Lakshman Sagar: A Kaleidoscopic Escape

As reviewed for The Hotel Guru:

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Inspired by the kaleidoscopic colours of Indian this 19th century former hunting lodge is not your average rural Rajasthani stay. Twelve cottages (each with their own private plunge pool) are dotted around a 32 acres and a man made reservoir. The sound of peacocks resonates throughout the grounds from sunrise til sunset, interrupted only by the chattering of a lively flock of parakeets. A totally unspoilt, rural idyll, staying true to Sewara hospitality’s mantra Lakshman Sagar is as gentle to the environment as it is on the eye. And what a visual feast it is! Decorated in pop palettes rooms are a riot in greens, pinks, yellows and oranges; juxtaposed against natural dried mud walls. Repurposed furnishings such as a traditional coal iron for a soap dish and baby’s crib for a wash basket add a novel touch. Though the pièce de résistance has got to be the zenana, formerly the women’s quarters. Decorated in pink and purple shades, mosaic floors and trickling fountains. The rooftop affords 360 views of the property and the best seat in the house.

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There is an Ayurvedic spa-cum-tree house run by Amul, possessing an encyclopaedic knowledge of herbology. He even takes yoga classes. Or simply spend an afternoon recumbent by that pool. Carved into the landscape, out of a giant rock, it has been named one of Conde Nast Traveller’s favourite pools in India.

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Inspired by the ‘Slow Food Movement’ all cuisine is either grown in the property’s expansive vegetable garden or locally sourced. Serving fresh, traditional Rajasthani dishes these simple meals are a blessing – compared to the heavy, oil laden affair on offer in most hotels. That said, flavours can get a little repetitive, but staff do their best to meet requests. A totally enchanting stay.

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Great for: Couples will love the private cottages and plunge pools with a view. Ideal for a few nights of rural idyll between the bustling cities of Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur.

Best time to go: October – March. Expect a chill in the evening between December and January.

For direct bookings click here.

Nomadic Luxury in Nagaland: The Hornbill Festival

Nomadic Luxury in Nagaland: The Hornbill Festival

Piece published in SUITCASE magazine.

My Bell 412 helicopter searched for the helipad, a spherical silhouette on a patchwork of multicoloured terraced houses, slung out on a ground of undulating forest. I felt like Elizabeth Bowen, a lone female entering the Land of the Head Hunters – albeit by much more modern means. In these far-flung reaches of eastern India lies Nagaland, a region shrouded in mist, mystery and misconception. Every December, amidst a cacophony of colour and sound, the state’s 16 tribes put their differences aside and take part in the annual Hornbill Festival.

Heard of it? Probably not… but in India, the Naga’s notoriety precedes them. Despite government initiatives to increase footfall, only a trickle of tourists travel to this corner of the country every year. But the wheels of change are in motion. The 12-hour journey from Delhi has been slashed thanks to the introduction of daily flights to Dimapur and The Ultimate Travelling Camp, India’s most ingenious ‘hotel’ has embarked upon a pioneering venture to introduce luxury travel to the region.

I was not fortunate enough to enjoy such luxuries as direct flights but the private helicopter, courtesy of TUTC’s Kohima Camp, made up for it. Operational for just two weeks, from November 29 to December 12, the team has perfected the concept of nomadic luxury. Brainchild of General Deepak Raj, of former Indian Army fame and Dhun Cordo, wedding planner to the stars, this unlikely duo combined military precision with artistic flare to create the first camp of its kind. Nestled between the lush Dzüku Valleys in the village of Kigwema, it is just a 15-minute drive from the festival ground; when Modi is not in town.

Tribal Dance Khaki Tent

Having missed the opening ceremony (the Prime Minister does not do security by halves nor do I skip breakfast) Keja, my guide, updated me on the afternoon’s activities: a pork fat eating contest, a pork fat kicking contest and a pole, lathered in pork fat, climbing contest. So that myth was true: Naga’s love their pork. Lard-based activities aside, attendees can also look forward to traditional song and dance performances and peruse the tribal wares for obligatory souvenirs.

