Have you watched the movie Eat, Pray, Love starring Julia Roberts? Following the protagonist’s pursuits across Italy, India and Indonesia, I wondered what could be my perfect ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ itinerary across Asia. There were many contenders as I reminisced about my travel destinations. It finally boiled down to these three places – Eat at Tokyo, Pray at Luang Prabang, and Love at Thimpu!
Let The Journey Begin
Eat at Tokyo
Savour the ‘zen’ of culinary experiences
I abandoned all diet plans and calorie counters in Tokyo.
I love sushi, a Japanese cuisine classic. I had read so much about conveyor belt sushi restaurants and zeroed in on Midori in Shinjuku. Located inside the departmental store, Seibu Ikebukuro, I would have almost missed the place if not for the long queues outside. Stepping in, I plonked myself on a stool around the belt. An assortment of sushi plates with price tags was revolving around – salmons, snappers, scallops, eels, octopus, tofu et al. I tried out the various sushi and kept piling up my plates on the side. It was a feast!
Next on my list was the ultimate comfort food, ramen! My destination was Ippudo – a renowned Japanese ramen restaurant chain. Their tonkotsu ramen was delicious – slurrp! Another great find on my trip was the citrus infused Yuzu Shio ramen at Afuri in Harajuku.
With a spicy bowl of ramen at Ippudo
Curry rice and miso soup
The dish I found closest to Indian flavours was kare-raisu – the curry set with rice. The curry rice was introduced by the British during the Meiji Era. Monsunakku, a restaurant near Shinjuku-sanchōme station is recommended.
No meal is complete without desserts. Many department stores have an entire floor dedicated to sweets and quick eats (do visit the food court at Takashimaya Times Square). I gobbled up the mochis and daifukus!
Best time to visit Tokyo: I visited Japan in October. The spring months of March to May as well as the autumn months of September to November) are best for travel.[/tab]
Pray at Luang Prabang
Find peace among the majestic Wats and the verdant countryside
At Luang Prabang in Laos, I discovered the joys of slow and checklist free travel. The town was devoid of any tourist crowds as I planned my travel during the off peak monsoon season.
Luang Prabang, the erstwhile royal capital of Laos, lies on a narrow strip of land between two rivers- the Mekong and Nam Khan. The Royal Temple, Haw Pha Bang, houses the enshrined Phra Bang Buddha image, after whom the town is named. The Unesco-protected area has more than 30 wats, with red sandstone walls, tiered roofs, ornate Buddhist paintings, and mosaics. The Wat Xieng Thong is arguably the finest; with many shrines, pavilions, residences, and gardens spread over the sprawling grounds. A local advised me to visit the Wat at night when there was no crowds and admission was free. I wandered inside. Not a soul in sight, not a sound to be heard. The gilded walls, catching the reflection of the amber street lights, gleamed in the dark.
Wat Xieng Thong at night
The scenic Kuang Si waterfalls
On another day, I decided to trek it down through the countryside to the Kuang Xi waterfalls. I signed up for a four hour long excursion with Green Discovery. Jimmy – a monk, turned trek guide – leading the way. The four-hour long trek cut through farms, paddy fields, and thick jungles. We stopped at villages of the hill tribes who graciously let us pick up and sample sweet beans from their farms. In the jungles, we stopped to admire caves and streams. The final leg of the trek was a steep descent as we took a flight of steps next to the plunging waters of the Kuang Si waterfalls. The lime deposits had lent a brilliant azure hue to the pools.
At the confluence of the Mekong and Namkhan rivers lie the holy 16th century Pak Ou Caves. The two caves here are replete with over 4000 Buddha images as well as statues. A boat ride on the Mekong takes you to caves set in limestone cliffs.
Best time to visit Luang Prabang: Temperatures are pleasant from November to January.
Love at Thimpu
Follow the fairy-tale romance of the royals
A huge hoarding of the royal family of Bhutan greeted me when I landed at the Paro airport. The King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the Queen Jetsun Pema and the toddler Gyalseng, Prince Jigme, were welcoming the visitors to the kingdom of the Thunder Dragon.
My first stop was Thimpu, the capital. The town is an effortless blend of ancient Buddhist temples and modern Bhutanese architecture. Sights include Tashichho Dzong, Changangkha Monastery, Buddha Dordenam statue, the Choki traditional art school and Nordzim Lam – the buzzing centre of the town. During the day, locals wearing traditional Ghos and Kiras can be seen rushing around to complete their daily chores. In the evenings, Nordzim Lam comes alive with its many cafes and pubs and young people catching up around the busy Clock Town Square. Sitting down on the steps of the square, I watched the blue twilight set in and strained my ears to catch the foot tapping notes of Bhutanese pop songs.
The Royal Family of Bhutan
The love and admiration of the Bhutanese for their King, Queen and the Prince were evident wherever I went. Banners on the road celebrated the Prince’s first birthday, souvenir shops proudly displayed official portraits of the family, a replica of their wedding invites, first photos of the new born prince et al. One could also pick up postcards and magnets as souvenirs.
After Thimpu, I took the road back to Paro. Choosing not to stay at the town, I opted for a home stay in the Paro valley. Behind a Chorten (Buddhist stupa shrines) along Paro river, I stumbled upon a monk practising archery with three other men. The group, using traditional bamboo bows and arrows, kept shuttling between targets on either end of the ground. Arrows whizzed by, and it was a while before my untrained eyes were able to follow their trajectories. The group broke into a customary song and dance each time a team member hit a bull’s eye. Archery is not a sport at Bhutan — it is a celebration with archers being allowed to eat and drink as they shoot arrows. “You want to practise?” the monk asked their lone spectator with a smile. I had fallen in love with a new sport.
Best time to visit Thimpu: Get seasonal discounts from December to March.
I cannot wait to embark on more new Eat, Pray, Love adventures! As Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love says, “Travelling is the great true love of my life… I just don’t care what it puts me through. Because I adore it. Because it’s mine. Because it looks exactly like me.”