Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Brief Tour of Northern India

In late 2004, I traveled to India for the first time. I had been invited to a sort of coming of age party for a friend’s son and since I was still working for Delta Airlines as a flight attendant and could fly standby for free, I thought that was a good excuse for an adventure. Since I was going all the way to Mumbai, I decided that I wanted to see more of northern India, specifically Rajasthan. My friends warned me against traveling alone, so I put together a rough itinerary of where I wanted to go, then shopped it around to several Mumbai travel agents. Within a couple of days everything was booked and I was ready to set off on my tour with a private car and driver (but no guides). I visited all the main sights in and around Udaipur, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Pushkar, Agra and Delhi plus went on a tiger safari at Ranthambore and bird-watched at Bharatpur. Overall I had a great time, despite getting very sick about halfway through the trip. Plus I felt that the value for the money I paid was very good considering I had full control of the pace and itinerary.
biking through a bird sanctuary in 2004
Thus when Greg and I encountered full trains and other hassles during our first two weeks in southern India, I knew the best thing to do was decide how much we were willing to spend to see the top sights on our list, and then shop an itinerary to several travel agents. At that time, we were in Panaji, Goa, and we ended up working with a travel agent named Charu at Kesari Tours, which had an office just a few meters from our hotel. As it turned out, all of the booking was actually done by Ramesh at Pro India Tourism in Delhi and Charu was just the middle man.
Greg framed by India Gate in Delhi
We originally had Delhi, Agra, Varanasi and Darjeeling on our itinerary, and Charu recommended that since we were in the area, we shouldn’t miss Khajuraho (for the erotic temples) and Bandavgarh (for a tiger safari). However the logistics for getting to and from Darjeeling were complicated and costly so we “swapped” it for another Himalayan town, Shimla. Still, the first quote of RS54500 ($1222) per person in 3-4 star hotels (or RS49500 per person in 2-3 star hotels) for the two week trip was more than we wanted to spend. Trying to break down the expenses of the trip (to figure out how to lower the overall cost), we guess-timated the Tata Indigo (small car) with driver at RS3000/day (vs. RS4000 for a Toyota Innova SUV), hotels at an average RS3500/night including breakfast, and guides at RS1500/day. Any admission fees and other meals were not included.
a zoomed-in view of the Himalayas from Kufri
Realizing we were nowhere close to our target budget, we had the difficult task of choosing which sights/destinations to ax. As Greg really wanted to see the Taj Mahal, and I wanted to go up into the mountains, we decided to narrow the trip down to a seven night/eight day itinerary focusing on Delhi, Shimla and Agra. After much negotiation, we agreed to a final price of RS22000 per person, not including 2.8% tax.

