Archive for the ‘Travelogues’ Category

Soon as we arrived at Villa Urbani, we dumped our stuff in our room and performed the barest of ablutions. Then we willed our tired, sleep deprived bodies to forsake the air-conditioned comfort of our digs in favour of a twenty minute walk to the city centre in 35°C. After all we had to optimise our three days in Roma. Plus, it was two o’clock local time and my blood alcohol was dangerously low. The last beer (birra from now on) I had was the flight and at ten o’clock local time.

So, armed with a map, thoughtfully provided by Laura, we started out, soaking up the atmosphere and getting into the Roman state of mind. En route, I came to a screeching halt outside a bar-slash-cafe advertising happy hours near Ponte Sisto, the pedestrian bridge over the Tiber. Sucker that I am for happy hours, in we went with the intention of buying our drinks and drinking them in the charming piazza outside.

To our puzzlement, when we went up to the barman, he asked us if we wanted to sit inside or outside? Inside, by the window or by the wall? I ran an eye around and saw that the bar was mostly empty, inside and outside. “Does it matter?”

“Different charges for different tables,” he said.

And that is how we were introduced to the peculiar Italian system of differential pricing. Anyway, we bought the cheapest table – we had gone in for happy hours after all ­– and OMG, was it a dump! It happened to be a tiny two-seater along the only walled portion of the bar.  The rest of the tables inside were by the window overlooking the magnificent Tiber. And by wall I mean a vertical, flat column coated with stubborn dirt and grime and some orangeish streaks reminiscent of stains left by projectile paan-spit. Shudder.

So we sat there in that dump, all strait-jacketed on our stools, mindful of not touching anything but our glasses. I had a standard 330 ml (33 cl as all liquids are in centilitres in Italy) or a small ‘piccolo’ birra, which cost me €2.50 whereas MH had a standard Jack Daniels (60 ml or an Indian large peg measure as it happens) for the same amount. The alcohol assimilated quickly, strategically downed as it was speedily, and on an empty stomach.

From then on the walk was more pleasant and the miles simply vaporised. We walked to the nearest phone shop, bought a local SIM card from with a ‘special rate of 3 cents a minute for calls to India.’ From then it was on to the Pantheon, Piazza Novona…what, did you think I was going to describe the monuments? Well, this isn’t that kind of a blog, simply b’cos I’m not the sightseeing kinda person. I’m not averse to seeing monuments or anything – I’ll see a monument if it’s on my way – I’m just more interested in art galleries and worthy museums.

We spent a couple of hours wandering around aimlessly and snapping pictures. We also sat in an open air cafe in Piazza Novona and had a drink. I asked for a birra but promptly changed my order to house wine when I discovered I could get an entire half litre carafe of vino della casa for the price of one. And it was very good, too, worth every cent of its €3 price tag. Besides, comparing apples to apples, it was 5% alcohol vs 40%, so it was a win-win situation all around.

We’d already decided that we’d dine at Trastevere and sample the fabled nightlife so, at about 7 p.m., we decide to start walking back. We had noticed, while walking to the Pantheon, both banks of the Tiber, on either side of Ponte Sisto consisted of restaurants and bars. At the time it was relatively early in the day and everything was shut. Now, as we were walking back, things were beginning to come to life. Mind you, they weren’t swinging yet – Italians, like the Spanish, eat relatively late  – but you could get a drink.

We chose a bar near a makeshift stage that seemed to be a beehive of activity and settled down with our drinks. Judging by the plethora of musical instruments and the neo-gothic looks sported by most young people around the stage was being set for a rock music performance. We lingered over our drinks, hoping that we’d get to see a sound check-slash-rehearsal, but the band showed us no love. We could have hung around some more but the sky, which had become overcast during the afternoon, started looking positively gloomy. We didn’t mind getting wet, but we had an expensive Nikon that begged consideration.

But, Nikon or not, we still had to eat. So we decided that we’d begin the hike back to Villa Urbani and just stop at a restaurant on the way. It was while we were executing our ingenious plan that we came across the most cheerful looking pizza parlour with a display that was a veritable Holi battleground. This was somewhat serendipitous because I spotted the pizzeria at the same time the swollen clouds above emptied their bellies in a hydrous deluge. So, construing this to be a nudge from the Gods above, we sauntered in.

And by God was it a good decision! I had two slices – one with a zucchini topping and one with a Rucola (Rocket) topping. And those two slices were, as I drunkenly blubbered to the pizza lady, “the best pizza I’ve eaten. Ever.” And to think there was no cheese involved, only olive oil. The base was thin and crisp, the sauce was delicately flavoured and it was baked to perfection.

Afterwards, since it was still raining, we sat around – surprise, surprise – drinking some more. I asked the pizza lady to recommend a gelateria and she mentioned Checco’s (pronounced Keiko) in Trastevere. We left that for another night, wrapped our precious Nikon in plastic and dashed the uno kilometre or so to Villa Urbani.

