Bhutan | Interview with Choki Dorji

Choki Dorji

I am happy to declare that I’ve now reached a point in my career where I am blessed with opportunities to connect with those I may have previously only met whilst travelling. In the past year I’ve had the good fortune to connect with travellers, dreamers, chefs and wanderers who’ve made it against the odds. One recent memorable encounter was with Choki Dorji, owner of Blue Poppy Tours & Treks, who specialises in bespoke tours of Bhutan. How does a boy born in the hillsides of Tashi Yangtse, speaking a dialect that is only spoken not written, come to own one of the top 20 tour companies in the country? Welcome to my three part series of Bhutan, possibly, the most captivating place on earth. Read my interview with Choki Dorji for a personal story which proves that the greatest adventure you’ll ever have is life itself.

Early Family life

Choki was the first born in a family of four. The small town of Tashi Yangtse had been his ancestral home for generations. Choki’s first language is Dzalakha, a dialect spoken only in the east of Bhutan. Village life centred around the temple Chorten Kora which was built in 18th century by Lama Ngawang Lodrö, to quell a demon. Choki’s father took care of the temple daily and was a learned Buddhist scholar despite the lack of a formal education. His mother coming from a farming family never learnt to read or write. Choki says of his parents,

When I was young I did not have any dream of doing anything and I am sure my family was worried as I am the oldest son and their expectations would be very high.  I always wanted my parents to be proud of me and I wanted to be able to give back to them as well.  In the end, they don’t actually have much idea of what I do and where I live and go as they can’t really imagine the world I inhabit now from the remote village life that they still lead, but I am sure they are very proud of me.

Buddhism in Bhutan

Like the majority of Bhutanese, the Dzalakha observe Tibetan Buddhism which has been strengthened over thousands of years. Visits from Tibetan, Nepalese and Indian Lamas over centuries have strengthened the community’s ties to its teachings. The Dzalakha identity is enmeshed in the history of Buddhism and traditions are deeply steeped in Buddhist heritage. As such, Choki started school at the age of seven whilst his brother trained to be a monk.

Early life and career

Leaving school, aged just 14 years, Choki was driven to seek out opportunities that would enhance his life and those around him. At first, he became a messenger in the district court. Then, following in his mother’s footsteps, trained to become a farmer. Whilst farming, an opportunity arose with the Bhutanese government; Bhutan was expected to receive electricity between 1997 – 1998. Choki trained to become an electrician.

Despite a myriad of occupations Choki was not satisfied that he had found his life purpose. He knew for sure that he loved his country and the company of others. So he made the bold move to work in a local hotel and learned Japanese to communicate with tourists. Following on from this Choki progressed on to become a trained a guide and worked for one of the largest travel agencies in Bhutan. His speciality?  Trekking and cultural tours.

Move to the UK

It was on one such tour that he was destined to meet his future wife who was visiting Bhutan on holiday. They fell in love and were soon married. In 2001 Choki crossed the oceans and moved to live in the UK where next stage of his life started to take shape.

A young Choki learned English at SELS College, Covent Garden and trained as a cinematographer at Kings College, London. During this time, identifying a gap in the market for a traditional Bhutanese tour operator with a base in the UK, he set up Blue Poppy Tours and Treks in 2005. True to his nature he chose the blue poppy as a name after the national flower of Bhutan.

Today, Blue Poppy is incorporated as Blue Poppy Pvt Ltd and expanding into the hotel industry.  There will soon be a four star hotel in the west of Bhutan and a three star boutique hotel in Tashi Yangtse. As life would have it, things have come full circle and brought the boy from the hills back home; this will be the first hotel to open in Choki’s home town.

Despite his journey so far the young man from Tashi Yangtse remains humble and says of his achievements:

I feel like I still have a long way to go to achieve everything that I want to in life, however at the same time I am also proud of what I have been able to do so far to help my family, friends and the local community.

Look out for my next post on culture and festivals of Bhutan and why this enigmatic land will continue to enchant travellers for centuries to come.

 

For more information on bespoke tours in Bhutan visit: http://www.bluepoppybhutan.com/en/

Galle, Sri Lanka – Walled City of Wonder

Galle is a beautiful historic city in the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka. Most of the south coast consists of what were a string of traditional fishing villages and remain so beneath the pandemonium of daily life you see. The beaches in Galle and nearby villages have always been popular with Sri Lankans themselves. As such, it’s common for southern beaches to be filled with merry local holiday-goers at weekends and public holidays.

