Archive for the ‘general’ Category

About My Site

Saturday, April 9th, 2016

I travel for about six months every year in Asia, the Far East, the Middle East, Europe and the US, for both business and pleasure. Most of my travels are solo, which is how I get to spend time with locals and fellow travelers and experience the culture at first hand. I also try to achieve at least a minimum level of spoken language in each country.

After constantly being asked for travel recommendations by friends, acquaintances and their friends and acquaintances, I decided to post  the information online, and make it accessible to everyone. Every recommended place, person and service on the site has been personally experienced, and the information is constantly updated. I hope you too get bitten by the travel bug.

To acquaint yourself with Vietnamese contemporary fine art (and avoid the pitfalls of impulse-buying second rate artwork ) visit my website: www.artnet.com/razran.html

Another website which is a must for Hanoi visitors is The Grapevine, an online treasure trove of cultural info – up to date notices of exhibitions, concerts, and reviews, served up by the incomparable Brian Ring http://hanoigrapevine.com/

Raquelle Azran

Bhutan – up, up and away

Thursday, April 16th, 2009

The land of the thunder dragon is indeed a very different Asian experience. With rare exceptions, you will not be allowed to travel on your own so will find yourself at the same watering holes (festivals, tourist menus, treks) as the other handfuls of tourists currently in the country. I was extremely lucky to rate an invitation and therefore with my hosts could find and frequent places recommended below.

Arrival by air: Druk Air only. A picturesque small airport nestled within the town, and 45 minutes of curving road to Thimphu. The r/t flight from Bangkok is $815, so why not upgrade to business for another $100. Try to be seated on the left for incredible views of the mountains. Atlas Travel Services – atlas@druknet.bt – offered efficient and pleasant service. Smoking is not allowed in Bhutan, but you are allowed to bring in a few packs of cigarettes for personal misuse. If you’re used to wine with dinner, bring in a bottle or two of your own from the dutyfree shops in Bangkok airport. Local supply is iffy.

Recommended Thimphu restaurants: MK restaurant, upstairs in Centerpoint Building (near Lugar Cinema) offers excellent Tibetan bhathup (minestrone) and momos; Cypress Restaurant, also in the center, serves delicious Indian thalis and chai;  Seasons is where you go for al fresco pizza, breakfasts and cake. Karma’s cafe is the only place for your caffeine fix – upstairs in Tashi Rabten building, above Zangthopelri complex, tel 17181920. 

Outside Thimphu: I passed up the Hotel Zhiva Ling near Paro, with prices ranging from $350 – $600 per night (and my happiness quotient rose accordingly). The Kichu Resort, with locations both at Paro and at Wangdue, was a tranquil alternative at a fraction of the price, with the nearby river lulling us to sleep. In Punakha, we escaped the omnipresent set tourist lunch and ordered an adequate fish curry in the Kuenga Hotel. And if you are near the Wangdue Dzong (monastery) and feeling hungry, look for the unassuming ‘canteen’ in the alley just above the dzong, packed with locals, and dig in. 

Sights to see: the monasteries and fortresses – dzongs, lakhangs,;the mountains and forests; the unhurried and traditionally garbed people; the festivals (tshechus). Climbing to Takshang (Tigers’ Nest) is a high altitude achievement, but worth every gasp. Chimi Lakhang, the fertility monastery, is set in rice fields and supposedly efficacious.   

Favorite places in India

Sunday, October 1st, 2006

Udaipur, Rajasthan – for the atmosphere. A walking city, with picturesque alleys lined with silver jewelry shops. Lodging: Hilton Trident fine, Jagat Niwas Heritage Hotel more authentic and centrally located. Lake Palace dinner a must.

Jaipur, Rajasthan- wonderful marketplace, with some of the best street food in India: chili pakoras and lassi so thick, it’s eaten with a spoon.  If the guide Sandeep Singh Goyal is available, and hasn’t yet been married off by his Brahmin family, grab him tel 091 291 2439500, navkar-01@yahoo.com. Handi restaurant does terrific grilled foods, Maya Mansion  MI Rd, opposite the GPO. Shapura House is a 3* comfortable heritage hotel in a quiet location www.shshpurshouse.com.

