Bela Banker

  • Christmas in Vietnam and Cambodia

    Vietnam

    My boys and I arrived in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi after a long flight from JFK. After a restful night, we awoke early and walked to the Hoan Kiem Lake, which was but a stone’s throw away from our hotel. At the lake, morning music blared while both the young and the old practiced Tai Chi. We watched the graceful art at first before attempting it with mixed results for ourselves.

    Colorful Hanoi | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Colorful Hanoi | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    The tranquil morning spent at the lake stood in stark contrast to the day spent in the Old Quarter in Hanoi. The Old Quarter has the charm and energy of a vibrant young city despite its vast number of traditional shop houses. It is also home to the Temple of Confucious — additionally known as the Temple of Literature — which was founded in the 11th century as the site of Vietnam’s first university. Next, we visited Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where we saw the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh. We then explored the Old Quarter by foot, discovering narrow alleys, with a stop at Street Food cafe and the famous Vietnamese coffee.

    Hanoi | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Hanoi | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Hanoi to Hoi An

    From Hanoi to Danang, we flew Vietnam Air before transferring to Hoi An. Our hotel was located close to the Hoi An Ancient town and Hoi An market — a charming area with night markets, lanterns and great cafes. The next day, we took a Vietnamese cooking class which provided us with one of the more memorable experiences of our trip. During the class, we rode our bicycles to the market to pick up all the ingredients and then we visited the vegetable fields where we soaked in the flavor of the local farm life before cooking a delicious meal. We spent the next few days exploring Hoi An, gorging on local food and taking in the striking views that looked out over the sea.

    Hoi An Market | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Hoi An Market | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Hoi An Lanterns | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Hoi An Lanterns | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Ho Chi Minh City

    We flew from Danang to Ho Chi Minh City — still known as Saigon to many. Upon arrival, we were struck by the energy of the city. Our guide told us that there are more than eight million motorcycles in the city of twelve million people! The constant buzz of the engines seemed to be an appropriate soundtrack for a city as fast-paced and dynamic as Ho Chi Minh City.

    Biking | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Biking | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    The next day, we drove to the outskirts of the city to Ben Tre. We rode bikes on small roads, immersing fully in the local culture of the Mekong Delta and the rustic countryside. We passed secluded areas of lush orchards, green rice paddy fields and coconut trees. Lunch was delightful at a traditional Mekong restaurant, and afterward we stopped for “Keo dua” (coconut candy).

    Cambodia

    Siem Reap — the cultural capital of Cambodia — was the last stop on our trip. Our hotel was centrally located, allowing us an easy walk to the market, cafes and souvenir shops. We participated in a quad bike excursion that took us through the countryside backroads of Siem Reap, weaving along rice paddy fields and beautiful scenery.

    Siem Reap Biking | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Siem Reap Biking | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Bela & her sons | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Bela & her sons | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    The next day, we rose early to see the magnificent Angkor Wat at sunrise. It took almost 37 years to build this Hindu temple which later became the center of worship for Buddhism. It was stunning at sunrise to see the play of light on the stones.

    Angkor Wat | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Angkor Wat | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    We capped our trip by walking through Siem Reap’s local market and enjoying the local food and culture. It was a perfect trip for my boys and I for Christmas.

    March 20, 2019 • Asia, Bela Banker, Travels • Views: 1793

  • Five Days in South India

    Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Day 1

    I flew from Bangalore to Madurai before embarking on a two and a half hour drive to Chettinad where I stayed at the Visalam Hotel.

    In February, when the weather is pleasant in South India, I traveled to Chettinad and Tamil Nadu to explore the Hindu temples of Madurai and Thanjavur. The exquisite Chettiar cuisine was another reason for my visit! I flew from Bangalore to Madurai – a short non-stop flight on Jet Air. Unfortunately, the airline didn’t transport my bag to Madurai so I was forced to go shopping. Equipped with local, colorful clothes, I was excited! After an easy, two-hour drive from Mudurai to Chettinad, I arrived at Visalam Hotel. It is a grand, 75 year-old house that has converted to luxurious simplicity. The rooms are very large and one could feel the heritage, art and architecture of olden times.

    Day 2

    Today, I explored Chettinad on a bullock cart.

    Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    After a delicious steaming local South Indian filter coffee, we walked around the village and admired the abandoned mansions that lay still with its history of the past. Later on, I took a bullock cart ride and stopped by some local structures. Its architecture of open court yards, tall steel pillars and beautiful tile work was impressive. It seemed that time has stopped here and I was living in the past. The Chettiars – a caste of traders and bankers – built these mansions beginning in mid-19th century and ending just after India’s independence. Most of these homes are looked after by caretakers now – the Chettiars long gone from them. This place is so unlike any other part of India. The region is also full of beautiful boutique hotels, local tours and cooking classes. I was lucky enough to also visit the cotton weavers, the Athangudi Tile Factory and a Shiva temple.

