everyone told us it would be tough to go around so a certain amount of planning was required.

Most of our plan was easy since we read about the permit process for Indians, but one thing no site mentioned was the amount of time it takes for the permit to be processed when you enter Bhutan by road, at Phuentsholing. We chose to go by road instead of flying directly to Paro because that way we’d save almost 10K on tickets. We’d read everywhere that the permit can be easily obtained at Phuentsholing and that it’s a quick process; but we ended up waiting for 6 hours, due to which we ended up wasting a day. After removing the travelling time, we had 5 whole days to do what we planned on doing in 6 days, but because all of us were very clear about wanting to do as much was possible, we managed to do almost everything we planned on doing.

We took flights to Bagdogra, from where we took a car to Phuentsholing. After obtaining our permit, we headed to Thimphu, then to Punakha, then to Paro and then came back to Bagdogra.

There’s one route that a lot of travellers use when in Bhutan for a week, which we used as well and built our itinerary according to that.

Our brief plan, was as follows:

We flew from Bombay to Bagdogra, rented a cab and drove to Phuentsholing which is the border town in Bhutan. We had a lovely dinner at Asian Kitchen in the main market after which we went to Kizom cafe for desserts.

On the second day, we went to the Regional Immigration office in Phuentsholing to apply for the permit that Indians require to travel in Bhutan. The permit issued here is only valid for 7 days and for the ares of Thimphu and Paro. If you wish to stay for any more time or visit any other place, you need to apply for an extended permit at the office in Thimphu. We’d read online that obtaining a permit at Phuentsholing was a hassle-free process and that it’s very quick, but we actually ended up waiting for 6 hours to obtain our permit. We ended up leaving for Thimphu at 3pm instead of 10 am and wasted an entire day in just travelling. We visited a monastery in the centre of Phuentsholing before leaving. We braced ourselves for the cold weather in Thimphu and reached at around 8pm. We’d booked a stay in the campus of the Royal Thimphu College. The rooms were lovely and the campus is beyond beautiful. We ate a delicious dinner, walked in the campus in our layers and just admired the stars.

Since we’d wasted one day, we had just 1 day to see everything in Thimphu and it being the capital, there were lots of things to see and do. But the 3 of us resonate so much with Bunny from YJHD and so we knew we had the energy and the enthusiasm to see as much as was possible. Some of our top experiences from Thimphu were:

  • The Buddha Dordenma, which is the tallest statue of Buddha seated. We reached there early so that it wouldn’t be crowded and it felt so peaceful and serene.
  • We visited Memorial Chorten which is one of the holiest places of worship in Bhutan. The entire Chorten was decorated and it look extremely colourful. We went around the chorten like the locals and even went inside the chorten.
  • Weaving occupies an important part in Bhutanese culture and the National Textile Museum describes each weaving style beautifully. Our favourite section was the weaving room where there were girls from the age to 7 to 20 weaving beautifully. The experience was incredibly enriching and something I’ll remember for a long time.
  • Zombala is an Asian restaurant in Thimphu city which has amazing food, we couldn’t get enough of this place.
  • We visited the post office in Thimphu and got personalized stamps made, which we stuck on postcards and posted them to our families.
  • The Takin preserve is where Takin, the national animal can be spotted. The visit was slightly disappointing and this place can be skipped if enough time isn’t at hand.
  • The Jungshi paper factory is a small space where you can witness the entire process of paper manufacturing from start to finish. There’s a shop which sells handmade paper products that’s attached to the paper factory.  We splurged to our hearts’ content.
  • The Taschicho Dzong is the administrative headquarters where the evening march can be witnessed. The Dzong opens in the evening because during the day it is used for administrative purposes.
  • We ended the day with local beers from a bar in the city and headed back to the college campus for a good night’s sleep.
  • The next morning, we headed to the Simply Bhutan museum in Thimphu, which is an incredible cultural experience, one I’d definitely suggest to anyone who wishes to understand the nuances of Bhutanese culture.
  • Bhutanese wine is incredibly cheap and delicious. We sampled some peach wine and absolutely loved it!

On the outskirts of Thimphu is the Dochu La, which is a pass where 108 stupas have been built and where you can see the 7 highest peaks of Bhutan from. A sizeable part was covered in snow and the views from Dochu La were mesmerizing. We climbed to the temple at the top of the complex and there was a room where we could see the mountain peaks clearly with the help of a telescope. All in all, Dochu La was one of the best parts of our trip.

