Okay…So finally i decided to write about this amazing journey in a country which is worth the mention here. I don’t remember how the idea came to use but me and my wife decided to visit Vietnam this November and god it was sweet.

We decided to club Cambodia with the trip but it wasn’t as enticing as Vietnam so we limited our travel to a couple of days in Siem Reap. Now Siem Reap is a different story. It’s an amazing place with some really amazing temples and structures but I don’t want to take away the attention from Vietnam.

6th – 15th Nov 2015

 

Ben Thanh

Ben Thanh

From Siem Reap we flew down to Ho Chi Minh City or as the local people call it Saigon. We took a taxi to our hotel Anpha boutique which was right across the corner of the famous Ben Thanh market. At first the city appeared to be a complete alien with no signs of friendliness or camaraderie. Maybe it was the language barrier but soon we gained comfort after interacting with the hotel staff. Food appeared to be another challenge but soon we found a restaurant in the Ben Thanh market where we indulged in Vietnamese cuisine. As the sun was about to set we decided to visit the Biteco Financial tower which is the tallest tower in Saigon. So, instead of going to the skydeck where you pay for just the view, we dropped in at the Eon 51 bar where you get the view with a drink (makes sense). Needless to say it was totally worth the time and money. The view of the sprawling city of more than 2000 Sq.kms from the bar is simply mesmerizing. We spent about an hour gazing at the buildings, streets and the Saigon River while we enjoyed a drink on the 52nd floor of the building. It was now time to take an evening stroll on the streets of Saigon and we realized that the Ben Thanh market which was functioning under a huge shed during the day had metamorphosed into a beautiful night market across two parallel streets. It felt like hitting the jackpot when we bargained our way for some really good stuff and decided to come back again the next day for more. The next morning was a lazy morning and we took our time to wake up and head for the breakfast. While the breakfast was limited to some regular options, what stood out was the coffee. I had read somewhere that Vietnam is known for its coffee and being one of the largest cultivators and exporters of coffee they really know how it tastes best. Traditional Vietnamese hot coffee is served as strong black coffee liquor on top of condensed milk which blends perfectly and leaves your taste buds craving for more.  At least that’s what it did to me and I couldn’t resist sipping traditional Vietnamese coffee every now and then throughout the trip. We lazed till afternoon and soon after a light lunch we started for our half day city tour organized by our hotel. The weather was humid and the traffic was pretty much heavy but I didn’t see much of the chaos which we are generally accustomed to so it was a good experience riding through the city while we visited the Presidential/independence/reunification palace, Notre-dame basilica and post office. Our last stop was at the war remnants museum which was a horrifying mirror to Vietnam’s past. It portrayed the journey of Vietnam through the multitude of wars over several centuries which left millions of people homeless, abandoned, disabled and dead. The photographs and the stories left everyone speechless. With a heavy heart and few Goosebumps we left the place but what really cheered us up were the people of Vietnam who celebrate life daily as the way it comes. The cafes, the streets, the night markets and the parks were all bustling with activities and the people seemed to enjoy every moment of their time with food, drinks and coffee. We spent some more time at the night market and grabbed some nice souvenirs. The night market was visible from our room and we realized that it was open at least till midnight before we went off to a good night sleep only to wake up for our next destination.

NHA Trang

The next morning we took a flight to our next destination NHA Trang. We checked in at the Best Western Premiere Havana and got a room high enough to get a great view of the entire coastline of NHA Trang. The view from the hotel room was simply breath-taking and we could not resist but rest on the sofa near the window pane, facing the shore. It was late in the afternoon and we suddenly realized that we had been hungry since morning so we walked down on the road adjacent to the beach to a nice café called KHO. It had a nice look and feel with seating arrangements facing the beach. We hogged on to some really amazing barbecue and cocktails. While the sun was about to set I took a dip in the pristine beach of NHA Trang and then we decided to take a nice and soothing traditional Vietnamese spa in the hotel. The rest of the evening was well spent strolling on the vibrant streets and munching some desert in the hotel while resting on the sofa with a great view of the coastline. The next morning we checked out of the hotel and hopped on to a ferry for island hopping around NHA Trang. While there are about 18-19 islands
around NHA Trang we visited four of them. We did snorkelling on the first island and then had aNHA Trang quick lunch in another island. After some disappointing food, there was some live entertainment by the ferry crew members which went on for an hour of singing and dancing and diving from the ferries and finally wrapping up with some wine. We then headed to a party island which was a huge private island with a not so clear beach but good entertainment around the huge swimming pool. The last island was an aquarium which was home to some interesting species of sea creatures like urchins, jelly fish etc. By evening we were back to the hotel and had a quick supper at KHO café again before we boarded our overnight bus to the next destination Hoi An.

Hoi An

Hoi An

Hoi An is an ancient Vietnamese town preserved through ages despite the regular floods that keep occurring. It is spread around Thu Bon river and is not far from some amazing beaches. We reached Hoi An early morning and checked in at Hotel Aurora which was towards the Cua Dai Beach but right opposite the river bank and the view of the river from our room was a delight. The best part about this ancient town is that you get to ride bicycles around the town and explore the several colourful and lively streets while walking as four wheelers are mostly not allowed in the heritage area. So without wasting much time we headed to the heritage village and had a quick lunch. Then we explored the village through narrow bylanes reminiscent of a bygone era. There were numerous shops selling fine products of art and craft while the aroma of the roasted coffee kept pushing us to explore more There were several ancient Vietnamese houses touched upon by Chinese and Japanese architecture, surviving through massive floods every few years yet standing tall and defying the nature’s fury. The village was like a sleeping beauty which suddenly came to life by dusk as the village transformed into a princess glowing through the numerous lamps and lanterns. The streets were full of activities from singing to dancing and hawkers and vendors selling different products. The Cau An Hoi Bridge near the Japanese bridge suddenly became the centre of all attraction and activities with numerous street restaurants along one side of the river. The night market soon opened up on the other side of the river with several local products on offer and it was one more time to get a good bargain. We floated a small candle lit paper boat on the river bank as a sign of good omen and called it a day. The next morning we had a good sumptuous breakfast and started our bicycle journey on the world heritage road from Cua Dai beach to An Bang beach. We started a little early to avoid the sun and within a few minutes reached the Cua Dai beach. It was a pretty rough beach with signboards to avoid swimming but the view of the ocean from the beach with coconut trees all around was spectacular. We took a deep breath, clicked some pictures and pushed towards the An Bang beach. It was a very smooth drive with trees all around and several hidden beaches every now and then. We reached the An Bang beach and found it to be sparsely crowded. After taking a short stroll we then paddled back to the heritage village for some more shopping and then back to the hotel. On our way we had some really great lunch at the Han Pho restaurant where we met some really sweet staff and they shared their interests of watching Indian soaps which have now become popular off late. After some rest we again took off with the bicycles to the Cua Dai beach to capture the sunset and evening breeze. On our way back we came across Ginger spa which was trending on Tripadvisor so we rejuvenated ourselves by a head and shoulder massage and continued to ride towards the night market again. It felt like coming back to life and we wished we could stay for long but it was time to head back. But it was that moment that we promised to come back again to this beautiful village and stay for long. It was raining the next morning and with a heavy heart we had to bid adieu to this beauty of a village which treated us with open arms and thus we landed in the capital city Hanoi.

