A Few Good Things

"Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller." – Ibn Battuta

A Few Good Things

Category: Longer Breaks (Page 1 of 2)

A week in fascinating Jordan

How is Jordan different from other countries in the Middle East ?

  • It has no OIL
  • A liberal modern country with no dress regulations. That is credit to the royal family.
  • Diverse landscape – from the depths of the Dead Sea to the highlands of Petra & Amman where it snows in winter. The country is blessed with lovely mediterranenan climate

We had a perfect one week holiday. My first experience with a travel company Byond Travel – and they scored 10/10. Jordan has lots to see. We covered 1500 Kms in 6 days with 4 hops across the Dead Sea, Petra, Wadi Rum & the capital Amman. A small group of 9, a dedicated bus to us and a wonderful guide all added up to make this a memorable trip. Jordan is waiting to be explored – we had nice weather (In May) , almost no Q’s (thanks to Ramadan) – and we covered a lot – thanks to the wonderful planning of Byond Travel. When you travel with a good agency it takes a lot of your head – my earlier self planned family holidays were a project , this one was relaxed. I just followed the guide. Since all payments were made in advance we hardly had any expenses right thru the week – barring our lunch bills and  stuff we bought to carry back home.

Detailed Notes 

Day – 1 

There are no direct flights to Jordan from India and we took Etihad from Bangalore to Amman Via Abu Dhabi. An early morning flight on Sat at 4.30 AM from Bangalore got us to Amman by 12 noon with a 3 hr stop over at Abu Dhabi. Etihad is good – better than Emirates and you get Jet Airways miles. Leg space is comfortable, food is decent. At Amman we were received at the gate and whisked past immigration (Jordan has Visa on arrival) and in less than 30 minutes after landing we were in the bus with our luggage headed to the Dead Sea – Holiday Inn Resort. A nice property located on the Dead Sea. A 1 hr drive – past barren land and olive trees ( Jordan is full of olive trees) we reached the lowest elevation on earth – 1400 feet blow MSL . It was warm but bearable. The Dead Sea is shrinking and the locals say it may not last beyond 2050. The salinity of water is almost 10X that of the normal sea so you float. And there is no life on the Dead Sea.

The Holiday Inn resort is one of the many resorts on the Dead Sea – and many come here for the curative power of the water and the Dead Sea salts. After a few hrs at the beach we had a lovely dinner and hit the bed. A long day that started at 2 AM on Sat morning finally ending. Note that Jordan has a 2 1/2 hr lag with India – so when we slept at 9 PM it was 11.30 PM India time.

Day – 2

A 1 night stop at Dead Sea the next day morning we headed out to Petra and on the way stopped by a few interesting sights

Close to the resort was the Bethany church where Jesus was baptised by John the baptist. Thats a famous biblical location and borders Israel. All thru the tour we were almost touching the Israel border and at the Bethany church we could see Israel across the Jordan river a few feet away.

From Bethany we visited Mount Nebo – a famous place from where Moses is said to have pointed towards the promised land before he passed away. We travelled Via Madaba visiting one more church famous for its mosaic paintings and reached the historic city of Petra by 4 PM.

Petra is an iconic city almost 2000 years old – its a city of sandstone mountains. We stayed at a lovely property The Old Village Resort at Wadi Musa for 2 nights. Nice rooms , good food. 

Day – 3

After a sumptuous breakfast we left at 8 AM to Petra. The visitors centre was a few km from our property and we started the trek thru the maze of mountains by 8.30 AM. There is a lot of walking. 2 Km to the Khazana , 2 Km to the base point of the Monastery and then a trek of over 1000 steps to the top of the Monastery – all in all about 6 Km each way. It was hot – but the history and the stories of the Nabateans the rulers of Petra kept us motivated.

We were back in the hotel by 3 PM and most of the team went back at 8 PM to see candle lit Petra by night. To my consolation they came back and said that I did not miss anything great.

A lot of walking had tired us out – and the next day was relaxed

Day – 4

We woke late, had a relaxed breakfast and left by 12 noon to Wadi Rum. A 800 sq km desert with craggy sandstone mountains – the landscape is martian and this is where many of the movies Lawrence of Arabia , Transformer , Martian etc were shot. Its barren sand dune desert and houses about 30 camps.

We stayed in one such camp in tents for a night. Its hot during the day but gets cold at night. Tents are basic – we had a family tent with 3 beds and an attached modern bathroom – no fans. Electricity and Wi Fi from 4 PM onwards.

The set up and kitchen here is like that of a North Indian Dhaba- I did venture to the kitchen to make some potato curry and dal – as by now we were tired of Pita Bread, Hummus and Olives. The evening would have been alive in a starlit sky with belly dancing – but being the month of Ramadan we had to entertain ourselves with the dance of one of our colleagues. – who did an outstanding job.

Day – 5 

We departed Wadi Rum at 8 AM and after a 4 hr drive reached Wadi Mujib. This is a 2 km river trek. Its not open all the time as the water currents can get risky. We were lucky that it opened a week after being shut. But the water levels were high. This is fun but risky. You are neck deep in water at many places and the current is strong. The river bed is full of poky rocks and even with aqua shoes it can hurt. But this was the high point of the trip and we thoroughly enjoyed it. (Note only Children above 17 are allowed) – the trek took us about 3 hrs and we were back in the bus at 3.30 PM.

The drive from Wadi Mujib to Amman was less than 2 hrs and we drove by the Dead Sea crossing the Holiday Inn resort where we had stayed the 1st night. So we had almost done a round trip of Jordan.

We stayed in central Amman at the Millennium Hotel a nice property. Amman is a modern city with an active night life – but again the Ramadan period limited activities. Our guide took us for dinner to a beautiful local restaurant – buzzing with people.

Day – 6 

On our last day at Amman we covered the Citadel – an ancient Roman site and the Roman Theatre – sights we covered between 8 AM and 11 AM . Amman has a history that dates back to 6500 BC – Greeks, Romans, Persians, Egyptians – all this culture blends into this ancient arabic city which is now ruled by the Hashemite dynasty – direct descendants of the prophet.

We shopped for dates, baklava, olive oil in Downtown and were back in our hotel for lunch.

We had an early dinner at our guide Salah’s house – and his wife had cooked us a delicious spread. It was a wonderful gesture on his part to invite us home. 

Post dinner we walked around downtown and were back in our rooms by 9 PM. Again being Ramadan the streets were deserted and most shops closed.

Day – 7

The last day of the trip – we were free. Being a Fri and the Independence Day of Jordan – all the malls , parks etc were closed in the morning. We walked around Paris square and saw the famous Rumi restaurant before heading back to hotel to depart at 12.30 for our flight.

A week flew by and we enjoyed every minute of it. A big thanks to Byond Travel for planning and executing the trip to perfection. They are a good company – a little pricey but you get excellent service. When on a holiday you want the best. I don’t think we would have seen Jordan so well in 1 week on our own. So thank you Byond for a great trip – and looking forward to more. And a big thanks to the team of co travellers – thanks guys you were great travel mates.

Useful Tips

  • Jordan has pleasant weather all thru the year – winters are cold
  • 1 JD ( Jordan Dinar ) = 95 Rs
  • Veg food is available all thru the trip – though the focus is on Non Veg.
  • Free Wifi is everywhere including in our bus.

Some more Views

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Kolkata Shining – Well Done Didi

I recollect that some years back Kolkata came to the news for all the wrong reasons – it was christened the “Dying City”. This after many many years under the administration of Jyoti Basu. From 1977 he held the CM post for 23 years without a break – a tough record to beat. But Bengal and Kolkata saw no progress.

I remember my trips to Kolkata – from the mid 70’s and till 2005 almost nothing changed. Traffic jams , pavements choked with hawkers, load shedding, appalling poverty , filth – it was a mess. Mother Teresa and Dominiqe Lapierre did not help by positioning Calcutta as a city in deep despair. I remember in a quiz competition in school we were asked to name the dirtiest city in the world and the choice was between Karachi , Dhaka and Kolkatta. Karachi narrowly beat Kolkatta to claim the distinction.

Things slowly changed and in the last 7 years Mamta Banerjee and the TMC have done a phenomenal job in transforming Kolkatta. I visited the city after many years in the last week of 2017 and was pleasantly surprised to see a city that I could barely recognise. The transformation is to a scale that you cannot comprehend. Broad Roads , cars zipping at 50 Km/hr ( restraining themselves as thats the speed limit), clean footpaths and pavements, well lit roads with plants, a maze of flyovers , clean billboards and shop fronts, efficient traffic police, the water bodies or “Pukurs” that dot the city are sparkling clean. In the 3 days I was there I did not see a single pothole or a dug up road or footpath – I could go on and on.

 

I would rate Kolkata as the Indian city with one of the best urban infrastructures in the country today comparable with Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and of course New Delhi. Coming from Bangalore ( Koramangla in specific) where traffic crawls at less than 10 km /hr and it can take you 30 min to cross the Sony Junction Kolkatta felt like a foreign city. Add to this Kolkatta has no power cuts and thanks to the mighty Ganges you will never see water tankers queuing up in front of apartment complexes.

We visited the Dhakuria lake complex – again a very well maintained park with excellent walkways spotlessly clean.

All this is indeed creditable work. Its not easy to change a dying city that has been languishing for decades. Yes good work was started by the former CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharya and if the Nano plant at Singur had happened the industrial pace at W Bengal may have matched that of Gujarat. But full credit to Mamata Di for picking up speed and achieving the impossible. Well Done Didi.

The Indian Press is miserly – all I have heard about Kolkata sitting in Bangalore is Didi’s anger against Modi and the Muslim appeasement – not a word has been reported on how a dying city has been transformed in such a short period of time. You need to give credit where it is due and this change from a. dying city to a sparkling city should have been cover page article and news.

Its not just the infrastructure but also the cleanliness. People have started taking pride in their city – the Bengalis have always been proud of their legacy and now they have earned their bragging rights. I am sure this saga of development will continue. Its a very affordable city and the cost of living would probably be less than half that of Bangalore or Mumbai. A city with history , legacy , sights – a city waiting to be marketed. With all this going for Kolkatta its a matter of time before the builders, brands , malls , companies , jobs flood into Kolkata. And all the  NRI babus who always wanted to be in Kolkata and enjoy their adda will come back. A city on an ascending curve is unstoppable and as the momentum picks up the growth will accelerate.

The trip was also special as I caught up with my college mates from REC Surat and met them after 25 years. We were knocking at 50 but as we met after so many years we felt like 18 year olds. Thanks Manik , Somen and Tutli for taking time to come over.

It was also nice to meet up the folks from ABL township – the colony where I grew up after 30 long years. the hot didis and aunties had aged gracefully. Thank you Ishani and Deepa Di for making this happen. Bengali is a very sweet language and Bengali women are amongst the prettiest you can meet but behind that pretty face and charming smile is a dominating woman – this after all is the land of Ma Durga & Kali.