Narlai Village, Rajasthan – because of the amazing, one of a kind Rawla Narlai heritage hotel tel 02934 260425). The secluded location, the richness of the ex-Maharaja palace and authentic furniture, the service par excellence and the surrounding treks make this not to be missed. 

Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh – for the beautiful erotic carvings on the Hindu temples. The Taj Chandela  chandela.khajuraho@tajhotels.com is wonderful, reasonably priced, serves delicious outdoor buffet dinners and check out the ayurvedic massages near the pool.

Agra, Uttar Pradesh – for the Taj Mahal, of course, and for the nearby Fatehpur Sikri which is almost as beautiful.

Mysore, Karnataka – to see the palace, open and lit up once a year on the festival with elephant parades. The Taj is serene and upscale, the Darshan Palace is ‘deluxe lodging’ by local standards, and at a quarter the rate. www.hoteldarshanpalace.com. Fabulous food and ambiance is to be had at Parklane in their indoor garden restaurant www.parklanemysore@yahoo.com. They have rooms as well.

Madhumalai, Tamil Nadu – a wildlife sanctuary between Mysore and Ooty, with jungle resorts. Dinner and drinks were served on the porch of our bungalow, and the trekking in the countryside is terrific. On motorbike, we prudently reversed (fled in panic) when faced with a defiant mother elephant and her baby. Monkeys galore, but our night safari didn’t find any tigers. www.bluevalleyjungleresorts.com

Ooty, Tamil Nadu – a hill station to escape the heat – but risk unending summer thundershowers. Interesting old buildings – church, library, etc. Stay (but book ahead, only nine rooms!) and eat at King’s Cliff on Havelock Rd, Strawberry Hill, email holiday@kingscliff-ooty.com.

Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu – the former capital of French India. If I had to choose one place in India to relax for a month, this would be it. On the eastern coast, rich in French architecture and enjoying Bay of Bengal breezes, Pondicherry is unique. If you’re ok with veggies and no guests after hours restrictions, Park guest house, run by an ashram, is popular and on the sea parkgh@sriaurobindoashram.org. I’m more of a hedonist so where I stay is Villa Helena at 14 Rue Suffren, and just writing its name makes me homesick. It’s a sprawling French villa, divided into five suites, beautifully decorated with local fabrics. Breakfast and drinks are served in the shady courtyard, along with newspapers and books. villahelena@satyam.net.in and reserve in advance.  Excellent espresso, cappuchino and croissants are served at Daily Bread, #54 Ambour Salai St. In Pondi, the best shopping for jewelry, fabrics and clothing is at Kasha Ki Aasha Gallery Boutique Cafe, in a beautiful French building at 23 Surcouf Street. Check out Kasha’s products at www.feel-india.biz.
A half hour’s drive north of Pondi, along the worst dirt road in India, is Auroville, a community based on Utopian peace and protection of environmental and organic causes. The visitors’ centre is worth seeing, and in their shop you will find the best and most fashionable cotton clothing in India. They have a shop in Pondi, on Nehru St, but the selection in Auroville is much bigger.

Mamallapuram,Tamil Nadu – between Pondi and Chennai, this small town has two wonderful sites: the Shore Temple and ancient rock sculptures.

Travelling in India

Monday, September 4th, 2006

My first month-long visit to India was in Rajasthan, with a friend and colleague, and most of the traveling was done with private car and driver. It’s not the way I usually travel, but the distances between places were long, the weather was hot and humid, the roads were in terrible condition and we had business-related baggage which we didn’t want to lose.

My second month in India was spent on motorbike. I took a train from Mumbai to Goa where my son was waiting for me, we hung out on the beach a few days and then crossed India by bike – on his indomitable Enfield – via Mysore, Ooty, Mamalapuram and all the way to Pondicherry on the east coast. I saw India from up close, coasting through rice fields and stopping at dhaba shacks for chai. With no fixed schedule and no advance reservations, living out of a backpack, this was India free and easy. We took a train only once (the 12 hour overnight train to Chennai) when we packed the bike on the train with us. Otherwise, it was 8 hours a day on the bike, in leather jackets and helmets. Two spills, two almost-accidents (one with an elephant), and a trip of a lifetime.

My most recent month in India was spent between Leh and Ladakh in the very north, and Dharamsala in Himachal, with Amritsar in Punjab sandwiched in between. I flew with Jet Air between Delhi and Leh, then trained back to Delhi to catch the overnight Golden temple express to Amritsar. From there, I continued with private car and driver to Dharamsala, and at the end of the month, returned to Delhi by overnight sleeper bus, Jet Air back to Mumbai and home.

