Good Morning Vietnam

Good morning Vietnam! The 1987 film starring Robin Williams was all I knew about Vietnam. But having visited Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), over Christmas last year, my vision and knowledge of this highly underrated country has been enriched and widened. Located in the southeastern region of Vietnam, Saigon can be best described as an eclectic mix of the old and new. It is a fast growing commercial center pulsating with life and energy. Here’s my take on Saigon and what it meant to me.

One of my first experiences of Saigon as I left the airport was the city’s traffic. For me, it was almost like a homecoming. Akin to India’s chaotic road traffic, Saigon’s roads are a sight to behold. Long winding lanes of motorbikes, bumper-to-bumper traffic, cyclos and cyclists meandering through the maze, cars honking, drivers screaming, sudden jolts and brakes and that’s Saigon’s infamous traffic for you. The good thing about Ho Chi Minh’s chock-a-block traffic is that it gave me ample time to connect with the city’s character and its varied sights and sounds. It was interesting to watch the motorcyclists cleverly navigate through the sea of vehicles and how footpaths turned into motorbike lanes. I saw nondescript little wooden shops selling textiles seated right next to a glitzy mall with flashing neon signboards and glass facades; gourmet restaurants just a few yards away from the street-side pho shops; and government buildings in peaceful coexistence with commercial complexes. Having lived in India for over 25 years these images weren’t out of the ordinary for me, but it was certainly a stark contrast from the traffic free, super clean, and highly organized city of Singapore, which is where I currently live.

There are several things to see in Saigon. You can embark on the War Trail and visit the war museum, cu chi tunnels, and the reunification palace or you can head out of city and take a canal boat ride on the legendary Mekong River. If you have a penchant for pagodas, there are several temples you could visit in the city or you could hop over to Notre Dame Cathedral. You can shop for local handicrafts, textiles, and gourmet food products or you could sit back and enjoy a water puppetry show.  So here’s what was on my itinerary.

Based on research and hearsay, the Reunification Palace seemed to be a “must-see” destination and that was where I was headed on the first day of my Vietnam vacation. Apparently, the Palace is the most important historic landmark in Saigon as it marked the reunification of North and South Vietnam.  After the French left Vietnam, the country was split into North Vietnam, controlled by the communists, and South Vietnam controlled by US-backed Vietnamese leaders. In 1975 the North Vietnamese army tanks crashed through the gates of the palace, marking the fall of the South Vietnamese government and well in a sense, the fall of Saigon; hence the term reunification palace. Given that the palace was the South Vietnam President’s residence and workplace during the American-Vietnam war you will find conference rooms, meeting rooms, entertainment lounges, a library, the palace kitchen, and of course war command rooms. It was like being in a time machine where time stood still. The furniture and artifacts were of a bygone era and you could almost picture the scenes of that period. The best part of the palace tour was the tunnels in the basement, which had previously served as the President’s war command station. Telecommunication equipment, maps, and projectors have all been preserved and it’s almost eerie to walk through those dark corridors.

The second hop over was the War Remnants Museum. Now this is certainly not a place for the faint hearted. The museum has exhibited proof of the Vietnam War and its horrific consequences. There are not only remnants of artillery, tanks, arms and ammunition but also gruesome pictures of war crimes meted out by American soldiers against Vietnamese civilians. The most profound exhibits were a series of photographs depicting the horrid consequences of Agent Orange. Agent Orange was a toxic dioxin used by the US military forces to wipe out forest cover that helped the enemy to hide.  However, the herbicide did more damage than that. It caused birth deformities amongst the Vietnamese civilians and the photographs in the War Remnants museum are testimony to the terrible consequences of the war.

After the War Remnants Museum I didn’t have an appetite left for visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels, which is usually popular amongst the tourists. Instead, I opted for a more pleasant, cultural, and entertaining experience – the Vietnamese water puppet show. Water puppetry is more widespread in Hanoi than in Saigon, but there are a few places that stage the water puppetry show to cater to the Ho Chi Minh tourists. Having read mixed reviews about the water puppetry show I wasn’t sure as to what to expect. But I was delighted beyond belief! The water puppetry show is one of the most unique cultural shows that I have ever seen. Puppeteers stand behind a screen in a waist deep pool of water and control the wooden lacquered puppets with bamboo rods. None of this is visible to the audience and it appears like the puppets are floating on water. The performance is accompanied by music rendered by a traditional Vietnamese orchestra. Although the performance is delivered in Vietnamese, it is easy to understand the story. The most common themes center on day-to-day rural living including fishing, reaping a harvest, attending a royal procession, watching dragons fight, etc. This is a must-see if you are visiting Vietnam.

No trip is complete for me if it does not include shopping.  I’m not a chronic shopaholic but I just love picking out souvenirs and artifacts for my home from every place I visit. The Ben Thanh Market in downtown Saigon is the one-stop place for souvenirs and knick-knacks. The market sells local handicrafts such as figurines of Vietnamese women in the traditional “au dai” costume and conical hat, metal and cane representations of the famous cyclo (a cross between a bicycle and a trishaw), lacquered boxes and vases in the most vibrant hues, paintings of rural Vietnamese life in muted tones, silk handbags with colorfully embroidered motifs, and eclectic hand-made jewelry. You will also find a section dedicated to flowers, fruits, ceramic ware, and food.  Walking through the narrow aisles of the cool market one can’t help but take in the aroma of coffee beans that wafts through the air. A coffee kit makes the perfect take-home gift and you can ask coffee sellers in the market for any quantity of coffee that you wish to take home with you. Coconut candy, preserved fruits, and tangy tamarind sweets are also one-of-a-kind and worth a try.

If you are looking for high fashion and off-beat stores then a stroll down Dhong Khoi is worth your time. Dhong Khoi is a shopping strip in Downtown Ho Chi Minh and houses some of the top Vietnamese fashion labels. Tastefully done up stores sport very classy silk scarves, blouses and au dais while some stores stock the most unusual and  captivating works of art.

