A Travellerspoint blog

March 2012

India: Kerala Backwaters

Coasting on a wood boat through the breathtaking palm tree lined lake system of Kerala.

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Kerala Backwaters

If you come to India and only have time for two places - (at this point) I would say see the Taj Mahal and then go to Varkala and from there explore Kerala Backwaters by houseboat.
Friends had described how beautiful the Kerala lakes are, however nothing quite prepares you for this area.

During the 6 hour wooden boat trip we immersed in one of the most picturesque, quiet, calm and serene places imaginable.

I'm not going to even try to describe further.
Though, feel free to have a look through my photos here:

Namaste :-)

Posted by SkinnyFists 23:20 Archived in India Tagged india varkala kerala_backwaters lakes_india nature_india Comments (2)

India: Ooty and Nilgiri Hills

Hiking and exploring the magical Nilgiri Hills of Tamil Nadu

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Ooty

Ooty is the highest of the many hill stations in the Nilgiri region - with tea plantations, vegetable farms, entwined with gorgeous national parks, 2500+ metres above sea level.
More than a hill station, it is a big cosmopolitan town.
Education is also a big industry here - there is a huge international school, IT academy and other educational centres dotted around the place. This is perhaps interesting considering the small population of Ooty, though I'm guessing the tranquil surrounds and moderate temperatures (a cool 19 degress most of the year round) makes it an attractive place to come and study.

Journey Up the Hills

I Booked a super luxury, air-con bus from Mysore to Ooty.
After a couple of hours we started to ascend the magnificent Nilgiri hills!
After about an hour of weaving frantically, the bus attendent started handing out sick bags, of which some were made use of.
I'm accustomed to taking travel sick tablets for these buses now, so was sleepily immune.
Suddenly there was a loud "BANG", and the bus stopped.
The driver got out to inspect, then came back came back to tell us the bus was "broken" and we'd have to jump on the next available transport to the top of the hill.
Thankfully there were only about 8 passengers in total, and a public bus came along within a few minutes.
Public buses, especially in Tamil Nadu are loud festive affairs. This one had loud bangra playing and everyone on board was chatting and laughing. It was one of a few fun and sociable transports I had in the area.

Hiking Nilgiris

I booked my official guide from the Guide Office in town at... Charing Cross :-)
He was certainly a sprightly and happy guy, which was a pretty common outlook in the whole area. I guess they have plenty to smile about - thriving industries, fresh air, plenty of outdoor activities, no heat, etc.

Anyway, we hiked up through tea plantations, farms and passed through a country mosque which was having a fate and then came across a film set!
My guide explained that it wasn't a Bollywood production, but a Tamil one (spoken in Tamil language). They were filming a dance scene centering on the (very stunning) heroine of the film. There were crew everywhere, and we were allowed to observe for a bit.
During filming the background music pumped through massive speakers as the lady danced through smoke (generated by a guy sizzling hot coals on a stove out of camera shot).
It was fascinating!

Tamil film set we discovered:
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Eventually we reached the peak (highest in South India):
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The views from this point are outstanding! There is a telescope tower for people to view the area, and plenty of stalls, etc for the tourists.

On the way down we visited factories making two of Ooty's biggest exports - tea and.... chocolate. Both had really interesting displays, and of course sold their wares. I'm really partial to masala tea now - it's made for serving with only hot milk - like tea latte - nice natural sweet flavour - also the staple at Indian train stations.

Tea plantation, Ooty:
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Journey Down the Hills

I took the "miniature" steam train down the hill to Mettapalayam.
For folks at home in Melbourne, this is kind of like a long version of Puffing Billy.
3.5 hours of gorgeous scenery in a cute (albeit cramped to the max, Indian tourist style) choochoo steam train.

On board the train:
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Cruising through the forests:
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It stops roughkly every 30 minutes for a tea break and for folks to stretch their legs - and believe me you need it when you're squashed in like sardines with steam pouring in the window - but I tell you, it's worth it!

Ooty really is a magical place - in terms of vibe, scenery, people and hospitality!

You can view all of my photos from Ooty and the Nilgiri Hills here

Posted by SkinnyFists 09:19 Archived in India Tagged ooty nilgiri_hills trains_india hiking_india india_film_set Comments (0)

India: Mysore

Brief exploration of the vibrant friendly metropolis

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Mysore

Journey

Took the 10 hour, overnight bus ride from Hampi (Hospet) to Mysore.
It was a hot and dusty old ride. There was no air con on the bus, so windows had to remain open.
India is a developing nation, and we passed through a lot of night time development - active roadworks and large building sites.
So, getting any real REM wasn't much of an option.
I sat next to Rajim, a physics student from Hospet who is studying in Mysore. We talked about education, culture, etc from the perspectives of our countries - interestingly he explained that all higher education curriculum across India is taught in English.

Mysore

I treated myself to a nice hotel here, after some sleepless air-con-less nights, and anticipating a tiring uncomfortable journey.
Pai Vista was just what the Dr ordered: gym, pool, awesome room service, sound insulated, air con, comfy bed, clean bathroom - for the princely sum of AUD$60 per night.

Mysore is a big, spacious, friendly, well educated, cosmopolitan town with plenty to see and do.
It is famous for being a yoga centre. You can do teacher training here - though options for novices like myself were limited.

I visited:

Maharaja's Palace
This place is really impressive! Not much else to say, aside from the fact that it is opulent, enormous and worth a visit.

