Sunday, 20 July 2014

Monasteries In Sikkim And The Curious ‘Me’

Perhaps monasteries were on top of my list when I set foot in Sikkim. I wanted to visit them precisely for two reasons – their architecture and their mystical aura. Although I have mentioned very evidently (in my previous posts on Sikkim) that it’s a land of mystic, I have come to realize that the ‘mystic’ somehow melts away in the Sikkimese warmth. Even the monks are so chilled out that it feels so normal to interact with them. Yes, they are a bit shy, but they secretly enjoy all the attention that they receive. They like being photographed (they pose for you in all earnestness).
Prayer bells - roll them clock-wise...
I visited all kinds of monasteries in Sikkim – the most popular one, the oldest one, and also the unknown and the modest one, but all of them seem to have a common thread. I would say the mystic is there, but it’s not really mystical. To put it in other words, I’d say I was surprised to find the atmosphere so easy-going, amiable and approachable that it didn’t feel like a different world. So, I was disillusioned in a good way.
Rumtek Monastery
Rumtek was the first monastery that I visited. Since it’s the biggest and one of the most popular monasteries in Sikkim, tourists hog it ardently. I would have liked it more if there were fewer tourists. Anyway, I tried to make my experience a little deeper by interacting with a couple of monks. One of them asked for my phone number. Of course, I politely declined, but that disillusioned me even more. Talking to a monk seemed almost like talking to a normal guy who led a normal life.
The bell has rung...
... and they are all set for the daily ritual
Just in a jiffy, all the monks rushed for their daily prayer ceremony. They helped each other wear the outer garb in a certain way, while all the tourists looked on. So, it seemed more like a show on rather than an unruffled environment of a monastery. Also, there were armed policemen guarded due to the ongoing Karmapa controversy.  
Ranka monastery
Ranka monastery premises
Curious to get a glimpse of what's inside...
Chilling out...
The second monastery that I visited was Ranka monastery, which is also quite popular and grand. In fact, I liked it more than Rumtek, because it was much quieter and there were barely any tourists around. So, I took my own sweet time to hang around and take photographs. The younger monks were adorable. I noticed a plump and cute monk who laughed and played around with his friends in the typical carefree manner that a child would do. It was so unlike the monastery decorum, which just goes to show that childhood can’t be chained.
The younger lamas at Ranka
At Ranka monastery
I was moved to see the younger lamas (monks) managing their attires clumsily, yet fooling around with the utmost innocence. Of course, I had my ‘why’ and ‘how’ in my head. While returning home, I asked my cabby (who was also a Buddhist) about the younger monks restricting themselves to a monastery at such a young age. He told me that they don’t get to choose. Their parents decide to send them to a monastery for their education and upbringing, which lessens the financial burden of the family. Well, that did make sense to me, even though that doesn’t make sense in the long run. Whatsoever is the case, I felt strange (bad) for the little ones.
Assam Linzey Gompa
My next monastery was Assam Linzey Gompa, which is also located near Gangtok. It’s a small, simple, peaceful and a secluded monastery, which has managed to escape the tourist glare.
The young lama learns the Buddhist scriptures
Oblivious of his surroundings
Here’s a bit of flashback for you -

The moment I finish ascending the steps and get my first glimpse of the monastery, I hear the chants resound in the air. I see the lamas sitting on the floor outside the monastery with their Buddhist scriptures placed perfectly against the wall. They are barely conscious of me. At least, that’s what I see. The eldest of them goes inside as soon as he sees me, not realizing that I wanted to take his picture.

Thus, visiting a lesser-known monastery proved to be more enriching. It gave me a truer picture of Buddhist ideologies, which is about seclusion and simplicity.
Dubdi Monastery in Yuksom
When I went to Yuksom, Dubdi monastery was an obvious point to visit, because it’s the oldest monastery in Sikkim. I expected a lot of mystic. I thought Dubdi, being the oldest, must be very fascinating. I was all set to be enchanted. But, that’s not the way it is. In fact, the main monastery building was under restoration. And, though the monks at the monastery appeared to be engrossed in their rituals and even the younger monks didn’t smile or invite any conversation, I didn’t get the feeling of awe.
Buddhist mantra imprinted on a stone
Beautifully painted window of the monastery
What I liked was chatting with their teacher who sat outside and waited for the ritual to end. He told me that not all monks live the life of celibacy. Most of them leave the monastery as they grow up and get married. There are only certain monks that devote their entire lives to a monastery. It was quite an insightful conversation.


Do you feel intrigued to visit a monastery? Do you have any insights to share?

