Most trips to any number of locales will have unintended or unforeseen complications. In our two month journey through India we experienced several hiccups. Perhaps some could have been anticipated, and I will readily admit… More
Our route to Delhi led us to a stop in Orchha. The medieval city seems to be frozen in time, its palaces and temples still retaining their original grandeur…located in the Northern state of Madhya Pradesh. A former capital of the mighty Bundela Rajput Kings. Established in the early 16th century and each of the area monuments were constructed over a period of time by successive Maharajas. Our train was behind schedule and we arrived just before dusk and raced to the Royal Chhatris on the outskirts of the town. We pulled up just before closing. I had another opportunity of greasing the palms of the attendant who was packing up his bicycle.
With time limited we split off to take some photos, Chelle, as usual chatted up the only other visitors, a small group of Sikh tourists who as it turned out were from Toronto…small world. The fourteen memorials or Cenotaphs to glorify the contributions of the rulers of the mighty Bundelkhand dynasty, which are grouped along the Kanchana Ghat of the Betwa river. Chhatris (canopy) are elevated domed shaped pavilions which are elements of Indian architecture. The word is used to refer to two different things. The usual and more widely understood meaning is of a memorial, usually very ornate. It is also used to refer to the small pavilions that mark the corners, roof of entrance of a major building. Both are on display in Orchha.
Our guesthouse had river views of Orchha Fort which was great when the sun rose and set. Located at the center of the city, the massive fort covers an area of 49 acres. It ranks amongst the best fortified areas in India. It goes by several names Jhangir Mahal, Orchha Palace, and Mahal-e-Jahangir Orchha. The fort was built in ind0-islamic styles and contains over 100 rooms and balconies. From the outside this palace is majestic with its rugged domed buildings, rusted to photographic perfection and the few small blue stones that still cling to the old walls, giving a glimpse of what is was like centuries before.
A short distance from Jhangir Mahal is Chaturbhuj Temple. Built upon a massive stone platform and reached by a steep flight of steps, the temple was specially constructed to enshrine the image of Rama that remained in the Ram Raja Temple. Lotus emblems and other symbols of religious significance provide the delicate exterior ornamentation. Within the sanctum is chastely plain with high, vaulted walls emphasizing its deep sanctity.Like several other experiences around India we had a key holder attempted to sell entry to the hidden stairwell leading to the roof. We scrambled up on our own for a short time but had a deaf mute accomplice attempt to quicken our pace. Unfortunately I was trailing the Chelle and the young fellow. I moved through the tunnel too quickly in the dark and slammed my forehead on the arch. I inadvertently scared the young kid and he ran down the stairs. I found him later and tried to convey my apologies. Verbal communication was impossible but I shook his hand and gave hime a small tip.
There were two areas in India that I had been looking forward to visiting. As a practicing Buddhist, that India contains three of the four main pilgrimage sites is exciting. Bodh Gaya is the location where it is said that Gautama Buddha obtained enlightenment. It is the most holy place in all the world for Buddhists. A sapling of the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha sat is planted here (actually a sapling of a sapling of the original tree). The other site is in Sarnath, where the Buddha first taught the Dharma and established a Sangha (community). I saw neither.
I’m just not that kind of Buddhist, or am I? The opportunity would have been lovely but I wasn’t attached to the outcome. Bodh Gaya turned out a challenge to travel to and from. Sarnath is outside Varanasi at a time when Chelle was suffering from a second intestinal illness. She was more disappointed then I was in the end. What I relished was the opportunity to see the places I never expected. Sanchi was one of those places. A small town in the state of Madhya Pradesh, is the location of several Buddhist monuments dating from the 3rd century. Home to the Great Gupta Temples.
Can a mound of dirt represent the Buddha, the path to Enlightenment, a mountain and the universe all at the same time? It can if it is a stupa. The stupa (Sanskrit for heap) is an important form of Buddhist architecture. It is generally considered to be a sepulchral monument—a place of burial or a receptacle for religious objects. At its simplest, a stupa is a dirt burial mound faced with stone. In Buddhism, the earliest stupas contained portions of the Buddha’s ashes, and as a result, the stupa began to be associated with the body of the Buddha.