Read Full Post »

I’m back after a holiday (yes, another one) which saw me travelling through the length and breadth of Italy. The reason for this extravagance was my approaching birthday and my hubby’s (hereafter referred to as MH) desire to make it special. Otherwise three holidays in a year in quick succession is bit much even for a sybarite like myself.

We arrived upon Italy as the destination based upon several considerations. One, it is in Europe and I absolutely adore Europe and two, we hadn’t been to Italy. The most compelling considerations for us cheap Indians however, was that fact Italy being a part of PIIGS, and reeling under the severest of recessions should be cheaper. Perhaps the stable and ever appreciating Euro (a veritable mystery) should’ve have alerted us otherwise, in any case, the notion was soon dispelled. At an average room rate of € 100 per day, where the fuck was the recession?

After a whole lot of research a tentative itinerary was chalked out. Starting out in Rome, our travels were to take us through Tuscany, to Siena, Volterra, Lucca and Florence and end in Vicenza, a modest-sized industrial town in northern Italy.

July 30

We left Mumbai on July 30 and flew Lufthansa into Frankfurt which is also where we cleared immigration. Apparently, to get a Schengen via the Italian Embassy is a royal pain in the ass and so we got ours from the Swiss Embassy. The flight itself was uneventful as all my flights are. I think it’s my good karma to which MH retorts, “Only if the spirits you imbibe in copious amounts are called good karma.”

We landed at Fiumicino Airport, Rome, or as the locals indignantly point out, “Roma! There’s no such place as Rome,” at twelve thirty on July 30. As promised by Laura, the hostess of our B&B, there was a car waiting for us. It was weird to see a man, spiffier than the relationship manager at my bank drag my strolley to the car. I struggled with the urge to grab my stuff back and had to constantly remind myself that he was the driver and that I was paying him to do that. And, at €30, handsomely too.

Initially when Laura offered to arrange a pick up or us, I thought the price tag of €30 a little pricey. However, a quick glance at the rates on romashuttle.com – FYI, there was nothing available for less than €45 – and I accepted with alacrity. 

In Roma, we stayed at a charming B&B called Villa Urbani, a five-seven minute walk from Trastevere. Many tourists prefer staying in the centre of Rome, near Termini station, in and around post code 184 area. While that is certainly close to the sights, the happening area is Trastevere, literally translated as ‘across the Tiber.’ This area is full of bars and restaurants and buzzing with activity till the wee hours of the morning. And if that isn’t enough to convince anyone, this is where Romans like to hang out.

We were lucky to find Villa Urbani too. The rooms and bathrooms are huge, clean and bright and the air conditioning works. If you think the last bit about the aircon is weird, read some reviews on Tripadvisor. Most bad reviews are about over booking and faulty air conditioning. I reckon we could have found something closer, for the same price (€100 per day), something in the heart of Trastevere but the room quality (more importantly, the bathroom quality) would’ve been dodgy at best. Anyone who’s ever travelled in Europe will tell you that rooms tend to be poky at the best of hotels.

Besides did we really want to be in the heart of Trastevere? A few years ago, maybe. Now, I’m sufficiently advanced in age to appreciate quiet, restful sleep at night and Villa Urbani was far enough to guarantee just that.

Read Full Post »


Udaipur is a city of lakes. There are at least three major lakes – Pichhola, Fateh Sagar, Swaroop Sagar, and a minor one, Dudh Talai. Then there are others like Udai Sagar and Jasamand which are outside the city.

Of these, the main lake is Pichhola, around which the old city is built. Try and stay around this area as this is the happening area and has all major tourist attractions including the City Palace, Baghore-ki-Haveli, Ganghaur Ghat, Jag Niwas Palace (Under Taj Hotels’ management, run as the Lake Palace) and Oberoi’s Udai Vilas.

But don’t jump into a lake if you don’t find accommodation here. Udaipur is small city and you can get anywhere from anywhere within fifteen minutes.

From what I could gather, the best hotels here are around Lake Pichhola including the Lake Palace and Udai Vilas, if you’re in the mood to spend 30,000 a night. Otherwise too, there are good options (in order of preference and tariffs) including– Shiv Niwas Palace and Fateh Prakash (run by the HRH group of hotels which belong to the erstwhile Maharaja of Udaipur, Arvind Singh) Hotel Lake Pichhola, Haveli on the Lake, Mewar Haveli and Jaiwana Haveli.

Then there are other properties belonging to the Leela Group, the Oberois (Trident) and the Radisson Group. I don’t know where they are situated but the Bharat Hotels’ Laxmi Niwas Palace is on Fateh Sagar Lake, directly below the State Government’s Anand Bhawan. There is another good hotel Ram Pratap Vilas on Fateh Sagar Lake with an outstanding view from the restaurant, but they don’t have an alcohol license. Swaroop Vilas is another good option on Fateh Sagar Lake, but they, too, don’t have an alcohol license (they do serve beer, though).

Attractions – all the major attractions can be reached within 5-10 minutes, on foot, from jagdish Chowk.

