Saturday, 19 December 2015

Bhutan, Progress and Tradition

The National Assembly Building in Thimphu ©Solange Hando

Progress came with a bang in 2006 when the 4th King announced his forthcoming abdication in favour of his son  and the institution of a democratic government. Bhutan had come of age and the new National Assembly held its first session in 2008. The Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party won every seat but two, but the situation was reversed in 2013 when the People's Democratic Party secured 32/47 seats.

Once again, change was on its way but in this traditional building oozing Buddhist values, the mission is the same, whoever is in power: 'to achieve the goal of Gross National Happiness enshrined in the Constitution' and endorsed by the highly-respected king and monks' body. 

Bright Lights in Thimphu ©Solange Hando

Thimphu has grown tenfold in the past decade or so and western dress is a common sight though at festival time, everyone loves to show off their best traditional clothes, kira for the ladies and gho for the men. The capital has its share of modern shops but craftsmen and artists still practise their ancient skills and on the roundabout, a policeman directs the traffic with the grace of a ballet dancer. There are no traffic lights.

Likewise, towns such as Punakha or Wangdi Phrodang have seen new districts popping up, financed by the World Bank and paying lip service to traditional architecture. But apartments are modern, less susceptible to fire and the people like them.

Paro Airport ©Solange Hando

Efforts to increase tourism have been successful and the infrastructure is still catching up. Druk Air, the national carrier, now shares the load with the private Bhutanese Airlines and there are a number of domestic flights which operate subject to weather conditions and passenger numbers.

The west to east highway is being upgraded across its entire length so traffic is slower than it ever was but the scenery is just as stunning.

The Black Mountains ©Solange Hando

Respect for nature and all living things remains at the heart of Bhutanese culture and that is unlikely to change for the time being. The slightest hint of a new dam arouses concerns about wild life and so far the balance is on the side of conservation. Bears roam unhindered in the forest, snow leopards and even tigers survive at high altitude and in the Phobjikha Valley, the return of black-necked cranes in the autumn is greeted with a special festival.

Tilling the Land in the Ura Valley ©Solange Hando

At first sight the pace of change is much slower in the countryside and there lies the greatest challenge for 21st century Bhutan: youngsters heading for the city, drawn by the bright lights and the lure of well paid jobs that are few and far in between. Private enterprise is in its infancy and until business skills are developed, the problem is likely to grow.

Meanwhile in the country, there are fewer farmers to till the land and fewer young people to care for the elderly and keep families together.   

Children Attending a Festival, Punakha Dzong ©Solange Hando

But it is the children who hold the key to the future and with Bhutan's laudable efforts in education and encouragement from all leaders, religious or civic, there is every reason to hope that they will achieve a fine balance between tradition and progress. Bhutan is not a 'museum' but it does have something special which is worth preserving.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Bhutan's Royalty

 Traditional Festivities in Bhutan ©Solange Hando

Bhutan is changing for sure but traditions and culture remain as strong as ever, anchored in the Buddhist faith and respect for the royal family.

In 2015, celebrations were held throughout the kingdom in honour of the 4th King's 60th birthday. They culminated in Thimphu on November 11th when soon after dawn, crowds made their way to the stadium to enjoy a colourful mix of parades, traditional dances and games and a heartfelt tribute from the current king to his father.

His Majesty the 5th King Meeting his People ©Solange Hando

Democracy came to Bhutan in 2008 but the royal family is as popular as ever, symbolising the country's unity and culture, but what the people appreciate most is their approachability and simple lifestyle. 

Don't expect a sumptuous residence or even a castle, the Royal Palace is a comfortable but modest cottage tucked among the trees on the edge of the capital, with one guard on duty at a gate you might not even notice. Then there's a retreat in Punakha which would do nicely for a solitary monk.

 Just as important, the king is close to his people, mingling with the crowds at festival time, walking across the kingdom to meet them if the occasion demands or stopping his car at the roadside to chat to farmers and villagers, listening to their concerns as an attendant makes notes which will be followed up. Just like his father did. 