If one thinks of the stupa as a circle or wheel, the unmoving center symbolizes Enlightenment. Many stupas are placed on a square base, and the four sides represent the four cardinal directions. Each side often has a gate in the center, which allows entry from any side. Each gate also represents the four great life events of the Buddha: East (Buddha’s birth), South (enlightenment), West (first Dharma lesson), and North (nirvana). One can’t enter a stupa as it is solid object. It is a meditational practice one would circumambulate the structure.
The two pillars on each gateway support three crossbeams. The images on these pillars and crossbeams give us great insight into ancient beliefs and customs. The relief sculpture depicts the events of the Buddha’s life, legends of his previous births, and other scenes important to early Buddhism. Stupas are permanent reminders of the Buddha and his teachings almost 2,500 years after his death.
Danish philosopher Søren Kiekegaard once declared that life could only be understood backwards; but had to be lived forwards. A great motivation for me to travel, especially to a country such as India, is the opportunity to step back in time and touch the past. The conservation and preservation conducted by the Archaelogical Society of India (ASI) is instrumental to maintaining the legacy of the country’s cultural heritage. Multiple branches throughout the governmental organization cover a broad range of specialties. It is easy to get lost in the Afghan architectural wonders and the vast grounds of Jahaz Mahal, the grandeur of the Taj Mahal, or the elegance of the Buddhist caves in Ajanta. These monuments across India are a testament to the continued resiliency of Indian people throughout human history. There is significant work to be done.
Extreme elements around the world are threatening our collective cultural heritage. Among the human tragedy in Syria is the entirety of that country’s heritage sites damaged or destroyed in their ongoing civil war. Sadly, not a singularity. Mausoleums in Timbuktu to the Mosque of the Prophet Yunus in Iraq and the Bamiyan Buddhist statues in Afghanistan. The importance of supporting organizations that monitor theses sites, that promote conservation and hopefully in the near future reclaim some of these monuments and renew efforts to restore what has been destroyed. However, this is not simply a second or third world problem. The people (particularly in the West) who deny the science of climate change or promote increased fossil fuel production and utilization threaten destruction not experienced in millennia. There is much we can learn from the cooperation and collaboration of nations united in preserving our cultural legacy.
While exploring the temple ruins outside Siem Reap in Cambodia, Chelle and I were surprised to discover representatives of ASI working on a restoration project at Ta Phrom. One of many temples destroyed during the civil war in Cambodia or taken over by nature. Luckily the Archeological Society of India isn’t alone in their endeavors.
The UN has a specialized organization, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The group has a variety of programs and objectives but it’s international cooperation agreements to secure cultural and heritage areas around the globe through its World Heritage Sites. What makes the concept of World Heritage exceptional is its universal application. World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located. Sites are selected on the basis of having cultural, historical, scientific or some other form of significance. Their dedication in protection and preservation is admirable. Passing on to future generations the irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration is awesome and worthy of support.
I have given much thought to the impact that India has had on me collectively. It is a visceral response. I am just beginning to understand the profound nature of my time here. Chelle had a very sad experience today. While exploring the Jain sculptures in Gwalior she discovered a dying dog hidden under a statue. She dug through our bag and pulled out a few morsels of food. As I comforted her she questioned the futility of her actions. My response was simple…comfort and compassion to a life that knew little of either. The intensity of her feelings have been demonstrated throughout our time here whether it was dealing with scourge of poverty or feral animals. For me there has to be more.
I am determined to contribute in some manner after I have returned home. I may return in the not too distant future volunteering on a medical team with Projects Abroad. It may mean financial donations to Amma, or Magic Bus. Contributions to ASI or some other NGO conservation/preservation group. Perhaps becoming a member of the Sierra Club back home. To get on a plane and head back to the US just to plan the next adventure is impossible without first contemplating what comes next to improve my world. Globally, within our community or both.
I’ve already covered the “you can’t get there from here” theme in an earlier post. As most folks should know, India is a vast country and we were required to revisit the connect-the-dots game again. Our next destination was to be Mandu. Approximately 384 km North of Aurangabad as the crow flies. However, traveling around India rarely involves a direct route and this would be no different. Our travel day involved catching a late night sleeper bus in one of the most chaotic scenes imaginable. Middle of nowhere on the edge of town, essentially a bus bazaar of at least twelve large caravans coming and going every which way.
