You Have to Eat These 15 Dishes in Kashmir

If you love grilled meats, fresh breads, fragrant rice dishes and curries rich with spices – you will love Kashmiri food. Kashmir is the northernmost state in India, bordering with Pakistan to its west and China to the east. The food is influenced by Persia, Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. However, it is unique in itself.

Here are some dishes you must try during your next visit to Kashmir.

Kahwah – Traditional green tea brewed with saffron, and topped with chopped almonds. You can add sugar or honey as needed. Every hotel, shop and home will welcome guests with a cup of hot kahwah. While the best tea I tasted was at someone’s home in Srinagar, I liked the variety of breads served alongside at Hotel Heevan in Pahalgam. You can also order high tea outside in the lawn overlooking the Lidder River.

Girda – A typical Kashmiri breakfast consists of nun chai (salty pink tea) along with a piece of fresh baked bread such as girda (round yeast bread), lavas (unleavened bread), baquerkhani (puff pastry pictured above), and tsot. In downtown Srinagar, you can find old bakeries elaborately stacked with breads early in the morning.

Nadru – Because of the many lakes around Kashmir valley, lotus is grown in abundance. The locals cook lotus root in a verity of dishes and these thinly battered and fried lotus root cutlets sprinkled with garam masala are delicious. Serve them as an appetizer with a creamy walnut chutney. Try it at Welcomehotel Pine-N-Peak in Pahalgam. I also had lotus root cooked in yogurt sauce (nadru yakhni), which was a simple, light and tasty vegetarian dish.

Kashmiri Pulao – Kashmiri rice is very different from traditional Basmati. It is thicker and shorter locally grown variety, which is rich in starch and nutrients. Rice is a staple in Kashmir and cooked in different kinds of pulaos and biryanis. This is the most common one, cooked with a bit of saffron, spices, nuts and dried fruits. You can eat it on its own or pair it with a curry. The best one I tasted was at Dilkusha restaurant in Pahalgam.

Rajma – The red kidney bean stew is common in most of India, though the Kashmiri rajma is different. The beans are darker in color, smaller and of heirloom variety. It is less spicy, and cooked with tomatoes and red chilies to add a deeper red color. The riverfront Hotel Heevan in Pahalgam cooked this especially for us.

Saag/ Haak – Unlike what most Indian restaurants serve as saag, in Kashmir saag refers to a variety of greens including cabbage, broccoli, kale and kohlrabi. These are cooked with lots of mustard oil and dried red chilies. At Ahdoos restaurant in Srinagar.

Gucci – These local morel mushrooms are found only in the damp forests, sort of like truffles. They cannot be grown and cost up to $500/ kg when discovered in season. The flavor is very earthy and dry, but this gucchi and peas curry is a must try with flaky parathas. Order it at Lolaab in Pahalgam.

Dum Aloo – This dish originated from the traditional Kashmiri Pandit cuisine. The small potatoes are deep friend, and then simmered on a low fame with about a dozen spices. Try it at Fortune Resort Heevan in Srinagar.

Seekh KebabNo meal in Kashmir is complete without meat, mostly lamb. You will often find a variety of kebabs, meat curries or rice biryanis. These spiced ground lamb skewers are a popular appetizer at Cafe Chinar restaurant in Srinagar. Make it a meal with thin roomali (handkerchief roti).

Waza Chicken – A Wazwan is a multi-course meal in the Kashmiri Muslim tradition prepared in copper utensils by a traditional vasta waza, or head chef, with the assistance of a court of wazas, or chefs. These dishes are typically cooked at weddings and parties, but available at restaurants as well. I tried the waza chicken – fried chicken, cooked in in red curry at Dilkhusa restaurant in Gulmarg, as well as a few other places.

Kokur Yakhni – The bone-in chicken pieces are simmered in yogurt and garnished with fennel and lots of dry mint. The sauce is a bit runny with lemony flavor, and pairs well with steamed rice. Heevan Retreat‘s Dilkhusa restaurant in Gulmarg.

Kofta – Though kofta (meatball) is a popular dish in Kashmiri cuisine generally made with lamb or goat, I tried a version with fresh fish at Fortune Resort Heevan’s Earthen Oven in Srinagar. The local snapper was minced, shaped into balls and steamed, floating in a creamy sweet and spicy sauce.

Kashmiri naan – This flatbread is very different than the garlic or butter naans you may have had before. Though baked in a traditional tandoor (clay oven), it is more like a pizza that you can eat it by itself. This one at Ahdoos restaurant in Srinagar was topped with cashews, raisins, coconut and cocktail fruits.

Kashmiri Halva – Most of the time in Kashmir I was too full with my meal to think about dessert, but my waiter at Heevan Hotel in Gulmarg insisted that I try their Kashmiri halva, and I am so glad that I did! Cooked with ghee (clarified butter), sooji (semolina) and water, topped with almonds, raisins and coconut flakes, this was one of the best halvas I had. I recommend ordering this for breakfast as it is quite rich.