India by air is western, but India on the ground is a bazaar. Jet Air is a terrific airline –  on time, new fleet, efficient crew and great food. I wouldn’t fly in India with anyone else. Trains are a different story. The main stations are huge and disorganized, with several different lines to wait in before walking away with a ticket. They are also dirty and noisy, although they do boast porterwallahs who carry your bags on their head so you never have to deal with carrying them yourself. I have always traveled second class a/c, which is comfortable and you meet interesting people.  The only awful trip was a 12 hour overnight to Chennai, when all the tickets were sold except for Katkal (last minute) tickets in third class. Uncomfortable, unpleasant company, unsafe (for a woman), filthy toilet and not a wink of sleep. Note: As a precaution, bags must always be secured under the train seat with a metal chain.

Driving in India in the big cities is madness. Streets are unmarked, maps are rudimentary and for non-residents, taking taxis or motor rickshaws is the only way. Every airport has a counter for paid in advance taxis to your hotel, which makes life easier.

New sleeper buses now travel between Dharamsala and Delhi, and if you don’t mind stopping at pitstops for overpriced food, blaring Indian music and the driver’s free dinner, all is well. The buses leave you off 10 minutes from the Delhi train station, where taxi and rickshaw drivers fight over the privilege of driving you to your destination.

India’s Big Cities – if you have to

Sunday, September 3rd, 2006

I am not a fan of India’s big cities, and that’s an understatement. Yes, there are beautiful buildings and gardens and temples, the bazaars are colorful and the food amazing, but you can find all these in smaller cities and towns, without the surrounding urban squalor. Rural squalor in India is somehow more palatable. But the gateways to India are mostly in the big cities, so here are my recommendations for spending a day or two in transit.

Mumbai: near both airports, Le Royal Meridian www.leroyalmeridian-mumbai.com is a haven of tranquility, for a layover or just to reenergize before continuing on. A bit further into town, on Juhu Tara Rd, and with nearby streets to walk around, are the medium-rated Ramada Palm Grove www.krahejahospitality.com, with complimentary jacuzzi and steam room and great massages, and the luxury JW Marriott mail@jwmarriotmumbai.com with a wonderful bookshop cafe. In town, delicious food is served at Chetana veg restaurant and bar at 34 k Dubash Marg, tel 2284 4968, and at Leopold Cafe (since 1871!) on Colaba Causeway, around the corner from the Taj. Upscale and upper priced, but with great food and wine, is the Moti Mahal restaurant in the north of the city, in Bandra, tel 91 22 26408577, at junction of Gurunanak and Waterfield Rds. An excellent guide in Mumbai is Mrs Madhavi Marwaha tel 0091 9987399683,  madhavi_dw@hotmail.com.

Chennai: Taj Coromandel, at 37 Mahatma Gandhi Rd. An oasis of luxury: feather quilts, an unbelievable buffet breakfast, and service extraordinaire. www.tajhotels.com  Note: I have been in many guesthouses, in India and elsewhere, but the worst was undoubtedly Broadlands. Filthy, badly lit, surly service and to be avoided at all costs. If you go anyway (some people are masochists) ask for directions to the nearby Hotel Sree Bhavan restaurant at 339 Triplicane High Rd, which serves some of the best food – achingly cheap but fabulous – in India.

Delhi: Hotel Broadway (3*) on 4/15 Ali Assaf Rd, near the train station, is clean, safe and convenient for visiting the markets of Old Delhi (Chandni Chowk for jewelry) and catching long distance trains, but its claim to fame is the fabulous restaurant, Chor Bizarre, written up in the NY Times and elsewhere (tel 91 11 23273821, broadway@oldworldhospitality.com) The cuisine is superb, the decor amazing and in spite of their name (thieves’ bazaar) prices ultra reasonable. They also offer walking tours. Do not miss!! 

In New Delhi, Connaught Circle can keep you busy shopping for a day or two, but beautiful and expensive one of a kind jewelry can be seen  – and purchased – at Indian Arts Palace (since 1840!), at 19E Connaught Place, tel 23416203. 

