Tag Archives: road trip

A Guide to Punakha – home to the most beautiful Dzong in Bhutan

The erstwhile capital of Bhutan, Punakha is one of the most beautiful regions of the Himalayan kingdom. Two of the main rivers of Bhutan – the Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu (Chhu means river in Dzongkha – the language of Bhutan) converge here. There are more plains here and the temperatures moderate to warm – making it ideal for farming.

After our stop at Dochu La, we made our way to Punakha. The road snaked its way down the thick forests and opened up into paddy fields. We stopped at the side of the road and Karma asked us to join him as he walked onto a narrow path in between the fields. We were close to Chimi Lhakhang – the temple of the Divine Madman. Yup! The same one who created the national animal. We made our way through the village of Sopsokha and then the rice fields till we reached the old temple.

Now that we’re at the temple of the Divine Madman himself, who was he? Lama Drukpa Kunley was a Buddhist monk from Tibet and teacher who was known for his eccentric ways and unconventional teaching methods. It is said that a local demoness from Dochula used to harm the people there. The Divine Madman killed her while she had taken the form of a dog with a flaming thunderbolt of wisdom while shouting Chi Mi (meaning No Dog!). The thunderbolt was a reference to his phallus and from then on, it became a protective symbol. The temple has been built over the spot where the demoness was supposed to be buried.

This temple is known as the Fertility temple and it is said that childless couples visit here to be blessed with a baby. Inside the temple was a wooden phallus which women had to carry and walk around the temple thrice. We even saw a photo album of people who couldn’t conceive, visited the temple and had successfully borne children afterwards. We’d never been to a temple like this before and it was a unique story and experience.

It is common to see wall murals and paintings of phalluses in the buildings in this area. In fact, phalluses are worn as charms. You can pick up some souvenirs from the shops in the village on the way back.

We said goodbye to the Divine Madman and proceeded to the Punakha Dzong.

Punakha Dzong

This is easily the most majestic dzong we saw in Bhutan. Sitting right at the confluence of the rivers Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu, you can spend hours admiring the beauty of the dzong and its backdrop. We had to cross a wooden bridge to get to the dzong.

Punakha Dzong is the second oldest dzong in the kingdom and was the administrative centre till 1955 – that’s when Thimphu became the national capital. Karma told us about its legend – Guru Padmasambhava proclaimed a prophecy that a person named Namgyel would arrive at a hill shaped like an elephant. Ngawang Namgyel indeed arrived here and ordered an architect to build a palace for Guru Rinpoche. Namgyel went on the become the founder of a unified Bhutan (about whom you’ve already read in the blogs on Paro and Thimphu).

The dzong is six storeys high and has 3 huge courtyards. The first one is for administrative functions and has a bodhi tree as well.

The second one houses the quarters for the monks. The last one has a temple where the remains of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel are preserved. The area where the remains are preserved can be accessed only by the main monks and the king himself. Punakha Dzong is indeed a marvel and a must-visit in your trip to Bhutan.

It is one of those structures which you can never get enough of no matter how many times you look at it. Another such structure for me is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

The next morning, we proceeded for a trek to Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten. We passed by Punakha Dzong and followed the Mo Chhu upstream till we arrived at a bridge to cross the river. The hike took us over a suspension bridge, along a creek, through rice fields and finally a steep climb up to the top.

The temple is dedicated to bringing peace and harmony to the kingdom. The temple has four storeys, each dedicated to certain deities, and we walked all the way up along a narrow staircase. We got a magnificent panoramic view of the valley from up there. Have a look!

The trek prepared us for the mega trek that was coming up for us the next day. Read all about it here. And that brings us to a wrap of our Punakha adventures. Punakha is definitely a do-not-miss if you’re visiting Bhutan. Check out our complete itinerary here.

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A Guide to Thimphu – Dzongs, Archers, Food and much more

Thimphu is the capital and the largest city in Bhutan. It is home to the Royal family and is the commercial centre of the country – it is a place where you can experience a blend of Bhutanese culture, tradition and modern lifestyle.

We arrived at Thimphu on Day 2 of our trip (check out the complete itinerary here). Our first stop was the Simtokha Dzong – the oldest dzong in Bhutan built in 1629.

