From hours to minutes: How I book the right hotel quickly

I remember the time I was planning a trip to Spain in 2011. Booking air tickets and drawing up a rough itinerary were the easy parts. Then I had to book my hotel rooms.

I agonized over dozens of hotels in Barcelona, Sevilla and Madrid. I looked at so many options across so many websites, so many blogs and so many travel portals that it took me days to decide the hotels. If I had spent as much time in preparing for my college exams, I would have aced them all.

Anyways, when I finally selected the hotels, I promised myself I would never spend so much time on figuring out hotels for my trip. Of course, hotels are a very important part of my visit to a new place. I want comfort, I want easy access to public transport and I want to be safe.

But spending days, or even hours on hunting hotels? Sheer waste of valuable time.

Wora Bura Resort Spa Hua Hin

(Wora Bura Resort & Spa in Hua Hin, Thailand)

For my next trip, I tried to be a bit more systematic. I cut down from several days to just a single day on hotel research. But that was still too long.

Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. And when planning my holiday to Italy in December 2013, I was also planning my wedding (!) and so, I had very little time to ponder over hotels.

That’s when I hit upon my formula.

I’ve been following this method since almost four years now and it’s saved me a lot of time, stress and the end result has never been bad (touchwood).

Try it and tell me what you think.

Here’s how I do it.

Step 1: I decide on a budget

I break down the trip’s budget into all sorts of costs—from sightseeing to food. All are estimates, of course, but that works. After calculating all these costs, I arrive at a cost for my hotel stays.

Or sometimes, I just decide the amount of money I am willing to spend on a hotel room per night on that trip, such as $80 per night.

Time taken: 10-20 minutes.

Hotel Kempinski Nay Pyi Taw

(Hotel Kempinski, Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar)

Step 2: I pick hotels for that given budget.

I enter the city and travel dates into a hotel booking website. The booking website is usually one I find reliable and trustworthy. My preferences are usually agoda.com or booking.com. Once I get the search results, I filter by my budget, and now, I have a (long) shortlist. This doesn’t take long and the list could be anywhere from five to 15 hotels.

Time taken: 10 minutes

Step 3: I look up shortlisted hotels.

If there are too many (long) listed hotels could be dime a dozen, so I also filter out the hotels by the number of stars or ratings. The top ones stay on the list, the bottom ones are eliminated. From this shorter shortlist, I am now ready to research hotels. I look up traveller review sites like Tripadvisor for each hotel, and I especially pay attention to the bad reviews to get a balanced view. I then cut down to three hotels.

Time taken: 15-20 minutes

Step 4: I now have a final list.

With just three hotels on my list, I visit each hotel’s website and look up important details. For example, do they have a swimming pool and an elevator? Is it near the places I want to visit? Will I have access to public transport? How near or far is it from the airport?

Time taken: 10-15 minutes

Art hotel Chiang Mai

(Art Hotel, Chiang Mai, Thailand)

Step 5: And now, I have a winner.

I go back to my booking site and book. Or, if the hotel offers a “lowest tariff guarantee” I write to them informing them of my travel dates and the best offers I’m getting online. Most hotels respond within a day and they often give me a better rate (this is especially true of boutique and single/ standalone hotels).

I get the hotel I want, they get a paying customer. Win-win all around.

Time taken: 5 minutes (to email), 5 minutes (to pay)

How do you choose hotels for your holiday?

 

A boat ride on Inle Lake, Myanmar

A lone fisherman in a conical hat flings his net into the freshwater lake. As the mist clears, I see miniature gardens of brightly-coloured flowers gently floating in the water. For miles, there’s nothing to see except water, a fisherman or two, the Shan hills in the distance, and the unfamiliar flowers and leaves beautifully meshed into the lake’s surface. The only sound is the dull throb of the boat’s diesel motor.