While we waited for Modi to complete his presidential duties, Keja took me to his tribe’s morung. Traditionally the physical and metaphorical centre of village life, a morung is a place for men to share stories, farming tips and the odd glass of rice beer. These days women are allowed in too and I was treated to a tankard of the stuff. I was beginning to enjoy myself as much as the locals, who’d been boozing since the AM.

“How about a traditional Angami lunch?” suggested Keja, “to accompany your traditional ‘aferitip’? They’ve got everything”. He was right, the Angami’s really did have everything on the menu: cows intestines in a blood gravy, fermented bean curry and tushichi which, for those of you that are not familiar with, is dog.

Stomach distinctly turned, I passed at the opportunity to take part in the infamous (and potentially fatal) chilli-eating contest. But for purveyors of peculiar foods or those in search of the unusual, Nagaland and the Hornbill Festival is the assault on the senses that many have been looking for. Be gone the Golden Triangle, this is India as you have never seen it before.

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10 Signs You’ve Become Culturally a Delhi-walla

10 Signs You’ve Become Culturally a Delhi-walla

Piece published on Matador Network:

Having spent the last year and a half living in Delhi I’ve come to the realisation that… I’ve become culturally a Delhi-walla. You may not have been born and bred here, but if you’re guilty of the following, you too have become a Delhi-walla:

  1. You refer to everyone (bar your actual family) by the title of close relatives: Aunty, Uncle, didi (sister), bhaiya (brother).
  1. And you have an ongoing love/hate with relationship with your landlord (aka Aunty/Uncle) who in turn refers to you only as beta.
  1. You no longer eat “curry”. No, you eat dal makhani, chole bhature and palak paneer, washed down with chai, not tea.
  1. You can (and do) get everything delivered straight to your door. I’m talking alcohol, cigarettes, aspirin and a single bar of chocolate. Oh and some ice. And a sponge. Milk.
  1. You have a drawer full of ‘visiting cards’ for every sort of service professional you may at some point in your life require: doctor, carpenter, taxi driver, massage therapist, tailor, electrician, removal man, ironing man, bamboo man; the list goes on.
  1. You know you shouldn’t, but you do, eat roadside food at almost every dhaba.
  1. And Jugaad has become so much more than just your favourite Hindi word. It is a philosophy and a solution to almost every problem.
  1. You’ve mastered the Indian head wobble: an aqueous head motion with no accurate translation; merely an ambiguous affirmation that you have said something.
  1. Weddings are no longer a boring affair. They are an almost week long matrimonial marathon of wardrobe changes, buffets big enough to feed an army, attended by 1000 of your closest friends and family.
  1. You find yourself speaking “Hinglish” in an attempt to go native. Example:

“Have you reached?”

“Actually, I will take some time: ‘office time’ traffic”

“Well I’m glad we didn’t pre-pone!”

“I’m 5 minutes away, only”

“Do one thing, call and cancel”

  1. In fact once you have become culturally a Delhi-walla, almost nothing, bar the city’s dodgy wiring, will shock you. Even three generations and the family goat cruising down the NH8 on a scooty.

It’s just Delhi: it’s like that only.

The Chamba Camp, Thiksey: Nomadic Luxury At Its Best

The Chamba Camp, Thiksey: Nomadic Luxury At Its Best

Published on The India Tube:

A former playing field of “The Great Game” Ladakh was once considered a destination so remote “only your best friend or worst enemy will visit you”, or so the local adage goes.  But with daily flights from Delhi to Leh, it’s now a firm favourite for a long weekend getaway from Delhi. And The Ultimate Travelling Camp really is the ultimate way to do it.

The Chamba Camp in Thiksey is TUTC’s flagship property and will be running until the end of September, before packing up and journeying to Nagaland for The Hornbill Festival, where they will be stationed from the 1st–7th of December. With four-poster beds, a designated butler service and bespoke menus, TUTC takes the concept of “glamping” to new heights – over 10,000 feet in this case.