Beer street, Hanoi

Beer street, Hanoi

While planning the trip I had spoken to Eric from Golden Sun Suites hotel and had got a great deal for our stay at Hanoi along with a cruise at Halong Bay and he had made the perfect arrangements to ensure that our stay in the last leg of our journey was the most memorable one. The hotel was located in the heart of the old quarters so we walked around and explored the city around the lovely Hoan Kiem Lake. We quickly covered the Opera house and a couple of museums but spent most of the time around the lake and shopping in the streets of old quarter. Accidentally we came across a beer street where there were a lot many shops around the corners and they sold the cheapest draught beer I have ever come across. We indulged in some freshly brewed beer and took a good sleep before we hit the cruise the next day. We started early morning as it was a four hour journey. By afternoon we reached the place which by far is the most amazing natural beauty I have ever come across – Halong Bay. It is an archipelago of around 2000 islands in the form of small cliffs of limestone partly submerged in the South China Sea near the Ha Long coast. After a sumptuous lunch which the chef had specially prepared as per our taste we were ready for a kayaking amongst the islands and caves and rock cut islands. At first it was challenging to manoeuvre the kayak but we soon got the trick in getting speed and direction. After about an hour or so we came back to the cruise for some time foHalong Bayr ourselves and feel the moment with the nice breeze flowing through the picturesque landscape. The cruise anchored in the middle of
the bay for the rest of the night and after another round of deliciously cooked spread of food we tried our hands in baiting some squids but were not lucky enough so we just dropped the rods and went to bed. The next morning we went for an amazing caving experience in one of the islands which had massive stalactites and stalagmites in a massive cave. After caving, we also took some lessons for cooking delicious Vietnamese spring rolls and wrapped it up with an early lunch. We met some really nice people on the cruise, an old Australian guy settled in the Philippines who shared his life lessons with us and a newly-wed couple on their month long honeymoon. Unfortunately we departed abruptly as they had to shift to another cruise for another day but their memories will stay with us. We left a small note for them with the cruising hoping that someday they would receive the message or maybe we cross paths again in some other destination. We headed back to Hanoi and spent a quiet time near the lake in old quarter and finally tasted Pho. Even though we didn’t really want, we had to leave this amazing country the next day. It was one of the best journeys of our life as we made some good friends, tried some unconventional food, experienced some of the most amazing natural beauty and shopped like crazy. We missed out some places but we believe that when you really love some place you should leave behind something to be a good reason to come back. And We’ll be back.

Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, but who needs eyes to experience the beauty of Bhutan. The breath of the fresh air, the sound of the river gurgling downhill, the touch of the wind flowing all around and the sense of the roads swinging through the hills make you realize that you are in a beautiful country. The moment you open your eyes, beauty is redefined.

18th-29th May 2013

I gelled with one of my close buddies who had planned for a trip to Bhutan along with two other college mates. We did a bit of planning for the places we wanted to visit and tied up with a travel agent to book our hotels and provide a Toyota Innova (along with a local driver) for the entire journey. So, I flew down from Mumbai to Kolkata and caught up my friends. We spent some time in the vintage streets of Kolkata before we hopped on to our train in the evening. Although the train was delayed by couple of hours, we managed to reach Hasimara (closest station to Indo-Bbhutan border) by around noon. Agent Binod (our driver and guide for the trip) who was a driver in the Bhutan army, had come over to pick us from the station. We reached the border and had some lunch in Jaigaon (Indian side of the border) by the time our permits were being prepared by the travel agent (Only Thimpu and Paro permits for 7 days are provided on the border). Indians don’t need a visa for entry to Bhutan but a valid identity proof preferably a passport is required to get permit. It was 4 pm by the time we were ready to step into Phuntsholing (Bhutan side of the IMG_6522border) and head towards Thimpu(the capital and the biggest city).  It’s interesting to see a stark difference on both sides of the gate at the border. The Indian side is crowded with pedestrians, auto rickshaws, shops, spilled garbage and of course noise but on the other side you would notice only a few vehicles, clean roads and organized shops.

As soon as we entered Bhutan, we were welcomed with a pleasant weather and a steep drop in temperature, with clouds making it even more difficult to drive through to Thimpu. One of our friends fell sick on the way and ended up vomiting throughout the road. We reached our hotel by around 8 in the evening and took rest after a light dinner while it rained heavily. The next morning was bright and sunny. We packed alu parathas and rushed to immigration office where we extended our stay and got permits for other cities. We ordered for lunch in a restaurant and visited some beautiful monuments like the memorial Chorten, Changangkha Lakhang (lakhangs are basically monasteries in Bhutan) and Kuensel Phodrang (a gigantic Buddha statue of bronze atop a hillock overlooking Thimpu city). We also visited Takin zoo (Takin is the national animal of Bhutan and is only found in limited reserves/zoos). Post lunch we dropped in at the local museum, national library, school of art and craft and also saw the spectacular Tashichhoe Dzong (parliament) and the king’s palace from a view point. It was endearing to know that the king (head of democracy in Bhutan) regularly visits market places to meet common men and interact with them. We didn’t get a chance to meet the 5th king Jigme Namgyel Wangchuck but loitered around the Norzin Lam market. Every single thing is damn expensive in Bhutan and food options are very limited. Evenings are boring as there is nothing much to do except for watching TV and sniffing the blankets to get a warm sleep in the chilly nights. The food was also disappointing in the hotel as we found an insect in the cauliflower and decided to skip half the meal.