Fisherman at Inle Lake Myanmar

We are sailing through Myanmar’s Inle Lake in Shan State. And the lake is nothing like any other I’ve seen before. It is the lifeline of villages and towns that live by the shore. It’s the means of income and the means of transport both rolled into one. And it’s a unique ecosystem (also a biosphere reserve) with distinct flora and fauna scattered throughout the 116-square-kilometres lake.

Plants at Inle Lake Myanmar

Pockets of civilization appear in the distance. Local Burmese men and women line up for a “shared boat taxi” for their daily commute to the market or places of work. We stop by a market on the lakeside to buy souvenirs. Bargaining is hard in Myanmar, most of the times both you and the seller know that the price is exorbitant, but it’s a question of who is more stubborn. So you win some, you lose some.

House at Inle Lake Myanmar

Further down the lake, houses made entirely of wood appear like islands. Some of these structures have artisan workshops, where local craftsmen weave fabrics from lotus stems (exquisitely soft silk!) and make silver jewellery.

House Inle Lake Myanmar

At one souvenir shop on the lake, I see some women making small souvenirs. They are like any other woman, except their long necks are stacked with brass rings. They are Kayan Lahwi or Padaung women, seated here to fascinate tourists with their exotic neck jewellery and peculiar anatomy. Of course pictures are welcome.

Later, we head to a pagoda just off the lake. It’s like any other pagoda in Myanmar, filled with throngs of Myanmar people praying to Buddha.

After a refreshing drink of fresh coconut water just outside the pagoda, we head back to our boat. The gentle morning breeze has made way for the afternoon sun. The lake is busy, as boats stuffed with tourists slice through the water to explore life on Inle Lake.

Tourists at Inle Lake Myanmar

But we head back to the hotel on the boat and relish the quiet moments of solitude. As I step off the boat, I suddenly have a wish. One only. That the lake is preserved, its animals and birds and plants kept intact for centuries. That we humans don’t destroy the lake’s understated beauty with our ever-present destructive tendencies. I wish. I pray.

Reaching Inle Lake: To visit Inle Lake, take a flight from Yangon or Mandalay to Heho. The airport is 35 kilometres from the lake. The nearest town is Nyaungshwe in Taunggyi District of Shan State, Myanmar.

Sunday Street Stories: Rangoon War Cemetery

In a quiet lane off Yangon’s Pyay Road is a square of lush green grass dotted with trees and flowers that belie the crazy traffic just a few metres away. Few people go there. Taxi drivers wonder why you would want to get off at that strange place.

That strange, quiet, manicured place is Rangoon War Cemetery, with graves of hundreds of soldiers who died in action in Burma during the Second World War. Maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the cemetery is a space where race and nationality don’t matter. Indian and African soldiers lie next to their colleagues from Britain, bound together by war.

Rangoon War Cemetery Yangon
This piece of history is not on any tourist map of Yangon. But this place is important. Because it reminds me of the damage that war has caused over the centuries. And the consequences of war affect all of us, no matter where or when we are born.

Rangoon War Cemetery Yangon Burma

Location: Rangoon War Cemetery, Yangon (Myanmar)

Date: December 16, 2016

Device: Xiaomi Mi 5

Sunday Street Stories: Yangon’s Living Restoration

Almost every colonial-era building in downtown Yangon has a spellbinding story to tell, though interest in aesthetic restoration is still fledgling. An unassuming building in Merchant Street now serves as a demonstration of how  a facelift can be done while keeping the original architecture intact.

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Taking into account the views of the residents and tenants, Turquoise Mountain set about renovating the building. They trained local workers, used quality materials and did it all on a tight budget. It’s a job well-done, and now there’s some hope that people living in historical spaces in Yangon will make an effort to preserve their inherent beauty. Fingers crossed.

PS- The project managers even restored the little altars outside!

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Pictures taken on: July 19, 2016
Location: Merchant Street, downtown Yangon, Myanmar
Device: Nexus 5

Sunday Street Stories: It’s all about great hair

In Yangon (and most of Myanmar) women young and old have gorgeous, poker-straight hair. Their secret? Not their genes or diet or combing techniques… But regular trips to the beauty salon.

