Mike’s Notes : My Times in Congo

These are the musings from one of the most ambitious United Nations Mission. Its a story not many know of …

I was destined for Congo …
‘Heart of Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad, the Polish-British novelist was the narrative that came alive in my mind when i got this signal from Army Headquarters. The signal called for an interview to select officers for a deputation with United Nations Mission in Congo – it was a diplomatic assignment and select few would get an opportunity. Back in 2003 fresh out of Staff College, I was a Brigade Major of an Infantry Brigade, serving Indian Army somewhere on the line of control in Kashmir. And Line of Control, by Jove, is loads of real time action, a roller coaster of a life – day and night.

pastedgraphic
The United Nations Flag

Cut to – late1980s, I was in National Defence Academy and my brother who was then in St Stephen’s College, Delhi doing English Honours, brought this book home in summer vacations – ‘Heart of Darkness’ – a small 100+ page novellette. It was about Marlow taking a boat journey upstream of Congo River to find a white man Kurtz, stationed deep inside central Africa. This piece of land was then known to western world as ‘Congo Free State’ and almost unknown to rest of the world. In those earlier centuries, when the maps were still being drawn – Africa was Dark Continent – unexplored, unknown, undefined, un-demarcated and Congo was the Heart-of-Darkness.

Post a high profile interview, I was nominated to join United Nations Mission in Congo. June of 2004, some diplomatic and immunisation routines later, I was finally on a circuitous flight to Congo via Mumbai, Dubai, Nairobi and finally Kinshasa, the capital of Democratic Republic of Congo ( DRC for short). That is where the headquarters of UN Mission in Congo was situated.

Congo of the Phantoms …
Africa has always been a curious land – like the deep jungles of Phantom comics – so much shrouded in mystery. As i flew the African skies – i could see below the huge brown and green expanse of vast African landmass.

pastedgraphic_1
Map of Congo DRC and Eastern Neighbours

Few hours later, the plane approached the Kinshasa airport, and like a curious child i wanted to catch every glimpse of this dreamland preserved in my memory. The  plane flew over the mighty Congo River and I could see two medium sized capital cities of two Congos –  Kinshasa, to South, the capital of Congo DRC, an erstwhile Belgian colony and Brazzaville, to North, the capital of Congo republic, an erstwhile French colony.  As these river views faded from sight the plane touched down on the runway and I was actually in Congo. My curiosity levels were higher than ever.

As I walked across the runway – ground reality hit me hard! The scene at the airport was rather discouraging – a strange and winding immigration procedure, a New Delhi railway station kind of chaos all over and a physical struggle to extricate my trunk of supplies.  No one seem to be knowing what was going on. Well .. welcome to Congo!

pastedgraphic_3

A Century Back … Leopold Came in …
DRC has a uniquely interesting history. Before the world knew Congo, it was inhabited by humans since 80,000 years ago and Bantu tribals were the residents of this land, before slave trade began in 15th and 16th Century. One famous slave and ivory trader of 19th century was Tippu Tib, who made successful inroads into the unknown Great Lakes region, and also helped famous european explorers, David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley go deep into Africa. He was famed to have 10,000 slaves at a time and was responsible for Stanley’s famous expeditions into heart of Africa. Indirectly, Tib was the man who brought the white man’s burden to the bear on central Africa.

One book i read as part of my preparation for Congo was ‘King Leopold’s Ghost : A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa’. It is a best-selling book by Adam Hochschild that explores the exploitation of the Congo Free State by King Leopold II of Belgium.

If there is one person who could be responsible to initiate the misery in Congo, that continues till this day, it was King Leopold II of Belgium. Leopold unsuccessfully tried to measure up to other affluent nations of 19th century Europe by acquiring Philippines as a colony, which did not work out.

He then desperately manipulated to acquire Congo as his personal property, under the garb of human development and called it Congo Free State. He commissioned the popular explorer of the day Sir Henry Morton Stanley, to go deep into Congo, up the Congo River and establish trade stations.  Sir Stanley, was a British and American explorer of central Africa – who was as controversial as he was famous. Stanley is a key figure who has a foot print almost all over Congo – locally known as Bula Matari ( meaning Stone Breaker). He was known to join the slaves in breaking of stones to make roads in Congo.

pastedgraphic_2
King Leopold’s Exploitation

In the years that followed Stanley’s expeditions, Leopold and his emissaries exploited and killed mercilessly to extract ivory and rubber and bring fortunes to Belgium. During this period of plunder an estimated 10 million people died, which reduced native population to half.  In 1908, under pressure from UK, the Belgian parliament annexed Congo from Leopold – from Congo Free State it was now the Belgian Congo.

Belgians Exit Congolese Step in …
The typical colonial exploitation and cruelty continued unabated till 1960. If a native would extract lesser rubber than day’s target, his hands or legs could be chopped off as punishment. In 1960 under pressure of a nationalist movement, Congo got independence. People had their first elected Prime Minister Patrice Lubumba.  The name of new state was changed from Belgian Congo to Republic of Congo.