I wouldn’t be doing justice to Saigon if I didn’t mention the wonderful Vietnamese cuisine that I had the pleasure of sampling while I was there. If you love beef and pork then you will love Vietnam. Beef is almost found in every dish from noodles (also known as pho) to rice. There are various types of restaurants, eateries, and cafes in Ho Chi Minh and there is no dearth of choice for foodies. Quirky cafes are aplenty and street side pho stalls are highly popular with the locals. During lunch hour, it is a common sight to see Ho Chi Minh’s corporate executives with rolled up sleeves, squatting on a small stool in front of a low table on the pavement, slurping up piping hot bowls of pho. Alternatively, they head to the nearest Pho 24 outlet for their steamy bowl of noodles. Pho 24 is a popular local fast food chain that serves nothing but noodles of various types. As for me, I headed to Lemon Grass and Vietnam House. Both the restaurants serve excellent Vietnamese fare and don’t cause a dent in your wallet. The ambiance is wonderful and the food is sumptuous. Vietnamese fried rice is light and tasty and pairs well with silky tofu in soy sauce. The vegetarian noodles were quite novel and the banana fritters and coconut ice cream whets your appetite for more. The perfect end to a hearty meal is a cup of Vietnamese coffee, which consists of a dollop of condensed milk topped with freshly brewed coffee.

Saigon is a wonderful, bustling, and pulsating city. It brings to mind evocative images whether it is svelte Vietnamese women in au dais’, elderly ladies in conical hats peddling wares, street side pho shops, or a cyclo trudging along a cramped and crowded alley. You just can’t get enough of the Saigon kick. 😉

Phuket Paradise

Look up the definition of paradise and this is what you’ll get: Any place of complete bliss, delight and peace. A visit to Phuket and this definition comes alive. Situated in the Andaman Sea off the Southern tip of Thailand, the mountainous island promises an extraordinary travel experience – replete with fun, relaxation and adventure. Encapsulated below are memoirs of my sojourn to this exotic getaway.

The perfect panacea for those seeking refuge from the concrete jungle and its everyday perils of traffic, pollution, stress, and pressure, the resort island of Phuket spoils you for choice when it comes to zeroing in on one of its numerous beach destinations. Flashing neon lights, pulsating music, sizzling nightlife, exotic ladyboys, the tantalizing aroma wafting out of numerous restaurants, a cluster of resorts and villas with their white washed walls set in lush tropical gardens, and that’s Patong for you – Phuket’s most preferred and highly popular tourist beach destination. A few meters further from Patong lies Karon, the second most popular choice for those who prefer a quieter atmosphere than the congested Patong. If you’re seeking complete solitude, move further down to the beaches of Kata and Kamala where you can enjoy the sun, sand and surf, sans herds of tourists. Opting for an eclectic mix of Patong’s buzz and Kata’s isolation, it was Karon all the way for me.

Famed for being the only beach-front resort in Karon located on the sandy

Karon Beach Resort at the helm of the ocean

Karon Beach Resort at the helm of the ocean

shores of the Karon beach, “Karon Beach Resort” was my most obvious choice. With rooms overlooking the ocean, it’s an ineffable feeling to wake up to an incredible view outside – a blue sky, an aquamarine ocean which shimmers in various shades of blue as the golden rays of the sun dance on its rippling waters while the foamy white gently laps the soft sandy shores. There are endless ways to begin your day here – a dip in

Sunset view from Karon Beach Resort

Sunset view from Karon Beach Resort

the serene pool amidst a lush landscape, a walk along the sun kissed shores as the cool water caresses your feet or a warm sun bath by stretching languorously on the sun-beds facing the endless stretch of the sapphire Andaman Sea.

While it’s tempting spend the holiday basking in the glorious sun and cooling off in the resplendent sea, it’s hard to resist the call of adventure in Phuket’s myriad offerings. An experience that is best described as novel, majestic, humbling and most importantly unforgettable is the elephant back safari. The “Kok Chang Safari” promises you a journey of a lifetime – one that will be entrenched in your memory for generations to come. Kok Chang is located in the hilly regions of Kata and houses 10 grand elephants with the kindest eyes, who are well looked after by their mahouts. You can hoist yourself up on the large saddles atop these beauties, while the mahout sits on the elephant’s neck. As the elephant treads slowly and steadily you will be led through dense jungle trails along the hills. Our 45 year old female elephant was in no hurry and plodded through the narrow, steep, winding path uphill, flapping her ears and swinging her trunk along the way. En route, amidst the bush, I came across the most beautiful and delicate butterflies as they glided past me with their fluttering gossamer wings in striking colors, only to gently rest on a leaf or a twig. A colony of giant red ants, an intricate cobweb precariously dangling in the greenery, wild mushrooms springing from the earth and latex coagulating in the coconut cups of the numerous rubber trees were the fascinating sights we encountered along the way. We also hit a viewpoint overlooking the beautiful coast and other surrounding islets, before trekking downhill – this time on the elephant’s neck and without the mahout atop. In a nutshell, the experience is no less regal when compared to the days of yore when Maharajahs in India sat on imperial howdahs atop royal elephants.