The City Palace, though, from what I’ve heard, it is overrated. Not to mention expensive (Rs 50 for entry and 200 for camera). It is much better to visit Baghore ki Havel. Not only is BkH well preserved, it costs a fraction of what it costs to visit the City Palace. Plus you can always enter the City Palace compound by telling them you are going to visit the Government Museum. The government museum is located in one corner of the City Palace compound and they have to let you in without a ticket. So you can at least see the facade of the City Palace.

Other attractions include the Jagdish Mandir, Sheetalnath Jain Temple, Saheliyon ki Bari, Sukhadia Circle, Sajjan Niwas Gardens. For the goras, there are many exotic, spice and textiles markets around Hatipol going up to Delhi Gate and around the Bapu market area. I bought some really good, Sanghaneri print Jaipuri quilts from the Hatipol area for a very reasonable price.

Day excursions – Kumbhalgarh Fort, Ranakpur Jain Temples, Nathdwara for pilgrimage.

Two and a half days are enough for Udaipur. One for the attractions within the city, one for day excursions to Kumbhalgarh and Ranakpur and one half day for Nathdwara for devout Hindus.


Read Full Post »

The next day, we left for Kumbhalgarh Fort and Ranakpur, both places worth seeing. We were late in leaving Mountainridge, disinclined as were to first, get up early and then hurry up a leisurely breakfast. I was enjoying my umpteenth cup of excellent coffee, outside in the crisp morning air and the gentle morning sun when with a start I realized it was 10.30!

So we hurriedly left for Kumbhalgarh. Apart from the obvious historical value, Kumbhalgarh enjoys architectural fame as well. We were told that the wall around the Fort marking the city’s perimeter, at over 36 kms long, is second only to the great wall of China. Considering that the great wall of China is several thousand kms long, we figured that something was off somewhere. Nevertheless, there it is.

It is a hilly road to Kumbhalgarh and we reached at 1 pm. Kumbhalgarh is over 600 years old and is the birthplace of Maharana Pratap. It is a reasonably well preserved fort. We did a relaxed tour of the place and also took some excellent pictures. By then, it was already 2 p.m. and kinda late of we wanted to go to Ranakpur as well. So we left from there and decided to forgo lunch.

On the way to Ranakpur, we stopped at a tea stall in Saira village to grab some samosas on the go. But the chai walla ruefully told us that the samosas weren’t hot but there was a daal baati wala nearby if we were interested. We beat such a hasty retreat to the daal baati wala we left dust in our wake. The baatis were hot and fresh, the daal steaming, and in spite of our protests, the owner thoughtfully emptied a whole cup full of ghee in our plates. After partaking of this quick and yummy lunch (two plates for Rs. 30) we were once more en route to Ranakpur and reached at 3.30.

And the Ranakpur Jain temples (actually temple. There is only one ancient temple. The rest our later additions) are white marble with intricate carvings, especially on the ceiling, like the Dilwara temples in Mount Abu. Actually if you’re going onto, or have been to, Mount Abu you can give this one a miss.

The claim to fame of the Ranakpur temple is that it houses some 1400 plus intricately carved pillars and that no one has been able to accurately count the number subsequently. Apparently various methods have been employed, but no go. Each census has thrown up a mistake.

We probably faced maximum frisking here. I was impressed, till someone told me it’s only to see if you’re smuggling a camera you haven’t paid for inside. Trust the Jains to have their fundas right.

On the way back, we stopped at Swaroop Vilas on Fateh Sagar Lake to enquire about accommodation. We were booked into Moutainridge only up to the 2nd.  At the reception, we were told that the tariff was Rs. 3500 a night. I tried to bargain figuring that all tourist destinations in India must be facing a slack after the Mumbai attacks. Not so. Swaroop Vilas had only a couple of rooms empty and were in no mood to reduce their rates. So we said no thank you to the room. But we did say yes to some yummy Lal Maans and Gatte in their restaurant. All for the princely sum of Rs. 200. Then it was back to Mountainridge, a warm fire, alcoholic drinks and bed.

Kumbhalgarh Fort

Kumbhalgarh Fort



Pillars inside Ranakpur Temple

Pillars inside Ranakpur Temple


Ceiling - Ranakpur Temple

Ceiling - Ranakpur Temple

Read Full Post »

State – Rajasthan, region Mewar.

Distance from Bombay – 770 km.

Road  – NH 8 from Bombay-Vapi-Valsad-Surat-Bharuch-Baroda-Ahmedabad-Udaipur

Time Taken – 12 Hours with a one hour stopover. We started at four in the morning to beat the Bombay traffic and reached Sisarma (country roads, kuchcha dirt track for the last ten kms) at 4 p.m.

Place stayed – Mountain Ridge, Sisarma, 10 kms short of Udaipur and Anand Bhawan, Fateh Sagar Lake, Udaipur

Camera taken Nikon D60 and Apple iPhone (to sneak in where not allowed or to avoid paying camera fee J).