TIMG_6639he next morning we checked out and headed towards Punakha. On our way we crossed Simtokha Dzong and spent some time at the Dochula pass(around 3150m above sea level) where 108 stupas are built in memory of soldiers who had died in a war in 2003. On reaching Punakha we visited the grand Punakha Dzong (Dzongs are basically government offices in almost every city, where lord Buddha is also worshiped) built on an island between the confluence of Po Chhu and Mo Chhu rivers. It was a long affair of more than 2 hours to cover the entire dzong. Meanwhile my buddy unknowingly pulled the ropes tied to a bell in front of the Buddha statue which attracted the attention of the monks and they rushed in to get hold of us and asked for a fine of Rs 1000. However the security personnel helped us and informed that it’s not like India where you can ring the bells in any temple. Those bells were only meant to be rang by the monks when its appropriate. We hurried out of the dzong and had some disappointing lunch at a restaurant and came out cursing the manager. You would find options of river rafting near Punakha dzong but we didn’t find it exciting enough toIMG_6713 jump in so we decided to trek through a nearby paddy field to the Chimi Lakhang (a fertility temple) before we drove uphill to the beautiful Drubthob Nunnery temple where nuns of different ages were enchanting Kanjurs (Bhutanese holy book). It was getting dark and we crossed the burnt Wangdue Dzong to reach Wangdue Phodrang (which is a planned locality) beautifully built with row houses across the river. The place was full of mosquitoes and we had a difficult time to get some sleep but we didn’t have much of an option.

It was day 4 or maybe day 5 (we had lost count of days, away from home in a beautiful land) and it was time for a long journey from one end of the country to the other side. Cutting through several hills, forests and rivers we covered about 250 kms to reach Bumthang (consisting the most beautiful valleys of Bhutan). We stopped at a resort in Trongsa for lunch. While we were on our way to complete the rest of the journey suddenly a bee entered our car and within no time a dozen of them attacked us. We were totally taken for a surprise and had least expected such an incident. While some of us stepped out of the car and ran for our lives, others tried smashing the bees. Somehow we managed to get rid of them and sped away. It was a horrific incident which kept haunting for some time but the thought just vanished when we entered Bumthang via the charming Pelela pass and Yoktungla pass. A group of four valleys named Chumey, Choekhor, Tang and Ura situated towards eastern Bhutan is one of the best landscapes on earth. We checked in at our resort and realized that we were the only people staying at the resort for the next 2 days. We ordered our dinner and bought a pack of cards which we played till late night.

IMG_7162The next morning we took along with us Karma (our local guide) and visited Ura valley (the best of the four valleys in Bumthang). 40 kms from our resort, the Ura village is a small settlement with farming as the main occupation. Karma was an interesting person who constantly kept chatting with us and shared trivia about Buddhism and Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) while we saw the Tamshing Lhakhang and a holy river Membar Tsho. We returned back to our resort for lunch and then visited Jambay Lhakhang and Kurje Lhakhang. Incidentally the royal grandmother was also there at Kurje Lhakhang and was offering prayers to lord Buddha. We also had a chance to visit the second king’s palace but it started raining so we had to skip the Jakar Dzong and return back to our resort. The next morning we packed our bags and returned back on the same route (this time a bit more cautious about the bee attack). We spent an hour in the Trongsa Dzong before lunch and then headed towards Phobjika(Gangtey). It is said that during winter a flock of black necked crane visit Phobjika from Tibet and they are worshiped in the nearby Gangtey Gompa (temple). For me this was the best valley by far and it was freezing outside. Soon there was a power cut and we had to spend the whole night playing cards under candle. Although we had planned to hit the local spa, the power cut spoiled the plans. But it was a gorgeous night with a moonlit sky and a dim light in the far flung valley. We were lucky to finally have a good breakfast (some pancakes, omlettes and juices) which recharged us for the last city in our itinerary -Paro.

Paro is one of the most balanced cities of Bhutan with just the right blend of urbanization and cultural influence. It is also IMG_7564warmer than some of the other cities in  Bhutan. So after a tiring long journey we rejuvenated ourselves with a cup of strong tea and checked in at our hotel. The next day was totally dedicated to Taktsang monastery (Tiger’s nest). Legend has it that this monastery was built overnight by a spell while some believe that Guru Rinpoche(Padmasambhava) flew on the back of a tigress and meditated here in the 8th century while it was later built in 1692 by his disciples. We rode on the back of a horse half the way and trekked further only to realize that the monastery was closed for lunch. We eagerly waited to get a glimpse of the cave (the nest where the tigress stayed). Meanwhile it started raining and we had to trek down all the way through the slippery track. It was evening and we decided to head back to the resort after a detour of the drukgyel dzong (an old dilapidated fort). The next morning, couple of my friends took rest while we went up to the Chelela pass(highest point on Dantak road – 3988mts) , the Ta Dzong (Paro museum) , Rinpung Dzong and the black and white temple. We came back to the hotel for lunch and picked up our friends to visit the Kyichu Lhakhang. We also clicked some pictures near the river, walked the street shops of Paro and finally called it a day. The last morning in Bhutan had IMG_7786arrived and no matter how much pains we took traveling through out the Druk land, we certainly didn’t want to go back. We wished that some spell could hold us back to this country of Gross National Happiness. It gave a sense of achievement to travel through this piece of God gifted land yet it was disappointing that our journey had ended. I don’t know if I will ever get a chance to visit this country again but if I ever seek solace in life, Bhutan will pull me with open arms.