Our elephant at the Kok Chang Safari

Our elephant at the Kok Chang Safari

Spinning cobwebs in the bush

Spinning cobwebs in the bush

wild mushrooms sprouting from the earth

wild mushrooms sprouting from the earth

The viewpoint en route the safari

The viewpoint en route the safari

Latex coagulating from rubber trees

Latex coagulating from rubber trees

Obscuring any distinguishing factor between the real and surreal is the one day Phi Phi Island tour, which must feature on top of your “Things to do in Phuket” list. Phi Phi is a 45 minute ride by speedboat from the Chalong Pier. The boat ride is an experience in itself, one that fills you with excitement as it speeds over the waters, leaving behind a trail of white foam on the blue expanse, the wind in your hair and the ocean spray kissing your skin. As we approached the famous Maya Bay (where the movie “Beach” was partially filmed) the scenic views of large tree covered cliffs rising majestically from the depths of the green blue ocean are truly breathtaking and leave you speechless. Maya Bay boasts of a small beach with pristine white sand that is as soft as silk and aquamarine blue waters that gently touch your feet as you walk along the shore. Maya Bay is surreal, enchanting and magical – its beauty unsurpassed and unrivalled. The next stop-over after Maya Bay is Pileh Cove where you can jump into the cool, calm, clear water and snorkel to enjoy the shoal of yellow fish darting around the Cove’s peacock blue waters. The final destination is Khai Island – a small stretch of white sand with beach chairs to relax in. Khai Island is literally an island of sand small enough to hold a few hundred people, surrounded by nothing but the ocean. It’s an ideal spot to relax, swim or just feed the tiny fish that rush to the shores. Phi Phi is a one of a kind experience that overwhelms you – a gentle reminder of the sheer beauty of nature that is so grand and majestic that it leaves you no choice but to revel in its glory.

Speeding away from Chalong Pier

Speeding away from Chalong Pier

Majestic cliffs at Maya Bay

Majestic cliffs at Maya Bay

Beach @ Maya Bay

Beach @ Maya Bay

Snorkeling at Pileh Cove

Snorkeling at Pileh Cove

Phi Phi Don Island

Phi Phi Don Island

Sunbathing in Phi Phi Don

Sunbathing in Phi Phi Don

Approaching Khai Island

Approaching Khai Island

Relaxing at Khai Island

Relaxing at Khai Island

The ocean at your feet - Khai Island

The ocean at your feet – Khai Island

Ocean cliff

Ocean cliff

If you can’t seem to get enough of Phuket, there are several places you can explore on the island, like the Chalong temple and Promthep Cape for instance. While Bangkok remains unrivalled as far as temples are concerned,

The Chalong temple

The Chalong temple

the Wat Chalong (wat = temple) is worth visiting if you have time on your hands. Popular amongst the locals, it’s interesting to watch devotees at Wat Chalong – some on their knees with folded palms whispering chants and prayers, while others fervently bow and light bunches of joss sticks at the altar. A few minutes to take in the architecture and beautiful ceiling and you can continue your journey to “Promthep Cape” further down Rawai beach, famed for its sunset. Promthep Cape is the southernmost tip of Phuket and if you are looking for a peaceful moment, as the sea breeze tousles your hair then you must settle at a spot along the stone wall that overlooks the sea and coastline.

Sunset at Promthep Cape

Sunset at Promthep Cape

At sundown, the sky is set ablaze and turns into a flaming red to a glowing orange to a soft purple and the ocean turns a deep blue. The sunset is a perfect way to end your spectacular day.

Boiling down to the two holiday essentials – food and shopping – Phuket hits a bulls eye. No matter which eatery you head to, you

Thai cuisine

Thai cuisine

will be assured of two cuisines – the traditional Thai cuisine with its spicy curries, pineapple fried rice and interesting seafood and the international staple of juicy steaks, crusty pizzas and tomato sauced pastas. It doesn’t matter which restaurant you head to – the Thai food served at the tiniest shack

Street food

Street food

or the plushest fine dining restaurant tastes the same – simply fantastic. Evidently, all the restaurants have the locals stirring up a fiery curry and fried rice and the food is bound to be authentic and lip-smacking – simply perfect with the cold beers and hot sun.

If it’s shopping you’re after, and “cheap bargains” at that, you’re bound to hop, skip and jump for joy at the weekend market in Old Phuket Town. Open from 4:00 pm until late in the night, on Saturdays and Sundays, the weekend market holds promise for everyone. Be it tees, colorful flip flops, smart bags, stylish accessories, appealing souvenirs or exquisite handicrafts, the weekend market has it all. The market also features Thai street food, so if you’re exhausted with your shopping you can nibble on banana fritters followed by delicious ice-cold sugarcane juice and you’re good to go. Old Phuket town has little to offer, except for some interesting sights and sounds like traditional cafes, medicinal and herbal shops with the heady aroma of herbs emanating from their cool and dark interiors, Sino-Portuguese architecture along the deserted streets, brightly colored tuk tuks parked along the street, or a hawker pedaling his motorized “stall” in the afternoon heat.

Old Phuket Town's Sino-Portugese architecture

Old Phuket Town’s Sino-Portugese architecture

The oldest herbs shop in Phuket Town

The oldest herbs shop in Phuket Town

Mobile food vendor in Old Phuket Town

Mobile food vendor in Old Phuket Town

So if it’s that dream holiday you’re after, embark on the enchanting journey of discovering the jewel of Phuket that is sure to please your senses and leave you wanting to go back for more…

Good to know:

• Phuket is accessible by air or sea depending on where your travel base is located. Once you clear immigration head straight out of the airport, bypassing the airport limousine service and other taxi touts and head straight towards the metered taxi stand. The metered taxi stand board is in bright colors and it’s big so it’s hard to miss. The metered taxis charge a flat rate (forget about the meter) to the various beaches that dot Phuket’s coast. It saves you the hassle of bargaining and doesn’t leave you wondering if you are being taken for a jolly good ride – both literally and otherwise. You can expect to pay about 400-500 THB to get from the airport to Patong, Karon, Kamla etc. En route, the taxi will stop at a “travel and tour agency” to “sign in the register and mark his attendance”, while an employee will chat up with you trying to subtly sell you hotel deals and tour packages. It’s best to politely and firmly communicate that you have made all travel plans in advance and that all bookings for hotels and sight seeing packages have already been made. (Irrespective of whether you have actually made them or not)

• The best season to travel to Phuket is during off peak season. You’re bound to get good discounts on your accommodation, sight-seeing tour packages and shopping. What’s more the weather is great and the place is not over-crowded.