We left Bombay at 4 in the morning and within one hour were beyond Virar, somewhere between Vapi and Virar. Bad roads, notwithstanding. Don’t get me wrong. Compared to the roads within the city they were a dream, but wait till you sample the real NH8 from Baroda all the way to Udaipur. The roads are world class (so are the tolls) and you can easily average 140. More if your car doesn’t start shaking and generally displaying signs of impending death.

We made good time till Valsad and were congratulating ourselves, dreaming lofty dreams of creating a record of sorts by doing Udaipur in less than 10 when we had a setback. A four inch, blunt edged bolt mysteriously penetrated the rear left tyre and ripped it to shreds. This was at around 6 in the morning and hardly any tyre repair shops were open so we wasted about an hour and a half trying to locate a shop and getting our tyre repaired.

Our dream was dented but by no means shattered. We reassessed our situation and estimated that we could still achieve our objective if we didn’t stop for lunch (we were carrying paranthas and sandwiches). So, with our recalibrated target we were once more underway.

And then we hit Surat. The NH8 stretch from Surat to Baroda is under construction and the highway is single lane on either side. Therefore, it takes about 3-1/2 hours of navigating through some pretty bad, dusty, polluted traffic to get through this painful stretch. That is, if you’re lucky and don’t get into a traffic jam. We were. But then after our early morning setback, we were due for a break, don’t you think?

From Baroda, the journey was uneventful. We just kept our foot on the pedal and didn’t take it off till we reached our turnoff for Sisarma. And at toll booths, of course. We spent about 500 bucks on tolls.

Piers Helsen, the Englishman who runs the picturesque Mountainridge property on the outskirts of Udaipur, had given us very clear directions and we found the said property without one single wrong turn. By the way, Piers is also easily the best Udaipur guide around and you would do well to talk to him before undertaking any sightseeing.

Anyway, we reached Mountainridge at 4 p.m. whence we dumped our stuff and took a quick shower. Then it was time for a beer enjoyed over a rapidly cooling air and an unobstructed view of the Aravalis. That done, we decided to take a quick reconnoitering trip into town.

You can imagine that after the long trip we were in no mood to drive. So Piers kindly arranged for a car to drop us to Rampura Chowk nearby from where we got a tuk-tuk (Vikram) to Delhi Gate. We looked around but didn’t see much as everything as shut by then. Plus I was clad only in a denim jacket and rapidly becoming hypothermic. So we cut the trip short and legged it back, not so much for the exercise but for the fact that we couldn’t find transport back. We finally convinced one old autowalla to take us back. He agreed, but for a sum of Rs 100 for a distance of less than 5 kms.

It was after 9 p.m. when we got back on the evening of December 31 and the New Year party that Piers had arranged was well underway. So it was back to warmth by a cheerful fire, some more drinks, conversations with interesting people from all over the world and bloody good food.

If there is one USP of Mountainridge, apart from the fantastic construction, the view and the unfussy service it is that you get to meet all kinds of interesting people there. Goras have their own way of networking and Piers gets a lot of guests from all over the world. We met Americans, Germans, French, Dutch and Danish people during our two day there. We all drunkenly took the Americans’ trip for creating a mess of the world. The Americans, I have to say, took it sportingly, if a bit defensively.


The party, I’m told went on till the wee hours of the morning, although I wouldn’t know. We were tired after our long drive and crashed soon after midnight.

The Lake Palace

The Lake Palace






Read Full Post »

This will be the last entry in the Bangkok chronicles. After all, there’s only so much one can write about shopping. But it’s the writer in me insists on chronicling every little thing, often at my own expense, like a cringe-inducing mishap with the newly acquired bikini swimsuit.

The swimsuit was a regulation two-triangle-held-together-with-a-string variety. Unfortunately, the two triangles aren’t sewn together, the idea being unhindered movement to cover all sizes of endowments. As can happen often in fluid environments with many variables (the economy is a good example), you don’t exactly know which way the subjects will move. Without going into specifics, let me just say that the subjects moved in an undesirable direction. So that’s why all those people were smiling, not because I cut an alluring figure in my new swimsuit, I thought my face burning with humiliation.

Anyway, the swimming pool misadventure out of the way, I wondered what to do with my evening. What I really wanted to do was watch a sex show. And more-beautiful-than-women transvestites up close. I mean, I had seen them during day manning (womanning?) stalls, but that doesn’t count. Apart from to-die-for-eyebrows and maybe a lipstick application, there’s nothing really to tell them apart from men.

The question was where to find all this? And how? I could hardly walk up to the concierge and ask them to direct me to a sex show. I could but I also carried the additional baggage of being Indian. What would they think? Another tharki Indian. So I called a friend who told me to jump into a tuk tuk and ask him to take me to Patpong. Here again, my innate shame about my fellow countrymen prevented me from acting upon this advice. Alas, women shooting darts out of their vaginas was going to remain a legend – only heard about, never seen.

My advice for you, if you go there and want to watch one, is to get over your inhibitions and just ask. Everyone else matter-of-fact about it, even openly soliciting on the roads, so why shouldn’t you be?

