INCREDIBLE INDIA: 10 BUDGET FRIENDLY & FREE THINGS TO DO IN GANGTOK, SIKKIM WITH FAMILY

Recently Mr. Mahesh Semwal,  a travel blogger friend asked me about things to see in Gangtok. It reminded me that I have yet not written about my experience of traveling with family to Gangtok. What also makes Gangtok a family destination is the fact that it is cheap to visit Gangtok as most things to do in Gangtok are free. Mr. Mahesh himself enjoys travelling with family and I thought it would be best if I finally write about my travel to Gangtok with my parents.

Me and my parents booked a car from the Gangtok bus stop for the entire day. Here is how to see the best of Gangtok with family in 8 hours. I am writing down the exact time of our arrival at a particular point of interest.

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1) 1:25 p.m. – Do Drul Chorten, Gangtok:

Dense forest of birch trees, oak and magnolia hides the Do Drul Chorten. Do Drul Chorten is a stupa which dates back to 1945. Built by the Venerable Trulshi Rimpoche, head of the Nyingma order of Tibetan Buddhism, it is a calm place in the midst of a busy city. Devotees spin the 108 Mani Lhakor or prayer wheels around the stupa in a clockwise manner. Buddhists devotees chant aum mani padme hum meaning ‘Hail to the jewel in the Lotus’ while spinning the wheel. One must watch out for Chorten Lakhang and Guru Lakhang, where two huge statues of Guru Rinpoche are worshipped. You need to ask around or locate the downwards stairs which would lead you to the huge statues. (Photography in this section is not allowed) It is a place of worship and you must refrain from being noisy. Admission is free

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Traveling with my parents. Facing the museum at Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, Gangtok, Sikkim.

2) 1: 45 p.m. – Namgyal Institute of Tibetology Gangtok :

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Museum at Namgyal Institute Of Tibetology in Gangtok, Sikkim. It is near M G Marg, Gangtok and Do Drul Chorten.

Inaugrated in October, 1958 and built in traditional Tibetan architecture, its museum is surrounded by 2 tower like structures on either side. The maroon and white façade of the building complements the dense green cover of the campus. Child monks goof around as the dramatic background of bougainvillea blooms enhance their charm. The museum houses some interesting artefacts such as a variety of ancient thangkas (Buddhist painting and embroidery on cloth), Buddhist wares, ancient coins, rare statutes. It also houses a casket which contains the relics of Kasyapagotra and Madhyama, the two great Asokan missionaries. Ancient manuscripts (some even belonging to 11th century) in Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese and Lepcha also find home in the ground floor museum. My favourite though was the eerie tantric skull-cap bowls and trumpets made from human thigh bones. You may climb up for the library and the views. It is located in Deorali and is around 2 kilometers away from the main town. Namgyal Institute of Tibetology is walking distance from Do Drul Chorten.

 

 

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Deorali Bazar Ropeway Station, Gangtok, Sikkim

3) 2:15 p.m. – Deorali Bazar Ropeway Station Gangtok

 

Just 5 minutes drive/walk away from Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, one can take the ropeway and enjoy the sweeping views of Gangtok city. I did not take the ride because neither my parents nor I were interested in it. We moved ahead for the views of valley at a nearby view point.

 

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Viewing Point near Deorali Bazar Ropeway Station, Gangtok, Sikkim

4) 2: 22 p.m. – Viewing Point, Gangtok-

We instead chose to walk up to the View Point, few minutes away. The winding stairs lead to a viewing point from where one can enjoy the view of the lush green, mist laden mountains, tiny houses and terraced fields. The pathway is decorated with Tibetan prayer flags. We bought some snacks along the way such as boiled and spiced chick peas.   Since my parents are not as fit as me, they took a little longer to navigate the stairs. But it was still easily manageable and was senior citizen friendly. Admission is free.

 

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Hanuman Tok, Gangtok, Sikkim

5) 3:05 p.m. – Hanuman Tok

 

When I arrived at Hanuman Tok, an enterprising family was cooking momos and selling it from the rear of a van modified to double up as a shop. I bought 2 plates of vegetarian momos for  throw-away price and explored the Hanuman temple at Hanuman Tok. The temple is dedicated to Lord Hanuman, much revered God to Hindus, known to foreigners as the Monkey God. If you are lucky, you might get to view the Kanchenjunga range. 11 kms away from main Gangtok city, it is perched at a height of 7,200 ft. It is on located on a road near the Gangtok-Nathu la Highway. There is a gallery which shows important scenes from the Ramayana, the Hindu epic. There is also a famous shine of Sirdi Saibaba. It is senior citizen friendly. There are also benches for rest. I ring a bell, soak in the views and bid it adieu. Admission is free.

 

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Ganesh Tok, Gangtok, Sikkim. It is near Gangtok Zoo

6) 3:54 p.m. – Ganesh Tok, Gangtok:

 

We passed a gorgeous waterfall and arrived at Ganesh Tok. Located at an altitude of 6,500 ft on a gorgeous hilltop, it has a small temple dedicated to Lord Ganesha, known to foreigners as the Elephant God. It is near the tall TV tower and offers incredible views from a circular viewing gallery. On clear days, you can see Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, from Ganesh Tok.  Ignoring the gift and souvenir shop, the nearby zoo and the ‘Dress Like a Local’ Photo Booths, we headed to the cafeteria near the parking lot for a late lunch. The food is good and cheap. It is 6 kms away from the main city. Admission is free. It is just 4 kms away from Hanuman Tok.

 

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Deorali Orchid Sanctuary in Gangtok, Sikkim.

7) 5:05 p.m. – Deorali Orchid Sanctuary:

We arrived late here and the enclosed garden was closed. On my request, I was allowed to enter the indoor Orchid paradise. Located near Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, it houses over 200 species of orchids, including some rare ones. The bold colors and unusual shapes of flowers vied for my attention. The main blooming season is April to May, July to August and October to November. It offers different varieties in different seasons. Admission is free.

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Monk at Enchey Gonpa, Gangtok, Sikkim. Incredible India!

8) 5:21 p.m. – Enchey Gonpa, Gangtok:

As I entered the quaint Enchey Gonpa monastery with my parents, the absolute silence was gently broken by Buddhist chanting from an individual young monk. His was the only sound which reverberated through the conifer scented valleys. Intrigued, my slow paced walk soon turned into gallops. Soon the faint sound turned bolder as I followed the sound. In no time, my pace was slower than that of a snail-in-no-hurry, as soon as I was face to face with a child monk faithfully chanting his lessons for the evening alone. Few steps away from him a group of child monks were like regular kids, goofing around in their red robes while pretending to read their religious books. These kids alternated between serious education and goofing around at a monastery in Gangtok, Sikkim. Despite a strict routine, the kids had retained their ‘kidness’. They hit gently at each other and cracked jokes on each other between recitals of the holy text.

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Little Monks at Enchey Gonpa, Gangtok, Sikkim. Incredible India!

The 200 year old Enchey Gonpa aka Buddhist monastery is set in a lonely place. No wonder Enchey Gonpa’s literal meaning is ‘the solitary temple’. We were the only tourists there. It is 3 kms away from the main Gangtok city. If you are traveling to Gangtok in the month of January and February, don’t forget to catch the live Chaam aka Mask dance performed on the 18th, 19th day of the 12th lunar month of the Tibetan calendar. It is home to the monks of the Nyingma sect of Vajrayana Buddhism. Do check out the colorful windows. Admission is free.