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It is the brainchild of an unlikely duo; General Deepak Raj, a former army general, and Dhun Cordo, wedding planner to the stars, combined creative flair with military precision to bring this pioneering venture to life. The concept is simple–a luxury nomadic camp that’s focused on seasonal or date-specific itineraries–but the execution is not: each tent fills one truck, and there are 14 tents. It is quite the convoy.

white-tent-interior-01The White Luxury Tents at The Chamba Camp, Thiksey nagaland-68The Khaki Tents at The Kohima Camp, Nagaland

An oasis of colour, The Chamba Camp sits serenely in the rocky embrace of the Ladakh and Stok mountain ranges. By day its 28 acres are a symphony of birdsong, and by night they are unbelievably romantic, bathed in moonlight and the flickering glow of more than a hundred lanterns. And with those views of Thiksey monastery you’d be forgiven for not venturing out your tent.

With the luxury market in Ladakh almost as barren as its terrain, The Chamba Camp could rest on its laurels, but it’s the attention to detail here that really set it apart. There are several private dining options for a start, from meals in the organic garden, by one of its many water-bodies, in and amongst the alfalfa fields, as well as several outside the camp, every experience is tailor-made, as are the menus. Chocolate momos? You bet. High-altitude scallops? Why not!

picnic-set-up-02Lunch by the Indus River

harvest-threshingA pastoral scene during the harvest season

Surprises abound, like the live kitchen that greeted us after a day of exertion at water rafting, or the train of red-robed monks perambulating the camp while I sat sipping on a gin & tonic. Needless to say that G&T disappeared quicker than you can say “om mani padme hum”.

I visited the Chamba Camp during the 33rd annual Kalachakra, hosted by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Richard Gere was there, but namedropping aside, it is the perfect destination for those interested in both the spirituality and history of the region (you can barely drive a few hundred metres without stumbling across another monastery or stupa) as well as a luxury break.

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If Ladakh is a spiritual Mecca then it is also the adrenaline junkies Elysium. With everything from trekking and white water rafting to mountain biking and climbing, there’s no shortage of activities to give your travel insurers the chills. There’s also horse polo matches which seasoned riders are welcome to try their hands at, and a list of activities so long I defy anyone to try them all. Yes, the Chamba Camp, Thiksey is both an adventurer’s paradise as well as a recluse’s hermitage.

The Ultimate Travelling Camp offers a luxe route to India’s more offbeat destinations.

 hornbill-festival-01 hornbill-festival-03Tribesmen at The Hornbill Festival, Nagaland

The 33rd Kalachakra: The Greatest Buddhist Gathering, Ladakh

The 33rd Kalachakra: The Greatest Buddhist Gathering, Ladakh

Yesterday saw the first day of the 33rd annual Kalachakra in Ladakh, hosted by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The largest annual gathering of Buddhist in the world, with over 150,000 pilgrims set to attend it promises to be quite the gathering. With a break of 38 years since the last Kalachakra was held in Ladakh it is most likely to be the His Holiness’s last in Ladakh as he is said to struggle with the altitude. Ever the professional, aside from the odd tickle in his throat, His Holiness did not show it. Sitting and reciting prayers and teachings on love and kindness he also spoke on the importance of respecting and understanding fellow human beings religions, whatever they may be.

14th-dalai-lama   His Holiness the Dalai Lama

The word Kalachakra itself means cycles of time. Generally the passage of time has a debilitating effect on human beings: as we age our sight, hearing and physical strength deteriorate. Buddhists believe that the practice of the Kalachakra helps individuals to exit this cycle and achieve enlightenment.

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The 3rd – 6th July marks the ‘initiation’ period before the main Kalachakra begins. The primary aim of this is to learn from the Bodhisattva and Tantric vows: focusing on the path to enlightenment as well as being able to benefit all living creatures. Including several days of prayers it is a preparation stage before the period of ‘empowerment’.

Pilgrims from all corners of the world attended with real-time translations being broadcast on FM radio stations in 13 different languages. A practicing Buddhist himself, although not present on the opening day, Richard Gere will be attending in the upcoming days as one of the primary sponsors.