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Stepping outside

Posted: March 16, 2013 in Travel
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They say that the first one is always special. First college, first bike, first girlfriend, first kiss, first salary, all of them. This was my first trip abroad and needless to say it was special. Since long I had been dreaming and planning about this day.  Finally, I get a chance to step outside to Thailand.

7-16th Dec 2012

I got hold of one of my uncle and did all the booking for Thailand 2-3 months before my journey. I was accompanied by one of my old batchmates from IIT Bombay. I was pretty clear that I just don’t want to visit 1-2 places and come back but cover as much as possible in those 9-10 days. So, we booked for Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket and Krabi.

I boarded the late night flight of Thai Airways and reached Bangkok early morning. From there I had to catch a domestic flight to Phuket along with my friend who was supposed to come from Bangalore. I waited in the lobby for 2 hours and then it was time to catch the domestic flight but there was no sign of my friend. I tried to enquire about his arrival but didn’t get any response. So, I decided to check in and suddenly he arrived. His flight was delayed but thankfully he could make it on time and we headed towards Phuket.

I was excited about the whole trip and couldn’t resist myself thinking about the beaches and oceans IMG_4671and clubs and lots more. We checked in at Devana Patong resort near Patong beach (most developed beach in  Phuket). Then we had some quick lunch and our cab arrived to pick us up for a half day city tour. I was amazed to see the cleanliness of the city and the discipline with which people drive cars. Interestingly there are only 3-4 brands of Japanese cars which you would find on the roads mostly multi-utility vehicles. We drove down to Karon, Kata and Nai Hom beach which are in the shape of OM and spent some time at a peak nearby from where you get a good aerial view of these three beaches. It was a breathtaking view and the water was just crystal clear blue which kissed the white sand. Form there we moved to promthep cape which is like a very small cliff emerging out of the ocean which can be seen from a nearby viewpoint. Then we came back to our rooms, freshened up and went for a walk on the Patong beach. The next day we went to Phi Phi islands by a ferry. It is one of the most beautiful islands in and around Thailand. On our way to Phi Phi, we came across Maya Bay (where THE BEACH starring Leonardo Dicaprio was shot in 2000 and became a tourist attraction since then). A lot of them tried snorkeling near Maya Bay and so did my friend but I decided to stay back as I didn’t have the confidence to get down without a guide. We reached Phi  Phi by around 12.30-1 pm and had our lunch. The waveless beaches surrounded by mountains were so tempting that I couldn’t resist but take a bath and soak under the sun. It was around 4 pm and we headed back to the ferry which dropped us back in Phuket. I spent some time in the Jacuzzi back at the hotel before I took a sound sleep. The best part was the amazing pancakes we had from a lady selling varieties of them near our hotel

The next day, we headed towards Krabi which is a 3 hour drive from Phuket. We checked in at Aonang Paradise hotel early morning and spent an IMG_4744entire day on the Aonang beach in Krabi. I would say that if you happen to travel to Thailand, you just cannot afford to miss Krabi. The secluded beaches, the exotic islands, the exquisite locales are a treat. Most people avoid visiting Krabi as it comes out to be slightly expensive but I believe it would be a crime to have visited Thailand and not visit Krabi. So the first day was peaceful as we lazed on the beach. Later we tried swimming and trying our hands on floating in the sea. We thought of taking a Kayak but it was pretty late and the people over there suggested not to start late as it might get dark quickly. The evenings are colorful in Thailand as you would see the streets lightened up, bustling with tourists and stalls selling local cuisines. Some pubs play live music while others just force people to try their food by offering discounts. You would normally get a lot of food options like Indian, Chinese, European and of IMG_4795course Thai.  The next day, we had booked for a trip to 4 islands- Phra Nang, Poda, Chicken and  Sunshine by a speed boat. And honestly I was spellbound to see these islands. It’s heaven. Finally I got a chance to do snorkeling at the Chicken island and being a non-swimmer I could rely only on my instincts and get into the deep blue sea because I didn’t want to miss the experience. At first it is difficult to get used to it cos you have to breathe through your mouth but in 5-10 mins you become stable and breathe properly. The first time I dipped my head into the water I was dumbstruck to see those beautiful fishes and corals under water. I held a loaf of bread in one hand and a shoal of fish rushed towards me and finished the loaf in no time. I couldn’t believe the proximity with which I could see them. The water was also not very deep and I could see many corals and colorful rocks on the sea bed. Then we had lunch at the Poda Island and spent some more time there trying to swim and did some more snorkeling at the Poda Island. Then we returned back to Aonang beach and it started raining in the evening. Thailand weather is so unpredictable that it would be hot and humid sometime and would suddenly start raining. Nevertheless, it was great fun hopping islands at Krabi

Our next destination was Pattaya and we had to take the road back to Phuket, then flight to Bangkok and then again 2 hours road trip to OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPattaya. It was a long journey and unfortunately my friend lost his cell phone in the cab which dropped us at Pattaya. We checked in at Citin Hotel and tried contacting the cab driver but he had already left for Bangkok and we got to know that we would get the phone back after 2 days when he would come to pick us up. Anyways, we freshened up and took some rest as we had to catch up the famous Alcazar show in the evening. It is one of the most famous cabaret show in Thailand and people from all generations and countries flock to see this evening show. Then we had some diner in a restaurant on the beach and slept off at our hotel rooms. The next day we had to cover Coral island and I was excited about the under water walking. We took the ferry and reached coral island. From there we went to a jetty where professional scuba divers will take you under water and let you walk on the sea bed with an oxygen mask for breathing. We could touch some of the corals, feed fish and click pictures under water. We could also see the corals through a glass bottomed boat which took us back from the jetty towards coral island. The coral island would come across as a home to Indians as you would see majority of the tourists from India and even the Thai guides were fluent in Hindi. We then reached back at Pattaya and had some good Indian lunch buffet in a restaurant near the beach. Post lunch we visited the Noong Nooch village where we could enjoy some local Thai art and culture and some games played by trained elephants. We came back to the beach and took a walk around the famous Walking Street and had some lip smacking diner before we retired to bed.

