This Labor Day weekend, the family took a trip to Sugarland, Houston to attend Missy JJ’s skating competition. Houston is about 4-5 hours from Dallas. We stopped midway at Buffalo, Texas as we had a late start and completed the rest of the journey on Saturday morning. While the main focus of the trip was the competition, we were able to grab a few hours to visit a couple of nearby spots.

As the name suggests, Sugar Land was originally a sugarcane plantation that has since developed into an upscale, diverse community, with fine dining, shopping and several different attractions nearby, including the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The Imperial Sugar factory had been housed here for over a century until its closure in 2003.  The company headquarters are still here in Sugar Land. In fact, the city seal boasts the 5 pointed Texas Lone Star and the Imperial Sugar crown logo, something we found interesting.

During a lull in the competition, we took an hour out to try the Songkran Thai that was just a couple of minutes away from the rink. Named for the Thai New Year, Songkran was very unique with respect to its ambience. I loved the huge murals adorning two walls, the tables and chairs of a darker shade with light cushions that blended in very well with the cozy setting of the room.

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Songkran Thai, Sugarland

The food portions were just right but the prices were a little more than what we would normally spend on a lunch. However, the menu offered a variety of vegetarian and gluten-free dishes. The potato puff pastry with cucumber relish was very flavorful and baked! The kids, as always, chose Pad See-Ew while I went with the Kang Phet Tow Hou, a version of the red curry. Mr. JJ chose the Pad Pak Phong Karii, a dry version of the yellow curry. I was pleased with my dish whereas Mr. JJ was not quite as happy, perhaps due to the dry nature of the dish.

That evening, we proceeded to the Swaminarayan Temple in Stafford, TX, just a few minutes drive from Sugar Land. Inaugurated in 2004, this temple is a living example of the might of volunteerism. The website states 1.3 million hours were volunteered to assemble this temple over 16 months.

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Swaminarayan Temple, Stafford, Texas-look closely to enjoy the fine architecture on the walls

What impressed me more than the religious aspect was the architectural beauty of this temple! Placed on five acres of land with reflecting pool and fountains on three sides and wide steps leading into the main temple, the temple looks bathed in moonlight. The Turkish limestone exterior adds an ethereal beauty to the temple silhouette. The inside of the temple is made of Italian marble and is a feast to the eye for its architectural finesse. Painstakingly detailed, the inner cupola of the temple provides the best acoustics, resonating the chanting that goes on in the temple. The large windows that open to the outdoors on both sides add to the feeling of natural beauty and serenity. And plenty of ventilation for when the temple gets busy, really busy.

There was a true spiritual sense when I walked into the temple. Men and women had separate seating sections, the latter being in the back. Something that didn’t sit well with me. But irrespective, the view of the deities was very good despite a steady stream of devotees. Men were allowed to circumambulate the sanctum sanctorum but not women.

Photography was not allowed inside the temple as in many religious places. Footwear had to be placed in separate banks for men and women. The website provides a detailed list of Do’s and Dont’s.

The Shayona Cafe and the Shayona Sweets and Snacks shop on the temple premises offer an all-vegetarian menu for hungry visitors. The outside of the temple offers a sense of tranquility even in the midst of the crowds. Parking place is aplenty. Just the architecture alone is a good reason to visit the temple, no matter what one’s religious beliefs may be.

Since it was past 8pm by the time we left, the Shayona cafe was closed. So we headed to Maharaja Bhog restaurant off Hwy 59 where we met up with friends and joined the long list of people awaiting a table. The wait was about forty minutes long for a busy Saturday night. Maharaja Bhog is an all vegetarian, all you can eat restaurant serving Gujarati and Rajasthani style foods on a “ThAli”, a plate. The service is what makes this restaurant different. The servers start with warm water to wash hands at the table before and after the meal. A large empty plate with multiple small bowls is placed before you and then the service begins. Guests can choose a milder version of spice if it suits their taste better.

My plate was quickly filled with a Dhokla, fritter, dahi vada, and jilebi. Green and tamarind chutneys appeared on the plate followed by small bowls. Four different varieties of sabjis filled the bowls, one with chickpeas, one with cottage cheese, one with cauliflower and potato and the last made out of sprouts that was slightly sweet. The next few minutes, our hungry group dug into second and third and fourth helpings of rotis and puris, each one so light and soft. Then came white rice paired with three different varieties of gravy, including the Dhal Khadi. Pulav and Khichdi were also served. A tall glass of spiced buttermilk rounded out the meal. I was so stuffed I could hardly walk.

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ThAli at the Maharaja Bhog

The restaurant was understandably busy but the wait staff did an excellent job keeping us well fed in a timely fashion. The meals were authentic and appetising. I would have liked to see a smaller bill but the experience was not to be missed and the food servings were unlimited.

Good food, good company- what more could one ask for while on the road.