Tuesday, December 1, 2015

OFF THE BEATEN TRACK- Part 4: Under the sea fun at Port Douglas

Sunset at Port Douglas
Pristine beaches of Port Douglas

By Aswathy Kumar
After departing Daintree we made our way through Mossman, the gateway to the famous Mossman Gorge. On reaching the main center, we had to take tickets to get on board a shuttle that took us to the various hiking trails that led us to walking platforms and scenic viewpoints, all surrounded by lush green tropical rainforests and overlooking the Mossman River.  Though swimming was not recommended here due to the rocky granite boulders that are in plenty, we were told it was okay to soak our feet in its crystal waters. Though the feeling of the gurgling water against our skin was nothing short of blissful, my personal favorite and I bet my dare-devil daughter’s as well at Mossman was walking over the suspension bridge over the river. It was a lot of fun and even a bit scary trying to balance ourselves on the dangling bridge, pretending as though we had magically found our way into some Indiana Jones movie. 
Mossman Gorge
It was almost noon by the time we reached our last and most highly anticipated destinations, Port Douglas. I will be honest and admit that this was the part of the trip I was the most nervous about. Don’t get me wrong, there was nothing scary about this cute little town with its boutique style shops, pristine beaches, breathtakingly beautiful coastline and sea-side cafes. Here I had even gotten the part I had been so eagerly waiting for, the romance element of our entire trip. But even while walking hand in hand with my husband, enjoying the beauty of the pacific ocean, I couldn’t help but the think of the big adventure that we were about to embark on the very next morning, an adventure that drove almost all adrenaline junkies to this part of the world. An adventure called The Great Barrier Reef. 
Hanging Bridge at Mossman
I could almost hear the sound of my heart beat amidst the splashing of rough waves as I boarded the monstrous catamaran that was going to take us to the Agincourt Reef, a ribbon-like reef located on the edge of what is best referred to as the ultimate underwater playground. Pronounced a world heritage site, The Great Barrier Reef is considered to host the largest coral reef systems in the world. On board we were given a number of safety instructions ranging from a few easy ones like don’t throw food in the water or stand on the corals to more eerie ones that drove my anxiety to a whole new level like not to touch any marine animals lest they sting or disable you completely or learning a few crucial hand signals viz. we see a shark. 
Each one of us were given a lycra suit and also given a number of optional tours that we could sign up for while we were there. For the non-swimmers and the less adventurous there was the underwater observatory, a mini submarine drive and a helmet dive to explore all the reef had to offer. For the extravagant and those wanting to enjoy the beauty from a distance there was the scenic helicopter drive and for the rest there was diving, snorkeling and guided marine biologist tours to get up close and personal to pretty coral gardens and exotic marine life ranging from sting rays, clown fish, parrot fish turtles and even Minke whales, if you are really lucky.

It was a full day tour and I must admit, snorkeling in the middle of the deep blue sea and amidst choppy waters was definitely a lot harder than I taught. There were moments I ran out of breath and moments I felt my arms could no longer move, moments I wished I was back in the comfort of my hotel, beneath the warmth of my blanket. The chilled salads and cold cuts served on board did nothing to my Indian palette but I was here, right in the midst of the largest and the most spectacular reef systems in the world. I had embraced it, survived it and conquered this majestic reef in my own little way, one flipper at a time. And that was a feeling I wasn’t going to forget in a very long time…

Vedika enjoying some snorkeling fun at Agincourt Reef
The Great Barrier hosts the largest Coral Reef systems in the world

Thursday, November 19, 2015

OFF THE BEATEN TRACK-PART 3: Nature at its best at Daintree

By Aswathy Kumar
Cruising along the Daintree River offers some spectacular views of this World's oldest rainforest
Experience heaven on earth at Daintree