Portraits of the 4th King (right) and his Son at the Birthday Celebrations ©Solange Hando

During his 34 years on the throne, until he stepped down for his son in 2006, the 4th Dragon King of Bhutan moved his country forward in bold but measured steps, reinforcing unity under the 'one nation, one people' banner, modernising the kingdom and opening the gates to the outside world while maintaining traditional Bhutanese values.

But most of all, he gave democracy to his people because he felt the time was right. Both his retirement and the new system shook the nation at the time but today, he is seen as an enlightened leader who paved the way for the future.

Punakha Dzong, Royal Wedding Location ©Solange Hando

Meanwhile in 2011, the 5th King married the young Jetsun Pema in Punakha dzong, 'the fortress of great happiness' where the first King of Bhutan was crowned. After the wedding, the King and his Queen walked more or less all the way back to Thimphu, 71km and 13 hours away, so they could meet the thousands of people who lined up along the road to pay their respects.

That's just one of the reasons why they call His Majesty 'the People's King', keen to greet them one by one and lend a hand as needed: when the magnificent dzong of Wangdi Phrodang was destroyed by fire in 2012, he left Thimphu and rushed to the site to help villagers salvage what they could.

Then at the royal celebrations in 2015, the 5th King delivered the long awaited news that a royal heir was on his way. The crowds loved it and a gentle wave of jubilation rippled across the stadium. The baby is due in the early spring and there couldn't have been a better birthday present for the 4th King.

The King and Queen of Bhutan

The 4th King had four wives but His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck has opted for one and a love marriage, even holding hands in public in a land where Gross National Happiness is enshrined in the Constitution.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Dwarika's Hotel, Welcome back to Kathmandu

 Swimming Pool in the Style of Ancient Royal Baths ©Solange Hando

After the earthquake, Dwarika's offered shelter to many of the victims but as the city slowly returns to normal life, visitors enjoy once again one of Kathmandu's most stunning hotels, a superb architectural gem unscathed by the disaster.

Named after its founder and still managed by his wife and daughter, it was the dream of a man who fell in love with Newari heritage, collecting carved windows, pillars and doors for his small family home. Later this was transformed into a boutique hotel to help finance the preservation of local culture and training of young craftsmen.

Dwarika's Traditional Entrance ©Solange Hando

Carved doors and pottery guardians set the tone as soon as you approach the entrance, leading to a lush oasis of plants, flowers and trees, just steps away from the dust and chaos of Kathmandu's streets,

Here nothing disturbs the peace but the sound of tumbling water and the twittering of birds, especially at dawn and dusk. There are offerings by the shrine and the fragrance of incense and marigolds lingers in the air.

Quiet Courtyard ©Solange Hando

The grounds are divided into attractive courtyards, never crowded and each one different from the next, here a place to sip Nepali tea, there somewhere to chill out under white drapes or gaze at warm red bricks glowing in the sunset festooned in persimmon and poinsettia trees.

Traditional Room and a Touch of Colour ©Solange Hando

Dwarika's has 86 individually designed rooms and suites, from the royal suite to heritage deluxe rooms, all spacious and furnished with artwork and organic linen. In-room amenities include everything you would expect from a 5 star hotel, including chocolates on your pillow.

Add a business centre, gym, Himalayan spa, and a boutique selling pashmina shawls, traditional paintings and more, what else could you want?
Food and drink? 
The choice is yours with international and Japanese restaurants and a Nepali venue offering up to 22 regional courses, plus a fusion bar for cocktails and snacks and a log fire on request. Alternatively you can dine outdoors under a star-studded sky.

A Spot of Shade ©Solange Hando

Then of course, Dwarika  can arrange your sightseeing tours but in such a lovely place, you may well be tempted to stay in the shade, until it's time to go to the airport, barely 10 minutes away.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

The Iguazu Falls, Argentina versus Brazil

Shooting Rainbows over Iguazu, Argentina ©Solange Hando

The natives called Iguazu ''big water' and with an average flow of 10 million litres per second in season, it's easy to see why.Stretching for 2.7 km, the cliff face is streaked by up to 300 waterfalls, plunging 60 to 90 metres from the upper to the lower Iguazu river.

