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BHUTAN: Land of chilli cheese

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 11, 2013

Who: Dr Mary Ann Tsao, 58, chairman of the Tsao Foundation, which runs care services for the elderly. She is a Hong Kong citizen and Singapore permanent resident.

Favourite place: Bhutan

Why: Bhutan is a country with beautiful scenery and for urbanites like us in Singapore, it's really nice to be in nature. People there still wear traditional clothes and live the way they have for years. They are generally earnest, kind and welcoming.

The weather is crisp and the temperature is never very hot or very cold.

I have a circuit I always follow. I fly into Paro and start the journey there. Usually I go from Paro to Thimphu, and then to Gangtey and Punakha, and then from there back to Paro again. I have been to Bhutan 20 times as I have a project there, and every time I go, I discover something new.

Favourite place to stay

I stay in Amankora lodges in each of the four places I visit (tel: +975-8272-33, www.amanresorts.com/amankora), so it is like staying in one hotel throughout the trip, even though I am moving from place to place. It is expensive - rooms start from US$775 (S$983) per person per night - and that rate includes meals, beverages, laundry, return airport transfers and visa processing. But it is very lovely, you feel as if you are a guest of a fantastic host who gives you anything you want but is never around. There is no need to check-in when you arrive. The biggest of the lodges has 24 rooms, while the smallest has just eight rooms.

Best way to get around

Driving is the best and maybe even only way to get around. I have, however, often wanted to hire a helicopter because the roads are windy and bumpy. Flights are not that reliable either. I would recommend renting a four-wheel-drive to drive around the country. As Bhutan is very protective of its tourism, you have to book with a travel agent to go there as a tourist and you have to have a guide or driver. When I stay at the Aman, the car and the driver, who is also the guide, are provided.

Best escape from the city

Gangtey is a valley of potato farmers and is about a five-hour drive from Thimphu. There is a little village in the valley, surrounded by beautiful nature. Whenever I am there, I like to take long leisurely walks through the valley and on the hills that rise up from it.

It is the sort of place where you expect Julie Andrews from the movie The Sound Of Music to burst out in song in the middle of your walk - broad, beautiful meadows, little streams and farm-houses, and groves that are so quiet that the only sound you hear is the wind.

It is a place where you can take walks where you can hear your own thoughts and appreciate your own insignificance, yet feel totally happy in that moment. For me, it is really refreshing.

Must-see architecture

The ancient dzongs in Puanakha are some of the most interesting sights. The architecture of these structures is simply amazing. They were built as fortresses several hundred years ago and to serve as government offices and monasteries, which they are still being used as today.

Secular and spiritual leadership is considered equally important there, so in government offices, it is common to see pictures of the king and the chief abbot next to each other on the wall.

I go to the area a lot as I am working on a project there to build housing for the older monks who do not have any family or anywhere to go once they are too old to move around comfortably. These dzong buildings often do not have electricity and are cold, and the stairs are very steep.

The king has donated a piece of land there to build housing for the older monks, so we are working on building a place where they can live.

Best place for local cuisine

Bhutan Kitchen (Gatoen Lam, Thimphu, tel: +975-233-1919), is open daily for lunch and dinner. Bhutanese food in general is a challenge for me, but Bhutan Kitchen does a good job. The national dish is called ema datshi or "chilli cheese". It is very spicy green chilli, sliced and cooked as a vegetable - not as a garnish or a flavouring - and then covered with melted cheese.

I think it is an acquired taste - the Bhutanese obviously love it - but it is a weird combination for me. The version that Bhutan Kitchen makes, though, is somehow pretty good and not as greasy. Mains here cost about 600 Nu (S$6).

Best place for momos

Hotel Druk Restaurant (Clock tower square, Wogzin lham, Thimphu, tel: +975-7719- 8819) has really good momos, which are like dumplings and are more commonly associated with Nepalese cuisine. I like these because the dough is thin and they make them very prettily.

The momos are stuffed with chicken or pork and cabbage and cheese, which is sort of strange but still tastes really good. They are served with this amazing chilli sauce that is made with ground-up fresh green peppercorn, shallots, garlic and ginger. Without wine, a meal there would cost about US$15 (S$19) a person.

Best place to people watch

Taj Tashi Thimphu (Samten Lam, Chubachu,Thimphu, tel: +9752-336-699) is a big, fancy hotel in Thimphu with a large lounge area for drinks. Some members of the Bhutanese high society hang out there, so it is a fun place to people watch.

The women often show up in designer wear, which in Bhutan is very unusual because people are usually in simple, casual traditional clothes. You see a mix of women decked out in really fancy Bhutanese costumes and the younger ones in brands such as Prada.

jennanid@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 11, 2013To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to http://www.sphsubscription.com.sg/eshop/