To reach our next destination in Daintree, located in the north east coast of Queensland, a destination that could only be best termed as a tropical paradise, we had to fly into Cairns and drive an hour and a half through the picturesque coastline of Port Douglas. It was slowly starting to get dark and we couldn’t see much. But hear...that we did, in plenty, making it certain that we had finally arrived in what was the world’s oldest surviving rainforest.  Be it the eerie screeches of the spotted catbird, fluttering noises of the Victoria’s rifle bird, a species only found here, to the croaking of the white lipped tree frogs and the gurgling sounds of the Daintree River close by.  I could tell that this forest had only started to come alive in the darkness of the night. 
Daintree Eco lodge
At Cassowary Falls
One of the major highlights of our trip was the place we had chosen to spent the next two nights. A quaint yet luxurious eco lodge; each of its rooms strategically positioned on top of stilts to capture the beauty of the dense canopy surrounding us. Imagine witnessing the sight of over hundred butterflies flittering to life in the early hours of the morning (almost two-thirds of Australia’s butterfly species are found here) or simply marveling at the awe-inspiring King Fern, Australia’s largest fern with fronds extending up to 5m long, all while sipping a cup of cappuccino in the comfort of your tree-top verandah? Bliss!
Following our customized made-to-order breakfast, it was time to explore and find out what more this nature paradise had in store for us. And if for some reason, we had assumed that we had seen and absorbed enough of  Daintree's beauty all by sitting in our aerial accommodation, we were instantly proven wrong as we stepped out of the lodge and made way to start our morning cruise across the Daintree River. 
Now what can I say about the beauty that had started to unfold in front of us. Despite calling myself a writer, all I can come up with are nothing but a few honest cliches like... ‘If there was a heaven then this must be it or that this was probably the way God intended Earth to be and so on. Crystal waters so clear coincided with the blue skies above. A beauty so unfathomable that if you clicked an image, you would probably not be able to tell if it was the picture of the sky you were looking at or simply its reflection in the cool waters. 
Lush rainforest and mangroves surrounded the Daintree River, which is one of the longest rivers on the Australian East Coast (extending upto 140 kms). Here you can see pre-historic crocodiles, view innumerable species of birds like the Macleay's honeyeater, comb-crested Jacana and the Forest Kingfisher amongst many others or simply imbibe the true beauty of this wet tropics. If you are feeling even more adventurous, you can also join one of the fishing boats and try you luck at catching the famous Baramundi, Australia is so famous for. 
Having no such desires yet unsatiated with what this magnificent forest had to offer, we chose to head out to the next highly recommended attractions in Daintree, the Cassowary Falls. Located in a private farmland, we had to rent a 4 wheel drive and pay a fee at a local convenience store to reach this scenic location. The drive itself through the bumpy rugged mushy pathway was enough to excite the adrenaline junkie in us not to forget the grand finale, which was the view of the magnificent waterfall. Cassowary Falls was one of the few spots in Daintree where we could jump in. But beware! The water is home to a number of humongous fish, eels and turtles that might just want to get a little more cosy than desired. 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

From tailor-made to custom made : A Designer’s Journey

From assisting her mother in her tailoring business as a little girl to designing the finale gown for Miss Myanmar at the International pageants… Be it her celebrity customers, knockout fashion shows or creative fair, Latt Latt has indeed emerged as the most sought after designers in the country today

By Aswathy Kumar

Latt Latt
Latt Latt with her models

I still remember the first time I walked into the Lady Latt shop, a small store nestled in the corner of where Kabaya Pagoda Road meets Parami Road. I was quite new to Yangon but had already fallen head over heels in love with the traditional longyi, a straight fit sarong style wrap-around skirt teamed with a matching fitted blouse. I had seen the local women wear it with such finesse that I thought it was high time I owned my very own pair. 

Latt Latt with Miss Myanmar World 2015 Khin Yadanar Thein Myint
The shop was rather modest, just like any other tailor shops in the city. Though small, beautiful silk fabrics in  every possible color adorned the glass cases and mannequins displaying some exquisite evening gowns embellished with handcrafted jewels and intricately woven embroidery surrounded me. I announced that I wanted to get a custom-made longyi. I wanted it to be simple yet unique, traditional yet edgy. As I stood there nervously wondering if the lady in front of me understood what I had in mind, she smiled, took out her notepad and drew one of the most exquisite dress designs I had ever witnessed. Little did I know then that the unassuming yet charming lady in front of me was one of the top designers in Myanmar today, renowned for her international shows, trendy haute couture and innumerable celebrity clients including the award winning singer, actor Htun Aeindra Bo, actor Thet Mon Myint, May Than Nu, Miss Myanmar Universe 2016 Htet Htet Htun and Miss Myanmar World 2015 Khin Yadanar Thein Myint. 
Miss Myanmar Universe 2015, May Barani Thaw in Latt Latt creation

“It all started with my mother,” says Latt Latt, sitting behind her office desk, casually clad in a pair of white trouser and lacy top. “I would come back from school and go straight to her shop and watch her for hours.” Despite having a science background, a Bachelor’s degree in Botany to be exact and the absence of any design schools in the country, Latt Latt knew that she always wanted to be a designer. “For us there was no option of going to any design school or getting a degree in the field. Whatever I learnt, I did from my mother. She taught me how to sew and very soon, I started making my own sketches and realized that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

Talking about her biggest support system she says, nothing would have been possible if it weren't for her family. “When I told my mother, this is what I wanted to do, she simply told me to follow my heart. My sisters and I had the full freedom to pursue any career of our choice.” And that’s exactly how Latt Latt wants to be with her two daughters, aged 16 and 5. “Though secretly I would love them to be designers too,” she laughs.  And her biggest fan? “My younger sister Nge Nge is my biggest fan and also my toughest client. Probably the most fashion conscious in our family, she refuses to repeat even a single outfit,” she smiles.