A trip to Kolkata is never complete without visiting Dakshineshwar & Belur Math. We left our hotel at 5.30 AM and reached Dakhsineswhar by 6.15 AM – spotlessly clean with hardly any crowd we had a blessed Darshan of Ma Kali in all her divine glory. The Ganges was sparkling clean and majestically flowing with Belur Math on the other bank. We could feel the vibrations of the great Sage Ramkrishna in his small room at the temple complex. We didi visit Belur Math also and the Bhog we had was special, don’t miss it – piping hot Khichdi , delicious curry, and Kheer so tasty all served with so much love and affection. Whether its Golden Temple or Puri Jagannath or Dakshineswar there is something special about the Prasad they serve in these divine places.

This is also the city of food – from street food to fancy restaurants all at very affordable prices. We relished the Jhal Modi at the Maidan as we waited for a ride on the iconic tram and enjoyed sweets galore all through the trip. There is no comparison to Kolkata sweets. My fatty liver restricted me from being very adventurous but we did through justice to the amazing food of this great city. The only disappointment was our lunch at Tero Parbon at Hindustan Park where the service was disastrous.

Central Kolkata was buzzing with energy – the stretch from Victoria Memorial , Park Street , Chowringee , the National Museum – is mesmerising and brings back fond memories of childhood when we used to visit Kolkatta from Durgapur. The yellow Ambassador taxis are fast making way to the Uber’s and Ola but I pray that continue for some more time. Kolkata without the yellow taxi and its blaring horns would never be the same again.

Its a paradise for shopping – again great stuff at affordable prices. This was the time of the year when there were melas all around the city. Khadi , Handicraft and a wide variety of clothes and artwork at prices which you cannot believe. From sarees to pyjamas and kurtas, shoes, leather goods you can shop all day long in this city.

Kolkata has so much to offer – it was only on the last day that I came to know of a Jyotir Linga at Baidyanath Temple – a 1 hr drive from Kolkata. I missed it but will come back for sure to visit. There are 12 Jyotir Lingas in the country and most states market them very effectively. These are divine sites blessed with the energy of Lord Shiva – Kolkata needs to market itself better.

I have 3 suggestions to make to help the city sparkle more and attract investments. 

Kolkatta and Chennai produce nearly 50% of the CA’s of the country – Kolkatta with its low cost base can easily position itself as a back office finance hub for the country. The intelligence of the Bengali and the low cost of the city will make this a very compelling proposition.

A lot of day trips can be organised to market the city better. A 7.30 to 6.30 PM trip that includes breakfast and lunch – its easy to identify 10 – 15 such packages and have buses travel on a daily basis to these locations.

Launch a company that can help cities like Bangalore – specially BBMP spruce up the city. You now seem to have the expertise to provide consultancy and execute projects that can bring cities like Bangalore to shape.

And last but not the least Kolkata needs more Gym’s. Given the rich oily diet, lethargic lifestyle, late dinner habits and probably the highest % of smokers in the country   – my friends in Kolkata need to exercise vigorously. But I hardly saw any gyms.  Here is an opportunity for Mukesh Bansal to open many Gyms across Kolkata – so Mukesh please don’t open any more Cult Zones in Bangalore – head to Kolkatta. If Mamta has succeeded in a cleaner Kolkata I am sure she can make it a fitter Kolkata too.

Hospitality is in Bengali blood – my friend and his family took such good care of us we felt we were with family. Thanks Subhashish and Ruma for going out of the way to make us comfortable. I am looking forward to my next trip soon.

 

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Journey to the Valley of Flowers

Nature rewards you after hard work. Getting to the Valley of Flowers in the middle Himalayas is a very long journey – almost 3 days from Bangalore. Its a trip that requires planning and getting in shape – but eventually the reward is worth the effort. For anyone wanting to make a trip to Valley of Flowers and Hemkunt Saheb this Blog will provide all the details.

A quick Summary of the trip

  • The journey : Bangalore – Delhi – Dehradun – Haridwar – Joshimath (6050 feet) – Gobind Ghat – Pulana – Ghangria ( ~ 9500 feet) – Valley of Flowers ( 9500 – 12000 feet) – Hemkunt Saheb (14500 feet)
  • Almost 50 kms of trekking ( I did 35 by trek and 15 by Mule) which treats you to Fresh air & Divine views
  • 25 hrs of driving in the rugged Himalayan landscape – we travelled in the monsoon and witnessed at least 25 landslides – by divine grace we were not impacted by rain or landslides and sailed thru smoothly.

You can do this trip in 8 days but I decided to spend a few days at Gurgaon to meet friends and visit the Akshardham temple – A masterpiece where you can easily spend 4 – 5 hrs. Having travelled to Delhi so many times in the past 15 years this was one landmark that I had not visited. The story of the young sage Swami Narayan is fascinating and has close similarities to that of Shanakrachary. We missed the fountain and the light show in the evening – but I am sure I will come back to this well maintained energised place.

Swaminarayan Akshardham, New Delhi

Day 0 : Bangalore – Delhi – Haridwar 

My friends house at Gurgaon is also a temple – so much of peaceful energy, and it was a great start to an exciting 8 days ahead. He was kind enough to drop me at Platform 16 Ajmera Gate, Delhi Dehradun Shatabadi. This is the last platform – so if you get dropped on the other side of the station its a very long walk . I reached Haridwar at 11.45 and was in my Hotel by 12.45 ( Regenta Hotel – Royal Orchid on the Haridwar Rishikesh Road). My friends from Bangalore had taken the morning flight and they also reached the hotel by 3 PM. That evening we stopped by the Sapta Rishi Ashram and the Adhbut Mandir on the way to Har Ki Pauri to view the Ganga Arti. Aug is not busy season, because of monsoon and the “kavad” season is over  – the Ganga was in spate, frothy and muddy. Haridwar is a chaotic place and the Ganga Arti at the Har Ki Pauri  was a shade compared to what I had seen in Varanasi or even Rishikesh. (Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu are believed to have visited the Brahmakund in Har Ki Pauri in the Vedic times). For all the noise we make on Hindutva it would be good if Indian temples and places like Haridwar , Rishikesh and Varanasi are kept as clean as the Vatican or the Golden Temple. On our way back we had a tasty dinner and had an early sleep (Given the long travel ahead I made it a point to eat light and avoid gravy / spicy food all long )

Day – 1 : Haridwar – Joshimath (278 Km – 12 hrs drive) 

We left our hotel at 6 AM and reached Joshimath at 5.30 PM. The journey was pleasant – our 14 seater Tempo Traveller had only 9 – so there was enough space to stretch your legs. Enroute we crossed Rishikesh – Dev Prayag ( Bhageerathi & Alaknanda confluence) – Srinagar – Rudraprayag ( Alaknanda – Mandakini Confluence) – and finally Joshimath and checked into Auli – D. A decent hotel with basic functionality – neat rooms , geyser, decent food. The weather was hot and humid all through and only near Joshimath did we start feeling pleasant. The road is good – you ascend from the plains to 6050 feet over 278 km so the ascent is smooth – no sharp U bends. We stopped for breakfast and lunch (No branded restaurants on the way – food is decent but the ambience and cleanliness of the dhabas is sad, toilets are disappointing, big challenge for women travellers who comprise almost 50% of the Trekkers to the Valley of flowers)

Day – 2 : Joshimath – Gobind Ghat – Pulana – Ghangria 

After a breakfast of Aloo Paratha, Poha and Chai we left at 7 AM by the Tempo Traveller. Our next stop was Govind Ghat – 20 Km ( 45 min). On the way we stopped to admire the Vishnu Prayag – the confluence of Bhuyandar & Alaknanda – a place where sage Narada is supposed to have meditated.

We reached Govind Ghat by 8.30 AM and had to stand in a Q to complete the registration process. We unloaded our luggage and took a Jeep to Pulana – 4 km away. From Gobind Ghat you will lose Mobile Connectivity – all you will have is very sporadic BSNL land line connection at Ghangria. The trek to Ghangria starts from Pulana – its a 11 Km trek , not very steep. If you walk at a relaxed pace it will take you about 4 – 5 hrs. We started at 9.30 and reached our room at Ghangria by 2 in the afternoon. You also have an option of riding a mule for Rs 850/- or be carried in a basket by a Nepali Sherpa or to take a chopper from Govind Ghat ( 5 Min – Rs 3500, Operates only if weather is good) . Most people walk – the guide had loaded our luggage on mules so that was easy. This is the first trek – energy levels are high – and I strongly advocate that you walk this stretch. There are nice views of forests , waterfalls , gushing springs. the pathway is cobbled – lots of shops on the way to stop for lemon juice or food or snacks. Keep your rain cover handy in your small backpack – the weather is very unpredictable. It did rain after almost 3 hrs of trek and the rain did slow me down.

Ghangria is the base camp for both the Valley of Flowers and Hemkunt Saheb. Located at 9050 feet its a small hamlet that operates only for 4 months from June to Sep.

You have an option of staying in a small basic functionality hotel or in tents. The Tents may have better views but not electricity and running water. Blue Poppy the company that had planned our trip had booked us at a small inn called Krishna Place – its the type of room I may not have stayed even when I was in college. Small , Cramped, Basic , the quilts and bedsheets were dirty, the limited staff were stinking  – two of us stayed in a room designed for 3 – we used a bed for keeping our bags , there was no place in the ground to keep any bags.

The good things – You have electricity and running water and Hot Water was provided by Bahadur ( 1 bucket / day is free – extra is Rs 50/bucket) – the hotel provided Tea , Bottled water , Pakodas , Maggi etc and also a Foot Massager – who charged 200 Rs for a 10 min massage. That was a luxury for the first few days – before we realised that his rate was higher than that in a high end spa at Bangalore. The guy also washed and ironed clothes – we were in for a shock when he told us after washing that he charged Rs 150/- per piece. But thats the premium you pay at 9500 feet.  There are a few dhabas nearby that serve good food – all our meals were at Gangotri – from piping hot Upma at 6 AM to Rajma, Chole, Noodles and even Dosa – we had no challenges with good hot food all thru the trip. I stuck to Khichdi most of the days. Tea Coffee is served using Milk Powder – you do get curd , but I think even that is made from milk powder. Price for food is reasonable.

Day – 3 : Ghangria – Valley of Flowers – Ghangria

I had been praying for months for a safe trip with good weather and it was a joy to see clear sky at 5 AM. After a warm bath and breakfast we started our trek at 6.30. A short distance later you complete the registration formalities.(Our guide had taken all the details and entry fees earlier and done the needful so we had no waiting period). Entry pass is Rs 150 valid for 3 days The busiest day at the Valley of Flowers has seen 500 visitors , in July – August the average crowd is about 200 / day. the best part of this trek is that no ponies are allowed – you walk or you are carried by a Sherpa.