Unfortunately, this freedom was short lived. Once the Belgians went away it was time for the native leadership to play the exploitation game. In the backdrop of cold war rivalry of times, America supported  a coup by the Army Chief  Joseph Mobutu, who annexed power and declared himself the President. He created a brand new nation Zaire, situated by River Zaire ( Congo). PM Lumumba was arrested and till date no one certainly knows whatever happened of him. The rumour is he was killed by a Belgian firing squad or cut to pieces or may be dissolved in acid … who knows?

nyiragongo-3
The live Volcano in Goma, East Congo

Mobutu was an epitome of corruption and mis-governance. In his first speech upon taking power, Mobutu told a large crowd that since politicians had brought the country to ruin in five years, “for five years, there will be no more political party activity in the country.”

Mobutu had the strange dual honour of being the richest man in the world while presiding over the poorest nation of the World. Backed by US against spread of communism in Africa, Mobutu continued to be yet another despotic head of state. It was explained by one of his relative –

Mobutu would ask one of us to go to the bank and take out a million. We’d go to an intermediary and tell him to get five million. He would go to the bank with Mobutu’s authority, and take out ten. Mobutu got one, and we took the other nine.

Invariably Mobutu would take his million to Belgium or France to shop and splurge. Among many diseases that are endemic to Congo such as ‘sleeping sickness’, the new one coined by Mobutu himself was ‘Zairean sickness’ meaning  gross corruption and theft. Zaire was a kleptocracy – the people in power literally shopped around the world with government funds.

kin-ali-foreman-poster-amazon
Rumble in the Jungle : Mobutu hosted this great event in Boxing History

In 32 years of despotic rule, its well known that he made more kilometres of air strips than roads. He believed that if he needed to go to people he would fly to them by his private planes, and it was convenient that Congo regions remained isolated and fragmented.

I was amazed to See …
Settled in Kinshasa, I began my work as a Military Staff Officer and did a few roles before i settled down as Training Officer incharge of educating the new arrivals in the nuances of Congolese culture and history. I really loved the part. One of the films that i recommended for everyone to watch when working in this part of Africa was – the hair raising account of Tutsi genocide in Terry George’s 2004 film ‘Rwanda Hotel’. I happen to see the film in the very first week of my arrival in Kinshasa – and well i had tears in my eyes. I learnt a great deal about the history and people of Congo overtime – each passing day my empathy for common man would grow.

After the 1994 genocide in Rwanda in which a million Rwandans were killed within 100 days, some 1.2 million Rwandese Hutus, called Interahamwes, fled to the Kivu regions of formerly Zaïre. A rebellion began in Kivus in 1996, pitting the forces led by Laurent Désiré Kabila against the army of President Mobutu. Kabila’s forces, aided by Rwanda and Uganda, took the capital city of Kinshasa in 1997.  In the wake of this take over, Mobutu saw this fate and fled the country. A few months later he died in Morocco suffering from prostrate cancer.

In keeping with the past precedence, for the 5th time, Kabila changed name of country to Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). As hitherto fore,  there was no improvement in the plight of common man – poor, hungry and exploited. A curse that refused to go away, since the sinister greed of King Leopold II dawned on these innocent lands.

You live by the Gun, you die by the Gun. Laurent Kabila was assassinated by a child soldier from among his bodyguards in 2001 – it is still a mystery as to who orchestrated this murder and why! Eight days later according to Kabila’s last wishes, his son Joseph Kabila succeeded as President and remains the head of state till this day. This time around the new head of state decided to do other things than changing the name of state.

I had spent almost 4 months by now. One thing that hurt me the most was the plight of women in Congo. One incident is etched deep in my memory.

bonobo
BONOBOS (Pan paniscus), FEMALE PLAYING IN THE GRASS, ABC SANCTUARY, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

The United Nation Headquarters had a club and a cafe which hosted Happy Hours on all Saturdays. This was a good place to exchange notes with other departments of UN and the visiting Military observers from faraway sites. The cafe would usually serve local beers – Scoll, Singa or Primus beer and Gin & tonic, till 9 pm. Post this social meet up, the crowd would fade away to various night clubs for some more live music and food. I found the local musicians very talented  – playing jazz, country or hippy music. We also got a chance to hear some local African music which was different – rhythmic and very peppy.

After one such happy hour Saturday, i was sipping my Martini, sitting with UN friends in a road side bar.  A nice live country band was playing. The lively environment was suddenly shattered when we saw a large man dragging a semi-clad woman on the road by her hair, yelling, kicking and punching her up in the open street. The music stopped and the traffic came to halt. I was aghast at this scene and plight of the woman. To my surprise my UN friends, who had come earlier to mission, were not surprised at this. One of them told me it was a common thing – and the treatment of women is worse in deeper parts of Congo. The hotel staff went out and  finally asked the couple to leave and the music began to play again. I get shivers when i think of those times.