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Secrets Of Frequent Travelling

How often do you travel? If your answer is ‘maybe once a year’, you should consider travelling more often. Yes, frequent travelling has its own benefits. You should travel as often as possible. No, money is not the only thing that stops you from travelling. So, figure out what’s stopping you from travelling as much as you could, and in the meantime, read 7 Excuses To Travel Often, which highlights some simple and overlooked ways to travel often.


Of course, if you decide to travel often, you need to have a separate savings account for your travel funds and you need to be willing to spend money – lots of money. But, spending on travel is an investment that produces a ‘life of genuine happiness’.


Good for your health

Travelling often keeps you active – both mentally and physically. When you sit down to plan a trip, you actually use your brain and you use it for something fun, which automatically gives you a kick! And, when you are on the road, you have no choice but to move your muscles. On the contrary, if it’s a vacation just for relaxation, where you don’t have to move a muscle, it is still healthy for your body.



Helps you live in the present

Most of us either live in the past or in the future, which keeps us from enjoying the present. But, when we travel, we naturally savour the present life. Don’t you agree? While travelling and exploring new places, we are able to brush aside what’s not going right or missing in our lives. And, that’s not escapism as some may take it. It is a better way to live your life.


Gives you reasons to brag

Now don’t get me wrong! When I say you can brag when you travel frequently, it means you are richer with experiences, you have a wider perspective of things and you are definitely more knowledgeable than those who travel meagrely. Bragging is not always bad. Sometimes, it can encourage others to follow your footsteps.

Enables you to tick off more destinations

This is an obvious one, but important. The more you travel the more places you see. Isn’t it? Frequent travel helps you tick off many destinations in a year, while on the other hand, travelling only once-in-a-while keeps you limited to a few places.


More chances of earning discounts and reward points

I don’t need to educate you about reward points and frequent flyer miles. Do I? The more you travel the more chances you have of earning those benefits, which saves you some money in the long run. 

Cuts down your travel mistakes

Frequent travelling makes you a seasoned traveller, which makes you aware of common travel hiccups – flight cancellations, train delays, bad hotel, etc. Thus, you are more prepared, well-researched and ready with alternatives.  


Keeps your family close-knit

Travelling frequently is an easy way to maintain love and warmth in the family. Remember more travel means more fun. A family that takes more than three vacations in a year definitely stays happier and more at peace.

Experience different flavors

There is so much to experience while travelling – mountain trails, beaches, resorts, festivals, historical and architectural delights, exotic cuisines, cultural and traditional glimpses – frequent travel helps you experience all of that and enriches you.

Keeps you motivated, happy and positive

A frequent travel lifestyle keeps you happy and satisfied - it ignites the fire in you to stay full of zeal and seek more of life. It kills the monotony of everyday life. After you take your first trip, you are eager to take the next trip and the urge continues to grow. Travel is the only healthy addiction of life, thus, it should not be stifled.


No regrets

Lastly, travelling frequently wipes away your regrets. All of us, at some point in our lives, had something to regret – if only I had studied more, scored better grades, taken up a better job, invested more and so on. Travel is a secret medicine that heals your regrets. Nothing else matters when you loosen yourself to travel. You may spend a fortune on a trip, but you will never regret it.    

So, how often do YOU travel? 

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Enjoy ‘Doing Nothing’ When You Are At…

Even while I was only contemplating a trip to Sikkim, I dreamed of a Sikkimese home where I could stay for a few days. I imagined a place where I could relax, sit endlessly in the midst of nature and gaze the mountains. I did my research on peaceful places to stay in Gangtok. And, to my good fortune, I stumbled upon the Shire Guest House, which is a family-run guest house in the heart of Gangtok.
The Shire Guest House
The first thing to like about it is its setting and exterior, which instantly promise a laid-back, unperturbed and a home-away-from-home kind of experience. The way it is structured, it looks like an old beautiful house away from the bustle of city life.