The next day was a Saturday. That means time for the Chatuchak weekend market. So I hopped on the MRT subway and a fifteen minute train ride later alighted at the fabled market. It was more of the same, except, for a street market it was air-conditioned. Plus there are more handicrafts there, not only clothes, shoes and other fashion accessories. For that alone it is worth a visit.

That was it. I had time only to hit one of the luxury malls briefly – I splurged on a pair of Nike running shoes, the kinds I had been coveting but they weren’t available in my size back home – and then it was time to hit the Suvarnbhoomi airport for the flight back home.

Once again the haggling with the cabbie started. When I told him to down the meter, he thought for a while and said, “I go by meter but you tip me, okay?” “How much?” I asked suspiciously. “50 Baht.” So I said okay and off we went.

I still had three hours at the airport, tens of duty free shops and a strong determination to finish the remaining 6000 Baht with me. There was no point in paying a two-way commission to Thomas Cook by converting it back into rupees, I told myself. It really did not make economic sense. Best to finish off the currency. Three short hours and an additional debit of about ten thousand rupees on my credit card later I boarded the plane back home.

Another word of advice. While Thailand promises a VAT refund of 7% for purchases over 5000 Baht on a single bill, there really is no point in queuing up for it at the airport if your refund works out to less that 300-400 Baht as they deduct 100 Baht as admin fee.


Samudra Mantha scene as depicted at Suvarnabhoomi Airport

Samudra Manthan scene as depicted at Suvarnabhoomi Airport

A Buddha Shrine

A Buddha Shrine

Another shrine in Bangkok

Another shrine in Bangkok


Read Full Post »


Pratunam Market! I woke up with the refrain of Pratunam Market running through my head like a mantra. The bangle seller of yesterday had mentioned it as well, but he also added that quality was suspect and that I best try MBK first. Well, I had tried MBK. Now it was time to hit the Pratunam Market. Again, Pratunam Market was within walking distance from my hotel (if you can call about 4-5 kms walking distance) and I was there in 30 mins.

The Pratunam Market area comprises a street market and a main shopping building. The main shopping building is nothing much to write home about, although I did pick up a pair of kick ass flats there for 230 Baht, the kind you get in Woodland for upwards of 800 rupees, 2 tees for a total of 150 Baht and a nice shirtdress for 220 Baht.

It’s the street market that’s buzzing. Very much like the flea markets of Goa and the street markets of Colaba, Fashion street and Linking Road, you can get fakes of practically every brand – Calvin Klein/Hugo Boss/Diesel chaddis for men, Diesel/Rolex watches, Ferrari jackets, Fendi sunglasses, you get the picture. And in all price ranges too, depending on the craftsmanship. Plus tailored dresses (Bangkok is huge tailoring market). All in all a shopping paradise for goras. And to some extent for Indians too since there is a larger selection of western outfits. I picked up a bikini top, boy shorts swimsuit there for 300 Baht.

It was time to do some sightseeing. Not that I was intrigued by the prospect of seeing Buddhist temples – I mean I like them but I’ve seen enough and then some in Sikkim, Himachal and Ladakh India – but because by now I had started feeling guilty. I mean come on, I’d been in Bangkok for two days and all I’d done was shop!

Thailand has a variety of public transport – the sky train, the underground, tuk-tuks, AC and non AC cabs. The tuk tuks and cabs are reasonable if you can get the buggers to go by meter (luckily, unlike India, meters are not tampered!). I hailed an AC cab and asked him to take me to the Grand Palace. “By meter,” I said firmly. “Ah!” he said, all enthusiasm dissipating, “you want to go by meter?” “Yes.” He thought for a while and said, “Okay, I take you but we make a stop on the way? Thai Expo?”

I had read about this. Most of these people are paid by shop owners to bring in tourists. “No,” I said firmly, also a little indignantly. What was he thinking trying to scam Indians? We invented scams! “I don’t want to shop.” “No, no, no shop. Only look,” he insisted. “No,” I said. “Then I don’t go.” Whatever the shopowners pay the tuk tuk walas and cabbies must be huge indeed because he was willing to let go of a lucrative fare in the hope of catching some other unsuspecting tourist.

Anyway, I managed to find my way to the Grand Palace only to find it shut for mourning! The King’s sister had passed away and the State Funeral was in progress. Which was just as well ’cos I wasn’t about to pay 300 Baht entry fee. I’ve learnt my lesson well in Europe where for the piddliest of monuments/places of tourist interest the entry fee is upwards of 8 Euros. You pay the fee and end up feeling cheated. Perhaps that’s an Indian thing ’cos we’ve been spoiled by truly awe inspiring monuments back home.

But now what? I’d come all the way to a distant corner of city and it would be silly to go back without seeing anything. I asked around and was told of the presence of another Buddhist temple in the vicinity – Wat Pho. So I took a stroll there, paid a modest entry fee of 50 Baht and entered. One of the big attractions there is Buddha in repose. Even if you’ve seen lavish Buddhist temples, it is certainly an awesome sight. I mean the statue is 50 feet long! And golden! Which is another thing you’ll notice in Bangkok. Lots of gold everywhere.