Luckily, the trip did go pretty smoothly, a far cry from the seeming chaos (primarily due to lack of communication by our travel agent) of our Egypt tour. The only real issue we had to sort out upon our arrival in Delhi was that the car we had booked, the smaller Innova, did not have seat belts despite the reassurance of the travel agent in Panaji that all tourist vehicles would have them. I insisted on the seat belts and it resulted in a free upgrade to the much larger (and safer) Innova.
traveling like this was NOT an option!
We had some very long days of driving, which was necessary as there are not any places worth stopping between the cities we visited. This is more exhausting and stressful than you might think due to the road conditions, traffic and crazy driving. For example, the day we drove from Delhi to Shimla involved leaving the hotel at 8:15AM, driving for about three hours, taking a quick five minute toilet break at a petrol station, driving another three hours, stopping for a 45 minute lunch break, driving another two hours, taking another quick toilet break, driving another 1.5 hours and finally arriving in Shimla at 6:00PM.
in India you have to share the road with all sorts of animals and machinery
Our guides in Delhi, Shimla and Agra were all knowledgeable and friendly (although not really a necessity in Shimla if your driver speaks decent English and you can communicate where you want to go outside of town). Our driver, Shibu, did speak enough English to get by, was always friendly, and kept the car clean for us. His driving was aggressive as is typical in India, but he got us everywhere safely and that’s what matters in the end. All the hotels we stayed in were typical Indian 3 star hotels, meaning they were not perfect, but were comfortable enough, with one exception. Our room at the Hotel Silverine in Shimla could barely be considered a 2 star as the furnishings were very dirty and it did not have heat, forcing us to rent a space heater for an extra RS200 per night to stay warm in the below freezing temps.
our hotel room in Shimla appears to be radiating heat but in fact was freezing
These are the sites we visited in each city:
  • Delhi - Jama Masjid, Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation site, India Gate, the Rajpath, Humayun’s Tomb, Qutab Minar Complex Photos
  • Shimla - Kufri (for almost 360 degree Himalayan views), Viceregal Lodge, Christ Church, Scandal Point, The Mall, Kali Bari Temple, Himalayan Queen train ride from Shimla to Dharmpur Photos
  • Chandigarh - this modern city was on our itinerary but our driver didn’t take us to the city center and our hotel was in another nearby town called Zirakpur; we only visited Yadavindra Gardens in Pinjore Photos
  • Agra - Taj Mahal, Agra Fort; did not go to Fatehpur Sikri as scheduled because we were both sick with sinus infections and needed to rest Photos
All in all, not a bad way to wrap up our time in India!
we were both sick at this point, but smiling all the same!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Panaji & Old Goa 26FEB-02MAR2011

The link to all of my photos is embedded in the title of this post.

Although most people associate Goa with beaches, this is not why we decided to visit the small southwestern state. Having spent two full weeks on Thailand's beaches less than one month ago, we were more interested in the area's history which differs from the rest of the country. The entire region was a Portuguese territory from 1510 until 1961 and thus their influence is still seen in the architecture, food and culture.
Portuguese tiles in Panaji's Menezes Braganza Institute
Upon our arrival at Madgaon train station, via overnight train from Kochi, we took a prepaid taxi to the state capital, Panaji, 33km to the north. There we had reserved a room at the Menino Regency for three nights (which we ended up extending to four). The hotel is conveniently located in the city center, next to the 18th century Jama Masjid. We were quite happy to have A/C and to finally take a hot shower after a week of cold showers in Kochi! A basic, Indian breakfast was included in our room rate.
Greg in front of Jama Masjid
We ended up not doing too much sightseeing for the first few days, as it was quite hot (feels like temp was 36C) and Greg had a bout of stomach trouble, probably from all the spicy Indian food we had been eating. Panaji is compact enough to see everything on foot so we primarily strolled around the fairly quiet streets, always keeping an eye out for internet access and cheap places to eat. One day we walked all the way to the guarded compound that is the Goa Marriott Resort, thinking that they would have a well-staffed travel desk to help us plan a tour of northern India. It turned out that we couldn't get past the guards without a reservation however we did discover an office complex nearby with a travel agency that was open on Sunday (the day we made this little excursion).
a cricket match along the waterfront
Why were we looking for a travel agency? As I referenced in my last post, we quickly discovered that almost all of the Indian trains were fully booked for the coming weeks to any of the destinations we had on our itinerary (Delhi, Agra, Varanasi, Darjeeling). With much assistance from, I had managed to "beat the system" to purchase our last minute tickets from Kochi to Goa. However, in order to do this, you need to have internet access exactly two days prior to the departure of each train, or else use a travel agent who can constantly monitor the availability of seats/berths on your desired trains.

As I also mentioned in my last post, we were surprised to find that very few places had wifi in Kochi. Then, in all of Panaji, we did not find a single internet cafe with wifi although most offered internet access on their computers for around RS35 per hour. We found one boutique hotel, whose room rate was more than double what we were paying at the Menino Regency, that had wifi. When we asked if we could sit in their lobby and use their wifi, they eventually were kind enough to agree (for a fee of RS100 per hour) as long as we didn't tell anyone that we weren't guests. As it turned out, we never got around to using their service as we found a travel agency and tiny internet cafe near our hotel which was more convenient, even without wifi.