Motorcycles and tuk tuks dropping off scores of travelers. Exhaust fumes mixed with road side kitchen smoke. Horns, so many obnoxious horns. Chelle furiously trying find a “quiet” spot to talk to the bus company in an attempt to figure out where we were supposed to be. I went to a rival travel shop to gain some valuable intel about the process unfolding. At one point Chelle is standing beside me, still on the phone gesticulating wildly in no particular direction. A guy on a motorcycle pulls up from behind us – the fellow on the other end of the conversation. My Wonder Woman/Fixer/Logistical magician does it again.
Off the beaten path to be sure but a big draw for Chelle was some unique arboreal residents of the area. Certainly not the only attraction to check out. The city of Mandu is adorned with spell-binding Afghan architecture surrounded by baobab trees, which are native to Africa. It is located in the Malwa region of western Madhya Pradesh state, in central India. It required an all night bus ride to Indore, followed by a smaller local bus to Dhar and transfer to a third bus. We capped the adventure off with a 2km walk (with full pack) to the guesthouse from town center. The view of the valley from the place was exceptional but the actual accommodations were not, so we hiked back into town.
The fortress town of Mandu lies on a rocky outcrop about 100 km (62 mi) from Indore is celebrated for its fine architecture. It was an important military outpost and its military past can be gauged by the circuit of the battlemented wall, which is nearly 37 km (23 mi) and is punctuated by 12 gateways. The walls enclose a large number of palaces, mosques, Jain temples of 14th century and other ruins. The oldest mosque – Jami Masjid (or great mosque) dates from 1405; it is a notable example of Pashtun architecture.
In Mandu, temperatures can often soar to 45° Celsius in summer. That’s perhaps why the Afghan architect who built the Jahaz Mahal combined conservation of water through rain water harvesting with the beauty and delicacy of Islamic architecture. The 120 meter long Jahaz Mahal complex is studded with many water structures. The twin lakes of Kapur Talab and Munj Talab abutting the palace not only stored water but helped cool its surroundings. In addition, the many baolis or step wells on the premises helped store water for drinking while the beautifully constructed pools on the roof and ground floor of the palace offered the royalty a way to relax and cool during summer months. Incredibly, these pools were fed by rain water carried by swirling channels designed to look like intertwining vines.
The historical legacy in Mandu is expansive stretching the length of this small town. Somewhat at the mercy of our driver who left Jahaz Mahal for last that morning. He felt that viewing Roopmati’s Pavilion at dawn was ideal. We arrived shortly after 6am and bribed the guard to let us in ahead of the official opening. It was a treat to have the place to ourselves but in hindsight we would have chosen Jahaz Mahal due in large part from a time crunch and missing a big swath of the complex. Roomati’s Pavilion, a large sandstone structure originally built as an army observation post. For tourists the spot possesses stunning views of the area…for medieval troops strategic high ground.
We could have been in Mandu for several days but alas time is what we are running out of on this journey. Our side trips continued on to just as challenging locations to access. Next was Sanchi and on Christmas Day we are in Gwalior for two days before our final stop in Delhi. With my hit and miss wifi issues I may still be blogging about our India trip after returning home. Stay tuned, more to follow.
As stated several times in previous posts the principle reasons for visiting India was to learn about the culture, step back in time to discover India’s rich history and to interact with the people of this vast country. Chelle did the lions share of planning, before and throughout the trip and has done a magnificent job in the logistics. I continue to be surprised by some of the side trips she uncovered.
It would be easy to stay in the “golden triangle” of Delhi, Agra and Rajasthan. The circuit has a good spectrum of the country’s different landscapes. That we have visited so many other terrific locations is a testament to her time and attention to detail. Her cartography degree has been put to great use here whether it was planning a route from Jodhpur to Mount Aboo or just getting us back to our guesthouse after a day out touring. For me it really has been about the little jems not expected.