The longyi is constantly evolving,
but it is here to stay
- Latt Latt
Latt latt’s designs can be possibly termed as the perfect synthesis of conventional and contemporary. Talking about the changing fashion trends in the country she says, “The traditional longyi is constantly evolving. Clients always want something different yet comfortable. For the skirts, the customary wrap-style ones are long gone. Zippers have replaced hooks and as far as the tops are concerned they are getting trendier by the day.” At a recent fashion show, Latt Latt incorporated Jade and copper wire into her designs. Though she loves making contemporary outfits, she says the traditional longyi will always have a special place in her designs. 

But does she worry that with the changing market and the entry of big international retail giants into the country, there would be a drastic change in the shopping patterns of her clients? Will the concept of making custom-made outfits that has constantly been the trend in Myanmar slowly start to disappear? “Absolutely not,” says Latt Latt. “No western outfit can ever replace our national dress. Even my daughters who prefer wearing jeans and dresses have to wear the longyi for every special occasion. And fortunately a good longyi has to be a custom-made.”

The journey from a tailor to a full fledged designer has been incredible and to a certain extent unexpected for Latt Latt. With already two shops, several national and international shows including Miss People fashion show, Nikko Bridal Show, SEA Games, ASEAN Fashion show and Miss Myanmar World under her belt, she says that there are no plans to leave her hometown in Yangon to expand her business. “Yes the fashion industry may be much bigger and more established in other parts of the world, but my heart will always be here in Myanmar. This is my home and this is where I always want to be.”

Latt Latt's latest design incorporating copper and jade elements

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Magnificent Mara

Latest from travel & Flavors. This month it's all about exploring the grasslands of Mara

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Eat, pray, love Yangon

From devouring its exquisite cuisine to treading the holy grounds of the innumerable pagodas and falling in love with the simplicity and humility, its streets have to offer, here are my top 5 reasons why Yangon should be on your list of places to visit

By Aswathy Kumar

‘What about Macau?’ Bali? Fine at least let’s do Bangkok.’
These were probably the constant suggestions we got from our friends every time we insisted that they visit us in Yangon. You see, there are plenty of perks of living the expatriate life here, but the distance from your loved ones can really take its toll sometimes. Though we have been extremely successful in convincing our family and friends to visit us in our previous two postings, DC & Nairobi, we haven't had much luck when it came to Yangon. 

‘There is nothing to do there.’ 
‘We have heard, that there aren't even any shopping malls or multiplexes,’ our friends would say. 

And I agree… Yangon has no fancy shopping malls like in Bangkok, strong cultural scene like in China nor any family friendly hot-spots like in Singapore. But Yangon is a place like no other and here’s what makes it unique and truly exceptional.

The Shwedagon Pagoda 

The Shwedagon Pagoda

It would be almost wrong or even to an extend inauspicious to talk about Yangon, without mentioning the Shwedagon Pagoda that epitomizes the very warmth and serenity that defines the city of Yangon. Probably the very first thing that you will see as you enter the city, the Shwedagon Pagoda is a shrine you need to see to believe. Towering at a 325 feet, no visit to the city is considered complete without paying your respects here. Housed in a sprawling area, extending up to 114 acres, not only is the Shwedagon a complete architectural wonder, it is also the symbol of hope, divinity and reverence. Watching it glimmer in all its glory during sunrise or sunset, courtesy the 1800 carat diamond orb at the very top, is something beyond spectacular. During sunset you can also marvel at the sight of over 1000’s of oil lamps encircling the pagoda shimmering to life, hear the silent whispers of hundreds of monks chanting or listen to the bustle of devotees as they offer their prayers at the several shrines and temples in gold, housed all around its premises. 