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So how are Myanmar women different from women worldwide? After all, almost every country has a vibrant and thriving beauty industry. Well, for one, it’s the number of visits women make to the salon (to straighten their hair, to colour their hair, to wash their hair, to massage their head, to blow dry their hair, and of course, paint their nails). So salons do brisk business. And then, the  sheer number of salons in business. Within just a 60-metre radius around my building, I’ve counted seven beauty salons. (Maybe there are more). If anyone did a worldwide survey of  beauty salons per capita or beauty salons per square kilometre, Myanmar might just win hands down. The salons here often work till late night,  staying open even after restaurants shut down!

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Location: Hledan Street, Yangon, Myanmar
Date: June 25, 2016
Device: Google Nexus 5

Sunday Street Stories: Yangon Stock Exchange

Tall columns, a neatly-designed façade, delicately ornate with a smooth finish, this beautiful colonial-era building in downtown Yangon is a stunner. Obscured from view by a cluster of trees, I barely noticed it though I’ve passed it several times while in a taxi.

But last week, I finally saw it up close. It’s just one of a handful of well-preserved Yangon buildings, and reminds me of Mumbai’s RBI building on Mint Road. Turns out this one is the Yangon Stock Exchange.

Yangon stock exchange

The stock exchange began operations only last December and the first company listed this March. With all the rapid changes happening in Myanmar, there’s so much interest in investing here and hopefully the stock exchange paves the way for a robust financial sector.

While potential investors are looking for business opportunities, I’m trying to figure out if I can go inside.

 Device: Google Nexus 5

Date: May 15, 2016

Location: Downtown Yangon, Myanmar

An ode to Myanmar’s magnificent mangoes

There’s nothing better than a burst of sweetness in your mouth. Sweetness that’s like fresh breeze on a hot summer day, a taste so wonderful that it enthralls your taste buds and fills your heart with joy. It’s a treat that you wish will linger forever.

Such divine sweetness does exist, and I bet you’re thinking Alphonso, Alphonso, Alphonso.

I grew up eating dozens of Alphonso mangoes every week in summer. My maternal grandmother bought (no, hoarded) several boxes and force-fed the mangoes to everyone at home or anyone who dropped by. On a typical summer day, we had Alphonso mangoes at breakfast with mango milkshake, chopped Alphonso mangoes after almost every meal, then Alphonso with ice cream or whipped cream, or mango yoghurt-based cheesecake for dessert.

And outside the home, there were more mangoes to be had. Restaurants, ice cream parlours and mithai shops across Mumbai would be flooded with seasonal mango delicacies like the Gujarati-style aamras with deep-fried puris (mango pulp with deep-fried Indian bread) or mango shrikhand (strained yoghurt dessert). Oh, and the super sweet mango mishti doi (fermented sweet yoghurt). Or the subtly-flavoured mango sandesh (cheese-based confectionery).

So yes, I’d had hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Alphonso mangoes in the first two-odd decades of my existence. After my grandmother passed away a few years ago, our memories of her fondness for mangoes stayed on. But the sweet essence of Alphonso mangoes seemed to rescind into the past as well. The flavour has changed from sweet to weirdly-sweet-and-bit-sour, and they got more juice and less pulp. I lost interest in Alphonso mangoes.

It was with a heavy heart that I privately acknowledged a shocking fact about myself a couple years ago: I just didn’t like Alphonso mangoes anymore. And mangoes in general didn’t beckon to me anymore.

Last June, S and I discovered Sein Ta Lone mangoes in a Yangon fruit market. I wasn’t too keen on trying them. I mean, how can any mango beat an Alphonso?

Sein Ta lone mangoes

But I tried it anyway. Turns out Myanmar’s gorgeous Sein Ta Lone mango is at least a gazillion times better than the Ratnagiri Alphonso.