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My parents chilling on a bench in M.G.Marg Market, Gangtok, Sikkim. Incredible India!

9) 6:00 p.m. – MG Marg Market, Gangtok:

MG Marg Market is located centrally in the heart of the Gangtok City. It was near our hotel, so it made sense to end the day in the vibrant markets of M.G. Marg. Visiting it during night made the experience all the more charming. It reminded me of the Leh market in Ladakh. Though M G Marg market is much bigger in scale than the Leh market but it resembled the look and feel. Also, both the markets are a no vehicle zone and are way too clean by Indian standards for a market as crowded as this. Despite the crowd, it is a pleasure to walk here due to the wide pathways. The open mall or boulevard square is lined with glittery shops, souvenir stores, grocery shops, fancy restaurants and even pharmacy shops. My parents checked out some outlets and shopped. Not a shopping fan, I utilized the time to stroll and fill my face with street food. It is a no smoking zone. Open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Restaurants are open for longer. Admission to M G Marg market is free.

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Gurudwara Sahib, Gangtok, Sikkim. Incredible India!

10) 8:26 p.m. – Gurudwara Sahib, Gangtok:

Gangtok, like other hill stations of India sleep early. I anchored my parents at the hotel and enjoyed the view of the glittery city from the hotel balcony. After I ordered food for my parents, I moved out to get a closer look of the beautifully lit Gurudwara Sahib. Located near the Gangtok bus stand, it is a beautiful Gurudwara (Worship place of Sikhs). The architectural style is unique and it looks all the more beautiful when lit. I walked alone on the adjacent walk way, sometimes looking at the Gurudwara sometimes looking at the starry city in far distance. Personal moments like these are why I travel. The next morning we moved to Darjeeling.

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Traveling with parents at Enchey Gonpa, Gangtok, Sikkim.

IS GANGTOK A SENIOR CITIZEN FRIENDLY CITY?

I found Gangtok to be a perfect place to visit with my parents. My mother has health issues and is wary of climbing anything. However much of Gangtok requires easy climbing. Hiring a car for entire day is the best way to travel with senior citizen in Gangtok. Most things to do in Gangtok are near each other and don’t require much of climbing stairs. The weather is pleasant which further makes thing easier. Food of all variety is also easily available, so rigid eating habits of parents are also resolved.

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Bird’s eye view of Gangtok city and Sikkim TV Tower from Ganesh Tok. Incredible India!

IT IS VERY CHEAP TO SEE GANGTOK AS MOST THINGS TO DO IN GANGTOK ARE FREE

As I mentioned in the story above, admission to most of the things to do in Gangtok is free which makes Gangtok a perfect family destination to travel to. A good idea is to hire cheap sight-seeing cars on arrival.  The rates are reasonable. Hotels of all budgets are also available.

HOW TO REACH GANGTOK FROM SILIGURI (AFTER A WONDERFUL TRIP TO BHUTAN WITH FAMILY)

I had planned Gangtok after a wonderful trip to Bhutan with my parents. As soon as we arrived in Jaigaon, the small town at India – Bhutan border, we booked a cab to Gangtok. We started at 2 p.m. from Jaigaon and reached the Coronation Bridge aka Sevoke Bridge at 5:50 p.m. We stayed over in a hotel near Bus Stand in Siliguri for the night.  Completed in 1941, the coronation bridge commemorates the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1937. It is also known as Baghpul aka Tiger Bridge due to the 2 lion statues at one end of the bridge. It is also known as Loha Pul because it is made up of metal. Travellers pass through this scenic bridge on their way to Gangtok, Siliguri, Bhutan and Darjeeling. There is also a viewing point near the coronation bridge.  However beware of the traffic jams in the rush hour and of stray monkeys at all hours.  Avoid carrying any eatable in the open.

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Coronation Bridge aka bagh pul aka Loha pul aka Sevoke Bridge. It is near Bhutan, Darjeeling, in West Bengal and Gangtok in Sikkim. You can see Teesta river in this picture.

The next morning we caught a private non ac bus to Gangtok from the Siliguri Bus Stand. Many buses ply on this route and one can often get tickets without prior booking. We left Siliguri at 7:21 a.m. and reached the ‘Welcome To Sikkim’ gate at exact 10:00 a.m. Our bus was stopped at this point and we were asked to show our identity cards by the army. Before we arrived at this gate, the bus passed through scenic Teesta River. We came across many small metallic bridges. Some of the bridges near Sikkim were so narrow that we had to wait for the other vehicles to pass before making a move. Within 5 minutes of passing through the ‘Welcome to Sikkim’ gate, the bus stopped for refreshments in the middle of the city. I had my fill of different varieties of Bengali Mishti Doi (Sweet Thick and flavoured curd) and other Bengali sweets. We reached around 11:50 a.m. at the multi level Gangtok Bus Stand. We walked in and settled for a reasonably priced hotel near the Gangtok Bus Stand. It costed the 3 of us around Rs.1500 (With extra bed). I forgot the name of the hotel but most hotels on this lane are priced like that. This place is near the famous M.G. Market and other points of interest in Gangtok.

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My mother seems to be happy at Hanuman Tok, Gangtok, Sikkim

RESPONSIBLE TOURISM IN GANGTOK, SIKKIM:

  • Sikkim is a plastic free zone, so no plastic bags are allowed. It is best if you responsibly dispose all the waste you generated.
  • Many areas in Gangtok are No Smoking zone. Kindly Refrain.
  • While entering religious places, please maintain decorum and restraint yourself from shouting, running and other such ‘important tasks’.
  • Please don’t pluck flowers.
  • Please take off your shoes when entering religious places.
  • Ask for filtered water instead of plastic water bottles.
  • Don’t nag the authorities for clicking the picture of a statue/building or even monks if it is not allowed. Respect.

 

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The upper garden of Deorali Orchid Sanctuary, Gangtok, Sikkim

BEST TIME TO VISIT GANGTOK, SIKKIM :

  • Spring in Gangtok: I went in the month of April. The weather was perfect at that time. March and April is the best time to be there.
  • Summer in Gangtok: May and June is still comfortable.
  • Monsoon in Gangtok: July to August is when in pours in Gangtok. Landslides and heavy rains keep tourists away.
  • Autumn in Gangtok: October to November is also a great time to visit Gangtok. Might get chilly at nights.
  • Winter in Gangtok: December to February is very cold. Go if you can brave the chill.
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Buddhist Devotees chanting aum mani padme hum while spinning Mani Lhakor aka prayer wheels at Do Drul Chorten, Gangtok, Sikkim.

HOW TO REACH GANGTOK, SIKKIM

  • AIR: Nearest Airport is at Bagdogra, 124 kms away
  • RAILWAY: Nearest Railway station from Gangtok is New Jalpaiguri in Siliguri, 148 kms away.
  • BUS: Buses to Gangtok are available from Siliguri and Darjeeling, so you might want to club these destinations.

EXCURSIONS FROM GANGTOK, SIKKIM

Gangtok is close to many interesting places such as:

International destinations near Gangtok, Sikkim:

  • Phuentsholing in Bhutan
  • Ilam, Nepal
  • Nathu La pass near China border

Indian destinations near Gangtok, Sikkim:

  • Darjeeling
  • Rumtek Monastery
  • Gurudongmar Lake
  • Yumthang Valley
  • Lachung and Lachen
  • Yuksom
  • Pelling
  • Tsongmo Lake
  • Zuluk
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A waterfall which we saw between Hanuman Tok and Ganesh Tok, Gangtok, Sikkim. Incredible India!