Aurangabad is 400 km (248 mi) east of Mumbai. It is a tourist hub mainly due to the city’s proximity to the Buddhist caves in Ajanta and Ellora, which are 100 km (60 mi) away. A two hour drive by car. Within the city are twelve Buddhist shrines cut out of basalt (volcanic) rock during the 6th and 7th century. The carvings and religious iconography represent the Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) and Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle) Buddhist lineages. On the road to the Aurangabad caves is the Bibi Ka Maqbara or as it’s known locally “the mini Taj Mahal” and was designed and erected by the son of the man who designed the original Taj in Agra. The air quality was considerably better around here than Agra. No haze to hide the enormous monument…the Taj in Agra was almost impossible to view.
We took a car to see Ajanta due mainly to the earlier time required to catch a bus. We reached the site before 11am but the glare of the sun was already influencing the photographic opportunities. Coupled with that issue was the prohibition on the use of a flash inside the caves. The Indian Conservation Society has done a decent job of erecting some lights, which accounts for some unusual shadowing at times. On the day we visited there were only two western couples with the majority Indian tourists and school children as well as two Buddhist monks.
The Hinayana sect which started the caves are located in the rear section of the complex. Mainly containing smaller chaityas or worship halls with barrel vaulted roofs. As Hinayana school of Buddhism was overtaken by Mahayana the architectural styles are of the caves changed. Viharas, lavish monastery halls where the monks lived and worshipped were built. The statues of The Buddha also became more prominent, which included long dangling ear lobes and short curls to distinguish the Buddha from lesser divinities. In its zenith Ajanta sheltered over 200 monks in addition to a community of laborers, sculptors and painters. For unknown reasons by the 8th century the complex lay dereserted and abandoned.
The preceding photo depicts the Buddha’s death and ascension to Nirvana. The lower statues depict the satanic Mara sisters attempting to corrupt the Buddha while a devilish figure in the top left (riding an elephant) looks down. The imagery, iconography, paintings and sculptures were, for a history buff and a Buddhist, fascinating. The work done by the Indian government is extremely valuable to maintaining the enduring historical legacy of India.
Mumbai, previously known as Bombay is in the Indian state of Maharashtra. The skyline when viewed from the air or the port stretches for miles. Easy to imagine with a population of more than 20 million. Toronto, LA, and NYC together could fit within the confines of this urban expanse. The financial hub of India and a booming port possessing a naturally deep water harbor with a distance of 150 square miles that opens to the south Arabian Sea. The port is also home to a large naval base.
The dichotomy of India is clearly evident in Mumbai. As one of the wealthiest cities and possessing the most expensive real estate prices in the world surpassing both Manhattan and Tokyo. It is also home to one of the biggest slum communities. If you want to know and experience diversity, visit Mumbai. This city also has its very own language that is the Bambaiiya Hindi. Known to be a city filled with warm and friendly people which was our experience whether on a walk about or just sitting in the lobby of our guesthouse. We were also just around the corner from Crawford Market which had the usual varieties of fruits and vegetables in addition to a multitude of clothing and fabrics. An oddity for us was the various dogs, cats, rabbits, gerbils, fish and farm animals for sale.
Chelle picked our lodging for its proximity to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, but still referred by many by it’s former British name – Victoria Terminus or simply VT. The Bombay train station is a UNESCO world heritage site and for good reason, it is architecturally gorgeous and while we there it was lite up in preparation for the Christmas season. We had an epic walk our second day deep into Mumbai and across to the waterfront.
We visited the Gateway to India, a mammoth archway that greeted Queen Victoria on her arrival in 1911. Adjoining the waterfront was another famous Mumbai monument – The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. A luxury hotel where a cup of masala tea costs Rs450 ($7 USD) I instead opted for the Rs175 ($2.60) bottle of Himalayan water. It must be stated that a cup of chai anywhere else in the city would cost between 10 – 40 Rupee and water about 25 Rupee…
We left Mumbai on Friday night, another opportunity to experiment with a sleeper bus heading to Aurangabad. We met a nice young lad on the bus heading home from a pilgrimage. Part of a larger group staying throughout the city and I had met another family from the same Muslim community in the lobby of our guesthouse earlier in the day. Waseem wanted to know all about our India trip and he talked about his trips to the US. It was as much about his interest in us as it was an opportunity to practice his English skills.
