Posts Tagged ‘ solo travel ’

Solo Trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia – March 2011

I landed in Siem Reap to weather exactly like Mumbai – hot, humid and sultry. That didn’t worry me since I was used to it.

The Old Market (Psar Chaa), Pub Street and all the main restaurants were close to my hotel so I walked there often. Amongst the first few little restaurants I spotted was an Indian one, India Gate, P1040489promising the best Indian food in Siem Reap & an authentic Indian chef. Not that I stepped into even one, though I found there were, in fact, a few more – Curry Wala being another one with multiples branches.

What I found strange initially was men on bikes who stop & ask if you want to hop on. It’s a taxi service of sorts, an alternate to hiring a tuk tuk. But it can seem stalkerish until you read about it in the guide books!

The Old Market area is somewhat reminiscent of Goa. But with better dressed tourists! The women probably make an effort to cover a little more of  themselvesP1050183 after reading the guide books. Strongly recommended online, Khmer Kitchen is run by a local & has 3 restaurants in a 1 Km radius. It’s definitely great food at great value & all the food i had there was excellent. They also have deals such as free welcome drink, cold towel, happy hour till closing, or free beer/ coconut water with lunch. It isn’t that hard to find vegetarian food but if you are concerned about the vessels that it’s being cooked in or its proximity in the kitchen to non-veg food, you would then find it very difficult to eat anything at most places. But otherwise, you can pretty much find any kind of cuisine you want, including the local Khmer curry and rice & amok – fish curried and steamed in banana leaf (which everyone told me was excellent). And how can you wrong with a street called Pub Street! Alcohol is cheap, drinks are potent, and everyone is having a good time.

I bought some souvenirs at the markets, most of which begin at 3 & 7 pm. Bargain, bargain, bargain – just as any other self respecting Indian would! In fact it’s tough to buy things that don’t look like they come from India! P1040492From scarves to cloth bags to carved Buddha heads to jewellery, everything looks like something you would find here except for the Tin Tin posters that abound.. People use the same tricks of the trade to make a sale. “You are first customer” “I give you good discount because you are early” etc. Don’t fall for anything. If you really want to buy something, spend time walking around different markets, you will find prices drastically fluctuate. But unless you choose to buy specific stuff like Angkor printed scarves or the head of Bayon (will explain in a later post), you are better off saving your dollars. USD is freely accepted currency here so you don’t need to change into Rial – in most cases, I even received the change back in USD.

Nikki, an American living in Siem Reap, teaching English to students in a vocational school, who also runs the local Couchsurfing group, very sweetly picked me up from my hotel on her little scooter & took me to this fantastic veg restaurant called Vitking for dinner.P1040500 I would never have found it by myself! It was fascinating to hear about the kind of work she is doing & the aspirations of the Cambodian people, driven by the tourism industry. She came to Cambodia on a trip once and immediately felt at home. She also works with local NGOs to help them get more professional and hence get better funding. A great dinner that, with excellent food. She gave me the very useful tip of visiting Banteay Samre, which is a temple near the more popular Banteay Srei, and one that most tourists don’t visit. Definitely a good tip because I am glad I didn’t miss it.

Walking around the area on another day, I went further up towards the Stung River. A completely different area from the Old Market, this has wide roads, P1050330a huge temple built in the 14th century and the National Museum and a large Park further up the road. With much fewer tourists, it’s quiet and relaxed. Most local Cambodians, however, see you for what you are – a tourist – and hope that you will buy something. If a kid just gives you a trinket saying it’s for good luck, beware, most of the time they do want to sell it to you. I was offered everything from bangles made of cane to paper rings to flowers. Some insisted it was free, others asked for money. Can’t blame them since tourism is the mainstay of their economy. But, in general, the people are very friendly and helpful. They have warm smiles & many know about India. Everyone doesn’t know good English, many speak a basic version. When I tried asking where I could get a SIM card for my phone, I was usually handed a business card of the place!

All about the Temples in the next post.

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Solo Trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia – March 2011 – Getting There

As it has happened in the past, I realised the financial year was nearing an end and I had about 26 days of leave left, of the total 30 that I am entitled to. Firstly, I couldn’t believe that the whole year had gone by and I hadn’t travelled anywhere! Secondly, I would have been miserable had I done nothing about it. So I planned a trip to Singapore and Cambodia. Singapore was a long pending one. I kept threatening friends that I would come over soon, but never did. So I decided to finally make good on the threat! Of course, Murphy’s Law had to prevail. So when I checked my passport, it was just 6 months away from expiring and I wouldn’t be allowed to enter any country let alone stay for a while. So that began a chapter of getting my passport renewed, but was not as painful as I thought it would be. And then I planned again. Singapore for a bit, then to Siem Reap, back to Singapore and then back home. 9P1040467 days in all.