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GOLDEN CHARIOT: THE ONLY LUXURY TRAIN OF SOUTH INDIA. FIND OUT WHAT IT’S LIKE.

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The Golden Chariot, luxury train of South India

THE SOUTHERN SPLENDOUR ROUTE OF GOLDEN CHARIOT, the luxury train of South India is irresistible. It covers the best of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Pondicherry in 7 nights and 8 days. The Southern Splendour of Golden Chariot starts from Bengaluru and covers destinations such as Chennai, Mahabalipuram aka Mammallapuram, Puducherry aka Pondicherry, Thanjavur, Trichy, Madurai, Kanyakumari, Kovalam, Alleypey and Kochi. When the Karnataka State Tourism Development Corporation (KSTDC) invited me on a Media Trip to Golden Chariot, I instantly said yes. This was also the trip when I started traveling again after a break of few months because I was tired of traveling. I knew it would take something special to make me fall in love with travel again. I am glad I boarded the right train, the Golden Chariot. It is now one of my finest travel memories.

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View of a sleeper class from Golden Chariot, the only luxury train of South India. I love both!

Indian Railways has been my choice number one when it comes to the mode of transport. Trains are close to my heart. In some way or the other, trains have been a part of more than 90 % of my journeys. However, it was the first time I was traveling in a luxury train. I am a hotel management (IHM Lucknow) pass-out. During my industrial training in the palatial Taj Palace Hotel in New Delhi, I was awed by the Orient Express restaurant.

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The Bar Madira at Golden Chariot, the luxury train.

The theme of the restaurant was the famous luxury train of Europe. I would stare at it, mouth agape, imagining how the real Orient Express must have been like. Experiencing the Orient Express is a false dream since it has been discontinued. However, India has many luxury trains with impeccable service, food and delightful destinations to choose from. Southern Splendour of Golden Chariot is a clear winner because of the variety it offers in such short span of time. The train derives its name from the famous Stone Chariot in Hampi, a world heritage site in Karnataka.

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Indian and foreign guests at the Golden Chariot, luxury train.

We were welcomed with much fanfare at Hotel Taj West End, Bangalore. We were registered at a desk followed up by a high tea and power point presentation by Mr. Abhijay Verma, general manager. The evening was closed with a wonderful performance by trained classical dancers. The Thanjavur doll dance won my heart. It actually seemed like that the dolls and not humans were dancing.

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Dancers performing Thanjavur doll dance at Taj West End Bangalore. It was the opening ceremony of the Golden Chariot, luxury train.

As soon as we arrived at the Yeshwantpur Railway Station in Bengaluru, the music makers welcomed us with aplomb. Wearing impeccably white shirts and lungi (sarong), they passionately played the thavil, a drum hanging from their shoulder with a cloth locally called nadai. Their fingers were covered with thimble like finger caps. Made of rice flour or maida flour, the caps are called Koodu.The other man played Nadaswaram, a metallic pipe which flares up at the bottom like a bell.

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The bar Madira. Golden Chariot, luxury train of South India.

Both Thavil and Nadaswaram are ancient musical instruments of South India. These are widely used in weddings, temples and carnatic music. The women garlanded us as the curious crowd jumped from across the barrier to get a glimpse of the train interiors and its occupants. The theme of curious onlookers continued for the entire journey. People would get curious and excited every time the train passed through a destination or was parked at a station. On one of the day, I saw the railway attendants of another train requesting to catch a glimpse of the interiors of the Golden Chariot. Moments like these made me grateful that such an opportunity came my way. Moments like these gave me the epiphany that we are in the midst of something special and exclusive.

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MY FIRST REACTION: THE ENTRY TO THE GOLDEN CHARIOT VIA MADIRA BAR

I vividly remember my reaction as soon as I entered the Golden Chariot. We made our first entry in the Golden Chariot through the only bar of the train called Madira (Meaning alcohol). “Wow”, that was all I could manage as soon as I entered the bar Madira in the Golden Chariot. It took me a while to accept that the luxurious furnishings and the well stocked bar was indeed inside an Indian train. As if to calm our nerves we were served complimentary red wine and white wine.

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Me in the bar of Golden Chariot. Luxury Train Of South India. Pic by Ami Bhat

I couldn’t help but minutely notice each and every detail of the bar, smile never leaving my lips. It was something which I had never experienced before despite having traveled across more than 150 destinations in India and beyond since 2008. For the entire trip, Madira bar was our exit point for everyday sightseeing. The entire Golden Chariot train,. We discovered was nothing less than a palace. Be it the furniture, the furnishings, the carpeting, the food, the service or the facilities, everything matched the level of any 5 star property.

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Me in my room in the Golden Chariot, the luxury train.

ROOMS OF GOLDEN CHARIOT, THE LUXURY TRAIN OF SOUTH INDIA!

I was curious to see the rooms. Each room had either twin beds or double beds. Interestingly, the décor of each coach of the Golden Chariot is designed differently. Christened after the famed dynasties of South India, viz. Yadukula, Hoysala, Adilshahi, Ganga, Chalukya, Vijayanagara, the décor of each room and coach reflected the architectural style of the respective era. The luxury train is managed by Mapple hotels. There are total 18 coaches with 11 passenger coaches boasting of well equipped private cabins (Rooms). Each room was appointed with a television.

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Madira bar, The Golden Chariot, luxury train.

Since cable TV is not possible due to the movement, we were given a choice of watching films on demand. Not a TV person, I used my leisure time reading the books on Karnataka and Mysore which were thoughtfully kept on the table near my bed. Some of the rooms had foldable berths which you can pull down if required; just like in regular trains. This means that upto 3 individuals can accommodate in some of the rooms.

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Views from my room in Golden Chariot, luxury train of South India

Since I had the room to myself, the child in me would hop on to the either of the twin beds. If the train moved in day, I would sit by the bed on the window side and admire the change in the beautiful sceneries of South India. Palm fringed landscapes, huge water bodies, charming huts, and mountains dominated the views from the train window. Scores of wind mills (at Aralvaymoli station near Kanyakumari) caught my attention. This is my favourite pastime every time I am in an Indian Train. However, doing it in a private room in an air conditioned luxurious train is something I will not forget in a lifetime. Most of the movement of train was during the night. On only few occasions did we get to see moving sceneries since most of the day was spent in sightseeing.

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My Room in the Yadukula Coach of the Golden Chariot, the luxury train of South India.
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Attached washroom in Golden Chariot, luxury train.

The washrooms are appointed with shaving kit, dental care, soaps, shampoo, conditioner, bath gel, moisturizer and slippers. Despite the tiny size of the washroom, space management has ensured that the rack to keep toileteries, shower area, W.C. and the washbasin are compartmentalized making the movement easy and swift. It was a weird feeling for me to have a hot shower in a moving train. The room has two large mirrors; one is in the washroom above washbasin and the other one is on the washroom door, towards the room side.

FACILITIES OF THE GOLDEN CHARIOT, LUXURY TRAIN:

A personalized room attendant is appointed in each coach. All one has to do is press the buzzer and the attendant will appear on your door, ready to serve you with a smile. Not much of a fussy traveler, I never used this facility but it’s a great idea to appoint each room with an attendant. It helps especially the elderly for anything they might need. The attendants sleep near the entrance of their respective coaches. Each coach is also appointed with a well stocked pantry. This is important because due to the layout of the linear palace, it takes time to reach the other coaches or restaurants and bar. Even luxury has its limitations! Also, I wished there was an individual temperature control panel in the room. In case a guest wanted to increase or decrease the temperature, he/she was required to use the buzzer and instruct the room attendant.

