A new Facebook page

So, what’s new on Itchy Feet? A brand new Facebook page, that’s what – https://www.facebook.com/travelswithcharu

Facebook

After years of resisting – how many places in social media can I manage – I finally succumbed to the pressure and set up this page. And now to find interesting content for it on a regular basis (apart from just my own writings, yawn). And more importantly, find people to “like” the page (right now, it feels like an orphan).

And here, dear friends and kind readers, is where you come in. Have you seen the page yet? If you have been a longtime reader of this blog, or just an occasional lurker, or even a one-time visitor who has strayed here through a keyword search, do check out the page and show your liking for it.

Please head there now and make the page a much-liked one, before I lose heart and decide to shut it down. Thank you!

A bit of trivia on the mysteries of social media: I obviously wanted to call my page ‘Itchy Feet’ to maintain consistency across my social media spaces – but Facebook refused it as being inappropriate. Ah, well.

Meghalaya’s living root bridges

I ought to actually say ‘bridge’ and not ‘bridges’ since I visited only one of them. But hey, these are one of the most famous attractions of Meghalaya, so let’s not split hairs. On my recent visit to Assam and Meghalaya with my husband, we stayed over at Shillong for a couple of days and then headed towards Cherrapunjee.

The plan was to see the crystal clear Umngot River at Dawki village on the Bangladesh border, then visit Mawlynnong, which has the distinction of being Asia’a cleanest village and the hike the short distance to the living root bridge close to the village. After all of which, we would head on to Cherrapunjee for the night.

However, by the time we had reached Mawlynnong, we had decided to stay on there and skip Cherrapunjee altogether, heading to the root bridge on our way out the next morning. Which turned out to be a great idea.

This one at Rewai village is a single level bridge, unlike the more famous double decker one ]near Cherrapunjee. That however, involved a tough 3-4 hour trek, and given that I was still limping from a recent foot fracture, was completely out of the question.

The Rewai bridge was an easier hike than I expected, a few dozen stone steps and then uneven ground. On our way down, we came across a local from Mawlynnong who helpfully pointed out that there was an even shorter route that led straight to the car park. Tucking that piece of info away safely, we headed towards the bridge.

We reached the Rewai bridge by 8 am, when there was absolutely nobody around; no locals, no tourists. Visitors usually go there after lunch at Mawlynnong, which meant that afternoons and evenings were a chaotic, noisy time. But in he morning, we had to wait for ten minutes before the first locals came into sight; a couple of women out for their morning wash at the river flowing under the bridge.

Walking across the bridge, we crossed the cluster of bamboo trees and headed towards a spot down below from where we could get a full view of the bridge, as well the activity near the water. But for a small tea shop with a young girl minding it, there was nobody else there. After asking for chai and Maggi (the perfect mountains combination), we perched on one of the big boulders near the stream, dipping our feet into the cold water.

It was perfect silence down there, and we sat there quiet and content, sunning ourselves in the mellow morning heat. Soon, a few locals including children on their way to school appeared, a vendor set up a table with a few biscuit and chips packets and bottled water near the entry to the bridge. The peace was still not shattered; it was not like tourists cawing away without any consideration to the space, it was everyone doing their own thing.

What a perfect morning it was!

Vegging it out in Myanmar

When the husband and I were getting ready to travel to Myanmar earlier this year, the only thing I was dreading was the food I would find there. Or, not find. As a vegetarian, I was expecting Myanmar to be a tough place to survive in, and I readied myself for bland salads and the odd pizza, where I could find it.

But being vegetarian in Myanmar turned out to be delightfully easy. The country has a wide repertoire of vegetarian dishes, perhaps because it is culturally closer to South Asia (think Nepalese lentil curries and Sri Lankan coconut gravies) than South East.