I won’t be blogging about Singapore since it involved meeting friends, enjoying the super nightlife and of course, shopping. It wasn’t my first trip so I didn’t do any sightseeing. As glorious & memorable as it was, its not what you want to hear about, do you? I shall head straight onto Siem Reap.

I have always wanted to visit the Angkor Temples and it’s been somewhere on my mind, thoughts usually ending with a ‘some day’. So when I was looking at what places I could go to from Singapore, I began reading about Cambodia and decided that was it! Fairly easy to go to as well since there’s visa on arrival. March is the end of the high season for Siem Reap (the town close to which all the Angkor Temples are located) since it’s the beginning of summer. This also suited me well as it was not difficult to get flight tickets on days of my choice and hotel bookings too. I booked everything online & I can tell you that there is no need for a travel agent. I don’t believe in them. Spend sometime reading up about your destination online, make your itinerary & just do all the bookings. Simple. My trip started on a fab note when I was upgraded to Business Class on Silk Air.

Was it safe for me to travel by myself? Absolutely. Since I am on Couchsurfing, I got in touch with a few couch surfers and got a few tips beforehand. There’s a great Cambodia forum on CS which answers most questions & any other questions I had, I asked Nikki, who runs the forum. She was extremely helpful and even offered to take me to dinnerP1050309 to a great new vegetarian restaurant when I got there. I would have of course, liked to Couchsurf in Siem Reap but couches weren’t available for the dates I wanted. So after a lot of research, I chose the Steung Siem Reap Hotel, and did not regret it for a minute. It was a fantastic location, right next to the Old Market and Pub Street, the central area for food, nightlife & shopping in Siem Reap. Unlike people who would stay at hotels closer to the temples and have to take Tuk Tuks to come to this area, it was a much better option to stay in this area as the temples only take 30-40 minutes to get to by Tuk Tuk. Being from Mumbai, that’s a breeze!

Why solo? Well, it just so happened this way. I have travelled solo and with friends. Both are different experiences and there’s something good to be said about both. With friends, there’s never a dull moment, you share all your experiences, and enjoy their company. Solo travel gets you to meet different people since you are more open to conversation with people sitting next to you. It’s lovely to speak to people from different cultures, doing different things in life and a welcome change from all the digital, marketing & advertising conversation that I am surrounded by in Mumbai! I met Gerda, a Dutch lady, travelling solo on my flight in, she stayed at the same hotel and was on the same flight out. So the journey to & fro became memorable instead of it being just another airport-flight-airport-hotel experience. Gerda lives with her family in Singapore & was taking her first solo break from her life and kids for a few days. Some ‘me-time’. I didn’t plan any of my temple visits with her but I very much enjoyed chatting with her about my life & hers, India & its culture, and her travels all over the globe.

Next post will be about Siem Reap & of course, the Temples!

I got some great advice from these blogs & forums, so do check these out too.

Traveling Mark, Bombay Nomads, Fodors, Frommers

How to Make the Most of Your Travel Experience

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Venice

Been thinking about this for a while. I love traveling myself, and it’s usually solo or with a couple of friends. I abhor group tours. For me, travel is all about the experience. To make the most of it, you need to get out of your comfort zone! Unless you like 5/7 star resort & first class travel. This is definitely not that kind.

There’s a joy to independent travel that, for me, is unmatched. It’s all about discovery & through that, the experience. Of truly soaking in what this unknown place is about, what are the people like, what kind of culture exists.

To really make the most of your travel experience, you need to:

1. Read about your destination: This shouldn’t be a task. It’s part of the process of understanding the destination & understanding your own plan. Apart from the LonelyPlanet guides, there are many online resources for each destination, forums that give you helpful tips, & people you can connect with. It helps to read & can be far better than simply trusting one guide.

2. Make your own itinerary: This sounds tough, but isn’t really. Reading helps you get an idea of the places to see. But no travel agent determined itinerary can ever be as effective as your own. Your travel agent doesn’t know you. Would you ask him/ her to buy you a book, or clothes? An itinerary is all about personal choice. Do you love art, do you love nightlife, do you love monuments or do you simply want to laze? These make a huge difference to what you ultimately ‘see’. After all it’s your holiday, you shouldn’t be groaning about going off to see one more monument if you don’t like it. There are many itineraries also available on the web (which travel agents anyway pick up). You can customise it based on what you want.

3. Don’t run through a country like a train: There are many tempted to do that. ‘We have come hSunset in Florenceere just once, who knows when we will be back’, ‘we have spent so much money on the trip’ Sure, everyone wants VFM. But don’t attempt to measure your money spent by no of places you have been to. It’s meant to be a leisure trip not a balance sheet calculation. There is joy in walking around a town, stopping where you want to stop, chatting with locals, watching that street performer, enjoying that sunset. That’s what you will remember above all the ‘sightseeing’.

