A Travellerspoint blog

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)

Thailand: Chiang Mai - Culture and Treks

Exploring and the wonderful, serene and funky travellers paradise, and trekking the amazing jungles of the surrounds.

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Chiang Mai

If I knew what Chiang Mai was like, I certainly would have come here sooner.....
It is the second biggest city in Thailand and capital of the north, however absolutely nothing like (if not polar opposite) to Bangkok.
It's quiet (even in the peak of tourist season where hotels are nearly all full), chilled, patient, friendly, health consciou and deeply cultural. It's hard to explain.
Everyone who comes here loves the place. There is plenty to do - yoga, meditation, cooking classes, cycling tours, trekking, museaums, etc. The tallest building you'll see must only be 4 storeys.

On a side note, it was great to see cycling fixie culture is popular here! The main square at the city wall was full of kids on fixies doing pretty impressive tricks!

Night Market

Close contender to Siem Reap as far as night markets go. Open air, sweet smells of incense, amazing works of art, light on trash, high on welcoming atmosphere. Just loved it!
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Trekking

I did a 1 night/2 day trek run by a truly great guide named Kai, and 9 other intrepid travellers of varying ages from USA, Korea and Netherlands.
It was a nice mix of people and great fun!
We were picked up at 8:30 and headed out to the maket to get supplies then on to a Burmese villiage, where the expats are allowed to live and make products (primarily for tourism). It did feel a bit fake - like the place was built for tourists to come and look, rather than a genuine village - with proper toilets, etc.
After that we went to an Elephant camp to ride, and learn about the elephants.
This part of the trip felt again a bit off, as the poor elephants were chained up, clearly in pain and hot and bothered. The fellows working there, were hitting the poor things with pointed sticks to make them walk when they gave up. We fed the elephants banannas as a reward, but I really felt like doing something to help them escape. It was awful, and I won't be supporting anything like that again. The sentiment was shared throughout the group, so I wonder why it is still included in the tour?!

From that point however things completely turned around and the remainder of the trip was a great and unforgettable adventure.
We drove to the base of one of the moutains outside of Chiang Mai, and did a 3 hour (pretty tough I must say) hike to the top, where an ethnic village live and farm rice and chicken, etc. This is the most scenic part of Thailand I saw - beautiful lush mountains, with rice paddies and flowing rivers and waterfalls!

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When we arrived, we were able to have cold shower sourced from their dam, and then a traditional massage (that almost sent me to sleep).

A well earned rest before dinner:
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Meanwhile Kai was busily making us a delicious banquet of fried chickn balls, green vegetables, masaman potato curry and rice. So much we couldn't eat it all.

Dinner! :
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Then we sat by the fire whilst Kai did his best to sing us some well known hits on with his guitar, and one of the village chaps cooked pork steaks over the fire for supper which were really yummy. A lovely evening.
We all slept on mattresses in the hut (a little chilly at night).

Supper by the fire:
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In the morning, Kai had breakfast ready for us - coffee, tea and continental brekkie, with fruits.

Breakfast:
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We then descended down the other side of the mountain (a little tough on the knees) to an enormous waterfall at the base.
Most of us ventured into the (very cold water) for a nice shower under the flowing waterfall - truly gorgeous!
After some sun bathing and chatting with other groups it was time to continue on.... this time on rafts down the rapids!
We split into two boats and learnt the basics of whitewater rafting (second time for me, and equally as fun as Borneo).
We got some serious pace, and kit a few tricky spots, but made it through unscathed.
(I'm guessing) a few kilometers down, we stopped to change transport. This time, traditional bamboo rafts.
Each group sits in a straight line down the raft. I was picked as captain, and hence charged with rowing / navigating the raft.
It was no easy task to steer, but one you get a bit of pace up, they are really fun!!

By the waterfall:
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Our fearless and jovial leader:
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At the end of our journey, we were met with some tasty pad thai to replenish our strength.
By this point everyone was tired, and we waded back into the truck bound back to town.
This is once of the best tours I have done, despite the false starts, and recommend Kai's tour to anyone!