IMG_3926 Pilgrims arrived in bus loads from all over Ladakh, India and the world

IMG_3938 One lone pilgrim makes his way home by foot through the many ‘gullys’ that traverse the Ladakhi countryside

The crowd was something to behold with the traditional dress from around the state of Jammu and Kashmir proudly being displayed; including this Thiksey native sporting a tibi hat typical of Ladakh.

IMG_3924   A village elder (who turned out to be a great aunt of a friend of mine!) wearing her traditional attire

Whilst the left of the stage was reserved for press and foreigners, the front seats was a Red Sea of monks, all eagerly listening to His Holiness’ every word. In fact the entire Shey region was awash with the red and yellow garb of the monks.

IMG_3903   Awash with red and yellow: monks from all around the world came to attend the 33rd Kalachakra

The Kalachakra will take place until the 14th July with the Jiwetsal grounds gradually filling up with travellers and pilgrims alike. The pinnacle will be the creation of the physical representation of the Kalachakra, a mandala and meditational visual aid depicting the various stages of enlightenment. This physical mandala will then be destroyed after the end of the Kalachakra as a symbol of lack of detachment, principal to Buddhist teachings.

Jodhpur: A Hotel Guide

Jodhpur: A Hotel Guide

Working in travel one has to be sympathetic towards almost any whim, requirement and diet fad of a client. Life and people are full of surprises but when trying to second guess someones preferences it is necessary to (like it or not) pigeon hole. Luckily I am very familiar with each of the extremes. On the one hand we have myself: I will literally eat, sleep, pee anywhere and on the other: my mother, who to put it simply, will not. Even the most globalised of cities in India could prove a culture shock to some but there are certain places that offer a pretty PG portrayal of India.

Jodhpur is one of these and a pretty safe bet for even the most cautious of travelers. Saying this, a client of potentially difficult disposition is not going to rock up at any old guest house. For some travelers, hotels are as experiential as the cities that house them. My most recent jaunt in Jodhpur was a self-appointed work trip which meant I visited and stayed in some stunning hotels that I would certainly not have been able to afford myself – especially on my Indian salary! So, here is my whistle stop tour of the best hotels in Jodhpur.

RAAS

It claims to be a heritage property when in reality about 400 sq feet of this hotel is heritage. Why? I do not know. RAAS is beautiful and does not need to pretend to be anything it is not. An excellent Design Hotel RAAS is “three parts Rajasthan, one part LA”, implementing traditional Jodhpur colours and textiles with a modern twist. And with the best views of Mehrangarh Fort as its backdrop, RAAS is an excellent option for anyone wanting high end luxury in a town setting. The food is lip-smackingly good (they have pretty much re-invented the chicken korma), the service Western standard and the staff are beyond friendly. An afternoon spent lounging by the pool listening to the Asr call to prayer, home-made lemonade in hand, would be an afternoon well spent.

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The pool at RAAS and the view from most of its rooms.

Things to bear in mind:

  • RAAS’s central location is great for being able to wonder straight out your front door into the thick of things. However it also means that the thick of things is right out your front door.
  • Garden View rooms (as the name might suggest) do not have a view of the fort, which considering they are some of the best in the Jodhpur seems an awful shame.

Who is it good for?

  • A city dweller. Someone used to five star luxury who does not mind a bit of back ground noise.

Ratan Vilas

Do not let the website fool you. I was so pleasantly surprised when I arrived at this little gem of a property. A colonial heritage hotel located just a few kilometres outside of town, Ratan Vilas offers guests an incomparably personal experience and piece of history. Now in its fourth generation of ownership, the current owner Maharaj Bharat Singh and his wife do their best to personally greet all the guests and answer any questions they might have about the property. The hotel itself is decorated with portraits of long lost family members: from successful polo players to keen hunters and much of it is furnished with antiques from when the hotel was still a permanent residence. With a delightful swimming pool and lots of cool shady areas to retreat to with cup of their delicious masala chai, Excellent value for money!