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Me with the room attendant of Yadukula coach. The Golden Chariot, luxury train of South India.
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Me at the sit out area, Golden Chariot. Luxury Train.

Some space is left at one end of each coach for a sit out area. 4 chairs and 2 tables are placed next to the door windows. The walls of the sit out area are decorated with South Indian elements such as dance themed face masks. The tables are stocked with fresh newspaper. Every day, there are announcements done in the train. The announcement reaches each corner of the train including rooms, washrooms and spa etc. There is a well appointed business centre as well. Laundry facility is available with a same day return policy. Besides a readily available first aid kit, a doctor on call is also available at each station. All coaches are open, not locked. All 4 doors have only one top latch provided for a quick escape during any emergency. All the services at the spa are chargeable. There are many therapies to choose from.They have a menu card for the same.

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The Golden Chariot, luxury train of South India halts at Aralvaymoli near Kanyakumari. Scores of wind mills dotted the landscape.

The Madira Bar of The Golden Chariot: The bar at Golden Chariot is grand. Thanks to its well planned layout, rich furnishings and a lively ambiance, it was the most preferred place for all the passengers to have a conversation, sip wine, read books or socialize. Interactive events like live South Indian cooking demo was held in this area. The women also flocked to the bar to get their palms painted with Mehandi/Heena during an event. The best part: There is no closing time for the bar. The bar stays open till the last drink is ordered. The consumables at the bars are chargeable separately. But oh, there are happy hours as well.

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Chess and other pastimes at Madira Bar. The Golden Chariot, luxury train of South India.

THE RESTAURANTS AND FOOD AT THE GOLDEN CHARIOT, LUXURY TRAIN

There are 2 restaurants in the Golden Chariot. The food in Golden Chariot is so tasteful that I used to wait for my next meal every day. In fact the food and service in Golden Chariot is one of its highlights. Mr. Mahender Singh Rathore, food and beverage manager has been the part of the management ever since its inception. He personally takes care of the need of each guest. I talked to some foreign guests from Canada, Fiji and Ireland and they seemed delighted with the quality of the European cuisine and service on board. Every day, the breakfast and dinner was aboard the Golden Chariot Train. The lunch was served in the luxury hotels of the cities we visited. The breakfast aboard the Golden Chariot comprised of fresh fruits, juices and a choice of continental and Indian meals. I was impressed with the freshness of the food despite the change in its city every day. The executive chef Deepak Chaubey told me, “We source fresh ingredients every day. We have our tie ups at each station which facilitates it. Quality is never compromised.”

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Indian Food in the Golden Chariot, luxury train of South India.

The breakfast and dinner in Golden Chariot also had a choice of continental food. Below are some of the dishes I stuffed my face with.

Breakfast (Indian) –Masala Dosa, Aaloo Paratha, Idli, Palak Poori, Khara and Kesari Bhath, Gobhi Paratha, Khara Pongal, Masala Vada, Poori Bhaji, Paneer Paratha, Shavige Bhath, Ajwaiini Poori.

Breakfast (Non Indian): Cheese platter with olive and crackers, Muffins, Croissants with assorted jams, honey and butter, Wheat Flakes, Corn Flakes, Oatmeal, Muesli, Seasonal Cut fruits, juices.

Beverages (Non Alcoholic) – Tea (Darjeeling/Masala/Earl Grey/English Breakfast/Green Tea), Coffee (South Indian Filter/Cappucino/Espresso/Latte), Hot Chocolate

Soups served were Mulligatawny Soup, Tamatar Dhaniya Shorba, Crème Dubarry, Mushroom and Barley Soup

Salads– Grilled pineapple and prunes salad, Creamy cucumber with cashew kernels, Crispy coleslaw, Three Bean Salad.

Entrée– Bouqueterie of vegetables and herbed potatoes, Basil Scented Vegetable Skewers, Grilled Mediterranean Vegetables with Fruit Salsa, Fettuccine Alfredo,

Indian– Manguluru Paneer Masala, Mysuru Brinjal Curry, Drumstick Ulli Sambhar, Zafarani Pulao, Lal Mirch Paratha, Mirch Bhutta Makhana, Kandhari Kofta, Hare Cholia Te Paneer, Khattey Aaloo, Tawa Paratha, Panchras dal, Jeera Rice, Tomato Raita, Palak Khumb, Paneer Lababdar, Kadi pakodi, Aloo Udaygiri, Kerala Parotta, Angoori Pulao

Dessert – Tender coconut soufflé, Gulab Jamun, Dharwadi Bendekai, Pineapple Strudels, Nariyal Til Sikkha, Tiramisu, Sheer Korma, Apple Cinnamon Pie, Zafrani Gajar aur Badam Kheer.

Pictures above- (Left to right) 1) Executive chef Mr. Deepak Chaubey; 2) Continental dish served in the Golden Chariot, luxury train.

The Staff and Service: The staff is courteous, very attentive and gives importance to the smallest of request from the guests.

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The Tour Map of Southern Splendour Golden Chariot

Below are the two routes of the Golden Chariot, the only luxury train of South India:

Golden Chariot Pride of South Brief Itinerary: Bangalore-Chennai & Mammallapuram-Pondicherry-Thanjavur-Madurai-Trivandrum & Kovalam Beach-Kerala backwaters & Kochi-Bangalore

Southern Splendour Golden Chariot Brief Itinerary: Bangalore-Kabini-Mysore-Hassan-Hampi-Badami-Goa-Bangalore

I covered the Southern Splendour.

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Foreign guests at the Golden Chariot, luxury train of South India.

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The bus used for sights-seeing for guests of the Golden Chariot, the luxury train.

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Me in one of the restaurants of the Golden Chariot, the luxury train of South India.

WARNING : COPYRIGHT TO ALL THE IMAGES AND TEXT HERE REMAINS WITH ME. YOU CAN NOT JUST LIFT THE CONTENT AND USE IT WITHOUT MY PERMISSION. STRICT LEGAL ACTION WILL BE TAKEN IF CONTENT IS STOLEN. YES, I AM SERIOUS.

Pictures (Left to Right)- Spa, Gym and Aisle of the Golden Chariot. Please click to enlarge.

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Cooking demo by executive chef and team at Madira Bar, the Golden Chariot, luxury train of South India.
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Scenes from my window at The Golden Chariot, luxury train of South India.
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Aralvaymoli near Kanyakumari is abundant of wind mills. The Golden Chariot, luxury train of South India halted here for sometime.
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The view of Sleeper Class from one of the windows of The Golden Chariot, luxury train of South India. Both are dear to me.

P.S. The pictures featuring me clicked by Ami Bhat and Swati Jain. Rest of the pictures are clicked by me

AMARI RESORT AT RAMGARH NEAR NAINITAL IS THE PERFECT LUXURY BREAK FROM DELHI!

AAMARI RESORTS IN RAMGARH near Nainital is easily the best resort in the area. It is a perfect weekend break from Delhi, Noida and Gurgaon.  1 hour away from the touristy Nainital, Aamari resort at Ramgarh is a perfect abode away from the city life. When I planned a trip to Nainital, Ramgarh and Mukteshwar, I decided to make Aamari resort my base and explore the gems nearby.