Departing Thoughts

Chaing Mai is definitely in my top 10 cities list.
The people here are genuinely friendly, health conscious, and very gracious hosts for tourists. I saw a lot of signs and graffiti showing resistance to the emergence of bars and nightlife. They really don't want Chiang Mai to become a Bangkok, and it's so great that they actively retain their culture.
Thank Buddha that Julia Roberts didn't come here for Eat Pray Love, because this place feels a lot more genuine than Ubud and is certainly less crowded and touristy.
The fact that it isn't on the coast may also be a blessing. I fear a beach could have detrimental effects on the space, culture and state of the city.
Travellers here seem like the real deal, and again I met some great and wonderful friends here.
Sad to be leaving, but know I'll be back!

You can view all of my photos from Chiang Mai here

Posted by SkinnyFists 01:29 Archived in Thailand Tagged waterfalls trekking chiang_mai chaing_mai _trek village_trek Comments (0)

Thailand: Wandering in Bangkok

Exploring the enormous, dramatic, traditional yet futuristic megatroplis

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It's a big city...

Bangkok is impossible to explain.
It's huge, very diverse and full of contradictions.
It can be culturally conservative, yet folks are so open minded, accommodating and always smiling.
I experienced an amazing, diverse nightlife, with some great underground clubs, hidden bars, and scenes that really push the envelope.
It is THE city that is certain to realise Ridley Scott's vision of the megatropolis in Blade Runner.

I'll start by summarising my experience of each area I stayed in.....

Khao San Road

Probably every backpacker visiting Asia has or will stay at Khao San Rd at some point. Lonely Planet calls it the centre of the backpacking universe; made even more famous in the novel / film "The Beach", where Leo's character stays before discovering Phi Phi Island.
Khao San Road offers some of the cheapest food, clothes, accomadation, etc in all of Bangkok.
I wouldn't say it's particularly Thai in culture. Almost everyone is either a tourist or works in tourism, and speaks English. There's no challenge, but it's great fun and a good place to decompress.

Crazy Khao San Rd:
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Having said that, I was there on a Saturday night, and a lot of young Thais came out to Khao San Road to party.
During the day it was pretty sleepy and most folks walking about were either hungover, arriving wide eyed or racing to a long distance bus.
I stayed at Khao San Park Resort which was absolutely fantastic and only AUD$30 for a 4 star style room w/ brekkie.

Sukhumvit

A melting pot of business, clubs, bars and entertainment.
For me this is the best area to stay as it is on the sky train, central, close to the major shopping areas and within easy reach of the major bus terminals and airport (via train).
The super thing about Sukhumvit is that at about 11pm the market stalls close mobile bars pop up in their place; lining the entire road and stay open 'till around till 2am (when the police shut them all down).
Hawker food stalls remain open and are scattered amongst the bars; and so folks eat and enjoy liberally poured cocktails - makingfor a fun and, easy going, yet really sociable atmosphere.
In my opinion this is the best way to get to know locals and experience Bangkok at night.

Silom

Silom used to be famous for PatPong, Bangkok's red light district. The council have decided to clean the place up a bit, and PatPong is now a night market with just a few ping pong shows and girlie parts littered around the place.
Again, it's on the skytrain, so pretty handy for transport, but the nightlife was a bit drab. There weren't really any highlights here and only stayed in the area for my muay thai camp down the road.me I'll probably go back to Khao San or Sukhumvit.

Siam

I didn't stay here, just explored....
This is the shopping mecca - I would say more so than KL, because of it's diversity: market style stalls lining the paths around the super flash and HUGE malls. In my home town we have the largest shopping centre in the southern hemisphere, Chadstone.
MBK, or Siam Paragon make Chadstone look like a tiny milk bar, in terms of size, style and service.
The service in these centres are incredible and the food halls are out of this world.