Because of this lack of reliable internet access, thus severely limiting our ability to plan & book any further travels in India, we decided to "shop" our itinerary to several travel agents who would put together a customized tour of northern India and hopefully eliminate most of the hassles we were already facing. I will discuss our actual tour in my next post, but suffice it to say that for numerous reasons the itinerary was significantly altered from our original version. Keeping in mind that we had a set budget for India, meaning a specific dollar amount that we were willing to spend no matter what the time frame, we thought that based on our first week or two of traveling on our own in the south we would be able to stretch our dollars to cover at least another two weeks in the north. This turned out not to be the case despite our best efforts to minimize the cost of the tour.
I do want to mention that we ate consistently good Indian food in Goa, although Greg was on a rice & toast diet for a few days due to his upset stomach. We ate two delicious meals at Sher-e-Punjab: lunch one day (2 chicken curries, garlic-cheese naan, beer!), and dinner a few nights later (chicken tikka, palak paneer, garlic-cheese naan, more beer!). We were happy to discover liquor stores were much more abundant than in Kerala and many restaurants also sold alcohol. To mix things up a bit, we even ordered a pizza from a nearby Domino's and ate it in our room one night.
Domino's non-veg extravaganza - but the only meat you can get is chicken
One of my favorite days in Panaji was spent exploring the old Portuguese quarter of Fontainhas. With its narrow streets, typical Portuguese architecture and restaurants serving Portuguese-influenced dishes, you could easily convince yourself you had somehow been transported to Europe.
a quiet street in Fontainhas
On the day of our departure to Delhi, we arranged a taxi for the transfer to Dabolim airport. As it was not out of the way, we paid extra to have the driver take us to Old Goa first, so we could tour a few of its historic churches. This was one of the highlights of our time in the state and I'm glad we were able to squeeze it in at the last minute.
Church of St Francis of Assisi & Se Cathedral

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Kochi & Alleppey, Kerala 20-26FEB2011

Another belated post, written several weeks ago but unable to upload due to limited internet access in India.

India, to me, has a particular smell. It is burning trash mingled with diesel fumes and an occasional whiff of curry spices or incense. After traveling throughout the northwest of the country in late 2004, with repeated visits to Mumbai in the early months of 2005, it seemed that the smell was inescapable. As I walked out of the Kochi airport a few nights ago, I immediately breathed in that unforgettable scent and knew I was in India.

It’s easy to forget how “hard” it is to travel in India. I never thought it was easy the first few times, but I don’t remember being particularly stressed by the daily hassles. I made many Indian friends in Mumbai, initially through people I had met while working as a flight attendant, and they made me feel quite at home in such an unfamiliar place. My friends took me to some of the best restaurants, bars & clubs in the city; I didn’t even realize how lucky I was at the time. We also went to the movies, shopped at the mall, smoked shisha at outdoor cafes and bought tacky souvenirs from street vendors.
me & friends in Mumbai, March 2005
I don’t personally know anyone in Kerala, so Greg & I were pretty dependent on our guesthouse in Fort Kochi to help us “adjust” to India and to plan our southern India sightseeing. While their website claimed they have a travel desk, that turned out not to be the case at all, so we quickly realized we would have to sort out our travel plans on our own. Not to mention that the guesthouse accommodations were very basic - no hot water, no restaurant (but a woman would come and cook a simple breakfast on request), and we had only booked a fan room which meant stifling heat (feels-like temp was 36C) during the day and most of the night. The whole Fort Kochi area is also swarming with mosquitoes and even the strongest repellants won’t prevent bites.
our mosquito net-draped beds at Bounty Yatra Guesthouse
Other challenges we encountered almost immediately: nagging tuktuk/taxi drivers, minimal sidewalks on busy roads, few street lights make it difficult to walk safely at night, every car ride is a narrow escape from death, limited internet access (and no wifi), fully booked trains, and no alcohol (a Kerala state regulation - it can only be sold from licensed venues, of which we found one in an expensive hotel, or at a government-run liquor store).

