Posts Tagged ‘ traveling ’

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.

My Trip to Rome, Italy – History, Art, Architecture, Grandeur

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The second leg of my March 2010 trip, that I am finally determined to finish the posts about, before another destination comes up! The earlier one on France is here.

Rome Day 1

The much panic-stricken running at Nice airport did result in our catching the flight to Rome & we landed well after midnight, so we had arranged for an airport pickup & hotel drop with a private taxi service since there was no public service available at the late hour. After more drama when he took us to the wrong place at 1 am, got upset at whoever had assigned him with much angry yelling in Italian on the phone, & finally found his way to the hotel, we were exhausted and ready to sleep wary of the early checkout. We were only staying one night because our couchsurfing host was taking us in the next day. That was going to be a great adventure, first time for us staying with hosts.

The Trevi Fountain Rome

The Trevi Fountain, Rome

The Hotel Julia was super, highly recommended to anyone for its central location in Rome. We began by seeing the Trevi Fountain was our first halt, walking distance from the hotel, and it was magnificent. Lived upto everything seen or heard including the famous scene from the movie, La Dolce Vita. Like everythingelse in Rome, we just came upon it. We spent a long time there as it was just too beautiful. History at every corner is the best way to describe Rome, cathedrals hundreds of years old are routine & any monument 200 years old is called young!

Rome

Sun setting over Rome, as seen from Castle San Angelo

From there we headed to the Castle San Angelo which is now a museum, and apart from the exhibits, also has a superb view of Rome & St Peter’s Basilica in particular. We also went to Spanish Steps, the longest and widest staircase in Europe leading to the church Trinita Dei Monti where a choir was in full swing. Our heads were buzzing with everything we had seen on just our first day. It hadn’t come to an end yet. We met Giuseppe, our host in the evening, and he drove us back to his apartment (we passed the Colloseum on the way, all lit up & a magnificent sight!) with a super tiny lift – no idea how we fitted us and our bags into that lift! He even cooked us dinner, pasta with mushrooms, served with some lovely wine. Honestly, we were relieved that he was so sweet. It’s not common to be offered dinner in your hosts’ home.

Rome Day 2

Roman Forum

At the Roman Forum - the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina

Rome has so much to see that a few days are difficult to do justice. The Foro Romano (Roman Forum) is so large that a few hours are not enough. It’s part of the centralised area around which the ancient Roman civilization developed & is an absolute must-see if you like ancient architecture and ruins. Next up was of course, the Colloseum and I had the fight scene from Gladiator playing in my head as I saw what the amphitheatre looked like.

The Colosseum Amphitheatre Rome

The Colosseum Amphitheatre, Rome

The impact of being in a monument built in 70 AD is like nothing else. This was followed up in the evening with a visit to the Pantheon, where we saw the full moon through skylight in the dome. The Pantheon is a beautiful structure, with its Corinthian columns & its gigantic dome. And we also met our second host, also Giuseppe, who volunteered to show us around Rome for the evening even though we were not staying with him. He was just as sweet, took us to some places we would never have been to ourselves. Like a place on a hill with a view of all Rome, we saw it all lit up at night.

Rome Day 3

St Peter's Basilica, Rome

St Peter's Basilica, Rome

The next day was devoted to the Vatican. This was also the most memorable day and a brilliant climactic ending to our stay in Rome. The lines are extremely long for both St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican museum. So we were prepared to stand for hours but it was well worth it. Entering St Peter’s Basilica, it leaves you spell bound. It’s even more beautiful than any pictures can do justice to. Lined with murals, sculptures, paintings, it has more than you can take in all at once. It’s overwhelming in size and in its architecture. Next up, the Vatican Museum. Passing the famed and oft-seen Swedish Armed Guards in their typical uniform, we headed around the wall of the Vatican City to the Museum entry point. Its great to pick up the audio guides at all the locations as they give you a sense of the history and what’s special about each place. In here, you see the works of Raphael, from his paintings to his frescoes/ murals & of course, works of many other artists. The Sistine Chapel, where photography is not permitted, is an extremely large area with a high ceiling and you can stare at the beautiful panels, of which the central one is the most popular representation, for hours. Though one doesn’t have that kind of time, especially since its crowded and there isn’t enough sitting space.

The Pope, Vatican City, Rome

Yes, that is The Pope at the event at St Peter's Square, Rome

It was late evening by the time we finished and headed for some food. Sitting in an open air cafe, we had just finished our meal when we heard music emanating from St Peters square. Rushing over, we found a concert in full swing! There were popular local singing stars and choirs (from what we could make out since it was all Italian. There were large TV screens projecting this since the square is large. The energy of the thousands assembled there was something to see! There were also armed forces, army, navy present watching the show. Despite the cold wind sweeping through the square, for which we didn’t have enough protection, nothing could get us away! After a while, the Pope came out in a little car, he was driven around, waving at the crowds and finally made his way to the stage and gave a speech. The odds of just walking into something like this, not knowing this was going to happen, really put us on a high!

We met Giuseppe (not the one we were staying with) again at the end of the concert, and he took us to the area with the buzzing nightlife – Trastevere, with its tiny cobbled lanes lined with pubs. Italians also drive and park much like Indians. Can’t find a spot? Park anywhere and hit the distress lights. Live performances in our pub, kept us on a high after that superb evening. Next we went to a place that specialises in shots served in little chocolate

Menu at Trastevere, Rome

Menu for the shots at Trastevere, Rome. Succhiotto means Love Bite.

Shots in chocolate glasses!

Shots in chocolate glasses with whipped cream and chocolate flakes. In a word, awesome.

glasses! All the drinks are named after positions or actions e.g. 69, lovebite, there’s even the kamasutra. After pouring the drink into the glass, it’s topped with whipped cream and chocolate flakes. The bartender also instructs you on how to have it. You have to hold it from the top of the glass, and put it bottom first into your mouth, swallowing it whole! Quite an experience this! And we wouldn’t have had it were it not for Giuseppe! What an end to our stay in Rome.

Couchsurfing is highly recommended, but you do have to tidy up and keep your host’s room & bathroom clean. If you are on your best behaviour, you will find bonding with your host also easy as the last thing anyone wants is strangers messing up their home and expecting them to clean up. As long as that’s taken care of, you will learn more from them about their country & culture than you could by reading guide books. That’s what travel is about anyway. It’s the human interaction that enhances the experience & makes you appreciate your surroundings.

Next up was Florence. So different, but just as memorable. More on that in the next post.

Giuseppe, couchsurfing host

Giuseppe, our couchsurfing host who took us around Rome.

Giuseppe, couchsurfing host

Giuseppe, our couchsurfing host, with the dinner he cooked for us.

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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