• There are numerous tour operators with glossy brochures of Phi Phi, promising you an unforgettable experience. Most offer similar rates and itineraries. I personally recommend the”Phuket Sea Island Company Ltd” which scores high on service. Never book at the hotels as they charge you double the normal fare. There are plenty of tour operators outside every hotel, so not to worry. Never opt for the public ferry as it’s over crowded and doesn’t enter Maya Bay. The speed boat may be expensive in comparison but it’s worth every penny – trust me on this.

• It pays to do your research on the various beach options and accommodation available, as there are numerous resorts you can choose from – all designed to suit varied tastes and budgets.

• The Thai massage is great for rejuvenating and relaxing those tired muscles. It’s worth your money and there are numerous massage parlors that dot the island.

• There are several operators who offer you various elephant trekking packages. Most of them are group tours and the elephant trek is coupled with other activities like oxcart riding and monkey shows etc. If you want an authentic and strictly elephant trekking experience sans the monkey-ox frills opt for the “Kok Chang Safari”.

• If you’re traveling with children, it may be worth visiting the “Phuket Fantasea

• The Simone Cabaret and Thai Boxing are heavily advertised. Having visited neither of them, I can’t comment on these shows.

• The best way to get around Phuket is to hire a bike for the day. It’s most economical and you’re independent. As there are no taxis, you will have to rely on tuk tuks who fleece you. So if you can ride a bike and hold an international license go for it!

• The best way to get to the weekend market is to flag down the local bus which runs every half an hour from the beaches to town.

Lombok Unveiled

A tropical paradise to soothe the mind, body and soul. A perfect de stressor to just unwind, relax and put your feet up. Picture perfect, surreal, untouched by civilization – that’s Lombok – an undiscovered Shangri-La.

On a mission to just laze, wine and dine, wiggle my toes on the beach I was headed for Lombok. A virgin island with spell binding views of the ocean as you wind up the smooth road to resorts that dot the shore line. Rice fields, a temple or two, pottery and weaving hamlets, authentic Sasak culture and hospitality, a good rub down at a massage spa is what you will encounter on Lombok’s platter.

The best way to relax is to check into a good resort (I would recommend the Lombok Holiday Resort or Sheraton Senggigi) as most of them line the shore of the Senggigi beach and provide you with one minute access to the beach, a spa facility, a lazuline swimming pool where the water sparkles in the afternoon sun, a bar with a live band and a restaurant or two. An ocean front accommodation needless to say would be the zenith. An island which seems to guise as a village at times and as a town at others has little to offer other than a picturesque landscape and a serene atmosphere to soothe those nerves.

The sound of waves crashing on the shore, an ice cold Bintang, some finger food as you watch the sun set in the ocean is one option. The second alternative is to just uncurl by the pool side, open the page of your book and let the sun tan you a nice bronze. Or you could head to a massage parlor and spend two languorous hours treating yourself to a nice rub down by an adept masseuse. This followed by some live music and sumptuous food in one of the cafes (Papaya to Café and Happy Café are two good places) is a perfect way to end the evening. And if you cannot resist local arts and crafts then make sure you head to one of the pottery villages (Banyumulek is recommended) where you can find some resplendent works of terracotta at cheap prices and also try your hand at the wheel. A visit to the weaving hamlet and Sasak village gives you a glimpse of rural life of the locals. Lombok has a rich tradition of weaving and the womenfolk weave Songets in many beautiful colors and designs in the humid afternoons. Kuta beach enthralls with its turquoise waters and white sand with the mountains of Bali as its backdrop.

The Sasaks have a unique culture and are by large hospitable, save the hawkers who harass you every moment of your time to buy their wares. It can be quite a harrowing experience and tests your patience. The island has a sleepy, languid and tranquil feel to it and you can’t help but laze. So while Bali is boogieing the night away, Lombok is steeped in darkness and the drone of dragon flies whirring through the warm sultry night is the last thing you hear as you drift into a deep slumber.

Beguiling Bali

When you want to take a vacation, you are often confronted with what kind of a spot to choose. Should you opt for beaches or mountains, lakes or something steeped in culture and tradition or perhaps some place happening and alive or just a place to unwind?….

Too many choices?

Ah well!… What if I told you that you could sample a piece of all this (and I mean ALL this) in just one heavenly abode? And which one might that be you ask?…It’s one of the many provinces of the Indonesian archipelago – Bali.

A one and a half hour flight out of the noisy, polluted and traffic ridden Jakarta takes you to the heart of serenity. The destination you have always dreamed of, the pictures of tropical island getaways which you used to flick through in the glossy, slick travel magazine now lies before your eyes.

Research on the region will tell you that Denpasar is the main city area with government offices and the airport in tow. The small, unassuming airport is buzzing with activity as tourists hop off the many economic flights (Garuda, Lion Air, and Air Asia – if you are taking a flight from Jakarta) even at mid night. Jumping into a taxi at the airport you can ask to be driven to many many places in Bali. It depends on where you are headed to. The beach side or the villas or the art hub or the night pubs. Hence I suggest you do plenty of research on the places in Bali and then decide on your accommodation in these regions.Sticking to the most popular tourist region of Bali, I was headed to a small, budget friendly cluster of cottages in Kuta. Kuta is like the mecca of Bali, famed for its sunset on the horizon , night life and shopping streets. There is plenty to choose from for your accommodation. www.balihotels.com will list out numerous options from 15 USD a night to 45 USD a night. So if you happen to be a trailing backpacker or a traveler with a penchant for plush extravagance, you are sure to discover a room, a cottage or a villa of your choice.