There were over 50 UN military observation sites who would do a daily reporting of political and military happenings in various parts of Congo. In the absence of roads, these isolated posts could be approached only by helicopters and planes. It was a big challenge to staff, supply and manage them. It was not uncommon for local conflicts to spread to UN military observers premises and sometimes the Military Observers had to be evacuated overnight in face of a conflict. But most of these UN sites in hinterland were wonderful places providing deep insight into the life in the bush. Agriculture, mining and poaching rare animals are common.

congolese-gorilla
Lower Highland Gorillas, Photo Credits to 

Courtesy of Mahlatini Luxury Safari 

In between these conflicts there is a beautiful world that exists in the distant jungles, living in harmony with the nature. Like its mineral resources Congo is also blessed with abundant and unique wild life. The oldest national park in Africa is the Congo’s Virunga National Park. It is home to rare mountain gorillas, lions, white rhino and elephants. The great apes, such as the bonobos and the eastern lowland gorillas, can be found only in Congo.  We had a UN run radio station called Radio OKAPI. Okapi is an animal found only in Congo and looks like a cross between Giraffe and Zebra. All these unique species are endangered due to pollution, deforestation, and bush-meat trade. It’s possible that some or all of these creatures – may not be seen in a decade.

pastedgraphic_4
Okapi – a unique cross between Zebra & Giraffe

Come to think of it, after over 100 years of internal strife and misery, United Nations was a good thing to happen. UN came to Congo in April 2001, to put in place the Transition Government led by Joseph Kabila. The fist mission was called MONUC ( french acronym for United Nations Mission in Congo) and it was mandated to establish the rule of law and conduct first free and fair elections, which happened in 2006. By this time I had finished my one year of work with MONUC, but i continued to follow the happenings in Congo quite closely.

congo-wild-life

While the factional rebellions in Eastern Congo continues to disturb the return of peace, the UN in 2010 changed the mandate of MONUC to MONUSCO – ( french acronym for United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo). There is a stable situation in many regions of the country, but eastern part continues to be the Achilles heel – plagued by recurrent waves of  armed conflict, chronic humanitarian crises and serious human rights violations, including sexual and gender-based violence.

pastedgraphic_5
Hinterland is dotted with Private Armies

Congo is the most ambitious and largest UN peacekeeping mission in the world, with over 21,000 soldiers from approximately 50 different countries. The mission now has more teeth in terms of an Intervention Brigade ( ex Indian Army) located in Eastern Congo with an aim to control the warring factions with the use of force, if need be.

Since 1998, in the so called World War of Africa, over 5 million civilians have died,  30,000 child soldiers are serving with armed groups, rape has increased seventeen fold and natural resources continue to fuel the conflict rather than progress & development. In a capitalist world which eulogises ‘Greed is Good’, Congo remains a gruesome reminder of the humanitarian suffering from Man’s inhumanity to Man.

Exploitation to the Bone … the People lost all hopes …
As part of Military Observers routine, we would often go out on fact finding missions and that would reveal to us more than anything else about the people and their lives in Bush. One thing that strikes squarely in the face the widest possible divide between Haves and Have-Nots. The abject poverty – no access to safe water, no regular source of food, no fresh milk – no roads, electricity, medical, health and hygiene. Almost 80% people in a village or settlement have not been beyond 5 kilometres from the village periphery.

12239360894_3065dd5df8_o
Hope in the wilderness

The local pubs were frequented by young girls garishly dressed as if to solicit customers and ever ready to shake their bodies to earn a bottle of “Sucre”(meaning sugar)- a common word for a soft drink or soda.  And nine out of ten times, that is all the food or drink they would have in a couple of days. It was really very sorry state of affairs.

Sundays were good days – i would spend time reading, go to local market and may be chat with locals in my broken french. One such morning i was reading in my lawns and my security guard came with a local person wanting to sell a baby chimp in a small wicker cage. I was aghast at seeing the baby chimp – completely dazed and nervous. I am told that it if they are to snatch a baby chimp from its mother – it is impossible to do it without killing the mother. And this man told me that i could have the chimp as a pet,  for a mere 50 USD. This was very disturbing to see the baby chimp in a deep traumatised state and it was incessantly urinating. I refused to buy it and told them to give it back to its mother, or leave it in jungle, to which they smiled and told me that its mother was dead. I asked my guard – as to what would be the fate of this baby chimp if no one buys it.  To my horror I came to know that if the chimp is not sold, they would eventually eat it for a meal.

boende-old-pigmy
Refugees in their own land

In some of these villages deep in bush, village kids would invariably chase our patrol cars asking for “Mai”, meaning water in local language. Drinking water for the UN staff was bottled from a local plant established for the specific purpose of producing safe drinking water. Local water had heavy iron content and was usually reddish brown in colour. In fact in the bush the beer was a safer choice as compared to water both in terms of quality, cost and availability. Just imagine – how opposite the life has turned out for the common man in bush. The social fabric and mundane life appeared so unnatural to me – and they have a lifetime to spend that way.

At times I used to feel Congo has problem of plenty. Huge natural resources, water reserves, river and jungles. The earth was fertile and Congo river carried enough water to support the lifeline and transportation. This easy availability of resources probably made then lazy and not wanting to work or toil.

16596983681_1e6b9b46de_o
A local dance troupe …

There is no regulation or control over the outflow of  mineral wealth that was being siphoned off form the country. Literally anyone could hire or charter land a single engine or medium sized plane, buy some gold or uncut diamonds and fly out of the air space. The bigger companies have done that for over 70 years now – no duties, no tax paying, no control.  Though this point may be controversial, but if i correctly remember, the total length of navigable roads in 2004  was 1675 kms as against some 300 plus airstrips in mostly mineral rich hubs. No wonder, some if Congo DRC’s eastern neighbours were biggest exporters of Diamonds, while they did not possess even one Diamond mine. One great free for all smuggling mafia operated all over the bush.