IMG_4991It was time for our last destination – Bangkok. Thankfully my friend got back his cellphone as the same guy came to pick us up from Pattaya. We checked in at Citin Pratunam hotel which was located in one of the clumsy lanes of Bangkok behind Indra Square. Soon, our cab came to pick us up for a half day city tour to see Wat Trimit, Wat Pho and Gems gallery. Wat trimit is a statue of Buddha built from 5.5 tonnes of pure gold and Wat Pho is a reclining statue of Buddha which is about 50 meters long and 12 meters high. The statues are simply magnificent and it’s actually difficult to capture the entire Wat Pho statue in one single frame. The gem’s gallery is nothing much to talk about but loads of highly priced stones way beyond my budget 😛

The second day was a full day trip to Marine park and Safari world. They reserve some of the world’s most beautiful birds and animals like polar beer, seal, walrus, dolphins. There are several shows by orangutans, seals, elephants and many more. An Indian buffet lunch was also arranged post which a mini bus took us through the safari where zebras, giraffes, ostriches, deer and many more animals freely moved around. We could see them at very close proximity. There was also a wild safari where tigers, bears and many more wild animals basked under the sun. In the evening we hopped on a cruise on the Chao Phraya river. It was a 2 hour long cruise with dinner buffet and live performance by a Thai lady singing Hindi songs. The spirit went up as time passed and the crowd enjoyed the performance and danced to her tunes. The last day was totally free and we had to chose between Floating market and Chatuchak market for shopping. We decided to take the metro and go down south towards Chatuchak market which is a weekend market. It is a crazy market where we shopped and bargained crazily for our friends and relatives. The thing is, you just cant resist shopping there considering the great deal that you get. Then we had a quick lunch at McDonald’s and boarded our flights back to India

The experience was unforgettable. I don’t have words to describe the beauty of Thailand. All I can say is that it is better experienced than read about.

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Sometimes, it just feels amazing to be associated to a rich cultural heritage and a history that dates back to ages unknown. But very often we just tend to ignore all of it and just flow along with life. I wonder that even a traveler from a western country might at times be more aware  than the knowledge that I possess about our country. Unfortunately, history of India is so vast that it’s beyond my reach of grasping. So, I just decide to touch upon some of it which might be exciting and visit places which stand proudly with a story to tell

13-15th Nov 2012

I joined my good old friend on a trip to Hampi, Karnataka which is a village located in the ruins of Vijayanagara and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We took a bus from Mumbai and reached Hospet early morning from where we took an auto to Hampi (10-15 kms from Hospet). This beautiful village is built on the banks of river Tungabhadra and derives it’s name from the same. Dating back to about 13th century AD, Hampi is known for it’s divine architecture, skilfully crafted temples and a pristine river. Like someone said “you stand anywhere and click a photograph and it would develop into an amazing frame”. The village is divided into two halves by the river Tungabhadra. On one side are the old temples, hillocks, bazaars and the other side is a more commercial land developed to accommodate tourists. Interestingly, there are no big hotels in that region but only shacks and huts across paddy fields, which would give a feeling of a true village. We took a boat to cross the river from Virupapur Gaddi to reach the other side and quickly checked in one of the huts which we had booked over phone. The village is known to be flocked by more global tourists than fellow Indian visitors. The huts were comfortable at Sunny Guest House and they had a lounge with mattresses lying on the ground and trance music tickling your ears throughout the day. The most amazing way to start off the journey was to begin with a lazy holiday gazing into paddy fields and munching through a delicious breakfast.

IMG_3539

In the afternoon we decided to cross the river again and start unveiling history. Since it was pretty hot, we sat down at Mango  Tree (the most famous restaurant in Hampi) to drink some fresh fruit juice and then head towards the temple. The biggest temple just across the river known as the Virupaksha temple is home to shrines of several gods and goddesses. We walked around the premises of the temple and spent long hours clicking pictures around. You would also come across elephants, monkeys, goats within the compound of the temple just as easily as humans. But what is totally different about the temple is the peace within. Calm, composed and poised, standing tall through generations it clearly differs from some other temples which anyone would have come across

It was a slow day and we didn’t do much to cover but we realized that there are lots to cover and 2 days might just not be sufficient enough so we hired an auto for the next day. As the sun decided to retire for the day we quickly hurried back to the river bank as the boats stop crossing after 6 pm.  We crossed the river and sat down near the river to appreciate the beautiful sun setting down in the far corner of the sky. There is nothing much to do in the evenings but to laze around in the resort lounge. You can mingle around with tourists and people around, watch TV or just sit back and have some good food. Although alcohol is not as abundant here, you can manage to get your hands on some chilled beer on this side of the river.

IMG_3776The next day we started early at about 6 a.m, crossed the river and walked around the terrain and covered Monolith bull, Achyutaraya temple and Kings balance. The ruins of the Achyutaraya temple are amongst the most beautiful ones from the Vijayanagara empire. The open markets or bazaars are a visual treat. You can also observe architectural patterns like aqueducts, pillars with carvings,water tanks across all temples.The king’s balance is also a unique structure where the kings used to weigh themselves with ornaments and distribute them to priests. Hampi is a highly rocky terrain and to walk around the structures and roads is a tough job. It leaves you exhausted within no time. The best way to cover this village is either by hiring an auto or to hire a bike and ride on your own.

IMG_4304

So, we hopped on to our auto driven by a local studboy who drove us around the circumference of Hampi, constantly cracking jokes and sharing trivia about the structures. We visited several temples like the monolithic small ganesha and big ganesha temples, Shivalinga, Ugra-Narasimha, Royal enclosures, Queens bath, Underground temple etc. With an unending list of places to cover, we decided to skip the last structure which was the Vittala temple and decided to head towards the outskirts to view sunset from a hilltop. We decided to come back the next day to cover Vittala temple as we had to head back to our sheds. But it was a good decision to see the sunset from the hilltop.