We had arrived in time for a prayer session and got to experience it in one of the halls. The hall was decorated with beautiful multi-coloured victory flags hanging from the ceiling. Butter lamps were burning on one side of the hall in front of the 3 statues – Buddha Shakyamuni, Guru Padmasambhava and Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel (the founder of Bhutan). The chanting of the monks reverberated inside the hall and it was a truly mesmerizing experience. I had witnessed one such prayer session in a monastery in Ladakh and it was equally amazing. Karma, our guide, took us around explaining the legends and stories.

We then went to the gigantic Buddha Dordenma – the golden statue of Buddha stood on top of a hill overlooking the city.

It is likened to the image of Buddha Shakyamuni. The statue is over 50 metres tall and was opened in 2015. In 2018 when we visited, work was still happening in the complex surrounding it. You can visit the halls inside which has over 100,000 statues of Buddha!

Next up, we were off to visit the national animal of Bhutan – the Takin. Legend goes that the Takin was created by Lama Drukpa Kunley, aka the Divine Madman (more about him in the Punakha post) by placing the head of a goat on a cow’s skeleton. That is pretty much what it looks like as well.

We stopped at the National Textile Museum and the Changlimithang Archery Ground. Archery is the national sport of the country. If you see an archery match going on, do take out some time to watch – it is a spectacle! The targets are so far away that they are hardly visible to an average person. Teams celebrate bullseyes with dances and songs!

This guy hit the target by the way! It was followed with a fair bit of dance and song!

The grounds also have an important history – it stands at the site of the decisive battle from 1885 which led to the unification of Bhutan and ended years of wars.

In the evening, Karma informed us that the founder of Bhutan Travel Guru, Mr Tsheten, would be taking us out to dinner to a traditional Bhutanese place. We were super excited to try out the local delicacies! We were even more amazed at the amount of personal touch being added to our trip – a testament to the Bhutanese hospitality.

FOOOOOD!

Wow, where do I begin? Let’s start with the butter tea. As the night gets colder, this warm cup of happiness comes to your rescue. Enjoyed with crunchy rice either as a topping or a side, it is the perfect way to start. We also had some dumplings, pork and ara (locally brewed rice wine) as starters.

For the mains, we had a huge spread – almost all of them containing good amounts of chillies and cheese – both staples in Bhutan. Here are the dishes we had:

  • Mushroom soup
  • Ema Datshi – chilli with cheese
  • Phakshe Paa – Pork Bacon
  • Jasha Maru – Chicken curry
  • Shamu Datshi – Mushroom with cheese
  • Steamed broccoli
  • Khaktem – fried bitter gourd
  • Azey – chilli paste with a mixture of green chilli, onion, tomatoes, salt and cheese
  • Khuli – buckwheat pancakes
  • Red Rice
  • Druna Ghu – nine different grains found in Bhutan mixed together

Let’s see if you can identify them in the pics below!

As we found with other foods we ate in Bhutan, it was simple and delicious! My mouth waters as I attach these pics.

Dochu La

Early next morning, we started on our way to Punakha. On the way, we had to cross the mountain pass of Dochu La. On a clear day, you can see the snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas from here. But we were greeted by a thick sheet of fog. This gave the place a mystical other-worldly look!

Right in the middle of the road are 108 chortens (or stupas). These stupas were built as a memorial to Bhutanese soldiers who were killed in a battle with rebels.

Near the chortens, a short walk up will take you to the Druk Wangyal Lhakhang – a beautiful temple with flowers on both sides of the steps leading up.

On the other side of the road, we saw signs pointing towards hidden meditation caves. The mist added to the experience as we climbed up the slope looking for the caves.

We really enjoyed the experience here! After spending a little over an hour here, we proceeded to Punakha for the next leg of our Bhutan adventure.  

Tip: If you happen to be in Thimphu during the weekend, do check out the weekend market!

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The Beaches and Mountains of Seychelles – Part Two (Mahe)

Before we get started, don’t forget to check out Part One here.

Done? Let’s begin!

We took the morning ferry to Mahe (details on the boat and bookings here). We had booked a car with one of the rental agencies here and our Hyundai i10 was waiting for us at the parking.

To get you started, here is a map of Mahe and the routes we took.

Day 1: Explore the Beau Vallon area

Our homestay was close to the Beau Vallon beach. It was up a steep slope and we were glad we got a car. This also meant that we got a beautiful sunset view from our room!

After checking in, we headed straight to the beach. There are quite a few street food stalls here serving Creole food, coconuts, grilled seafood, banana fritters and cakes and many more. It was a beautiful beach, and we spent a lot of time in the water enjoying the waves. In fact, we spent the whole afternoon and evening here!