Devaraja Market
This place is amazing. A huuuuge bustling, colourful hive of activity - with all kinds of aromas - flowers, sandalwood, incence, fish, spices, etc... and sounds - music, bargaining, shouting, socialising, etc.

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I found a new phone and came to a very satisfactory agreement after about 5 minutes of bargaining, and some pure sandalwood oil, of which Mysore is famous.

This was indeed a very nice, brief stop on the way to Ooty!

Posted by SkinnyFists 07:48 Archived in India Tagged india mysore devaraja_market markets_india Comments (0)

India: Hampi

Wandering the truly unique landscape scattered with stunning ancient ruins; with a friendly interesting town.

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Hampi

Journey to Hampi

Took the 7.5 hour train from Margao to Hospet.
I sat with a group of Goan pharmacists who were on their way to a conference in Kolkatta.
Of course they were interested in my home country, but particularly cost of living, wages (asking one's income is not a taboo question, and should not cause offence in India), and getting a visa.
We had a nice lunch - food on the train is safe and fresh when ordered in advance... the lunch wallah took our order in the morning, and it was served at about 1pm (though my friends were not impressed with the serving sizes... "not sufficient!".... they all chorused. I had to laugh)

From Hospet train station, it was a 1km (hot, smelly and dusty) walk to the bus station. If you go to Hampi via train, don't be fooled by the rickshaw drivers at Hospet train station. They will try to tell you it's 14kms!
On the bus I met a nice couple from London who travelled overland from Europe to SE Asia. A really inspiring story!

Exploring Hampi

This is probably the friendliest town I've visited so far.
The locals are so relaxed, cheerful and helpful, and there are no pushy touts!
The town itself is really interesting with many restaurants (food was great where I went) overlooking the ancient ruins - Mango Tree is super special!

The surrounding landscape is really unique, with massive boulders and rocky hills everywhere. The temples and sites are either interspersed or built into the terrain (kind of like Cappadocia, Turkey)
One thing I also noted was the similarity between the Hampi ruins and those in Ankor, Cambodia - almost confirming the direct influence of the Bengals..

Main St, Hampi
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Met many other travellers whilst visiting the ruins, and at New Shanthi (recommend this place - food, atmosphere and service are awesome).
Hampi seems very conducive to making friends - both local and visitors

My hotel had a resident tuk-tuk driver who took me on a set tour of the surrounding ruins and sites.

Amongst the thousands of ruins:
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The most impressive for me was the elephant stables within the ancient palace:
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...and this beauty:
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The river:
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I also did a very interesting guided tour of Virupaksha temple, where a wedding was also taking place

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I also made some new friends...
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Kids seem to really love having their photo taken and seeing themselves in the camera playtback!

Hampi has definitely been a highlight so far!!

It's getting hot now, and I mean really hot - 37 degrees mid afternoon, but gloriously clear!

You can see all my photos from gorgeous, amazing Hampi here

Posted by SkinnyFists 07:17 Archived in India Tagged ruins hampi kartanaka Comments (0)

India: South Goa -> Palolem Paradise

Heaven on Earth (greedy developers please do not read any further)

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Palolem

Took the scenic train from the far north (near Arambol) to Margao and then a taxi to Palolem.
My cabbie was a very charasmatic guy who had a lot of stories - he is a pastry chef who works for a big hotel chain, and has been stationed all over Asia, Canada and the Middle East. The cab was his late father's which he drives for extra money on the weekends.

I told him that I'd come from Arambol. He immediately went into a diatribe about how (to paraphrase) 'money grabbing north Goans have let some groups from overseas (who don't need Indian visas) infiltrate the north, and ruin what was once a haven, like the south is now.'

He wasn't the first local Goan to go into one about this, but my cabbie friend was certainly the most fervent on the topic.
He candidly shared a few funny but shocking related stories from driving cabs in Arambol and Anjuna, and said he won't ever work in North Goa again.
He stressed that southern folks are proud, stoic and won't tolerate any newcomers messing up their haven.... y'hear!

I'll tread lightly, I promise!

Palolem is indeed like heaven. It's one of those places that makes you wary to tell anyone about in fear it becomes crowded and commerical.
It's sleepy, but plenty to do (yoga, ayurvedic treatments, jungle treks, gorgeous beaches) and no thumping clubs (only a silent disco every Tuesday night).
The beach shacks serve great food, and there are great accommodation options right on the beach.
This is also where Jason Bourne and his girlfriend found a (temporary) peaceful haven in The Bourne Supremacy
Palolem suits anyone but seems ideal for 30+ folks and there were a lot of other solo travellers seeking sun and solace.
Though North Goa was OK, with the benefit of hindsight I would have come straight here from Baga !

Palolem Main St:
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My main activities here were swimming, lying in the sun drinking mocktails, reading (finished Philip K Dick's mindbender, Ubik), eating delicious food, listening to music (gleeeeeefully succumbed to Fleet Foxes, a couple of years late), a bit of yoga, beach running, comparing notes with other travellers...... and did one superb ayuvedic treatment.....

Shirodhara

I shopped around for this, as I had tried it once before at Camp Eden in Australia, and was keen to do it for real in India.
If you don't know the process of Shirodhara, here's the Wikipedia entry

I chose the ayuvedic centre inside Dreamscape Resort as it seemed the most professional (though they humbly would not comment on other centres in Palolem).