We ended up doing a lot of roaming around on foot, trying to avoid the hottest part of the day with little success. Over three days we visited all the key sights: the Chinese fishing nets, St Francis Church and Santa Cruz Cathedral in Fort Kochi, and the Jewish Synagogue and Jew Town in Mattancherry. We decided to skip the Dutch Palace as it didn’t look like much from the outside. We also ate some good Indian food, although our first few meals (at Pumpkin, Talk of the Town, and Salt’n’Pepper on Princess St) were only so-so in my opinion. The best food we ate was by far at Dal Roti, followed by Chariot Beach Café and Master’s Art Café. The best lassi I drank was at Shiva Dreams. I also re-discovered my favorite thirst-quenching Indian beverage: fresh lime soda (I like mine a little sweet).
eating a delicious meal at Dal Roti in Fort Kochi
Although we considered spending a few nights touring the surrounding area (Munnar in particular), we ultimately decided to “save” our hill station adventure for northern India (Darjeeling). However, one of the primary reasons I wanted to visit Kerala was to travel on the backwaters by houseboat, which we did on our last night in the state. We gambled and booked our overnight trip through the guesthouse as they only work with one company, Welcome Cruises, so we only had to choose an A/C or non-A/C room. Due to the heat & mosquitoes we opted for A/C which turned out to be the right decision.
our houseboat, the Lilly Darling
The drive to Alleppey takes anywhere from 1.5-2 hours from Fort Kochi. We were driven in a trusty Hindustan Ambassador (no seatbelts, no A/C) by one of the guesthouse staff. We boarded our boat, the Lilly Darling, around noon and quickly learned we would be the only guests (although there were two bedrooms) tended to by a captain, an engineer, and a cook. After a quick exploration of the boat, we soon started motoring our way along the backwaters, stopping for lunch around 1:30. The food was surprisingly good: whole fish, coconut curry, green beans, rice, chapati and fresh pineapple. After lunch, we cruised for another three hours before tying up for the evening. As the sun set, the battle with the mosquitoes began in earnest, but we were told we could not turn on the A/C in our room until after dinner. We had also been told we could “order” beer for RS100 per 640ml bottle but ended up having to pay RS150 as the captain told us they had to buy the beer from another boat so it cost more. We eventually ate dinner around 7:30 (chicken curry, okra, dal, rice). Greg & I then retreated to our room (the a/c was finally turned on) to escape the mosquitoes and get some rest. We even got to take cold water showers in our small ensuite bathroom (but were only given one towel and no toilet paper). We started heading back to the docks around 8:00 the next morning and ate breakfast (masala omelet, white bread, sweet coffee, fresh pineapple) on the way.
houseboat superhighway
Despite the large number of boats in the area, it was still a very peaceful way to spend almost 24 hours, observing the local women washing clothes, pots & pans, and themselves in the murky water; watching birds; drinking afternoon chai; and generally relaxing. The cost for the two of us was RS7000 or $160, not including round-trip transport from Fort Kochi (another RS1000 each way).
making coir mats
We also stopped briefly at the beach and at a coir factory in Alleppey on the way back to Fort Kochi. According to Wikipedia, coir is a natural fiber extracted from the husk of coconut and used in products such as floor mats, doormats, brushes, mattresses etc. Although we were expecting a large factory with heavy machinery, we were shocked to see that everything was still being made the traditional way, via manual labor (average pay for the workers is less than RS150 per day or about $3). In fact, the entire "factory" did not have electricity. I shot some great video of the men & women at work but have not been able to upload any of it due to slow internet connection speeds.
waiting for the train
We left Kochi via the Ernakulam Junction train station. I had only managed to snag last minute "tatkal" 2nd class A/C sleeper tickets as the trains were fully booked for weeks. Despite being told that the train station had A/C waiting rooms, this was not the case at all. Basically the entire station was open air, you had to pay to use the very basic toilets (RS2), and there was very limited seating. Unfortunately our train was 30 minutes late, but I struck up a conversation with a 70-something Swedish couple who were also traveling around southern India independently (!) and that helped to pass the time. Upon boarding, we were given one large bottled water each, a choice of veg or non-veg breakfast which we be delivered one hour prior to our arrival in Margao, two sheets, one blanket & a pillow. The AC2 compartments have four berths fronted by two side berths and the only enclosure is curtains at end. Sleeping in the upper bunk I quickly discovered there was no way to redirect the A/C and thus had to wrap my silk sleep sheet around my head to fight the draft. Our car also had two toilets: one squat & one western with soap, paper towels and damp toilet paper. It was kept clean (but with a wet floor) all night. The majority of our fellow passengers were Indian with maybe only 5% of the entire train being foreigners. Despite our late departure, we still arrived in Margao on time around 10:15 the next morning as our cabin attendant blatantly asked for baksheesh and suggested RS100 per person!