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One of the 3 bed rooms at the Sky Villa in Aamari Resorts, Ramgarh

ACTIVITIES AT AAMARI RESORTS, RAMGARH:

I spent the last day just enjoying the property. There is so much you can do in the property. I walked around the property for some-time followed by a stroll on the road appreciating the fairy-tailish pink, white and red flowers which dominated the natural landscape. The rest of the day was spent at leisure in reading (No, I didn’t switch on the TV), enjoying the delicious food, siesta, indulging in sauna bath, the works!

On the first day, I booked a cab to Nainital and explored the usual and the offbeat places to see in Nainital, especially the houses where legendary Jim Corbett stayed. The second day was spent exploring the offbeat gem that Ramgarh is. I hiked near the hills of the resort to arrive at the ruins of a house where Nobel Laureate Rabindra Nath Tagore lived for some years and wrote part of his famous work Geetanjali. Just ahead of the Malla Ramgarh Bazaar, I walked at an adjacent pathway for some time and visited the house of noted Hindi writer Mahadevi Verma. There sure is something about hills and world famous writers! Aamari resort is blessed to be built on a hill where verses of Geetanjali still soulfully echo.

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My room (Room number 104) at Aamari Resort, Ramgarh

THE ROOMS AT AAMARI RESORTS, RAMGARH:

I stayed in room number 104. The moment I entered the room, I was awed by the sheer size of the room. The pool facing rooms at Aamari are huge and so is the King size bed. The mattress used in the bed is fluffy and comfortable. That, combined with a lovely weather ensured I get sound sleep during my 3 days stay in the resort. On one side of the bed was electric kettle and teabags, creamer etc placed atop a rack. On the other side is a writing table equipped with lights. The room comes with many lighting options to suit your mood.

There is a sofa, chair and central table at the sitting area next to a giant window which overlooks the pool, the property, glimpses of road and the valley along-with the mighty Himalayan ranges. This was my favourite part of the room. Just as you enter the room, there is a wardrobe with tall mirrors on the left hand side. A little ahead is the washroom. Again, the size and layout of the washroom is impressive. It also comes with different lighting option to suit the mood. (I preferred the dim lights). The wash basin area is large, leaving enough space for dressing up.  It was a pleasure to have a hot shower in the well stocked glass cubicle. The shower head was large and the water pressure was just right. The washroom was stocked with the usual suspects- soaps, shampoo, conditioner and moisturizer.

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The lovely sit out area outside my room at Aamari Resort. It is great secluded spot to soak in some winter sun or enjoy bonfire in night.

THE AAMARI RESORT, RAMGARH PROPERTY:

I arrived late night in the first week of March via a cab and slept in the comfortable bed post dinner. The next morning, I opened the huge window of my room and was delighted with the sight of snow capped Himalayan Ranges such as the mighty Trishul, Nanda Devi, Panchacholi and Nandakot. I chose to have the breakfast in my room by the window so that I could enjoy the stunning views with my meals. The room is equipped with mirrors at the entrance and at the writing table.

Just outside the room is a lovely sit out area where I enjoyed reading a book in the swing fashioned out of cane. As darkness fell, I used to sit here having conversations around bonfires. The property is sprawling. Its 22 luxurious rooms are spread across multi level. Some rooms are garden facing while some are pool facing. There is a set of room near the car parking which is accessed by a car and thus is ideal for elderly who might find it difficult to walk up the stairs to reach other rooms.

The property is landscaped thoughtfully. Colorful Beer and Vodka bottles hang from a tree near the reception area. The poolside area comes with 2 large round cane chairs which can seat many people. There is a sit out area opposite the pool where I enjoyed Hot Chocolate during nights. The large banquet hall and the spacious indoor restaurant are ideal for large groups. You will notice the theme of a Cruise Ship throughout the property including the restaurant.

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The ship themed restaurant at Aamari Resort, Ramgarh

THE DAZZLING SKY VILLA AT AAMARI RESORT, RAMGARH:

The 3 bedroom Sky Villa near the sunset point took my breath away. It is a little away from the main property of Aamari Resorts. Sky Villa is a separate bungalow managed by the property. It overlooks the gorgeous valley below and is accessed by either vehicle or a long walk. It has 3 bedrooms on 2 stories, outdoor sit out areas, courtyards, indoor sit out areas with top to bottom glass walls and a well equipped kitchen. It is a great place to spend time with family or a group of friends. I was awestruck with the villa and its location. It is close to the sunset point from where I had an amazing view of the distant mountains and valley bathed in golden light. A small hike from here takes you to a viewpoint from where you can have a bird’s eye view of the famous lake in Bhimtal.

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Food is delicious at Aamari Resort, Ramgarh. My favourite was Paneer Kali Mirch

THE FOOD AT AAMARI RESORTS, RAMGARH:

During my 3 days stay at Aamari Resorts, I ordered a variety of food. Tamara Khaas Kofta (Pistachio and Khoya Stuffed Dumplings in rich Tomato gravy) and Paneer Kali Mirch were my absolute favourite. I also enjoyed the pasta in red sauce. On most days I had hearty breakfast of Aaaloo ka Paratha, Gobhi ka paratha and Poori-Bhaji, all of them done to perfection.

That said, the Paneer Butter Masala could have been better. The vegetables au gratin was good except the distracting sweet chunks of pineapple at times. You may want to tell them to skip the pineapple if you choose to order it. The quantity of the food is good and one entrée is sufficient for 2 people.

OTHER FACILITIES AAMARI RESORTS, RAMGARH:

There are myriad activities one can do at Aamari Resorts. There are many trekking trails which in house experts take you to. These are easy routes. They also offer outdoor picnic options. One can also indulge in soft adventure sports like rappelling, rock climbing, archery, spider nest, flying fox and valley crossing. These are monitored and organized by in house experts. For the less adventurous kinds, indoor games like carom, chess is available. You can also play basketball, badminton and football. Just above the reception is the facility for steam and sauna bath.  You can also check out the nearby adobe houses, Gagar Temple, Fossil remains on the hills etc.

RESPONSIBLE LUXURY AAMARI RESORTS, RAMGARH:

I love the luxury properties like Aamari resorts which accept my request to replace the bottled mineral water with filtered water. It’s my little way to say no to generation of plastic. I also make it a point to reuse the towels the next day. If all of us start doing it, it helps us save a lot of water. I am glad Aamari Resorts promote that habit. I was impressed to know that Aamari Resorts hire local talent whom they train and nurture from scratch. Collective travel to reduce transport, trekking and walking are some of the means by which they strive to cut the carbon footprint of travelers.

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The separate 3 bed room Sky Villa is stuff dreams are made up of. Can’t afford? Go with friends and family and split the cost. It’s worth it!

PLAN A VACATION. DISCOVER THESE PLACES NEAR AAMARIRESORTS, RAMGARH, UTTARAKHAND:

MYGRATION STORIES- WHY IS THIS BRAVE LADY LIVING ALONE IN A FOREST IN MUKTESHWAR

LEELA ORCHARDS HOMESTAY IN MUKTESHWAR: PERFECT CHOICE OF WEEKEND BREAK FROM DELHI IN BUDGET

HOW TO REACH AAMARI RESORTS, RAMGARH:

Just before the Malla Ramgarh Bazaar on the main Bhowali-Mukteshwar road, the Aamari Resorts is unmissable. Nestled in the Himalayan Heights Complex towards the right hand side of the road, it stands out thanks to its grandeur.  It is one hour away from Nainital. You can reach Nainital by bus. From Nainital, the taxi costs Rs.500 and takes 1 hour to reach. In case you reach in night, make sure you hire a reliable taxi. Chances are that after 7 or 8 p.m., on some stretches, you will be the only one driving on that road. Try to reach before sun set.  The cab driver charged me Rs.700 at 8 p.m. (Rs.200 from the usual Rs.500)

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The entrance to my room at Aamari Resorts, Ramgarh

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TIGER’S NEST AKA PARO TAKTSANG IN BHUTAN- QUICK TREKKING GUIDE AND TIPS!