Wat Pho is also the temple where one of the kings consecrated many statues of Buddha, picked up from deserted temples from all over Tahiland. It is quite a sight – numerous big, golden Buddha statues in glass cases lining the walls of the Wat.

After Wat Pho, a tourist guide, with a practiced eye for spotting lost tourists, nabbed me and advised me to visit the Black Buddha, the Golden Mount and the White Buddha, I think, in that order. It doesn’t matter because I didn’t go. He told me entry was free in all those places and helpfully charted out a circuit on the map as well. He then gently propelled me towards a tuk tuk saying, “He’ll take you all three places and drop you Rama VIII bridge. Only 20 Baht. You catch boat to Taksin Bridge from where you take sky train back to Sukhumvit.”

Like any good Indian, always on the lookout for scams, I smelt a fish. 20 Baht for a distance of over ten kms, plus waiting, was too good to be true. It was. That infernal Thai Expo reared its ugly head again. I found that if I didn’t go to the Thai Expo on the way, “no buy, only look,” I didn’t go at all. Anywhere. Period.

Plus there was additional confusion of which of these monuments were free and which were paid. One policeman, or so he claimed (actually I’m being uncharitable. He probably was a policeman) flashing an ID card at me asked me where I wanted to go. I told him. He then got very angry and said all those monuments had paid entry. “Who tell you to go there?” he demanded angrily. Like I knew all the touts’ names.

He told me go to some fourth place saying, “You believe me or not is up to you. But I tell you, go there, in this tuk tuk. Government tuk tuk,” he said pointing to a row of tuk tuks in front of us. “They take you there. No pay more than 40 baht.” I started to get elated. And then he added, “Only stop at Thai Expo on the way.” Sigh.

I decided to have a coffee at a nearby café run by Royal Thai Navy wives Association and generally asked them about buses to Rama VIII bridge. They told me that if wanted to catch a boat all I had to do was stroll down the adjoining lane for two minutes. Sure enough, two minutes later I arrived at the jetty (I forget the name) where another scam played itself out. Or at least tried to. Apparently they, taking advantage of tourists’ confusion, hustle them into tourist boats which cost many times more than the regular public transport express boat. Plus there an additional landing fee of 20 baht pax for tourist boats. Plus there is no information bureau. So you have to be very careful not to get hustled. I didn’t and a twenty minute boat ride later (14 Baht) landed at Taksin Bridge from where I took a sky train back to my Hotel.

Lest you’ll think Bangkok is a dangerous place, let me add, yes they do have scams but they are nothing on the scale of scams back home. Plus the public transport is really good. So you should be okay.



View from the Jetty

Read Full Post »

I’ve been away, travelling again. This time to Bangkok. I had read so much about people going beserk shopping in Bangkok – buying everything from luxury brands to discounted export surpluses and cheap knockoffs of the same – that I was very clear that I was going there to shop. And time permitting, do a bit of sightseeing (A sex show was definitely on the cards).

So I packed three tees and a spare bag in a huge suitcase and took off. I flew Thai and the service was nice. What’s more, the flight was at the decent time and took off on time. I arrived in Bangkok at 5 a.m., local time and was whisked off to my hotel (Windsor Suites, Sukhumvit, a very nice hotel, reasonably priced as long as you don’t use their facilities), where, upon checking in, I crashed out for a full four hours.

At around 11 a.m. I decided to begin my day by taking a stroll down the Sukumvit area.

Bramha Temple near Sukhumvit

Bramha Temple near Sukhumvit



A little distance from the hotel in the general direction of the MBK centre I came upon two McDonalds and three Starbucks and many malls selling designer wear (Prada, Gucci, Armani, you name it and they’re all there). And yippee, a Haagen Daaz! Without further ado, I made my way to the ice cream parlour and ordered a double scoop, a good decision as it turned out.

After the ice cream I resume my stroll and came upon Soi 16, which I was told is the shopping area. I don’t know what I expected but a Thai variety of Janpath and Linking Road it wasn’t. But that’s exactly what I got – roadside stalls selling tees, underwear, belts, shorts, dresses.  The women were all slight and smartly dressed. Looking at them, I, in my jeans and a half-sleeved tee felt over dressed and dowdy. But not as much as I did in Europe.

I was also gripped with a fierce determination to never eat again. Which worked out well, because being a vegetarian, I wasn’t about to risk eating anything remotely Thai. Good thing too I had already had the Haagen Daaz.

I came upon a stall where a women was selling a nice, designer type evening dress for 1090 Baht. As soon as I put it against me to see whether it would fit, she snatched it from my hands saying, “This small. No good for you.”

“But I wear small,” I argued.

She nodded sagely. “Yes, it fit at waist but not here,” she said, patting herself on the ass. “Too fat. I give you medium.”

Too fat! Affronted as I was, I wanted the dress more. So I swallowed my pride and asked her, “How much?”

“1090 Baht. I give you for 1000.” At 1500 rupees the dress was a steal.