The Presidential Cavalcade was the most feared convoy on the roads. It was popular that if some one was found on road walking while the presidential convoy passed – they would be shot dead. These stories were deeply embedded in their psyche – and even when our patrol cars would pass on roads, the locals would wildly drop their stuff on the road and run to the woods to hide. They would only come back to road once we were gone.  The populace in general was having very low self esteem possibly due to centuries of exploitation at the hands of the slave masters earlier and later the colonial powers.

‘Blood Diamonds’ and ‘Conflict Minerals’
Interestingly these terms were both coined in the context of Central African war zone. For over a century, many have benefited from the loot of Congo’s natural resources – starting with King Leopold’s greed about slaves, ivory and rubber to the Western world’s greed of amassing mineral resources cheaply sourced from Congo conflict zone. It sounds like a curse – DRC, one of the most resource-rich country on the planet, continues to have miserably poor plight of common man. Tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold are “conflict minerals.” Armed groups use the profits from illegal sale of these minerals to fuel violence. So much is not right, and so much more time it will take for a normalcy to return in a common man’s life. I retuned back in 2005, the strife and conflict continued and I feel deeply saddened when i think of those times.
katanga-copper-mine
One of the copper mines – Problem of Plenty

Back to the metaphor in the Heart of Darkness.
In the end, the protagonist Marlow, realises that this civilised world is an illusion – deep within, like Kurtz, man remains an uncivilised savage, that reveals in the deep Jungles of Africa, where there are no civilised society watch over one’s behaviour. The savage instinct and unbridled greed to be God, rich and powerful easily reveals itself. The moral illusion created by various powers of the civilised world about doing good to Congo has remained a curse of misery.

Congo is one odd case where “MORE is LESS”

 

Mike’s Notes : 12 Dos in Bhutan

Hi Friends, Welcome back to my Blog .. this time its Bhutan on the platter … If you are a ‘nature lover’, and looking for an off-beat break from your mundane, hum bugging life, we…

Source: Mike’s Notes : 12 Dos in Bhutan

Mike’s Notes : 12 Dos in Bhutan

Hi Friends,

Welcome back to my Blog .. this time its Bhutan on the platter …

If you are a ‘nature lover’, and looking for an off-beat break from your mundane, hum bugging life, well go spend some time in most preserved nation in the World – the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan or the Last Shangri-La. Also known to be a kingdom of Happiness, or that of Thunder Dragon, they really focus on GNH – Gross National Happiness index rather than GDP. It is an awesome place to go and spend a laid back family vacation.

no-gdp
No GDP Please, we all finally need HAPPINESS

A lot depends on how much time you could take out for yourself. A one week tour of West Bhutan (most popular) OR a two week tour of whole Bhutan ( my recommendation) would be a HAPPY thing to do. Its nature abound – and can literally be done the whole year around except monsoon months from June to September.

Having done lots and lots of Bhutan, i have some recommendations to make. If you are in Bhutan, I would recommend that you must not miss the 12 things that i am now going to list for you.

1. Taktsang Monastery, Paro – Going to Tigers’ Nest in Bhutan is like going to Taj Mahal in India. It is an amazing wonder how this Monastery got made in the first place – atop a vertical cliff overhang  …the complex was first built in 1692, around the Taktsang Senge Samdup caves where Guru Padmasambhava is said to have meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours in the 8th century.

Padmasambhava is credited with introducing Buddhism to Bhutan and is the prime deity of the country. Paro Taktsang is best known for the thirteen Taktsang or “tiger lair” caves in which he meditated. Trekking to Tiger’s Nest is a nice half day spent – and a big tick on any travelers’ bucket list.

dsc00132
Taktsang Monastery Paro

2. Great Buddha Dordenma, Thimpu – While at Thimpu, the is a must go and spend some time.  It is a gigantic 169 feet, Shakyamuni Buddha statue.  The construction was completed on September 25th 2015 in the Thimpu, celebrating their 60th anniversary of fourth king Jigme Singye Wangchuk. The complex is still being finished with the help of engineers from Japan. It claims to be the 8th wonder of the world – when completed. You also get some very good panoramic views of Himalayas and Thimpu valley from here.

img_8390
Giant Buddha – the 8th Wonder in making!

3. Motithang Takin Preserve, Thimpu – Here is another unique thing – this time a no-where to be found animal – the TAKIN. Its an animal with head of a goat and body of a cow – and is found only in Bhutan. The myth about its creation goes like this – A Tibetan saint also called Mad Lama – Drukpa Kunley, after eating a goat and a cow for a meal – took the head of the goat and fixed it to the bone skeleton of the cow and uttered abracadabra magic words – and this animal came to life – which had the head of a goat and the body of a cow. Well thats what you see only in Bhutan. It sure is the National animal of Bhutan.

takin
National Animal of Bhutan – the Takin

4. Thimphu Chorten. It is a stupa, built in 1974 to honor the third Druk Gyalpo Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1928–1972). Next to Tigers Nest, it probably is the most visible religious landmark in Bhutan. This stupa is unique as it does not enshrine human remains. Only the Druk Gyalpo’s photo in a ceremonial dress adorns a hall in the ground floor. When he was alive, Jigme Dorji wanted to build a chorten to represent the mind of the Buddha.