Phirni – Now I had phirni many times before and my favorite was a thick white color rice pudding served chilled in a clay pot at some muslim owned restaurants in Old Delhi. But the Kashmiri version I had at Fortune Resort Heevan in Srinagar was made with semolina instead of rice, runny and served warm. It was also yellow from the saffron.

Of course there are far more dishes in Kashmiri cuisine that I didn’t get to try, so this is by no means a comprehensive list. It’s just a good starting point for your next visit to Kashmir.

Have you tried a Kashmiri dish not listed above? 

Meaningful Ways to See Elephants

If you are traveling to Asia, you are probably very excited at the prospect of seeing, even riding elephants. But do you know that around 75% of the world’s captive elephants have been illegally captured, with over 3,000 used for entertainment in Asia alone?

PETA, whose driving force is that animals are not ours to use for entertainment  is highlighting that elephants used for rides are often forcibly separated from their mothers as babies. They are then immobilised with tightly bound ropes, and gouged with bullhooks or nail-studded sticks during “training.”

Please do not accept elephant rides!

Many tour companies are pledging not to promote cruel elephant rides, and if you see someone offering an elephant ride, I urge you NOT TO ACCEPT.

There are some other ways in which you can still enjoy seeing elephants sustainably by visiting small sanctuaries and spotting them in the wild.

Crossing the river at Periyar National Park

Periyar National Park, South India

Periyar National Park in Kerala is one of the most well-preserved natural habitats I have visited. Here you can see the Indian Elephant, a subspecies of the native Asian elephant, in the wild. Take a walking safari at sunrise or sunset and you will most likely spot the elephants hanging out near the river.

The Elephant Transit Home and Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is home to a population of up to 4,000 endangered Sri Lankan elephants. While many travelers opt to visit the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, there are some concerns about the treatment of the elephants and ethos of the orphanage.

This is a rehabilitation center for orphaned and injured elephants, with a strict no-contact policy. Visitors here can observe the elephants in a natural atmosphere and see how they interact with one another during feeding time

Pranburi, Thailand

There’s chance to get off the beaten track in Thailand and discover the Wildlife Friends Foundation – an organization rescuing and rehabilitating sick or injured elephants.

Chiang Mai, Thailand

The Elephant Nature Park is located in Northern Thailand outside of Chiang Mai. This park is dedicated to caring for elephants who have endured mistreatment in camps and circuses with more than 35 elephants currently cared for.

Minneriya or Kaudulla National Park, Sri Lanka

Visits to the Minneryiya or Kaudulla National Park gives travelers the opportunity to climb the Sigiriya Rock Fortress, before taking an elephant safari. A jeep Safari in Minneriya or Kaudulla National Park with Rickshaw Travel comes as part of the Elephant‘s in Buddha’s Garden trip.

Adopt an elephant at Sheldrick’s Elephant Orphanage

Sheldrick’s Elephant Orphanage, Kenya

Watch baby elephants rescued from all over Kenya at Sheldrick’s Elephant Orphanage as they are fed every morning from 10-11am. There is no physical contact with the elephants though they may come close to you on their own during playtime.

For a $50 annual donation, you can even also foster a baby elephant and receive newsletters with rescue stories.

World Elephant Day

The annual World Elephant Day (12 August) is dedicated to the preservation and protection of the world’s elephants, as many fight to change this fate.

There are two species of elephants: African comprised of two different species (forest and savannah), with less than 400,000 remaining worldwide, and Asian, with less than 40,000 remaining worldwide.

While they are similar in physiology, they are too biologically different to interbreed. Recent scientific findings suggest that the forest-dwelling African elephant is a genetically distinct species, making it a third elephant species. (Courtesy Rickshaw Travel in Travel Alliance Bulletin)

An Evening With a Maiko

If you have walked around the streets in Japan, you may have spotted a beautiful lady dressed in a kimono with white painted face and her hair pinned up in a bun. Perhaps she was a Maiko or a Geisha, an integral part of Japanese culture and society. In the western world, perception of these women has been misconstrued.

According to Aileen Adalidgeisha (aka geiko or geigi) which translates to English as “performing artist” or “artisan”, is a high-class professional and traditional female entertainer in Japan trained in various forms of art. Meanwhile, a maikowhich translates to English as “dancing child”, is an apprentice geisha. A geisha is usually hired to attend to guests (traditionally male) during banquets, meals, parties, and other occasions as she demonstrates her skills through various ways such as dancing to a tune played with the shamisen (a stringed instrument), initiating games, doing the art of conversation, and more. There are fewer than 2000 Geishas in Japan today. They were over 80,000 in the 1920s.

According to Japanese culture, any random person cannot visit a ochaya (tea house) unless they have been formally introduced through a third party and invited. There is no money exchanged in the beginning, so this ensures guarantee payment at the end of the year. However, these days private parties and tourists can arrange meeting with a geisha at a ryōtei (traditional Japanese restaurant).