Climbing has always been easy for me – it coming down thats a challenge on my knees. Sunny skies and the excitement of the final destination nearby energises you and I covered the 4 km to the entrance of the valley of the flowers in 2 1 /2 hrs . Its a beautiful scenic trek thru forests and gushing springs. The weather is pleasant and perfect for trekking. the views are amazing.

If you re tired and thirsty drink some water  from the spring – its energising and refreshes you, full of minerals. This is how life was as God made it and we messed it up. Every 30 minutes I stopped for doing a few Pranayams and deep breathing – this really helps in ensuring that the oxygen content in your blood is high. All along your trek you are walking along the Pushpavati river.

The climb was easy and at 9.15 I was in the Valley of Flowers. This UNESCO world heritage site is spread over 30 square kilometres. the end point is the Tipra Glacier ( 14,500 feet) – from the entry of the Valley of Flowers to the Tipra Glacier is a 10 Km Trek ( 6 Hrs) and you can pitch a tent there for the night.

We walked 3 kms inside the valley – it was mystical , foggy , surrounded by mountains, brooks and waterfalls all around you – and flowers in a multitude of colours and shapes. Just you and nature. Its nice – but if you have expectations of meadows of flowers as far as the eye can see then you may be a tad disappointed. Which I was – the Valley of Flowers met expectations – did not exceed. It was very nice but it was not jaw dropping spectacular

 

 

We had packed lunch – there are no shops on this route , and after lunch we started the trek back to Ghangria by 12 noon. Going back is always tougher – and to add to the challenge of climbing down it started drizzling. The pathways here are not cemented – its just rocks of different shapes that are on a path – its wobbly and pokey – and on an incline it can be risky. I struggled and moved step by step , inch by inch and finally made it back to the room dead tired by 4 PM , almost 4 hrs. (Most people do not venture 3 Kms deep into the Valley)

A Foot massage followed by a nice warm bath , and a nourishing dinner and I slept like a log at 9 PM (My friends ensured that they were warmed up by a Patiala Peg – there is no liquor available at Ghangria , so ensure that you get it with you or buy it at Joshimath , the stores at Joshimath close by 6 PM – so chances are that by the time you reach its closed)

Day – 4 : Recovery Day 

Last 2 days I had trekked 25 Kms and I was tired. The Tour Company had smartly planned 2 days for the Valley of Flowers – in case of heavy rains there was a backup day. Fortunately for us this backup day was the rest day. The last 4 – 5 days I had been getting up at 4.30 , and was tiring – I needed rest. Guess what – this was the only day in our travel that it was raining heavily. My colleagues decided to walk around and visit a waterfall close by and see the tents. I stayed back in the room to catch up on my strength.

Day – 5 : Hemkunt Sahib 

Located at 14,500 feet – the trek from Ghangria to Hemkunt ( Also spelled as Hemkund ) is steep. You scale 5500 feet in less than 6 kms. The pathway is in better shape than the Valley of Flowers – but most of the route is not as scenic as the Valley of Flowers. Climbing becomes difficult because of the steep altitude and lower oxygen. You have an option of taking a Mule ride – which I did. We left sharp at 6.30 and reached Hemkund at 8.30 – there are many shops on the way on this route. It was a bright and sunny day with Blue Skies. Good to reach early as it gets very foggy after 11 AM .

In his previous birth Guru Nanak is said to have meditated at this spot. Its a beautiful serene place with a glacial lake surrounded by 7 peaks. The mist plays peek a boo with the lake and the whole experience is magical. Right behind the Gurudwara is a place where Lakshman is said to have meditated – and there is a temple in memory of him. Hem Kund as the name suggests is a Snow Lake – and the Gurudwara is open only from June to Sep, rest of the year it is not accessible because of heavy snow. Best period to travel is September.

The water in the lake is freezing , but the strong sardars brave the cold and take dips bare bodied. After a walk around the lake I went and sat inside the Gurudwara from 9.15 to 10 AM. The “Ardas”  is at 10 AM  and at 12 AM ,  we attended the 10 AM “Ardas” after which very tasty Halwa was served as Prasad. Stepping out we had piping hot Khichdi and Tea. Our friends who started the trek at 5.40 AM made it by 9 AM (Which was great – most people take 5 – 6 hrs to climb up)

The rare Brahma Kamal flower blooms in plenty in and around the Hemkunt Saheb – we could see them as we started our trek back. We climbed a small hill – with no path just to get closer to these rare and beautiful flowers. There was a sense of accomplishment and peace as I sat next to the flowers.

I started the trek back with gusto but after an hr my feet started hurting. The steep incline puts pressure on your toes and I was mentally holding back running down – allowing gravity to help me in the way back. I ploughed along for 5 kms and finally the last 1 km I had to take a pony ride. the master trekkers in our team went down almost sprinting in less than 2 hrs.

Day – 6 : We head back to Joshimath 

After breakfast at 6 we started our journey back to Gobind Ghat – the plan was to reach by 9 and then head to Badrinath and Mana on the way to Joshimath. By now my feet were tired and I took the Mule back. We were at Gobind Ghat by 9 – collected the Prasad from the Gurudwara and headed towards Badrinath.

Its a 2 hr drive and the road has many tricky spots where landslides happen frequently. We had been informed that the road was closed for the last 2 days. Fortunately when we reached the roads were open. But there was the risk of landslide in a 100 metre stretch.

Having come so far I wanted to go but the fear of the majority over ruled the faith of a few. We travelled ~ 600 kms in the fragile Himalayan landscape safely and I was sure that we would have passed this 100 m stretch also – God had opened the path to us after 2 days – Badrinath was empty and we would have had great Darshan – but it was not to be. In 2010 I was at the gates of Badrinath but it was very crowded and the Q time was 3 hrs – and we were not able to get a Darshan – I am sure I will get lucky the 3rd time.

On the way back we stopped by at Jyotir Mutt – one of the 4 mutts established by Shankaracharya, he spent almost 14 years here. We were blessed to spend time in front of the Akhand Jyoti that he had lit almost 2500 years back, and pray in front of the “Swayambu” Shiv Linga below the 2500 year old Kalpa Vriksha. This place is brimming with energy and positive vibrations.

Blue Poppy the tour operator delighted us by putting us up at Auli for the night instead of Joshimath. Auli is a hill station at 9500 feet located 15 km from Joshimath.  I had visited Auli a few years back. Its a world famous Ski Town and the ITBP Skiing School is located here. Others in the group took the Cable Car from Joshimath to Auli while I went by the Tempo Traveller with the luggage and on the way stopped by an Apple Orchard. Its a rare joy to pluck an Apple from a tree and bite into it – with the juice flowing down your mouth.

Blue Poppy has very nice Log Cottages at Auli with excellent view of the Nandi Devi. Its mostly cloudy but at 520 AM in the morning I got a good view of the peak. We rested , ate well and were ready to leave the next day.

Day – 7 : We head back to Rishikesh

Breakfast at 6.30 and we started our journey back at 7 AM – we saw multiple landslides that had been cleared and barring a 30 min stop we had a smooth drive all the way to Rishikesh. On the way we did a brief stop at the Dhari Devi temple – one of the 108 Shakti Peeths and highly revered in Garhwal. This is a Kali temple located between Rudraprayag and Srinagar. The temple has the upper part of the Goddess and the bottom part is in another temple called Kalimath in Agasyamuni ( near Uttar Kashi)

 

We reached Rishikesh by 5.30 PM. On the way we passed Vashisht Guha – I love this place and have visited it twice, but it looked like rain was round the corner and we had to abort our plans. At Rishikesh we stayed at the Vasundhara Palace – an excellent property in Muni Ki Reti, 2 min walks from the Ganga. Our friends braved the rain to walk and see the sights of Rishikesh but I preferred staying in the room.

Day – 8 : We head back to Bangalore 

Dehradun airport is closer to Rishikesh – on a Sunday it was a 30 min drive. My flight was at 12.40 and Indigo was nice enough to pre pone my connection at Delhi from 5 PM to 2.40 PM – being the long weekend Bangalore traffic was a breeze and after a comfortable flight I was back home at 6.45 PM

Coincidence – the couple sitting next to me in the flight were also coming back from the Valley of flower trek. They had gone thru a company called India Hikes.

We had gone thru Blue Poppy – a company run by a lovely couple. I was very happy with their arrangement and response. Always ready to customise and help it was a pleasure working with Seema and Devkant Sagwan. Blue Poppy does only Valley of Flowers Trek – they don’t cut corners and try to provide the best. The guide they had provided was excellent.

Other Useful Points ( The company you go with will provide a exhaustive list – this is just a reaffirmation of some important points) 

Valley of Flowers is open from June to Sep , June the valley is covered in snow , July / August is the best time to visit , by Sep the flowers start drying up .

  • 5 Years back 70% of the travellers were foreigners but now Indians have taken over and almost 80% of the travellers are Indians – and they come in all shapes and sizes from 16 year old to 75 + . Gujaratis, Bengalis form the largest groups , while a significant number travel from Bangalore. Its great to see Indians moving from just    ” Seeing Holidays” to ” Doing Holidays”
  • Invest in good gear – a Good trekking show with ankle support is a must
  • Get knee support – coming downhill that will be a big help
  • Ensure to use Sun Screen – we pray for sunny days but at this altitude the sun can be harsh and you will get sun burnt. So even if it is cloudy and rainy as you start remember to use the sunscreen
  • Stay Fit and put in some effort few months before you travel to be in shape. Some people are genetically fit to trek others like me have to pit in some effort.
  • Carry medicines but you don’t need them – on the 1st day night at Ghangria I felt my heart was thumping very fast – but I was able to meditate and bring it down. Don’t panic and take medicines proactively – they are not needed. A strong mind and a fit body is all you need.
  • Eat light – and avoid oily greasy food as you travel
  • This is cash only economy so carry 10 – 15 K with you in currency
  • Can you travel on your own ? Yes some people do but I feel its best to go with an agency that can provide professional guidance and help. An emergency situation is a step away in these regions and thats when you need the help of an agency.
  • Pray and have faith in the almighty – respect the mountains , don’t dirty it
  • Last but not the least – talk to someone who did the trek as you plan and pack , my wife’s guidance and support was invaluable ( she did this trip last year)

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Diving in Havelock – Andaman Holidays

April is our holiday season. Over the years we have had wonderful holidays across Bali, Krabi, Cambodia, Kashmir, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and many more exotic locations. Each one has been memorable and we felt like staying on and on ….. However, this year was different.

Driven by my daughter’s desire to go Scuba diving we decided on the Andaman’s. Scuba Diving seems to be the latest passion of teenagers and it’s an expensive hobby – the problem is it’s difficult to find a good safe agency and a clean sea with a lot of divining spots. After weeks of searching we finally zoomed in on Barefoot Holidays and Havelock.

Why Havelock? It’s the best place for diving in India – Pristine clean waters, over 2 dozen diving spots in close proximity, a wealth of reef and oceanic life.  You can dive for almost 10 months a year though the best season is from Feb to April when sea conditions are best.  I was also driven by Modis push for nationalism and felt it best to promote the Indian economy with my tourism $$.