Here are the links to my photo albums:
Kochi, Kerala
Alleppey & Backwaters Cruise

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Double Dose of Bangkok

I am long overdue in posting this but the reality is, once we left Thailand, we had very limited internet access for the almost three weeks we were in India. The link to all of my Bangkok photos is embedded in this post's title.

Bangkok Part I: 21-24JAN2011

We decided to stay in Sukhumvit for our first three nights in Bangkok. During my research, multiple sources had mentioned that the popular backpacker haven of Khao San Road was not near any SkyTrain or subway stations although it was a reasonable walk to the river and express boats. Plus, many of the most recommended budget places were fully booked for our dates. Surprisingly, many of the most popular “hostels” were also quite expensive, with a private double ensuite averaging well over $50 per night. We ultimately chose to book a room in small hotel, City Lodge Soi 9, which was conveniently located adjacent to the Nana SkyTrain station and a short walk to Soi 11 which has many bars, restaurants, a large grocery, etc. Our modern, clean and comfortable room complete with A/C, cable TV and minibar plus a large bathroom (with a tub!) was $43 per night including free in-room wifi and American breakfast.
reclining Buddha at Wat Pho
A few notes from our first stay in Bangkok:
  • I like that they have hand sanitizer spray at the SkyTrain security checkpoints
  • Ate dinner at a café on Soi 11 (a 24 hr diner) but 640 ml beers were 140 baht vs. 44 baht at the nearby grocery store
  • Enjoyed exploring The Temple of the Emerald Buddha (located within Wat Phra Kaew) and the Grand Palace but you can’t go inside most of the buildings. Also checked out The Pavilion of Regalia, Royal Decorations and Coins.
  • Wat Pho and it’s huge reclining Buddha is fantastic
  • Ate lunch overlooking the Chao Phraya river - cheap pad thai (50 baht)
  • Took a ferry to Wat Arun but was terrified to climb the almost vertical stairs to the top (it was even worse going back down!)
  • Took a boat to Phra Arthit to explore the area around Khao San Road. Wound up getting haircuts for 130 baht each. We also stopped in a pharmacy to inquire about something random. The pharmacist spoke good English so I asked for her opinion on Greg‘s foot problem (which has not healed); she ended up giving us a thorough, and completely different, diagnosis than anyone we have spoken with previously. As I write this over one month later, he’s 100% better.
  • Walked all the way back to the SkyTrain at National Stadium. An interesting, but very long, hot and not always particularly safe walk as there were often no sidewalks.
  • Ate green curry at Gallery Restaurant on Soi 11 - spicy and more authentic than in U.S.
  • Took the SkyTrain to the weekend-only ChatuChak Market. Amazed at the enormity of the market when viewed from the train. Noted the rainbow colors of Bangkok’s taxis. As we weren’t actually shopping for anything, we focused our attention on the pet section which did not disappoint. I never knew there could be so many shops selling pet clothing!
  • Walked along Dusit Park to Vimanmek Mansion (free entrance was included with our expensive Grand Palace ticket). Entry was timed and you are required to go with a guide but the tour groups were too close together so we couldn’t hear anything. They also have a strict no electronics policy, you can‘t carry any bags with you and you have to take your shoes off and walk barefoot through the mansion. Interesting but probably not worth the effort to get there.
  • Took an express boat to Chinatown. Enjoyed exploring the alleyways off Yaowarat Street. Most shops closed by 6 pm but the street itself comes alive with food vendors.
  • Ate dinner at Hua Seng Hong - noodles with shrimp dumplings and roasted duck, sweet and sour chicken, beef with oyster sauce, 2 large Singha beers (550 THB = $17+, a bit expensive but delicious!)
  • Walked to the main train station (Hua Lamphong) to catch the subway back to Sukhumvit. It (the subway) is very modern and clean.
  • Took a quick walk through the red light district known as “Soi Cowboy” (between Sois 21 and 23) - pretty tame but gaudy
  • Saw no sign of any political protesters although we read in the news that there were protests on Sunday 23JAN
  • Took the overnight 2nd class sleeper train to Chiang Mai - had 4 berths but only curtains, not doors on compartment; our car was kept very clean by sweepers; only squat toilets but had toilet paper and soap
Soi Cowboy