Mumbai was a short stay for us but as usual the people we encountered were helpful and generous. Chelle still copes with the unwelcome stares of many men here. However, she has had celebrity status in many areas we have visited that hopefully make up for some of the troubles. The following picture is one of several from earlier today outside the Mini Taj Mahal in Aurangabad. Her hat and sunglasses were also a big hit!
The tranquil city of Kochi has been drawing spice traders and explorers to the region for more than 600 years. A blend of Portuguese, Dutch and British influences. In no other spot around India would you find giant cantilevered fishing nets from China (from the age of Kublai Khan), a 400 year old synagogue, an ancient mosque and colonial British infrastructure. A signature event for tourists is an opportunity to watch the Kathakali.
An artistic dance prominent in southern India utilizing elaborate masks, bold costumes and a unique form of mime, which dramatizes Hindu literature. It reminded me of opera…theater in a foreign language where something is happening but I don’t seem to understand. That being said it was fascinating, colorful and just long enough to bear the uncomfortable chairs. The picture is more out of focus than I would usually include in a post but the best that could be achieved without a tripod or more steady hands.
We checked out the waterfront and perused some merchant stalls. I thought I had finally found an Indian shirt I liked but unfortunately it was a slim fit. We continued on until we happened upon a lovely Tibetan store. Just our second haul of small trinkets for gifts. A conveniently located ATM across the street and a dash into a fabric store where I did find two very comfortable shirts, one which was tailored while we waited. Another benefit was the shop accepting cashless payment – more on that later.
We continued our tour around the city as we headed for Jew Town. The oldest community of Jewish peoples in India dating back to King Solomon. When Israel was created after WWII a majority of the community emigrated leaving behind most of their belongings (furniture etc). A bustling port village with an aroma of bold Indian spice vendors, and antique/curio shops. The Paradesi Synagogue still maintains a small congregation but it is mainly a tourist mecca.
We took a backwater river tour about an hour from the Fort Kochi area. The company “Ethnic Voyages” was an excellent choice. This is in the top five experiences that we have had during our trip. Chelle spoke with our guide Aishi at length. Not just about the backwater flowers or geography but Indian culture, her family, commerce and even American and Indian politics. It was a very informative tour. I chimed in two or three times but mainly took some photos. Our riverboat had two oarsmen, forward and aft. The guy in the stern was in charge of steering the boat. Both used two distinct bamboo oars. A twenty five foot pole for deep water and an eighteen footer for closer to shore. This is the traditional method for plying the lake and small rivers inland from the Arabian Sea. We saw a couple of ferries but the predominant boat traffic was this method or canoes with small outboard motors.
We toured a unique home weaving operation using coconuts. The husk is opened and the fibrous threads are removed and piled in mounds to dry. The threads are collected in a waist pouch of the woman operating a loom type of device. As she walked backwards the crank spun the threads together into long fibers creating small ropes. The loops of rope are then left out in the sun to dry. It was used in the boating industry to lash bamboo. We also toured the spice operation and introduced to different spices like cardamom in plant form. A first for me to taste a nutmeg leaf. Our guide discussed the process from plant to completed spice. Then it was time for an authentic Keralan lunch, which was served on a banana leaf plate.
Our flight from Siem Reap via Bangkok arrived into Kochi (Cochin) quite late. It was after 0100 by the time we reached Indian immigration. We met an Australian girl while waiting and agreed to share a taxi to the Fort Kochi area. For an experienced traveler Katie wasn’t well prepared for finding her guesthouse. The driver seemed confused and at various points both Chelle & I were wandering nondescript alleyways…finally after significant issues we located her place. By the time we found our spot – the Four Seasons (the much less famous hotel) it was closer to 0300. After knocking on doors and making a phone call a weary young chap emerged from the guesthouse and it was time for bed.
On our second day in Kochi we had a splendid experience on a backwater tour of Kerala. There of course was the typical (for us) inadvertent adventure when the driver had accidentally picked up the wrong couple at a different guesthouse which was not discovered until after we were headed out of the city. At one point I think the poor driver did two successive 180° turns trying to figure out how to resolve the situation, but more on that in another post. What added to the enjoyment of the boat trip was the other travelers.