Night life in Kuta is truly buzzing, humming and seething. Streets lined with pubs, bars and discos are often pulsating with rock beats, many a swaggering tourist under the heady influence of intoxication, casual picking up of “working girls” for a one night stand – its all a part and parcel of Kuta. Sometimes it almost seems that the seven deadly sins of lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, anger, envy, pride can all be found here. However, a harmless drink in the midst of great music by a live band, in a casual atmosphere, at one of the pubs isn’t a bad deal. Most of the joints are open until four am, so the nights at Kuta are young and alive.

The transition from night to day is quite a transformation where the streets are more of a shoppers haven. Street lined shops beckon you with beautiful, aesthetic wares. It could be coir and bamboo bags, rattan furniture, delicate silver jewellery, trendy bags, Balinese paintings, colorful sarongs, exquisite artifacts, serene Buddha statues, wooden abstracts, tribal masks or traditional wood carvings depicting everyday Balinese life. The art savvy would be driven to dizzying heights by the sights of such resplendent works. There is plenty you can buy as a souvenir but make sure to bargain. You can try your luck by going almost 50% of what the sellers quote and can be sure to get your buy at at least 20%-30% lesser that the price originally quoted to you.

Another place to head out to for a good bargain is Sukawati market. At a glance it may seem like a cheesy place, but never judge a book by its cover. A lil bit of rummaging and walking through the overcrowded, overpowering aisles can get you some stuff which translates into good value for money. A word of caution though- make sure to check the distance between places in Bali as most of them are two hours away from each other. It’s best to hire a bike and move around on your own. There are plenty of places you can rent them from. The other alternative is to hire a taxi or even better to ask the hotel you are staying at to arrange for a car to take you around the whole day. Personally, the bike works best- you are independent and it’s a cheap and easy means of getting around.

If you prefer a bit of peace and quiet and just wish to unwind, put your feet up and relax then its just best to stay a beach front hotel which doesn’t burn a hole in your pocket, and yet isn’t the backpackers rudimentary room. There are plenty of resorts facing the less crowded and less populated Legian beach. You can just sunbathe under the shade of coconut palms, look over to the waves lapping the shore, sip on a cold beer in the afternoon, rejuvenate your senses with a soothing massage or get those tired feet kneaded with some reflexology. Most resorts offer the massage/foot reflexology and there are plenty of centers that offer these services for a whopping 6USD.

If you are looking for some action and adventure, water sports may be an interesting activity. Nusa Dua is the centre of action, with jet skiing, para sailing, banana boat, flying fish being the popular sports. It again comes down negotiation and for 25 USD you can parachute over the ocean and ride the waves on a Jet Ski bike. Nusa Dua also houses some of the most luxurious hotels, constructed in traditional Balinese style and are quite famous with tourists. The beaches of Nusa Dua have clean and white sand when compared to Legian which is blackish in colour. But be it black or white, its perfect for the surfers who have a go at the waves.


The next destination I was headed to after Kuta, Legian, Nusa Dua and Sukawati was the celebrated sea temple at Tanah Lot. I always held the belief that Hinduism was a religion that is specific only to India, but I was intrigued to find a Hindu island alive and thriving when I set foot in Bali. Akin to Indian Hindus are the friendly Balinese Hindus praying to deities and making flower offerings to the Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. Men and women have Hindu names like Sri, Dewi, Jaya and so on. There are plenty of temples to visit in Bali and the temple at Tanah Lot was by far the most popular.

It is a sea temple perched in the ocean, but close enough to the shore that it’s accessible during low tide. Numerous tourists roll up their trousers and with trepid anticipation wade through the tide, feet trying to get a firm foothold on the slippery rocky floor beneath the waves to pay homage to the sea gods. The sunset at Tanah Lot is renowned for casting a magical spell but unfortunately I missed it, as the sun set behind a cloud. I did manage to savor some of its beauty though. En route to Tanah Lot you will see the rice fields, lush green stepped fields with a peasant or farmer (with a bamboo hat for protection from the intimidating sun) bent over, deftly planting rice. Although rice fields are commonplace in rural India, I must admit that it was a very pretty sight.

Traveling in Bali in the sweltering heat can make you thirsty and can also work up your appetite. The best way to quench your thirst is to relax at a nice beach front restaurant and leisurely drink a Bintang, sample some sea food or try the local mee goring (fried noodles) or nasi goring (fried rice). There is plenty of Australian food available as it’s an island that caters to our cousins down under. Aussie fare like burgers with fries, pancakes, shiraz and merlot on the wine list is not uncommon. Peddlers hawk Aussie newspapers and the locals have even adopted Aussie slang land use words like “mate”. Bali is believed to be the Australian surfers paradise and the island seemed to be like a part of the Australian continent! The locals are extremely friendly (a bit too over friendly for my liking) and be prepared to answer a barrage of questions by shopkeepers, receptionists, waiters, bar tenders, taxi drivers – where are you from, where are you staying, for how long are you in Bali. These are three questions you will be barraged with incessantly. And if you are from India, then exclamations of “You are Indian!” “You are Indian” and “oh so you are in Mumbaai?” “ Bollywood star very beeutifool” n you just become intensely aware that you are Indian and that Bollywood rocks this place.

I must admit that the kind and friendly locals are very very good marketers – persistence personified as they assault you with “deals” and “offers” at a “very cheap” price. Everyone is looking at making a quick buck. Beach umbrellas whether you want it or not will be thrust upon you for a sum of money, masseuses follow you and try to entice you into getting a god rub down, men on bikes try to promote certain places of accommodation. You could just be enjoying a stroll down the street and one after another you will find people running up to you always trying to sell you something. It can be quite infuriating at times but I guess its all part of the game.

There are plenty of other interesting places to visit in Bali and I have recounted but a few. I didn’t manage to see the Balinese dance but have heard it’s a must see. You can check www.bali.com for more information.

On a final note, Bali is definitely a place to visit and the best activity of all is to do nothing. Just chill, unwind, loosen up, de stress and just rejuvenate. Bali has definitely got my thumbs up.