I fell in love at first bite. Sein Ta Lone mangoes are a perfect hue of orange and gold, they’re juicy and pulpy, wonderfully aromatic, with a smooth non-fibrous texture, and, of course, richly, delightfully, gloriously sweet. Each bite is pure heaven.

Grown around Myanmar, these mangoes are fleeting visitors in local fruit markets—they’re available for only two months a year (April to June). The name is just as beautiful – sein means diamond and ta lone means one piece. So Sein Ta Lone is the precious diamond solitaire of fruits.

What an apt name.

These mangoes don’t cost as much as a diamond of course, but are still fairly expensive (by Myanmar standards). A high-quality Sein Ta Lone mango weighing 300 to 400 grams will cost around 400-600 kyats per piece. (That’s between 35 and 55 cents for a mango). But they’re totally worth the indulgence if you have the means.

The Sein Ta Lones are so sweet that I made mango chutney at home, bottled it all up, gave some to friends, and sold some as well. The best thing: the chutney is sweet, but I didn’t need to put any sugar in it. 😀

mango chutney sein ta lone

Besides the Sein Ta Lone, Myanmar has several other delicious varieties of mangoes as well, and many fall off trees on to the streets of Yangon. I’ve seen people around Yangon picking them up and taking them home to eat. What a delight!

After decades of being cut off from rest of the world, Myanmar has thousands of secrets unknown to the world and these divine fruits are one of them. I can’t imagine summers without Sein Ta Lone mangoes anymore.

MOM TO ME: Culinary lessons for life

Like every good Indian kid, I claim that my mom is the bestest cook in the world. This may be an exaggeration, but several of my friends and family members concur that she is among the best home cooks they know of. Her food is mostly simple home-cooked fare, the kind of food that’s cooked every day across millions of homes in India. But it’s confoundingly delicious.

When I moved out of Mumbai last year, Mom narrated some of her recipes to me which I typed into my laptop or tapped into my phone and saved on Evernote. Dishes like gobi aloo, rajma and even chutney. She often began by saying, “There’s no recipe for this”, but when I insisted, she thought it through, and today the couple of dozen of my mom’s recipes that I’ve acquired are an absolute treasure.

In a foreign land, her recipes help me recreate the experience of her home. The colourful spices in my stainless steel masala box (bought by Mom) have a pride of place on my kitchen counter. As per her instructions, the cumin sputters in hot ghee for the tadka and the onion browns for a long, long time for the gravy base. Aromas of roasting besan and fresh coriander chutney waft around my home today, while sounds of sizzling mustard seeds and knife-on-chopping board echo around my kitchen. It’s just like my childhood, except I’m the one creating food memories. Like with this sweet corn soup:

Sweet corn soup

Of course, my food is nowhere as good as Mom’s. The flavours in her food are much more nuanced, and the textures much more balanced. She cooks with passion, love and lots of fervour, which means there’s a method to her madness. While there may be a big mess on the kitchen counter, the menu and ingredients are all sorted in her head.

I’m still trying to learn her “secrets”. She claims there aren’t any, but I beg to differ. From what I’ve observed in the past few weeks (when she was visiting me), this is what I’ve learnt. And there are many more to go:

How to make curd/ yoghurt: This is practically a science and it was an important part of my daily diet growing up. But I’ve been spending our hard-earned money on buying supermarket yoghurt. After various attempts with different starter cultures and milk brands, Mom finally hit the right formula that works for me. So it’s fresh dahi everyday! I can’t even explain how grateful I am.

Paratha and raita

Kheer and phirni: I’m not a big fan of Indian desserts, or even desserts in general, but these two dishes were an absolute delight when she cooked them. So yes, I’ve noted them down already though not attempted them yet.

Patience: Each dish requires a certain amount of time to be cooked, and if you don’t give it that much time, it just won’t be right. Patience is key here, whether cooking Indian food or otherwise.

