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Category Archives: Travel

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Bewitching Bhutan beckons you

Part 2
Dawn crept quietly over the sleeping Royal Thimphu College (RTC) campus. Only a cock was aware of it, and crowed. I got out of bed and tiptoed across to the window. I pulled the window curtains and could see the heavenly Himalayas unfolding its surreal splendor and magic.
I said to myself: “Thank you, God, for giving me such an opportunity to savor the majestic beauty of the Himalayas and the sylvan surroundings.”
I watched in awe the misty peaks and was steeped in Himalayas’ mysticism.

We’ll remain grateful to the dean and acting president of the RTC, Shiva Raj Bhattarai, for proving us such an incredible guesthouse.

RTC campus: Picture perfect

College campus with sylvan surroundings

The sun was yet to appear in the distant horizon. I got ready to go out and stroll along the squeaky clean roads of the college campus – sprinting uphill and going downhill in the morning calm! The slanting rays of the early morning sun were just beginning to make emeralds of the dew drops!
As many as ten puppies, shivering in bone-chilling cold ((temperature 2 degrees C), were faithfully following their mom near the picturesque college canteen. I strolled toward the canteen to begin my morning walk.
The green grass, the blossoming flowers kept in tubs on the stairs leading to the canteen entrance, chirping of birds, the fresh air, and the morning dew filled my heart with happiness. I gazed at the gigantic statue of the Buddha faraway on the hilltop and the snowy mountain peaks.

Destination: Paro Taktsang Monastery (Tiger’s Nest)

Bhutan Tourism Council (BTC), in its website, says its vision is “to promote Bhutan as an exclusive travel destination based on Gross National Happiness (GNH) Values”. The tourism industry in Bhutan, the website adds, is founded “on the principle of sustainability, meaning that tourism must be environmentally and ecologically friendly, socially and culturally acceptable and economically viable”.
I’ve seen during my stay in Bhutan how true the BTC is to their words!!!
I visited Paro, Punakha and Haa and saw how the government has been honestly preserving the ethnic culture, tradition and the environment.

On the way to Paro

Tshering, the young Bhutanese driver, came to our guesthouse to pick us up at 8am. We left the RTC campus in unforgiving biting winds and bone-chilling cold. As our car went downhill toward Paro (Thimphu- Paro about 55km) valley, we were amazed at the clean roads and noise-free traffic.
We can’t think of this in any hill stations in India!
As I mentioned earlier, India must learn from its tiny neighbor. Small is beautiful!
“Our government leaves no stone unturned to make sure our culture and tradition remains untouched by the relentless march of globalization,” said Tshering, a cricket buff and an ardent fan of Virat Kohli.
My trip to Paro and Punakha will especially remain etched in my memory for this young Bhutanese whose civility, commitment to work, punctuality and hunger for knowledge should be an object lesson for Indian cabbies.
I’m thankful to Tshering for teaching me several common words in Bhutanese language! (‘Kadin chhe‘ means thank you, ‘Jempoleso‘ means welcome, ‘kade bey you‘ means how are you etc, to name a few)
Among the villages we passed by were Simtokha and Lungtenphu. “That’s Chuzom (meaning confluence in Bhutanese),” Tshering said, pointing out the juncture of Thimphu river (Wang chu) and Paro river (Paro chu).
Chuzom is a major road junction, with southwest road leading to Haa (79km), and south road to Phuntsholing (141km).
From Chuzom, the road follows Wang chu downstream to Paro.
After Chuzom, we passed by Shaba and at Isuna, the road crosses a bridge to the other side of river.
As we drove to Paro, we passed by Bondey, a hamlet, from where we could see the tiny little airport. The terminal looked more like a giant temple courtyard. We’re lucky to see a plane landing majestically on the runway.
Paro, the only international airport (7200ft) of the four airports in the country, is located 6km from Paro downtown in a deep valley on the bank of the spectacular Paro chu (‘chu’ means river in Bhutanese). With surrounding peaks as high as 18000 ft, it is considered as one of the most challenging airports in the world.

Only 17 pilots are qualified to fly into this airport. The aircraft has to tilt its wings 45 degrees to squeeze between mountain tops while coming within feet of cliff side buildings and then make a quick stop on the short runway.