Busy Siam and all the malls at night:
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Highlights

The highlight of Bangkok is the city itself, the people are friendly, super trendy, open minded, polite (actually exemplary), and will bring you into it's fascinating and amazing underworld and corners if you are up to it, learn some thai and show that you are not just the usual farang.

No trip to Bangkok is complete without going to one of it's many rooftop bars.
A local pal and I went to the top of the Banyan Tree (61 floors up!) for a cocktail at Moon Bar.
At night it was indeed spectacular, and we happened to be there on a full moon, which made it even more special.
It was a great experience though I wouldn't say the drinks and service matched the location, or justified the prices (though cocktails only amounted to roughly AUD$15).

View from Moon Bar:
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We had the option to stay for dinner, but it didn't look that special, and the prices were just crazy.
2 minutes walk from the fancy Banyan tree we had the best hawker chicken noodles I've ever had... goes to show 'eh!

Which brings me to my next highlight - FOOD! Hawker food is everywhere. You can't walk more than 10 paces without passing a stall of either fresh fruit, cooked chicken, noodle stalls, etc.

The guide book says Bangkok can be confunding and frustrating, but many folks are always a bit sad and sentimental when leaving Bangkok for the last time whilst visiting Asia.
That sentiment describes my feeling to a tea!

Posted by SkinnyFists 02:49 Archived in Thailand Tagged shopping bangkok siam silom sukhumvit Comments (0)

Thailand: Muay Thai Training Camps

A tour of some of the muay thai camps throughout Thailand.

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Muay Thai

Muay Thai is the national sport of Thailand. Thai's love it like Victorians love AFL, or Colombians love soccer.
It's a beautiful and complicated sport requiring supreme levels of fitness, flexibility, agility, patience and determination.

Over the past few years more and more Westerners have discovered muay thai, and farang friendly camps are springing up all over the country.

Having trained on and off over the past 6 weeks, I have to say it's addictive - like learning a new instrument, you just want to keep developing and improving your technique; getting your angles right for maximum impact and becoming stronger each day.
Just as you get sore fingers getting used to guitar strings, your limbs (especially shins) can get really sore and raw as you harden up!
As a tip, Thai masseuses know exactly how to ease the pain and renew the limbs of injured fighters with Tiger balm.

In my limited experience of just some of the camps I can say they are all very different in vibe, style, demands, etc.

Style and Approach

In my home country "kickboxing" is usually associated with tatoo covered meat heads who like to show off.
Muay Thai is not kickboxing... it couldn't be further from it! Muay thai requires calm, patience and maximum concentration.

In keeping with Thai culture anger and aggression is forbidden when competing or training in the national sport - even whilst fighting.
If you watch a professional fight, you will see two calm, expressionless individuals in combat who show a deep respect and courtesy for each other (despite dealing some serious blows).

Camps

Rawai Muay Thai, Phuket

I joined Rawai, as it is just around the corner from Atsumi and wanted to get fit after fasting for an extended period.
The camp has a happy and fun vibe - run by four brothers who really know their stuff.
All instructors are patient and good with farang.

I did 4 days training.
Each day has 2*2 hour sessions; 8am - 10am and 5pm - 7pm - with a mandatory 8km run at 7am to warm up :-)
As beginners we learn correct techniques for punching, kicking, blocking and defense, elbow and knee blows, etc - mostly just with the bag and sometimes practicing in pairs.
It was a really fun and genuinely tough experience and great way to come out of the fast.

Super Pro, Koh Samui

SuperPro is located in party central of Samui, Chaweng. So, you can work off those beers pretty darn quick (if you still have energy to go out in the evenings, that is!)

SuperPro is one of the most demanding camps I trained at, and certainly one of the best organised.
The guys work you hard! You really don't stop much during each 2 hour session.
- 20 minutes continuous running or rope skipping to warm up.
- Then freestyle on the bags, followed by guided attack combinations on the bags (punch+punch+uppercut+hook+knee, etc).
- After every 15 minute round we had to do 10 push-ups then 12 sit-ups before a measly 1 minute break for water - then back into it.