I met Maiko-san at a restaurant in Kyoto. We had a private room inside the restaurant, minimally decorated with tatami floors, and a low table with a window overlooking a small zen garden. After the waitress came to take the drink order and poured me a glass of plum wine, a beautiful young woman dressed in an exquisite red and white kimono walked in. Her makeup made her look like a doll with a static expression. Her hair was neatly piled up on her head. She greeted us (me and my guide) softly in Japanese. A man who entered the room with her played music on a boombox and she started dancing in slow rhythmic motions. It was mesmerizing!

Then she sat down at the head of the table. One of the duties of a maiko is to have conversations with the guests and entertain them. We were told we can ask her anything. She did not speak English, but understood practically everything I asked. Nevertheless, Nobu-san, my translator facilitated the conversation.

Maiko-San told me that she was 17 years old. She came from a small town in northwest Japan which was hit by tsunami. She chose this line of profession at 15 because she had a strong interest in Japanese culture and wanted to follow the career path of a geisha. In Kyoto, she enrolled in a teahouse where she still undergoes a vigorous program of learning music, dance, origami, personal care and more. It is intense with long hours and little time to be a teenager. She cannot go out much (especially when she is in her garb) and gets to visit her family once a year. Her master/ big sister is 80 years old and she will need to repay her through her earnings.

Training to be a geisha can be quite expensive. The master at a tea house will invest in the lodging, meals, classes, dresses and pocket money of the young girl until she graduates.

Only a fraction of girls who come to the program with her will graduate.

Then she showed us how to do origami and gifted little swans made of paper napkins.

Maiko-San told me on her days off she likes to go to Starbucks and try out their seasonal drinks. Japan is very innovative for that! When I was there this summer, they had introduced a “chocolate cake frappuccino.” We talked about all the places I visited in Japan and the foods I had tried. As we got our meal (she does not eat with guests), I would ask her to describe to me what I was eating. Though she is not allowed to own a phone, she felt quite comfortable using my iPhone to looks up Japanese foods I was unfamiliar with. I felt I was chatting with any other Japanese girl, a bit shy but curious, and matured for her age.

The experience costs $500 for 2-hours plus cost of food and drinks at the restaurant and can be booked through a travel agent. This experience was arranged for our group by Flo Tours and their Japanese partners.

Given the chance, would you sign up for an experience to be entertained by a maiko or geisha? Leave your comments below…

Here’s Where to Start Planning Your Trip to Phuket, Thailand

Dense rainforests, pristine beaches, picturesque bays against a backdrop of limestone cliffs – the island of Phuket has remained a popular destination among foreign tourists for good reason. Phuket is one of the most beautiful destinations in Thailand. It has a unique personality with upscale villas, ancient culture, varied nature, an active nightlife and emerging dining scene.

Here’s where you need to start planning your visit to Phuket:

Unwind at a Luxury Beach Villa

If you want to avoid the herds of tourists crowding Phuket’s many resorts, consider villa rentals in Thailand. Phang Nga or Natai Beach are the best locations in Phuket for renting a villa with easy access to beaches, nightlife and dining. Feel like royalty staying at beachfront estates designed to look like elegant Thai temples, surrounded by mythical rock formations. Starting at just $1000/ night, many of the villas come with an infinity swimming pool, jetted tub, home theater, sauna and steam rooms, yoga pavilion, chef and butler. Pampering has no limits!

Feel the cool Andaman Sea breeze as you dine on freshly prepared seafood at your own private dining room or gazebo. A vacation rental in Thailand makes for an ideal honeymoon getaway. Some of the larger villas available in this area can accommodate up to 20 guests, making it ideal for weddings, corporate retreats and family reunions.

Watch a Cultural Performance 

There are a few venues in Phuket that offer a chance to see traditional dances and cultural performances, but Siam Niramit Phuket is the most authentic. Guest can walk through an entire village scene surrounded by a forest and river, which showcases traditional wooden homes, costumes and foods from different parts of Thailand.

You also have the option to purchase dinner buffet with the ticket package. While the restaurant has a lot of options, with Chinese, Thai and Western stations, the food is mediocre, served in a casual setting. There are also few handicraft stores selling souvenirs and clothes at reasonable prices.

The show itself is comparable to Cirque du Soleil or Broadway. Elaborate sets that change with every scene, high caliber dancers jeweled in rich costumes, and even elephants make their way to the stage! This will be an evening you will remember for a long time.

Stroll Down Old Phuket Town

Thalang Road is the main street in the European style old town with well-preserved colorful Sino-colonial buildings. Dotted with museums and coffee shops, plan to spend an entire day walking with a self-guided tour around the old town. Along the way, don’t miss the historic sites and mansions. Each one has a unique story behind it! Take a taxi to the summit of Kha Rang (Rang Hill) to get an overview of the city with Big Buddha, beaches and forests in the vista.

Make sure to come back in the night when some of the bars and clubs come alive. This is a good place to see the expat community living in Thailand.