We then bid farewell to the capital and headed to the ancient capital of Bhutan, Punakha. It may seem more rural and sparsely populated in comparison to Thimphu, but it has so many experiences to offer:

  1. The Suspension Bridge is beautiful and offers thje best photo-ops
  2. River rafting in Punakha is a lovely experience and gives you crazy views of the valley
  3. The Chimi Lhakhang Fertility temple and the walk to the temple is one of the most amusing and memorable walks you will have as it is filled with penis/phallus figurines of all shapes and sizes. (Chimi Lhakhang is known as the divine madman and was the one who enlightened and educated the Bhutanese people about the power of sexual intercourse, hence penis figurines are considered to be extremely auspicious and are openly displayed in the area)
  4. Khamsum Namgyal Yulley Chorten is a short hike and will prepare you for Tiger’s Nest.
  5. The Punakha Dzong is a sight to behold and is my favourite Dzong out of the ones I saw!
Punakha Dzong
The hot stone bath in Punakha

We stayed at a traditional Bhutanese homestay for 2 days, wherein we had home-cooked meals, ate breakfast with a view of the mountains and also indulged in a hot stone bath, a Bhutanese tradition which is known to soothe your joints. The stay was slightly expensive for a student budget and our hosts overcharged us for quite a few facilities but since Punakha has less options for accommodation, we were prepared for it, rather, we didn’t have any option.

After experiencing the mesmerizing beauty that Punakha has to offer, we headed to Paro, which was our last stop. Although Tiger’s Nest and the hike were the main reasons we visited Paro, we wanted to go around the city on our first day. By then, we had seen quite a lot of places that were examples of traditional Bhutanese architecture and so we weren’t amazed by the architecture in Paro. The culture, when compared to India, is not as varied and so we did not love the Dzong and the museums in Paro as much as we loved them in Punakha and Thimphu. Regardless, some of the main attractions in Paro are:

  1. The Tiger’s Nest, which is a 6-8kms trek round trip. It is quite a steep trek but totally worth it. This was definitely the highlight of our 2 days in Paro.
  2. Paro Dzong(Rinpun Dzong)
  3. The Airport view-point( Paro is one of the most difficult airports to land in, in the world)
  4. Chele la pass(This requires a special permit, the same as Punakha, since it is outside Paro) We couldn’t visit it because it was blocked due to snow but we heard great reviews about it.
  5. Apart from all these attractions, there are a couple of good museums in Paro as well but they aren’t as great as the ones in Thimphu and so we decided to skip those.
  6. Namgay Artisanl Brewery has decent beers, if you want to kill time and enjoy beer-tasting
Outside Tiger’s Nest Monastery
Halfway to Tiger’s Nest Monastery
Paro Dzong

After spending 2 days in Paro, we returned to Phuenstholing on New Year’s Eve. We visited the Karbandi Monastery on the outskirts of the city on our way back. In the evening, we walked over to the Indian border and went on a street food crawl where we hogged on momos for INR 20 a plate, panipuri and a couple of other Bengali versions of chaat.

We returned to the Bhutanese side at night and entered a bar next to our hotel. Phuentsholing isn’t exactly the best place to go pub-crawling and the bar was quite average. We ended up having a few beers and while we were walking back to our hotel, outside on the porch, we saw a group of 2 girls and their guide listening to a song we really liked and we sat with them. We ended up playing many songs after that, singing at the top of our voices and that’s how we brought in the new year. Now that I look back on it, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

The entrance to the Karbandi Monastery
Bringing in 2019 with people we met outside our hotel

The next morning, we were pretty exhausted, but we got up early and left for Bagdogra in a cab. We got on our flight and flew back to Bombay.

Over the years, I’ve started hating going on holidays where you go via travel packages. I knew people who paid travel companies upto 70000 for a trip to Bhutan, along the same route we took. We ended up spending 38000 for 8 nights in Bhutan, including travel, accommodation in decent places, food, flight to and from Bombay and everything else. This also including the cost of river rafting and a hot stone bath in our homestay.

We could only do this because all 3 of us were on the same page and wanted to make the most of the holiday and make every rupee count, which is why it’s really important to travel with people who are as enthusiastic and as forthcoming as you.

Adding the links of all the Airbnbs/hotels we stayed in here:

Travel is a trend now more than ever. With flights getting cheaper, hostels and Airbnbs popping, it’s so easy to plan international trips. But in planning elaborate holidays to different parts of the world, we often forget the gems that are lying so close to us. When we were planning this trip, people asked us “Why Bhutan?” so many times. It was hard for people to believe that we would want to spend 8 nights in Bhutan. But for us, it wasn’t just about entering a country, ticking some things off a list and leaving. We wanted to fully absorb the culture, do everything we possibly could and leave some extra time for any spontaneous outings. Now I’m not romanticizing the beauty of the country. We did get our overdose of the architecture after the 6th day and we did have a problem finding good vegetarian food at 1-2 places and we were extremely annoyed of Indian tourists being loud and irresponsible everywhere we went; but all these things are a part and parcel of travel. The thrill of river-rafting through Punakha valley, the serenity of living in a homestay in Punakha, the joy of completing the Tiger’s Nest hike, the goosebumps I had at Dochu La and the welcoming vibe of Thimphu city, all these are experiences that I’d never trade for anything. So by the time the trip ended, we had an answer for all those who asked us why to chose to travel to the land of the thunder dragon, the last Shangri-La

” Why not Bhutan?”

Go to countries and places that are closer to you, read about what other people have done but if you feel like it, go offbeat and do what you want to do. Define your own travelling style and find people that match it. Be Khanabadosh, become one with the place you’re travelling to and you might just end up coming back a tad bit wiser than you were before.