In our riverboat were two solo guys; Paul from Taiwan, and Karl from Germany. Paul spoke excellent English (Chelle discovered later in the day that he had attended university in Canada) and was on the tail end of two months in India; mostly in the south. Karl had just arrived for a two week holiday. It was fun to spent a day just chatting about where we had all been, or where we were headed. A French couple talked about their previous adventures in Malaysia. Paul instructed Karl and Chelle on some neat tricks for our Indian phones.
Karl’s trip was a blank slate with only one stop arranged and we didn’t have firm plans for anything beyond Cochin. A real treat to compare notes with those who had visited areas we were interested in checking out. In conversations over lunch Paul had some solid suggestions about cave temples that Chelle had been talking about. The French couple had suggested Hampi and Mumbai. Through our chats we started to hone in on an itinerary. Over dinner we mulled, researched, questioned, poured over maps and guidebooks. By bedtime we had arrived at the plan for our final excursions in India. The start of our trek would be a rail trip to Gokarna, or so we thought.
At the travel agency the following morning we discovered the train didn’t have any availability for three days and there wasn’t an airport near our destination. More pondering ensued before devising a new game plan. Grabbing a local bus – I was a reluctant participant. Through no fault of our own we got on the wrong bus. The ticket taker made a couple of calls and gave us directions to a tuk tuk station and the method to meet up with the long haul shuttle. A sleeper bus (10 hours) to Mangalore followed by a rail trip (5 hours) to Kumta. A reasonably short walk to the bus station and finally a Goan (state government) operated bus to Gokarna (1.5 hours). Explore for two days and a flight to Mumbai. It seemed like such a good idea at the time.
When all was said and done we had arrived in Gokarna. What we thought would be a short walk to the beach became a four mile walk through town and up a considerable hill, across a flat stretch and down to Kudle beach. A rugged, hilly area with bamboo framed restaurants and hut type lodging. No air conditioning, with hard beds and mosquito nets. The beach was inhabited by a mix of hippies, yogis and yogi wannabe’s. After one night we had aspirations of snorkeling and set off the next morning for Karwar by way of Ankola…again by bus as I was becoming a pro.
This would be the first bus trip with a transfer involved. There was a lovely beach area in Karwar but not much else. We recharged (purchased more data, talk time) our India phone and Chelle made a call to the outfitter for snorkeling. The problem with intermittent internet service that not only negatively impacts blogging, also affected is verification of prospective destinations. The outfitter was about an hour south of Karwar near the area we had traveled from. We regrouped and headed for Palolem Beach, yet another bus ride but one of the most romantic beaches in Goa, perfect for a honeymoon.
Set in northwest Cambodia, Siem Reap is best known for being the gateway to the Angkor ruins, a sprawling World Heritage complex of more than 400 ancient temples with the magnificent Angkor Wat as its focal point. An old city that had been the seat of power for the Khmer empire beginning in the 9th century. Ancient temple ruins, awe inspiring historical sites, rice fields and picturesque villages. In a demonstration of raw power and the interplay of man versus nature is Ta Phrom, the temple constructed by Jayavarman VII in the 11th century. Now overtaken by immense trees that are in one place supporting the walls and in others tearing them down.
The crowds who come to Cambodia’s Angkor region are spoiled for choice when it comes to temples to visit. Within kilometres of the tourist town of Siem Reap are dozens of sites which can take days to explore. It’s no great surprise that visitors feel there’s enough to see without venturing too far – and fair enough, a lot of these people don’t have much time to spare. The Angkor temples are by far the biggest draw for so it’s hard to escape the tourist masses and find a site less trodden. That’s why the trip to Beng Mealea is so worthwhile. An hour in the car from Siem Reap is all it takes to discover a temple far from the crowds and in such a state that you can believe you are the first to find it, hidden and lost in the Cambodian jungle.
For us, Ta Phrom’s additional claim to fame was secondary – a location for the Tomb Raider film. The eerie quality of the trees growing out of the walls is the dinstictive feature of the ruins. The temple is near the location of Angkor Wat (Khmer for capital temple) and the largest religious monument in the world. When construction first began it was as a Hindu site dedicated to Vishnu, but transformed into a Buddhist temple. An interesting feature of the enormous site (about 4 acres) is the moat and the immense wall surrounding the temple complex a continuation of the grandeur of Angkor Wat. Angkor Thom, it’s neighbor is even larger.