The Market Scene

Trying on a longyi at Bogyoke
Agreed Yangon definitely lacks glitzy shopping malls and finding your favorite brands here can almost be next to impossible. As expats, we even struggle with finding basic stuff like socks, shoes or decent clothes for our little ones, often making us run to nearby Bangkok to fulfill all our shopping needs. But that being said, Yangon’s markets are truly a class apart. Take the famous Bogyoke market. Visiting this market is almost like exploring a 
hidden treasure chest, offering a new surprise every time you dig a little deeper. I still remember the first time I visited Bogyoke. It reminded me of the local markets I had explored back home in Delhi… though a stroll around quickly ensured that the riches that adorned its streets was something I had never experienced before in any part of the world.
Find stones in every possible color
 and value at Bogyoke
Sparkly jewels in possibly every color lay scattered all over the little glass cases in the innumerable shops aligning every nook and corner of the market. I had carried $100 with me, thinking it was way sufficient to return with a bag-load of goodies. Little did I know that, these sparkly stones that lay around in these unguarded unimpressive cases where in fact real precious stones, some costing even upto a $60,000.
From blue sapphires to pigeon blood rubies to amethyst, blue topaz, citron, garnet to what not; glitterred in the dull orange light. Forget jewels and semi precious stones, there is a lot the market has to offer if you are on a budget and looking for some retail therapy at a lot less, like hand woven longyis, accessories, colorful flip flops, paintings by local artists, wood carvings, exquisite lacquerware, silverware and religious artifacts to name just a few. 

To also experience Yangon in its true self and understand more about how the locals live, head out to the various wet markets like the ones in China town or the popular Thiri Minglar Zei. Witness a burst of colors as you see hoards and hoards of vegetables, fruits and flowers being sold in plenty at these local markets. What I call, Yangon’s own version of a farmer’s market, here you can find fresh produce for as cheap as 300-1000Kyat. Believe it or not a whole bunch of orchids cost a mere 3000Kyat (Less than $3) and who wouldn’t love a brilliant bargain?


When I was in DC, my idea of the Burmese cuisine would begin and end with Khow Suey (Curried egg noodles in coconut milk). One visit to the innumerable local tea shops and road-side restaurants in Yangon, proved how ignorant I had been all these years. 
When it comes to Burmese food, the choices are simply unlimited comprising a large number of noodle based dishes like the famous breakfast dish of rice noodles in a fish based soup and topped with fried fritters called the Mohinga, Kyah oh, vermicelli noodles in a pork based soup; salads dishes like the popular pickled tea leaf salad, Lahpet and Htamin thoke, a popular rice salad with tomato puree, potato and dried shrimp to several Chinese influenced dishes like the steamed pork buns or Pauk see, Htamin gyaw (Fried rice with egg) and Kaw yay khauk sw√® (curried noodles with duck or pork and eggs) and Indian-inspired dishes like the palatas (similar to our layered paratha) and Dan bauk (biryani). 

Though there is new restaurant cropping up in the city every week offering a variety of international cuisine ranging from Mexican, Indian to Thai, Italian and French, to experience the real flavor of Yangon, head to these tiny tea shops embellished by their neatly aligned colorful miniature plastic chairs selling chai, fried local savories and dishes. For a complete Myanmar barbecue & beer experience, you can also head to the famous 19th street aka China town where you can see glass cabinets displaying a variety of fish, meats and veggies in skewers. A glass of chilled local Myanmar beer and you are ready to rock the night, Yangon style

BBQ at China Town


…one of the many reasons, I fell head over heels in love with this city. Though I loved DC and truly cherish the friendships I made during my stay there, I wont be lying if I said that I was grateful to be finally free from the suited bureaucrats I encountered everyday in the metro, their faces permanently glued to their iPhones, appointment-only playdates and the oh-so-artificial hellos and greetings in the elevators. 

Friendly, enchanting and always smiling

Extremely friendly, helpful and enchanting, people in Yangon always have a smile on their thanaka smeared faces, that can almost instantly relax anyone. And what’s more… they love taking pictures, so click away without having to worry that someone may call the cops. Go to any supermarket with a toddler and they are certain to fuss all over your little one and may even offer to baby sit while you shopped around.

Always eager to help, I still remember the time I tripped on one of my market trips. A crowd had gathered almost instantly, and unlike in India where they would just stand around and enjoy the show or like in DC, where they would simply carry on with their affairs as if you were invisible, here each one of them were seriously concerned about my injury. While one boy ran and came back with a traditional ointment for my twisted angle, another grabbed a seat for me to rest and a third guy, quickly returned with a cold coffee from a nearby cafe. 

