Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Building The Perfect Travel First Aid Kit

The need for a handy and complete First Aid Kit is beyond any debate. 'It's better to be safe than sorry.' In case of an emergency, it will be of great help and can significantly improve chances of survival. From my experience, I have built a list of must haves in your First Aid Kit under three categories.

Basic Stuff To Carry

Band aids
Bandage Roll
Cotton Balls/swabs
Anti septic solution
Crepe band
Mosquito Repellent
Lip Balm
Pain Relief Spray
Blister Preventives
Disposable Gloves
Sun screen lotion
Anti Itch Cream
Antibiotic cream
Razor Blades
Safety Pins
Quality Lighter/Flint 
Flash Light
Adhesive Tape
Waterproof Bags
Swiss Army Knife
Hand Sanitizer
Clean Cloth
Water Purifiers (tablets/survivor filter)
First Aid Apps
Have emergency contact numbers/names written down
Hand book/PDF on how to treat basic health issues & administer first aid.
Prescription Specs
Chewing Gum
Garlic bulbs (Wonder drug, fights AMS)

Medicines For

Pain Killers 
Cold & Cough 
Anti Diarrhea 
Oral Re-hydration Packs
Heart burn/Gas/ Acid Indigestion
Nasal Drops
Antacid Salts
AMS (Altitude Sickness)
Motion Sickness
Nausea and Vomiting
Mouth Ulcer Gel
Aloe-vera gel

Personal Medicines & Conditions: If you have any personal health condition/allergies/ prescriptions be sure to carry them.

Destination and Duration of Your Trip: Based on your destination and duration carry adequate and appropriate medicines. Example: If you are on a jungle trek, be sure to carry mosquito repellent and Water Purification Tablets. If you are planning a high altitude trek, carry Disposable Small Oxygen Cylinders. 

Spending time reading and understanding a First Aid guide book is essential, you never know when you can save a life. Periodically, do check and replace expired medicines.

CAUTION: Do Consult A Physician For Accurate Medicines. I am not a doctor and these are just basic guidelines to help make your trip comfortable.

Have A Fantastic Trip!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Nepal Vehicle Entry Procedure For Travelers

Nepal, home to the highest peak- Mount Everest, is the most scenic destination and a perfect place for self riding/driving holiday destination. Indians do not require a visa or travel permit to visit Nepal. However, if you are crossing into the border on your own vehicle you have to get a vehicle permit at the border. The process is fairly simple and less time consuming.

The documents required are:
  • Original RC.
  • Photocopy of RC.
Please note passport size photographs are not required.

Procedure: You need to fill an application form, pay the fee and the permit is done. It took us 15 minutes to finish the process and hit the road. Good news is there are no touts to trouble around. Do have the receipt safe as there are multiple check points that ask for the appropriate documents. 

Two-wheelers are charged 200 Nepali Rupees per day. The border offices open at 8 am, it would be a good idea to reach the border early to beat the queue. At Kakarbhitta border, we were issued a permit for a maximum of 7 days. Most of the border posts issue it for a maximum of 7 days and to extend the permit we were asked to head to Kathmandu. 

Permit Extension Procedure:

For extension, one has to go to the Cargo Terminal at Kathmandu airport. Help will star coming to you immediately in the form of private agents and it is mandatory to use their services. The fee for agents is 500 Nepali rupee, the agent will take the documents and would enter the information in their database with details such as Engine, chassis and vehicle number using his username and agent ID. This information has to be precise and correct and will later be inspected by the Chief Customs Officer. 

After the data entry, your documents will be passed on to another official for signature. Post that you head to the bank within the airport premises to pay the fee for remaining days. For this you will get a receipt and then comes the most tricky and time consuming part. Since the customs department is the one issuing the vehicle permit you have to get hold of the Chief Customs Officer to verify and attest your vehicle chassis and engine number. This could be quite a task as this place is the International Cargo terminal and hence the officer tends to be way too busy. 