We picked up some pizza from Baobab pizzeria on the way back and called it a day.

Day 2: Visit Victoria, Hike to the peak of Morne Blanc, Have some amazing Creole food

Our first stop for the day was the capital city of Victoria. We parked our car in the parking area, collected a parking coupon from a nearby store (Sinnasamy Snack Shop) and put it on the dashboard. We visited the Sir Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke Market, walked around the Little Ben clock tower and covered most of the city by foot in under an hour.

We grabbed some snacks and headed straight to the Morne Blanc trail. You need to take the Sans Soucis Road to the starting point of the trail – there are boards and maps along the way, so you won’t miss it. We wanted to make it to the top before noon – island weather can be very unpredictable especially with mountain-top viewpoints. The signboard at the beginning classified it as a hard trek which would take about an hour (Nam decided to skip this and went for the Tea Tavern Nature Trail instead). They weren’t kidding – the forest was dense and in some parts the trail went missing between fallen trees. Luckily, I could see a couple of people about 200 m ahead – all I had to do was ensure that I don’t lose sight of them!

In the end, it was worth it – the view was stunning!

We then drove down to the west coast, upto Port Launey and back down to Grand Anse beach. The beach was beautiful, and we spent some time here.

We drove back to Victoria along the La Misere road. Our lunch stop was Marie Antoinette, arguably the most popular place in Mahe for Creole cuisine. In fact, a sign on the wall claims that it was declared a national monument of Seychelles in 2011. They had a wide variety of dishes – fish, chicken and vegetarian.

Some of them we loved, a few did not appeal to our taste buds.

Maps told us that the road back to Beau Vallon had a lot of traffic. So, we decided to take the long path along the North Coast Road – it was a long drive but a very beautiful one!

We grabbed some food from one of the supermarkets on the way and headed back to our room.

Day 3: Drive along the coastal roads covering the south of the island

Our last day in Seychelles – we checked out of our room and drove straight up La Misere Road to the viewpoint of the east coast. This point is perfect to check out the city of Victoria, the port and the small islands on the sides.

Our drive then took us along the West Coast Road all the way down to Anse Intendance. Yet another stunning beach – we spent a good hour here!

We were lucky that most of the beaches we visited in Mahe did not have any annoying seaweed strewn all over the sand. For lunch, we stopped at Maison Marengo and had the most amazing seafood pizza and calamari!

Our last beach in the trip was Anse Royale – it was a beautiful one for snorkelling with many different types of fish swimming around.

Having covered the entire South and East Coast Roads, we headed up the Providence highway to Eden Island – the poshest area here.

It was too posh for our liking and we drove right out. We went back to Victoria to complete our loop all around the Mahe island! Our last stop – the airport for our flight back home!

Though we didn’t know at the time, Seychelles ended up being our only trip of 2020. Considering that, it was definitely worth it – it was relaxing, exciting and had some of the most beautiful scenery we had ever seen. Read all about our excursion to La Digue and our Seychelles itinerary in our other blogs.

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Five Days in Paradise – Seychelles On A Budget!

Roughly a thousand kilometres off the eastern coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean lies the island nation of Seychelles. With human occupation coming relatively late in the 16th century, Seychelles is a “young” country with a cultural mix of French, British, African and Indian influences. There are around 115 islands which consist Seychelles – these are home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world as well as really diverse landscapes and ecosystems.

As we scoured the map for possible “5-day trip” destinations, we didn’t think beyond a domestic location initially. We happened to stumble upon Seychelles while looking for flights. It ticked all our criteria for a short trip – can be covered properly in a 5-day trip, cannot be clubbed with any other country nearby, Visa on arrival, a 4-hour flight – it was perfect!

Some quick research and bookings later, we were on our way. We were planning to visit three of the main islands – Mahe (which has the airport and capital – Victoria), Praslin (home to the Coco de Mer) and La Digue. So, let’s get started on how you can plan your perfect holiday in Seychelles!

Best Time to Visit

Being very close to the equator, Seychelles experiences warm climates throughout the year. Peak tourist seasons are December-January and July-August. The best months which are generally recommended are the shoulder months between the switching of the trade winds – April-May and October-November. The trade winds can also determine the amount of seaweed washing up on the beaches – keep an eye out for this if your hotel is on the beach.

We visited in early March and the weather was pleasant and perfect for a beach holiday!

Getting Around Seychelles

There is a direct flight of Air Seychelles operating from Mumbai – which is the one we took. You can also find direct flights from Dubai, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, South Africa and London (and some more locations).