Within the walls of Angkor Wat are several other sites. The Bayon ruins and The Elephant Terrace two of the most popular stone relics & ruins. We explored Bayon on our first visit to Angkor Wat but checked out the Elephants after viewing Ta Phrom.
A miscue on my part as we prepared for the trip negated the original plan to acquire an extended Indian visa. This forced us to leave briefly and apply for a second e-tourist visa and return to finish our India exploration. We added a ten day tour through Thailand and Cambodia. Chelle and I were getting quite excited as we approached the jumping off point of the honeymoon. A couple of weeks prior to the departure Thailand experienced a national tragedy when their King, Bhumibol Adulyadej…the world’s longest reigning monarch passed away.
We arrived in Bangkok early in December. The typically vibrant colors of the city replaced by stark banners and ribbons. Still in mourning the Thai people were dressed in black, white or otherwise dark clothing. The mood was somber but still welcoming. All our conversations with the locals in any city we visited always included something about their King. One afternoon a large group of cyclists rode past our tuk tuk. A century ride in honor of their former monarch. It was evident to Chelle and I that it was a profoundly personal experience for the entire country. All Thai’s had lost a family member.
The food was phenomenal! Fresh fruit abundantly available on every street corner in addition to the more exotic scorpion-on-a-stick or deep fried spider. Having missed out on the Indian cooking class Chelle was excited about our Thai class. It was just the two of us and our instructors were quite the showmen, teaching us a traditional song and dance along with the cooking lessons. I’m thankful that no video is available. Chelle and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience, but we fell in culinary love with a chili paste recipe that will be a foodie fixture back home.
Our time in Ayutthaya was the crown jewel of our time in Thailand. An arduous shared minibus extravaganza was rewarded by a pleasant paradise. Our guesthouse exceeded our expectations and Chelle had been looking forward to this stop for several weeks. If I relocated to Thailand this would be the place. On a river with boat houses dotting the shore. A mosque, catholic church and Buddhist temple sharing the other bank of the river separated by less than a mile. We borrowed bicycles to see the sites at a leisurely pace.
Tourism continues to thrive despite the solemn mood around the country. There was a palpable solemnity whether we were in Bangkok, Ayutthaya, Phuket or Phi Phi. The crowds of mostly westerners cramming Kho San Road – the Bangkok version to 6th street in Austin, Texas. We went snorkeling in the rain on Phi Phi Island, pronounced PP. I managed to break a toe falling out of the slick, wet boat and my wedding band is resting on the bottom of a sandy bay in the Andaman sea. In fact, it rained all three days of our visit.
Not having the weather cooperate with our visit to Phuket and the surrounding islands was a disappointment. As was a disagreeable tuk tuk driver who essentially left us at the roadside when we did not wish to follow his sight seeing plan. We thoroughly enjoyed the temple ruins, meeting new people and making new friends. As stated previously, our time in Ayutthaya was precisely what we needed when we needed it. A respite from the busyness of Bangkok and chaos of Calcutta. Due to a scheduling error our visit was brief and I joked to Chelle that perhaps the taxi driver wouldn’t show. He did. So we bid a kind farewell to the owner/hosts at Athithara Homestay.
For most of our travels we have generally stayed two days in each city. Enough time to hit the hot spots and skedaddle on to the next location. Darjeeling has been the exception. We stuck around for five days. This had always been the plan, but as we were still recuperating from our recent illnesses the extra days were nice albeit chilly. Our first night a porter dropped off a hot water bottle. The simple gesture was received, pardon the pun, warmly.
The room we had was large but on the shaded side of the building and always seemed cold. On our way down to breakfast of the second day we spied a space heater in another room. After breakfast Chelle stopped at the front desk hoping to secure us a similar unit. Instead they moved us to a new room with a view of Mt. Kanchenjunga. The afternoon sun heats up the room perfectly.