In our case, this process took over 3 hours. Also, do note that the vehicle permit can be obtained for a maximum of 30 days in a year. The word is if you overstay your vehicle will be impounded and you will have to face legal consequences. Do respect the rules and regulation of the Country. Also note that helmets are mandatory in Nepal. 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Tiger Nest - Humble Monastery That Put Bhutan On The World Map

The early morning mist, wet roads and an almost hidden narrow deviation from the highway crossing a few villages leads you to the parking lot of the most impressive trek of your lifetime. The Tiger's Nest trek. The view of the woods and horses grazing all around in the parking lot make you feel like the adventure has already begun. To reach the Takstang Monastery, you can trek all the way up or you can sit on the back of a horse for three fourth of the distance and then continue the rest of the climb on foot. We chose the more adventurous path - trekking all the way up to admire the beauty of the wilderness.

But before we could start the trek we joined a group of locals who lit a bonfire and were keeping themselves warm. The warmth from rubbing your palms and the bonfire gave us the much energy required to beat the cold and start the trek.

The trek path is well maintained and as you begin your trek you come across hydro powered prayer wheels spinning around at great speed. The path through the pine forests is steep but well worth it for the views of the Paro valley and of course the glimpses of the monastery captivating and recharging you to finish the trek. All through the trek path you find prayer flags fluttering and carrying the prayers to Almighty.

There are two cafes en-route the monastery. A stop at the main Cafeteria with a beautiful sit out and magnificent views of the monastery leaves you spellbound. This is the place where most of the trekkers end their trek and head back. The food offered is basic consisting of dal rice and noodles but considering the remoteness of the location it is a feast and the steep price is well worth it. Of course, the perfect place to enjoy the view with a hot cup of tea in your hand munching on some biscuits and witnessing this wonder of the world.

View From Cafe
After crossing the cafeterias, the path is much steep but with even better views of the Monastery. You finally reach the point where the horses end their journey and then begins the climb of rock cut steps leading you to the Monastery. The huge waterfall on the way, the sounds of which could be heard in the cafeteria takes your breath away.

It was thrilling to reach the monastery. Be it the dramatic location, the monstrous structure, the mythical stories, the adventurous trek, Tiger's Nest packs a powerful punch.  It is believed that Guru Ringponche flew up to the monastery on the back of a Tigress in order to subdue evil spirits in the vicinity and meditated in a cave here for three long months. It is one of the most sacred places for Buddhists in Bhutan as this is the birthplace of Buddhism in Bhutan. The monastery houses huge sculptures of various Buddhist gurus. Right next to the huge sculpture of Guru Ringponche is the cave in which he meditated. However, this is closed for public viewing and remains open only once in a year.

The most dramatic aspect of the monastery is the 'Tiger's Nest,' be sure to check out this cave located in between the Butter lamp room and Namsey Langhankha. This dramatic cave leads you to the edge of the mountain and throws open the view of Paro valley, this cave is where the mythical tigress rested long ago. However, please be cautioned that this place can only be reached by climbing down a couple of make shift wooden ladders. A slip here or there would result in broken bones and people hardly visit this place so getting help might be a distant dream.

A little before the entrance to the monastery is the Lion's Cave. This is where Yeshi Tsogyal, consort of Guru Ringponche meditated.

This monastery is nothing less of an engineering marvel. The master artisans and skillful carpenters of Bhutan have built such a wonderful monument centuries ago. And all of this was built without a blue print. It is believed that higher spiritual powers helped build this stunning monastery. A walk around the monastery witnessing this unbelievable wonder of the world that has survived a fire and still stands solid to tell the tales of history is mind blowing.

With a sense of calm, we started to climb down to the Valley.