Taste Specialty Local Foods

Due to the high number of visitors, Phuket is gaining a strong reputation in having very good selection of Thai and international restaurants. Casual cafes, street vendors, open air beachfront restaurants and wine bars are a few options to choose from. However, there are a few dishes you must taste while visiting Phuket.

These are roti – Thai crepes stuffed with bananas and topped with condensed milk, made to order and served hot; sweet fresh mango with sticky rice with coconut cream topping – a favorite Thai dessert; kanom jeen – rice noodles with spicy coconut crab curry; and different flavors of cashews (my favorite are Tom Yum), a product native of Phuket and available at one of the many cashew nut factories.

You can also sign up for a cooking class, or arrange one at your private rented villa.

Pray at a Buddhist Temple

There are 29 Buddhist temples on the island, so it is impossible to see them all unless you are planning to stay for a couple of weeks. If you must pick two places, go to Wat Chalong and the Big Buddha. Wat Chalong is one of the most important temples for Buddhist people because it is said to contain a splinter of Lord Buddha’s bone. As in most temples, there are richly adorned pagodas and Buddha statues throughout.

Phuket’s Big Buddha is located on top of the Nakkerd Hills and can be spotted from many places on the island. Made of white jade marble, the 45-meters tall Buddha statue sparkles in the sun, while a smaller brass Buddha statue stands next to it.

Island Hop Through the Weekend

Rent a speedboat to take you around some of the most beautiful islands and beaches around Phuket. Some of the more popular destinations for day trips include Phi Phi Islands, James Bond Island (featured in the movies “Man with the Golden Gun” and “Tomorrow Never Dies”) and . Swim, snorkel and dive as you enjoy the colorful coral reef and diverse marine life in the crystal-clear water of the Andaman Sea. Ao Phang Nga National Park is a good place to try your hands-on sea kayaking, sea caving, and canoeing.

Soak in the Views

No visit to Phuket is complete without getting a panorama view of the island or watching a picture-perfect sunset. To get a 360 view of the beaches and lush vegetation, go to Kata, Larm Singh or Panwa viewpoints. Couple of other unique places are Samet Nangshe offering stunning views of the Phang Nga Bay’s limestone islets and star studded night sky, as well as the Windmill viewpoint in south Phuket where you can see windmills that look like airplane propellers.

Another option is to sip a cocktail and catch a romantic sunset at one of the restaurants or bars.

What to Expect at the Mongolian Dinner Table

Sandwiched between Russia and China, Mongolia is a huge country with vast open grasslands, mountains and deserts. Harsh cold winters and gusty winds make it difficult to grow much here. Therefore, the nomadic Mongol diet relies mostly on animal products, such as meat, cheese, yogurt and milk.

So what to expect to eat as you travel through Mongolia?

The capital city of Ulaanbaatar (UB) is comparable to any metropolis in Central Asia. Here you will find all sorts of restaurants, cafes, bars and grocery stores. There are traditional Mongolian places, as well as tourist-friendly international restaurants serving American, Russian, Irish, Japanese, and Italian food. Korean cuisine is perhaps the most popular as many Korean tourists visit Mongolia (it is an easy 3 hour direct flight from Seoul). I even found a few Indian/ Hazara restaurants in UB.

Indian food in Mongolia

A visit to the State Department Grocery Store in UB gives a good perspective on the produce that is imported from abroad. There is generally a small section of fresh organic Mongolian produce, which is more expensive than it’s Chinese counterpart. The variety of fruits and vegetables is plentiful, though not as appealing as I am use to. Think overripe bananas, pale red apples, softening grapes. Isles of sausages and cheese from Russia can easily be found. There are plenty of packages food though – cookies, chocolates, nuts, chips – practically everything you can think of. The cooked food section boasts kimchi, fried snacks and noodles, favoring the spicy tastebuds of the locals.

Outside of UB, there are supermarkets selling all of needed essentials. In some of the smaller towns that I visited, the amount of produce diminished significantly. Here street vendors could be found selling freshly harvested green onions, peaches and watermelon.

While staying at luxury tourist ger camps, we were served three meals daily. Breakfast typically consisted of an assortment of bakery items (bread, cakes, pancakes, waffles), cheese, yogurt, cereal, tea, canned fruits and eggs made to order. I don’t think Mongols are very good bakers as most of the cakes were very dry and flavorless. Some of the places only had instant coffee.

breakfast at ger camps

Lunches were generally picnic style as we were out sightseeing at remote areas. The hotel would pack a lunch box – wraps, salads, sandwiches, noodles, etc. that we carried with us.

picnic lunch in Gobi desert

Sometimes we went to traditional Mongolian restaurants, which I really enjoyed. At the 13th Century National Park, we sat on the floor, watched live performances, while eating delicious Khuushuur stuffed with ground beef (and a vegetarian version for me). This is also the most popular thing to eat (like a hot dog) at the Naadam festival.