13131378_626178024197268_6107914397033655121_o
Thimpu Chorten

5. Dochula Pass & 108 Chortens – As we begin to go East we reach Dochula pass that connects Thimphu and Punaka valleys. At the pass, the Druk Wangyal Khang Zhang Chortens are red-band , 108 in numbers, built under the patronage of the Queen Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk. These are called chortens of victory, built as a memorial in honour of the Bhutanese soldiers who were killed in the December 2003 – a battle against Assamese insurgents – ULFA. It  marks the victory of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck who dislodged the rebels from their 30 camps in Bhutanese territory.

13072764_626963170785420_4987147217217182613_o
108 Memorial Chortens at Dochula Pass

6. Temple of Chimi Lakhang, Punaka – Here is an interesting thing coming up as we enter Punaka valley.  This temple is located on a round hillock and was built in 1499 by the 14th Drukpa hierarch, Ngawang Choegyel, after the site was blessed by  the maverick saint Drukpa Kunley – the “Divine Madman”. In founding the site it is said that Lama Kunley subdued a demon of Dochu La and trapped it in a rock at the location close to where the chorten now stands.

13217486_626964267451977_5089801724055004212_o
Chimi Lakhang Temple – houses of Phallus

7. Legacy of the Divine Madman & Phalluses. Drukpa Kunley – the “Divine Madman” had unorthodox ways of teaching Buddhism by singing, humour and outrageous behaviour, which amounted to being bizarre, shocking and with sexual overtones. He advocated phallus symbols as paintings on walls and flying carved wooden phalluses on house tops at four corners of the eves. You would see them everywhere ..

Traditionally symbols of an erect penis in Bhutan have been intended to drive away the evil eye and malicious gossip.

The Chimi Lakhang monastery has the original wooden Phallus that Kunley brought from Tibet. A 10 inch wooden phallus ornate with a silver handle and used to bless people who visit the monastery on pilgrimage, particularly women seeking blessings to beget children.

8. Punakha Dzong.  This is the most beautiful of all Dzongs in Bhutan, and is located at the confluence of the Pho Chhu (father) and Mo Chhu (mother) rivers in the Punakha–Wangdue valley. The fortress is also called Pungtang Dechen Photrang Dzong – meaning very awesome dzong – “the palace of great happiness or bliss”.

13161911_626964560785281_438456790628089794_o
Punaka Dzong in spring time …

The dzong houses the sacred relics of Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism and the sacred remains of Ngawang Namgyal. Punakha Dzong was the administrative centre and the seat of the Government of Bhutan until 1955, when the capital was moved to Thimphu.

9. Phobjikha Valley & Gangtey Monastery. The Phobjikha or Gangteng Valley is a large U-shaped glacial valley, named after the impressive Gangtey Monastery of Nyingma Sect in Central Bhutan.  This is one of the very few places in the World where the graceful black necked cranes arrive from from Tibet and visit the valley during the winter season to roost. On arrival in the Phobjikha Valley in the last week of October, the black-necked cranes circle the Gangtey Monastery three times and also repeat the process while returning back to Tibet.

black-neck-crane
Phobjikha Valley & the Black Necked Cranes … pic from Internet

10. Bumthang Valley and Red Panda Beer Factory. As  we move east we get into a land full of nature and forests. Bumthang valley is a typical deeper Bhutan place where agriculture has been a mainstay since ages – buckwheat, honey, cheese is what they grow. Bumthang has an air strip and there are smaller planes that land here thrice a week from Paro. Bumthang literally means a beautiful field or land of beautiful women.

12074692_542598252555246_8166655106388981336_n
Jakhar Dzong in Bumthang

Another interesting place to visit is Red Panda micro brewery – owned by a swiss national Mr. Maurer, and they make excellent unfiltered, weiss beer. You would get a good round of the plant and a bottle of beer to sample.

13115971_627562414058829_5792397050866805453_o
Bumthang Brewery makes Red Panda Weiss Beer …

11. Amazing Waterfall at Namling, Mongar.  As we explore the deeper and Eastern Bhutan – we find ourselves in the midst of nature – far far away from civilisation. The forest, mist and mountains create a silent journey with nature as you take the road from Bumthang to Mongar. One place to stop and see is an amazing waterfall may be more than 300 ft high that vaporises before it hits the ground. It is mesmerising to see this waterfall falling from a cliff and turing into fine micro droplets vanishing in thin air – and never hitting the ground.

img_4935
Amazing Waterfall at Namling, Monger, East Bhutan

12. Witness One Tsechu Festival.  Finally, if you are fortunate to be on a Bhutan holiday in the times when one of the monastery annual Tsechu is on, Don’t miss it.

Tshechus are large social gatherings, which perform the function of social bonding among people of Dzonkhongs (regions). The Thimpu, Paro and Bumthang tshechus are popular in terms of participation and audience.