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The tranquil pool area and shady courtyard at Ratan Vilas

Things to bear in mind:

  • Request a room in the front courtyard – it is in the older wing and much more quaint.
  • The “continental” breakfast was very average however I would imagine that their India food would be excellent.

Who is it good for?

  • A country bumpkin looking for a family experience.

Pal Haveli

This very Indian Haveli is a great way to ‘play pretend’ and really step back into Jodhpur’s past. The rooms are decorated in traditional haveli style: kitsch to some; tacky to others. Personally it’s my least favourite of the the four but the rooms are really “fun”. Pal Haveli has an exceptional roof top from where diners can “witness all of Jodhpur’s history” with 360 views of Mehrangarh Fort, Umaid Bhawan and the clock tower. Private Bhopal dinners can also be arranged at the restaurant for a truly memorable evening or party.

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An extravagantly decorated bedroom at Pal Haveli and the view from its rooftop restaurant.

Things to bear in mind:

  • Not good for older people. This property has more narrow, winding staircases than the Hogwarts astronomy tower.

Who is it good for?

  • The undisputed Indophile.

Umaid Bhawan

The history surrounding this property is as fascinating as the building itself. The Palace was allegedly built “to provide employment to thousands of people during the time of famine” which seems like a very elaborate solution to me: “Give a man a fish…” and all that, I suppose. The architect behind Umaid Bhawan, Henry Lanchester, also designed Leeds University’s (where I spent three blurry years) Parkinson Building. Maybe it is something in Lanchester’s architecture but I felt the need to whisper as I shuffled along the bordering austere corridors of Umaid Bhawan. It is stunning, don’t get me wrong, but it is a little too flawless for me. I looked like some sort of street rat wandering around (not so) fresh from the day’s sightseeing. The grounds on the other hand I love and I share my friend Ellie Boulstridge’s appreciation for its pristine lawns (she is borderline obsessive for a well maintained bit of turf). However for me it is the view from the swimming pool and the peacocks strutting around like they own the place that makes it such a memorable property. Plus the fact that you can see its’ silhouette from just about all of Jodhpur.

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Umaid Bhawan, the pool area and its award winning Jiva Spa (excuse me in the background)

Things to bear in mind:

  • Luxury comes with a price tag and palaces don’t come cheap. Whilst a stay at Umaid Bhawan is worth the money (if you can afford it) you get a lot more for your rupee for certain rooms in the same category. Being a palace all rooms will differ but to be on the same side ask for a Garden View Room rather than a courtyard.

Who is it good for?

  • My mother. Plus those for who the hotel is as much a part of the experience as the place.

I’ll leave you with this: the prettiest tuk-tuk in town found in the RAAS driveway. Sadly it was not for hire.

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Thursday, the New Friday: Dargah in Delhi

Thursday, the New Friday: Dargah in Delhi

Fancy spending an evening trying to sing along to a bunch of songs you want to, but don’t understand? No, it’s not Korean karaoke; it’s the Thursday night dargah Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. After spending what felt like forever winding our way through a labyrinth of market stalls and men in thobes, without warning the narrow passages opened up into a tented canopy with pristine marble floors. Men and women, young and old, Muslim and not, sat, cross-legged (the Westerners among them awkwardly so) like a kindergarten class awaiting their first assembly.  Then came the music. The traditional Sufi qawwali rhythms rose toward the ceiling like a good smell from a cooking pot. Intoxicated we sat clapping and attempting to sing along to the mystical words – slipping in a few additional allah’s here and there for good measure.

I couldn’t recommend the dargah Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya to anyone visiting Delhi highly enough. It gives one a chance to experience a religious event in action, rather than simply visiting a mosque or temple. There are more Hindu festivals than you can shake a stick at, but Islamic celebrations tend to be more domesticated – especially in the West. A visit to the dargah is a wonderful way to experience a demonstration of Islamic faith first hand. I would also suggest visiting the market afterwards for some super cheap and yummy local grub. Just ask this guy: he’d be happy to help.

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Oh and look out for the stair climbing goats – only in Asia!

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