In the treatment room I lay flat on the bench whilst the therapist covered my entire body with towels, then my eyes and ears with cotton (plus a roll of cotton above the eyebrows so oil wouldn't drip into the eyes).
In a state of sensory deprivation, he put on some repetitive Hindi music to focus my mind. It was so whimsical and peaceful in itself.
Then suddenly the stream of oil hit my third eye pressure point and I started to drift straight away...
The vase containing the oil swings like a pendulum so that each of the three pressure points on the forehead is evenly hit.
With the music, calm environment and the oil hitting the points, my mind couldn't focus on anything except the immediate (oil, music, calm) and then dream state really kicked in.
My soul went to another plane, and my mind then body soon followed.
The treatment lasted an hour but the concept of time eluded me.

Almost abruptly, the oil flow stopped, and the therapist slowly removed the cotton, etc before washing my face and hair.
When I got up, I felt really dizzy, but total calm - (mind body and soul) and slightly elated... like I had just visited heaven through antennas.
The therapist told me not to walk or think for a little while (easy) and no reading or music for at least 2 hours.
I sat whilst she explained the process, and it's spiritual significance.
Hindus and Buddhists use often use Shirodhara as a form of prayer.
It is apparently the most sacred of ayuvedic treatments; not only for the recipient.
The person administering Shirodhara treats the patient with their deity or God in mind, as if they are also treating the divine to give thanks.

Sunset

I have never seen a more beautiful sunset than that from Palolem beach.
The best view is from an outpost, reachable when the tide goes out (just in time for dusk)
You will find many friendly folks there, all entranced by the beauty.

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I met a lovely couple from Manchester who have been to Goa many, many times, who took my photo for me.
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The lady was like a gorgeous female version of Jack Sparrow - with coloured and decorated flowing dreads, Keif' mannerisms and a disarmingly wily, charming smile.
Notably, also a young backpacker wrote a beautiful birthday message for his Mum on a big boulder with the sun behind him, and took a photo to send home. One lady observing was crying with glee and applauded for all the Mum's of the world (cute!)... and the rest of us gave a standing ovation :-)

Bye Bye Goa

Palolem left an indelible impression. It's perfect in so many ways. Best beach vibe I've experienced. Great people, easy vibe, no hassles.
I really love south Goa and will be back for sure!

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You can see my photos of beautiful Palolem and the other Goan beaches here.

Posted by SkinnyFists 06:28 Archived in India Tagged palolem south_goa shirodhara Comments (0)

India: North Goa (Baga to Arambol)

Highlights and thoughts on North Goa

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North Goa

North and South Goa have very distinct and different vibes.
I'll summarise my experience of the towns I visited in North Goa

Panjim

Capital of Goa - has a really friendly and easy vibe. It feels very Poruguese indeed - especially the architecture!

Baga

A party town on the beach with plenty of quiet spots along the river.
Lot's of clubbing options and a lot of backpackers and Indian families.
Nice but crowded.

Candolim

It felt like 'Sexy Beast'. A lot of older retirees (possibly retired East End gangsters ) who now while their days away lying on a deck chair on the beach, getting served fish and chips whilst getting massaged with coconut oil, and then for dinner go to karaoke themed restaurants in town to sing Cliff Richard's hits after their crumbed calamari, as their mates happily clap along :-)
A lot quieter than Baga, and some really nice shacks to chill and eat on the beach ('Floyds' is rasta themed)

I stayed in Beach Nest, which is just a short path from the beach in dense jungle area. So peaceful and quiet.
Candolim is nice but not really for backpackers.

Anjuna

Only really got to see the market here.
It's more of a party and alternative travellers' scene and the market is ace!

Arambol

10-4 good buddies
Destroy, kill all hippies

- Primal Scream

Took a very scenic, joyful bus here from Mapusa.
Arambol is hippy central with it's main drag being 'Glastonbury Street' - flooded with the usual shops selling faux Indian clothes, drums, jewellery, etc.
There is a very established scene here of folks who seemed to have checked out of their previous existence, opting to spend most of the day at one of the many beachside shacks chain smoking charras and playing with their hair.
I'm getting too old for trance and apathy. Nontheless I didn't really get a great vibe from Arambol, but did stay at a lovely guesthouse on Glastonbury Street run by a really friendly Indian family.

Vagator on the other hand....

Vagator

Vagator feels deserted (in a good way) there is so much space - very deep beach and long distances between shacks and beach. You can go for a walk in the bach and be the only person withing a 300 metre radius. The vibe is very quiet in chilled.
There is kite surfing and yoga - but that's about it. If you want real peace, space, awesome beach and a forward thinking vibe, Vagator is a great option.

All in all, I probably wouldn't return to anywhere in North Goa except for Vagator....

You can see my photos of the Goan beaches here.

Posted by SkinnyFists 05:58 Archived in India Tagged arambol vagator anjuna panjim north_goa Comments (0)

India: Goa Arrival & Intrepid Farewell

Concluding the whirlwind trip in hazy, hippy(-ish) North Goa

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Welcome to Goa (man)!

We took a nice easy 1 hour flight from Mumbai to Goa.
For some reason or other we were upgraded to a 4 star resort called 'Sun Village' in Baga, back of the net! (as Alan Partridge would say).
It was a great place for the group to wind down.
In the evening we enjoyed a nice dinner on Baga beach!

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The next day some of us ventured to Anjuna's famous Wednesday market.
It is the ultimate traveller hippie fest - everything you've heard about Goa, is realised (and available) here; touts, charras, booming trance music; a myriad of stalls selling everything from faux Indian clothes (that western hippies like, but Indians would never wear) jewellery, drums, spices, electronics, etc.

One of Anjuna Market's lanes:
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It certainly wasn't all junk. I found some really nice ornaments carved from carbon.