 

An Indian Abroad?

If you’re an Indian – You know you are abroad when

  1. You are confronted with toilet paper and find to your dismay there is no mug available in any supermarket
  2. You spend a heck of a lotta time figuring out how to open the sauce bottle when actually it’s the simplest technique
  3. You start using a cheese board as a rolling board
  4. You begin deep freezing and refrigerating like crazy
  5. You wear your sweater and jacket on a chilly day while the locals are roaming about in shorts and sleeveless tops
  6. You have to ask the local to repeat himself as you can’t understand the accent
  7. Worse still, you have a perfectly neutral accent but are asked to repeat yourself
  8. You struggle figuring out the change while at a billing counter and slowly pick out the 10 c , 50 c & 20 c coins – (currency )
  9. You are willing to pay 17 Rs for a single tomato and 30 Rs for a laddoo
  10. You store the empty butter plastic containers and recycle them
  11. You have to hold yourself back from crossing a street when you have a red light despite the road being sinfully empty
  12. You make every single payment online
  13. You pay 100$(Rs 3000) to a locksmith, plumber or handyman
  14. You have milk out of a tetra pack
  15. You drink water straight out of the tap
  16. You have to start reading maps to find your way round
  17. You find that public transport comes with an air con , tv and best of all seats where you can actually find a place to sit
  18. You do your laundry , vacuuming and other household chores on a weekly basis
  19. Yours are the biggest suitcases at the airport and nine times out of ten you will have a cardboard box as well
  20. You will spend Rs 300 on a 20 minute phone card

Sydney Food Fare-The belly rules the mind

 

Being an Indian vegetarian the first thing I do when I visit another country is to try and locate an Indian restaurant or stall – just anything Indian or if not Indian, at least vegetarian. Sydney was no different. To my surprise, despite the percentage of Indians being less when compared to Indian populated Singapore, Malaysia, London etc, Indian food was quite accessible. You would find Indian restaurants aplenty in the city and you were certain to find one in almost every suburb. I was overwhelmed to find “veggie” food in every restaurant n food court unlike Jakarta or Singapore where you had to literally hunt to no end for vegetarian fare n then not finding any you would eventually have to request them to make you some rice with “no fish-no meat-no chicken”

You will find a wide array of cuisines in Sydney. The multi culturalism has contributed to specialty cuisines, the most popular being Italian, Lebanese, Thai, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese. You will find every possible fare-Japanese, Indian, Singaporean-I reckon there isn’t a single speciality cuisine that you can’t find in this wonderful city.Pasta is found in almost all food courts and so are kebabs (the Indian version are the frankies)…the kebabs are lip smacking {wrap which has rolled in it hummus(a Lebanese sauce), taboulli (parsley & tomato), tomato slices, onion rings, barbeque sauce, cheese, falafel (red lentil patties) & fries on request}.its juicy yet dry and just scrumptious to say the least. Thanks to its addictive don’t be surprised to find yourself parked at the kebab shop every week!

The range of eateries span the food courts, burger shops, kebab shops, specialty restaurants, Thai take aways, numerous cafes, the gourmet restaurants at the wharfs and of course the luxury ones.

Cafes are a hallmark of Sydney and can be spotted almost around every street corner. Café fares are quite interesting the food being absolutely fresh not to mention healthy. Fresh sandwiches with a variety of breads and fillings to choose from, along with rich wholesome crunchy salads, pasta, milk shakes in flavors of vanilla, strawberry and chocolate, juices, smoothies, chai (tea is called chai) and coffees are the most common items on the menu. Most cafes have street seating and you can enjoy the sun on your face and the warmth of its rays or you can cup your palms around warm coffee on a chilly autumn day…the ambience is relaxed and friendly

Some uniquely Australian fare are chai latte(a spiced tea mixed with milk that’s steamed from an espresso machine), banana bread/muffins, banana smoothie, raisin bread, hot cross buns, berry chocolate pastries, strawberries dipped in chocolate fondue to name a few.

Orange juice tops the charts and is consumed like water. Wine is another major competetor. Infact orange juice is cheaper than bottled water and wine costing just as much as water serves as an excelent substitute!!!Breads, jams, spreads are the freshest. Raspberry is another local favorite and so is ice cream…tiramisu…rasberry…peppermint are some of the unusual flavors and one scoop of ice-cream for 3$ is equivalent to 4 scoops in India…how good is that ?

Never have I had to think that too many choices can be not so liberating…..shelves and shelves of sauces, tinned/canned food, and who would have thought that cheese can pose such a variety, from ricotta to parmesan to cottage to mozzarela to fetta to goats cheese to French cheese…triangles…shredded…blocks…slices…(oh I’m tired)

And if its cheese you’re after then wine cannot be far behind…The Shiraz is a popular variety as is the Merlot… A visit to the vineyards @ Hunter Valley is a must and the wine tasting, cheese tasting and chocolate tours will whet your appetite for more…

After all in a land where farming is the backbone of the economy what else can you expect…fruits, fresh vegetables, dairy products and confectionery …it’s a package deal …no wonder there is a channel dedicated just to food and all this is nothing but good news to us Indians who like the Aussies simply live to eat!

Bondi Beauty

One of the spots to head to in Sydney during summer is the beach….plenty of which exist in Sydney so much so you may not be able to visit all….the most popular are those of Manly and Bondi….nearly every household in Sydney will boast of a surfboard…and if you don’t own one no worries mate…you can just rent a board for 20$ and its all yours for the day….the Sydney beach experience is unlike that of East Coast Park In Singapore or the Chennai marina/Elliot’s….here you will find as you stroll on the soft warm sand that slips through your toes, the beach dotted with sunbathers, sprawled on their tums or bums basking in the rays of the sun hoping to catch the bronzed tan that they can show off later on….look towards the water and you will find surfers on surfboards of various sizes and colors trying to master the waves…its truly exhilarating….perseverance is what you will see in the surfing experience….if surfboarding is not your cup of tea then you can probably look with admiration at the kids and teenagers whiz past you on their skateboards and novices trying to catch speed and learn fancy tricks…. 