Straddling Argentina and Brazil, the falls came to the world's attention when Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca stumbled upon them in the 16th century. 'Santa Maria', he exclaimed as he set eyes on one of the most powerful cataracts, and so it is still called today.

Crested Jay in Iguazu ©Solange Hando

Surrounded by rainforest, the Iguazu National Parks are protected on both sides by UNESCO and wild life can often be spotted near the falls, especially birds like macaws, parrots, toucans and jays.

Meanwhile caimans lurk in the lower reaches, jaguars and coral snakes hide in the forest and monkeys play havoc in the trees.

The Devil's Throat, Argentina ©Solange Hando

On the Argentinian side, tourist amenities have been kept well away from the falls and to reach the most popular cataract, you have to board an eco-train then make your way across the upper river on a km long walkway.

All seems placid at first until thunder begins to roar and suddenly you come face to face with the mighty Devil's Throat, the easiest fall to access on that side where you can also explore a network of trails.

 View of Iguazu Falls from the Air ©Solange Hando

Argentina claims 80% of the falls but since the cliff face is shaped like an inverted J, the Devil's Throat offers a limited view.

Brazil on the other hand reveals a stunning panorama across its own falls and most of those in Argentina. You can view the falls by helicopter and although amenities on that side are much closer to the falls, they're out of sight as soon as you make your way down the panoramic path.

Raccoon Looking for Spoils in Iguazu ©Solange Hando

Of course this raccoon knows nothing of borders but if you want to enjoy Iguazu from both sides, it's easy enough. It's just a short drive to the border bridge where the paint changes colour half way along -to reflect the national flags- and you can get a glimpse of Paraguay as well.

Rainbow over Iguazu, Brazil ©Solange Hando

Here on the Brazilian side, you look right across the falls, first from the top then at water level where a wooden walkway (top right in the picture) takes you to the heart of it all, but expect to get drenched. Or if you dare, you can hop on a boat and shoot the rapids.

For the best of both worlds, see the Devil's Throat in Argentina then go across to Brazil for the most spectacular views and a shot of adrenalin to top it all.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Tokyo, Cool and Traditional

Tablet and Kimonos, Tokyo ©Solange Hando

From technology to magnetic trains, Japan is zooming ahead but on special occasions, the traditional dress gives everyone a chance to look fabulous while preserving cultural links with the past.

Then of course, you do have to record it all on your tablet and share it with friends...

Buddhist Shrine in Tokyo ©Solange Hando

This is a quiet hidden corner in Asakusa Kannon, Tokyo's oldest Buddhist complex and a bustling place where among clouds of incense, statues and paper lanterns, fortune tellers and fast food chefs cater to every visitor's needs.

It's a popular temple if you wish to seek advice for the future or earn merits for the after life, for yourself or others.

Shibuya ©Solange Hando

It's rather different in Shibuya which many regard as the Piccadilly Circus of Tokyo. This is the place to meet your friends by the statue of the legendary dog who waited until death, for a master who never returned.

It's a lively district so don't be fooled by the empty crossings on the picture. As soon as the lights turn green, crowds will appear from nowhere, as disciplined as you would expect them to be for this is Tokyo, not London or Paris.

Traditional Shinto Wedding in Meiji Shrine ©Solange Hando

The Shinto religion is based on respect for nature and the many spirits who live there so shrines are located in natural surroundings.

When this shrine was built on the edge of Tokyo to honour Emperor Meiji, 100,000 trees were planted over seven years to welcome the spirits, 

Weddings aside, look out for the wishing tree where worshippers and visitors are invited to leave a message, as did President Obama for world peace.

Tokyo 21st Century ©Solange Hando

But whatever the traditions in Tokyo, the enduring image is that of a modern city with soaring skyscrapers and stunning architecture from the business district to the elegant bridges across the bay, the Tokyo Tower or the popular Statue of Liberty.

Yet, for many visitors, much of the charm lies in the careful handling of old and new, preserving cultural traditions while embracing the modern world and a bright future.