And given that it is wedged between countries with rich culinary traditions, like India, China and Thailand, something is certain to have rubbed off. What I discovered is that despite borrowing from these kitchens, Burmese cuisine has its unique flavours.

moon

yarpyi

The magic word

Although vegetable based dishes have always been part of their diet (and vegetarian dishes are served at almost all eateries), vegetarianism as a concept is not understood in Myanmar.

But the magic word “tha tha lo” (thatalo, literally meaning ‘lifeless’ – taught by a traveller friend) opened up the doors to meat-free cooking everywhere in the country. In fact, it made sure that there was never even a hint of the fish sauce that is the bane of vegetarian travellers in South East Asia.

The Burmese thali

A typical restaurant meal that popular among locals is a spread of side dishes, including raw salads, slightly sautéed veggies and soupy curries, served with plain white rice. This was our first introduction to Burmese food in Yangon, where our guide also ordered dal on the side for us, which came coarsely mashed and lightly spiced; Indian but not quite.

She also got us small plates of green tomato and tealeaf salad, the latter with the warning that the tart taste could take some getting used to. But no, for me, it was love at first bite.

In general, we found the salads and soups so enjoyable that most meals, we skipped the main course and stuck to these.

Through our ten days in Myanmar, we never had to go seeking a pizza place or an Indian restaurant (although some mainstream cafés in touristy towns like Bagan serve Indian food as part of their menu). And to my vegetarian soul, that made Myanmar pure heaven.

Soup time

Soups in Myanmar can range from the thin clear broth derived from Chinese kitchens (used as palate cleansers and often sipped through the meal), to thick and creamy stews.

The most distinctive one is the Shan Tohu Nuway, a specialty from the Shan region in the eastern side of the country, near Inle Lake. In this soup, the tofu (tohu) is made out of ground chickpea, instead of the more traditional soya.

This mash is kept warm in a semi-liquid form through the day, and poured over the basic noodle broth, finally topped up with coarsely ground peanuts, roasted garlic, finely sliced parsley and cabbage, and for those who can bear the heat, crunchy chilli paste (in my opinion, a must).

soup2

There is also the clear Shan noodle soup, served even at breakfast in most hotels and restaurants. Ask for the tha tha lo version, which comes with a topping of coarsely ground, thick red chilli sauce, spring onions and toasted sesame.

soup1

Salad days

The Burmese have a special skill for taking just about any ingredient and turning it into a delectable salad. Tealeaf, avocado, ginger, lemon, pennywort, eggplant, tomato – the list goes on.

The basic ingredients remain more or less the same – the key ingredient, with crushed peanuts, roasted sesame, finely chopped onion, garlic, coriander, tomatoes and a squeeze of lemon. But each salad somehow manages to taste distinctly different.

The undisputed star among these is the fermented tealeaf salad (lahpet thok) – slightly tart and tangy with a distinct crunch, the Burmese love this and eat it at all times, including with meals and as snacks, with the crunchy bits served up separately.

salads

The other must-trys are the pennywort salad (Myin Kwa Yuet Thote), the spicy ginger salad (Gyin Thote) and the Tohu Thote, which has the chickpea tohu in salad form.

Main course

This area is where the culinary influences of neighbouring countries are most strongly felt.

There are a variety of vegetable curries available, including usual suspects like basic green and red curries Thai-style, Indonesian masamman curry and the more unusual ones like tamarind leaf curry.

mains

While these are typically served with white rice, there is also the choice of vegetable fried rice with tofu or tossed noodles.

Street food

Typical street food in Myanmar is fried and spicy, very Indian in nature: from masala dosa to samosa and bhajiya, these are to be found everywhere, and are considered Burmese.

snacks

There are also street vendors who specialise in a particular form of dessert – definitely try the deep fried dough sweet (paleada / palata – a corruption of paratha), sprinkled with sugar, or topped with banana slices, the banana cake (napyo bao) and sticky rice ball with coconut (kauk nyinhtuh).

In general though, Burmese sweets are likely to feel too bland to Indian palates, used to the stinging sweetness of laddu and jalebi.