Why Barefoot? Of all the Scuba agencies I called in Bangalore they responded the best. I had good references on people who had used them. It’s for the Pro’s – so if you are on a discover Scuba mission you have enough options – but my daughter wanted her PADI certification so we decided to go with the best. Barefoot Scuba divers are passionate and well trained – almost all are Dive Masters with 500 – 5000 dives under their belt. Their infrastructure, safety records are the best. They have good equipment, reliable boats and the Barefoot Scuba resort is bang on beach no 3 with sea facing rooms. Yes, they are expensive – and a 4 day Open water PADI Certification course will cost you 24,000 + Stay / Food ….. (Cheaper options are Dive India & Bubbles). Add to this they also have a transit service apartment in Andaman called ” the Nest” and take care of all your travel in the Andaman’s (Pick up , Ferry etc)

So why am I not very thrilled? The Andaman’s are difficult to get to (Bangalore – Chennai – Port Blair by Flight and then a Ferry to Havelock) – there is no Wi Fi in most hotels / restaurants in Havelock and the network connection is very very poor – there is not much to see – hardly any entertainment – and its expensive – the service is functional and basic, hotels in Havelock have no TV or newspapers – natural beauty is OK nothing spectacular – Check out is at 7 AM – the hotels are decent but not WOW. Add to this the energy of the place is a bit dull and listless – there is some sadness in this place – the minute you land at the airport you can sense that something is missing and that feeling carried thru the trip.

Maybe this is because of the history. This is where the British incarcerated our political prisoners. Torture and treatment meted out to them is comparable to what the Jews suffered in the Nazi camps. Thousands were hanged. Things got worse during the brief occupancy by the Japanese during World War 2. Havelock was not inhabited till the early 50’s and the Indian Govt made this the home for shiploads of refugees from Burma and Bangladesh.

The population in Port Blair is 30% Bengalis and 30% Tamil with the rest from Andhra, Jharkand, Bihar, Panjab etc. Havelock is almost all Bengalis. The whole population in Havelock is now catering to Tourists – agriculture has come to an end and surprisingly we did not see any cows, goats, birds – just a lot of cats. I wonder what that signifies? Yogi Adityanath would have surely said – with no cows there is no positive vibration in Havelock. The Bengalis who are everywhere are good people – but they seem to be engrossed in deep sorrow. Speed, efficiency and a courteous smile is not their natural trait

Day – 1

We landed at Port Blair in the afternoon at 2. Barefoot has a service apartment with 4 rooms “The Nest” that is 5 minutes from the airport. Its decent and homely and was perfect for our transit stop.

In the evening we visited the Cellular Jail – a very well maintained piece of history where you learn that there is a lot more to India’s freedom struggle beyond Gandhi & Nehru. This is where Veer Savarkar and countless others bore the brunt of British cruelty. The light & Sound show at the Cellular jail is good – the story of the Cellular Jail is narrated by an old tree that has seen it all over the years. This is a must visit for every patriotic Indian. However, my friend recommended the Light & Sound show at Ross Island – which is a ferry ride away – that is supposedly even better.

We ended the day with a wonderful dinner at a beautiful roof top restaurant “SeaShells” with a school buddy I am meeting after 29 years. As we were discussing history and Andaman’s with the children we all agreed that the history that is represented in our school books is very different from what actually happened. Whether it is the contribution of the Cholas or the thousands of freedom fighters and their struggle in places like “ Kala Pani” – our school history does not do justice to what really happened.

Day – 2

We visit the Chatham Saw Mill and a Govt Aquarium (Budget less than 30 min for each) and were back at The Nest for lunch before departing by a private Ferry to Havelock. The private Ferry Service “Makruzz”  costs Rs 1000/- one way – while the Govt ferry is Rs 435). The ferry takes about 2 hrs – they serve snacks on board (Got to pay for it – Sandwiches / Tea / Brownies etc). The service is good.

At Havelock the Barefoot guys were there to receive us. The service from Barefoot was exceptional. It’s part of the Café Coffe Day group and Netaji the manager at Port Blair who was coordinating for us did an outstanding job.

Barefoot has two properties at Havelock – the main property called Barefoot Havelock is an Eco Retreat on the world famous Radha Nagar beach tucked inside a woody rainforest. They have 31 elegantly designed thatch huts, cottages & villas. The other property where we were headed is called Barefoot Scuba – this is the place for Scuba Diving. It’s on Village no 3 near the Jetty and the main market. A few cottages and the rest are shacks. Great food and good service. This is where the hard core divers stay for weeks and months.  The rooms are a stones throw away from the beach. This beach has azure blue water and sand as fine as powder – but the beach is narrow and not a shade to the one at Radha Nagar.

Day 3 to Day 6

My daughter was busy with her PADI certification. Day – 1 was theory and passing an exam, Day – 2 was confined water divining and Day 3 & 4 were the deep sea diving. She enjoyed it and says that the experience was unique. This was her 16th birthday gift and I am hoping she will carry memories of this all her life.

My little one and me had a tough time spending our days. Other than Scuba Diving and Sea Food there is not much to do at Havelock. The Radha Nagar beach is awesome and we went there almost every day.

 

A second beach called Kala Pathar is OK. The place for touristy activity is Elephant Beach – a 30 min ferry or a 1.5 km trek. We took the Trek that was more adventurous, thru thick forests and some wading thru knee deep water (The Crocs and Anacondas were having an off day)

The ferry costs 700 Rs round trip while the Trek guide charges you Rs 400). You can do Snorkelling , Banana Boat and Sea Walking here. If you have been to S East Asia and Phi Phi island you will be disappointed – there is hardly anything to see in the waters here. Rides are expensive (Rs 500 each for a 5 min ride and the sea walk is a whopping Rs 3500 / person, It’s better to do you jet Skiing at Port Blair)

Kayaking, sailing etc seem to be options on paper but we were told that Sailing has been closed down. Clearly this is one island which has a lot of potential but the authorities don’t want it to get more commercial. The recent liquor ban and a threat to ban diving from May 1st was surprising. A Taj property is opening soon and that may drive some high end tourists.

We tried a bunch of restaurants – all of them stone’s throw from our resort. “Anju Coco” was great – awesome food and service. We wanted to visit “Something Different” – but a last minute panic of a strike in Havelock against a possible diving ban from may 1st made us prepone our return and we missed going here.

Autos & cars n Havelock and Port Blair go point to point – so a short 30 min to and fro ride from our resort to Radha Nagar Beach costs Rs 800/-. Most Tourists are couples and backpackers and they rent two wheelers for Rs 400 / day. Liquor is banned in Havelock (The main Barefoot property has a bar – but most other places the bar is closed). No entertainment in the evening – so you are very much done by 830 PM and go to sleep by 9. Carry books, board games – things to keep you occupied if you are travelling with Kids.

The sun rises early – we are on IST but almost halfway to Thailand. So by 5.30 AM it feels like 8 AM in Bangalore. It’s a cash economy – so ensure that you carry lots of cash. There are two ATM’s in Havelock near the jetty. The small Village market has all that you need including a stationery and pharma store.

After 4 days of completing her certification successfully we headed back to Port Blair. The capital is a busy town and a lots of tourists use this as their hub to visit the islands nearby. Barren islands the only active volcano of India is in the Andaman’s and can be visited on a day trip. Lots of options for diving, water sports exist in and around Andaman’s – but we did not explore.

On the way back we had 24 hrs at Port Blair – again staying at The Nest. We managed to visit the Anthropology Museum, the Science Museum, The Naval Museum and a few art stores (Lots of lovely shells to buy at affordable prices). We stopped by at the Ramakrishna Mission Ashram which is located right next to the sea.

We discovered Annapurna – Pure Veg South Indian restaurant and after 5 days gorged on Idlis, Dosas and Sambar (Sadly no curd rice was available). The ITC Fortune hotel is close by to “The Nest” and we had lunch there – nice place with an excellent sea view. Other good hotels in Port Blair are Peerless Inn & Sinclair’s.

By the time it was time to leave we had started liking the place. It’s different – don’t expect Goa here. The place has its own rhythm and it takes a few days to get acclimatised. Weather in April end was warm but manageable – best time to travel is Jan – Feb (Nov – Dec the North East Monsoon may cause disruptions)

I may not come back here again– but there are 3 Things that make it worth a visit

  • Diving in Pristine Waters
  • Cellular Jail
  • And some beautiful beaches with soft white sand and azure blue waters….

So go for it!

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Singapore & Bali in 8 days

SE Asia is a travellers paradise – nature has showered its goodness on the region, its reasonably economical and everything works with clockwork precision.

Singapore is normally the 1st international destination for most Indians. Then they graduate to Bangkok, KL, Phuket, Krabi, Langkawi, …… we did all of this and it was now time for Glorious Bali.

Unfortunately there is no direct flight from Bangalore to Bali, so we planned a trip Via Singapore (3 nights at Singapore & 5 nights at Bali). We have been to Singapore many times – but the city always beckons – Singapore can  be described in a few words – small, efficient , safe & a perfect place for a family holiday.

You can spend a relaxed week at Singapore that includes a few days at Sentosa –  in the 3 days that we had we wanted to focus on the the new attractions – sights we had not been to before – Universal studio, Gardens by the Bay & the fascinating Art & Science museum – and with children a trip to the Singapore Zoo & Jurong Bird Park is a must. (Other attractions include Night Safari, Duck Boat, Little India & Chinatown, The Science Centre, The Red Dot Museum, A walk by the marina bay and the Merlon & the underwater park in Sentosa are worth a visit.

Gardens by the bay was the highlight of the visit – two giant air conditioned  indoor canopies that house a world of greenery. We were lucky to see the Tulips in full bloom and it was a riot of colours.

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The recently opened Arts & Science museum is also fascinating –  a 1500-square-metre digital universe, where 15 spectacular art installations are brought to life and evolve in real-time through visitor presence and participation.

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Universal Stuido is a key attraction for the kids – it has the following 7 theme parks – New York, Sci – Fi City, Ancient Egypt, Madagascar, Far Far Away, Water World and the Lost World.