The Taktsang Goemba or the Tiger’s Nest Monastery to the north of the town remains perched at a height of 9842ft on a vertical cliff. It is believed Guru Rinpoche flew to this cliff on a flaming tigress and meditated here. This spectacular monastery is one of the most sacred sites for Buddhist pilgrims.
As our car came to a halt near the marketplace, I encountered some foreigners from the UK. I met an old, yet energetic guy in his seventies. He’s the roving diplomat of Austria. He told me he couldn’t trek to the top of the mountain where the monastery is located, although he had wished to. I was stunned by his scholarship and passion for India. He was telling me he had met our former vice president H.M. Ansari in Baghdad who was then working in the Indian Mission. “Your country has a great civilization. I believe India has a great future with its huge knowledgeable workforce and talented IT professionals,” he said.

Bhutan Spirit Sanctuary

Dr Swati, associate professor in the department of Business Studies at the RTC, told me that a high-end tourist resort, Bhutan Spirit Sanctuary, had been recently opened not far away from the downtown Paro.
Meanwhile, I met Jeroen Uittenbogaard, a tall young Dutch, at Ambient Cafe in Thimphu downtown before my trip to Paro. He said he had joined the resort as director (special projects) after his stint at the RTC. I was fascinated as he was recounting the unique concept of the Sanctuary, sipping freshly brewed espresso at the café. He told me about the visionary Dutch hotelier Louk Lennaerts, who built Bhutan’s first well-being inclusive high-end Sanctuary (tariff starts from USD1100).
“Your inspiration — body, mind and spirit,” says the website of the Sanctuary.
I was particularly amazed by the words “Become part of Bhutan by joining our social and environmental efforts”, as I was browsing the resort’s website.
I told Tshering to take us there. Unfortunately, we couldn’t reach the resort as the driver got lost on the way, although we went quite close to the Sanctuary. However, Jereon was kind enough to send me the photographs of the Sanctuary. I expressed my heartfelt gratitude to the young Dutch.
Bid adieu to the urban chaos and cacophony and take a trip to the bewitching Bhutan which will delight your peripatetic hearts.

Front entrance gate: architectural marvel

Golden doors to lobby entrance : designer’s delight

View from the Sanctuary: The Himalayan grandeur

Well-being area lounge: practicing mindfulness and meditation

PHOTO: Bhutan Spirit Sanctuary

(To be continued)


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Grandeur of silence in breathtaking Bhutan

Part 1

Magic mountains, mind-blowing monasteries, captivating valleys, serene landscapes, and silent streams: Mother Nature has been so expansive to this tiny kingdom.
Tucked away in the Himalayas between India and China and untouched by ‘romantic consumerism’ (to borrow eminent Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari’s words), Bhutan is home to quaint Buddhist temples and numerous endangered flora and fauna; the tiny kingdom beckons travelers with its pristine natural beauties and daunting topography.
Having never been colonized or ruled by any foreign power, the tiny kingdom opened doors to the outside world quite late in the 1960’s and received the first tourist in the early 1970s.
Bhutan has always been promoting ‘Low volume High Value’ tourism where the number of tourists visiting Bhutan is limited and regulated. This is to showcase to the world the natural beauty and spectacular landscape, well-preserved age-old culture and traditions, family values of internal happiness as being more important than making money and generating income and the proverbial ‘rat race’. It’s not just the amount of money spent but the value and the destination that matters.
My eight-day sojourn in Bhutan bears testimony to this.

Destination: Royal Thimphu College

As our Bolero crossed Jaigaon, the border town of West Bengal, and entered Phuentsholing, and touched the Bhutanese soil I bade adieu to the chaos, cacophony and bedlam of Bengal and drove up far from the madding crowd!
What struck me particularly was Bhutanese citizens’ aspiration to do better. I visited Thimphu in 2013 and was stunned by their abiding passion for discipline, and keenness to preserve the environment. This time I found mountain roads even better (driving time from Phuentsholing to Thimphu has been reduced to four and half hours). The government’s strict directives — no blowing of horn, no littering and no smoking in public places – are being followed in letter and spirit by law-abiding citizens.
Wow!
Can we think of such a scenario in India? It’s time we learned from our ‘poorest’ neighbor.
Bitten by wanderlust and stung by the majestic beauty of Bhutan, I took the trip to this ‘tiny wonderland’ again.
After obtaining entry permits from the Phuentsholing immigration office, when we began our journey up the mountains, darkness was descending slowly.