Once you are in Seychelles, you can choose any of the following four modes of travel: flight, boat, bus and car.

Domestic Flight: You can fly from Mahe to Praslin (and back) on one of the tiny Twin Otter 19-seater planes operated by Air Seychelles. The flying time is hardly 20 mins and is definitely a ride worth experiencing! To reach other more remote islands, you can opt for charter planes as well.

The last time I sat on a plane this small, I jumped right out at 13,000 feet.

Boat: There are ferries operating between all the main islands – you can easily book them online here. It takes about 60 mins to travel between Mahe and Praslin. Praslin to La Digue is about 15 mins – the ride is so smooth that it gets over before you realize it!

Bus: There are buses running in Mahe and Praslin which you can climb on and buy tickets. Praslin is very simple – you either go around the island or take the route which cuts through the hill in the middle. Mahe is relatively bigger – grab a route map and get started. Buses are sparse and run on limited frequency during weekends – you can beat that by taking a car!

Car: One of the more preferred options to explore the islands is by renting a car. You can easily get one at the point of arrival – ferry jetty or airport (advance booking would be good as we found that most agencies run out of cars on the travel date). We went with Scenic Car Rental. It was a good decision as we discovered that our homestay was on the top of a steep hill and we would have struggled to walk all the way up! A car also gives you the flexibility to stop wherever you find a nice spot and explore the island better. We recommend this!

Visa and Currency

Indians have Visa on arrival at Seychelles along with 140+ more countries. So, you don’t have to worry about the hassle of applying for visas! The currency of Seychelles is the Rupee (SCR). 1 SCR = 3.5 INR as of Dec 2020 (it was 5.25 INR in March 2020 when we travelled).

How many days to spend in Seychelles?

The BIG question when it comes to any itinerary – how many days is good enough? For Seychelles, it depends on how many islands you’d like to cover. For Mahe, we would recommend atleast 2 days – you can spend upto 4 days for a relaxed vacation. Praslin is more laid back – you can spend 1-2 days here and add one more day for an excursion to La Digue. Our itinerary covered these 3 islands over 5 days. If you have more days in hand, you can visit the giant tortoises at Curieuse Island (day trip from Praslin), the Bird Island or the Cousin Island.

Our Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive at Mahe. We flew in from Mumbai. Fly to Praslin. Explore the beaches – details in our blog on the beaches and hills of Praslin and Mahe.

Day 2: Morning boat to La Digue. Explore the island on bicycles – this is a must-visit island and a one-of-a-kind experience. Say hi to the giant tortoises and the most photographed beach in Seychelles.

Back to Praslin and bus to Vallee de Mai Nature Reserve (home of the Coco de Mer). Explore more of Praslin (bus to Mt. Plaisir) and back.

Day 3: Boat to Mahe. Spend the evening exploring the Beau Vallon beach area.

Day 4: Explore Victoria and the local markets. Hike to the top of Morne Blanc. Enjoy a swim at Grand Anse. Have an authentic Creole lunch. Drive around the northern roads of the island.

Day 5: Explore the beaches in the south of Mahe island – Anse Intendance, Anse Royale. Complete the drive along the entire periphery of the island. Fly back at night.

You can pay a visit to the Takamaka Rum Distillery or visit some of the art galleries if time permits. There is also the Victoria Botanical Garden – you can check out the tortoises and Coco de Mer if you missed them on the other islands.

This should help start your planning for that long-awaited trip to Seychelles. You can read more about each of the islands and the must-visit places in our other posts – Mahe and Praslin, La Digue.

If you have any questions on how to plan your trip, please leave a comment below and we’d love to help! You can subscribe to our blog for all the updates and travel tips. For a lot more pics and stories about our latest travels, follow us on Instagram @fridgemagnet.tales

Weekend Escape – Hogenakkal Falls

It was one of the weekends when Spilla was here for his project. We decided to rent out a car and go for a drive somewhere nearby. After a lot of research and debate, we decided to make for Hogenakkal Falls which was on the border of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. We first tried Zoomcar but couldn’t get the car we wanted. Then we decided to explore other options if available and found Carzonrent who also offered self-drive cars. We did a quick check of how much the rates added up to with the distance and mileage and found that for longer drives, Carzonrent made much more sense as it was the cheaper option. We booked a Swift for our drive on Saturday.

Continue reading Weekend Escape – Hogenakkal Falls