We decided to have a dinner at the Mango Tree. It was already late and the last boat to the other side of the river had crossed but since we had heard a lot about the food there and the ambiance of the restaurant which overlooked the river Tungabhadra we took a chance. The food turned out to be just okay but there were a lot of mosquitoes and it was already dark so the river was not visible. We called our guest house manager and he confirmed that he would arrange something for us to come back to the other side. After about an hour, a guy came with a coracle to pick us up. To be honest, it was not easy to sit through the 10 min ride in the coracle on a cold dark night while the guy waded through with ease. We were lucky to have crossed the river in the dark although we had to pay 5 times extra for the ride.It was Diwali and to our surprise there were no firecrackers around. Nevertheless, it was a long tiring day and we decided to rest early.

IMG_4474The next day we woke early, checked out from our guest house and had breakfast at the famous Goan Corner. Then we came back to visit the last temple which we had skipped – the Vittala temple. The Vittala temple is known for it’s beautiful stone chariot and sculptures beautifully carved in the pillars of the halls. After spending about an hour there we walked back towards Virupapur  Gaddi but we came across a beautiful Mandap (ceremonial hall) right on the river bank and sat down for a while and clicked pictures. We then had some amazing wooden oven cooked pizza at Garden Paradise near Hampi Bazaar. We then hired a bike and drove around to Anegundi, Broken bridge and Pampa Sarovar on the other side of the river where we stayed. There is a Hanuman temple on Anjaneya hills which is known to be the birth place of Hanuman. But with about 572 steps it comes across as an imposing hill which cannot be conquered. So we decided to chuck that and roamed around without much to do. There is a beautiful lake where you can sit and relax under the boulders apart from feeding the fishes in the lake. It was about time for us to head back to the village where we hired an auto back to Hospet and then catch our bus to Mumbai.

It was really tiring because we had walked a lot through the rocks, but thankfully we got an extended weekend to rest at home back in Mumbai. The trip was amazing just because the visual treat is still engraved in my memory. Atleast I could touch upon a UNESCO World Heritage site that is so beautiful and picturesque.

Additional information

Food – Rs 200-300/- per person per meal

Stay – Rs 700-1000/- per room per night

Auto – Rs 600/- per trip

Bike – Rs 100-300/- per day and petrol Rs 100/- per litre

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It was 7 pm and I was stranded alone on the Rewas dock. I had missed the last ferry back to Mumbai and I had also lost contact with my friend who started with me on the trip. Little did I know what was coming but still I was happy. With hardly any people around or street lights for miles, I sat on the dock clicking pictures of the full moon and the calm ocean below until it was 8 pm. And then it was time for some flashback.

5-6th May 2012

Earlier that day, I woke up at 4.30 am and started calling my friend. We had planned for a trip to Alibaug, Kashid and Murud but we had to catch the ferry early morning from Ferry Wharf (also called Bhaucha Dhakka) from Dockyard Road, Mumbai. The idea was to carry our bikes on the ferry and then hit the road to our destinations. Alibaug is a city situated at about 100 kms south of Mumbai. Further south there are few other tourist locations (Kashid beach – 35 kms from Alibaug, Murud Janjira – 20 kms from Kashid). The idea was to cover them all in one day and return back to Mumbai by night. Alibaug is well connected to Mumbai by road and sea. The roads are not well maintained and take more than 4 hours to reach there but there are ferries available from Gateway of India and Ferry Wharf to Rewas port which is about 25 kms from Alibaug. We had decided to board the ship by 6 am from Ferry Wharf (Dockyard Road) as we were carrying our bikes as well. But thanks to my friend who slept off till 5.30 am, we started sailing at 7.30 am from the dock.

Our bikes were loaded on the ferry which was packed with several other bikes and travelers to Rewas. Aye Aye Captain and then it took 2 hours to complete our sailing. The weather surprisingly was cloudy and the blazing sun was hiding behind. It was certainly not the first time that we hit the ocean for a journey but was certainly one of the longest that I have ever been. Accompanied by monster like ships in the ocean and islands in between, we reached Rewas port at around 9.30 am and our bikes were unloaded. Without any delay we hit the road to Alibaug via Mandwa village. The roads were narrow but pretty decent to gear up in the morning. So, we reached Alibaug in exactly 30 minutes and decided to fill up our hungry stomachs. Alibaug is a coastal town and has a history from 17th century with several beaches and forts in the surrounding. But we believed that the beaches of Alibaug are polluted and not worth a watch. So, we decided to skip them and head towards better locations.

Located about 35 kms from Alibaug, Kashid is known to be one of the best beaches in the Konkan range. We started at around 11 am and steered our way through the Western Ghats and reached there by 12 pm. Being a Saturday the beach was decently crowded and was bustling with activities like Banana boat, water scooter, horse and camel rides etc. We were carrying cameras and other stuffs so I decided to stay back on the beach while my friend dived into the beautiful ocean. Kashid is a very clean beach and pretty well maintained. I decided to take a ride on a horse and show some of my hidden talents of speeding up on a horse. It didn’t really race ahead but was fun to ride on it’s back.  I lazed around on the beach clicking pics of the beautiful people around 😉 till my friend was satisfied with the hydrophilic experience. The best part about the beach is the shacks that have swings to relax and on top of it they serve coconut water to relish the nature. It was till 2 pm that we relaxed and moved on to a nearby restaurant for lunch. There are hardly any options nearby and the few that are there are pretty expensive.

The next destination was Murud, a small town located 25 kms from Kashid and a Fort called Janjira (which is built on an island) which is 4 kms from Murud. Renowned as Murud janjira, this fort is one of the oldest forts in the country and has some amazing history attached to it. We reached Murud by around 3.30 pm and then to the location from where boats rule.  These yachts take around 20 mins from the coast to the island fort and return back exactly after 45 mins. The guides are pretty informative and take you through a brilliant experience which would have otherwise been just any fort visit. Supposedly built in the 12th Century, the fort has 22 tanks (most of which are still intact) and the third heaviest tank (22000 kgs) spread across 22 acres. In case you are wondering why the number 22 appears so often, the fact is that it took 22 years to build the fort and that’s why there are 22 meeting rooms, 22 watch towers etc. And I was wondering, were the people aware that they would complete the structure in exactly 22 years and that’s how everything has the number 22 attached to it. Strange but interesting. The fort is like an island on the salt water ocean but still has a sweet water natural water tank inside it. The architecture is marvelous and the view from the fort is breathtaking. It was occupied by the Siddis and is one of those few forts which remained undefeated during the British rule. There is another small fort visible from Janjira, located further inside the ocean but there is no access to that one.