During the Dutch and Portuguese occupation of Ceylon, Galle was a fiercely guarded port. Architectural styles from this bygone era have remained unscathed since the 16th century and to me, at least, when combined with Sri Lankan traditions it is the most magnetic facet of Galle’s charm.

I have been enjoying the beaches here since my childhood and always anticipate my arrival with excitement. Fortunately, getting here has become a great deal quicker than I remember. Since the construction of the highway in 2014 the south coast has become far more accessible and the time it takes to drive here from Colombo has reduced from four hours to just 45 minutes.

Amari, Galle

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I arrived in Galle, early in the new year, for a long awaited stay at Amari Galle. Amari sits away from the bustling centre which makes for a refreshing arrival. As Galle railway station sits in the centre of the town it can get very busy during peak season from December to March. We drove away and left the town behind past sleepy houses, fields of coconut trees and time-worn buildings to arrive at the small village of Ginthota where Amari sits.

The hotel certainly makes an impression. With more than a hint of Miami Modernist architecture, undisturbed views across the Indian Ocean, a colossal pool served by a poolside bar Shoreline Beach Club, restaurant Ahara Gourmet Gallery and roof top bar Bommu it’s a wonderfully complete experience.The hotel’s gorgeous cool, open lobby was a welcome reprieve from the midday heat and I was honoured to receive the most incredible southern Sri Lankan welcome – a gorgeous tropical flower garland tied with a pink ribbon. The bar has been raised and I’m hoping all other hotels take note!

Rooms

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Comfort of the rooms was nothing short of what I have come to expect from Amari hospitality; The most comfortable beds, softest sheets and feather down pillows guarantees the best night of sleep. Every room also has uninterrupted view across the sea which simply means that guests do not pay a premium for a great view. It is given. Amari Galle appears to be changing the game in this sense and I for one, welcome it.

Food and Drink

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If breakfast is your thing then you will certainly be in the right place. I was spoilt for choice between warm, freshly baked muffins and soft as air doughnuts with the the best cup of coffee in Galle. I opted for the healthy option of fresh granola and yoghurt with Earl Grey tea on the second day and had two helpings of all of it. The yoghurt was creamy and rich and the granola was packed full of fresh nuts and oats. Chefs are also on hand to whip up a hearty cooked breakfast if you so wish.

Dinner was a similar affair with an astounding variety of world cuisine available. The Sri Lankan dishes appeared a hit with most guests as they queued up for the sumptuous coconut flavoured curries. I was also happy to discover a wonderful dessert – coconut pudding. A steamed sponge infused with real coconut. It was a phenomenal discovery.

Pool and Beach

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The pool at Amari is absolute bliss. You can relax on the deck chairs all afternoon or dip in for a swim across to the pool bar Shoreline Beach Club for a light snack and a cool drink. There are also two smaller pools for children. It must be said that the hotel caters well for families with small children; A kids’ club runs every day from 9am to 6pm.

 

Eight Good Reasons Why You Must Visit Galle

1. Because THE BEACH

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The beaches on the southern coast of Sri Lanka are renowned for their natural beauty. When you walk along them look down at your feet and you will find sea shells and sea glass, in the sand, which have been carried ashore through the day. Palm trees line almost every beach and lean naturally towards the sun. It’s common to find the husks of their fallen fruit on the beaches. There will also be fishing boats wherever you look and as long as you ask for permission most owners are happy for you to sit in them for a photograph.

As well as the tranquil beach at Amari Galle you can also explore the more frequented beaches nearby in Unawatuna, Midigama, Hikkaduwa, Weligama and a little further down in Mirissa. They are extremely commercial beaches with surf schools, boat rides, whale watching and bars and are all within 10 – 20 minute taxi ride of the hotel.

2. AND the Sunset

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Whatever you do, watch the sunset in Galle. You will never experience such an all encompassing pleasure. Walk along the beach at dusk and let the waves splash gently against your feet. THIS is paradise at its best. The Southern Sri Lankan sunset is what will make you forget that long haul flight and keep brining you back to this dazzling island.

3. Then There’s the Indestructible Fort

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Galle Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the largest remaining fortress in Asia constructed by European occupiers. It’s surrounded by the sea on three sides and yet withstood the Boxing Day tsunami which hit the region in 2004. The preservation of the fort is a credit to the Archaeological Department of Sri Lanka who has ensured that it will be around for many generations to enjoy.