The below article is in a chronological order, based upon my personal experience. If you have any questions, please leave them in the comment section below and I will answer them.

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Creative shot of Tiger’s Nest Monastery aka Paro Taktsang.

TIGER’S NEST OR THE PARO TAKTSANG IS THE FACE OF BHUTAN. Most have nurtured a dream to climb up the monastery, which from a distance looks like it will fall anytime from the high mountains. I have been to Bhutan 2 times (Such is the pull of the country!) I could not visit the Tiger’s nest the first time in 2014 because I was traveling with parents for whom it was not possible to trek. The option of taking a mule up to the Tiger’s Nest was there but they were not too keen. I looked at it longingly from a distance and promised myself to return to Bhutan one day for realizing my dream of trekking up to Tiger’s Nest if nothing else.

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Paro Taktasang aka Tiger’s Nest Monastery peeping from the prayer flags

15th August, 2016: Perhaps I was destined to trek to Tiger’s Nest on the auspicious occasion of Indian Independence Day. As our van stopped at the base of the Tiger’s Nest, a touristy market welcomed us. Some of us bought a Rs.50 walking stick. We were 5 bloggers and 2 representatives from Bhutan Bookings.

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Beginning of Tiger’s Nest Monastery Trek- Of Pines and mules

7:35 a.m. Scores of pine cones lay scattered on the ground as we started the trek to Tiger’s Nest. Mules, waiting to be hired, rested nonchalantly. Tiger’s Nest looks like a tiny speck from here. A row of prayer wheels housed in small rooms built in traditional Bhutanese architecture was the first man made structure we passed. Powered by flowing water, it added to the tranquil atmosphere.

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Prayer wheel powered by water is housed in this room. En Route Tiger’s Nest Monastery trek

8:00 a.m. Clusters of tiny mushrooms cushioned the sides of pathways.  The view of Tiger’s nest was our constant companion. Half an hour later, we were rewarded with sweeping views of the valley below and misty mountains on the other side.

Pictures above (L to R) Way to Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Shadow of the quirky prayer wheels, Tiny mushrooms (Please click to enlarge)

8:41 a.m. There are benches built for those who want to rest. I preferred sitting on the stones during the breaks. Nearby is a large compartmentalized tank where the horses stopped for their water breaks.

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Me blowing the quirky prayer wheels fashioned out of bottles. En Route Tiger’s Nest Monastery Trek (Pic: Parnashree Devi)

8:57 a.m. We arrived at a giant prayer wheel surrounded by large boulders and prayer flags of all colors. I loved the quirky prayer wheel somebody fashioned out of bottle waters. It had ‘wings’ and was dependent on fast winds or a little blow by humans. Few minutes later, we entered a modern gate. 20 minutes later the muddy path had become rocky in patches.

Pics above (L to R) : Our guide Sonam resting on a bench en route Tiger’s Nest Monastery; Rocky patches

10:00 a.m. We arrived at a mysterious building. It was built around a cave. It’s door was locked but there was a wooden ladder which opened in the window. I climbed the ladder to see a dark room housing idols and prayer paraphernalia. Incense smell seduced my olfactory system as I pushed my nose against the metal net. Just when I thought there were no human inside, a monk looked at me from inside. A board told me that His Holiness JE Khenpo Geshey Guenden Rinchen was born here in a cave in 1926 (Fire Tiger year). People nick named him Dragphugpa (Cave man). He was a Buddhist scholar and for 10 years he served as the abbot of Tango Monastery in Thimphu. Just 3 minutes ahead is a view point where trekkers can safely take pictures of the Tiger’s Nest.

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The cave Temple just before the view point en route Tiger’s Nest Monastery aka Paro Taktsang

10:22 a.m. After a stop of few minutes we resumed trekking, this time on proper steps with metal railings. Few years ago this was a rough trail. The construction helped people navigate the tricky part of the trek. This stretch has the most ups and downs and perhaps due to this reason the steps were built. “It was pretty rough when I visited it solo many years ago! It’s quite easy now!” An American told me, who was trekking this time with his grown up son. 20 minutes later, I passed a cemented seating area. Skipping the rest, I moved on, impatient to reach the Tiger’s Nest. A Japanese pointed out to me a large formation on the rock below the Tiger’s Nest. It looked like a human form. He told me it is said to be a mythological figure.

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The waterfall. Tiger’s Nest Monastery aka Paro Taktsang is just an hour away!

11:00 a.m. We arrived at the most exciting part of the trek. A large waterfall cascaded from the high mountains. A bridge helped pilgrims cross the gushing stream powered by the waterfall. Prayer flags of all colors were tied in haphazard fashion everywhere as if celebrating something. Perhaps celebrating our arrival at the Tiger’s nest which was just an hour away! 10 minutes away was a cave where Khado Yeshi Tsogyal practiced Vajrakilaya. A powerful tradition which is practiced to removes obstacles; overpower evil forces and leads to compassion and spiritual cleaning.

Pics above (L to R): Can you identify the human image; the second cave temple just before Tiger’s Nest Monastery aka Paro Taktsang

12:20 a.m. We arrived at the steps leading to Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Cameras, Mobile phones, weapons, liquors, tobacco, drugs explosives and any inflammable object are not allowed beyond this point. We submitted our cameras, mobile phones, sticks, extra clothes and day packs in the locker and proceeded ahead after a security check. It is also not allowed to wear sleeveless outfits, shawls or Bermudas and half pants beyond this point.

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Paro Taktsang aka Tiger’s Nest Monastery

As I climbed the steep steps to the Tiger’s Nest monastery, I arrived at a dark room. The perfume of incense and juniper wafted in the air, lending it a mystical aura. I visited all the temples in the monastery, silenced and awed by its aura. The breathtaking views of the valley made it all the more soothing.

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Me unable to hide my happiness on coming so close to Paro Taktsang aka Tiger’s Nest Monastery. One more dream come true! (Pic: Parnashree Devi)

1:24 p.m. We arrive for lunch at Taktsang Cafeteria. A Bhutan Tourism outlet, it is a relaxing place to have lunch post the trek. It has both indoor and al fresco dining option. I suggest you sit at the outdoor benches for a view of misty Tiger’s Monastery. Lunch is buffet style. There are clean loos too.

Lunch Nu 390; Tea/Coffee with biscuits – Nu 100

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The cafeteria. We ate here while returning from Tiger’s Nest Monastery

Soul Window Tips:

  1. Eat a heavy breakfast. You will be burning a lot of calories.
  2. Wear loose cottons and comfortable shoes. Trekking shoes preferred though it is an easy (for me) trek.
  3. Carry light woolens. I did carry but I did not need it. (I trekked on 15th August)
  4. Don’t wear sleeveless shirts/tops and half pants. You will not be allowed inside the monastery.
  5. Carry water bottles (at least 2 liters per person)
  6. Carry Small snacks like dry fruits, cookies, health bars.
  7. Carry a light day pack to hold all the things.
  8. Walking stick helps, though it is not much required. In case you buy it from the shops at the base, it would be great if you could return it to them for free. This is what we did.
  9. Always give priority to the horses and let them pass the path before you do.
  10. Carry plastic to protect your electronic in case it rains.