Call of the wild

You’d better listen Mother Nature

As our car wounded its way up the mountains we’re a tad edgy. All of a sudden, a reassuring voice was heard. “Our roads have become much better now. No worries, just relax,” our driver Gyembu, a Bhutanese in his late twenties, said.
The mountains unfolded their nocturnal grandeur as we drove higher and higher. With temperature plummeting, we first stopped at a place not far from Phuentsholing. We got off the car and scampered to a wayside restaurant (Gurung restaurant) to beat the cold. The owner, a middle-aged Bhutanese, welcomed us with his native language: “Jem po leso…” (meaning welcome). His warmth and cordiality touched us all. We ordered hot, delectable momos and steaming coffee. In no time, the food was served and we gulped them down hurriedly and left the restaurant as we had a long way to go. The car had to negotiate a series of sharp turns (Blow Horn sign was there) on the way up the mountains. We kept savoring the beauty of the majestic mountains and countless ridgelines defining gorgeous valleys in the dark.
We finally reached the Royal Thimphu College (RTC) campus around 10pm. The security guard at the huge tastefully and aesthetically-made gate greeted us, his politeness and refinement unmistakable. My sister-in-law, who is an associate professor, department of business studies, made everything ready for us. We’re taken to an amazing two-storied wooden, elegantly-designed building overlooking the Himalayas.
Chilled to the bone, we got off the car, shivering (temperature dipped to 1 degree Celsius). The picturesque college campus (7546ft and about 700ft above Thimphu) and the surrounding visual marvel will be our home for the next eight days.

Snow-capped Jomolhari, known as ‘the bride of Kangchenjunga’

(To be continued)


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Let Bengal learn from Sikkim

Destination: Rinchenpong, West Sikkim
As our Bolero reached Rangpo, a town in east Sikkim bordering with Bengal, and penetrated the white wall of morning mists, we were greeted with a visual marvel. Melting snows giving birth to mighty waterfalls, lush green valleys, roaring rivers and steep hillsides created a picture of paradise on earth.
A Sikkimese cop strode up to our car at the border and wanted to see our I-cards. “Just one I-card is enough,” he said, his politeness and refinement unmistakable. (Are Bengal cops listening?)
I gave him my I-card. “Welcome to Sikkim. Enjoy your trip,” the cop said. The policeman’s cordiality and warmth of feeling touched me.

Kingly Kanchenjunga from Rinchenpong,

Even though we were groggy (Teesta-Torsha pulled into the NJP station at 2.40am and we had to wait till 5.30am for the car), the stunning sights around whipped us into a frenzy.
Leaving Rangpo behind, our car drove up the hill’s winding roads. The morning sun caressed the meandering Teesta creating a mystic ambience. I was mesmerized by Nature’s majestic beauty.
We reached Melli, 22km from Rangpo around 9.30am.
Melli lies both in Bengal and Sikkim. The part of the town in Bengal is called Melli Bazaar. The town lies on NH 31A connecting Siliguri to Gangtok. Melli is the main entry point for West and South Sikkim districts. Jawaharlal Nehru Bridge, the longest bridge in Sikkim, connects the two parts of the town.

Misty morning at Ravangla, south Sikkim

We got off the car and walked into a wayside restaurant for breakfast. We had steaming vegetable momos and tea.
Melli is located 7 km upstream from Teesta Bazaar. On the Sikkim side lies Yuksom Brewery which produces most of the beer in the region. The brewery and a biscuit factory are the major industries in the region. One can go for river rafting here.
The car then left Melli Bazaar for Rinchenpong, 62km away. On our way, we saw innocent faces of Sikkimese children as they walk to their school; we also saw people arranging their wares in the middle of the market. Then came our driver’s warning: “Don’t throw anything on roads through window.” He added: “Plastic is banned and smoking in public places forbidden in Sikkim.” My friend Bapi was let down by the sudden announcement. “Well, you can smoke inside your hotel rooms,” said the driver.
Bapi sighed in relief.

Chowk Bazar, Ravangla: Cleanliness is Sikkim’s hallmark

We reached Rinchenpong (5600ft) around 12.30pm. The soothing noontime sun welcomed us as our car came to a halt at Rinchenpong bazaar. I was stunned by the spick-and-span marketplace.
Our hotel Denzong Residency was a few paces up the hill from Rinchenpong bazaar. The hotel guys came and took our luggage. Our third-floor room offered a breathtaking view of Mt. Khanchendzonga.
We were thrilled.
What struck me about the Rinchenpong bazaar was its tranquility and quietude. I haven’t seen such a noise-free bazaar anywhere in India. Sikkimese people are soft-spoken and well-mannered. During my week-long stay in Sikkim I didn’t encounter any brawls or altercations there. Let me share an incident: I went to the Axis Bank ATM near Ravangla chowk to withdraw money. My friend Bapi and I stood in the queue. As our turn came, we walked into the kiosk. The ATM’s display monitor was a tad different from what we have in Kolkata. So it took some more time for us to take money. There were as many as nine people waiting in the queue. But no one shouted at us nor was there any angry outburst. They waited patiently. This is amazing.
Can anyone in Bengal think of such a scenario? I was stunned by their civility and gentility.
Will the Bengalees take a lesson?

