Reach for the clouds in Tibet

Reach for the clouds in Tibet

Who: Singaporean Penh Huynh, 44, chief financial officer of Ce La Vi restaurant and bar at Marina Bay Sands. She is married to real estate agent Algean Ang, 45. They have no children.

Favourite destination: Tibet

Why: Tibet is naturally beautiful, serene and, at the same time, very spiritual. At such high elevation, you're so close to the clear blue skies that you feel like you can just reach and grab the white fluffy clouds floating overhead.

The lakes were crystal-clear and the snow-capped mountains were pristine. As we were driven across the Tibetan terrain in a four- wheel-drive jeep, we often passed the lone worshipper making his pilgrimage by foot along the road, who would stop at every step to bow and pray on the ground.

Our trip to Tibet brought us close to the rawness of nature and simplicity of life. There were many pensive moments when I reflected on life's meaning and felt blessed.


Where to stay

When we were there in 2009, the international hotel chains had not opened in the capital and most local hotels were open for only mainland Chinese, so as foreign travellers, our options were limited.

We booked a private tour through Tibet Ctrip and stayed at three- and four-star hotels, none of which were noteworthy. Outside Lhasa, the hotel options are limited, so be ready to rough it.

Favourite restaurant

In Lhasa, you can find tasty Tibetan, Nepalese and Indian cuisine. Namaste restaurant (11 Lugu Wu Xiang) is a Nepalese restaurant with a good selection of Nepalese dishes, and its Indian dishes, such as spicy naan, dhal and chicken tikka masala, were surprisingly very good, cheap and tasty.

Another nice restaurant we went to twice was Mayke Ame (south-east corner of Barkhor Street), which serves Western dishes and Tibetan cuisine that mainly consists of yak, mutton and goat. It is meat-focused as vegetables are scarce here.

Must-try food

If someone offers you yak butter tea, it is good manners to take a sip. However, I must say it is an acquired taste as it is more savoury than sweet. Yak meat is also available on most restaurant menus and is a recommended local favourite, but I found it tough and chewy.

Favourite cultural site

Tibet is a spiritual destination with many temples and monasteries. Everyone must make a pilgrimage to Jokhang Temple, a Unesco World Heritage site and the most sacred and important temple in Tibet.

The famous Potala Palace is another must-visit. It was the chief residence of the Dalai Lama until 1959 and is now a World Heritage site and museum.

The steps leading up to the palace are breathtaking in every sense of the word because, at 3,200m above sea level, the climb tests your fitness.

Two other Tibetan monasteries worth a visit are the Sera Monastery, where you will find lamas debating the Buddhist doctrine, and the scenic Drepung Monastery, known as the mother temple of Dalai Lamas. These are all in Lhasa.


Get to know local culture

The best way to experience Tibet is to take a four-wheel-drive jeep to explore the landscape.

Visit the serene, holy lakes of Namtso, which are a gorgeous turquoise, and Yamdrok-tso, a freshwater lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains.

Then make your way to Shigatse, Tibet's second-largest city, to visit Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, the seat of the Panchen Lama, the second highest-ranking lama after the Dalai Lama.

Where to shop

Barkhor Street around the Jokhang Temple is a traditional Tibetan shopping market of souvenirs.

You can find Tibetan ornaments, silver jewellery, beads, religious symbols and thangka, traditional Tibetan Buddhist paintings.

We chanced on a corner shop and bought beautifully woven Tibetan carpets. If you can splurge and want to invest in Tibetan carpets, ask for the ones with 600 to 800 knots a square inch as they are as smooth as silk.

Event to bookmark

The Nakchu Horse Racing Festival is the most important festival in North Tibet. Thousands of herdsmen - clad in their finest and most colourful clothes and jewellery - arrive in Nakchu from all over Tibet to compete in horse races, archery and horsemanship demonstrations.

Ideal length of stay

You need at least eight to 10 days to experience Tibet, even longer if you can handle the high altitude.

It is highly recommended that you book a private tour as travellers still require permits to travel throughout Tibet.

Traveller's advice

To visit Tibet, you must have a sense of adventure and enjoy nature, leaving the notion of luxury at home.

Lhasa is 3,700m above sea level, so make sure you stay there for one or two days to acclimatise before travelling to other higher-altitude sites, especially to Everest Base Camp at 5,200m.

Avoid drinking alcohol while travelling in Tibet, as it can exacerbate altitude sickness.

If you plan to venture to Everest Base Camp, make sure you take along a few oxygen canisters to help with the acute mountain sickness.

You can also find pills and tea made from the Tibetan herb, hong jin tian, in Lhasa, which can help.

This article was first published on Aug 14, 2016.
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