“1000 too much. I pay you 800,” I said pushing my luck.

“No, no, nice dress. Maybe 3000 Baht in a store. I give you for 1000.”

Anyway, the deal wasn’t struck and I moved on, figuring that if I didn’t get anything cheaper and better I could always come back.

Lunch. I walked into a food court kinda thing and ordered a plate of stir fried veggies, “But no fish sauce or oyster sauce.” At which the waitress looked uncertain so I changed my order to a Singha (local beer, very good) and packet of Lays.

Roadside Eatery

Roadside Eatery



I was savouring my lunch when who should accost me? A fellow countrymen from the North selling bangles! He desperately tried to hawk them to me and I kept fobbing him off. But he was insistent and only let up when I told him that I lived in Hyderabad, the bangle city. “Why don’t you sell to goras?” I suggested. “How come I never thought of that?” he said sarcastically. “But the goras are in such bad shape, they aren’t buying anything these days.”

But we struck up a conversation and I asked him where I could find good quality branded stuff at cheap rates and he directed me to MBK, suggesting that I could either walk it or take the sky train. I decided to walk it.

MBK centre is the buzzing area. Not the main MBK building, which is also happening, but the area around it. That’s where the teens hang out. There were bright lights, loud music, lots of people and places to eat and shop. And lots of hair and beauty salons. A haircut in one of these costs between 250 and 350 Baht, colouring between 1000 and 1500 Baht and Botox also for a very reasonable price (I forget the exact rates). This was definitely on the cards – the hair cut and colour, not Botox.

The main MBK Centre building had it all. Branded stuff, as well as cheap non branded variety. And while everything branded was on sale, it was still too expensive. But I struck gold at one of the lower floors where a lot of shoes were on sale. 199 Baht. 100 Baht. I quickly bought three pairs, even though today’s trip was just a reconnaissance trip.

Later, when I came back to the hotel, I decided to hit the swimming pool on the 14th floor. My feet were killing me but it was hot (not as much as Bombay, but hot nevertheless) and the free form pool looked so inviting.

I hit the pool where, once again, I felt over dressed. For God’s sake, I was in a two piece swim suit. Agreed, it was modest swimsuit comprising a sports bra and boy shorts, but a two piece still! In my petulance, I hit out by swimming twenty lengths non-stop and wearing myself out beyond belief. After which I went back to my room and crashed out, wet swimsuit and all.

Read Full Post »

The next morning, as discussed the previous evening (it is a bit of a stretch to call 9.30 p.m. night), the alarm goes off at 5.30 a.m. I groan and turn over, willing it to stop and for everyone to miraculously forget about this morning’s safari. I haven’t slept well at all, what with the tiger’s incessant growling and the elephants’ voluble and unceasing rampage throughout the night.

But no one forgets. Prompt as the evening news, Arif knocks on the door on the dot of 5.45. “Yeah, yeah, I’m coming,” I say grouchily, jumping out of bed and pulling on my jeans. “Don’t forget to put on something warm,” he says. Was he serious? It is just the end of October in North India, and even after accounting for the extreme exteriority of the jungle, just cold can it be? I disregard his suggestion and fling open the TRH door. And almost die as a blast of cold, I mean COLD, air hits me. With a yelp I scuttle back inside and grab my jacket. “I told you,” Arif says reproachfully.

As I am about to get into the Gypsy, Rampal, the caretaker, cheerily calls out from the kitchen. “Here, have a cup of tea. It’s ready.”

But Arif doesn’t even let me have my tea. “We can always have tea later,” he says amiably. “I’ve just heard a ‘call.’” I look at him mutinously and silently avow to kill him the next time he mentions the word ‘call.’ But I comply, contenting myself with a longing look at the steaming cup.

It turns out to be a good decision. Following a female’s pug marks (they are more elongated than a male’s which are completely round), Arif drives on to a spot called Waterhole number 3. He turns off the ignition and we settle down to wait. There’s dense jungle on one side of the narrow trail and a vast field full of tall elephant grass on the other.

There’s complete silence. A breeze whips up and gently whooshes through the vegetation on either side. Normally this would not even be heard, but in the early morning calm, this sounds loud and ominous. We snap our necks fearfully every time we hear a rustle. Arif pretends to be one Rambo but I can see him look over his shoulder warily every now and then.

And then after about half an hour, our patience is rewarded. I see the deer suddenly up and tense and I spring to attention. I peer hard, scanning the grass field. I can feel it in my bones. I know I’m going to see her. And I do.

I see the tigress get from the waterhole and walk languidly across the field, back into the jungle. I see her for a whole twenty seconds. She spots us as well and stares at us disinterestedly as she walks. It is an awesome sight, a holy moment. I have a camera in my hands but my fingers are suddenly nerveless. By the time I spring into action, she is almost out of sight. I snap a picture but it is an ordinary camera with an ordinary zoom. All I get is a blur.