As the sun started to descend we met up with Akhi and headed to 'Curlies', a fantastic restaurant bar, right on the beach (with a gorgeous view of just ocean from inside) and has bands playing on market day... just our luck!
It was a real mixed crowd - old hippies who probably haven't left Goa since 1971, Russian and Israeli party kids, Indian banker lads on tour, etc.
We shared a table with an older German lady who wouldn't stop gushing about the band who were about to take stage.

She was right to gush - they were incredible!

The lineup

  • Band leader: vocals, guitar, sitar, tambourine, etc... A western man. He sang in Hindi and very accomplished at everything he played. He looked like Robert Plant (today, not heyday), and probably co-wrote Kashmir with him in a haze of strong charras atop a Himalayan mountain in 1974
  • Bass
  • Keyboards (I swear he was in the original lineup of Genesis!)
  • Violin
  • Lead guitar (70's rockabilly pastiche - I think he was in The Cramps' original lineup)
  • Drums (I think he joined Genesis after Phil Collin's moved to vocals)

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Every song was an anthem, with HUGE jamouts, tabla and guitar solos, and a 70's funk flair that energised each peace. These dudes were seasoned musos and took their music and aesthetic very seriously!
By the middle of the set the whole place was going crazy!

It was a wonderful and fitting finale to the tour, and a top night out!

Overall it was a great tour with Akhi who did such an amazing job organising our transport tickets, taxis, hotels, and activities.
Intrepid is a good option if you want the hassle taken out of travelling, whilst having freedom to do what you want, and experience a country and it's culture up close and personal.

It was a bit sad to farewell the group. I guess it happens when you share such great experiences and then it abruptly ends...

Back on the solo tip for now...
Come to the City has been my solo travel anthem this year...
.... 'I'll be rambliiiiiiiiin.... WHOHOOOO!'
The War on Drugs' Come to the City

Posted by SkinnyFists 02:11 Archived in India Tagged market goa ajuna goa_hippies Comments (0)

India: Marvelous Mumbai!

Immersing in the wondrous, enormous, suprising, enchanting, multi-layered, multicultural megatropolis.

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Mumbai

Population: 16million

Journey to Mumbai

The train to Mumbai was 9 (or so) hours.
Whilst most of the group drifted into slumber (we departed at some unholy hour), I got talking to a group of Air Force cadets in my berth, who were on their way to a maths exam (they had to get up at 4am for their 5 hour journey to the exam hall!).
They were really interested in Australia; our culture and values - particularly around family and marriage, and of course they were keen to discuss cricket (they were a little saddened at my admission of not really following it).
It was a great first hand cultural lesson, maybe on both parts, but certainly for me; a real insight into Indian values and customs. They also explained the caste system, parental care and dowry obligations.
With the aid of my Lonely Planet map the fellows also explained India's military concerns and protectorate, borders and how India acts as mediator within the complex relationships between neighbouring countries. :-)

The cab journey from the train station in Mumbai was fast, rattled and furious. Cab rides in India are an adventure in themselves!
It was surreal to see the city approach in the haze of pollution, on a bright cloudless day.

Gateway to India

We walked the long journey from our hotel to Gateway to India - a huge monument where British Governors would land and be greeted during colonial times.
It is still a significant site in India and there were also many local tourists taking photos.
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Chowpatty Beach

We then headed down to Chowpatty and, as it was Sunday there were many (MANY!) folks on the beach - families and friends, all congregating and eating together at one of the many open air beach-side restaurants.
It finally felt like non tourist India, as we seemed to be the only goras (foreigners) around.
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Leopold's

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If you are a fan of Shantaram (or even if you aren't), no trip to Mumbai is complete without a visit to Leopold's - Linbaba's favourite hangout where all those friendships and loves were forged (and some lost), shady deals done, and almost every aspect of existence scrutinized to the nth degree.
It didn't feel as edgy as the book describes (you can buy copies from the counter hehe), but the menu, food, and service were all excellent!
There is a "secret" area - like a concealed loft. I don't recommend going up there. It was shady, but not in a cool gangster/dodgy-currency -deals kind of way.

This is how you share beer in Leopold's:
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The next day we explored some of the major sites and areas with assistance from a local guide:

Haji Ali's Mosque

Built in the 1400's, this was an interesting place to visit - though the long talk to it (along a footpath build over the water) was more so: interesting touts and sellers (some with singing children to advertise), and even a beggar who can give you change of any rupee note - so you can't use that excuse: "sorry, I don't have any change"....Donald Trump would be impressed - ingenious!

Haji Ali's Mosque:
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Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat

This is Asia's largest outdoor laundry, employing over 6000 people across many contractors.
Dhobi Ghat services pretty much every hotel, guesthouse, restaurant, hospital and clothing manufacturer (they do all pre-washing), etc in the city and was recently certified for processing over 1 million items per day!

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At Dhobi Ghat amongst a set of pre-washed shirts about to hit the shops:
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Dharvi Slum

I didn't know how this was going to pan out. I had a moral dilemma about visiting a slum.... like it is a museum, with the community fair game for unwanted photos and intrusions - however most of the time we were met with welcoming smiles.

A visit to Dharvi would perhaps quash some of the myths around Indian slums.
Dharvi Slum is the second largest in the world; and a thriving, interconnected industrial workhorse, which (according to official documentation) turns over USD$665million+ per year!
We saw all kinds of enterprises from leather makers to a woven bag making shop; where they use recycled plastic as source material and produce for corporations/councils/etc who do bagged up giveaways as advertising (we all got free samples to take - oh the irony!)