And if these activities are too fancy for your liking not to worry…just do our own thing…settle comfortably on the sand….build sand castles or wiggle your toes in the gentle waves that lap the shore or stroll along the shores and feel the breeze on your skin….n for all those of you who would like to catch a glimpse of the blond bikini clad aussie gals you can hit Bondi…. 

You can spend hours and hours on the beach and still not be tired by the experience…even if you are not the beachy type you simply cannot resist the Sydney beaches….lil kids in my opinion have a blast and are the ones who enjoy the most….strangely I’ve noticed that there is one beach activity that tops the list for kiddies…and that’s a small lil boy or girl (dressed in a small panty peeping from beneath a teeny weeny itsy bitsy frock or jus knickers if it’s a boy ) just hovering around three years of age, vigorously scooping a handful of sand, then picking up that weight and waddling towards the waves and then flinging it into the water and jumping with glee after that and then…..only to repeat it after having run (a lil unsteadily)a few steps…And if its not flinging mud cakes then its sand building….castles …ponds…just anything you may fancy….

As the day wears on and the sun decides to bid farewell you can walk onto the rock formations by the side of the beach and see some fishing enthusiasts casting their line far into the ocean hoping to make a good catch….its interesting to watch how they hook their bait and then just fling the fishing line into the ocean and then when they sense a catch quickly try and bring it up but alas-on every occasion the catch got away…one or two were lucky and caught a calamari – a popular variety of fish. This is usually sold to the restaurants across the beach for 10 AUD and an hour later you can walk in and eat that very same calamari and place a 30$ bill in the lil black leather case on your way out… 

The beach front cafes and restaurants offer a variety of food fare …fish and chips is a must….so are the chocolate gateaux and hazelnut ice-cream….if you fancy Thai or burgers or Indian snacks or even Italian ravioli not to worry…and if you don’t mind tickling your taste buds then you can sample some pancakes with maple syrup drizzled over it… 

Whatever you choose to eat…whatever you choose to do at the beach you can rest assured that the memory will last a lifetime… 

“The three great elemental sounds in nature are the sound of rain, the sound of wind in a primeval wood, and the sound of outer ocean on a beach” –Henry Beston


No blues @ Blue Mountains

If you are in Sydney then you will definitely hear about Blue Mountains. Its the first place one would suggest a visit to. A mere two hour journey from the city will take you to a breathtaking valley, a verdant rainforest, splendid look out points, stunning waterfalls and of course the ravishing three sisters.

Getting to Blue Mountains is quite simple. You could either hire a car and drive yourself out there or hop onto a guided bus tour or simply catch the train which meanders through the city of Sydney and takes you to the quaint Katoomba station where you can hop off and then make you way around with the help of the Blue Mountains Explorer (a red bus which circles around the blue mountains area).An intriguing observation is that this paradise exists just outside the city, is easily accessible – you can even make a day trip and what’s more is that its easy on your pocket.

A sky ride will take you 270 m above the rainforest where you can catch a glimpse of the mystifying Katoomba falls and the vast vast vast (I feel a need to write the term vast n number of times to translate the magnitude of the vastness)expanse of the Jamison Valley. Once you reach the valley top the scenic railway which is the steepest incline railway in the world will take you down the lush green unaged valley from where you can begin the scenic walk through the lush green rainforest. As you walk through this leafy expanse you will discover interesting facts about the foliage – many of which are centuries old, one majestic tree even had a hollow running up through its bark due to a bush fire decades back.

Once the scenic world expedition is over you can explore the rest of the place by bushwalking. Bushwalking is a popular activity Down Under and several scenic walks can be undertaken both within the city as well as outside. Bushwalking literally means walking through the bush. Some of the walks were simple while others were heart – in – the mouth walks (esp. the honeymoon lookout) as you tread on a narrow pathway along the edge of a steep cliff with the rainforests below. However the lookout point view makes it all worthwhile, silencing you with its beauty and grandeur.

The highlight of the place however would be “The Three Sisters” – three beautiful rocks or should I say sisters, who stand with all their glory and splendor overlooking the vast Jamison Valley and the rainforests with the Blue Mountains in the background.

The Aboriginal dream-time legend has it that three sisters, ‘Meehni’, ‘Wimlah’ and Gunnedoo’ lived in the Jamison Valley as members of the Katoomba tribe.These beautiful young ladies had fallen in love with three brothers from the Nepean tribe, yet tribal law forbade them to marry.The brothers were not happy to accept this law and so decided to use force to capture the three sisters causing a major tribal battle.As the lives of the three sisters were seriously in danger, a witchdoctor from the Katoomba tribe took it upon himself to turn the three sisters into stone to protect them from any harm. While he had intended to reverse the spell when the battle was over, the witchdoctor himself was killed. As only he could reverse the spell to return the ladies to their former beauty, the sisters remain in their magnificent rock formation as a reminder of this battle for generations to come.

Mountains are earth’s undecaying monuments–NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE

 

Feel like the Queen in the Queen

If you are the clicking stiletto, Louis Vuitton clad oh so chic chick then QVB or the Queen Victoria Building is your shopping paradise…

The QVB stands in regal glory at the centre of Sydney’s CBD, on George Street, with its 19th century architecture. Balustrades, arched domes, stained glass windows and tiled floors g iv e it an old world charm and are true to its Victorian legacy. It houses some of the grandest names in fashion and is frequented by the rich and famous.

Salvatore Ferragamo, Martin & Stein Antiques, Swarovski, LG Humphries & Sons, Witchery, Les Ind iennes de Provence, Via Condotti, Darrell Lea Chocolates, Rodd & Gunn are some of the names you will find in there.