Bangkok Part II: 17-19FEB2011

We decided to stay in Silom this time around. Centrally located with easy access to the SkyTrain and subway, it is a short ride away from Central Pier (river boat access), Siam Square (shopping malls) and Patpong (nightlife). As we had already visited the primary tourist sights during our first stay, we were focused more on the convenience factor (and overall cost) than anything else. Some of the highest rated places were still over $50 per night, but we eventually found a few options for just under $40. We decided to stay at Om Yim Lodge, a simple, locally run affair at the foot of the Chong Nonsi SkyTrain station. I had requested the cheapest room, which would have cost around $30 per night, but was not available. On arrival, we discovered we had been upgraded to the largest room on the top (4th) floor, but were still only charged for a mid-category room, around $36 per night. A simple continental breakfast (eggs, toast, juice, coffee/tea) was an additional 50 baht per person.

Despite our best efforts, we did not get to go to the Forensic Museum at Siriraj Hospital due to the Buddhist holiday, Magha Puja. I was looking forward to the gory displays of murderer’s embalmed corpses, abnormal body parts, and other intriguing medical artifacts. :) Not to mention the whole city seemed to empty out that night (a Friday) -- an eerie feeling in hectic Bangkok. Stores were prohibited from selling alcohol for that 24 hour period and since we were “thirsty” we had to pay twice as much for beers at our hotel.
interior of MBK mall
We spent the better part of our last two days in Bangkok staying cool in shopping malls and roaming around Patpong. We were pleasantly surprised by the low prices and multitude of choices in the mall food courts. We thought about watching a movie at one of the VIP theatres but they weren’t showing anything we were particularly interested in. We ate a wide variety of foods in two days: Chinese food one night, decent steak at the mall, soup and sandwiches from one of the ubiquitous 7-11‘s found on every street corner, and a one good Thai meal.
Greg eating lunch at Santa Fe Steakhouse
On our last night in Bangkok (and in Thailand), we went to the Baiyoke Sky Hotel’s 84th floor outdoor revolving observation deck for a sunset view of the sprawling city. The tower is currently the tallest building in the country and one of the world‘s tallest hotel-only buildings. A ticket to the observation deck including one drink at the “Rooftop Bar” cost 250 baht per person or $8. Compared to similar venues in the U.S. (Top of the Rock in New York City is $22 per person as of this writing) or the Shanghai World Financial Center (150 CNY or $23 per person), this is quite reasonable. And you get the added bonus of an adult beverage to calm your nerves!
view from the 84th floor observation deck at Baiyoke Sky Tower
All in all, I actually liked Bangkok a lot more than I expected. With its excellent public transportation options (although the river boats spew fumes and pollute the water and don‘t appear to be entirely safe), friendly people, interesting sights, yummy food, diverse neighborhoods, rich culture and more, I might consider living there for a while if it wasn’t for the HEAT!!!