4. Meet the locals: Easier said than done… but even if going in a group, try not to just hang out by yourselves. People are friendly. I have yet to visit a place where a majority of the people were surly (unless they were govt employees!) if you smiled and said hello. We tend to forget in our big city living, that people do smile back. In fact when you speak to locals, they may give you different tips or places to see than a guidebook would have. I have had many amazing experiences because of that – which i would have missed otherwise. Of course, don’t go finding a conman!

5. Try the local cuisine: The local food and drink at any place is better than running into Yummy salad with pouches of goat cheesea McDonalds or any such standardised option. Why? Don’t you think Indian food is a big part of what India is? It’s the same for any other country. Am not saying have frog legs or kangaroo meat! But try and have what you can, it adds to the memories. This is coming  from a vegetarian, so good food is there to find. So also the wine and cheese if famous in that region.

6. Allow a few changes in plan: Not everything goes according to plan. You may miss a train, you may want to stay back somewhere, you may run out of time. It’s ok. You are still on holiday in an amazing place. Just enjoy it without guilt or agitation.

7. Put that camera down sometimes!: As someone who takes hundreds and thousands of pictures, I know how tempting it is to keep clicking away, trying to capture every moment in that camera frame. You can’t. Take enough pictures, but don’t forget put that camera down and just take in the view. The mind remembers more than you think. A beautiful landscape is meant to be taken in slowly, immersing yourself into it… so don’t let the gadget come between you and nature.

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Trip to Bhutan – May 2009 – Punakha again & back to Paro

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Leaving Wangdi we felt even sadder. Stopped en route to heading back towards Paro to visit a temple at the border of Thimphu, Punakha & Wangdue Phodrang – Chimi Lhakhang – built in the 15th century in honour of ‘the divine madman’ Lama Drukpa Kinley, a revered saint who taught through jokes and fun and was known for his sexual conquests. its usually visited for children, either to pray for their protection, or to pray for a child. in honour of the divine madman, phalluses are painted on many of the houses. its about a 20 min walk through the rice fields of the village of sosokha to the temple. it was a perfect day, and we enjoyed the walk.

after this we retraced much of our earlier route, stopped at Thimphu for lunch – where the friend finally got the peanut butter and chocolate pastry again (that she had been fantasising about, i have to say the pastry was excellent), that we had at Art Cafe, we also did a little more shopping, and then headed back to Paro, taking the shorter 1.5 hour route this time. it was raining & absolutely dreamy weather. the clouds were even lower than before, and the prospect of catching a plane the next morning was not appealing. but no choice there, so driving through the Paro streets for the last time, all we could do was to take everything in and commit to memory.

the people were calm, good natured and friendly, our guide also had a great sense of humour, all the quaint places and unique culture make this a must visit, and not just once. there’s more to see further east, but needs a longer trip. since the airport is only in Paro, and all the travel in the country is by road, the further away you go, you need as much time to get back.

will leave you with a sign i saw on the back of a truck – words of wisdom:

“reach (sic – rich) man never too old for young girls”

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Trip to Bhutan – May 2009 – Punakha & Wangdi

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After all the shopping, sightseeing and wandering around the streets of Thimphu, we felt a bit sad that we had to leave, but little did we know how amazing the next set of places was! Friend was back to being sick (I don’t want to move, I can’t get out of the car, Go see everything without me, Sorry face etc) so when we reached Punakha, it was upto me again. its a small town, on the banks of a river. known chiefly for the Punakha Dzong, one of the oldest in Bhutan, built in the 17th century & without a doubt the prettiest one i saw. right from the approach bridge, to the giant white stupa and bodhi tree in the courtyard, to the beautiful jacaranda trees in full bloom by the river side, it was breathtaking. i could have sat there for a lot longer!

from here, we went onto Wangdi, or Wangdue Phodrang, an area in the mountains, though our resort (Kichu Wangdi Resort, sister of the one in Paro) was about 7 Kms away from the village and quite literally in the middle of nowhere. situated at the banks of a gushing river, too dangerous for white water rafting even, with densely forested mountains on both sides. felt the closest to nature here, the rooms overlook the river, and you hear it all night. quote unquote friend “it sounds like a noisy AC” – trust an urban dweller to say that!

this place is highly recommended, but be warned, it is not for those who want ‘action’, there is very little cell coverage, only in certain spots, no internet, no TV (and no meat, surprisingly the one all veg resort we found – cos there is a rinpoche in the family of owners). if you expect all that, this is not the place to be! but if you want to visit a memorable, beautiful, exotic place, put this in your itinerary. it also seems to be frequented by the glitterati of Bhutan. during our stay, a group of 10 americans, guests of the king, stopped for lunch, and the health minister stopped for tea.