After 45 mins of visual treat inside the fort we headed back to the shore. It was already 5.30 pm and as per our knowledge, the last ferry to Mumbai from Rewas dock was 7.15 pm. So we had to leave immediately as we had almost 80 kms to cover and only 1.5 hours in hand. As luck would have it, me and my friend took two different routes and were somehow lost. We connected over phone and decided that we reach Rewas dock and meet there. On top of it, my cell phone got switched off after sometime. Speeding up to the dock, I managed to reach there exactly at 7 pm just to realize that the last ferry to Mumbai was at 6 pm and that also had got cancelled that day due to bad weather. There were hardly any people around except for a few coast guard staffs. The coast guard staffs suggested that there are small boats which can drop us at Uran (close to Navi Mumbai) but I was waiting there alone for my partner. I had also lost contact with my friend who started with me on the trip. Little did I know what was coming but still I was happy. With hardly any people around or street lights for miles, I sat on the dock clicking pictures of the full moon and the calm ocean below until it was 8 pm. Then I decided to search for a phone booth nearby and try to reach my friend (I didn’t even remember his cell number) . There was a small village where I could find a Nokia charger (luckily I had left my iPhone and taken my Nokia charger as there was some issue with the iphone). I charged my cell immediately and called him up to realize that he was waiting for me outside the dock while I was waiting for him inside the dock area. But he had left for Alibaug. Then I followed the same route back and we met in a place in between Rewas and Alibaug.

It was almost 9 pm when we reached Alibaug and were very unfortunate not to find any vacant rooms or lodges.  After a lot of search operation, we located a lodge in the outskirts of Alibaug near Versolim beach which charged us Rs 600 for the night. We quickly freshened up, lifted couple of beer bottles and some food and headed towards Alibaug beach. Alas! The beach was simply awesome in the evening. After all the lost and found situations, we were recharged with some chilled beer near the shore. Some really tasty food and few bottles of beer was enough for a good night sleep after all the hectic travel. The next morning was pleasant and everything just fell in place. We left the lodge at 7 am and reached the dock by 7.30 am. We took the ferry at 8 am and reached Mumbai by 10 am. 11 am and we were back to our homes for rest.

Almost 250 kms on road and 4 hours on ship, the journey was undoubtedly adventurous. With all the twists and turns, I realized that the spice for all Bollywood thrillers come from real life experiences like this one. Its 11.30 pm and I am tired. Time to go to sleep and wake up early the next day for office 😦

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On a beach so Pristine

Posted: March 8, 2012 in Travel
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Untouched by the madding cities lies a small hidden gem in the South of Maharashtra on the Konkan coast. Around 350 kms from Mumbai lies a place called Ganpati Pule in the Ratnagiri district. It is often believed that lord Ganesha moved to Pule so as to guard the western gates as opposed to other deities in India who face east. It is also believed that the idol sprung from the soil 400 years ago and thus the temple was built on the sea shore.

3-4th March 2012

8 of us, most of whom were unknown to each other but tied through some common friends took a train from Mumbai and left for Ratnagiri. A 7 hour journey and we reached Ratnagiri station early morning and waited for a vehicle. Ganpati Pule is around 35-40 kms from Ratnagiri station. There were couple of auto rickshaws but they were highly overpriced. So we decided to take a bus to the city bus stand and changed to a state transport bus to go to the place. The 1 hour journey in the bus was one of the most craziest rides as it zoomed through the hilly terrains of Ratnagiri. Luckily we reached the place in single piece and checked in at a lodge which we had booked earlier. The lodges are pretty cheap and decent for a stay. We quickly freshened up and went to the beach. Amazed by the turquoise tinge of the water and white sand we ran short of words of appreciation. Then we visited the temple which is pretty much located on the beach. The temple is visited by very few tourists due to it’s location disadvantage. However, a lot of tourists hault at the place while returning back from Goa to Mumbai. The stark difference between the Juhu beach of Mumbai and the beach at Ganpati Pule immediately strikes you and makes you think how much insane people are to pollute such gifts of nature.

Deciding not to waste any time we quickly stripped and plunged into the lap of nature. The water was crystal clear with low tides but was extremely saline. It was an off season and there were not many people around but I believe there are a few water sports like water scooter, banana boats, para-sailing etc. which offer tourists some adventure during the peak season of Oct-Feb. Generally, temperature is high during March and so is humidity in this part of the world. However, luckily the weather was pleasant for the day and heat wasn’t harsh to burn the skin. So, we floated for around 3 hours and rested near the shore for another hour or so. Oh and I forgot to mention that before we took the plunge we also plunged into some red water 😛 to give us a kick and energy to take a long dip in the ocean.

Fresh from the extended bath we moved back to our lodges to clean up and change. The location being a holy place offers very few options of non-veg food and drinks. However, we could find out some corners where we could munch on some good food . We then took a walk on the beach in the evening and spent some time before we came back to our rooms and grabbed a beer and slept off.