MY MORAL POLICING ON RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING:

  1. If you are fit, there is no reason to hire a mule. It’s unpleasant for you as well as the mule. Trekking on foot also helps you observe a lot.
  2. Don’t litter. It is a sensitive zone. Though there are huge bins installed every few steps, I suggest you collect all the garbage in your bag and take them down yourself. If all the individuals take initiatives at their end, it makes a big difference at the end.
  3. Don’t talk loudly or scream. Let’s maintain the sanctity of the place.
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Tiger’s Nest Monastery aka Paro Taktsang

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE THESE BLOGS ON BHUTAN:

WHY THEY PAINT PENIS DESIGNS ON THE WALLS OF BHUTAN

DRAYANGS: THE DANCE BARS OF BHUTAN

THE HAA VALLEY: BEST KEPT SECRET OF BHUTAN

ALL YOU WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT PARO

MUST DO THINGS IN THIMPHU: 30 EXCLUSIVE PICTURES

WHITE WATER RAFTING IN PUNAKHA: WHEN I JUMPED IN THE RIVER

Disclaimer: My trip was sponsored and all the logistics were taken care of by Bhutan Bookings. Click here to plan your vacation in Bhutan with them.

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Me en route Paro Taktsang aka Tiger’s Nest Monastery. (Pic by: Dipanshu Goyal)

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Dipanshu gaining height. This was shot half an hour after the trek to Tiger’s Nest Monastery began.

I was accompanied by travel bloggers – Dipanshu, Manjulika, Parnashree and Swati in the fun company of Sonam Karma and Dipanjan from Bhutan Bookings. Click on their names to read their stories from Bhutan.

WARNING : COPYRIGHT TO ALL THE IMAGES AND TEXT HERE REMAINS WITH ME. YOU CAN NOT JUST LIFT THE CONTENT AND USE IT WITHOUT MY PERMISSION. STRICT LEGAL ACTION WILL BE TAKEN IF CONTENT IS STOLEN. YES, I AM SERIOUS.

TAJ BALLOON FESTIVAL: HAVE YOU SEEN TAJ MAHAL FROM TOP?

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This is how we landed. Clicked immediately after our landing by Baadshah!

img_9261THE BALLOON LANDED WITH A THUD in the middle of nowhere. It first hit the floor, our balloon tips over, rested briefly on the ground, dragged a little and finally stopped. A storm of dust enveloped my face, hair and camera.  I tried to find my balance as I was lying on the wooden basket on ground, my back facing the ground, my legs up in the air. Kind of 90 degrees! My co travelers, who were the next door neighbors a while ago, were now occupying the first floor of the ‘apartment’.  A group of villagers, young, old, kids came rushing to us as the balloon stopped and inflated, like a giant monster destroyed by a superhero. Windy landings are common if the weather is not favourable. It is safe even if the basket tips over. All you need to do is follow the instructions of pilot diligently.

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Local village kids running from one balloon to another in excitement. Adults were excited too but showed restraint.

Richard (from Sri Lanka, in pic below), our pilot said, “I have piloted Hot Air balloon in one of the most exotic locations in the world but I enjoy flying in India the most. The reason is nothing else but the sheer warmth of people and the excitement it builds at the landing place. Every single time!”

I couldn’t agree more with him. The moment we took off from the P.A.C ground in Agra, we were constantly accompanied by a strange cacophimg_9411ony. Nothing like I have heard before. As I looked down from the balloon, I saw small dots waving at us, screaming with joy and abandon. Each one of them was looking up; the kids playing on rooftop of their houses, the ‘ghoonghat’ (veil) clad women on the streets, the shopkeepers and vendors. It was the first balloon ride for all the 6 journalists and bloggers, including me. While we were ecstatic to participate in our first ride ever, the people below were excited just to see us fly.

As we floated lyrically in the air, our happiness found an extension in their happiness. The constant bird’s eye view of the iconic Taj Mahal, one of the 7 wonders of the world made it memorable; once-in-a-lifetime thing. The early morning ride made it amusing for me to see people start their daily routine viz. women drying clothes, school kids readying for school, shopkeepers opening their shops, a group of unruly monkeys jumping across rooftop boundaries of adjoining homes.

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View of balloon from our balloon!

We covered a distance of 10 kilometres in 17 minutes. Another balloon had landed near our landing spot. It was a scandalous site. The balloon stood tall, its fabric poetically waving in the air. Before it collapsed, it attracted the attention of villagers, young and old alike. Young kids ran from all directions, initiating little dust storms. Senior citizens from the villages showed restraint and yet found it hard to hide their excitement! They looked at the balloon in awe, agape mouthed, cracking jokes and sharing good cheer. I sensed that they would perhaps discuss it all day, maybe even all week. This is how a sleepy village comes to life in India.

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The other balloon which attracted much attention. It landed on a stage like hillock making it all the more dramatic.

It was one of the most memorable mornings of my life. I value it even more because I was unable to fly the previous morning. Owing to bad weather (strong winds), I was supposed to be in one of the 5 balloon rides which were cancelled out of 15. Our lady pilot from Malaysia apologized for cancelling the ride. “I am sorry, I shouldn’t be flying today. The winds are too strong. It is my first time in India and I can’t take the risk. You can still hop in the balloon and take selfies though.” Me and my co traveler, were disappointed but understood that it’s better not to fly than to risk it all. Never mind, the sumptuous breakfast (delicious South Indian) at The Grand Imperial was still waiting for us.

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The view of Taj from our Balloon!

I was supposed to leave Agra the same day but I extended my trip for one more day, to give it a shot the next day! I decided to relax the entire day at my comfortable room in Samovar hotel Agra, sometimes sleeping, sometimes gazing at the Taj Mahal from my room. I just happened to get lucky the next day despite the warnings of strong winds again!

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The bird’s eye view of Taj was clear this time, unlike a hazy one during 1st edition in 2015.

My extended stay was a blessing in disguise as I got an opportunity to be witness to the special Night Glow Show of hot air balloons dancing to the tunes of western music. In this event, all the 15 balloons were tethered to the ground and visitors were given a taste of what the real ride would be like. The constant firing gave it a dramatic look especially to those balloons shaped like a cartoon character, Smurf being the most popular one.

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Ballons shaped like cartoon characters ruled!

Kudos to the Uttar Pradesh government for coming up with such initiative. Despite such diverse landscapes and important sites, a Hot Air Balloon scene is conspicuously missing in India. Thanks to companies like E factor and Sky waltz, one can have such experiences in places like Jaipur, Agra etc. Samit Garg, the CEO of E factor told us, “I had a memorable Hot Air Balloon experience in Germany. I wondered why it is not happening in India. So, I decided to introduce it in some destinations in India with much success. Taj Hot Air Balloon festival is a seasonal event and we hope to make it a permanent activity, increasing the present count of 15 to 100 in coming years. We have already grown from 3 days event last year to a six day event this year.”

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Night Glow event!

Tushar, the energetic marketing personnel from E factor told us, “It is a safe activity. Indians now get a chance to explore the world class aviation and adventure sport right in their backyard. It’s really rare that anything goes wrong up in the air. In our history, we have not had any such issues. The visibility is much better this time. Last year, due to smog the view of Taj Mahal from top was cloudy.”  E-factor Adventure Tourism  Pvt. Ltd. runs commercial hot air ballooning flights in India. It promotes and hosts Hot Air Ballooning events in other destinations too.

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Smurf clearly walked away (or is it flew away) with all the attention!