When will Bengal learn from Sikkim?

Sikkim, which in 1998 became the first Indian state to ban disposable plastic bags, is among the first to target single-use plastic bottles. “In 2016, Sikkim took two major decisions. It banned the use of packaged drinking water in government offices and government events. Second, it banned the use of Styrofoam and disposable thermocol plates and cutlery in the entire state to cut down toxic plastic pollution and tackle its ever-increasing garbage problem,” said Rajendra Pradhan, a school teacher, sitting at his home-cum-shop near the Rinchenpong bazaar.
“From April this year, we’ve banned import of all vegetables from Bengal,” Pradhan said.
I hung my head in shame.

The Singshore Bridge, Pelling, west Sikkim: Asia’s second highest bridge

Sikkim was declared the first organic state in the country which means all food produced in Sikkim is free of pesticides. It is also India’s first state to ban open defecation. Urinating in public can cost Rs 500.
The government has made it mandatory to have a sanitary toilet at home to be eligible for any benefits or to contest in village-level elections. This has resulted in the success of the program which was envisaged long before Swachch Bharat Campaign (Clean India Campaign) was even conceptualized. The state even banned firecrackers in 2014 to contain noise and air pollution.
“Sikkim is a rapidly evolving society. Gangtok, Namchi and Jorethang are urbanizing at a steady pace. Gangtok will be connected by air soon. (SpiceJet has already made trial flights). More and more people are being attracted by business opportunities.
“Though Sikkim is predominantly a Buddhist state its spirit is secular and churches, monasteries, gurdwaras, mosques and temples co-exist peacefully here.
“It’s hard to define the true culture of Sikkim. It could be called a wonderful mosaic, a unique pattern made beautiful by the unusual harmony in its individually colorful threads. And that is its trait.
The Lepchas, Bhutias and Nepalese are the predominant communities and there have been inter-racial marriages among the three over the years,” said Pradhan.

Another interesting thing I observed: One could hardly see the photos or festoons featuring Pawan Kumar Chamling on the roads of Sikkim. Chamling has surpassed the record of former Bengal CM Jyoti Basu by becoming the longest serving chief minister of any Indian state. “If a CM sincerely works for the people of his state, is there any need to hang his photos or festoons?” said Somnath Pradhan, a shopkeeper at Ravangla chowk.
Compare this with Bengal: Photos of Bengal CM have adorned the streets, roads and hills of the entire state. Wherever one goes, he or she will see the CM’s photos and posters.
What a waste of money! What an eyesore!
Is the Bengal leadership listening?


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‘Drunk Shakespeare’ on Broadway a must-see for New York City visitors

It was January 8. The New York City was going through the longest spell of freezing days since 1961. Undeterred by the bone-chilling cold, Suparno booked two tickets for Drunk Shakespeare, a Broadway show on the 8th Avenue.

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Fabulous fall color at breathtaking Bear Mountain, NY

The noontime November sun was caressing Caldwell, NJ. There was a softness in the air and the 62F temperature was pretty much perfect for a long drive.
My friend Suparno told me to get ready to see the fall foliage at Bear Mountain State Park in New York State, 51 miles away. I was ecstatic.

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Journey’s over, memories remain

The spirit of the ‘Wild West’ was even more in the air when the train pulled in the gambling town of Reno (NV). I met a guy who got off at this station. He said he’d take a taxi ride into the hills and follow the routes taken by the prospectors who hunted for silver after the Comstock Lode discovery in the 1850s.

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Experiencing the ‘Wild West’ on astonishing Amtrak

The final leg of my journey across America from New York to San Francisco begins.
I spent almost the entire day sitting in the sightseers’ lounge (well, that’s the heart of the California Zephyr), beholding the red-rock canyons and mountain passes on one of the world’s most spectacular stretches of railway.
As the train steamed out of Glenwood Springs (Co) at 5.35pm, I heard an announcement that “the California Zephyr won’t be running for one whole week from tomorrow due to track repair”. I considered myself lucky!

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