Modern Nomads in UB is always packed with visitors who want to try traditional Mongolian dishes in the city. Buckets of grilled meats (Khorkhog) along with chilled beer is the perfect campground treat. Strangely they had chewing gum listed as a snack on the menu!

It is important to note that the Mongolian diet consists mainly of meat (beef, horse, goat, sheep, yak, marmot and camel) as it helps retain fat and heat during the long winters. Though vegetarians wouldn’t have survived here in the past, today there are many meat-free options for those traveling through the country.

mongolian bbq

When we were out visiting nomadic camps, we were offered hot milk tea known as Süütei Tsai (made from horse, camel or cow milk), along with local fried cookies, Boortsog and dried cheese, Aaruul. It is customary to accept the offerings from your hosts, even if you are not hungry.

mongolian snacks at Naadam

At dinner, we enjoyed international dishes, such as fresh salad with tomatoes, olives and cheese at Dream Terelj Lodge; pizza at Peace Pub Restaurant; grilled chicken or fish with roasted potatoes or french fries at Dream Gobi Ger Lodge.

All the restaurants served alcohol, beer and wine; vodka being the most popular drink. There are many Mongolian brewed vodkas (many of them named Chinggis) and they are actually very good.

I discovered that there are no Mongolian dessert except for sweet dried fermented cheese, but with the international influence, bakeries have popped up in the city. One that I frequented was Caffe Bene that served gelato, cakes, coffee and juices, and Grand Khaan Irish Pub for drinks and desserts.

Read Mongolian Cuisine Is a Carnivore’s Dream Come True on MilesAway blog.

10 Things I Love About Mongolia

Mongolia was one of the countries that I was fascinated to travel to, but didn’t know much about. In my imagination, I had pictured a vast barren desert with nomadic culture. Though some of that was true, I discovered a lot more in Mongolia during my one-week visit. Here are some of the most beautiful things that took me by surprise…

Lush Green Landscapes – Yes there is a big desert covering a big chunk of the country, but there are also forests with trees, and lush grasslands. The rainy summer season and the rivers help irrigate the area. In winter, most of the country is covered in snow. Note: Ulaanbaatar (UB) is the coldest capital in the world, having a January average of -20 °C (minimum reaching -45 °C).

Village in Terelj National Park/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos
Village in Terelj National Park/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

Free Roaming Animals – During my long drives through the countryside, I saw hundreds of yaks, sheep, goat, cows, horses and camels roaming around on their own. Because Mongolia still preserves it’s nomadic culture, many families keep a herd of animals, and keep moving to different locations for better grazing access. Note: The Mongolian diet is rich in meat and animal products (such as milk, cheese, yogurt) as this is the only source of food in many areas. 

Two humped camels/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos
Two humped camels/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

Cute Kids – The children in Mongolia have a blend of Chinese, Persian and Russian looks. They are chubby and adorable! The kids who grow up in the countryside learn survival skills at an early age. They ride horses, milk animals, collect firewood and build gers.

Family at a parade in UB/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos
Family at a parade in UB/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

Sleeping in Gers – While I am not a big fan of camping, I enjoyed staying at the luxury ger camps – Dream Terelj Lodge and Dream Gobi Lodge. Can you imagine waking up to this view? Here I was able to experience a nomadic home which is constructed using minimum equipment (felt, poles, lattice, cloth, ties). There is a door and an opening on the roof which is uncovered to let the light in. My ger also came with a fan, heater, lights and a private attached bath. Did you know? It takes about 2 hours for a family to construct a ger and only half hour to dissemble it.

Traditional Costumes – The Mongolian national costume is a robelike garment called a deel. It is worn with a thin silk sash several yards long tightly wound around the waist. Attached to the sash are essential objects such as the eating set, tinder pouch, snuff bottle, and tobacco and pipe pouches. Female attires are adorned with ornaments and jewelry. There are different kinds of hats and boots, depending on which part of the country they belong to. Travel Tip: There is a costume parade at the opening ceremony day before the annual Naadam festival in July. This is a good opportunity to see families from all over the country dressed in the traditional clothes. Tourists are encouraged to dress up too!

Mongolian women dressed in traditional costumes/ Sucheta Rawal
Mongolian women dressed in traditional costumes/ Photo by Sucheta Rawal

Winding Back The Clock –  Mongolia’s ancient culture is well persevered at the 13th Century National Park (located 2 hours outside UB). Here visitors can eat traditional food, visit old gers where Shamans practiced religion and Chinggis Khaan’s teacher lived, learn to write in Mongolian script, and play a horse headed fiddle.

Vastness of the Gobi Desert – The Gobi desert is the coldest desert in the world and home to many important cities along the Silk Road. It is said to be high energy place, covered with fossils as old as 100,000 years. Bayanzag aka Flaming Cliffs is a location where the highest concentration of dinosaur bones and eggs have been found. Travel Tip: Travel through the vast region of Gobi can take several days as there are no roads or signs; there are few flights which can be affected by weather conditions; the region shuts down in winters; and there are not many places to stop and ask for directions! 