What I really liked about SuperPro is that every participant gets at least 1 personal session with a trainer on the pads - so you really develop your angles, position and technique.
Personal sessions are the most demanding - the trainer tells you what he wants and you must respond without delay ("punch!" "left kick", etc).
If you're not giving power they will tell you too - "come on, more power!"
A lot of guys were staying at SuperPro for a few months to really hone their skills and fitness and I can see the appeal.

Horizon, Koh Phangan

Horizon is located in one of the most beautiful, chilled corners of the world - Haad Tian, Koh Phangan.
The camp itself it on the top of a rocky hill overlooking a beautiful lagoon - with lovely elevated huts for sleeping and a nice (if not a little run down) gym with stunning views out in the open air.

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The vibe here is more relaxed than the other camps, but the training is more personalised.
There were only 6 other people training whilst I was there, and the lead trainer worked individually with us throughout the day. I probably didn't get much more fitter here, but technique improved 10 fold.

Surrounding the camp, there is a health retreat and a few hippy cafes - aside from that it's just like "The Beach"

After each training sesion we jumped straight into the sea for a swim. I tell you, there is nothing like it, when you're so hot and knackerd than to jump into the cool clear-blue sea.
Had a wonderful time here. Not as strict or rigid as other camps, but training suited the environment.
I would actually recommend this place as a starting point or for people who are not so serious and want to train in paradise.

You can view all the photos taken at Horizon and surrounds here

Fighting Spirit, Bangkok

This is where things got pretty serious! Though sadly I only had 1 day here....
I turned up for training at 7:30 and the instructor asked me to shadow freestyle to assess my technique. He said my blocking was off so I had to do continual leg blocks for 10 minutes. Doing this for just 3 minutes is exhausting - 10 was killer.

After dutifully completing the task but nearly puking at the end I was given a 3 minute break to drink water and rest.
We then did some kicking work on the pads. My right kick was off slightly, so he watched me do 300 consecutive right kicks into one of the big bags... the session went on like this..... this was hard training, evoking images of Uma Thurman when she trains with Pai Mei in Kill Bill 2
If I had more time in Bangkok I would have stayed longer.

All in all....

I was never interested in any kind of martial art or boxing, but muay thai got me hooked! I love the philosophy and it has improved my fitness, strength and confidence. Love it!

Posted by SkinnyFists 03:54 Archived in Thailand Tagged muay_thai rawai superpro thai_boxing fighting_spirit horizon_muay_thai Comments (0)

Thailand: Chillaxing in Koh Samui

Chilling and cruising Koh Samui between muay thai training sessions

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Samui

Samui Island is the perfect mix of traveller accessibility, activity options, nightlife and atmosphere.

I stayed here for 10 days doing muay thai training at SuperPro (mornings and evenings) and chilling at the beach for the most part of each day.
I stayed on Chaweng Beach, which is regarded as party central, however all the big party spots are concentrated in one small area. The rest is pretty chilled.
I spent the first few days at Chaweng resort, which was only OK for the price, but right on the beach, good service, quiet, and only 10 mins walk from Soi Green Mango where you have a plethora of options to party hard - clubs and bars - mostly open air and good fun.
Also along Chaweng are really nice night markets, and mobile bars with quality sound systems selling nice mojitos for THB50 - not bad 'ey!

When I decided to spend more time than planned I found Arina hotel to extend my stay, only THB900 (AUD$30) per night for a 4 star room with massive flatscreen TV and DVD player, balcony overlooking the gorgeous quiet street, and literally just across the road from the beach. Would definitely recommend this hotel! They are brand new so not on Agoda yet.

Met some wonderful people here who I still keep in touch with.
The bonus is, if you really want to party hard, Koh Phangan is only 25 minutes away on speedboat :-)
This was the perfect place to chill, get fit, meet fellow travellers, and swim a nice beach with a lovely moderate surf.

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Posted by SkinnyFists 03:33 Archived in Thailand Tagged chaweng koh_samui Comments (0)

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