When we come back to the TRH, Rampal, takes one look at me and says, “You’ve seen one. I can tell. People who spot a tiger have a special swagger when they come back.” No kidding. Arif is grinning too but for a different reason. He knows that a hefty tip is in the offing. People who spot a tiger are generous with tips.

The rest of the day goes by, doing nothing at all. Venturing beyond the electric fencing is not permitted except on Gypsies and there are only so many bone rattling drives you can take, especially when you know chances of sighting are remote (tigers are notoriously lazy, preferring to relax in the shade during the hottest part of the day).

In the evening, we venture out again. We meet Abba, another sardarji tourist guide, and he informs us of the location of a tiger, tigress pair. Arif drives us there and we again settle down to wait. Our patience is once again rewarded. After about forty-five minutes, suddenly, I see a tiger spring up and lunge at a deer. All this happens in a jiffy and it is all over before I can shut my jaw which has hung open.

Omigod! I can’t believe it. It’s like a totally National Geographic moment. Arif and I both look at each other in disbelief. Did it really happen? Was that really a tiger? We couldn’t be sure, but who else would spring at a deer like that?

I come back from Corbett, awed and convinced more than ever before that these magnificent creatures must be protected at all costs. I also vow to come back with a better camera, one with a zoom like a canon (the piece of heavy artillery, not necessarily the brand), like the one professional photographers have.

My love affair with Corbett has just begun. I’m already planning to go back in March-April which is the best time for spotting tigers.





Read Full Post »

We have just dumped our stuff and are having a cup of tea when our attention is arrested by a high voltage screeching. Arif freezes up and listens intently. “Shhh, can you hear it? Sambhar deer.”

“Really?” I ask askance. “It sounded more like an upset bird.”

Simultaneously langurs whip up energetic activity on treetops and a flock of birds dash past with an audible whoosh. Arif drops his cup in his haste and running towards the Gypsy cries, “It’s definitely a call…a tiger has been spotted. Come on!”

We jump into the Gypsy, Arif throws it into gear and takes off at the bone rattling speed of 40 kmph (if you think I’m being hyperbolic, try doing that on kuchcha roads). We arrive at the designated spot, helped of course by pug marks along the trail, which Arif points out almost defensively. He turns off the ignition and gestures for silence. Then he only says, “A call is the only way to find out where the tiger is. Because much like dogs, tigers have designated territories which stretch to 10 sq kms each. Plus they are notoriously lazy and usually just lie down in wait in the tall elephant grass. You’ll never spot it if not for the Sambhar deer call which indicates that it is on the move.”

And we don’t. What we do see is evidence of unforgivable behaviour by Indian tourists. That is, several places, mainly spots around watch towers (picnic spots for day trippers) littered with disposable plates, empty plastic water bottles and wrappers. We spend the rest of the safari cleaning up other people’s mess.

We come back at five minutes to six, although Arif has heard another ‘call’ and wants to push his luck. But, as we drive past the FRH, he spots a top ranking forest official’s car parked outside. He swerves back towards the FRH at the last minute. He does not want to lose his license for time violation, no matter how compelling the call.

So we come back discouraged, having eaten copious amounts of dust, with only one thought in mind. A hot bath. But that proves to be a challenge. There is no electricity and no hot water. Sure, the inverter is on but that is only enough to weakly power a couple of light bulbs. Our requests to the staff to heat up some in the kitchen is met with uncertain looks. The reason – they’ve run out of cooking gas and the replacement cylinder will only arrive tomorrow. Since our food is itself being cooked on choolah, unless we want to trade our food for a bath, and unless we want to risk freezing our butts off using cold water, no bath it is.

Okay, what next? There is only one thing one can do – enjoy the great outdoors with IMFL. That’s the great part about going on these holidays. You can hit the bottle at six (p.m., not a.m., although, even a.m. won’t be sooo outrageous as it isn’t in Goa) without feeling guilty.

Glass in hand (rum with water at room temp) I step outside and breathe in the cool jungle air mixed with an appealing smell of wood smoke. All is calm save the chirping of crickets and an occasional animal howl. I look up and my word, the sky is a veritable sieve held up against light. I haven’t seen so many stars since my last mountaineering trip!

Out of respect for the jungle we make conversation amongst ourselves in soothing low-pitched voices. The conversation is pleasant, although it sounds vaguely conspiratorial because of our hushed tones.

Soon dinner is served. It is a simple meal of dal, sabzi, rice and roti but we are so hungry that it tastes like Turkish delights.

Afterwards, I try to keep my eyes open but it is a losing battle. Suddenly a panicked screech, incessant deep growling and loud crashing sounds, all in the vicinity of the FRH. I am shocked into wakefulness. Rampal, the caretaker comes running. “Do you hear that? It’s a tiger and an elephant.” I peer around in the inky blackness, thankful for the electric fence (one that vies with the inverter for precious solar power) that runs around the perimeter of the FRH.

The sounds continue for a while but we get used to them after the initial panic. I resume my tussle with sleep but it is a losing battle. So I turn in for the night. It is as late as 9.30. I don’t know it yet, but tomorrow is going to be an awesome day.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »