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/

8 Places to Eat Like a Local in Colombo.

To say that food and drink plays a big part in Sri Lankan culture would be the single  greatest understatement in the world. When you are the producer of almost all of the world’s cinnamon and  most of its spices it follows that your cuisine would be pretty darn good. Mix in the Dutch Colonial and South Indian influences with centuries of being a trading post and you have a pretty picky bunch of locals when it comes to food. So, here to help you eat like a local, is a short list of restaurants, cafes and after hours joints that I frequent with my friends whenever I am in Colombo.

1.Sunday lunch – Barefoot garden cafe (704 Galle Road, Colombo 3).

Barefoot is somewhat of an institution in Colombo. Nestled in the heart of the city it is an easily accessible, vibrant space typical of Colombo. The garden cafe here is consistently packed on  Sunday afternoons. You will need to be earlier than midday on Sunday to grab a table in the shade. Get here later and you’ll be sitting under the baking midday sun. Sunday lunch at Barefoot is extremely popular with locals. The freshly cooked food is to die for. Ask to see the specials and the waiters will bring a giant chalk board up to your table. Barefoot is renowned for it’s black pork curry if you can handle it. However, pretty much everything on the menu is scrumptious. Even on a busy Sunday afternoon the service is quick. Just to make your meal a little more special you will be treated to live music by a fantastic jazz ensemble while you eat. This is alfresco dining at it’s best.

What to eat – Chargrilled butterfly prawn salad

What to drink – Lime and mint juice

Spoil yourself – Orange cake and vanilla ice cream.

2. Mid week lunch – Dutch Burgher Union  (114 Reid Avenue, Colombo 4).

IMG_6200.JPG
Lamprais in a banana leaf

The Dutch Burgher Union is a gem in Colombo serving great food that is far too popular for it’s own good. The Lamprais here is quite possibly the most authentic that you can buy. Consider the Lamprais a gift from the Dutch Burgher community of Sri Lanka to the rest of us. Traditionally, it consists of savoury rice, a mixed meat curry of chicken, beef and pork and vegetable accompaniments baked in a banana leaf. In recent times however, it has been adapted to chicken, mutton or fish only – a testament to it’s popularity outside the Burgher community where beef and pork maybe avoided. The aroma of the baked banana leaf and all the spices within it will have you salivating while you scramble to open it. Speaking from experience, this is also a great hangover cure.

What to order –  Chicken or Mutton Lamprais

What to drink – Lime juice

Spoil yourself – Another lamprais

 

3. Short Eat lunch – Fab

Lunch is considered the main meal in Sri Lanka. This is a busy old time in Colombo. Miss the lunch time rush and you will find there is no food left any where in your locality. As such, you will have to down grade to eating ”short eats” for lunch. If you find yourself in such a predicament while in Colombo, hail down the first tuk tuk you see and ask to be taken to the nearest “Fab”. You will never be too far away from a branch of Fab because they are conveniently scattered through out most of Colombo. This chain has the best offering of Sri Lankan “short eats”. Short Eats are usually served as snacks at parties before the main meal. The most popular are cutlets, patties and Chinese rolls. These are filled meat, fish or veg rolls breadcrumbed or encased in crusty pastry and deep fried. Dip your short eats in the nectar of the Gods that is Sri Lankan chillie sauce for a great alternative to a rice and curry lunch.

What to eat – Cutlets, patties, Chinese rolls.

What to drink – Water

Spoil yourself – Chocolate eclair

 

4. Organic Food – The Good Market (http://www.goodmarket.lk)

As the name suggests The Good Market in Colombo is an offering of all things good. As well as local handicrafts, the market offers organically farmed fruit and vegetables, spices and cooked food without additives. There are also stalls representing local charities if you wish to support them. The market happens twice a week – Thursday afternoons in Diyatha Uyana, Battharamulla and Sundays at the Racecourse Grounds, Colombo 7. Both locations are easy to get to. More refreshingly, they will take you off the regular tourist hot spots. You will see people of all backgrounds buying, selling and generally mixing at The Good Market. The range of food here varies from traditional Sri Lankan to tasty cup cakes. More importantly, the food is of the “home cooked” variety. Eat small amounts and taste everything. The traditional food stalls here are as authentically Sri Lankan as you will ever find.

What to eat – Everything

What to drink – Everything

Spoil yourself – A 30 minute massage from the blind therapists at Thusare Talking Hands.

 

5. Dinner – Upali’s by Nawaloka (C.W.W. Kannangara Mawatha, Colombo 7)

Located in Colombo 7, Upali’s has secured it’s place in the hungry bellies of Colombo dwellers as the ”go to” for traditional Sri Lankan cuisine. Do not let the impressive building and affluent location put you off. At the heart of this establishment and it’s success is traditional cookery. Upali’s has established itself in Colombo, where there is no shortage of quality food on offer, due to it’s eye wateringly tasty “village food” menu. This is a feat that at best would be a challenge and at worst impossible to pull off on this scale. However, Upali’s succeeds where many have failed. There is an extensive menu of traditional food such as ”pittu”, ”string hoppers” and ”hoppers”. That is before I can even mention the tear jerkingly tasty lunch buffet. All of which is highly recommended. You will need to visit more than once to enjoy everything on the menu here. Due to it’s popularity, it is commonly accepted that tables are not readily available, particularly in the evenings. However, true to Sri Lankan hospitality, they will never turn a hungry person away. During peak hours, provided there’s enough space, you will be escorted to their coffee shop next door where you may order from the restaurant’s menu. I kid you not!

What to order – Hopper special which arrives with two curries and a coconut sambol.

What to drink – Papaya Juice

Spoil yourself – Watalappan

 

6. Sri Lankan-Chinese Fusion food – Chinese Dragon Cafe (http://www.chinesedragoncafe.com)

IMG_6219.JPG
Hot butter cuttle fish and Kun Kung

With a considerable Chinese community, based mainly in the city, Colombo has always been spoilt with magnificent Chinese food. Chinese restaurants in Colombo have been part of the landscape since my childhood. The community has been kind enough to tweak the cuisine to suit local palettes with the use of spices and freshly caught seafood. The result is lethal! This is possibly the reason that Chinese eateries outnumber traditional Sri Lankan eateries in Colombo. They range from 5* restaurants to busy little places with plastic chairs and queues out of the door. The Chinese Dragon Cafe is a small chain and one of the best known in Colombo. Their take on seafood is not for the lighthearted. This is hardcore fusion cookery. The chillie crab, cuttle fish and prawns will sizzle on your tongue. Eat your seafood with Kun Kung – a local stir fried green which is executed to perfection. Skip the fried rice and eat them together.

 

What to eat – Hot Butter Cuttle fish and Kun Kung

What to drink – Lime juice

Spoil yourself – Chillie crab

 

7. Dinner – Flamingo House and The Love Bar (Horton Place, Colombo 7)

Flamingo House is a recent addition to Colombo’s culinary landscape. It has however, established itself fiercely amongst Colombo’s big players. With decor that is easily set to become one of the most Instagrammed spaces in Colombo, it rivals no other. An absolute credit to Flamingo House is that the same attention to detail has been extended to it’s food. The carefully curated menu is as eclectic as the decor. Order the dim sum and you will get a treat that is as light as a breath which melts on your tongue. If this is your cup of tea, get there on a Sunday for their “Sumday” special – All you can eat dim sum. All day! If you are at Flamingo House for an evening meal spend a little while admiring the space. It looks its best when the sun goes down. Once you finish your meal carry yourself upstairs to the Love Bar – the hippest venue in Colombo at present. Order yourself a Kalinga Gimlet and dance the night away.

What to eat – Dim Sum

What to drink – Kalinga Gimlet

Spoil yourself – Anything bubbly

 

8. Pilawoos – After hours (Galle Road, Colombo 3).

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No night out is complete without a 3am Milo

Of all the places on my list there are none more typical of Colombo than the national treasure that is Pilawoos. Serving Sri Lankan street food and open 24 hours, it’s come a long way since its humble beginnings on the sidewalk of Galle Road. It has grown to become an icon of Colombo’s nightlife. Night clubs have come and gone but mighty Pilawoos survived. Arrive here by car and you need not leave it’s comfort; waiters come to your window. This unique service naturally makes it popular with clubbers and night owls (and drunks) of Colombo. Pull in to the sidewalk at 3am and you will see all of Colombo’s elite hanging out of their car windows ordering Kottu Roti and Milo. (“Kottu Roti” translates to “chopped roti” in Tamil). Kottu, as it’s commonly known, consists of chopped roti, veg and meat. Cheese is added at your request. Wash this down with an ice cold Milo and you will be more than ready for bed.