Few things to keep in Mind:

  • Mobile phones and cameras are prohibited inside the monastery premises and have to be deposited in the locker room. However, these lockers are not equipped with locks.
  • It would be a great idea to leave a little early in the morning for the trek as the monastery visiting hours are from 8 am to 4 pm (during winter) and is closed for lunch from 1 pm to 2 pm. 
  • One needs good amount of stamina for the trek. An average person would take anywhere between 2 to 3 hours to reach the monastery and it's quite a difficult trek.
  • As it is a sacred site, please maintain decorum and respect the sanctity of the monastery .

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Paro Valley The Place To Be For An Idyllic & Romantic Trip

The majestic Dzong or Monastery perched high on a hill, the river kissing the shore and the blue sky with white clouds scattered around, time definitely had come to a standstill with nothing but nature around and tales of history urging to be heard. These are the memories that leave an everlasting impression and it is this natural beauty that automatically calms you down, making you forget your worries and be content and filled with gratitude for having witnessed this moment. And to make this memory further more romantic, we noticed an old couple sitting right next to us clicking pictures and giggling away to glory while their eyes speaking volumes, if this doesn't define romance, there is nothing else that could. Happy and content with their memories and a childlike smile on their faces, they walked away but not before the man winked at us confirming that love is not age bound. Yes, this would definitely be one memory that would flash our minds minutes before resting in peace.

Paro valley is best explored on foot. Though lesser populated than Thimphu, Paro is more famous globally due to the imposing Tiger Nest Monastery. If Thimphu is calm and quite, Paro is serene. While heading to the most iconic place in Bhutan- Paro valley leaving the capital city of Thimphu behind, we were excited as this tiny town serves as the perfect retreat. The river that runs through the town, the beautiful and colorful trees, pristine valleys, the magnanimous Dzongs & monasteries make Paro picture perfect.

Paro/Rinpung Dzong: Also known as the "Fortress on the heap of jewels," it was built in the 15th century but was destroyed by fire in 1907. Built again using traditional methods i.e. no nails and bolts it stands as a fine example of Bhutanese architecture. This massive fortress now serves as an administrative office and is open for public viewing. The monastery can be reached either by a fleet of steep rock cut steps or an inclined and smooth pathway. After the tiring hike we climbed down and sat by the Paro river that made our evening idyllic & romantic.

One of the reasons why Bhutan is famous and most people visit Paro is to hike up Taksang Monastery. The dramatic monastery built 3000 m above sea level embracing a cliff  is nothing less than any wonder. Legend has it that Guru Padmasambhava flew here on a tigress from Tibet and meditated here in a cave for three months. Hence, it is known as Tiger's Nest Monastery. To give full justice to the monastery, we will be dedicating an exclusive post for Tiger Nest.

A few kilometers away from Paro town is the Paro National Museum, built as a watchtower to protect Paro Dzong in 1651, it was converted to a museum in 1965. This museum stands as another sign of the good relationship that India and Bhutan share. This museum was funded by the Indian government and one of the relics 'A double Barrel Gun' was gifted by Pundit Nehru to the Royal family. The museum is a must visit as it speaks volumes about the Bhutanese culture, history, wildlife & much more and houses more than 3000 pieces of artwork with a culture spanning over 1500 years. The first two halls of the museum are dedicated to Bhutanese culture exhibiting the different kinds of masks & Thankas (Buddhist paintings.) They exclusively showcase the rich tradition and culture of Bhutan. The other galleries proudly showcase the varied wildlife that exist in Bhutan ranging from their National animal 'Takin,' Snow/clouded leopard, gharial, bird species, butterflies etc. The museum has state of the art technology where visitors can watch documentaries to learn more about Bhutan culture. Any kind of photography is strictly prohibited inside the museum.

While in Bhutan it is a must to treat your taste buds with the Bhutanese cuisine, especially Mushroom Datshi, a dish with mushrooms and lot of green chillies in a cheese sauce and Chicken Paa that may include radish but nonetheless tastes spicy and excellent. Bhutanese food is way too spicy as chillies seem to be their main ingredient so do specify to add less chillies. Their butter salt tea is a must try and is an acquired taste but something very unique.

