Kamis, 15 Desember 2011

Travel Diaries: INDIA - BHUTAN


Published in Now! Jakarta, January 2011

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Early morning, Kovalam Beach, Kerala: Fishing boats return.

Last month I travelled to Kovalam, in deep South India, in search of the perfect garden design moment.

I had lunch at the wildly popular new ‘Bait’ seafood restaurant, which over looks a fisherman’s bay teeming with despondent if perfectly-formed fishermen. The back waters there looked so dreamy that I commandeered a buggy from the delightful Taj Vivanta, the former Taj Green Cove, who operate the ‘Bait’ restaurant and made a short video (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HuOcP3rXC0I) which has now gone viral on You Tube.




Views of the dreamy backwater lagoon from “Bait” restaurant at Taj Vivanta, Kovalam, Kerala (garden design by Bali-based PT. Wijaya).

From Kovalam I travelled north to Keppel Beach — near Fort Bekal, in far North Kerala on the Karnataka (Mysore) — border where a team of garden magicians (lead by Made Sucipta and Wayan Legawa from Timpag, Tabanan, Bali) have created a sensational parkland and water palace at the Taj Bekal. The collection of Hindu-Balinese-Modern garden art, by Made Cangker of Keramas, Bali, is particularly note-worthy.


The gardens of the Taj Bekal (Planetarium Bar by Noleen of Grounds Kent Architects, Perth and Bali).


The backwaters of the Taj Bekal, North Kerala, soon to be the site of the All-Punjabi swan-boat gymkhana.

It is not easy to create great garden art in India: the British colonials having left a legacy of municipal potscapes; and no-one seems to have worked out how to keep water in the ponds since the Moguls left.

The savoring of garden design success is often fleeting: resort managers invariably come in and start pretty-littering with incongruous garden furniture and festively funny lighting.


Star gardener Rajan poses with his 2012 calendar month at Taj Bekal, North Kerala.

• • •

My last work-stop was Delhi in the far north — deliciously dry and cool (18 degrees) after steamy Kerala — where revisionistas are poised to move a marble pavilion into a major view corridor on my marquee project there.

The price for peace maybe eternal vigilance ………… but one is forced to conclude that there is a lack of respect for negative space across the sub-continent.

• • •

From Delhi I flew to Bhutan, for a second dose of the elixir of life they serve there; and also to buy Bhutanese brooches for Balinese brides (jewelry mule being my latest encore career).

I also wanted to make a short documentary on the Thimpu Centenary Farmer’s Market which I had only glimpsed during my last visit to Bhutan, in October 2011.


Offering ‘top knots’ on an altar in a farm-house chapel near Paro, Bhutan.

Visiting local markets is a great way to meet local characters who seem to converge in the meat section. There, much ribald humour can be heard over the body parts of dead animals. This has been the case in Balikpapan (Kalimantan), Kendari (Southeast Sulawesi, but with fish) and Tanjung Pinang, on Bintan Island off Singapore. Stories on all these markets have featured in this diary.

In Bhutan I stayed again at the enchanting Uma Paro.
This trip, a group of well-heeled communist Chinese had just flown in from Kathmandu in a private jet.

They strode into the dining room like the SS into that opening scene in the cafĂ© in “Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom.”

“Today they want breakfast,” I warned the trembling Bhutanese staff, “Tomorrow they’ll take the lot.”

In fact the Chinese were very nice and only shouted a lot between courses.

The Bhutanese are refined and demur by comparison.

• • •


LEFT: Bhutanese beauty on the main stairs of the Thimpu Centenary Farmers market.
RIGHT: The author in Bhutanese costume outside his favourite farmhouse, near Paro, Bhutan.

The next morning on the way to Thimpu we stopped at a farm to watch my guide Tsheway engage a young heifer stud bull in ‘shadow boxing (an old trick to amuse the tourist performed with curled D tongue, posturing vocal dynamics and we happened upon an exquisite series of temple rooms inside the farmhouse. The lady farmer-priest told us that the deity there was pre-Buddhist (Bonism) era and was very powerful. So many of the power objects (water buffalo horns) above doors, and the rituals, she and Tsheway described were like those found amongst Indonesia’s Batak and Toraja people today.

I also discovered stashes of very graphic woven woolen blankets from Eastern Bhutan which took my fancy.

The exquisitely-designed Thimpu market straddles the Thimpu River which runs along the west side of the nation’s capitol. The two storied main section sits on the eastern bank while the handicrafts and Bangladeshi apparel sections are reached by an ancient roofed, pedestrian bridge, which has views to snow capped peaks in the distance.

On the handsome granite steps of the bridge’s eastern entrance the prettiest girls in Bhutan buy beef and mustard seed leaf momos (Tibetan dumplings) from mausoleum vendors with a basic chili sauce. One can sit here and watch the entire youth population of the magic kingdom go by.

• • •


LEFT: Head brooch-seller at the Thimpu markets, Bhutan.
RIGHT: Colourful character sells momos on the steps of the Thimpu market bridge.

Inside the market I roamed about searching for antique Bhutanese brooches and textiles for the interior for an architecture of ASEAN project I am involved in on Bintan Island, near Singapore. Many Bhutanese textiles seem the source for many of the textile styles of Southeast Asia.

I had a field day amongst all the temple paraphernalia and ethnic artifacts for sale: the stall keepers the very picture of poise and politeness.

Back in the main market — a masterpiece of traditional-modern architecture, bathed in natural light — I discovered row after neat row of glistering mountain vegetables and lovely local ladies, who all spoke good English, cheekily. They were all dressed in colorful versions of Bhutanese dress.

After the markets I had lunch with H.E. Benjie Dorji the former Minister for the Environment and his glamorous cousin Dashi Kundum Dorji, the Thimpu Valley’s answer to Helena Bonham-Carter. Both had been involved in Mala Singh’s recent book on the King of Bhutan’s photographs. Both were extremely urbane, amusing and sophisticated, like many of my Delhi friends, but fresher. They introduced me to the architect of the brand new 900 student Royal College of Thimpu who took me on a tour after lunch.





Bhutanese schools and universities are all brilliantly designed: complexes of traditional buildings arranged in large parklands. This new college sits in a pine forest just above Thimpu and has extraordinary views from every level.

The students were all in traditional dress and had ultra-modern hairstyles: the Justin Bieber-Pscycho-Korean crooner look for men; the girls had more Hollywood glamour coifs.

Royal Thimpu College students sporting popular “Korean-crooner” hairdo.

One holds great faith in a country with such well-designed and funded education institutions and such saucy society ladies.