What  to eat – Chicken and Cheese Kottu

What to drink – Milo or Iced Milo

Spoil yourself – Don’t

 

 

 

8 Places to eat local in Colombo

To say that food and drink plays a big part in Sri Lankan culture would be the single  greatest understatement in the world. When you are the producer of almost all of the world’s cinnamon and  most of its spices it follows that your cuisine would be pretty darn good. Mix in the Dutch colonial and South Indian influences with centuries of being a trading post and you have a pretty picky bunch of locals when it comes to food. So, here to help you eat local when in Colombo is a short list of restaurants, cafes and after hours joints in the city. Here’s where to eat local in Colombo.

Sunday lunch – Barefoot garden cafe (704 Galle Road, Colombo 3).

Barefoot is somewhat of an institution in Colombo. Nestled in the heart of the city it’s an accessible, vibrant space typical of Colombo. The garden cafe here is consistently packed on Sunday afternoons. Get here earlier than midday on Sunday to grab a table in the shade. Any later and you’ll be sitting under the baking midday sun.

Sunday lunch at Barefoot is popular locals. The freshly cooked food is to die for. Ask to see the specials and the waiters will bring a giant chalk board up to your table. Barefoot is renowned for its black pork curry if you can handle it. However, pretty much everything on the menu is scrumptious. Even on a busy Sunday afternoon the service is quick. Just to make your meal a little more special there’s a live jazz ensemble to entertain you while you eat. This is alfresco dining at it’s best.

What to eat – Chargrilled butterfly prawn salad

What to drink – Lime and mint juice

Spoil yourself – Orange cake and vanilla ice cream.

Mid week lunch – Dutch Burgher Union  (114 Reid Avenue, Colombo 4).

IMG_6200.JPG
Lamprais in a banana leaf

The Dutch Burgher Union is a gem in Colombo serving great food that’s far too popular for its own good. The Lamprais here is possibly the most authentic that you can buy. Consider the Lamprais a gift from the Dutch Burgher community of Sri Lanka to the rest of us. Traditionally it consists of savoury rice, a mixed meat curry of chicken, beef and pork and vegetable accompaniments baked in a banana leaf. In recent times however, it has been adapted to chicken, mutton or fish only – a testament to its popularity outside the Burgher community where beef and pork maybe avoided. The aroma of the baked banana leaf and all the spices within it will have you salivating while you scramble to open it. Speaking from experience this is also a great hangover cure.

What to order –  Chicken or Mutton Lamprais

What to drink – Lime juice

Spoil yourself – Another lamprais

Short Eat lunch – Fab

Lunch is considered the main meal in Sri Lanka. This is a busy old time in Colombo. Miss the lunch time rush and you will find there is no food left any where in your locality. As such you’ll have to down grade to eating short eats for lunch. If you find yourself in such a predicament hail down the first tuk tuk you see and ask to be taken to the nearest Fab. You will never be too far away from a branch because they are conveniently scattered through out the city.

This chain has the best offering of Sri Lankan short eats. They are usually served as snacks at parties before the main meal. The most popular are cutlets, patties and Chinese rolls; filled meat, fish or veg rolls breadcrumbed or encased in crusty pastry and deep fried. Dip your short eats in the nectar of the Gods that is Sri Lankan chillie sauce for a great alternative to a rice and curry lunch.

What to eat – Cutlets, patties, Chinese rolls.