Paro offers some great restaurants and cafes, our favorite was the 'Champaca Cafe' as they serve lip smacking pastries, sandwiches & beverages. The people who run the Cafe are very kind, helpful and very cheerful with great aesthetic sense that reflects in the decor of their cafe. It is a perfect place to regain all the calories burnt while hiking to the Tiger's Nest and unwind in the evening with a nice ambience, coffee in your hand, sinful pastries to gorge on and watch the town carry on with their daily activities.

The nights provide a different picture- the sky dazzling with stars, the stream gushing down and crickets singing their tunes and the cold wind blowing across hypnotizing you and the drowsy eyes flicker and shut down with a smile plastered on the lips.

Bhutan is the place where we saw giant phalluses being sold as souvenirs and the phallic symbols are painted on the walls of homes & Dzongs as Bhutanese people believe it would wade off evil spirits and is considered as a sign of fertility. Do not be surprised if you come across small wooden phalluses hanging on doors of homes and shops. There are plenty of souvenir shops around that would help you choose a perfect memento as a mark of remembrance.

As if Tiger's Nest was not enough, there are few more monasteries that you might encounter in Paro valley that will make you wonder, how on earth did they manage to reach that high, forget building a monastery. Some things are best when left unexplained.

Not just the finished monuments, but ruins too are a sight to behold. These ruins capture your attention right on the highway.

Another interesting fact about Paro is its small airport with one runway, we literally rode our bike parallel to the runway. Interesting thing is guards stop traffic on the road in the event of a flight taking off or landing giving one a great view of the aircraft's belly. As luck would have it, on the last day when we were leaving from Paro we saw a Druk aircraft just mere meters away from us fly over our head and touch down at the airport.

We checked into hotel Sonam Trophel, a fantastic budget hotel with great service. Their management is very helpful and the hotel offers WiFi and the food is good and tastes pretty much like home cooked food.

We finally wrapped up our adventurous road trip lasting around 50 days covering 4269 km across the picturesque landscapes of Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan. We bid adieu to the mountains and head back home.

"Do not be sad its Over, be glad it happened."

Monday, June 1, 2015

Riding Into The Happiest Kingdom Bhutan

One thing that stands out about Bhutan is its pristine beauty. The mist, the forest around, traditional wooden homes with colorful carvings or paintings, monasteries, scintillating landscapes beautifully painted by colorful trees makes you feel like you have entered a fantasy World. The Land of the Thunder Dragon as it is popularly known, is truly a biking country. Riding our bike on these wide roads with greenery all around, the clouds blessing us with little raindrops and the river stream swaying through made us hope that this road would never end.

Our Bhutan ride was simply the best and most enjoyed stretch in our whole ride across Nepal, Sikkim & Bhutan. The BRO have done a fabulous job in maintaining the roads to compliment the beauty of Nature that Bhutan has to offer. It really is a 'Paradise on earth.' The sun constantly plays hide and seek with you and the clouds join in. They make you doubt your own watch as 1:30 in the afternoon may seem like 6 in the evening. On the way, 'Dantak Canteen' 75 km from Phuentsholing (the entry point) is a perfect place to stop for lunch. It serves hot and spicy food and Indian food seems to be their specialty. Their special tea easily replaces one peg of whiskey in the cold weather.

Riding on Bhutan roads leaves you amazed by their traffic sense, their patience, and their respect for pedestrians. With so many junctions on a single lane you may expect traffic jams and grid locks but forget traffic jams this country does not need red, yellow or green lights to keep them in check. Yes, they do not have traffic signals yet they believe in following traffic rules and need not be manned by cops all the time. They follow the law whether someone is looking or not and this is what speaks volumes about their culture, values and the kind of people they are.