Flaming Cliffs/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos
Flaming Cliffs/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

Warm Hospitality – My hosts for this trip were Voyage Unique Mongolie. Khishigjargal and her husband, Dorjpurev took us around the entire time, giving us a very personal experience showing us their country. It felt like we were on a holiday with the family. We sang songs and ate candy during long drives, and stopped to have picnics in breathtaking sceneries. No matter where we went, we experienced the same level of polite and warm hospitality. Even when language was a challenge, the employees at hotels and restaurants would make a sincere effort to address our needs the best they could.

Drinking tea at a nomad's home/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos
Drinking tea at a nomad’s home/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

Modern Mongolian Music and Dance – The traditional Mongolian dance is bielgee, which is performed by both men and women. Rhythmic movements, fast beats and expressive gestures that represent daily life, are simply captivating. Mongolian musicians are especially talented using deep throat singing, and several local instruments, such as the horse head fiddle, drum and gong. These days, techno and rap are being integrated, creating fun modern tunes. Travel Tip: Watch a traditional concert by the band Tumen Ekh ensemble at National Recreation Center in UB.

Naadam Festival – The annual festival celebrates the ancient sports of Mongolia – horseback riding, archery and wrestling. The entire country goes on holiday while families dress up, go for picnics and cheer the contestants. The main competitions take place at the stadium in UB, but events are also spread out. One of the most fascinating aspects of the festival is to see 5-12 year old kids race horses for up to 10 kilometers. They ride solo, at very high speeds, through the countryside! The winner receives a medal, money and bragging rights.

Horseback racing at Naadam festival/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos
Horseback racing at Naadam festival/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

Secrets Behind Bhutan’s Happiness

The Kingdom of Bhutan is a tiny Buddhist country located between two emerging superpowers, China and India. How is it that it manages to retain its stance on measuring the country’s progress based on GNH (Gross National Happiness) vs GDP (Gross Domestic Product)? Are the people in Bhutan truly happy, and why? These are some of the questions I was eager to get answers to during my recent visit to Bhutan.

At first glance, I saw a lot of poverty, undeveloped infrastructure and lack of resources even in the country’s capital, Thimphu. There were a few hotels and restaurants, the shops were selling television sets one found in the 1980’s, cars were freely emitting exhaust, and people throwing garbage out their windows. When I walked into souvenir shops, I wasn’t greeted or welcomed, and attended to only when I asked something. On the streets, people had serious faces and went about their daily business. From an outsider perspective, I would say these were not signs of happy people.

people of bhutanHowever, when I had one-on-one conversations with people and asked them about the meaning of happiness, they gave me a refreshing response. The Bhutanese people grow up in a Buddhist lifestyle. They pray everyday, believe in karma (which includes doing good, not harming animals, taking care of the environment), and furthering their lives collectively. They live as a community and everyone comes forward to help each other in times of need, be it death, birth or illness. There is a strong sense of culture which is reflected through their lifestyle, costumes, and celebration of festivals.

bhutan prayers

I also interviewed Mr. Saamdhu Chetri, executive director at Gross National Happiness Centre. He told me that the idea of GNH was started by the 4th king of Bhutan who studied at Cambridge and traveled extensively. The King realized that people in the western world had much too consume, but weren’t really happy. He decided to create a new framework for his own government, in which he would focus on the well being of his people and the country’s resources, rather than how much they can produce. He appointed a team of statisticians, psychologists and ministers to create standards of measuring happiness i.e. GNH index based on 33 questions. The index surveys all citizens of the country on psychological wellbeing, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards. They survey does not measure income.

Saamdhu Chetri bhutan

Here are some of the results the GNH Index reveale about happy people of Bhutan:

  • Men are happier than women on average.
  • Of the nine domains, Bhutanese have the most sufficiency in health, then ecology, psychological wellbeing, and community vitality.
  • In urban areas, 50% of people are happy; in rural areas it is 37%.
  • Urban areas do better in health, living standards and education. Rural areas do better in community vitality, cultural resilience, and good governance.
  • Happiness is higher among people with a primary education or above than among those with no formal education, but higher education does not affect GNH very much.
  • The happiest people by occupation include civil servants, monks/anim, and GYT/DYT members. Interestingly, the unemployed are happier than corporate employees, housewives, farmers or the national work force.
  • Unmarried people and young people are among the happiest.
  • There is quite a lot of equality across Dzongkhags (districts), so there is not a strict ranking among them. The happiest Dzongkhags include Paro, Sarpang, Dagana, Haa, Thimphu, Gasa, Tsirang, Punakha, Zhemgang, and Chukha.
  • The least happy Dzongkhag was SamdrupJonkhar.
  • The ranking of dzongkhags by GNH differs significantly from their ranking by income per capita. Sarpang, Dagana, and even Zhemgang for example, do far better in GNH than in income.
  • In terms of numbers, the highest number of happy people live in Thimphu and Chukha – as do the highest number of unhappy people!
  • Thimphu is better in education and living standards than other Dzongkhags, but worse in community vitality.

bhutan female monkThe results are used by the kingdom and the government to make decisions regarding administrative policies, planning, resource allocation, monitoring and evaluation of development. They use the survey results to prepare strategy for the country’s development with values that includes equality, kindness, humanity, screens policies and measures sufficiency in every Bhutanese life. As a result, education is now freely available to even the remotest locations of Bhutan.