Dharamsala India – services

Tuesday, August 8th, 2006

Summit Adventures, Mr Milap Nehria, on main square in Bhagsu, for all travel arrangements www.summit-adventures.net, milap@summit-adventures.net.

Sagar High Point Adventure on Bhagsu Rd for overnight sleeper bus to Delhi

Mehra Forex money changer on Temple Rd, in Sahil Plaza – negotiate!

Rita Kapoor’s cooking classes – see separate entry – located on top of the Old German Bakery in Bhagsu.

meditation courses at Asho Institute in Bhagsu, given by Master Hardesh: One three hour session on energy chakras was enlightening and for me, sufficient.

It’s well worth a visit to the Norling Institute, 30 minutes by taxi from Dharamsala, to see how Tibetan arts and culture is being nurtured in workshops and classes. They do have rooms, and the restaurant serves fine food. www.norbulingka.org. Showroom prices of crafts are inflated.

 

Rita Kapoor’s recipes:palak paneer and malai kofta

Saturday, August 5th, 2006

After 2 wonderful sessions in Rita Kapoor’s cooking school in Dharamsala, I can turn out creditable palak paneer and malai kofta. Here are her recipes, which we three participants madly scribbled as we worked, and then corrected as we ate:

Palak Paneer: 4 portions
1/2 kilo spinach, chopped
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup water
1/4 cup oil
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 onion, chopped fine
cheese mixture: 200 grms ricotta, paneer or tofu; 1 small sharp green pepper, finely chopped; 1 tblsp ginger, finely chopped and 1 tsp fresh garlic, finely chopped
1/4 tsp turmeric
2 peeled tomatoes
1/2 tsp Kitchen King masala spice

Cook spinach in covered pot in water with salt for 15 minutes (till very soft) and drain. Heat oil and when hot, add coriander seeds, wait till black and add chopped onion, cheese mixture, turmeric, peeled tomatoes blended (or in foodprocessor) with spinach and finally masala spice.
Cook, covered, on a low flame for 10 minutes. Serve with chapati or white rice.

Malai Kofta: 4 portions
Sauce
3 tbsp oil
2 fresh bay leaves
a few crumbs of fresh cinnamon
1/4 tsp cumin seeds
3 or 4 garlic cloves
1 tblsp ginger
3 peeled tomatoes
4 or 5 cashew nuts (or 2 tblsp pinones or watermelon seeds)
1 cup water
1/2 tsp sharp paprika
1/2 tsp sweet paprika
1/4 tsp turmeric
1/2 cup milk
1 tsp butter
1 tbsp sour or sweet cream

Heat the oil and when hot, add the bay leaves, cinnamon, cumin seeds.
In blender, mix together the  garlic and ginger with 1/2 cup water and add to hot oil.
In blender, mix tomatoes with nuts and 1 cup water, and add to hot oil. Add the paprikas, turmeric, and salt. Cook for 10 minutes, covered, then add the milk and butter, the curry and the sour or sweet cream.

Kofta:
1 cooked potato
1/2 cup cheese or tofu, grated
11/2 tblsp grated coconut
2 tblsp flour
drop of baking powder
1 tsp butter
raisins and cashews

Mix and knead all ingredients together to egg-shaped forms. With finger, make hole in center of each and insert raisins and cashews. Pinch closed. Fry in deep oil till golden, and drain.
Serve on plate, with sauce on top, add grated cheese and sour cream. 

*Recipes from Rita Kapoor, Dharamsala India August 2006

Dharamsala India – food and lodging

Wednesday, August 2nd, 2006

Chonor House, belonging to the Tibetan government-in-exile, is considered the top spot in Dharamsala, and the nearest thing to a 4* guesthouse. The rooms, at $60, have to be booked months in advance, which I did (via reliable Milap Nehria at Summit Adventures in Dharamsala, who also booked the a/c car from Amritsar, www.summit-adventures.net, milap@summit-adventures.net). After traveling by train and car for 2 days, it was relaxing to take long hot showers and sleep in a comfortable bed. The rooms are ethnic but shabby, rain poured in through the ceiling, and the restaurant is totally unremarkable. They also never replied to the email sent them directly. On the other hand, I did meet interesting people in the lobby. So after 2 nights, I checked out the nearby Pema Thang ($30) which unfortunately was full, but ate in the very good restaurant – Tibetan pizza! (pemathanghouse@yahoo.com, www.pemathang.net. That’s where I’d stay next time. I ended up in Bhagsu, a 10 minute walk uphill, in Akash Deep, one of the simple but clean guesthouses, where it was quieter. Bhagsunat Road has numerous backpacker cafes, Circling Dawn Cafe opposite the temple serves the best muesli and yoghurt, and salads.

My favorite restaurants in Dharamsala are Ashoka on Jogiwara Rd and Tibet Hotel on Bhagsu Rd (try the kulchas!) Vegetarian Japanese Lung Ta on Jogiwara Rd was fine for once or twice.

To be avoided: Om (near the bus stand) – worst service and food

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Amritsar India

Sunday, July 30th, 2006

Getting there from Delhi is easy with the overnight Golden Temple Express, advance reservation needed ($25 for 2nd class berth, clean sheets included, I slept like a baby). The main sights are the Golden Temple, Jallianwalla Bagh, Khalsa College and Wagah Border Post, and you can see them all in one day. Amritsar is hot and humid – mosquito repellent a must. I went straight from the train station to the Golden Temple, where for 3 hours I flowed in the circular pattern around and around the pool, watched men and women devotedly hand clean the marble floors, listened to the Sikh music and prayers, and entered the central shrine.  From there, it’s a 5 minute walk to Jallianwalla Bagh, a beautiful park which is the memorial site of the 1919 massacre. It’s a 10 minute taxi ride to Khalsa College, the most beautiful building in Amritsar, with spires, pillars, domes and gardens. A basic but clean restaurant, with typical vegetarian Punjabi food, is Bhrawan da Dhaba. The Wagah border post is 20 km further.

As I was continuing to Dharamsala, I had arranged in advance a private airconditioned car with driver, from pickup at the train station, all day sightseeing, and on to Dharamsala. ($100 prearranged with Summit Adventures, milap@summit-adventures.net , who also preordered my $25 Delhi-Amritsar train ticket). The other option would have been taking local taxis and then the public bus (8 hours) to Dharamsala. After an overnight train ride and a full day of sightseeing, it would have been hell. I chose heaven, and drove to Dharamsala in cool comfort, stopping occasionally at places my driver recommended for sweet hot chai and a clean bathroom. The final stretch uphill is gorgeous, around mountain peaks and through clouds, surrounded by green forests and overlooking rivers.

Treks and tours in Ladakh

Saturday, July 15th, 2006

Nubra Valley, north of Leh: up and over the 5602 meter Khardung La Pass and via the world’s highest motorable road, maintained courtesy of the Indian Army, whose trucks and bases are omnipresent. Take a four wheel drive car w/driver, and if you’re afraid of heights, do NOT look down – but then you miss out on amazing views. The 3 day tour is sufficient, and includes Sumur, Diskit, Panamik and Hundur. The Panamik very unexciting hot springs can be skipped, and Hundur’s only claim to fame are the sand dunes (ignore the tourist camel rides), but the gompa (monastery) in Diskit is worth getting up at 5 am for the morning puja, and in Sumur, there are beautiful hikes around the Samstem Ling gopa. Best place to stay is Sand Dune Guesthouse in Diskit, near the main bazar, tel 01980 220022 and ask for the new rooms. 

West of Leh: a 2 day monastery tour including Likkir, Alchi, Rhidzong and Lamayuru. Each gompa has its highlight – Likkir ancient thangkas, Alchi 11th century wall murals, Rhidzong wall paintings undergoing painstaking preservation, and Lemayuru perched atop a vertical cliff.

Day trip from Leh: Stok (the palace) and Tikse, a beautiful gompa from whose roof terrace the Ladakh countryside is one big panorama.

The day trip is easily done with local transportation – minibuses run from the bus station at the bottom of downtown Leh directly to Tikse. Between Tikse and Stok, try hitching to the nearest bus stop. My lifts included a pilot come to check out the airport, and a department of education official who’d been visiting the Tibetan refugee camp at Choglamsar (which is equipped with solar panels for electricity – as are, astonishingly, many of the gompas we saw). 

Longer trips require booking with driver and four wheel drive, but if you’re traveling solo, it’s easy to find a group to join and share costs with. As food on the road is sporadic, travel with muesli, dried fruit and bottled water (from Dzomsa  – see Leh recommendations)