So, enter The Shire Guest House.
More lushness ahead...
The guest house has a well-kept garden
.... with lots of plants
... and a variety of flowers
Simply surrender to the mellowness of nature
If you are like me who loves lounging on a swing in the garden with a good book, having breakfast alfresco or taking a morning walk amidst the foliage, you are reading the right stuff. The Shire Guest House is particularly for those travellers who like to linger longer at a place, chew on experiences and just enjoy being idle.
Guilt-free loafing around...
Just pick up a good book and soak up some sun
Seriously, there's no better business than idleness...so savor it
My intent of staying at Shire was not just relaxation and comfort, but I also aimed at knowing the Sikkimese way of life, culture, beliefs and of course, their cuisine. I’d like to give all the credit to Aunty Norkey for unveiling some interesting tidbits on Sikkim and the Bhutia community. Norkey is the lady of the Shire Guest House - she’s a lovely woman and a warm host. She heads over the kitchen and the other staff. Although it was her son, Karma who hosted me (he handled all the managerial tasks), she was the one who welcomed me with open arms. I connected with her instantly. We had long chats on various topics – monks, Buddhist culture and faith. She even invited me in where the family lived – I was humbled to have a quick tour of a typical high-class Sikkimese Bhutia home – each and every corner of the house is well done-up with classy decors from the olden times.
(Left) My little host who imitated her granny and got a good luck scarf for me while I was leaving, (Right) Norkey and Karma
A Bhutia family's worship room
I spent five days at Shire, which was a pretty long time. I mean, I didn’t really do much in Gangtok except for MG Marg and a couple of day trips to the monasteries and the villages nearby. What I appreciate the most about my host is that he suggested and showed me exactly the kind of places I wanted to explore. Besides, staying at the Shire Guest House was an experience in itself. Thus, I didn’t feel the need to roam around all the time looking for amusement and adventures. I got to discover quite a bit right at where I was staying.
Lovely exterior
I made it a point to taste all sorts of traditional Sikkimese cuisine. At first, my hosts served me my North Indian stuff, but when I told them that I wanted to try their local food, they were quite generous with their hospitality. In the morning, they laid a sumptuous breakfast table for me. I had Buckwheat Roti with cottage cheese, Sayee-phi-porridge in butter, and local snacks like Khabzey, Zhero and Sanga Phaley. For lunches and dinners, they mostly served rice (which is loved by the eastern Himalayan folks). Since I mostly enjoy vegetarian food, I relished the soups and veggies that they served – Nettle soup, Sheep soup (non-veg), Fern, Rayo sag, Duku, and Phing (soybean).
They blended their local food with my 'omelette-bread' kind of stuff 
That was one of my dinner platters - they use brass thali to serve food, which is considered good for health.
A delightful morning
I was particularly happy about tasting a different cuisine, because not trying new cuisines is one of the serious travel mistakes that a traveler can ever make. I'd also like to mention that pecking at Sikkimese local food was just one of the 10 authentic experiences that I had in Sikkim.

Besides the warmth of a Bhutia family, the guest house has spacious rooms along with all the desired amenities, a nice culture reflective lobby and a cosy dining place. My room had big windows that opened to the views of the mountains. 
Mountain view from my room
Tasteful crockery displayed in the lobby
I believe that a traveller should choose an accommodation that’s more than a shelter. It has to be an experience. I personally feel that you can stay at a characterless place for barely a day or two. But, if you have to stick around longer, (maybe a week or so) you need a place where you can feel at home. I think I wouldn’t be wrong if I say that a quality travel begins with a great place to stay.
One of the best places to stay in Gangtok
The Shire Guest House turned out to be just what I needed - my private space to catch up on work along with lots of free time to just ‘do nothing’ and simply savor the Sikkimese atmosphere. 
  
Practical Information – The Shire Guest House is located at only 10 minutes walking distance from MG Marg. To book a room here, please visit their website www.shiresikkim.com

Note: I was hosted by the Shire Guest House. However, the views and opinions are my own.

Is Shire Guest House your kind of a place to stay? What is YOUR top priority while booking an accommodation?

Monday, 7 July 2014

10 Tips For A ‘Value-For-Money’ Travel Experience

Let your travel dreams take off...

If I had my way I would travel without a break (at least for some time). Of course, you know that I love to travel and I know that you love to travel too; otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this, right? And, I also know that you like affordable travels. You hate going over your budget. You hate paying moolah for something unexpected. I know we all wish to travel for free – at least get cheap deals on everything from flights to hotels.

But, travel is expensive.

Travel is never kind to your pocket. No matter how hard you try, there is no way you can hold your purse strings. So, why fret at all? If you have got a passion, surrender to it. Loosen yourself. Remember the quote – “Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.”

Now there is something called ‘value for money’. You may not always get the cheapest deal, but you can certainly get value for the money spent, which is satisfying in the long run. Since I have travelled quite a bit in the last six years, I have learnt to handle finances to a certain extent. Today, I’d like to share with you some tips from my own experiences that should help you travel more sensibly in terms of money.

Also read: 


1. Shun the travel agents         

Of course, you can visit a travel agent or two, inquire about the deals available, but don’t depend on their knowledge. Trust your own ability to work out a good deal. Most of the time, people book their trips through travel agents thinking that would minimize the trouble. People presume that a travel agent knows about all the good deals.  But, let me tell you that if you do your own research, you can do a far better job.

2. Ask, bargain, build a rapport

Yes, bargaining is an art, which you should use wherever necessary. I am not saying that you should do it aggressively, but do it with a lot of grace and humour. Be polite, be assertive and use your skills and knowledge. Don’t bargain when you don’t know anything about a place. Do your homework first. When you strongly feel that you are being over-charged for something, be vocal about it. Ask for a discount. It may not work. But, don’t be quiet.