The focal point of the tshechus are Cham Dances. These costumed, masked dances typically are depiction of moral fables based on incidents from the life of the 9th century Saint Padmasambhava and other saints.

dsc00096
Thimphu Tsechu is a grand show, attended by King himself

Padmasambhava organized the first tshechu in Jakhar, Bumthang where the eight manifestations of Padmasambhava were presented through eight forms of dances. These became the traditional Cham dances depicting the glory of Padmasambhava.

dsc00086
Cham Dance at Thimpu Tsechu

These 12 things would normally be good enough to complete the Bhutan for you. Some more very different thing to do in Bhutan are – pristine trekking, bird watching and monastery tours.

img_8439
View from a Trashigang hotel, East Bhutan

Here is another of my Blog if you want to know why Bhutan is Unique- click the link to read more – Bhutan , The Last Shangri-La 

Please feel free to ping if you need any advice … I am just a click or a call away …Until then, signing off ..  Cheers!

Mike
manoj@viktorianz.com | +91-9971119102
Chief Mentor @ Viktorianz

#Himalayan : Day 1 of Test Ride & Reviews

Hey guys,

I am back here with some pretty exciting news – its motorcycling.

This time its about the HIMALAYAN – a new Adventure focused Motorbike from the stable of iconic Royal Enfield. I represent The Outdoor Journal and have the opportunity to ride the bike for a couple of days with 40+ riders from various media houses and review the performance of the bike.

Himalayan Front
One of the Royal Enfield trial pictures

I landed in Chandigarh and were then brought up to Timber Trail for a quick bite and then a usual winding road up to Simla, the erstwhile British Summer Capital – twists and turns, traffic blues and some drizzle .. usual Simla highway stuff.

IMG_8285

By evening we were at our hotel in Simla – the ‘Wildflower Hall’, arguably the most unique of the Oberoi’s properties. I did have a quick round of the hotel, which was built 15 years back in colonial style – with library and card rooms, et al.  It definitely takes you back a hundred year – and here its just you, peace, quiet, nature and the understated luxury of hotel.

IMG_8268
I found this one parked just outside the hotel … pretty lean it is ..

Evening was filled with a detailed briefing on the HIMALAYAN – Siddhartha Lal, MD & CEO, Eicher Motors Ltd, Mr Rudratej (Rudy) Singh, President Royal Enfield and Sachin Chavan, Rides and Community – spoke about the bike – philosophy & concept and the routes we would take over next 2 days.

IMG_8293
Rudy’s brief
IMG_8294
Sachin Chavan – the 4 routes …

On the route we would expect a happy mix of metalled roads, broken roads, un-metalled roads and some off-roading. I chose to be on Route 4 for Day One of the test-ride.

I am pretty excited to see how the following claims made by the leadership turns out –

Himalayan is the culmination of Royal Enfield’s 60 years of enduring history in its spiritual home—the Himalayas   …  Large adventure tourers that currently define this category, do not fare well in the Himalayas as they are very heavy, extremely complicated, intimidating and not really designed for this environment. … the Himalayan is a simple and capable go-anywhere motorcycle that will redefine adventure touring in India.” Siddhartha Lal, MD & CEO, Eicher Motors Ltd

Mr Rudratej (Rudy) Singh, President Royal Enfield said,
What excites me about our new motorcycle, is …. It allows both seasoned riders as well as enthusiasts to do more with just one motorcycle. The Himalayan … at the same time opens the roads (pun not intended) to many more people who will get the confidence that they can ride on and off the road less travelled, going beyond their day-to-day commuting needs.”

IMG_8271
Taking the ‘FEEL’ – its nice …

Keep reading for more. I am now off to the ride of day 1.

Cheers and have a good weekend.

Mike Keshwar
http://www.viktorianz.com
manoj@viktorianz.com
+91-9971119102

Ho Chi Minh City : War Remnants Museum Etc.

Hi Friends,

Thanks for following the blogs this far. We are back to our 4 Nation ASEAN Road Trip covering Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. In last 3 posts, I wrote of Thailand and Laos. Here are links of my 3 Blogs if you missed them …

Part 1 – TRAVELOGUE – 4 NATION ASEAN TOUR
Part 2 – THAILAND DAYS
Part 3 – LAOS DAYS

In this one i wish to write of drive through Vietnam. A nation that is making a fast pace progress in ASEAN region and the tourists are flowing in millions. An erstwhile French colony and intended to be bombed to extinction by US during war years of 60s & 70s. The resurgence of this resolute nation is rather impressive.

On Day 4, our caravan of 26 Toyota Reva cars, rolled into central Vietnam to a hill station called Dalat. This used to be a french retreat or hill station and the signature french influence is to be seen all over – cafes and buildings, roads and streets. The highlight is a beautiful man-made lake in centre of town and an exclusive Golf Course (which once could be played only by Royalty).  These two occupy most of the centre space.

Day 6(2)
Dalat was cool ..