I felt that the clock had not moved since 1999 when I first visited at LA. Its the same set of rides and shows – hardly any evolution. You can spend a day if you want to visit every ride – but we were there by 930 and left by 3. (The fast track tickets helped us beat the Q). The scariest ride here is the Battlestar Galactica – it can really shake you up

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We also managed to walk down Clark Quay and have dinner with some friends – the Quay is the party zone area – we left by 10 PM but this is where you can party till early morning

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We stayed at the Grand Hyatt at Scotts Road / Orchard intersection – very centrally located. Distances in Singapore are 10 – 15 min by car to almost all attractions – the Bird park is located farthest ( 30 min drive) – but is soon expected to move next to the Zoo

Other Basis Information 

  • Silk Air has a convenient morn 950 AM flight from Bangalore that lands Singapore at 430 PM
  • 1 Sing $ ~ INR 50
  • Cab Fares vary from $ 10 – $20 ( Airport to Hotel ~ $20)
  • Indian Food – not a problem – head to Little India
  • Tickets for the attractions cost from $25 – $50 / person , book online in advance you save money and avoid the Q

2nd Leg of our  tour : Enchanting Bali

On day 3 we took the 630 PM evening flight from Singapore to Bali – its a 2 hrs 30 min flight , and landed at 9.50 PM. You don’t need Visa at Bali and your passport is your entry – you can zip past immigration in 10 min and reach your hotel in 25 – 30 min. The airport is at Denpasar, located in the south of the island.

Bali is Not a City . Its a province of Indonesia which is located between the islands of Java and Lombok island, Bali island is also commonly referred to as The Island Of Thousands Temples, The Island of Gods, and Bali Dwipa, Bali also has several small islands including the island of Nusa Penida, Nusa Lembongan Island, Nusa Ceningan island, Serangan Island and Menjangan Island. Its a bit like Goa and distances between tourist attractions can be as far as 2 – 3 hrs.

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Background on Bali & Indonesia

Indonesia is an Archipelago with over 2000 islands of which less than 50 are populated. It was a Hindu & Buddhist country in the 600 – 1200 period before the conversion to a Muslim state started happening. It was colonised by the Dutch for ~ 250 years and was under Japanese control for a few years during the 2nd world war. Indonesia is the worlds largest Muslim country. They share the same language and script with the Malaysians.

Bali has strong Hindu roots – Mythology says that the great Sage Agastya is supposed to have travelled to Bali & Java to spread Hinduism 10 – 15,000 years back. 90% of Bali is still Hindu and the area is dotted with thousands of temples. Shiva , Vishnu & Uma are the main deities – and  a lot of what they do is linked to the Ramayana and Mahabharata, but the festivals they celebrate are different from those in India. Would be wonderful to do a research on how Hinduism spread & flourished in  Cambodia , Vietnam , & Malaysia thousands of years back.

(More info on bali here : http://www.baliglory.com/2012/10/bali-history-about-island-god.html)

We stayed at the Grand Hyatt Resorts at Nusa Dua which is at the Southern part of Bali. Within Nusa Dua there is a gated enclave designed like a park that houses most of the large resorts – Westin , Hilton , Hyatt etc.

The Grand Hyatt is a sprawling 650 room beach front property with rooms and villas. It is an oasis of peace and tranquility. Quality of rooms and service was excellent. Rates are comparable to the 5 Star rates in India.

Bali has a sense of energy balance – the place is blessed , you can feel the vibes. The people are calm and relaxed (not restless like in India) , soft spoken and seem to be at peace with themselves. there is a sense of contentment and joy and it was wonderful to soak in this environment for 5 nights.

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Tourists come to Bali and spend weeks and months – but if you have 4 days here is a itinerary to follow

Day – 1 : City Tour  9 AM to 6 PM

  • The Goa Gajah or the elephant cave
  • Artisans Village
  • Plantation walk
  • A Visit to a Mount Agung – A live Volcano that last erupted in 1996 (View it from a  Distance – Trek takes 1/2 a day)
  • Shopping at Ubud (Lunch at an Indian Restaurant – Queens)
  • Monkey Forest

A temple supposedly built by sage Agastya – it was excavated recently. 

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Mount Agung – one of the active volcanoes in Malaysia

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An organic farm that grows Cocoa, Coffee , Spices – they served us a tray of over 5 different types of coffee .

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Day – 2 : City Tour 9 AM to 7 PM

  • Butterfly park
  • Jatiluwih Rice Terraces (UNESCO World Heritage site) *
  • Hot Spring
  • Floating temple (Pura Ulun Danu Bratan)
  • Tanah Lot – Sunset
  • The other 2 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Bali are the Pakerisan Valley & the Taman Ayun temple ( We did not have the time to visit these beautiful places)

A 2 hr drive from Nusa Dua our first stop on day 2 was a small but pretty butterfly park.

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The Jatiluwih rice terraces are located in a hilly part of Bali – the weather is cool and pleasant and it feels like a hill station. The undulating greenery is soothing to the eyes. Spend some time here and take a relaxed walk by the rice fields and be with nature – its calming & serene. Not very crowded as getting here takes almost 3 hrs.

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Pura Ulun Danu Bratan, or Pura Bratan, is a major Shivaite and water temple  The temple complex is located on the shores of Lake Bratan in the mountains near Bedugul.

Built in 1663, this temple is used for offerings ceremony to the Balinese water, lake and river goddess Dewi Danu, due to the importance of Lake Bratan as a main source of irrigation in central Bali. The 11 stories of pelinggih meru dedicated for Shiva and his consort Parvathi. Buddha statue is also present inside this temple.

Lake Bratan is known as the Lake of Holy Mountain due to the fertility of this area. Located 1200 m above sea level, it has a cold tropical climate.

Its a beautiful temple with landscaped gardens and a large lake – we reached here in the evening around 4 PM and it was a wonderful sight.

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The Tanah Lot temple is best visited at sunset or sunrise. It was built and has been a part of Balinese mythology for centuries. The temple is one of seven sea temples around the Balinese coast. Each of the sea temples was established within eyesight of the next to form a chain along the south-western coast. This temple reminded me of the Shore temple at Mahabalipuram and the fact that maybe the Pallavas or their descendants had some influence in the design and construction of these temples at Bali.

In addition to Balinese mythology, the temple was significantly influenced by Hinduism. At the base of the rocky island, venomous sea snakes are believed to guard the temple from evil spirits and intruders. The temple is purportedly protected by a giant snake, the temple complex has a snake park.

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The Bali temples are well marketed but are no comparison in size, stature and design to what we see in S India.

Day 2 was a long trip and we were back only by 730 PM

Day – 3 : At the Resort , Shopping and the Devdan Show

With 5 pools, 5 restaurant , amazing green landscape and a great beach we had to spend one day at the Grand Hyatt Resort and most of day 3 was spent there.

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Right next to the Resort is a beautiful mall called the Bali Place where we stopped by for some shopping and late lunch and in the evening visited the spectacular Devdan show.

This is a live 2 hr show ( like a Las vegas show) with light & sound effects that presents the different art and cultural treasures of the Indonesia archipelago. A well choreographed program it was indeed a sight to watch. ( Tickets are expensive ~ 80$ / person)

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We ended the day with dinner at an Indian restaurant and felt like a millionaire as the bill was 1 M Indonesian Rupiah. ( that is about $ 70 or Rs 5000)

Day – 4 : Cruise to Lembogan island and water sports 

The last day was a cruise to the Lembogan Island – this is about 1 hr from the Nusa Dua harbour. You spend the day here – its a picnic, you leave the resort at 7.45 AM and are back by 5 PM  . Activities include snorkelling, diving, Aquanauts, kayaking & banana boat. The package includes vegetarian lunch (and we were pleasantly surprised to get good vegetarian food)

The girls were brave enough to go diving while we experimented with Aquanauts. This is the easy way to go to the seabed (10 metres) as you get down with oxygen masks to see the flare and fauna below. Kids above 9 are allowed.

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That brought us to our last supper and the chef was kind enough to prepare a meal of paratha , dal and curry for us ( Food at Bali & the Hyatt is a bit challenging for vegetarians and the Balinese dishes are not as nice as the Thai ones – during the trip we were mainly on Pasta / Pizza )

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That brought us to the end of a lovely 8 day trip. I am thankful to the weather gods and all the people who helped in making the trip successful – the travel agents in India , the tour operators in Bali (Bali Hai Cruises who managed all the bookings for us msuwitra@yahoo.com), my brother who helped us in Singapore , the friendly tourist guide Karma in Bali, the staff at The Grand Hyatt at Singapore & Bali , the kids who were wonderful all thru the trip, for SQ that took off and landed on time , to the immigration officials where the lines were zipping and our friends from Mantri – it really helps to go on a holiday as two families – its a lot more fun.

A big Thank You to all for a memorable trip.

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PS : Additional contact for car booking – we did not use this since we were a group of 8 and had booked a van – but was strongly recommended by our friends for a family of 4 : Driver Name Abbe +62 878 60570999

 

Picture Perfect Krakow – In 36 Hrs

When most Indians thinks of Europe for travel  – they  think of London, Paris, Rome – Italy , Switzerland and maybe Amsterdam. All these are great cities and I have loved visiting them but Krakow, Prague and Budapest have been on my to do visit list for long – and finally I managed a weekend trip to Krakow.

A little bit about Krakow & Poland 

  • The history of Poland results from the migrations of Slavs who established permanent settlements on the Polish lands during the Early Middle Ages – around 966 AD. The country adopted Catholic Christianity.
  • Around 1795 after a series of invasions and partitions of Polish territory carried out by the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia, and the Austrian Habsburg Monarchy Poland ceased to exist as a country till 1918.  After 21 years in 1939 Russia and Nazi Germany invaded Poland and demolished the country  during WW 2.
  • Till 1990 Poland was part of the East Bloc – a communist country – the country has flourished since 1990 under a open market – thanks to their hard work ethics.
  • Krakow is the 2nd largest city in Poland after Warsaw – its history goes back to 966 AD and over the last 1100 years it has miraculously avoided and destruction – though it was the Capital of Poland for more than 700 years. Poland today has a population of 38 M – and Krakow a population of less than 1M
  • The Polish language – with close similarity to Russian was developed around 1600 – Poland has many neighbours – Russia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, Belarus, Slovakia and Germany
  • Krakow can get seriously cold in winter ( – 20 Degrees) July to Oct is the best time visit – days are long from 5 AM to 10 PM and the weather is a pleasant 25 Degrees
  • 1 Polish Zloty ~ 17 INR , the city is very affordable. Salaries are still low and the average salary is $ 600 / month for a school teacher , bank / hotel front office staff.

Why did I want to visit Krakow 

For some strange reason I have been wanting to visit the Nazi concentration camp at Aushwitz. WW 2 fascinates me and having read a lot about Aushwitz – its been on my must visit last for the last 5 years. But lucky me Aushwitz was interesting – but Old City Krakow and its charming localities were  more fascinating.

Getting to Krakow 

Its a 2 hr flight from London – Ryan Air and Easy Jet have many daily flights from Stanstead airport (The cab fare to Stanstead from Central London can be more expensive than the air fare) – there is a 1 hr time lag – so my 8.50AM flight reached Krakow at 12 Noon – and I was in the Sheraton by 1.15 afternoon. Krakow airport is small – Schengen Visa – and the distance from the airport to the city centre is 15 – 20 min. The Sheraton is a lovely affordable property in the centre of old town – facing the river front – 100 m away from the Castle. ( Sheraton Krakow rooms were ~ $90/night)

What are the main things to do in Krakow 

I would say 3 must do activities – of which the 1st and the 3rd are UNESCO world heritage cites.