When compared to other happy countries of the world (such as Denmark, Finland), Bhutan doesn’t compare as those ranking account for economic prosperity as well. Bhutan being a small third world country, where hardly anything is manufactured or exported from, does not stand a chance.

According to my understanding, happiness is a difficult thing to measure. When you ask someone, “Are you happy?” most people respond “Yes”. It is also subjective. On the other hand, mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing are more reasonable measurements that defines if the environment hold all the factors that would enable someone to be happy. It is good to know that the basic principal of Bhutan is to govern based on the citizen’s well being and many countries are now looking towards Bhutan for advice on the same. Mr Chetri himself has been meeting with global leaders to consult them on how to implement the concept in their own countries.

An Introduction to Laos

Home to the beautiful Khone Papeng Falls (largest in southeast Asia), ornate temples, while being the “World’s Most Bombed Country” from the Vietnam War, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic has endured a long history of hardships.  Like most countries in Southeast Asia, Laos has been a target for colonialism from France, as well as Japan. Laos gained independence as a constitutional monarchy in 1953 from the French but with the impact of Vietnam War, they faced their own arduous civil war (1953-1975) that resulted in the establishment of a communist government in 1975. Laos

Currently, Laos struggles to develop as a nation, however it does not stop their people from being known for their honesty and simplicity, often attributed to their Buddhist roots. A large part of Lao culture is derived from the influences of Theravada Buddhism. Even with the invasions from foreign nations, Laos was able to maintain their Buddhist religious culture from the eighth century.  Buddhism is a vital part of the people in Laos. Every village has a Wat (temple) where the people worship daily in the morning and the evening. The most revered Buddhist stupa is thought to be established since the third century, the Pha That Luang is covered in gold, and shines bright in their capital city of Vientiane. Although Buddhist influences dictate an important part of Laotian culture, there are influences far before the establishment of Buddhism.

muangngoi-laos-women-rice field workersMusic and food have been two consistent aspects of Laotian culture that have prehistoric origins. The khene is their national instrument created from bamboo pipes which is traditionally used to play folk music. The khene has uniquely Lao origins and is still used in ritual ceremonies and festivals to courting women.  Stick rice is another staple of prehistoric Lao traditions which has more meaning to their culture than one may think. They consume the most sticky-rice per person than any other country in the world.  Yet, it is more than a tasty part of their everyday meals. They see it as a vital part of their culture, some groups of Laotian people plant a unique khao kam rice near their home in reverence to their dead parents or they will plant it on the edge of their rice fields to indicate that their parents are still alive.

Laos-Khon Phapheng WaterfallThroughout their history of annexation and occupation, they are still able to maintain their culture and thrive in their agricultural industry.  Eighty-percent of their exports is surprisingly not rice! Laos is especially known in the southeast Asian region for their coffee production. They have ambitions to expand their market in beer production and have started creating a buzz around the world.  Laos still encounters many challenges as any other developing country but being able to preserve their culture over the past thousand years has been a remarkable accomplishment for a country that has been constantly exposed to foreign influences.

To learn more about Laos, attend Go Eat Give Destination Laos on March 19, 2016 at Pattaya Cafe in Atlanta, GA. Click here to learn more. 

~ By guest blogger, Lilly Iijima. Lilly is a student at Oglethorpe University pursuing a major in International Studies with a minor in Japanese. Growing up in a multi-cultural household, she has seen first-hand the power of personally experiencing a different culture to eliminate previous misconceptions. Through this work, Lilly is committed to educating others about different countries and regions while learning about them herself.

6 Must Try Food and Drinks in Indonesia

Indonesia is a country brimming with sights, shopping, and fabulous food. As a country known for its diverse use of spices, its cuisine is one of the most colorful and vibrant of any in the world. Here is a quick overview of some of the most traditional and popular foods of Indonesia, and some of what you can taste at Go Eat Give Destination Indonesia on March 26th in Atlanta…

 1. Gado Gado

Gado Gado is a traditional Indonesian dish suitable for every foodie, including vegetarians. The dish, translated to “mix-mix,” is a blend of various vegetables, tofu, and tempeh in a peanut sauce. It is sometimes served with crispy crackers as a snack, or on its own as a side or entree with rice.

thumb_600

2. Saté

An Indonesian dish the is well known in the West and is similar to a shish kabob. Sate consists of different kinds of meat roasted over coals on bamboo skewers, and is often times paired with a peanut sauce. The meat may include chicken, beef, pork, tofu, and more. Saté originated in Java and was a creation of the Indonesian street vendors, but has spread around Indonesia and to neighboring countries.