On Day 5, caravan moved south along the new coastal highway. We briefly stopped for a lunch and an off roading experience on a coastal sand dune. This was organised by the Ho Chi Minh off roading club. Good fun …

Day 6
Off roading was awesome …

We then arrived at a beach side town of Mui Ne. As we moved in we could feel the vibes of  bars, music and dance kind of a town by the seaside. Pretty laid back, tailor-made for a family or a romantic holiday, a definite Russian influence and full of sea side activity to add spice to your vacation. I would come back here for more …

IMG_20160113_070714
That me – Mike .. 😉
Day 7 (8)
Good Morning Mui Ne

Day 6 morning we were back on the newly constructed East Coast Highway – and by noon we rolled into the erstwhile capital of South Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) or famous ‘Saigon, the emerald of East’ in good old days. We were welcomed by a battery of Superbikers who piloted the Caravan to the city centre – our hotel was the famous Rex Hotel. From here you see very little of skyline, blocked by the skyscrapers.

Day 7
The ASEAN Caravan enter the HCMC
Day 8 (3)
Ho Chi Minh Square with Town Hall in back ground

We had most of the day at hand and quickly moved out for a city tour.

The first stop was the War Remnants Museum – earlier known as ‘Museum of War Crimes by Americans’ – diplomacy got the tone down. This one will bring tears to many eyes – my throat was choked. The ground floor is full of posters that supported the Vietnamese independence movement against the American Forces and the floors above narrate a gory tale of American arrogance in the hey days of the cold war. Imagine this …

IMG_8121
The arrogance of a Super Power, later given a bloody nose …

I guess after dropping the Hiroshima bomb in Japan and wiping out a full city, they had many more military secret weapons of destruction to be tried out – and that they did in Vietnam. The Napalm bombing, Agent Orange, Carpet bombing, defoliant agents, guillotine, tiger cages, My Lai Massacre are some of the focus areas of exhibits.

IMG_8136
1975 The VietCongs storm the Palace …

The un-exploded ordinances and mines and the effects of Dioxin continue to cause deaths and deformities to the affected population.

IMG_8128

IMG_8137

Our next stop was the Saigon Central Post Office building, constructed when Vietnam was part of French Indo China in 1886-1891. As you enter you see two painted maps – one showing South Vietnam & Cambodia and another areas around Saigon. Architecturally it has gothic, french and renaissance influences. A bit touristy but worth a look around.

IMG_8139

Then we had a brief look at the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica – right next door. Though we did not go inside but i read that there used to be a Pagoda here which was replaced by a wooden church which got eaten by termites and then this one came up in 1880. Nice looking building – built of red bricks made in Marseilles.

Day 7 (5)
The Saigon Notre Dame Basilica

The next in line was the Saigon Municipal Theatre or Opera House. This building, built in 1900, has usual flamboyance of the french architecture. It went through tumultuous times, playing many roles other than just being a opera house, which it did but for little time. After Saigon fell and the Americans left, in 1975, the building was restored to its original function as a theatre. In 1998, on the occasion of 300th anniversary of Saigon, the municipal government had the theatre façade restored. Pretty nice looking thing it is …

IMG_20160113_160446

On Day 7, as our caravan rolled out of Vietnam to enter Cambodia, yet another erstwhile colony of the French – a lot of Vietnam history was moving in my mind – the French imperialism, the Vietnam War, images from War Remnant Museum,  the struggle of Vietcongs in 100s of kms long tunnels and the Apocalypse now!

IMG_20160114_110932~2
The Typical maze of tunnels 100s of km long, by VCs

There are not much of those scars visible on the conscious of newer generations any more. They are as happy go lucky as the Gen-Y, anywhere else in the World is. Everyone has moved on, and Vietnam is really moving at a fast pace. Time is the biggest healer i guess …

IMG_20160113_160157
Its business as usual … 🙂

I really loved the Vietnam drive and it is one place i wish to comeback and explore more. Well, will see you all again here – on the final leg of our drive – the world heritage sites of Cambodia, the Angkor Vat and more.

Until then, signing off ..  Cheers!

Mike
manoj@viktorianz.com | +91-9971119102
Chief Mentor @ Viktorianz

 

Mae Hongson Loop 1864 Hairpin Bends – A Superbiker’s Must Do!

Mae Hongson Loop 1864 Hairpin Bends – A Superbiker’s Must Do!

For a Motorcycle Adventure Rider, 1864 Hairpin bends of Mae Hongson Loop is a challenge and a MUST DO …

Mike's Good Life Project

Hey Friends / Riders,
I just got back to blogging and one thing that keeps coming back to me as a long distance rider is the North Thailand. Here is how we discovered this one, and how one could plan to do it.
in this blog – I wish to share my experiences on one of the most outstanding Superbiking destinations in Asia – the Mae Hongson Loop in North West Thailand ( MHS for short).
I took my first trip of MHS way back in 2012. This was part of a series of recces that i took up, before setting up my International Motorcycle Expeditions Company, the Viktorianz. I desperately wanted to explore a unique riding destination – which is great in ride quality, has a unique feel and does not burn a hole in the pocket. The 1864 Mae Hongson Loop comes pretty close to what we…

View original post 2,780 more words

4 Nation ASEAN Road Trip : Laos Days

Hey there,

We are almost through the half of the trip. And this is really a roller coaster drive through nations – some ultra modern and some rural, struggling to keep pace the world.

Day 3 – 09 Jan : CHONGMEK – PAKSE (380 KMS) | Thailand – Laos
This trip has now begun to get a bit tiring. Early morning wake ups and whole day of driving.
I did get late sleeping last night filling in the Blog for Day 1, 2. I was able to catch up some sleep and woke up by 6 am, March off was scheduled for 7:30 pm. Had a simple breakfast Coffee, bread butter and sausage  – though there was a very large choice to pick from. They normally cater to local food and some continental subsistence.