  1. Old Town tour
  2. A visit to Aushwitz and Birkenau
  3. A Visit to the Wieliczska Salt Mine

1. The Old Town tour will take 3 – 4 hrs and most of it can be covered by walk. Important areas to visit include the main market square, St Mary’s Basilica, The University (where Copernicus studied)  and Wavel Castle. You must also visit the Schindler Museum, Old Jewish Town (And here is where you have an Indian restaurant)  and the Ghetto area.

The town is charming – cobbled streets, nice shops, lively crowd – the evening the shops and pubs are brimming with energy – there is live music in the square. I took a guide – because language is a problem and I wanted to make the most of the limited time I had. Some snaps of this picture perfect Old Town. The Town Square is large – imagine the vision to design something liked this a 1000 years back.

I started at 2 and was done by 6 – a Bit rushed at the Schindler museum where I could have spent more time – but we covered everything – 80 % by walk and a few short rides by Cab. After some rest – I was back at the Market square at 7.30 for  nice dinner with live music and back in my room by 9.30 at the lovely Sheraton that is located centrally opposite to the Castle

The Castle 

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Main Market Square and Basilica 

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Lots of fun stuff happening in the streets 

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Old Jewish town at Szeroka 

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2. Aushwitz & Birkenau

Day – 2 was very busy. I started with a early morning walk by the river and reached a beautiful park that surrounds the old town. It was fresh and green and quiet – all to myself at 5.30 AM. A sumptuous breakfast and we ready for a group tour to Aushwitz. Its a 1 hr drive from Krakow.

Although called Aushwitz – there were two Camps Aushwitz and Birkenau. They were the largest Nazi concentration & death camp where about 1.1 Mn – mainly Jews died. Aushwitz was smaller – 6 hectares and Birkanau was 25 times larger. But Aushwitz had a higher density.

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People to these camps came from Poland (Political Prisoners) , Russian Prisoners of War , Jews from Poland, Hungary , Austria , Germany and Gypsies from Hungary and Romania.  Many came from Hungary packed into Trains – 80 to 100 in a wagon – long journeys of 2 – 3 days. The journey was a torture and many died in transit. They were lucky.

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On reaching Birkenau they were sorted – the old, weak, pregnant, small kids – who could not work where sent directly to the gas chambers and the others to the concentration camps. Work was gruelling – 11 hrs , and food was hardly any – 2 cups of coffee in the morning , a bowl of soup for lunch and few slices of bread and a small piece of meat for dinner – all put together less than 1000 calories. Bitter cold of Poland, poor sanitation and back breaking work – hardly anyone survived for more than 6 months. The message was work hard – “work will set you free”

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At Aushwitz there were 700 – 1200 people in each building , each bunker was shared by 2 people, and there were 20 toilets and 1 washroom to be shared in a building. Punishment for the smallest of crimes was cruel and people were banished to suffocation rooms, starvations cells and many were shot or hanged at the slightest provocation. Inspite of this some survived when the red army came in 1945 – and of them 300 survivors came to Birkenau last year to celebrate the 70th anniversary of freedom.

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Over 1500 people were terminated in the Gas chambers in one shot – took 20 minutes for the deadly gas to take effect – post that their bodies were picked dry, hair was used for making mats, gold teeth were extracted, and the cremated ash was used as fertilisers.

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The scale of death and pain is unimaginable and it was done with German precision – extermination of Jews with 6 Sigma precision.

We reached Aushwitz at 9.30 and after the tour of both the places was back in the hotel by 3 PM – just in time to grab a quick lunch and then rush on a private tour to the world famous salt mines. The hotel had arranged a brand new Merc and the driver entertained me with nuggets of Poland and local history on the 20 min drive.

3. The Wieliczska salt mines are almost 500 years old. At one time they provided  30% of the country’s revenues. Salt was as expensive as gold in 1600 – 1700. A tonne of salt could buy a village with 200 people. Salt was important to preserve meat and food. Right from the Roman times a cup of salt was a form of currency – and the word Salary owes its origin to the humble cup of Salt.

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The mines are deep – almost 1000 feet deep – but the guided tour takes us down to about 400 feet. You walk down and come up a lift – a lot of walking in the 3 hrs you spend at the mines – almost 3 – 4 kms. It is tiring – but you are welcome to lick the salt on the walls anytime to regain some energy – or take a deep breath in the pools of crystal clean green water saturated with rich rock salt. Excavation results in the mine becoming unstable – hence each cavern after excavation is propped up by logs – in all 1 M cubic foot of wood has been used to prop up the mine.

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The creative part – lots of amazing sculptures are visible – any famous visitor and those from biblical times are prominently exhibited in the caverns , chapels and alleys. There are about 300 kms of tunnels – a labyrinth of pathways deep down – in the 3 km we walked we probably did not cover even 1 %. But that itself was fascinating and tiring. The entire route is very well maintained, well lit and worthy of a UNESCO heritage site.

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I finished the mine trip by 7 PM and headed back to town – a lovely dinner at the Indian restaurant ( I was famished with so much of walking) and back in the room at 9 PM – it as a long day but I wanted to get done with the blog as my memory was fresh.

One last thing – the people of Krakow are soft spoken  very professional and helpful – when they start talking in Polish they accelerate and run like a train at 100 mph  – and Monika at the concierge was the perfect example of a local citizen. I was in touch her a few days back trying to get my bookings done for the tours etc – she was super responsive and very articulate on email and when I met her I could see energy and professionalism gushing all over – and she has been at the same job for 10 years – hats off – wish more Indians could have her work ethics. Thank you Monika – you and the Sheraton were the perfect hosts for these 36 hrs – and thank you for making this a memorable trip

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Final Leg – Langkawi

Langkawi is a small Island located 1 hr flight from KL. Our Flight landed by 9 PM – and were in our hotel by 9.45 PM – its a 30 min drive. The Westin Langkawi is a wonderful property – located close to the Jetty and the Fair Mall its a beautiful property with excellent service. Rates are reasonable – our rooms were priced at $160 / night (April is off season , May the rains start – peak season is from Oct to Feb) – rates for food was also very reasonable – 1/3rd of what the Westin Gurgaon charges. It has 3 large pools – the main pool , a kid pool and a rock garden pool. A Lovely Spa called the Heavenly Spa. A centre for water sports and a Kid Activity Centre. 3 Restaurants – one with live music at night at the lobby level. A beautiful floating Pagoda in the sea where you can host private parties.  All +ves for the Westin and I am glad we chose this over Datai and Andaman – these are nice properties but located at the north west corner of the island very far away. The only challenge at the Westin was the beach – it was OK – Sand was grainy and coarse and the sea was far away exposing marshy rocks –  no comparison to the beach at Sheraton Krabi or  the Park Hyatt Goa.

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A tropical duty free island – its a UNESCO Geo Park. A small island (but 3 times as large as Singapore) – you can cover this comfortably in 3 days. Here is how we paced ourselves

Day – 1

Morning session 9 – 2 , was a drive to the Cable Car, A trek to a waterfall (not much water this time of the year) – and a drive past some beautiful golf courses and a quick stop at the Datai , a 5 min halt at a small but very clean Indian Temple and  lunch at the Indian Arabic Restaurant at Fairview Mall.

Cable Car

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View from the top of the Cable Car Ride

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Elephant Ride (Same areas as Cable Park – they also have a 6D movie)

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Day – 1 : Second Half : 2.30 to 5.30 PM  High speed drive past Mangroves – Kite Feeding , Bat Caves.

The speed boat travels at 90 Kmph – zips past miles and miles of mangroves – and on the way we crossed an area for kite feeding and entered caves full of bats. The drive reminds you of Phantom and the Denkali isles – just that the river is free of Piranha. What added to the fun was sudden rain as passing clouds drenched us for a few minutes.

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Day – 2 was spent entirely in Snorkelling / Diving / Swimming – a Yacht ride to an island – 1 hr away.

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Anvi was brave enough to try deep sea diving and she did a great job of it – not once but twice going as deep as 50 feet into the deep blue sea – she claims to have seen amazing flora and fauna including a wide variety of coral reefs.

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We were back by 5 PM and spent the evening in the lovely hotel having a peaceful dinner and watching the sunset over the beautiful island. Sun Rise at 7 AM snd sets by 7.30 PM.

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Day – 3 our flight was in the evening at 7.30 – so we had the whole day to ourselves – but we had covered almost all of Langkawi – barring the wildlife park. Its a 20 min drive from the Westin and we reached at 10 – a small but homely wildlife centre it houses amazing birds and a few animals – no tigers / elephants / leopards etc. Kids love the place – its neat , clean and very homely – being off season was almost empty – and that added to the charm.

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The place is full of beaches and water sports activities – so if thats your interest its all over the place. I believe there are some great treks to the rich forests – but all that needs more time.

We check out at 2 and head for a late lunch – and then we leave the hotel by 5 PM for our 7.30 PM flight to Bangalore Via KL.

That brings to an end one more amazing 10 day holiday. SE Asia is beautiful, affordable, efficient – and there so much more to see. I can now start planning my next holiday and I have a big list to choose from – Maldives , Sri Lanka, Seychelles, Bhutan , Bali …… let the good times continue.

All the photos of the Blogs / FB were taken on the amazing iPhone 6 – now there is no need for a camera the iPhone 6 beats most amateur cameras hollow.

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Siem Reap (Angkor Wat) in 3 days

KL airport is small, empty and efficient – drive from the city is fast – 45 min (50 Km distance). Our flight from KL reached Siem Reap in 2 hrs at 1.15 noon , there is a 1 hr time lag , so we leave KL at 12.15 and reach Siem Reap at 1.15.

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Basic Facts of Cambodia 

Cambodia borders Thailand – a lot closer to Bangkok – the country has a lot of similarities with Thailand and at one time both regions were ruled by the same kings. Cambodia still depends a lot on Thailand – the city of Siem Reap gets all its electricity from Thailand.

Cambodia has two main cities – the Capital Phnom Penh and Siem Reap the gateway to Angkor Wat , separated by about 350 Km ( driving is 6 – 7 hrs, flight preferred).  A developing country that was under French control till the early 50’s. Between mid 70’s to early 90’s the country was wracked by internal civil wars – Pol Pots Khmer Rouges trying to create a Communist state – millions perished. A sense of calm and peace has come as recently as the late 90’s. (Formerly Cambodia was called Kampuchea)

The country was under French rule till the 50’s – and French is the second language. I am told that there is a lot of French Influence and old buildings visible in Phnom Penh – but not much in Siem Reap.

95% of population is Buddhist. Locals are Khmers – but many Chinese also.