What to drink – Water

Spoil yourself – Chocolate eclair

Organic Food – The Good Market (http://www.goodmarket.lk)

As the name suggests The Good Market in Colombo is an offering of all things good. As well as local handicrafts, the market offers organically farmed fruit and vegetables, spices and cooked food without additives. There are also stalls representing local charities if you wish to support them. The market happens twice a week – Thursday afternoons in Diyatha Uyana, Battharamulla and Sundays at the Racecourse Grounds, Colombo 7. Both locations are easy to get to. More refreshingly, they will take you off the regular tourist hot spots. You will see people of all backgrounds buying, selling and generally mixing at The Good Market. The range of food here varies from traditional Sri Lankan to tasty cup cakes. More importantly, the food is of the home-cooked variety. Eat small amounts and taste everything. The traditional food stalls are as authentic as you will ever find.

What to eat – Everything

What to drink – Everything

Spoil yourself – A 30 minute massage from the blind therapists at Thusare Talking Hands.

Dinner – Upali’s by Nawaloka (C.W.W. Kannangara Mawatha, Colombo 7)

Located in Colombo 7 Upali’s has secured its place in the hungry bellies of Colombo dwellers as the go to for traditional cuisine. Don’t let the impressive building and affluent location put you off. At the heart of this establishment and its success is traditional cookery. Upali’s has established itself in Colombo, where there is no shortage of quality food on offer, due to its village food menu. This is a feat that at best would be a challenge and at worst impossible to pull off on this scale. However, Upali’s succeeds where many have failed.

There’s an extensive menu of traditional food such as pittu, string hoppers and hoppers. That’s before I can even mention the tear jerkingly tasty lunch buffet. You will need to visit more than once to enjoy everything on the menu here. Due to it’s popularity it’s commonly accepted that tables are not readily available particularly in the evenings. However, true to Sri Lankan hospitality, they will never turn a hungry person away. During peak hours, provided there’s enough space, you’ll be escorted to their coffee shop next door where you may order from the restaurant’s menu. I kid you not!

What to order – Hopper special which arrives with two curries and a coconut sambol.

What to drink – Papaya Juice

Spoil yourself – Watalappan

Sri Lankan-Chinese Fusion food – Chinese Dragon Cafe (http://www.chinesedragoncafe.com)

IMG_6219.JPG
Hot butter cuttle fish and Kun Kung

With a considerable Chinese community, based mainly in the city, Colombo has always been spoilt with magnificent Chinese food. Chinese restaurants in Colombo have been part of the landscape since my childhood. The community has been kind enough to tweak the cuisine to suit local palettes with the use of spices and freshly caught seafood. The result is lethal! This is possibly the reason that Chinese eateries outnumber traditional Sri Lankan eateries in Colombo. They range from 5* restaurants to busy little places with plastic chairs and queues out of the door.

The Chinese Dragon Cafe is a small chain and one of the best known in Colombo. Their take on seafood is not for the lighthearted. This is hardcore fusion cookery. The chillie crab, cuttle fish and prawns will sizzle on your tongue. Eat your seafood with Kun Kung – a local stir fried green which is executed to perfection. Skip the fried rice and eat them together.

What to eat – Hot Butter Cuttle fish and Kun Kung

What to drink – Lime juice

Spoil yourself – Chillie crab

Dinner – Flamingo House and The Love Bar (Horton Place, Colombo 7)

Flamingo House is a recent addition to Colombo’s culinary landscape. It has however, established itself fiercely amongst Colombo’s big players. With decor that is easily set to become one of the most Instagrammed spaces in Colombo, it rivals no other. An absolute credit to Flamingo House is that the same attention to detail has been extended to it’s food. The carefully curated menu is as eclectic as the decor. Order the dim sum and you will get a treat that is as light as a breath which melts on your tongue. If this is your cup of tea, get there on a Sunday for their “Sumday” special – All you can eat dim sum. All day! If you are at Flamingo House for an evening meal spend a little while admiring the space. It looks its best when the sun goes down.

Once you finish your meal carry yourself upstairs to the Love Bar – the hippest venue in Colombo at present. Order yourself a Kalinga Gimlet and dance the night away.