As there is no longer a need for a fortress in Galle, you will now find gorgeous boutiques with quintessential Sri Lankan souverniers, art galleries, jewellery stores and pretty things you will want to pack in to your suitcase immediately. The best part of it is that the city remains a working community with offices, courts, local businesses and schools. Follow the maze of the cobbled streets and they will take you to restaurants, coffee shops and five star hotels all sitting side by side. All of it simply adds to the subtle grace of the fort. As you may have well guessed, it’s my favourite place in Galle. On a separate note, wear sunscreen, hat and cover your arms. It gets very hot within the walls.

4. Must Step Inside Groote Kerk or the Dutch Reformed Church

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The Dutch Reformed Church sits at the entrance to the Fort and is unmissable due to it’s architecture and faded grandeur. It was built in 1755 by, you guessed it! The Dutch. It is believed that it was built on the site of a Portuguese Capuchin convent. The British period saw the addition of stained glass windows and a communion rail. It remains a place of worship to the present day and is a remarkable step back in time.

5. Picture Yourself at the Light House

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This Instagram famous light house is Sri Lanka’s oldest and dates back to 1848. A fire in 1934 destroyed the original light station which sat 100 meters from where it now stands. It was rebuilt in the current site in 1938. Picture yourself here and join the legions who have hashtagged this landmark and made it world famous. Use #gallelighthouse

6. Take a Walk Down to the Fish Market

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A mere 10 minute taxi ride from Amari Galle will bring you to the local fish market. Every afternoon catch of the day is unloaded off the fishing boats and sold all along the beach. Fresh tropical fish of every size and colour is sold here along with gigantic prawns and flamingo coloured squid. It’s common to hear customers bargain as they shop for their supper; A priceless experience in Sri Lankan culture. Although, do watch out for the fishermen regularly splashing water on the fish – local shoppers seem to know when and how to avoid it. I didn’t.

7. Eat Seasonal Fruit

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Across from the fish market along the road there will be fruit sellers selling any number of varieties of fruit from mangoes, rambutans, water melons and king coconuts. They are sold off the back of trucks or make shift tables on the side of the busy main road. They will be the freshest, juiciest and cheapest fruit you will ever eat. Enjoy the fruit!

8. End the Day with Sundownders at Bommu Bar

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When you’ve had a whole day of exploring and it’s time to unwind and exchange stories find your way up to Amari Galle’s roof top bar Bommu. Bommu translates to let’s drink in Sinhalese and it really is the perfect place for it. It has grand views over the sea and a long bar serving marvellous cocktails as the sun goes down. The lounge is elegantly candle lit and I couldn’t think of a better way to end my day.

 

 

In collaboration with Amari Gall, Sri Lanka.

Overnight stays at Amari Galle, Sri Lanka start from approximately £160 per night (bed and breakfast basis) for a Deluxe Ocean View Room. Price is exclusive of VAT and service charge and based on season and availability.

For more information or reservations, visit www.amari.com/galle-srilanka.

12 Reasons to Visit Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is currently one of the hottest travel destinations in the world. It is not possible to curate merely a few reasons to visit the island. For a small island with magnificent beaches, all year round tropical climate, wildlife, heritage and incredible food the challenge was listing just 10 reasons. So here are 12 reasons to visit the island.

  1. Beaches

Beachhuts

Hikkaduwa beach, Southern Coast.

Sri Lanka boasts some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. With miles of golden sandy beaches lined with palm trees leaning towards the sun it is a paradise as you could never imagine. From lively beaches of the southern coast to the surfers’ haven of the east coast and the tranquility of the north, beaches are the island’s greatest allure.

2. Dutch Colonial Architecture

Galle

“Ceylon” as Sri Lanka was previously known was part of the Dutch governorate between 1640 – 1796. The Dutch East India Company established itself on the island and as such Dutch colonial buildings stand to this day. They are scattered all around the island. From the old Dutch Hospital in Colombo to the Groote Kerk Church (pictured) in Galle many of the buildings are still in use and visiting is free.

3. Mangoosteen

mangooseteen

Mangoosteen is one of the quirky fruits that grow in Sri Lanka. They grow in season between May – September. The fruit is opened by squeezing it between the palms of your hands. The soft white segmented pulp is sweet and juicy. It can get a little messy but they’re worth it!

4. King Coconut

thambili

Locally known as ”Thambili” (meaning “orange” – a reference to its colour), King Coconuts are native  to Sri Lanka. They are widely available on make shift tables on the road sides as in any restaurant. The fruit is traditionally opened at the top in two strokes with a knife. Once you’ve drunk the water, it is cut in half and a slice of its husk cut off to use as a spoon. What’s inside is the best bit – the translucent white flesh. Slurp up every bit of it’s jelly sweetness.

5. Seafood

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Seafood in Sri Lanka never travels far. It is usually sea to plate within a couple of hours or less. Crab in particular tends to be a popular choice. Ask for a moronga crab curry –  generally eaten with bread, kick ass spicy and delicious!

6. Hoppers

Processed with VSCO with a7 preset
Hop to it!

Eaten for breakfast or dinner (never for lunch) hoppers are the answer to your taste buds’ prayers. Made of fermented batter hoppers maybe sweet or savoury. Savoury hoppers are served with curries at dinner. They are light, crispy and inexpensive. Don’t leave without trying them.

7. Temples

 

temple
Gangarama Temple, Colombo.

From cave temples in Dambulla to a temple on a mountain top at Adam’s peak, Sri Lanka doesn’t disappoint. Every village you encounter is likely to have a worshipping temple attached to it. From Hindu temples in the predominantly Tamil speaking north and east to Buddhist temples around the rest of the island they are incredible examples of what faith moves people to do.

8. Elephants

elephants

It is estimated that the island has the highest density of elephants in Asia. So it would be impossible to leave without encountering an elephant or two. However, the species is listed as endangered. So avoid any experience which encourages rides or getting too close to them in captivity. Visit one of the 5 national parks instead – Udawalawe, Yala, Lunugamvehera, Wilpattu and Minneriya. You will never regret seeing them in their natural habitat.

9. Train journeys

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Train journeys in Sri Lanka are safe and remarkably hassle free. The Kandy – Ella – Badulla route is impossibly scenic and also the most popular amongst travellers. However, the recently restored Yal Devi (Queen of Jaffna) which connects the commercial capital Colombo to the northern city in Jaffna promises to be spectacular. Get it on your bucket list.

10. Scenery

scenery

No road trip in Sri Lanka is complete without more than a few toilet stops. Travelling by road is often time consuming and hazardous. Many roads on the island have remained undeveloped. However, for me at least, this means it has retained a wonderfully authentic and romantic charm which becomes evident once you leave  the city. Stop by little tea houses for snacks.. Tea houses tend to be set in some of the most rural yet scenic spots along the roads. You will have the chance to sip your black tea served with ginger while you take in a spectacular view.

11. UNESCO World Heritage Sites

 

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Temple of the Tooth, Kandy

With no fewer than EIGHT Unesco World Heritage sites (Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, Golden Temple Dambulla, Galle, Anuradhapura, Kandy, Sinharaja Forest, Central Highlands) in a land of just 65, 610 Sqkm, Sri Lanka is a culture vulture’s dream. Climb Sigirya rock for breathtaking views of the jungle below or attend a ceremony at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. You’re simply spoilt for choice.

12. Sunsets

 

sunset
Sunset – Mount Lavinia

New Year’s Eve 2012, Kayts, Jaffna, Sri Lanka – the most memorable sunset I have ever experienced. Sat on the side of a dirt road overlooking a paddy field I watched the sun dip against a crimson sky. A purple haze enveloped and immersed everything it touched, including me. The most remarkable feeling however, was knowing that the sun had set over this paddy field every day – just as colourful, just as bright and just as magnificent during  Sri Lanka’s 30 year civil war when no one noticed it.

So now as the island enjoys a time of peace and prosperity it’s a great time to visit and enjoy all that it offers.

12 Reasons to visit Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is currently one of the hottest travel destinations in the world. It’s impossible to curate a few reasons to visit the island. For a tiny country with magnificent beaches, all year round tropical climate, wildlife, heritage and incredible food the challenge was listing just 10 reasons. So here are 12 reasons to visit Sri Lanka.

  1. Beaches

Beachhuts

Hikkaduwa beach, Southern Coast.

Sri Lanka boasts some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. With miles of golden sandy beaches lined with palm trees leaning towards the sun it is a paradise as you could never imagine. From lively beaches of the southern coast to the surfers’ haven of the east coast and the tranquility of the north, beaches are the island’s greatest allure.

2. Dutch Colonial Architecture

Galle

“Ceylon” as Sri Lanka was previously known was part of the Dutch governorate between 1640 – 1796. The Dutch East India Company established itself on the island and as such Dutch colonial buildings stand to this day. They are scattered all around the island. From the old Dutch Hospital in Colombo to the Groote Kerk Church (pictured) in Galle many of the buildings are still in use and visiting is free.

3. Mangoosteen

mangooseteen

Mangoosteen is one of the quirky fruits that grow in Sri Lanka. They grow in season between May – September. The fruit is opened by squeezing it between the palms of your hands. The soft white segmented pulp is sweet and juicy. It can get a little messy but they’re worth it!

4. King Coconut

thambili

Locally known as ”Thambili” (meaning “orange” – a reference to its colour), King Coconuts are native  to Sri Lanka. They are widely available on make shift tables on the road sides as in any restaurant. The fruit is traditionally opened at the top in two strokes with a knife. Once you’ve drunk the water, it is cut in half and a slice of its husk cut off to use as a spoon. What’s inside is the best bit – the translucent white flesh. Slurp up every bit of it’s jelly sweetness.

5. Seafood

IMG_1625

Seafood in Sri Lanka never travels far. It is usually sea to plate within a couple of hours or less. Crab in particular tends to be a popular choice. Ask for a moronga crab curry –  generally eaten with bread, kick ass spicy and delicious!

6. Hoppers

Processed with VSCO with a7 preset
Hop to it!

Eaten for breakfast or dinner (never for lunch) hoppers are the answer to your taste buds’ prayers. Made of fermented batter hoppers maybe sweet or savoury. Savoury hoppers are served with curries at dinner. They are light, crispy and inexpensive. Don’t leave without trying them.

7. Temples

temple
Gangarama Temple, Colombo.

From cave temples in Dambulla to a temple on a mountain top at Adam’s peak, Sri Lanka doesn’t disappoint. Every village you encounter is likely to have a worshipping temple attached to it. From Hindu temples in the predominantly Tamil speaking north and east to Buddhist temples around the rest of the island they are incredible examples of what faith moves people to do.

8. Elephants

elephants

It is estimated that the island has the highest density of elephants in Asia. So it would be impossible to leave without encountering an elephant or two. However, the species is listed as endangered. So avoid any experience which encourages rides or getting too close to them in captivity. Visit one of the 5 national parks instead – Udawalawe, Yala, Lunugamvehera, Wilpattu and Minneriya. You will never regret seeing them in their natural habitat.

9. Train journeys

cropped-img_2324.jpg

Train journeys in Sri Lanka are safe and remarkably hassle free. The Kandy – Ella – Badulla route is impossibly scenic and also the most popular amongst travellers. However, the recently restored Yal Devi (Queen of Jaffna) which connects the commercial capital Colombo to the northern city in Jaffna promises to be spectacular. Get it on your bucket list.

10. Scenery

scenery

No road trip in Sri Lanka is complete without more than a few toilet stops. Travelling by road is often time consuming and hazardous. Many roads on the island have remained undeveloped. However, for me at least, this means it has retained a wonderfully authentic and romantic charm which becomes evident once you leave  the city. Stop by little tea houses for snacks.. Tea houses tend to be set in some of the most rural yet scenic spots along the roads. You will have the chance to sip your black tea served with ginger while you take in a spectacular view.

11. UNESCO World Heritage Sites

IMG_2371.JPG
Temple of the Tooth, Kandy

With no fewer than eight Unesco World Heritage sites (Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, Golden Temple Dambulla, Galle, Anuradhapura, Kandy, Sinharaja Forest, Central Highlands) in a land of just 65, 610 Sqkm, Sri Lanka is a culture vulture’s dream. Climb Sigirya rock for breathtaking views of the jungle below or attend a ceremony at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. You’re simply spoilt for choice.

12. Sunsets

sunset
Sunset – Mount Lavinia

New Year’s Eve 2012, Kayts, Jaffna, Sri Lanka; the most memorable sunset I have ever experienced. Sat on the side of a dirt road overlooking a paddy field I watched the sun dip against a crimson sky. A purple haze enveloped and immersed everything it touched, including me. The most remarkable feeling however, was knowing that the sun had set over this paddy field every day just as colourful, just as bright and just as magnificent during  Sri Lanka’s 30 year civil war when no one noticed it.

So now as the island enjoys a time of peace and prosperity it’s a great time to visit and enjoy all that it offers.