The next day we had hired a cab to visit some places which were suggested by the lodge owner. It was a long ride of almost 65-70 kms to another temple called Marleshwar. We were suggested that there is a pretty good waterfall near the temple where we can take a bath but when we reached the place and climbed 500 steps to reach the temple we were disappointed to see that the waterfall had dried up and there were only a few drops of water dripping from the hilltop 😦 The temple is at the top of a cliff inside a cave but there’s nothing much to see otherwise. Then the driver took us to a palace which was hardly bigger than any 3 star hotel and another location in the countryside where there is another temple and a river but unfortunately it all turned out to be boring places with nothing much to appreciate. Sadly half of our day was wasted and we were cribbing that we could have spent the day on the beach. So, we had some lunch and then headed towards Ratnadurg fort hoping to make up for the loss. Luckily we could see something spectacular. The fort is built with the sea on three sides and land on one side. We spent couple of hours on the fort clicking pics and enjoying the cool breeze up there. The fort closes by 6 pm so we stayed up there till that time and left for another location. Ratnagiri is known for its hilly terrain and beaches. There are different types of beaches, some rocky, some with white sand and some with black sand. Next destination was Bhatye beach near the city of Ratnagiri which is pretty much a well known beach as the localites prefer to spend their leisure time on that beach with their family and friends. The beach has black sand so even though the water is clear it appears to be brownish because of the sand. There are a few stalls on the beach which offer coconut water, snacks and soft drinks. The sunset on the beach was one of the most amazing views experienced in the trip. The sun retired for the day and so our trip was over. We still had couple of hours left to board the train so went to the station and sat down at a small chinese corner just outside the station. Had some good chinese food and chatted about the whole trip and future plans. Finally it was time and we boarded the train at around 10 pm. The journey was one of the most unexpected fun trips I have had. Although it started on a high note but the second day was disappointing, however it ended with some pretty good memories and of course a visual treat which will be unforgettable.

Additional Information

Trip Expenses – Rs 500 (train travel to and fro per person) + Rs 400 (food per person) + Rs 200 (lodging per person) + Rs 250 (cab charges per person) + Rs 150 (miscellaneous)

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India is a nation of festivals. Every season, every state, every culture, every organization has some or the other festival celebrated once a year with great pomp and show. Undoubtedly the pleasure derived from such celebrations are unmatched. One such festival which has been in the news for more than two decades now is the Kala Ghoda (Black Horse) Festival of Mumbai. Kala Ghoda Festival which is organized every year by a Kala Ghoda Association(a non-profit organization) during Jan-Feb month for a period of 9 days was started in 1999 with a vision to promote art and culture in Mumbai. Over the years it has successfully grown in stature and has attracted several artists, visitors, performers from several parts of the world. The festival features visual arts, dance, music, theatre, cinema, literature, lectures, seminars and workshops, heritage walks, special events for children, and a vibrant street festival. And the best part is that they don’t charge any entry fees 🙂

12th February 2012

It was my second visit to the festival after almost 3 years. I chose to visit the festival on the 12th February (the last day of the event) as I was looking forward to some of the events which attracted me. I took a local to Churchgate and reached the venue at around 12 pm. The festival is hosted at the Kala Ghoda crescent which is close to the Gateway of India. As soon as I reached there I could see several interesting displays of creativity. There were thousands of glasses stacked up like a pyramid, there were volkswagen cars in gold, horses made out of wood and lots more worth appreciating. The entrance had a big hoarding of all the events schedule for the entire festival. I quickly skimmed through the schedule and decided to sit through the following three events:-

i) Workshop on photography by Himanshu Seth

ii) Talk show on “The best thing about you is you” by Anupam Kher

iii) Performance by the musical duo Vishal and Shekhar

The Kala Ghoda crescent had several stalls displaying art and craft from several states. There were terracotta pots from some state and handicrafts/hand looms from some other. There were couple of food stalls which were heavily crowded. I picked up some food and walked around all the stalls to get a feel of different cultures in India. To my delight I came across a stall from Orissa (my home state) who were selling the famous PataChitras (paintings on palm leaves). The venue had many creative displays which conveyed social messages. There were awareness campaigns on AIDS, Noise Pollution, Peace, Sea Pollution and many more.

On one corner I could locate a potter who was very artistic in building some beautiful pots and cups. I managed to wade through the crowd and saw the potter teaching the visitors how to mould the clay into small pots. It was pretty amazing to see the enthusiasm levels of the visitors who took keen interest in each and every thing that was happening around. There was a puppet show happening at one place which also managed to pull in a lot of crowd. It is one of the oldest theater forms which narrates stories of King and Queen from ancient India. Meanwhile the photography workshop was about to start so I rushed to a nearby building where a hall was booked for the workshop. I hurried inside to take a front row seat.  Himanshu Seth is a renowned photographer in the commercial space (http://www.earthtoskyphotography.com/) . He took a one hour session in which he showed us some of his commercial work and explained how he managed to capture those images. He also threw some light on basics of digital photography but had to cut short. He also talked about his interests in wildlife photography and encouraged us to join him on his photo safaris where his team would make arrangements for the trip and he would guide us through open wildlife photography. Post the workshop I moved to the helpdesk to check about my next event (the talk show by Anupam Kher) but was disheartened to know that the show was canceled due to some difficult circumstances. I then decided to take a walk to the Gateway of India and spend sometime there in the cool breeze. I waited till 6pm and rushed to the Bade Miyan restaurant to have some kebabs and then went back to the Kala Ghoda crescent. The evening saw a huge turnaround of crowd and the glittering lights made the event more charming. There were some street performances. A boy balancing himself on a rope at a height of around 20 feet brought back some memories of school days when this art form of tightwire was pretty common. You don’t get to see much of tightwires these days but certainly raises your hand to clap for the performance. The stage was set for some more events to unfold. The evening started with some folk dance performances from several states. There was Naga dance, Sambalpuri dance, Ghoomar dances and many more. The show ended with a scintillating and electrifying performance by Vishal and Shekhar.

There are several other attractions to the festival as well. Everyday almost 5-6 movies on history, culture, kids etc. are screened in a nearby auditorium. Also 2-3 plays are performed in a theater close to the venue. Several budding talents are given opportunities to display their work through short movies or short plays during the festival. The Kala Ghoda Association also organizes heritage walks daily in which they guide the participants through several old monuments and places of heritage in Mumbai. There are several sessions on literature like script writing, novel writing. Everyday a renowned chef takes you through blending food with art and make it fun to cook. There are several workshops on painting, photography, dance, music, etc. The festival undoubtedly touches every aspect of art and culture and gives an opportunity to find out your areas of interest.

It was a great experience of a day spent closely with Indian tradition, art, culture and creativity. Having spent the day at Kala Ghoda I am already looking forward to attend the same next year.

Additional Information

Visit the link  http://www.kalaghodaassociation.com/ for more details.

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