Here's to Tokyo, Ready to Go

 ©Solange Hando

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Aberdour near Edinburgh, Scotland's Hidden Gem

Harbour in Aberdour ©Solange Hando

Aberdour makes a lovely day trip from Edinburgh, just a 30 minutes ride from the city over the spectacular bridge spanning the Firth of Forth.

The name means 'water mouth'-here the Dour Burn enters the Forth- and when the railway replaced the pleasure steamers, the old coal harbour transformed itself once again and is now a delightful marina, tucked between the old jetty and the wooded banks.

Aberdour Castle ©Solange Hando

In this sheltered and strategic spot on the south shores of the Fife, the Mortimer family built the first castle and the nearby church of St Fillan around the 12th century. Later the property passed into the hands of the Douglas family, where it remained ever since, and was extended many times over the centuries.

At first sight, there seems little to explore but don't be fooled: these nostalgic ruins will take you by surprise, here a cavernous fireplace, there a bread oven, a tumbling tower or the original well. Best of all are the extensive terraced gardens, complete with orchard, beehive dovecot with 600 boxes and superb views over the countryside and the estuary.

Coastal Path on Aberdour Peninsula ©Solange Hando

In Aberdour, you can follow the coastal path around the peninsula, in a protected area where you might spot all sorts of birds, including oyster catchers and redshanks. Here and there, trees and shrubs cling to sheer cliffs and masses of wild flowers bloom along the trail, honeysuckle, foxgloves, thistles and more.

This is part of the Fife Coastal Path, stretching 117 miles from the Forth to the Tay and claiming the longest continuous coastal walk in Scotland.

Looking back to Aberdour from the Fife Coastal Path ©Solange Hando

By clear weather, even on this small Aberdour section, you can be sure of gorgeous views, the village nestling in the bay, the hills rolling all around, the open waters of the estuary where you might see Inchcolm Island and its abbey, popular for weddings, and Edinburgh in the distance.

Aberdour Silver Sands Beach ©Solange Hando

Then, when you reach the tip of the peninsula, you discover the fine Silver Sands, the most popular of Aberdour's two beaches, though almost deserted at times.

Add the old village with its winding lanes, the gardens blooming with flowers, the haunting castle, the quaint little church and it's no wonder that Aberdour, this small undiscovered gem, should have received so many awards in recent years, including 'Best Small Coastal Village' in Fife and Scotland.

Aberdour, Village in Bloom ©Solange Hando

Saturday, 26 September 2015

South Wales, Caerleon in Gwent, Roman Gems and King Arthur

Who's Casting a Shadow on St Cadoc's Church? ©Solange Hando

Have you ever heard of Caerleon?
Maybe not, but just three miles from Newport in Gwent, South Wales, this quiet flower-decked village reveals an amazing past.

Roman Amphitheatre in Caerleon ©Solange Hando

First it was the Celts, then the Romans arrived in AD 75, over 5000 of them, building a massive fortress which they named Isca after the river Usk.

But the Romans liked the good life and besides the remains of the barracks, you can still wonder at this lovely amphitheatre and the Baths -don't miss them, it's magic-, near the Legionary Museum where gems which slipped down the drain in Roman times are on display.

Living Arthurian Legends in Caerleon, South Wales ©Solange Hando

Later, they say, the Roman amphitheatre  became the seat of King Arthur's Round Table, after he was crowned in St Cadoc's, the parish church (top).

No one knows for sure but everyone loves a legend and along the High Street in Caerleon, the Forum greets visitors with a sculpture garden where Merlin, Guinevere and Morgan le Fey mingle with a host of legendary spirits.

The Famous Pub in Caerleon ©Solange Hando

Maybe this is what inspired the illustrious poet, Lord Alfred Tennyson, when he planned 'The Idylls of the King' in Caerleon's Hanbury Arms.

'The Usk murmurs by the windows,' he mused, 'and I sit like King Arthur at Caerleon... a most quiet village... with a little museum of Roman tombstones and other things.'

The River Usk seen from the Hanbury Arms ©Solange Hando

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Chobe Safari Lodge, Botswana

Sunset on the River from Chobe Safari Lodge ©Solange Hando

The Chobe Safari Lodge is located on the bank of the river by the same name, on the edge of Botswana's oldest national park.