Our interaction with locals here confirmed the fact that Bhutan truly is a happy country. People here are content with their lives, give importance to cleanliness, they know that money can fetch you materialistic things but they do know that money cannot truly buy you happiness, which is a choice and they choose to be happy. Everyone you meet has a smile and they are very grounded and welcome you to their homes with open arms. They can be seen flaunting around their traditional attire, gho and kira, being at ease wearing them on a daily basis and do not feel the need to imitate other countries as they are very proud of  their deep rooted traditional and cultural values and why not- the basic act of being kind and respectful to another human being reflects among each one of them.

Thimphu, the capital, is a wonderful place to begin your travel for the first time in a Kingdom. It is the lifeline of Bhutan with a lot of activities around. Apart from being tourist friendly with abundant hotels and restaurants, there are a lot of  exhibitions organised to promote handicrafts from different parts of Bhutan. The weekend markets are definitely worth a visit and if you are a sports enthusiast, you might want to give a shot at Archery in Thimphu. They are also huge fans of Football and while we there, there was a Football Championship going on and the crowd was going berserk.

A 20 minute ride from Thimphu on a road between huge pine trees, strewn with the brown needle drops and of course the cold wind running the chills across your face lingering with the fragrance of Earth leads you to a brick establishment on a rock, sheltered by massive trees with the blue sky and white clouds in the background glorifying the monastery even more making you wonder if this is the the stairway to heaven.

This monastery is the Dechenphu Lhakhang popularly known as 'Denchen Pho' and is of great religious importance to the Bhutanese people. Non Bhutanese visitors are not allowed inside the Dzong but are free to visit the Monastery.

Apart from a handful of locals you will not spot anyone else here making it the ideal place for solitude and to get lost in your thoughts. Just sit on the grass, close your eyes and this place soothes you automatically leaving you in a trance mode.

On the foot hills is the Pangrizampa Lakhang. Today, this temple is used as an Astrologers Center of the state clergy and is home to close to 100 monks studying Astrology.

Tashichhoe Dzong, also called the "Fortress of the Glorious Religion," is the powerhouse and administrative building of Bhutan. It houses the throne room and offices of the king, the cabinet secretariat and the ministries of the home affairs and finance. It is open for public viewing from 4 to 5 pm. However, be there a little early to see the Royal Police Guards unfurl the Bhutan National Flag. While entering the Dzong, we were captivated by the paintings on the wall, each even more  impressive than the other. The Dzong is massive and beautiful and there is a huge monastery within the Dzong.

Bhutan National Library is a treasure trove of Bhutanese and Tibetan literature, be it ancient manuscripts carved on wood or written on handmade paper, they are all preserved at their pristine best. This three storeyed wooden building serves as a home for Monks and scholars. Most of the ancient manuscripts are wrapped in silk cloth. On the ground floor of the library is another great piece of history, the "Largest Published Book" in the World.

Only a few kilometers away from the National library is the Zilukha Nunnery which is the biggest nunnery in Bhutan. The nuns here are actively involved in helping the less privileged and the local communities. The panoramic view of the Tashichhoe Dzong from here is breathtaking.

The entire Kingdom seems to idolize the King and the Queen and is apparent from the Portraits and hearty message from the public to the royal family. Our sincere respect to the country as it values Gross Domestic Happiness over GDP.

We checked into Hotel New Grand, we stayed there for two nights and on the second day we were told fresh towels would not be provided and guest have to reuse the same towel as it's their policy which was not mentioned during check-in. This defied all logic, when the guests are expected to pay for each nights stay such gimmicks should be avoided. Also, their restaurant is very mediocre, majority of items on the menu are not available and their WiFi barely works. Overall, this hotel can be avoided as there are plenty of other options.

The rice bowl restaurant was our favorite for Bhutanese food and just around the corner is the Bhutan Kitchen Restaurant, the perfect place to try authentic Bhutanese food.

Next stop Paro valley.