    Late Morning, I visited Chettinad’s capital of Karaikuddi. I enjoyed a lunch with a 75 year-old doyen of Chettinad culture and cuisine at Bangala Mansion. Her mansion was full of guests from all over the world enjoying the cuisine!

    Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    I drove to Thanjavur and enjoyed a culinary session and cultural performance at Hotel Svatma.

    From Chettinad to Thanjavur – the drive was about three hours. Welcomed by tall trees and the beautiful fragrance of jasmine, I arrived at Hotel Svatma. The hotel has a spiritual feel with an indulgence of luxury. In the afternoon, I took part in a culinary session with a local chef. I learned to make the South Indian snack of paniyarams and a traditional South Indian sweet sheera. In the evening, I enjoyed an amazing dance performance of Bharat Natyam. The young dancer had traveled six hours from Chennai to perform! That night, my lost bag (completely intact!) arrived at the hotel. I was more than delighted!

    Day 3

    Today, I visited the 11th century Brihadeeswarar Temple and a tour of the Thanjavur streets.

    Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    The morning began quietly with the local, in-house priest chanting the Vedas. My guide for the day took me to the 11th century Brihadeeswarar Temple – a UNESCO World Heritage monument. The temple was built by the Chola Empire. Of its sculptures, the most distinct ones are those of Shiva’s 108 dancing postures. Following this, I visited the bronze-casting and bronze gallery. Afterwards, we walked the Thanjavur’s streets to explore its cultural heritage. I met the Tanjore painting artist and explored Bommai Kolu – the wooden and clay dolls. I even bought a clay doll as a souvenir since they are locally crafted.

    Day 4

    I explored the 16th century Nayakar Palace and visited the famous Meenakshi Temple.

    Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    The breakfast at Svatma was a wonderful spread of East and West cuisines. Omelets for the western palates and fresh, thin rice and lentil pancakes (called dosa) for the ones who want to try the local fare. An easy drive on a well-paved road was a comfortable way to reach Madurai. After checking into the hotel, I went to explore the palace and then the famous Meenakshi Temple. Many people were there for prayers and blessings. The architecture of the temple is stunning.

    Day 5

    On my last day, I participated in an interactive walking tour for an authentic experience of the local lifestyle in Madurai.

    I loved the early morning tour of Madurai. We went to small streets where our guide, Karthik, took us to off-the-beaten-path back streets and fruit and vegetable markets. The city was waking up to the hustle and bustle of the local Tamil morning traditions. My favorite stop was the flower market – the scent of roses and jasmine filled the air. After some leisure time at the hotel, I caught my flight to Bangalore.

    Local Market | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Local Produce Market | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Roses | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    August 10, 2018 • Bela Banker, India, Travels • Views: 2963

  • Celebrate Diwali and Holi in India

    Celebrating Diwali

    October through March is the best time to travel to India, but I simply love to be in India when there is a festival. Growing up in Bombay (now Mumbai), we would wait for our Diwali holidays from school. Mom would make delicious sweets and we would decorate our home with lanterns, diyas (clay lamps), marigold garlands, and Rangoli. We always got new clothes for the festival, and my brother and I would celebrate by lighting sparklers. Diwali is the Hindu New Year and festival of lights signifying victory of good over evil. It falls between October and November.  The exact dates change each year based on the Hindu lunar calendar, but traveling during that time in India showcases beautiful celebrations, gorgeous decorations and people in festive moods. Diwali is a 5-day celebration.

    Celebrating Diwali | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Celebrating Diwali | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Diwali Celebrations | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Diwali Celebrations | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Holi Festival

    Another festival that I celebrated growing up with my family and friends was Holi– a festival of color. It is a spring festival that celebrates life with color that falls in March! Holi celebrations start on the night before with a huge bonfire and prayers so that evil can be destroyed the way it did in the Hindu legend, by burning a demoness named Holika. Young and old, rich and poor, family and friends, all celebrate this festival by smearing color. The festival also marks the end of winter and the abundance of the upcoming spring harvest season.