IMG_7987
Breakfast by the Mekong!

The convoy more or less rolled out in time and we headed to the border of Thailand and Laos. You could notice a distinct difference between the Thailand and Laos as a country. The first and foremost being that you drive on the right of the road.

Laos

Laos ( pronounced as Lao ) is mostly an agrarian society and population is Buddhist. They have been a french colony and was in the cross hairs of Americans in US – Vietnam conflict. Some print and internet sources reveal that Laos is the most bombed country on Earth – and American bombers dropped more bombs in Laos, than all the bombings that happened in 2nd World War.

IMG_7989
At Thailand – Laos border

Like most of the South East Asian countries – Laos was a Hindu kingdom before Buddhism took routes here. Culturally and ethnically, they are quite close to Thai people.

People are poor, human rights are not so great and the Govt is Marxist – Leninist single party communist regime.

Visas or Immigration

Obtaining a tourist visa to enter Laos is not a big deal. You could get visa on arrival easily – but if you are getting car or a motorbike, this could be an issue. Our visas were already done by TAT Delhi and we sailed through smoothly. Once done with visas – we had to go through and under ground pass and emerge in Laos. Instructions were to wait at Laos Duty free – and we had the famous Dao Coffee of Laos. It took about an hour by when all vehicles and participants finished their immigrations and we were ready to go.

IMG_8000
The porter and push-cart, both have same numbers – 150!

Our next destination was Vat Phu. For some unknown reasons the convoy leader took us through a un-metalled track – more of an off-roading thing. This really slowed our pace and we wasted quite a bit of time in this track. Though one could have a rare chance of seeing the interior and back roads of Laos countryside. It took us almost 3 hours to reach Vat Phu. This was tiring and back breaking for many.

IMG_8004
The Shesh Naga …
IMG_8009
This temple now has Buddha – replacing the Shiva Linga
IMG_8012
This spring water serves the Shiva Linga … very holy.
IMG_8002
The Wat Phu – Archeological Survey of India is doing it up …

Vat Phu

Vat Phu is an ancient temple devoted to Lord Shiva – its a World Heritage site being restored by the ASI, Govt on India. The hindu influence this far and wide is an amazing thing – Uma Mahesh riding the Nandi and the Nagas can be seen sculptured. In later centuries it did become a Buddhist centre that exists till today. If you trek up the steep stone stair case, you would come to the main deity and a natural spring water falling over the Shiva Linga. That water is considered to be holy and liberating. While others took pictures from bottom, I and Himraj, did trek up the top – and I went and saw this stream from spring water. I then rushed down to catch the convoy which had already begun to move.

The road here in after was metalled and good. Along the Mekong river within 40 minutes we were at Pakse. We were rushed into a sumptuous lunch – it was a late lunch we had. We were then taken to a waterfall and a tribal village – the village has a series of tribal huts – and a museum.

IMG_8015
Lunch in Pakse hotel …

There is a nice little restaurant by the waterfalls and once could do a home-stay in the village. We spent about an hour in that place and the tribal village.

IMG_8026
Tree house – also called the Bachelors house. A dating place i guess …
IMG_8022
One beautiful waterfall … mesmerising …
IMG_8028
Boys will be boys – even  in Laos

One of the things i really liked is a canteen that opens up with drinks and snacks – and you could take your pick of munching before the drive. Pretty well catered i must say.

We drove back to the hotel and there was an official dinner by the Governor of Pakse. Again a sumptuous spread of menu, some cultural performances, few speeches that i did not understand at all – nor were they bothered. But i clapped when everyone else did. The Governor and some other officials did come around to exchange pleasantries. The dancers did invite us over for shaking a leg or two – and we obliged. It was a nice evening spent – and the cool breeze from the river was so soothing.

Just before leaving we were briefed that we have a long day tomorrow  ( like all days :)) and the convoy would march by 7 am.

Day 4 : 10 Jan : PAKSE – ATTAPEU – GIA LAI (460 KMS) | Laos – Vietnam
The day began with a pleasant drive on Laos roads – saw people going about their morning chores – mending fields, transporting farm produce and passing through jungles. On the way we stopped by some coffee plantations – and had a chance to see some very beautiful thin, and long twin water falls. These places have nice cafes cum bar cum eating places.

IMG_8038
Beautiful baskets made of local vines and roots.
IMG_8033
Laos is pretty conscious of its environment.
IMG_8039
Want a test tube baby – 20,000 Kip ( Lao Currency)
IMG_8036
A twin waterfall – what a sight to look at. Pristine like most of Laos

There is a lot more coming up as we enter Vietnam. Will get back to write about it in my next part of Blog, once we are done with whole of Vietnam. I am really looking forward to this country with great patriotic spirit – and what a resurgence of economy. One more victim of Cold War.

Thanks for reading this through. I will see you again soon with more of the Vietnam Story.

Cheers and Be safe! Click to know more about Road Trips.

Mike Keshwar
http://www.viktorianz.com

11 Jan 2016, Dalat, Vietnam