Oye Punjabi: Punjabi food, especially Amritsari food is a very distinct cuisine. I’ve got some command over the basics of Punjabi food now, but there’s so much more to learn. But beyond the dishes, Mom’s demystified some exotic-sounding ingredients like aamchoor (dried mango powder), ajwain (carom seeds) and anardana (dried pomegranate seeds).

Reinvention: Now that S has banned sugar at home, we’re using stevia. Mom had never even heard of it, but now cooks with it and sometimes skips a sweetener altogether though her original recipe called for it. And even though all Indian ingredients aren’t available here, she adapted some recipes to cook delicious meals without them.

Attention to detail: Don’t forget to sprinkle of black pepper powder at the end, or to garnish with fresh coriander leaves. Or that this curry needs fewer curry leaves than the other one. These tiny touches make all the difference.

Happy Mothers’ Day!

Myanmar’s beauty secret

Walking through the streets of Yangon, I see painted faces. Not the kind smiling down from giant signboards advertising vitamin supplements, but real people faces. Painted. Women young and old, little boys and girls and (some) men sport the paint like it’s part of them, as natural as wearing clothes or applying moisturiser. In the sundrenched streets, in the bustling wet market, at the airconditioned supermarket, in packed buses, I see cheeks and foreheads sporting circles and streaks of ochre, like a sort of war paint.

Myanmar girl in Thanaka

This “war paint” is thanaka or thanakha (pronounced tuh-naa-kaa), and it functions as a potent weapon to protect Myanmar people from the harsh sun.

Myanmar folk believe thanaka is a wonderful antidote to the harmful effects of too much sun. It keeps their skin de-tanned, safe and non-greasy.

Made from the bark of the wood apple tree that grows across Myanmar, thanaka paste has a gentle fragrance that vaguely reminds me of Indian sandalwood. Market vendors sell chopped pieces of thanaka bark at different prices, based on size. You choose your bark, take it home, and pound it into a paste with some water in a special grinder called kyout pin (pronounced chow-pi-ye).

Here’s the bark I spotted in my neighbourhood wet market (Hledan Zei):

Wood apple or thanaka bark Myanmar

And this is the grinder (kyout pin, picture courtesy Myat Su San)

Thanaka grinder Myanmar

If you don’t own the grinder (like me) or don’t know how to make the paste, you buy ready thanaka paste from the supermarket (like me). It’s less effective than home-made thanaka but still works, according to this experiential feature in Myanmar Times.

Thanaka in Yangon supermarket

Thanaka in Myanmar supermarket

Take some paste with a spatula or fingers, apply on your cheeks and voila! You’re ready to soak up the sun. You can also apply thanaka on your forehead, arms or any body part exposed to the sun. Some artistic Myanmar moms paint flowers on their daughters’ cheeks with thanaka. So cute!

Thanaka can stay on all day, but I’ve only used it for short periods of time, and my skin feels radiant, soft, bright and fresh after washing it off. Most importantly, I don’t get a post-sun headache and my skin feels cool when I’m in the sun. So yes, I believe it works. And the nearly blemish-free, bright skin I’ve seen on most Myanmar people is proof enough for me.

When people ask me what thanaka is, I say it’s sunblock, sunscreen, gentle exfoliator, face pack, cream, all rolled into one. You only need to try it to feel its magic!

Sunday Street Stories: Yangon’s skaters

In my first weekend in Yangon last June, I was on my way to the mall supermarket for groceries when we passed the Hledan bridge (more like an overpass). Under the bridge were a bunch of young men on roller skates and skate boards. I was fascinated, having seen skateboarding only in some Hollywood movies.

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A few months ago, the skaters were  campaigning for a dedicated skate park. With crowdsourced funding, the park will soon be built in Yangon. Till then, skaters and skateboarders come to the overpass to practise and learn. A fun way to spend an evening.

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Picture taken on: December 4, 2015
Location: Yangon, Myanmar
Device: Nexus 5