For those looking for a more wholesome al fresco meal, there is the Vegetable Hotpot (Myae Oh Myi Shae), available almost through the day, especially in Yangon.

Street food in the country is almost always hot and fresh, and therefore safe; follow your nose to the ones with the most locals crowding the plastic tables.

***
This story was published in Conde Nast Traveller as A Vegetarian’s Guide to Myanmar – read it online for suggestions on where to eat in each major Burmese city.

Infinite peace at Anantyta Resorts

Welcome to the latest in my Hotels I Love series: Anantya Resorts.

Like its name suggests, Anantya has infinite possibilities for leaving behind the cares of city life and embracing the peace and quiet of this fertile land. When I reached, I had no plans for the next two days, and I was quite happy to just coast along. As it turned out, I had a fairly hectic schedule of sightseeing around the region, and had give Kanyakumari a miss – out of sheer laziness, I have to admit. Also, I needed a reason go back!

So, here is a quick look at why you should choose Anantya for your next weekend break – not to forget that they won ‘Best Destination Boutique Hotel’ at the recent Outlook Traveller awards.

3-chittar

The setting

If location is everything in the hotels business, then Anantya has it all – on the border of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, right on the banks of the picturesque and calm Chittar Lake. The property technically falls under the latter state, but with its architecture and decor, the feel is entirely Kerala.

This site of over 1000 acres, is part of the sprawling Vaikuntam Estates, one of the first rubber plantations in India, set up by the British. So, there is greenery aplenty inside the resort, which in turn attracts incredible birdlife.

The owners have personally put in great thought into the decor – much of it themed after luxury resorts in Thailand, with their little pools of flowing water everywhere. And for that ethnic touch are the old brass and bronze artefacts neatly displayed through the dining area.

2-wooden-pathway

One of the most appealing corners of Anantya is the infinity pool that seems to merge right into the Chittar, an incredible spot to catch the sunset, with a tall, cool sundowner in hand.

1-infinity-pool

The stay

There are only 21 villas in all, of four types, and all of them set facing the lake. All of them come with a touch of understated luxury, and again, the discerning hand of the family is evident.

5-veda-villa

I stayed in one of the Veda Jacuzzi Villas, which as you can guess, comes with its own private Jacuzzi. That apart, it also had my favourite nook in the resort, the gazebo facing the water. When it was just too hot to do anything else, I curled up on the sofa with my book, mostly not reading and just staring at the tranquil waters – once, with the rain beating down around me.

6-siddhi-villa

On one of the afternoons, I head to the Astitva Spa for a relaxing ayurvedic massage. Just as I came out, the skies opened up, and the sight of the rain water merging with the pool and the lake was stunning and soporific at the same time.

4-astitva-spa

The sightseeing

Although I recommend Anantya as a place to just relax and recharge your batteries, there is enough to do around the resort to keep the compulsive sightseers and activity seekers busy.

I visited the very classy Padmanabhapuram palace which is just an hour away by cab – and I had
every intention of heading on to Kanyakumari from there (another hour) but as admitted earlier, skipped that in favour of a full Mallu thali back at the resort.

palace
(image source: wikimapia)

Another morning, I went for a tour of the Vaikuntam Plantation, taking in the sunset from a hillock inside the estate.

7-vaikundam-plantation

You can find out more about these excursions here – I also have a story coming up on my visit to the palace. I will link to it here, so please look out for it.

Walking on thin ice

My only previous experience with a glacier was a distant sighting of Fox and Franz Josef in the south island of New Zealand; I remember craning my neck and zooming my camera lens to its fullest, only to feel utterly exhilarated and vaguely dissatisfied at the same time, given how far the glacier was.

This time around though, the experience was totally different.

To begin with, I was standing right on top of the glacier, walking on it and even miming crazy dance poses for keepsake photographs. This was what I had been looking forward to all morning, throughout the stunning drive between Banff and Jasper National Parks.