That’s Yangon for you. Okay, maybe they dont speak a word of English or barely understand you…and maybe even the waiters at restaurants may not have received any formal training in the hospitality industry, but their constant friendly and dazzling smiles are more than enough to brighten up any day. 

Travel back in time

Ever wondered how life would have been in the good old days? Where people had time to sit around in front of little tea shops and discuss the daily news while sipping a cup of hot chai, or splash around in small rain water puddles in the middle of a hot summer afternoon. A time when people where not caught up in some mad rat race and actually had the time to say hello. A time of unreliable wifi connections, zero flyovers and nonexistent skyscrapers. A time when the only way to find out what’s on the menu in a restaurant was by actually going there and not by scrolling through any website. 

If yes, then Yangon is probably your best bet to take you back to the past, where everything was a lot simpler and more beautiful. Travel back in time as you stroll amidst the colonial buildings in downtown Yangon, watch the local men play a game of Chinlon ( a traditional game where you are expected to keep a single rattan ball in the air by using a combination of knees, feet and heads) on an early Monday morning, take a slow ride on the famous circular train to absorb the wondrous sights this charming city has to offer or take a ferry or a trishaw ride to imbibe the true feeling of Yangon, a city that seem to have completely frozen in time. 

Monday, September 21, 2015

OFF THE BEATEN TRACK PART-2 : Plunging into waterfalls at Litchfield National Park

Romancing the falls at Litchfield National Park

By Aswathy Kumar

At a mere 116 kms from Darwin, many prefer to take a day trip to this picturesque national park in Batchelor, a small town located south of Darwin. But we had done our research and seen some spectacular shots of this sprawling park (extending over 1500 square kms and original home of the Wagait Aboriginal people) and knew instantly that it well deserved more than just a day. From Kakadu, we reached Batchelor around early noon and our first stop was at a nearby convenience store to stock up on some basic supplies like eggs, bread, cereal, some instant noodles and frozen ready-to-eat food packets. There are no fancy restaurants or luxurious hotels in Litchfield and accommodations are minimalistic though comfortable. Since we were a rather spoilt Indian lot and not used to the basic outdoor campsites that were in plenty at Litchfield, we opted for a basic yet fully equipped cabin accommodation, a mere 30 minute drive to the famous park. 

Termite Mounds, Litchfield National Park
As there was nothing too exciting to the rooms and there was no point lounging around; after a quick meal of some instant noodles, we immediately headed out to explore Litchfield, renowned for its tranquil waterfalls, scenic landscapes and romantic picnic spots. Our first stop was the Magnetic and Cathedral Termite Mounds, considered to be one of the most fascinating sights at the park. Here, you can witness over hundreds of perfectly aligned termite mounds, each extending up to almost 2 meters in height. We didn't have to pay any fees to witness this marvel, got to take some fantastic shots and my seven year old had a ball of a time pretending to be an alien in some strange planet. 

Buley Waterhole

The mounds were no doubt anything short of spectacular but nothing would have prepared me for what I was about to experience next. Now many a times especially in some crazy teen movie or chick flicks, have I seen crazy teenagers dive into plunge pools and push each other off from rocky ledges into the crystal waters. Never had I expected 30-something responsible parents like my husband and I or 60-something in-laws to act the same. We arrived at the Bully water-hole, one of the many places you are allowed to take a dip. (Many waterholes are considered unsafe due to crocodile sightings especially during rainy season). Though we had no bathing-suits on and was completely unprepared, it did not stop us from plunging into the blue and experiencing the strong gush of its forceful waters against our skin, push each other off from rocky platforms, all while enjoying the brilliant view of the stoney ledges and plush green forests surrounding the series of cascading water-falls and rock-holes. We were grateful that the campsite offered good toilet facilities and changing rooms to dry ourselves off before walking upstream to a next equally picturesque picnic spot, the Florence Falls.

Florence Falls
Wangi Falls

It was just a 3km walk from the Buley Rockhole to the viewing platform at Florence falls that offered panoramic views of the double falls surrounded by the tranquil monsoon forest. As my in-laws and my daughter decided to stay put and enjoy the view from above, my husband and I slowly made our way down the 160 steps to get up close to the falls. The walk was not only highly romantic, considering we were the only ones there and my husband had out of the blue decided to pull me closer for a quick kiss, we were also lucky to have spotted a wallaby that had stopped by to say hello. 

After a meal of Chicken Schnitzel and fries at the popular Wangi Cafe located beside the famous Wangi Falls, another great location to get some wonderful shots, we headed back to our accommodation. We knew we needed a good night’s sleep that night. After all, our adventure had only just begun…