Accomplished pilots from India and countries like Malaysia (female pilot), Sri Lanka (Richard, our pilot), USA, UK, UAE, Poland, Spain, Turkey, Germany, Netherland, Switzerland, Belgium helped make the dream come true for many.

CHECK OUT THE VIDEO OF THE FESTIVAL. CLICK HERE

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Our Malaysian Pilot on day 1. It was her first time in India.

YOU CAN DO IT TOO:

If you are lucky, you might end up winning a lucky draw and do the ride for free. Those interested may submit a form to the tourism office. A lucky draw will be held each evening based upon which winners will be finalized. There is a fixed quota for domestic and international tourists.

When to go: The second edition of Annual Taj Balloon Festival is a 6 day event commencing from 25th November and ends at 30th November. If you missed this year, do give it a try next year!

How to reach: make a 3 to 4 hour long road trip/train ride from Delhi. Agra has an airport. Feel free to book it via Sky Scanner.

One can fly to Delhi and make a trip to Agra or fly to Agra Airport.

When: The 2nd edition is from 25th Novmber to 30th November. In case you miss this event, keep an eye for the dates on UP Tourism website for next year, mostly in November.

Where to Stay: Samovar Hotel is comfortable, luxurious and in cenimg_9221tral location. The meals (I sampled Veg Burger and Stuffed Parathas) are good. There were some issues in TV which was sorted immediately by the maintenance person. Best part: You get view of Taj Mahal all day from your (soul) window. I often lazed around eating and gazing at the Taj from the comfort of the room.  Much like how Shah Jahan must have longingly stared at Taj Mahal when he was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb in Red Fort. If only Shah Jahan had an option to view Taj from top. I stayed in room number 412.

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This is where we took off from. I clicked this from my balloon up in the air.

Moral Policing:

  • In case your ride is cancelled, please do not argue with the organizers and nag them for a ride. Safety is most important and the weather condition is in nobody’s hand!
  • If you have taken a ride already, don’t ask for another one. There are people waiting for same since the number of people who can ride is limited. This year it was just 400 people.
  • Strictly follow the instructions of your pilot. If he says keep the camera in your bag and sit on the floor of basket, then do it. It is for your own safety.
  • Don’t bend from the basket when it is up in the air.
  • Don’t walk over the deflated balloon. Some of them cost more than Rs. 90 lakhs.
  • Don’t demand a flight over the Taj. No flights are allowed till a certain distance from Taj.
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It was heartening to see locals help trained pilots with packing of balloon. Deflating it is much harder than your think! And they did it 2 times in a day!

The view from my #SoulWindow makes me speechless!

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Bird’s eye view of Taj from the Hot Air balloon. Clicked using an 18-135 mm lens

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A local amused by the unexpected landing!

WARNING : COPYRIGHT TO ALL THE IMAGES AND TEXT HERE REMAINS WITH ME. YOU CAN NOT JUST LIFT THE CONTENT AND USE IT WITHOUT MY PERMISSION. STRICT LEGAL ACTION WILL BE TAKEN IF CONTENT IS STOLEN. YES, I AM SERIOUS.

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Pool Side buffet at Grand Imperial Hotel, Agra. Loved their South Indian fare.
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Locals gathered near our balloon as soon as we landed near the village.

Madhya Pradesh Travel Mart 2016 : here is what is in store this October!

I have always been fascinated by Madhya Pradesh as a destination. I went on a road trip to Madhya Pradesh with my parents as a small kid. I still have a very faint memory of how wide eyed I was when I saw the raw and exotic landscapes en route. Perhaps that memory still fascinates me. Or perhaps the enticing Madhya Pradesh Tourism ads lure me. Not to forget, the brief trip I made last year to Jabalpur, Bhedaghat and Bandhavgarh national park also left me with the hunger to explore more of this untamed state of India. Madhya Pradesh will always be special to me because I saw my first tiger in wild in M. P. I could not click the picture of tiger as he vanished in a hurry but a cab driver allowed me to use the picture he clicked.

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The Tiger we saw but could not click. This was shot by the driver of a jeep. He was taking care of this camera of a Photographer. He allowed us to use this picture. 

I was delighted when Madhya Pradesh Tourism Board sent me an invite to attend the Madhya Pradesh Travel Mart (MPTM), 2016 organized by Madhya Pradesh State Tourism Development Corporation (MPSTDC). The event will be held from 14th to 16th October in Bhopal, a city I always wanted to visit but could not. This year is the 3rd edition of the travel mart. The venue is Hotel Lake View Ashok in Bhopal. Just what I wanted! A nice place to stare at the lake for hours as I dig into my food!

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My Friend Mayuri Mandal Sen  posing near the massive Dhuandhar falls.

The mart will be inaugurated by Honourable Chief Minister Shri. Shivraj Singh Chouhan, along with other dignitaries from Madhya Pradesh and special invitees from other states. I am excited to meet the many representatives of top exhibitors from Madhya Pradesh’s Wildlife sector, hotels, Destination Management Companies, Conference venues, Car Rentals, Tour Operators, Heritage Hotels, and Wildlife Parks etc at The B2B Exhibition at MPTM.

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Delights of Bandhavgarh!

The main aim of the mart is to promote tourism in Madhya Pradesh around the year with a focus on domestic and inbound travelers to M.P. The show will provide a platform to the participants who can have one to one business meetings. I am sure the environment will be conducive to such interactions. The exhibitor, buyer and visitor are going to benefit with such interactions. As a travel blogger, I am looking forward to meeting the people who would like to collaborate with me on projects. Thanks to the mart, exhibitors, buyers, media and other visitors will get an opportunity to network, meet and share expertise with professionals who want to educate themselves about various products.

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Me, so happy, after sighting a tiger!

I think, with right infrastructure, Madhya Pradesh has the potential to be a world-class destination for Wildlife, Nature, Heritage, Pilgrimage, Adventure & MICE. It will not be an over statement to call M.P. the ‘Africa of India’. The state is teeming with wildlife and one can avail some truly world class and luxurious stay options in its wildlife reserves. What is even more exciting is that post the 3 day Mart, we will be taken on familiarization trips across the state. The Fam Trip Itineraries are so tempting that it is difficult to choose between them. I mean how do you choose just two destinations out of Bandhavgarh, Satpura, Orchcha, Khajuraho, Pench, Kanha, the works? My vote goes for Satpura National Park and Pachmarhi, the hill station of M.P. mainly because I find these two destinations offbeat and attractive.

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We came across these while returning from Bandhavgarh. Road trips are fun for sure!

I still vividly remember the massive Dhuandhar waterfall I saw near Bhedaghat. The marble rocks of Bhedaghat, was not like something I had seen before. I would also like to go back to Bandhavgarh National Park someday to spot more tigers or to just soak in the beauty of the forest.

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Me at Dhuandhaar Waterfall. (Pic : Sudeep Sen)

It is getting a bit difficult for me to wait for October. Maybe I should just get back to watching the cool videos produced by Madhya Pradesh Tourism Board. Or plan how can I use my time productively in Bhopal. I hope I am able to see some of the many famous mosques of Bhopal and explore it’s exciting food options. Though, I am not too keen on bumping into Soorma Bhopali (that hilarious character from the blockbuster Sholay) I belong to the ‘City of Nawabs’, Lucknow and looking forward to see how this other ‘City of Nawab’ welcomes me.

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A local singing Bhajan aka devotional songs at Dhuandhar waterfalls.

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I picked up some artefacts made from the soft marble near Bhedaghat

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