This sunset view was taken from the hotel Sedudu Bar, set on stilts at the water's edge, hopefully far enough from hippos and crocodiles.

Guest Room at the Chobe Safari Lodge, Botswana ©Solange Hando

The Chobe Safari Lodge has 8 rondavels, or thatched circular huts, and 68 rooms with balcony or raised patio. Rooms have air conditioning, mosquito nets and repellent, tea and coffee facilities and TV.
WiFi is available in public places and free of charge. Other amenities include a swimming pool, beauty salon, a craft shop, two bars and an open-sided restaurant.

Grounds are spacious with trees and lawns where you are sure to spot banded mongooses, monkeys and warthogs. There is also a camp site at the far end of the compound.

Colour in Rest Room ©Solange Hando

The lodge is tastefully furnished in African style with amazing wooden ceilings in public areas and lovely details here and there reflecting the skill of local craftsmen and artists, such as painted birds in in the rest room washbasins.

Dawn Safari, Expect the Unexpected ©Solange Hando

The Chobe lodge offers a range of activities from day trips to the Victoria Falls and visits to Zimbabwe or to the nearest Namibian village but top attraction is bird and game viewing either on water or land.

There are 560 species of birds in the park and all the big game you would expect except rhinos. Sightings can't be guaranteed but guides do their utmost to please their guests, even if it means getting stuck in the sand.

Watching us Watching them ©Solange Hando

No problem, they'd eaten well...

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Victoria Falls, Zambia versus Zimbabwe

Arial View of the Victoria Falls from Zimbabwe (left) to Zambia ©Solange Hando

In November 1855, Dr Livingstone was the first European to set eyes on the falls, from an island in the Zambezi river and the top of a baobab tree near the town now named after him. 

Called Mosi-oa-Tunya in the local language, or the 'smoke that thunders, the Victoria Falls stretch for 1708 metres as the Zambezi rushes on its way through five gorges. The highest fall is a sheer 108 metres and in the wet season, the spray might be seen from over 40 km away.

Eastern Cataract on the Zambian side ©Solange Hando

 Zambia claims only a small section of the Victoria Falls but easy access from Livingstone international airport attracts most tourists to this side of the border. 

Nearby hotels such as the Zambezi Sun  and Royal Livingstone allow visitors to walk to the falls to view the Zambezi upper reaches and the mighty drop of the Eastern Cataract.

Knife Edge Bridge (Zambia) ©Solange Hando

Walking across the knife edge bridge is the most exciting experience but expect to be drenched as the spray pours down from great heights like inverted rain. Equally thrilling, when conditions allow, is bathing in the Devil's Pool right on the edge of the fall on Livingstone island. 

On a gentler note and still in Zambia, you can see the statue of Livingstone near the entrance, follow the photographic trail or scramble down to the Boiling Pot where the river exits the gorge to rush around a tight corner.

The Victoria Falls Bridge ©Solange Hando

Open in 1905, the bridge spans the gorge to link Zambia  and Zimbabwe. The border is half- way across and providing you leave your passport at the Zambian exit, you can walk to the end of the bridge into Zimbabwe. However you'll need a visa to go any further and view the falls from that side.

This is a rail and road bridge, with loads of trucks waiting to cross, one at a time, It's also a favourite spot for bungee jumping.

Just one of 16 Viewpoints in Zimbabwe ©Solange Hando

During the dry season, it's best to view the falls from Zimbabwe since, unlike in Zambia, the water doesn't dry up. Trails guide you safely through a patch of rainforest to 16 viewpoints but beware of 'danger point' 15 when very wet.

See the Devil's Cataract, Main Falls, Horseshoe, Rainbow and Armchair Falls and further along, the Zambian side of the falls in the distance as well as the Victoria bridge.

Viewpoint 2 along the Trail in Zimbabwe ©Solange Hando

When the Victoria Falls are in full spate, the spray can obscure the view but the thundering roar still sends shivers down your spine, whichever side of the border you are on. For a complete picture, I would recommend viewing the falls from both sides.