Arrival & Visa 

Cambodia provides Visa on arrival. We got ours from India. There is an eVisa option also. (This is preferred as with large tour groups your Q at the airport may be long). I had read that US Citizens did not need Visa – but was proved wrong – so we had to get my daughters Visa at the airport – costs 30$. There is a ATM right there – they accept US dollars. If you are applying for Visa on arrival – keep a passport photo handy. The country actually has USD and Cambodian Real as the currency options – don’t convert your USD at the airport. 1 USD = 4000 Cambodian Reals , all ATM’s dispenses USD and its accepted freely everywhere. The Airport is small, you can clear Immigration in 15 min collect your luggage and reach the hotel in less than 30 min. Flight landed at 1.15 afternoon  and we were in the hotel before 2.15.

Stay 

We stayed at the Chateau d’ Angkor La Residence – a small boutique hotel in the centre of the city  with 28 Suites (12 single BHK Units and 16 Double BHK Units). It has a lovely pool and a nice garden. But no Gym. Friendly staff who struggle with english – one restaurant that serves Continental, Chinese and local cuisine – many Veg Options. We had a spacious 2 bedroom suite (over 1500 sft) – pool facing – 2 Bedrooms, Large Hall, Dining and a Kitchen. Its like a service apartment with a cooking range, fridge, pots & pans etc – all of this for  $110/day, including free Wi Fi and Breakfast. Perfect place for families to stay. The hotel helps coordinate all your tour plans and even helps you to book tickets for shows. There is no dearth of Hotels from 5 star properties to boutique hotels in the city  – the city thrives on Tourism. From Hyatt to Soffitel to numerous quality brands – they all dot the landscape.

Food is also not a problem – enough options for vegetarians including a few Indian Restaurants – we dined a lot at the Curry Walla (That is located on the main road Sivutha Blvd) . Our breakfast buffet was full off fresh tropical fruits. You see them all over town and even on the roadsides. Coconut water is also available everywhere. For the ambitious – lots of non veg varieties – Dog meat is a delicacy and we even spotted roadside vendors selling Pig Tongue.

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City

The city is small – you can cover almost any part of the city in 5 – 10 minutes by Tuk Tuk. This is the local auto powered by a bike – it can easily carry 4 people. The main area of the city is one big road that has shops , a small mall, restaurants – about 1 Km in length , it ends at the Pub Street a happening place full of restaurants and bars. Nearby is also the Old Market with lots of Souvenir shops. Everything is reasonable priced – dinner for 4 is about $ 30, a Tuk Tuk Ride is $ 2, a foot Massage for 30 min is $ 3. Well planned well laid out city – feels like a modern one, nice roads, good footpaths, well lit , no garbage , safe.  We were here during the New Year celebrations – Thai & Khmer New Year is on April 14th – coinciding with the Indian Calendar. The City was crowded and happening – but there was space for all and we never had a challenge getting stuck in Q’s or a Road Jam. People understand basic english – but when you head for a Tour take a Guide.

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What We Did

We had 3 days so we spaced ourselves well and covered the following. The Hotel has packaged options – about 10 of them and you can pick and choose. A day trip inclusive of Car/Van , Guide, Lunch will be about $ 150.

Day – 1 : National Museum, City Tour , Walk down Old Market & Pub Street , A Family Foot Massage

Day – 2 : Early morning Sunrise Visit to Angkor Wat , Visit to 3 more Temples , Lunch , Back in room by 3 PM. Swimming at the hotel. Leave at 4.30 for some shopping, strolling , Dinner, visit the Apsara Dance Performance from 8 to 9 PM

Day – 3 : Some more temples , Visit to a Butterfly Park , Back by 3 PM – , Walking in the city from 4 – 6, Dinner , Visit to the Cambodian Circus from 8 – 9.30 PM

Tourism in more detail 

You come here to see Angkor Wat and the old temples. Most of the temples are in bad shape – ruins. Built between 900 – 1200 AD by the Hindu Kings – the temples are mainly dedicated to Shiva. Angkor Wat is dedicated to Vishnu. There are 100’s of temples and they are in clusters – you can see 4 – 5 in a day. After some time it gets boring. In comparison the Indian temples we see at Badami, Belur – Halebid, Tanjore, Khajuraho are in excellent shape. The Temples in and around Angkor Wat lack the level of intricate design and sculpture that we see in Indian temples. You will see a lot of engravings from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and surprisingly a lot of Samudra Manthan depictions. To be frank – I was disappointed with Angkor Wat. Its a bit like the Mona Lisa at Louvre.  I think its very well marketed and positioned.

All the temples were built between 900 & 1200 AD – are made of Bricks, Sandstone or Laterite.The temples are in bad shape – some restoration work is in progress and even the Indian Govt and ASI is involved in a few of them. But its going to take a long time to get them in shape. Our local guide painstakingly explained that a lot of damage was done by Hindu Kings to Buddhist temple – but stayed quiet on the damage done by the Khmer Rogues and Buddhist kings to the Hindu Temples. Almost all the Shiva Lingas and Hindu statues are broken , shattered or dismembered. I was reading about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rogues – being communists they vandalised the temples and caused severe damage to these ancient temples. Lots of references to Hindu Kings having gone from S india and built these temples – but the guide and the locals give all credit to Khmers – there is no history of Hinduism there – it must have gone from S India – the temple architecture similarity and the name of the kings show that – but sadly no mention of this ( Neither do the history books in Indian schools talk of this – Sad)

You can buy Tickets for 1 day ($ 20) , 3 days ($ 40) or 7 days. Good to buy the 3 day Ticket – gives you access to almost all the temples. Tickets are Cash only. Children below 12 are free. Your photo is printed on the ticket – so the family needs to go for getting the tickets. Angkor Wat temple is best seen at Sunrise or Sunset. Its large – and would have been a spectacular sight in its heyday. Its massive – located next to a large water body. A large boundary wall and a Green walkway to the main building – we took the rear entrance as the main one was very crowded. Budget 90 Minutes

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National Museum – A good start to your tour would be from the National Museum. Its a lovely museum, well maintained, and describes the history of the Khmer Kings and the design construct of the temples – there are many informative Videos. Full of Statues of Shiva, Vishnu, Buddha, Ganesha, Devis – although all of them have features very different from what we see in India. This is the only place where we get to see numerous statues of the Buddha with a Naga on the top of his head – the more I look at the culture here – get the feeling that the Naga’s were probably a class of people from Eastern India / Thailand / Cambodia. And Apsaras were the women from the Naga  community (The Apsara tradition is very alive in this country – more of that later)  – Budget 90 Minutes

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Other Temples that are worth visiting are in the Angkor Thom Cluster – very close to Angkor Wat. Visit the Bayon (Temple of faces) , Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider Fame)  & The Elephant Terrace. You can cover the temples in Angkor Wat and in Angkor Thom between 8 & 3 PM.

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35 Km away to the north are a few more temples – one of them the Banteay Srei  – dedicated to Lord Shiva made of red sandstone this stands out among the rest. Inscriptions in the monument give it the original name of Ishvarapura – the city of Shiva. Although small – Its the jewel in the Khmer architecture Its in slightly better shape and has outstanding quality of cultured decor. To me it looked a bit like the Shore Temples at Mahabalipuram.

The drive is also nice along the country side, past the villages with small shops.

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The Kings and the ministers  who built these temples all have Hindu names – Jayavarman , Indravarman, Suryavarman , Yashovarman…. They must have had some connections to the Chola’s or Pallavas from the South – some of the temple architectures does look similiar. S India had a lot of trade with SE Asia and its possible that Trade led to India Kings coming and ruling.

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Most temples are well designed around a large rectangle. A outer wall , a lot of greenery inside – takes you 10 – 15 min to walk thru this greenery , an inner walk , a water body as a moat and then the Temple.

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On the way to Banteay Srei we visited a beautiful butterfly park – called the BBC (Banteay Srei Butterfly Centre) its not in the normal tour guides itinerary – we happened to see it on the way and stopped by – its a lovely place to spend 45 minutes. For more photos and details on the butterfly park visit http://vak1969.com/2015/04/15/butterfly-park-en-route-to-bantay-srei-siem-reap/

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Two other must do activities

Visit the Apsara Dance – there are many shows happening in town , we attended a classy upmarket one at the Angkor Village Resort. The show starts at 8 PM and runs for an hr. Nice dance depicting ballets from the Ramayana and some local dances. Tickets are normally including dinner – we took an option without dinner for $ 12 / person.

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Visit Phare – The Cambodian Circus – This is not a  circus. Its a dance , drama, ballet – depicting the story of Cambodia before and after the Khmer Rogue / Pol Pot Civil Disturbance. Program is orchestrated by an NGO with youth from broken families. These children are nurtured with skills in art / dance / gymnastics. Its a unique program that depicts the story through painting , dance , gymnastics. The expressions are wonderful and the whole event is mesmerising – its fun with a deep theme. Tickets are $ 18 / person

(http://www.pharecambodiancircus.org/circus/)

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There are lots of massage parlours in town , they are very affordable but the quality of massage is Ok – no comparison to Thai Massage.

What else could we have done 

There is a large lake – called the Tonle Sap , this is supposedly one of the largest lakes in Asia and spreads across 3 countries. You can go here for boating , seeing the floating market etc. You can do trips to the country side ( But we visited in summer when it was dry and arid). There is a waterfall and some carvings on rocks on a  river bed – again at a distance of 30 km – but this is also best seen after the rains when the water fall is gurgling and bristling with water.

Kbal Spean  is an Angkorian era archaeological site on the southwest slopes of the Kulen Hills to the northeast of Angkor in Siem Reap District. It is situated along a 150m stretch of the Stung Kbal Spean River, 25 kilometres (16 mi) from the main Angkor group of monuments. The site consists of a series of stone carvings in sandstone formations carved in the river bed and banks. It is commonly known as the “Valley of a 1000 Lingas” or “The River of a Thousand Lingas”.

Overall – a lovely trip. Siem Reap and Cambodia is a must visit – its very different from Singapore/HK/ KL/ Bangkok. Its easy on the pocket, food is not a problem and its close by. People are nice, soft spoken. Its a trip where you can have fun, learning  and in 3 days understand the culture / tradition of a new country.

3 days flew past – weather in April was not too hot – between 28 & 35 degrees. Mornings and evenings are cool. The peak tourist season is from Oct to Feb. April is the hottest month and the rains start in May.

We are now all set to take the 3rd leg of the tour to Langkawi – our flight departs at 2.15 PM today – looking forward to the Westin at Langkawi. 

KL – Siem Reap – Langkawi : 1st Leg

SE Asia is great for holidays – its close – very reasonably priced and the quality of service is excellent. This year we planned a 9 day holiday across Malaysia & Cambodia – 3 nights at KL, 3 Nights at Seam Reap and the last 3 nights at Langkawi ( back to Malaysia). This was the best itinerary ensuring that we did not waste too much time at the airport.

As usual I had my holidays for April planned by January end. Getting a Malaysia Visa is easy – all you need is the hotel booking and Tickets. Cambodia is Visa on arrival – but we still got it done from India. Udaan is a new agency in Bangalore that does Visas for all countries – they are efficient and I was happy with their service. I got my tickets from MakeMyTrip (Disappointing service) and did the hotels on my own.