This route, the Icefields Parkway in the state of Alberta in western Canada, was through glacier territory, and widely hailed as one of the most scenic drives in the world. It did live up to that promise: smooth grey tarmac lined with snowcapped mountains, and glaciers glinting in the mellow morning sunlight on their imposing slopes.

Icefields

Views

Yet, all I could think about was the highlight of this 230 km road journey, the Athabasca Glacier, waiting for us somewhere in the middle.

Less than three hours after leaving Banff, our small group pulled up at the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre for tickets and a quick lunch. Fortifying ourselves with a couple of more layers of sweaters and socks, we then trudged up towards what I can only describe as a red mechanical monster. It was an all-terrain bus (called ‘Ice Explorer’) with wheels that came up to my shoulders, a trusty old thing that carried us through the steep ups and downs of the slippery ice, to that safe spot on the glacier where we could actually get off and walk.

Explorer

The first thing I did upon getting off was to remove my gloves for a quick dip of my hands into the thin ribbon of glacial spring. As I poured the cold water from my cupped (not to mention frozen) palms into my mouth, I got a sense of what the expression “pure as the driven snow” actually meant.

Even on that sunny day, there was a chill in the air, not easily defeated by all my thermal wear. That was, however, no deterrent, as I began to explore the area, stepping gingerly on the ice that seemed solid but was unexpectedly slippery in places.

Despite that, little children were running around with gay abandon, and adults were lying on the snow, fluttering their hands and legs in an attempt to create snow angels. It was just that kind of place, where adults could easily find themselves channeling their inner children.

Snow

The Athabasca Glacier was formed thousands of years ago, when most of this region was under ice. It is part of the massive Columbia Icefield, itself believed to be a remnant from the last Ice Age on earth. And if that is not impressive enough, the glacier is now flanked by 11 of the Canadian Rockies’ 22 highest peaks.

Standing on the glacier that sprawls over six square kilometres, I was reminded once again of my miniscule, insignificant place in the universe. Despite the crowds surrounding me, I had a sense of being alone, on the surface of something primeval and powerful.

The ice, unlike what I expected to be unblemished white, was a sparkling blue in places; perhaps a play of sunlight, or perhaps a hint of the water that flows underneath. I only had time for a brief exploratory walk before it was time to get back on the bus, all too soon.

Bus

Back home in the Indian summer, I found my mind drawn frequently and irresistibly, to that day in the Rockies, when I made snowballs on that venerable marvel of nature. And given that the glacier has receded almost 2 km in the last 100 years and continues to disappear at an alarming rate, I was grateful for that up close and personal encounter with it.

TRAVEL INFORMATION

Getting there

The Athabasca Glacier is located inside the Jasper National Park, 104 km from the town of Jasper in Alberta. The nearest major airport is Calgary (320 km), 3½ hours away by road.

Best time to visit

The Columbia Icefields Adventure is open only from May 1 to October 15, and the best time to visit is between June and September, when the weather is temperate.

Good to know

~ Begin the glacier adventure with a stop at the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre, which also houses a café, museum and souvenir store.

~ Carry extra layers of warm clothing as the weather is unpredictable and can turn bitterly cold any moment.

Information

Visit the Jasper National Park website for more information on this experience.

(A slightly edited version of this was published in the Sunday DNA on September 04, 2016)

Friday photo: Shark

I don’t usually post personal photos on this blog – but this one is special. I have a crippling fear of water (we are talking swimming pool terror here, and five aborted attempts to lean swimming).

So, when I was in Dubai recently and came to know that I was booked to go on this shark safari, I was excited and terrified in equal measure.

This is an underwater walk with the fish, sting rays and of course, the sharks – in other words, the thrill of diving, without actually diving into the ocean. And I am so glad I did it. After the initial seconds of panic, I relaxed and let go of my guide’s hand. And when the fish started swimming right by my face, I couldn’t stop smiling.

My Friday photo this week, from this incredible shark safari…

shark

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