dsc08500

3. Kerak Telor

This dish is a crispy Indonesian “frittata” made with sticky rice, shrimp, coconut, shallots, and spices. Duck or eggs are commonly added to the meal based on the customer’s preference. Kerak Telor is one of the most popular street foods in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, and derives from the Betawi culture. The dish also is said to resemble the western omelet though its spice and crispness set it apart.

dsc03312

4. Rendang

Rendang originated in Pandang, a city in Sumatra, and is one of the most flavorful and iconic dishes of Indonesia. It is referred to as “West Sumatran caramelized beef curry” by culinary experts and was named the #1 most delicious food in the world by CNN International readers. The dish is made with beef, which is marinated, in a special curry for hours. Rendang can also be served dry as a soft jerky, but this is reserved only for special occasions.

Beef-Rendang-Served-with-Steamed-Rice

5. Cendol

Cendol is a traditional Indonesian dessert drink that is unlike anything you’ve ever seen or tasted before. The base is made up of coconut milk, palm sugar, and shaved ice, and is mixed with various kinds of jelly noodles. The noodles are made out of red beans, rice, or even grass jelly. Iced cendol with durian fruit and chocolate milk is also popular in Indonesia.

cendol-2-upload

6. Bintang Bir Pilsner

If you ever find yourself in Indonesia during a night out, you’re bound to run into someone drinking Bintang Beer. It was introduced to the country by the Heineken brand during the 1930s under the original name Java Bier, and later took on its’ current name in 2006. Bintang means “star” in Indonesian, and the Bintang bottle features a red star that is reminiscent of the classic Heineken bottle. Additionally, the taste of Bintang is said to be very similar to Heineken with its’ malt and hop flavor.

4578304983_3de8ff1218

9 Places to Visit in Lebanon

Lebanon is a beautiful country in the Middle East, bursting with history, great food, and great culture.  It being a classic traveler’s destination, how can you decide where to go and what to see?  Since planning a trip can be quite the task, Go Eat Give has named the nine must see cities in Lebanon for your touring pleasure:

1. Beirut

This capital city of Lebanon is nicknamed “The Paris of the Middle East,” and is bustling with things to do. Along with great shopping and beautiful scenery, Beirut has a rich cultural history to explore. There are many museums and sacred religious sites there, such as the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Saint George, the National Museum of Beirut, and the Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque.

Beirut

2. Baalbek

Baalbek is located on the western end of Lebanon and is home to some of the most well preserved Roman ruins known to mankind.   The city dates back over 9,000 years and was previously known by the name of “Heliopolis,” or The City of the Sun, during the period of the Roman rule. Jupiter, Venus, and Bacchus are all believed to have been worshipped at the Baalbek temples.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

3. Jeita Grotto

Located in the center of the Nahr al-Kalb valley in Jeita, Lebanon, the Jeita Grotto is an amazing sight. The interconnected limestone caves, which can only be accessed by boat, span around nine kilometers in length. To make the grotto even more intriguing—it was a finalist to become one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature.

Lebanese journalists and photographers tour the Jeita Grotto by boat during a media day to campaign for the selection of the Jeitta Grotto as one of the seven natural wonders of the world

4. Sidon

This is a Lebanese town that is filled with old history and remarkable sight seeing.   Located on the western coast of the country, it was one of the most important Phonecian cities and is now known as an active fishing town. Sidon is home to the largest Lebanese flag and also the Old Souk, a famous marketplace.

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 11.21.55 PM

5. Tyre

Tyre is another city in Lebanon that contains very interesting ruins and historic sites. One main attraction here is the Roman Hippodrome—an ancient stadium for chariot and horse racing! The Tyre Coast Nature Reserve is also the largest sandy beach in the country.

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 11.24.41 PM

6. Beit ed-Dine

Beit ed-Dine is a town famous for its’ magnificent Beiteddine Palace (shown below). This one-of-a-kind palace was built in 1788 and hosts the annual Beiteddine Festival and Beiteddine Palace Museum. Interestingly enough, after Lebanon’s independence in 1943 the palace was officially renamed the “People’s Palace” since it had been created by the people’s hard work and will.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

7. Faraya

Lebanon is known for it’s interesting climate, and this town is the perfect example why. Above this village lies the Mzaar Resort, which is a ski resort. The resort is only about 20 miles away from Beirut, meaning you could experience warm weather and winter all in the same day!

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 11.28.17 PM

8. The Cedars of God

Cedar trees are sacred and known to have covered Mount Lebanon in the past, but The Cedars of God is one of the last forests left in the country. This was caused by persistent deforestation by Lebanon’s ancestors, such as for shipbuilding and construction. The snowy area has great hiking and beautiful views.

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 11.28.24 PM9. Deir el-Qamar

The name of this Lebanese village can be translated from Arabic into the “Monastery of the Moon.” It’s home to many important religious sites such as Saydet El Talle and the Mount of the Cross. This village is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 11.28.30 PM