MH 105 is a very convenient flight from Bangalore to Malaysia. Leaves in the afternoon at 12.15 and reaches KL at 18.55 in the evening. Bangalore airport is empty at this time. The flight was also empty , we whizzed past immigration at KL and were in our car by 19.30 – its a 60 min drive to KL city – about 50 Km  freeway traffic as we zipped past and reached our hotel the DoubleTree Hilton by 8 PM. Lovely hotel – great service, nice rooms, good food – we were surprised to see Indian Options at dinner and breakfast (Breakfast had Idli, Dosa, Vada, Sambar, Chutney, Puri , Chole etc) – rates are reasonable and comparable with 5 Star Hotels in India. We had booked two rooms for the 4 of us and I was able to use my points to get a 50% reduction.

DoubleTre Hilton is centrally located at Ampang – a 10 min walk from Petronas Tower. And that was our first stop the next day. Getting a ticket for the ride up the worlds tallest twin towers can be dicey during the rush tourist season. We took a precaution and got the tickets from the Concierge by paying a 50% premium – but when we visited the next day we found enough tickets available at the counter. Normal tickets are about  88 Malaysian Ringitt (1 Ringitt = 16 INR approximately). The ride up takes about 45 minutes – and is worth the effort. You go all the way up to the 86th floor observatory and get a peaceful 15 minutes to view the city.

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The Petronas Tower also houses the Suria Mall – a large luxury mall and the Petronas Science Centre. The KLCC (Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre) is a small walk away and that houses the Aquaria – all of this can easily take you from morning 10 to 3 to cover. I guess we were fast – most people would have spent the whole day here . The Science centre is wonderful – very interactive and the kids enjoyed it. I would rate this better than the science centre at Singapore. The Aquaria is nice – but the one at Bangkok was better. We had lunch at the Suria Mall food court – and were pleasantly surprised to see a Saravana Bhawan Counter there.

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Around 3 we took a cab and headed to the Bird Park – its a 15 min drive (everything in KL is 10 – 15 min drive) and Taxis are very reasonable. (A small tip – the Blue Taxis are Executive Cabs and they charge you double what the regular red ones charge).  The Bird park is very well maintained and houses a wide variety of Birds – over 2000. Its a must see – budget 90 minutes. Close to this are the Botanical Gardens, Butterfly Garden , Orchid Garden and the Planetarium. We visited the Orchid Garden – it was not in full bloom. By the time we reached the Butterfly Park it was 5.30 PM and they were closing for the day. The lakes and Botanical garden also looked nice and inviting – but it had been a long day, the humidity was tiring and the park and lakes looked inviting but lonely, the sky was getting cloudy and we could sense the evening showers of the Equator were round the corner – we decided to give it a pass and headed back to the hotel.

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A quick shower and some rest and we were ready to leave by 7.30 PM – and now we made the mistake of the day heading to Little India for Dinner. Noisy, messy, the place was sad – and the food at Saravana Bhawan was equally dissapointing – it was dirty, AC not working , no water in the washroom- clearly you can avoid this place in KL.

I am told that there is a place called Masjid India – where a Sangeetha and Saravana Bhawan is located – hope thats better, did not get the time to check it out.

Day 2 – kept an alarm at 5 – but the Jet lag hits you (KL like Singapore is 2 1/2 hrs ahead of India) so even at 7 its like 5.30 in India – and it does take a few days to get used to this lag. After a sumptuous breakfast at the hotel we headed out to the MRT. The Ampang station is a few minutes walk from our hotel.  We wanted to go to the Batu Caves – its  a 450 Million year old Limestone Cave formation that is home to a lot of rare flora & fauna. It also houses a temple of Lord Karthik – or Muruga. Malaysia has a lot of Hindus – 8 % , many of them Tamilians who came here 200 – 300 years back as traders and plantation workers.

Batu Caves is just 15 Km from KL City – and we could have taken a Cab for 50 Ringitt (750 Rs) – but we wanted to try out the MRT. We changed two Trains and reached the place by 11 AM. Walked up the 270 odd steps to the Murugan temple – this is very Indian – crowded, noisy, a little dirty.

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On the way back we took a guided tour of the Caves – these Caves are a research site an are home to some very rare species of animals not found anywhere else in the world. Its a well organised trek that takes you about 2 Km into 3 caves – the last one is pitch dark. There are massive limestone formations – caves are full of Bats, scorpios, millipedes, cockroaches, spiders and even snakes. Fortunately we saw many of them but none troubled us.

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On the return we took a cab that took less than 45 min to reach KL and went straight to the Times Square Berjaya Mall – a big busy crowded mall. This has shops for the middle class. A few hrs here and then we headed to Sogo – which is a lot nicer. And finally we were back in the hotel by 6 PM. A few hrs of rest then a lovely dinner at the Italian restaurant by the poolside. A meal for 4 in a lovely 5 star hotel costs you less than INR 4500 – thats a lot cheaper than what you would pay at Bangalore. Through the 2 days I realised that KL is actually cheeper than Bangalore. The cost of Petrol is 50% , food is cheaper, cabs are cheaper – and the city is world class.

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We head to Siem Reap for the 2nd leg of the tour tomorrow – our flight is at a convenient time of 12 Noon and will reach Cambodia in an hr. Seam Reap  promises to be exciting – a visit to the world famous Angkor Wat temples has been on my list for long. But more of that later.

We will come back to Malaysia – Langkawi in 3 days, but for a minute what else could one do at KL. Not much at KL – but yes there are few places 2- 3 hrs drive away that attracts tourists – these include Genting Islands (Most people told us to avoid), Melaka – which looks like a nice place, Putrajaya, Cameroon Highlands , Kuala Selangkor Fireflies, Berjaya Hills & Port Dickson.

Rustic Soulitude – by the River

A gurgling river, chirping birds, a himalayan cliff that rises majestically a few thousand feet – and no sign of humanity. Some places cannot be described by words they need poetry. Soulitude by the Riverside is one such place. A place that is black and white – a place you will love and give a perfect 10 and want to come again and again or just say this is not my kind of place. I give it a perfect 10.

A sister property of the Himalayan Soulitude this one is very different. 7 rooms , designed in a rustic and elegant style, it feels like a modern day Ashram for its peace and tranquility but comes with all the modern amenities that one could think of in a  5 star hotel. The best of both worlds.

Located at 4500 feet, you can reach the place only by trekking 2 Km along the river. A beautiful Trek – the hotel sends porters to the pick up point to carry your luggage.

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Its bright and sunny and 30 minutes later you reach the hotel to be welcomed by friendly staff and a bright well lit, well designed hexagonal lobby. Warm and friendly this is also the TV Lounge (TATA Sky) and the reading room. In this remote corner of nature Wi Fi works and the whole place is operated with Generators. Remember you are in the midst of a forest , with the river Kalsi less than 25 feet away.

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The rooms follow the same theme, large , spacious, well lit , facing the river – Rustic but super comfortable and functional with all the amenities you could think of. Bed warmers and heaters and a Kashmir style fireplace keeps the room warm. There is no carpet and central heating and at night the temperature drops, there is a nice cold breeze from the river. So good to be dressed in multiple layers as you head to bed. We stayed on Dec 30 and the temp varied from a high of 20 in the day to almost Zero at midnight.

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The other units that comprise this unique resort are the dining room and a Yoga Hut on the river bank. They also have large stretches of kitchen gardens where they grow a wide variety of herbs and vegetables to meet the needs of the kitchen. Food is royal and sumptuous – served in brass plates, Indian, very rich, very filling – ambience is Rajasthani. Every single thing used in the hotel needs to be carried from 2 km afar – so the more you become self dependent the better it is.

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But the jewel in the crown is a trek to PariTal (The lake of the fairies) – a short 20 min trek its along the river and you need to be nimble to cross boulders along the entire stretch. Its a nice trek best done after 10 AM when the first rays of the sun start to wriggle out. You can spot a lot of monkeys climbing the vertical ledges of the cliff and if you are lucky you can see barking deers and maybe a panther or leopard sun basking on a ledge. (We did not see them but yes at night we heard the barking deers)

As you reach Pari Tal you hear the sound of the gushing waterfall beckoning you and the first sight of the Tal is divine.

Emerald green crystal clean water swirling in a large pond, fed by white water rollicking down the slope with a sense of purpose. The chirping sounds of the bird die down in obeisance to the beauty of this spot and as you stand alone you can sense peace, tranquility and joy in every pore of your body. You experience nature at its best. This is the place where you want to come and sit to find answers to life’s problems, this is the place you want to sit hand in hand with your soulmate, not utter a word but yet have a deep connect. This is the place to meditate. To be with yourself. To Recharge. I wish I could have stayed for hours.

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This place is unique. Soulitude in Himalayas is marketed well and has become a perfect family getaway. But the DNA of Riverside is very different. This is not a place for noisy kids or large groups. Its a place to come alone or with people very near and dear to you. There is no commercial element here – No Yoga , No massage – just you and nature. I have travelled a lot and I am constantly searching for offbeat locations – but I don’t think there is anything like this anywhere in India. It targets a specific clientele – who will keep coming again and again. Kudos to Manish Chandra the owner for having created this beauty. Its a lot of of passion and investment of time and money to manage a property like this with these high standards.

We had no plans to spend a day here – our booking for 4 nights was at Soulitude in the Himalayas. It was a sudden impulse that I requested for the last night to be spent here and fortunately rooms were available. Planning a family  holiday in the last week of Dec to the foothills of the Himalayas can be stressing – flights / train need to be on time (Fog), kids should not fall sick, nobody should trip and bend an ankle or fall sick, lugging around 5 suitcases with lots of woollens – is all a project in itself. And I am so happy that on the last day of a wonderful holiday I could find my dream location.

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And as I was sitting on the rocks with the water lapping my feet I recollect the words of the guide at Mukteshwar and how he defined God (Bhagwan) – Bh for Bhumi (Earth) , Ga for Gagan (Sky) , Va for Vayu (Air) and N for Neer (Water) – our ancestors knew it – elements of Nature and Fire is all it takes for a happy peaceful lives. In the name of development – We just messed it up.

Points to note 

1. Website , http://www.soulitudebytheriverside.com

2. Distance from Kathgodam 60 – 90 min , 35 Km , Tavera costs Rs 1500

3. Summers can be hot – 30 degrees + , winter mornings and nights are very cold, rains heavily in Monsoon

4. Travel light – and wear good trekking footwear

5. With family – best to do 1 day , solo – you decide , at least 3 days I would recommend

6. Distance from Soulitude in Himalayas – 30 Km , 60 Minutes, Its a small detour from the way to Sattal. We left Himalayan Soulitude at 10 , finished our Visit to Sattal and were at the Riverside property by 1.30 in the afternoon

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