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Trip to Bhutan – May 2009 – Thimphu

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Thimphu is one of the prettiest capitals i have seen! it also helped that we had an amazing view from our hotel – Hotel River View. we could see the whole city from one side of the river. with mountains, low hanging clouds and a very pretty promenade, it had a charm to it and we could have stayed on for a few more days. its the more modern face of Bhutan, where everyone does not wear the traditional clothes, also has expat population. but the stupas, the palace and the government building don’t let you forget that it is Bhutan after all.

our 2 days in Thimphu were spent exploring everything including the monasteries, the national animal, Takin, said to have the head of a goat on the bones of a cow! there are very few left of this unique animal.

apart from all the exploration, can city girls do without the bars and cafes? no, we can’t! Om Cafe and Om Bar (opposite each other) provided the perfect place to relax in the evening, they even had free wifi! our first internet access in several days. with equally great food & ambience, Art cafe also turned out to be a great place for lunch.

Thimphu also had the best place to shop for curios and artefacts. while there are many shops in the main market, we found that the shop attached to the National School for Art and Painting had lovely work, and we felt more confident of the quality here. this is the place we pretty much spent all our money at, only realising later how much packing we would have to do!

at this point, we were excited to see more of Bhutan, so Punakha and Wangdi, next on the list, belied all our expectations by literally turning out to be ‘saving the best for last’.

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Trip to Bhutan – May 2009 – Paro – The Climb to Tiger’s Nest & The Road Trip to Haa Valley

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i was looking forward to the second day at Paro, cos it involved climbing to Taktshang Monastery, also called Tiger’s Nest, since it was apparently created when a holy man flew to the location on the back of a tiger! its impossibly perched on the edge of a mountain, and i was told that the climb would take around one and a half hours, this meant i would take 2! i was ready for the challenge tho, i had been wanting to climb up mountain paths, especially in that glorious weather. my friend couldn’t handle it too well tho, since the height also meant lesser oxygen than one is used to at sea level, so i pretty much did this on my own, just followed the path, it was quite easy. you can see it in this photo taken at the start of the climb, the white structure in the distance.

since i was not used to climbing, and the air a bit more rarified, i had to keep stopping each time there was a particularly steep section. there were other tourists doing the climb, one group of malaysians even had an old couple who used a walking stick and had guides holding an arm, but they were unfazed and continued to climb. once i reached the top and could see the monastery straight across, i hadn’t bargained for the steps! stone steps cut into the hillside run round the cliff to the monastery and after that climb, make your legs feel like they are in a torture chamber. in most parts the steps don’t have any safety railing, and there’s just enough room for one person to pass through. i was a bit jittery in this section, wondering if i would fall off the cliff without anyone knowing! until a group of Indian army jawans came up behind me, and they made it look so easy, that i made the rest of the steps with renewed effort.

on reaching the monastery, i was asked for a permit by the armed guard. i didn’t have any! the guide was still with my friend, i had gone on ahead and i didn’t even know about this. he looked flummoxed at my answer and said, ‘pati kidhar hai, baccha kidhar hai’ and i had to try hard to not laugh – what kind of a qs is that! after some persuasion, and emotional lines like, ‘i walked for so long’, he let me in so i got to see . the monastery was lovely, explored some parts of it, wondered how the monks who live here go up and down constantly, had a talk with the jawans who were stationed in Bhutan for training for a few months… and then headed down. overall this was the best day of the trip!

we set off for Thimphu the next day, it’s actually only about an hour and a half from Paro, but we were taking a different route. its a detour to Haa Valley, a not so known part towards the south that we got to via the Chele La, the highest motorable road in Bhutan. had loved the trip to KhardungLa in Ladakh, so wanted to see this. well, it wasn’t quite as scenic as that, but pretty all the same. there’s nothing to do at the top except stop for the view, which is lovely. There’s no rest stop or anything. prayer flags adorn the hills and on clear days (usually in winter) the Himalayas are in full view. my friend was sick through the trip, the winding roads didn’t agree with her. at one point we were about 100 kms to the Indian border at Phuentosholing, so i suggested she make a run for it! but she said knowing her luck she would land in naxal territory and get caught, strangely clairvoyant in a way considering what’s happened in Bengal lately. along the route we also saw all the destruction caused by the Aila cyclone, the rivers had washed away some bridges and parts of the road. Haa itself is a very small town, some parts of which we could not see as the roads were blocked by rocks, that happened during the cyclone too. this trip took about 5 hours to Thimphu, and i loved every minute of it. also saw a yak for the first time! if you don’t want to spend so much time on the road, there’s the shorter Paro Thimphu route.

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