Always choose a good and comfy place over a centrally located one

3. Make the right choices

Saving on money also depends a lot on the kind of choices you make. For instance, if you choose a filthy hotel located in a touristic area over a more spacious, comfier and cleaner guest house located a little away from the tourist bustle, you won’t get value for money. You may end up paying more for a popular, touristic and a centrally located hotel, which is not even clean enough, while on the other hand, if you explore diligently and discover a place where you get comfort, cleanliness and wonderful hosts, you might pay less or even if you pay the same price, it would get you value for your money.

Let your host know your prerequisites

4. Communicate your prerequisites and concerns to your host

Yes, it’s better to let your host know about your requirements as soon as you check in. There is no point complaining about your discomfort later. If cleanliness is your main concern, make sure your hotel manager/staff knows about it. If you need a cup of tea in the morning, tell them so. Don’t expect things to happen on their own. If anything is not right, convey it to the concerned person politely and respectfully. 

Bangalore has expensive transport...
... while Mumbai has affordable autos, buses and local trains

5. Factor out your local transport

Local taxis prove to be a big evil when it comes to exceeding your travel budget. Don’t you agree? Most of the money that you end up squandering is on the taxis that you have to hire. Unfortunately, there is not much that we can do about it. But, we can at least inquire about it in advance and prepare ourselves. Don’t pay if you don’t know how much you should be paying. Look for alternative conveyance – find out how the locals commute.

Noshing at lovely places adds to your overall travel experience

6. Choose good eating places 

Do a little bit of research on restaurants and cafes as well. It’s not always important to save money, but it’s important to have a good time. What’s the point if you taste a bad coffee and pay a whopping sum for it? I’m sure you will hate to pay even a penny at a place where the food is bland and even the waiters are cold. So, why spend your precious time at such places? Go for grand places – great atmosphere, delicious meals and super-hospitable staff. That’s what I call value for money.

7. Interact with various people, take suggestions

When you are travelling, don’t be secluded in your own world. Talk to all kinds of people – your hotel staff, taxi drivers, random locals and your fellow travellers. Ask questions about where to eat, what to do, where to stay, how to commute, etc. Take suggestions and note down everything. Don’t follow anything without your own conviction. The point is to collect information and do what feels right.

8. Don’t do anything just to tick off

Every popular holiday destination has a web of travel agents selling packages to tourists. The truth is most of the packages are not worth your precious time and money. You may find it attractive when you hear that you can cover a place in two days and three nights, but such deals only exhaust you eventually. So, don’t be afraid to skip a few places. I don’t intend to say that all such packages and deals are worthless. If something sounds good to you, please go ahead. But, make sure you get value for your money and time. 

9. Avoid buying water bottles every now and then

Minimise the number of water bottles that you buy, which would be good for both your budget and environment. Keep refilling the same water bottle.

10. Resolve not to waste anything

Lastly, I would like to add that it’s extremely important to value everything to be able to get value out of everything. If you want value for your money, be sure to value the services that you get. Don’t misuse water, electricity or anything that you are given to use as a guest in your hotel. If you expect your host to be good to you, be a good guest in the first place.

What tip would YOU add from your own experiences? I’d like to hear from you!

Friday, 4 July 2014

Dainty Village Houses & Backyards – A Photo Essay

A typical Sikkimese home looks like this - flower pots festoon each and every balcony

Both Sikkim and Darjeeling are quite similar. I must admit that I still can’t believe that the latter is part of West Bengal. Since Darjeeling is part of West Bengal for so many ages, it has its influences. But, it is more similar to Sikkim – prayer flags, simplicity of life, modest people, Nepalese culture and the pretty little houses.

The one peculiar thing that I noticed about these eastern Himalayan people is that they have very good taste. They understand beauty. Be it their homes, gardens, porticoes, backyards, or even their curtains, everything is so tasteful.

Although I regret not clicking as many photographs as I should have, I am happy to present a few that I did –

A wooden house in Darap village, West Sikkim
That's a common sight - flower pots beautify every home in Sikkim and Darjeeling
That's a passage behind an old house in Darap village
I'm not sure if it's a house or not, but it looked interesting
It's a very old (British era) house in Kurseong, Darjeeling
A bamboo hut in Darap village
A beautiful double-storey wooden house in Assam Linzey village
A cute fairy-talish house in Darjeeling
An old house in Kurseong, Darjeeling
A beautiful tree log is placed at the entrance
This was quite a big house in Assam Linzey village, Sikkim
No matter how big or small a home is in Sikkim and Darjeeling, it has to be beautiful

Do you wish you had a cute little home like one of these in the mountains?

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