What to eat – Dim Sum

What to drink – Kalinga Gimlet

Spoil yourself – Anything bubbly

8. Pilawoos – After hours (Galle Road, Colombo 3).

IMG_6217.JPG
No night out is complete without a 3am Milo

Of all the places on my list there are none more typical to eat local in Colombo than the national treasure that is Pilawoos. Serving Sri Lankan street food and open 24 hours, it’s come a long way since its humble beginnings on the sidewalk of Galle Road. It has grown to become an icon of the city’s nightlife. Night clubs have come and gone but mighty Pilawoos survived. Arrive here by car and you need not leave it’s comfort; waiters come to your window. This unique service naturally makes it popular with clubbers and night owls (and drunks). Pull in to the sidewalk at 3am and you will see all of Colombo’s elite hanging out of their car windows ordering Kottu Roti and Milo. Kottu, as it’s commonly known, consists of chopped roti, veg and meat. Cheese is added at your request. Wash this down with an ice cold Milo and you will be more than ready for bed.

What  to eat – Chicken and Cheese Kottu

What to drink – Milo or Iced Milo

Spoil yourself – Don’t

What’s good Singapore!

As a frequent traveller I can say that I have passed through a few airports in my time. They generally do not stick in my mind for any reason. However, as far as airports go Changi airport is a monster! It was voted the World’s Best Airport (Skytrax 2016). It’s certainly easy to see why. There are grand open spaces with sculptures, art, massage chairs and hundreds and hundreds of shops. If you really wanted to you could possibly spend a couple of days there. The single most memorable thing about Changi airport? Baby changing facilities in the men’s washrooms. Talk about progressive.

Travel and guidebooks list lots to do in Singapore. However, as with any short stay planning your time well is key because this is a great big place. I had no intention of doing everything on my list. So I chose Gardens by the Bay due to it’s proximity to my hotel. There’s a real “otherworldly” sense about Singapore. It’s certainly true here. These vertical gardens are set on reclaimed land and stretch an impressive 250 acres. They look and feels more like a feat in architecture and engineering than in gardening. If you would like a better view of the gardens you can purchase a ticket for the train which takes you up to an elevated walkway. Visitors can walk between each of the 5 vertical gardens.

If you really love gardens then by all means walk the walk.

If you like a little grit every now and again go to Chinatown. It’s vastly underrated in the guidebooks. As the name suggests, Chinatown Food Street is packed full of street food stalls. How many dumplings can you eat in an hour? Well, go find out! The food stalls are packed with locals – a sure fire sign that you’re onto a good thing.

In the midst of the hustle and bustle of Chinatown you will also find the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. It’s a place of worship for Singaporeans as much as it is a museum for travellers and tourists. Standing majestically in the middle of Chinatown it offers a glimpse of everyday life in Singapore.

As with all Buddhist temples you will need to be dressed modestly before you enter. Don’t worry if you find yourself in shorts like I did. Thankfully, cover ups are provided. With 5 floors filled with beautiful and curious objects there is enough here to make your entire trip worthwhile.

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The ceiling of the grand hall on the ground floor is decorated with hundreds of gold lanterns. Thousands of tiny carved  identical statues of Buddha are inserted into the walls. Each Buddha has been individually carved by a different sculptor and is marked with a unique serial number. Each room is home to colourfully decorated statues. You can purchase flowers and incense from the temple premises as offerings for the Buddha.

There is a lift to all the floors which is handy. The mezzanine floor gives a great view of the main hall below. There is also a wax works museum of prominent monks of Asia on this floor. There is an outdoor garden housing the prayer wheel on the fourth floor. The garden is a riot of colourful orchids. Flowers bloom in abundance here due to the humid climate.

The top floor houses the tooth relic of the Buddha. It sits behind a glass screen in a golden casket. There were lots of people meditating on this floor and no photography was allowed. It took me over an hour to see everything inside this temple. If you are planning a visit make sure you give yourself plenty of time too.

On a broader note, public transport in Singapore is amazing. It’s punctual, affordable and clean. So getting around any where is easy and stress free. There is an endless list of things to do here. It has the feeling of a giant theme park where the fun never ends if you can keep up. There are water parks, night safaris, bird parks and light shows. Millions of dollars have no doubt been spent constructing them. And they truly are impressive.

Would I go back? In a heartbeat! There are places I have since read up on such as Kampong Glam and Pulau Ubin that I would love to explore. Another trip might be in order!

Love,

Demi xx

Travel tip: I travelled to Singapore from Colombo on a 3 night package deal booked with Hema’s Travels, Colombo, Sri Lanka.