It was crowded, and living conditions may not be ideal for the average (lucky) westerner, but you could sense folks were happy contributors to a thriving, harmonious and enormous(!) community. The air was full of chatter, laughs, music, machinery, etc and the atmosphere was really great!

Dharvi sits on prime, valuable real estate, and opportunistic corporations recently made bids to purchase (and subsequently clear out) the area. However, considering the enormous economic output of the slum plus the humanitarian concern, the government has protected the area and Dharvi will safely continue as is:-)

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Mumbai was everything I thought it would be and more (and we really only touched the surface!)
No wonder there is a 1000 page love story dedicated to marvelous Mumbai!

You can see all of my Mumbai photos here.

Posted by SkinnyFists 10:54 Archived in India Tagged mumbai gateway_to_india chowpatty_beach dharvi_slum dhobi_ghat haji_ali_mosque leopolds_mumbai shantaram Comments (2)

India: Udaipur

Roaming, shopping, palm reading, wonderful art and interesting music lessons in the gorgeous and quiet bohemian city where "Octopussy" was filmed

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Udaipur

We left Puskhar at roughly 1am for the overnight train to Udaipur from Ajmer.

Udaipur is lovely!
So very different to the cities visited previously - it isn't heavily populated, has a very bohemian vibe and surrounded by a gorgeous lake.
Te city is also famous for being the film location of "Octopussy" (made during Bond's more 'Carry On'-ish, Roger Moore phase). Most restaurants and hotels still show the DVD at regular intervals throughout the day - cute! :-)

One of the main streets, Udaipur:
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City Palace

Each major city seems to have a big palace. Udaipur's is enormous, and still active. However the King has (either leased or so) much of it to major hotels. So, if you're up for a splurge, there are some really fancy hotels around. Speaking of which, the most expensive hotel in India is also here, it sits in the middle of the lake which surrounds the city.

View of Udaipur from City Palace:
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Inside the City Palace:
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Tabla Lesson Disaster

LP lists Udaipur's music shop as having Rp100 music lessons.
I've never learned tablas properly before, and really want to get going with them whilst in India.

I went to the shop and booked in a lesson. It started well....
We began with the complexities of traditional Indian rhythms and timings, then some playing, and learning to tap/strike each tabla.
However, it turned to a sales pitch...
In the middle of repeating a rudiment Mr Music asked "so, how much you want these for?".
My teacher didn't take "I'm only here for the advertised lesson" so well.
He persisted... "how much"...
Me: "Are we going to get back to the lesson?"
He persisted: "how much, 13000 rupees I think for these... what is your best price"
Me: "I don't want to buy any. I just want learn how the instrument works, as advertised and agreed."

This went back and fourth....

Within 10 minutes of arrival I cut the "lesson" short.
Mr Music didn't even get up when I politely gave him his 100 rupee full fee for the shortened lesson.
I walked to the door... only to find it was snub locked and curtains closed.
With fists and teeth clenched, I took a deep breath and glared back (what would Linbaba do?)
He's still sitting down, staring at me blankly... so bizarre!
I politely thanked the fellow for the lesson and mentioned my peers and (those famous book publishers) would hear about my experience....
After struggling with the lock, I got it open and stepped outside....
He quickly gasped..... "Oh there is a misunderstanding?! You wanted a lesson, and don't want to buy.. I understand. Please let's return to the lesson, and tomorrow you will get a free lesson, just come past. We don't need anyone finding out about this misunderstanding"
I smiled, said "namaste" and shut the door.

This didn't spoil a wonderful time in Udapir though, it is indeed magical and the only place thus far where I can recommend shopping for clothing, art and jewellery.....

Tailored Clothing

There is a very reputable tailor here.
I got myself a nice suit, wool winter sports jacket and 5 shirts tailor made - all top quality - for the princely sum of about AUD$200, and ready about 36 hours after measurements (they have a massive co-op across the city, so almost anything, no matter how busy they are, can be ready the next day
Most of the Intrepid group got some nice threads too!

Art

Udaipur is also famous for 'miniature art': very small detailed objects/scenes within a larger piece. I picked up some really nice detailed works to send home. Interestingly, the artists work in a co-op whereby they split all shop takings evenly regardless of whose work sells.

Palm Reading

I did a palm reading session, which really made sense. Normally I am sceptical about these things, however I only had to submit my name and date of birth and then he took my palm line measurements.
My overall reading and personal chart with lucky numbers, significant dates, etc were worked out through numerology and astrology charts, and other reference sheets.

The outcome and explanation described my outlook and disposition to a tea.
He did say that my best years are yet to come (6 years time apparently) and that I should wear silver and gold rings to increase connectivity to the divine, and meditate each morning, facing the sun's direction to improve connection with the divine and broader universe.
I took away a lot of useful info :-)
Others in the group also reported accurate/relevant results from the palm reading too.

Jewellery

After the reading I went to a silver and goldsmith where Akhi was having a super bling-bling gold and emerald ring made. I had silver and gold (adjustable) rings made, with certificates of authenticity, weight etc.
The gold ring is 23 carats and for a very reasonable price - booyakusha.

Udaipur Sunset

At around 6pm we all boarded a boat for a cruise around the waters that surround Udaipur. Seeing the city from this perspective, and at this light is truly gorgeous!

Facing in:
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Facing out:
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We then had a lovely dinner at an outdoor restaurant which faces the main town, across the water. Beautiful!

You can view all of my photos from Udaipur (and Pushkar) here

Posted by SkinnyFists 08:32 Archived in India Tagged udaipur tailors tablas jewellery_india tailors_india Comments (0)

India: Pushkar

Brief stopover in the tiny, hippy-ish Rajasthani oasis

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Pushkar

Another couple of hot sweaty buses to Pushkar, but arrived at our magical hotel, Kishan Place.
Would recommend to anyone going to Pushkar! It's full of charming character and has a super cool set of lounge areas on the roof, with restaurant attached.

Pushkar is nice and is known for having the only temple dedicated to Brahma.
There is a real travellers vibe to the place and a lot of western hippies (in the faux Indian gear that no Indian would ever wear) were floating around the market area smoking charras. A friend who had been here before said you could get hash infused lassi's(!). Though I tend to avoid those kinds of novelty drinks after a nightmare in Amsterdam, and besides, Delhi belly had truly kicked in!

There were also a lot of hustlers here, everywhere - both Indian and travellers!
We were forewarned however.
The most notable scam is when smiling men try to put flowers in your hand, if you let them, they take it as licence to a bring you into a "prayer" ceremony for your dearly departed loved ones, in return for an enormous gratuity/donation/whatever.... we saw plenty of people getting extorted.

The lake in Puskar is said to have been created by a leaf that Brahma dropped at the site.
It is beautiful, but we had to stand at a bit of a distance, as hustlers posing as priests (no real ones around) were leading gullible tourists to the water for some kind of dodgy fake ritual, then fleecing said tourist for a "donation".
One hustler spied us looking on, and came over to accuse Tom of "telling false things to people" (i.e. warning tourists of the scam).
We managed to calm the man down, but also made a point - everyone has the right to be in a public space without persecution or being hustled.

Aside from scams, Pushkar was pretty cool and a probably a good place to meet other travellers.

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Posted by SkinnyFists 09:07 Archived in India Tagged pushkar india_hippies Comments (0)

India: Jaipur

Sweaty bus, the Amber Palace and other cites plus a Bollywood show

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Jaipur

We took a really sweaty bus to Jaipur. From memory it was a 5 hour ride.
Marnie had some great conditioning exercises up her sleeve, that you can do whilst sitting in a plane/bus/etc.
So kept pushing ourselves through them.
Good fun to while to time and actually pretty effective work!

Jaipur is crowded!
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...and when we were there it was pretty darn hot!

We found some good shopping on the first afternoon. Marnie especially... found a stunning sari!

The next day was busy - first, the HUUUGE Amber Palace, which was simply incredible!
Just one of the courtyards in the Amber Palace:
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.... then on to the smaller city palace (recommend the audio guide here) and Hawar Mahal (where the King's concubines would congregate and look over main street without being seen by the public)

Hawa Mahal:
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Sadly in the afternoon we had an incident with some cheeky local boys... one of those shocking moments when violent retaliation almost seems rational. We had to show remorse. I've read Shantaram and didn't want to end up being a gora in an Indian jail.

By evening we were in the cinema, and what a cinema it is! More like a formal theatre - much more fancy (spiral staircases, chandeliers, oak railings) than my local Hoyts or Village, and a lot bigger!
Inside the foyer:
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In Indian cinemas keeping quiet is taboo! You must yell, boo and cheer at the appropriate times... it kinda felt like dialog is timed in such a way to allow for this too - interesting!

You can view all of my Jaipur photos here.

Posted by SkinnyFists 08:39 Archived in India Tagged jaipur amber_palace bollywood_cinema Comments (0)

India: Agra and Taj Mahal

Early train to Agra to see mighty Red Fort then glorious Taj Mahal

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Leaving Delhi

Up and at 'em at 4 for a 5am departure.
Delhi is eerily quiet at this time - like 28 Days later or something.... until you get to the train station!
Our first experience of a busy train station - people cows, cars, bikes, trailers, everywhere.
We stayed together and made it to our carriage without much hassle.

The train journey was scenic most of us slept.

Agra

Agra is another busy town, and not just because of it's famous monument....

Red Fort

We found a guide and did a tour of the Red Fort. It was a good precursor to Taj Mahal, because it gave us background to why it was built, and of the times... plus the fort is a really beautiful and enormous place to see itself.

Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal is the product of a beautiful love story... a perfect, astounding, enormous, ornate monument built by the Emperor as testament of his love for his fallen queen. If you don't know the story you can read it here

Words can't really describe it!!
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You can view my Taj Mahal photos here.

Posted by SkinnyFists 08:17 Archived in India Tagged taj_mahal agra Comments (0)

India: Arriving in Delhi and Intrepid Commencement

First impressions of India through Delhi and commencing a tour with Intrepid

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Delhi

Arrival

Arrived in Delhi after a nightmare exit from Thailand.....

....fatigue induced pointless bickers, and stolen iPhone from hotel room (more strained, yet calm conversations with hotel staff).
After a fast and furious cab run to Bangkok Airport I rushed to the internet/post office to cancel my Aussie SIM (Telstra were great!), change all account details linked to iPhone, and print my Air Asia ticket (until now had been using their handy iPhone app).
Just when things were nearly on track to check in, the zip of my backpack split and broke after trying to fit too much in one of the pockets (finally, the pack duffel comes in handy!).
These things come in 3's right? .... and it had been a pretty easy ride until now - so something had to come up! Karma police were in force.

Finally I checked in with 40 minutes until boarding, which is exactly how long it took to pass through customs and security.
Made it JUST in time to board.
Shortly after take off I was served a pre-ordered biriyani which I wolfed down then passed out....
Woke up to the captain letting us know we would be landing soon...
..........

Delhi Airport is really nice, modern and big!
It's very tightly secured and was very quiet when my plane arrived (7:30pm).

After clearing through a very surly customs officer I was greeted by a cheery representative of Intrepid who drove me to Hotel Perfect, where I would meet my pal Marnie and our travel group for the next 2 weeks.

Hotel Perfect

Despite it's name, Hotel Perfect is a bit run down, but has plenty of character.
After checking in, the bell man, showed me my room. The last guest had been a smoker and the windows weren't open. I inquired at reception if there were any non smoking rooms I could move to. He seemed puzzled by the concept of non smoking rooms. The conversation was a bit Faulty Towers:
Me: Hi, my room is a bit smoky, do you have any non smoking rooms?
Reception: Smoking? Yes sir you can smoke anywhere
Me: No, do you have rooms where you cannot smoke, where I can move?
Reception You can smoke anywhere you like, sir.

Finally, a man watching cricket in the lobby yells back "We do not have non smoking rooms!".

No problem, just thought I'd ask.

It was a frosty 10 degrees outside, but I opened the window and got the fan blasting.
My silk sleeping bag liner and thermals finally came in handy after tropical Thailand!!

At least the telly was good - massive flat screen attached to my wall and 100 channels to choose from.
News in English, soaps in Hindi, about 30 Bollywood channels!
I ordered room service - the food was delicious!

My hotel was located in Karol Bagh, Old Delhi - a bustling market area and probably the best way to experience India for the first time - in the deep end.
The next morning I went for a walk - bicycles, motorbikes, cars, tuk-tuks and chatting people moving in any and every direction, joined also by wild cows walking about aimlessly.
Hustlers asking where I'm from and telling me Australia is their "most favourite country, G'day!", sweet smelling chai lingering in the air mixed with curies, spices.... and exhaust.
Absolutely anything and everything was available across the myriad of shops and stalls.
I found a mini toolkit/pocket knife with pliers to fix my bag at electronics shop.

Marnie arrived in the evening and the next day we set about exploring Delhi.
First we got into a tuk-tuk and asked for New Delhi.
The driver went into an elaborate story of how he cannot drive into New Delhi until midday because of traffic restrictions and that he would drop us off "at the border"
Of course he took us straight to an emporium where he earns commission
We were greeted by their employees as soon as the tuk-tuk arrived and ushered inside.
We did a quick lap and walked straight out.
The driver was waiting for us. I told him to get lost and that he lied, but he insisted he would take us to New Delhi "for real" at no charge.
We just walked anyway.

It turned out to be an interesting journey. We got to market street just outside of New Delhi and got a good feel for it.
Nothing really prepares you for a big Indian city. They are crowded, colourful shambles of chaotic activity everywhere, and the roaming cows just make it even more surreal. I had been foretold, but still, nothing prepares you!
When we got to Connaught Place, New Delhi, it was like crossing back into a more familiar world.
Amazing how these two areas co-exist as one city.

Karol Bagh:
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We stopped for lunch at one of the nicer hotels and took the metro (very nice, easy to use, helpful staff), which had been upgraded for the recent Commonwealth Games back to Karol Bagh to meet our group.

Intrepid Group

Tours can be really great, or a nightmare - it all depends on the group and leader.
Normally I prefer independent travel, but India is a different beast, and Marnie had a great experience with them on another tour.
In retrospect, doing this tour was a brilliant godsend as our group leader Akhi took all the hassle out of booking train and bus tickets, checking us in to hotels, finding reliable taxi drivers, etc... so we maximise our time actually doing and seeing, relatively hassle free.
There were 10 in the group (origins spanning UK, Ireland, USA, Canada and us Aussies) plus Akhi, our leader.
We got over the formalities, dos and don'ts in India, etc and enjoyed a lovely dinner!

You can see all my Delhi pics here

Posted by SkinnyFists 07:56 Archived in India Tagged delhi karol_bagh india_cows hotel_perfect Comments (0)

Thailand: Impressions and Departing Thoughts

Thoughts and impressions on Thai culture, it's varying modes of tourism, and this wonderful nation.

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Visiting Thailand

I had a wonderful, eventful, fun, amazing 2 months in Thailand that went too darn quickly!
I'm really, really sad to be going.
I've made true and wonderful friends, both local and farang, and learnt / was inspired by a culture so different to my own..... I will definitely be coming back!!

Thai Culture

Courtesy

Being polite, moderate, calm and understanding is an integral part of being Thai and Buddhist.
Observing simple but firm rules will mean the difference between being seen as obnoxious farang, or a gracious guest and potential friend.
Remember; the feet are the dirtiest part of the body, never wear shoes into a home, or touch your feet at a dinner table.
The head is the most sacred part of the body - and must never be touched univited.
Never, ever pat the head of a child - it will cause great offense.

Thai Speak = Sweet Music

Thai's rarely raise their voice, even when being festive.
I was with a local friend in Bangkok on a crowded Skytrain. The train was packed but so whimsially (almost musically) quiet, with chatter everywhere
A group of European tourists bounded in at one stop, yelling and bumping into local people without apology or care, or even awareness of the environment and mood around them.
I felt a little off, but looking around the train you could see how silent, disappointed, even incensed some of the local people were.
Later my friend, told me that kind of loud behaviour contravenes teaching at school and by parents.
Thai's are open minded folks but do appreciate visitors making an effort to adopt at least some of their courtesies and customs.
If you choose not to, don't expect any recourse, however don't expect to make friends either.

Listening to Thais (especially ladies) talking to eachother is a marvel - it is a tonal language that flows wonderfully. I love it!
They say French is the most beautiful language - Thai surely is a contender.
Even on TV and radio - interviews are like music to my ears. I have no idea what is being said but could listen all day!

At muay thai training, we are taught - never, ever get angry or show aggression. It is a sport of endurance and tactics, not anger.
Fight with a calm and clear mind, and respect for your oponent
This exemplifies the Thai ideal in a broader sense- always remain calm, and smile when there is a disagreement.
Resolve issues with an open and understanding heart and find the outcome is always mutually agreeable.

Buddhist Thailand

Thailand is about 98% Buddhst - and firmly so.
Most Thais go to Temple, meditate, pray and worship Buddha, and live acording to his teachings (though eradication of materialism hasn't quite sunk in yet).
When I say most Thais, I do mean most. At a club in Bangkok I met a group of Gen Y Thais who are investing THB10,000's into their temple for "lucky".

Tourism in Thailand

Adventure and Backpacking

I found Thailand to be a backpackers dream. Bouncing between the islands, finding nice digs and fun stuff to do was easy. They make it SO easy.
From diving, to rafting, skydiving, or finding a secluded beach to bronze yourself on.... like Axl sang, "it's so f*****' easy"

Though I loved the Full Moon Party it was a bit sad to see such a beautiful place get so trashed. It's good to see that this sort of thing is confined to Haad Rin beach. All other beaches I visited were so gorgeous, well maintained and beautiful!

In the north, trekking and jungle adventures are really fun!
Chiang Mai really is a traveller's paradise, and the trips from there are really wonderful!

Fitness and Health Tourism

I initially came to Thailand to do a detox and yoga program. This particular program isn't really offered at home, and I found many retreats offering the same very comprehensive, well run, ideally located, and widely praised programs to choose from in Thailand.

Same goes for muay thai camps. It is the ultimate fitness sport requiring supreme determination, agility and strength. The many camps offer programs from 1 day to monthly. I met so many people; both men and women, who come here to do muay Thai for a couple of weeks and end up staying 3 months!!! These places are so efffective, well run, fun to be part of and cheap - it's almost intoxicating!
There are HEAPS of other retreats for yoga, etc, too.
In my reasonable amount of travels, Thailand is #1 for variety and stuff to do (India is next so this may change)

So long.....

I initially only wanted to stay 2 weeks here because of how commercial, etc I heard Thailand had become, (it probably is a hipster's nightmare in that sense) though stayed 2 months, because there is just so much to do and appreciate!
Once you spend a few weeks here, get to know the culture and places, you'll find it is an amazing country!407265_101..04304_n.jpg

Posted by SkinnyFists 01:48 Archived in Thailand Tagged thai_culture thai_tourism Comments (0)

Thailand: Visa Run and India Visa

Managing an extended stay in Thailand and applying for Indian Visa from Bangkok

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Visa Run and Indian Visa

Visa Run

For most westerners: if you enter Thailand at a land border, you are granted a 14 day stay, or
If you enter via an airport you get 1 month.
I did 2 visa runs during my 2 month stay - one of each type.
Any travel agency can help you do a Visa run, it's an industry in itself.

My first run was an overland trip from Samui to the Malaysian border at Hat Yi.
It was a LONG trip, though very well organised and went something like this:

  • Picked up by mini bus at around 4am, and taken to the ferry port.
  • Ferry to the mainland (van came with), and then
  • 4hour+ drive down to the border.
  • Exit Thailand; surrender departure card and get passports stamped for exit.
  • Walk over to the Malaysian entry point, fill in an entry card, get passport stamped and cross into Malaysia (i.e. walk around office).
  • At other side of office fill in a Malaysian departure card and get exit stamp on passport
  • Walk back to Thai border and fill in a fresh entry card.
  • Submit entry card and get passport stamped with 15 more days allowed
  • Pick up water and snack and jump back on the bus
  • Embark on arduous 6 hour journey back to Samui.

For my second Visa run, I flew to KL.
Air Asia was nice and cheap, and it was only a short flight.
It also happened to be Chinese new year, so KL was alive!
I stayed just the one night and flew back into Thailand, and sure enough got a new stamp for 30 more days of muay thai!!

Indian Visa from Thailand

The Indian Embassy site in Thailand warns that non Thai nationals are given low priority with no guarantees, etc when applying for a visa, and would only be granted a 3 month single entry visa, maximum.
Applying from home would get me a 6 month double entry visa.
Both points were concerning.
I filled in all the requisite forms and took them, along with 2 passport photos to the VFS centre in Bangkok.
The waiting area was filled with "spiritual" westerners, with barely any Thais or Indian folks in the queue.
I waited 2 hours for my number to be called.
The lady took my fee, forms and passport and said I could actually have a 6 month multiple entry visa (bonus!), and that processing would take at least 6 working days :-)

I was given a receipt and tracking number.
I was able to track my application online, and found that it was ready earlier than expected.
I have to say the VFS centre in Bangkok was really well run, and professional.
It seems a lot of people travel from Thailand into India and wait until the last possible moment to process the visa, as it is effective from issue (i.e. folks want to maximise their time in India)

Posted by SkinnyFists 01:39 Archived in Thailand Tagged thailand_india_visa indian_visa visa_run_thailand Comments (0)

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