    Powder Colors for Holi | Photo Credit: Shutterstock

    Powder Colors for Holi | Photo Credit: Shutterstock

    Holi Festival in Nepal | Photo Credit: Shutterstock

    Holi Festival in Nepal | Photo Credit: Shutterstock

    If you want to travel during the festivals, plan your India journey around the following dates:

    • Diwali Festival in 2018 begins November 7th
    • Holi Festival in 2018 begins on March 1st with a bonfire and followed by a smearing color day on March 2nd
    • Diwali Festival in 2019 begins October 27th
    • Holi Festival in 2019 begins on March 20th with a bonfire and followed by a smearing color day on March 21st

    November 29, 2017 • Articles, Bela Banker, Destinations, India, Travels • Views: 6742

  • Explore Hampi

    A few weeks ago, I was in Hampi in Karnataka, South India, which is a World Heritage Site. I arrived at Toranagallu by overnight train from Bangalore. After a wash and change at the Hyatt Place, my guide and I headed towards Hampi. The first impression is of the magnificent large landscape with huge boulder rocks.

    Boulder Landscape

    Boulder Landscape | Photo Credit: Bela Banker/Swain Destinations

    There were intricately carved temples all over the place. We then took a wonderful coracle ride on the Tungabhadra River.

    Coracle Ride

    Coracle Ride | Photo Credit: Bela Banker/Swain Destinations

    The ruins of the 14th century Hampi, and seat to the Vijayanagara kings, covers an area of 10 miles. Hampi sprawls across a spectacular barren and boulder strewn landscape. The remains of palaces and baths and audience hall tells a tale of a kingdom that was grand and of fabulous wealth. There is an awe inspiring image of Hindu God Lord Vishnu which is carved from a single boulder and is the incarnation of half man and half lion. Watching the sun go down between the boulders, captures a moment in your heart that will stay with you.

    Ruins of the 14th century Hampi

    Ruins of the 14th century Hampi | Photo Credit: Bela Banker/Swain Destinations

    The Boulder Resort, where I stayed offers a stunning view of the rocky terrain. The luxurious cottages at the resort fit perfectly with hiking trails , organic gardens and delicious food.

    March 29, 2016 • Bela Banker, Bloggers, India • Views: 3260

  • Why Travel to India?

    ss-india-taj-camels-web

    A few years ago, when I started planning travel journeys for Swain Destinations to my home country – India, I came across a local friend of mine-who wanted to challenge herself, to open her heart and travel to the unknown. She wanted to do something significant to mark a transition in her life. She craved for adventure, something that would make her feel alive! So the place to have that experience is India. Why India? One has to be ready for India, mentally, culturally, spiritually and romantically.

    It is like no other country.

    It is so colorful. You will get mesmerized by the vibrant display of flower garlands everywhere that are offered to the Hindu gods.  The saris and comfortable ‘salwar- khameez”  – Punjabi dress – tunic that they wear over baggy pants with a matching dupatta or a scarf draped around their neck are beautiful.

    India is slow travel. In order to immerse in its’ culture – you need to travel at a slower pace.  Everything takes time. You need to see and feel each place that you visit.

    The greatest thing about traveling in India, especially coming from the west – is that you will be constantly surprised by what you see every day.  Like a cow standing on a sandy beach. It may be strange sight for you for the first time, but it will soon become normal after you see a few of those unusual sights.

    The food is fresh and full of flavor. There is a wide variety for people who can stand the spice, and those who cannot.

    The sunsets in India are stunning. No two are alike. Be it in the city or at a beach, the colors of the sky merge from hues of orange, reds and maroons.

    I have visited the Taj Mahal three times, and every time I have been blown away.  The story of Taj is a touching love story. I have to pinch myself to really believe that something so beautiful exists in this world.

    India is a great place to shop. Colorful linen tops, carpets, brass items, gems and more.

    Mumbai’s film industry, Bollywood, is the world’s largest – bigger than Hollywood. These movies provide a fascinating insight into Indian pop culture.

    Harvard, Stanford and all the top business schools make it their business for all their students to spend time in India. It is one of the fastest growing economies and is making an impact globally.

    Some of the Palace hotels are magical! Like the Umaid Bhavan in Jodhpur and the Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur.  Kerala’s backwater cruise is incredible.

    Ladakh in the Himalayas is perfect place to travel from June to October and from October to March the rest of India.

    A trip to India is life – changing, it is a trip good for your spirit and soul.

    Let me plan your trip to India!

    Happy Travels,

    Bela

    February 13, 2015 • Articles, Asia, Bela Banker, Destinations, Travels • Views: 5284

  • Top Places to Stay and Things to Do in Nepal

    Recently our very own Bela Banker went to Nepal to visit some of the incredible sights in this Himalayan country. Here’s the list of some of the unique places to stay and must-do activities in the country! Continue Reading

    October 20, 2014 • Articles, Asia, Bela Banker, India, Travels • Views: 6407

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