As Chelle was perusing the library area she was greeted by the Tibetan owner/hostess Yezere and received an invitation to her apartment. Chelle had been gone for a fair length of time but I knew she was looking at books and I didn’t give her absence much thought. A light knock on the door and an odd question of my decency…the hostess had wanted to meet me and prepared a rice and dal soup sure to make me feel better. Later that evening she had another hot water bottle ready and proper instructions for me to follow.
It bears repeating the hospitality and generosity that has been demonstrated by nearly all the folks we’ve met on our trip. Obviously, tourism is an important industry but our experience extends beyond a superficial layer of dollars and sense. It has also been the other tourists we’ve met: Simon and Darren two Brits Chelle walked up to at the Kolkata airport to inquire if they wanted to share a taxi from Bogdaga to Darjeeling. An Indian lad who helped broker our taxi and joined our merry group for the ride up the mountain. Arjit, a Sikh fellow from England who was taking sunrise pictures at Tiger Hill and we chatted and met by happenstance later in the day with more conversation…snipits of what we’ve seen or where we’re going, where home is.
Yezere sat with us at dinner and discussed the family history with the hotel. She talked about her sons. One a pilot with Indigo and the other a taxi driver in San Francisco. She spoke of her life back in Tibet, her husband who taught her English and the family wedding that was approaching. We met her husband Jigme one evening after dinner and we had a lovely time discussing India and future travels. Our porter Nair was ever vigilant in his attention to our smallest requests. I met him once while out and about and we chatted, he in broken English and me in very broken Hindu.
The warmth of the Indians and Tibetans throughout our time in Darjeeling definitely took the chill out of the air. Warmed in the hospitality and generosity of our friends, hosts, fellow travelers and guides (in whatever form they appeared).
Our next stop on our trip was Darjeeling, a town in Indias’s West Bengal state, in the Himalayan foothills. Once a summer resort for the British Raj elite. We flew from Kolkata to an airport 65 km (40 miles) from Darjeeling which is operated as a civil enclave at AFS Bagdogra of the Indian Air Force.
Located in the state of West Bengal, the city is located on a ridge in the Himalayan foothills at around 6800 feet of elevation and part of the Mahabharat mountain range. It’s famed for the distinctive black tea grown on plantations that dot its surrounding slopes. Its backdrop is Mt. Kanchenjunga, among the world’s highest peaks
One interesting and historical activity we experienced was the “Toy Train” . This famous attraction is part of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) an important transport link from the hills to the plains below. It is a narrow gauge rail track that is two feet wide built in 1879. The DHR was the first example of a hill passenger railway. The train runs alongside Hill Cart Road – the narrow, steep and winding route into the mountains. At several spots the track crisscrosses the road. The DHR is listed as a World Heritage Site declared by UNESCO.
In addition to the famous tea it produces, Darjeeling is home to the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park. Chelle and I won’t usually visit a zoo viewing them at best as necessary evils, however Padmaja Naidu is remarkable for it’s Red Panda and Snow Leopard breeding program. The zoo is located at an average elevation of 2,134 meters above sea level and is the largest high altitude zoos in India. Some of the rare and endangered species in the zoo are snow leopards, red pandas, Himalayan Salamanders, Tibetan wolf, Himalayan mountain goat and Siberian tigers.
We woke up at 4am one morning to join the caravan of jeeps, which can number nearly one hundred vehicles full of tourists headed to Tiger Hill. A can’t miss opportunity to watch the dawn light break over a 250 km (155 mile) stretch of Himalayan horizon. The panoramic view includes Mt. Everest, Lhotse and Makalu. The skyline is dominated by Kanchenjunga the third highest peak in the world.
While on the Toy Train adventure I had the honor of spending time at the Gurkha War Memorial located just outside Darjeeling at the Bastasia Loop garden. Known as some of the most skilled and fiercest warriors in the world, their extraordinary history extends from the 1815 defeat of the British Invasion of Nepal to their contributions in Afghanistan in 2010.
I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to visit the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Center. It was established in 1959 following the Tibetan migration from Lhasa and was the former home of the thirteenth Dali Lama from 1910-1912 during the first Chinese invasion of Tibet. The Tibetan families that reside at the center sell handicrafts that support their mission. Additionally, 14th and current Dali Lama has visited the center in the past. The museum on the property was fascinating for any history buff and as a Buddhist I was pleased to contribute to the center’s mission.