Special Six: Highlights of Kathmandu

Earlier this year, before the travel restrictions were put in place, I was in Kathmandu for a training.

This was the first time I had been to Nepal so I was very much looking forward to exploring the city. However, on the very first day, I had two nasty falls – the second fall resulting in cutting my lip very badly and traumatizing my teeth, that for the rest of the week I could not eat any solid food. That accident pretty much cut my exploratory mood. However, I had managed to visit some places before I fell on my first day and I did regain some of my exploring spirit during the last days.

The following are the special six highlights of my trip:

(1) Swayumbunath Temple:

Anjal, one of my two friends, who had volunteered to take me around during my first Sunday in Kathmandu, took me to his favourite place in the city – Swayumbunath Temple.

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One of the oldest religious places in the city, the temple is considered to have self-sprung. The temple is located on top of a little hill from which one can see the crowded city.

(2) Patan Durbar Square:

The second place that Anjal stated was his favourite was the Patan Durbar square, one of the three ancient city squares in Kathmandu. Patan Durbar square had lovely architecture which was beautifully preserved.

We also visited the museum overlooking the square, which had a very good collection of artwork and information on the cultural evolution over the centuries.

(3) Boudhanath Stupa:

Towards the last days of the training, I began to recover physically and a couple of colleagues and I decided to visit Boudhanath stupa, an UNESCO world heritage site.

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By the time we navigated the traffic and reached the temple, the temple was closed but we walked around the stupa a couple of times before heading off to have some pho at a noodle shop overlooking the temple.

(4) Hindu temple:

With Rekha, my other friend, who had volunteered to take me around on my first Sunday and with whom my outing in Thamel was cut short after my fall, we decided to attempt another outing towards the end of my trip mainly to give her a sense of satisfaction. She said she had felt a bit traumatized as well seeing my accident and the resulting injury.

I asked her if we could simply go to a Hindu temple as I had been to a couple of Buddhist temples and was interested in experiencing a puja at a Hindu temple. I remembered that when Rekha had visited Colombo, she had wanted to go to a specific Hindu temple and she had remarked that the way the puja was done in Colombo was very different to the way it was in Kathmandu.

She took me to a couple of Hindu temples, which did not have the ‘gopurams’ or towers that Indian or Sri Lankan temples have but were mostly small spaces in corners. There was also no specific priest. There was a woman with a child when we went in. She gave me some kumkumam (turmeric mixed with other ingredients) and then asked for some cash.

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(5) Basantapur Durbar Square:

After the visit to a couple of Hindu temples, Rekha suggested we go to Basantapur Durbar square. Another UNESCO world heritage site, this was badly affected by the 2015 earthquake.

We walked around a bit and then after dinner, we decided to take a trishaw from the square back to the hotel. While I wouldn’t take the trishaw again, once would be good to experience.

(6) Kathmandu cuisine

Kathmandu has a variety of cuisine that would be interesting to try out. On the first day, Anjal had recommended the restaurant Raithaane in Patan for its offering of a variety of local cuisine with a fusion touch. However, it was closed when we went. And I was not able to eat anything solid after my first day. I am glad though I tried two different types of Nepali cuisine within my first 24 hours in Kathmandu.

What did/ would you want to experience on your first trip to Kathmandu? Except for the fall in Thamel, of course. 

Special Six: My Memories of Inverness

During my student year in the UK, I had the opportunity to enroll for the Host UK programme. Since I was planning to visit Scotland during the summer, I decided to combine part of it with a stay with a local family and applied for it.  I was paired up with a family in Inverness. A lovely couple who had a long history of hosting foreign students and who actually agreed to host me in the last minute, when my original host in Inverness had fallen sick and they had been contacted on the day I was traveling to Inverness, as Host UK did not want to cancel out on me.

Based on my experience, I would highly recommend any foreign student in the UK to include a Host UK homestay experience as it does enrich your student experience and probably, the friendship that you build lasts beyond your student year.

The special six memories of my homestay experience in Inverness are the following:

(1) Getting to know Helena and David and their lovely neighbourhood:

Helena, with whom I spent the most time, was a retired teacher and an avid historian, loved to cook and was very proud of her garden. I enjoyed accompanying her on her walks around the woods in the neighbourhood, overlooking Loch Ness, short forays into her garden prior to cooking to get some garden produce. I remember planning and cooking a Sri Lankan dinner (they called it tea) once and wondering if her nieces who were not exposed to other cuisines would like it. Her interest in Sri Lankan history and culture and enthusiasm in sharing the Scottish stories was what I remember most about my stay with them.

(2) Culloden Moor

Helena said that I needed to visit Culloden Moor, as it was a place that meant a lot to Scottish people. The site of the 18th century battle was originally not something that I thought I wanted to visit as I have never wanted to visit former battlefields. However, seeing her keenness, I agreed to it. We set out the next morning after my arrival in Inverness, and went to the site. There is a little museum at the site. For me, it is one of the best museums I have seen to-date as it shows the perspectives of all stakeholders (civilians and officials) on both sides pieced together from their letters and journals. I understand there are other museums that have done this as well but this is the first that I have been to.

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The museum then opens out into an open expanse, which you can walk about with an audio guide which talks about different points – such as the points that leaders of various Scottish clans fell.

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The little cottage, which had been the makeshift hospital and neutral ground, evoked a sense of sadness before I learnt that even though the wounded soldiers made their way there to surrender, they had been killed.

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Culloden Moor, a place that Scotland has decided to preserve as part of their heritage and learning, is a place that does raise a lot of questions on the purpose of battles and loss of lives and why human beings are unable to resolve power issues through other means.

(3) Dolphin watching at Chanonry Point:

Helena having taken me to her favourite place in the morning, David decided to take me to his favourite place that afternoon having learnt that I loved dolphins. We went in time for the low tide as apparently the Moray Firth bottle nose dolphins turned up soon after.

There were a few families that had turned up to watch out for the dolphins but though we waited till sunset, we didn’t see any that day.

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(4) Munlochy Clootie well and tree

On the drive back from Canonry Point, we passed an area where there were trees with what looked like rags tied to them. It reminded me of the prayer cloths tied at trees outside Hindu and Buddhist temples. David stopped the car and we went to some of the closest trees. In pre-Christian times, it was believed that a healing spirit inhabited the well and people came to heal themselves with the water from the well and tie rags of cloth to the tree to make a wish of healing. Since Christian times, a Christian saint has replaced the nature spirit in the folk stories but the belief remains the same. And people continue to tie pieces of cloth rags to the trees.

For me, I have always believed in the power of people’s thoughts – to manifest something. That is why I have believed in the power of prayers to heal and to transmit positive thoughts across the oceans. So, whether people believe that something is manifested by their tying a piece of cloth on a tree or offering a puja, the main underlying aspect is the power of their thoughts.

(5) Corrimony Cairn:

The next day, Helena decided on a day out with a picnic to a couple of her favourite places. We first went to Corrimony Cairn. This is a burial chamber from 4000 years ago.

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It is a collective tomb that was built and the passages have an astronomical alignment and orientation.

(6) Plodda Falls

Being a hiker and nature enthusiast, Helena took me to Plodda falls next. This is the highest falls in the area. We discussed the various trails and knowing my mobility issue, she chose the shortest trail that would allow me to see the falls with the least walking effort. It still wasn’t a short or easy walk though.

Returning back to the car park after we went on this short trail, we stopped by a stream and relaxed for a while simply chatting and taking in the fresh air of the forest.

It’s been years since this visit but we still keep in touch. I was happy to hear of the birth of their grandchildren in the years that have followed – one of whom actually shares my birthday, so I am not going to forget him.

I am not sure if I would have especially visited Inverness had it not been for Host UK, as I had other Scottish cities and islands on my priority list. I am also very sure that I would not have visited any of the above mentioned places had it not been for my host family actually taking me to the places that they loved and letting me experience them as well.

So I hope the above is of some help to those planning a visit to Scotland in helping plan a travel to Inverness.

Special Six: First Taste of Yangon

2020 started with a brief trip to Yangon. Over the couple of days that I was there, while I did not have much time to sightsee, I did have the opportunity to try out some nice cafes and restaurants with friends.

Here are the six that I enjoyed:

(1) Rangoon Tea House in the old Town area was my favourite. My friends introduced it to me on the first day and I revisited it with a colleague on the last day of my visit. I tried out Mohinga, a popular breakfast in Myanmar. The Mohinga I tried had a fish broth and egg served with rice noodles and lots of crispy stuff that you could add to your soup.

(2) Shan Shoe Yar was the place my friends chose to treat me for lunch on my last day in Yangon. They chose it for its Shan State cuisine. The flavours were different from the local food I had tried out in Yangon till then. Especially nice was the dessert, which was fried sticky rice dipped in sugar and sesame seeds.

(3) Strand Café was a place I dropped by as I was tired after walking around that area in the hot sun. Strand hotel was built in 1907 and listed in many travel guides to Yangon as a place to try out their famed afternoon tea. I enjoyed relaxing with a book and a cool smoothie in the elegant café.

IMG_5811(4) Bodhi Nava close to Kandawgyi lake is my pick for best coffee in Yangon. I tried out a few places that was recommended as having good coffee but the coffee I liked best was the one served in this little café. They also served a great smoothie bowl for breakfast.

(5) Aung Thukha listed at #17 on Trip Advisor was a place I tried out for lunch one day. It is a busy eating place where you need to select the dishes that you would like from the counter and they bring it to your table.

IMG_2857(6) Sharky’s was an organic restaurant that I went to a couple of times during my visit. It has a lovely ambience and some great food. I did not try the local food offering there but tried out their sausage platter instead with a lovely coloured sweet pea and lime drink.

If you have visited Yangon, which was your favourite restaurant or café? Of the six mentioned here, which would you like to try out?

 

Special Six: Highlights of Bangkok

During my work travels to Bangkok in 2018 and 2019, I did take a little time to explore a few places during each visit.

The following are the places I enjoyed visiting.

(1) Wat Arun:

The temple known for its sunrise views is the temple I chose to visit during my last trip to Bangkok. The small temple is beautiful especially for its intricately carved structure.

(2) Wat Pho:

This royal temple was the first place I visited during my first trip to Bangkok in 2018. The reclining Buddha is 46 m long.

(3) Dialogue in the Dark

This is the experience I highly recommend in Bangkok. I had been searching for unique travel experiences and came across this museum/ educational center based at the National Science Museum. Dialogue in the Dark is part of a worldwide project that enables the visitor to experience how challenging navigating everyday life can be for the blind. The guides are blind. The experience involves walking into a pitch dark room with a blindfold over your eyes and a guiding stick, with only the voice of your guide to lead you.

(4) Jim Thompson House Museum:

The house museum of Jim Thompson, who helped revitalize the Thai silk industry during the 50s and 60s then mysteriously disappeared in the jungles during a trip with his friends, is open for guided tours. It was a dark and rainy evening when I visited the place so the ambience and the guide’s story telling added to the spookiness of the place. The house though is a lovely traditional house that is worth visiting even without the tales of haunting. The house museum has the art center and shop next to it, where visitors can buy the silk products at exorbitant rates.

(5) Bangkok Art and Cultural Center (BACC):

I had actually gone to BACC for the drip coffee place that was highly recommended. However, the coffee shop was closed for renovation, so I explored the rest of BACC and found it to be a lovely center with art galleries and little crafts shops, as well as lovely handmade chocolate shop.

(6) Coffee

As is my usual habit, I tried out a couple of coffee places in Bangkok as well and my favourite to date is Ceresia Coffee Roasters.

IMG_1645What would be your the sites you would visit if you only had a day or two to explore Bangkok?

 

 

 

Special Six: Taste of Stockholm

Going back to Stockholm after nearly 10 years, earlier this year, I had expressed my wish to re-taste the flavours of Stockholm when dining out with friends. Therefore, we tried out traditional restaurants serving Swedish cuisine during this visit. From the numerous dishes that I tried out during this visit, the following six were my favourites.

(1) Västerbottenpaj

A meeting with a former colleague at her favourite café, Gunnarsons Konditori, had me tasting the classic cheese pie for lunch.

IMG_1439(2) Pan fried Salmon with new potatoes

The Gastabud offering of pan fried salmon with new potatoes was delicious and highly recommended. We were there quite early so got a table without having to wait. Currently topping the restaurants in Stockholm for its Swedish cuisine, I observed that many who came after us had to wait in queues for tables to free up.

IMG_1477(3) Stekt strömming 

Sjöpaviljongen, a lovely lakeside restaurant near the hotel I stayed at during this visit, served this traditional fried herring dish.
IMG_1519(4) Ren och viltsKavspanna 

Kvarnen , an eatery serving meals for more than 100 years, was the spot a few colleagues and I decided to try out on our last evening in Stockholm. On a whim, I decided to try their reindeer stew which was good. The first time I did try reindeer stew cooked in a Sami hut, back in 2001, during my visit to Kiruna.

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(5) Kajsas Fisksoppa

Kajsas Fisk at Hotorgshallen, operating since 1984, was highly recommended by a friend and so we both met up there to enjoy their famed fish soup, which was perfect for the chilly afternoon.

(6) Pankakor med jordgubb sylt

At the hotel where I stayed at in Stockholm, they served Swedish pancakes for breakfast and that was what I had each morning.

IMG_1539Apart from main meals, one cannot forget fika when one is in Sweden. My favourite kanelbulle from this visit was the one I had at Bageri Petrus in Sodermalm.

IMG_1391What are your favourite Swedish cuisine flavours?

Special Six: First Glimpse of Nairobi

Earlier this year, I had traveled to Nairobi for a conference. While I was there for nearly a week, I only had the day I arrived free so I booked a car at the hotel to take me and a few colleagues to some places I had wanted to visit.

(1) Giraffe Center: The center is a conservation center for Rothschild giraffes. Visitors can learn more about the endangered species as well as meet a few and feed them.

(2) Karen Blixen Museum:

The home of Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa, was another place I visited during my afternoon out. While I had not read the autobiography but rather seen the movie in which Meryl Streep acted, it was nice to connect pieces of the story to the place where the author had centered her story.

(3) Kazuri Bead and Factory:

Close to Karen Blixen museum, I had wanted to drop by the place. However, our driver was in a hurry to get back to the hotel so we only had time for a quick viewing and shopping. While I did not have time to take any photos, the Kazuri beads (ceramic beads) shop is a great place to get some gifts for yourself and family.

(4) Rooftop Maasai Market:

I learnt that there was a Maasai Market every Wednesday at the Thika Road Mall, near the hotel we were staying at. So a few of us decided to pop in there at the end of the day. It was a fun shopping experience especially as one of us was an expert bargainer and the rest of us relied on her to help with the bargaining.

(5) Ugali at Java House

During my week in Nairobi, I was looking out for traditional Kenyan dishes. However, while there were international restaurants at the hotel I stayed at, there was no Kenyan specific restaurant nor was there any offering apart from the fried bread served in the breakfast buffet. So, I was delighted to see a Kenyan dish served at Java House at Thika Road Mall. It was Ugali (a cornmeal dish) served with Chicken Dhanya.

(6) Coffee:

While Kenya is both a tea and coffee producer, I was keen to try out Kenya’s coffee. My favourite was the flat white I had at Artcaffe.  IMG_1312
Have you been to Nairobi? If you had less than a day to explore the city, which would be the experiences you choose to have?

 

Special Six: Coffee in Luang Prabang

(1) Café de Laos

It is a quaint little coffee house right on the main street running through the old city and opposite Zurich bakery, which serves delicious pastry. I tried the coffee Laotian style, with thick condensed milk.
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(2) Saffron

The lovely café served great coffee. I had their cold brew while enjoying the view of the Mekong. On my last day, I revisited the café to buy some coffee for home.

(3) Joma Bakery

The flat white served at the bakery was quite good and their cinnamon rolls even better.

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(4) Dao Coffee House:

The coffee house was another place that served decent coffee. I tried out their iced coffee as the afternoon sun was very warm outside.
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(5) Dexter Café :

Dexter located on the main street of the old city was just opening up for the day, when I stopped by for my morning coffee. I very much liked the flat white I tried here as much as I liked the Saffron coffee.

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(6) Coffee House at the airport:

At the coffee outlet in the farthest corner of the food court, I had some good iced coffee.
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Do you take the effort to try out locally produced coffee or tea when you travel? Any favourites in Luang Prabang?

Special Six: Eating out in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is filled with restaurants and cafes to fit all budgets. These however were the six that I liked from the ones I tried out.

(1) Ock Pop Tok Café:

The café at the Living Crafts Center of Ock Pop Tok has a lovely ambience and I specially enjoyed watching the sunset over the Mekong, while enjoying my dinner of Khao Soi. The café screens movies once a week, and seems to be popular among expat communities in the area.

(2) Secret Pizza:

One of the two Airbnb accommodations I stayed at in during my visit to Luang Prabang was at Secret Pizza. Not only was the place lovely, they served pizzas on Tuesdays and Thursdays and the garden transformed into a lively and bustling meeting place for families with children. Since my room overlooked the garden, I enjoyed my ‘secret’ pizza on the little patio of my room away from the busy center.

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(3) Khai Phaen: A vocational training restaurant, that provides training for youth from marginalized communities, was one place that I had marked that I needed to visit during my travel to Luang Prabang. The place was lovely and the food, Sai Oua with Jeok Mak Keua, was delicious. I was especially happy to see these leaflets on the table on ways travelers could better protect children in local communities.

(4) Dao Coffee House:

Described as a traditional coffee house, I stopped by to try Dao’s coffee and ended up having lunch. I tried out Naam Khao, which is a kind of fried rice ball salad mixed with sausages, nuts, herbs wrapped in green leaves and eaten with a dipping sauce.

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(5) Phon Heuang:

A tiny café near the Garavek theatre, the place served tasty and filling portions of meals for a fraction of the cost of more upscale restaurants like Khai Phaen and Ock Pop Tok. I had rice with basil chicken stir fry. While similar to the Thai dish, there was a difference in the seasoning.

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(6) Night market

A fan of coconut pancakes, I used to buy a portion of coconut pancakes each evening at the night market, during my stay at the heritage house in the old city.

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 If you have been to Luang Prabang, what were some of your favourite places to eat?

Tamarind Cooking School

During my trip to Luang Prabang, I booked a cooking class with Tamarind Cooking School.

Meeting up at their restaurant, I was served a herbal drink while waiting for all those who had booked for the day to arrive. Once everyone was ready, a van took us to a local market where the cooking instructor showed us some of the herbs used in Laotian cooking.

After our walk around the market, we were taken to the cooking venue amidst paddy fields. There, after donning our aprons, we started with cleaning the sticky rice and placing it in the basket to steam.

We then proceeded to make a range of dishes. We started with Mokpa, fish steamed in banana leaf and Laap, a salad made of minced chicken and herbs.

We were given the option of choosing one of two types of dipping sauce to make. I chose to make Jaew Mak Khua (eggplant sauce). This delicious dip was basically roasted eggplant mashed with herbs and spices. We ate it with the sticky rice we had cooked.

We also learnt to make Ua Si Khai (stuffed lemongrass). This was minced chicked mixed with herbs and spices and stuffed in a basket cut into lemongrass stalks. The stuffed stalks were then dipped in egg yolk and deep fried. I had trouble cutting the lemongrass stalks and needed help with it.

Our group was then invited to eat the food we had cooked for lunch.

IMG_0767From the food I had cooked, I enjoyed best the eggplant dip with sticky rice and Mokpa.

After we had finished our main meal, we were invited to cook our dessert which was black sticky rice cooked in coconut milk and served with cut fruit topping and tamarind jam produced by the cooking school.

IMG_0769The Tamarind Cooking School experience was a lovely and fun way to be introduced to Laotian cuisine.

Special Six: Spotlight on Luang Prabang

Earlier this year, in February, I had taken a short holiday to Luang Prabang over another long weekend.

The following six are some of the key highlights of the city, for the first time visitor.

(1) Temples of Luang Prabang:

Right in the center of the UNESCO heritage city is this famous landmark of Luang Prabang, the royal palace temple. It’s construction was completed in 2006. Every evening, the area around this temple transforms into a lively night market.

With over 30 temples concentrated within the tiny heritage city, you are bound to come across a temple with every few steps that you take.

(2) Garavek:

Storytelling of local folklore, accompanied by music, is what Garavek is about. The tiny theatre opens for an hour each evening for a rendition of selected folk stories by two performance artists. The story that still stays in mind is the one where the story teller linked the famous Mount Phou Si in the middle of Luang Prabang to Sri Lanka and Hanuman.

 (3) Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center (TAEC):

To have an introduction to the ethnic groups in Laos, a visit to the TAEC is a must. Not only is information on the four main ethnic groups in Laos presented there, aspects of culture – clothing, music, handcrafts are also shared. The handicraft store at the center is also a good place to get gifts for home, as it directly links up with artisans across Laos.

(4) Ock Pop Tok: 

Founded in 2000 as a social enterprise, Ock Pop Tok is a lovely textile and artisanal institution. While there is an outlet in the center of the city, it is worthwhile to visit the Living Craft Center, where there is a museum and shop, that one can visit.

Ock Pop Tok Living Craft Center also has café and offers bed and breakfast as well.

(5) Sunset Cruise:

A sunset cruise on the Mekong is another must. There are so many boats and packages that you can walk along the river bank and choose the one that interests you.

(6) Kuang Si Waterfalls:

This is a half-day or day trip from Luang Prabang, depending on how much time you wish to spend at the waterfalls. I hired a car from outside of Joma Bakery and left around 8am. When I arrived at the entrance, there were not many visitors yet so I was able to enjoy the environment in peace.

Kuang Si waterfalls is a three levelled waterfalls. People generally stop when they reach the second level.

To reach the top level, one needs to climb a steep path to the side of the second level waterfall. While I generally have issues climbing steep paths, I was feeling quite healthy that morning and very much keen to go to the top of the falls. I started my climb and I hardly met anyone going up the path, though I did meet a few while coming down. It was a tough climb for me and there were moments when I scolded myself for taking the risk of climbing alone and the fact that if I were injured midway, it would be very difficult to get back down. For those without leg issues, the climb should be quite an easy one though there are some sections without any steps or rails. However, I made it to the top and saw the beautiful tranquil pool that seemed to be the start of the top waterfall level.

For my stay in Luang Prabang, I had booked two Airbnb places. I especially liked the place that I stayed in for the second half of my trip. The accommodation was an old traditional house, which was part of the heritage of the city, right in the center of the old city and my room window opened out to the alley, where there was an early morning market every day.

The best part of my travel to Luang Prabang though was meeting this little fellow, Tak, a resident at the Airbnb and who followed me everywhere like a puppy, the minute I stepped into their courtyard.

IMG_0867If you have not been to Luang Prabang, I highly recommend a visit to this lovely city.