So all you slick city malls move over! Coz the Queen of them all is here…

“Whoever said money can’t buy happiness simply didn’t know where to go shopping.” – Bo Derek

Park Yourself

A hot dog at the ball park is better than steak at the Ritz – Humphrey Bogart

I landed in Sydney smack in the middle of summer and what a summer it was!….Sydneysiders (that’s how the locals are referred to) simply enjoy the seasons here…I could literally feel them enjoying the beautiful season…it was that time of the year to wear your tees, spaghettis, shorts, hats, caps, shades and the truly Australian thongs (the flat “chappal”/”slippers”) , slap plenty of sun block (this is a handbag essential and an everyday must as the sun can burn your skin here and apparently Australia is reported to have the highest instances of skin cancer due to the predatory sun) and spill onto the streets, beaches, parks and well almost everywhere….you can literally see people enjoying the season and the bug soon bites you as well….I only remember summers as a time to say “oh Chennai (the city I lived in in India) is getting hotter year after year…its hotter this year than last year “ or as the season of mangoes (wait with trepid anticipation to bite into those juicy mangoes) or as a time to jus stay indoors n avoid the heat as far as possible….or when in Singapore do the same….but in Sydney ?…naaah…..we do it different in Sydney folks!…its summertime n here we come!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Australia is truly blessed by nature and there are plenty of parks in Sydney…so many that you will get tired of keeping track ….n I must add that they are ALL natural…the parks are by no means small n since I live close to Hyde Park I have had the opportunity to walk through the park on many an occasion….vast absolutely lush green lawns with plenty of fig trees forming an avenue, benches and a small lil coffee shop as well….unlike Singapore where all the green is untouched and unspoiled, Sydneysiders sprawl out on their colorful towels n enjoy a read or sit on the bench munching a slice of raisin bread or engage themselves in an afternoon game of chess under the shade of the leafy green trees or simply just sit and chit chat in the company of seagulls and pigeons (I must tell you that the seagulls frequent every building and space in Sydney and do not confine themselves to the shores of the water bodies)or cool off near the water fountain, lil kids splashing about n redefining the concept of fun to us 20 somethings who seem to have forgotten the simple joys in life…

Come noon time and the park transforms itself into a food court of sorts with the oh so formal business men all suited and booted making their way in the park, perhaps meeting their wives and kids over lunch….lunch usually comprises of a sandwich or a kebab roll and what better way to enjoy these treats by sitting in the shade of the trees surrounded by the verdant lawns and in the company of innocent seagulls….if you have a few minutes to spare nothing like watching the chess game in progress…

I must add that I discovered what a park meant only when I saw these sights in Sydney….it almost beckons you to enjoy yourself smack in the middle of the city right in the middle of the day …a haven to retreat to and leave the corporate jungle behind just for a an hour or so….and the icing on the cake – its all for free!

 

 

A Heavenly Experience


There isn’t a single person I know who doesn’t like long drives and when the drive is along the coastline of Sydney, with wind blowing through your hair then its something else altogether. So if it’s a bright sunny day and the skies are clear and if you are in a mood for a lovely long drive and don’t mind combining some temple hopping as well then just fill up your gas and speed on towards the famous Nan Tien temple-the biggest Chinese Buddhist temple in the southern hemisphere. En route you can step off at a famous Hindu temple, and then continue through the Royal National Park (The second largest National Park in the world) and be taken in by the picture perfect views. I am not even going to attempt to describe this experience coz words simply fail to do justice to this piece of heaven on earth.

Royal Welcome for the Queens

If there is one thing Sydneysiders love then it would be fireworks, cheering, parades and participation. (Okay so I didn’t mean one thing, I meant many things!) And they wouldn’t have it any different on the historical day when The Queen Mary II and Queen Elizabeth II met at the fantabulous Sydney Harbor for the first time after World War II.

I’m sure there must have been many an alarm that went off in the wee hours of the morning, so that the Sydneysiders could make it to the harbor to welcome the Queen Mary. All day long the city was buzzing, people thronging the wharfs just to catch a glimpse of the beauty.

 Come 6pm and all havoc broke loose in the city with traffic jams, as people buzzed towards the wharfs like bees to wax, to witness the historic meeting. The ones stuck behind the wheel for hours that seemed like infinity were cussing “it’s just a ship people!” “get a life!” But oh no, this wasn’t going to daunt anyone’s spirit – certainly not that of the man who climbed up a pole to take pictures, pregnant women pushing prams in the crowd, the oldie goldies hobbling in… 

Everyone was making every effort to inch their way to the best seat on the lawns of Royal Botanical Gardens to catch the best views of the beauties as well as the fireworks. Visiting the city, I certainly didn’t want to lose out on the action and rushed towards catching my own lil seat on the lawns. I found my thoughts slowly aligning towards the cussing passengers but I soon changed my train of thought when I got a glimpse of the majestic Queen Elizabeth proudly sailing into the harbor. It was an “aha moment” (you know, similar to the ‘aha moment’ when the Google way of life was discovered) Sydneysiders didn’t miss any opportunity in giving a warm grand welcome, cheering, clapping, waving. The flashing cameras were no less than the flashes at any award ceremony with the onlookers gasping at the sheer grandeur and glory these ships carried with them. Choppers hovered around the ships as they grandly sailed in serving the purpose of ushers.

A majestic fireworks display was the icing on the cake, lighting the Sydney skyline and leaving everyone including the majestic ships absolutely spell bound.

 

A Gay Evening

Coming from Chennai(a South Indian city) Mardi Gras to me meant the IIT(Indian Institute of Technology) cultural fest, now rechristened Saarang and having attended French lessons, it conjured images of my workbook telling me that Mardi Gras was some sort of pancake carnival in France. 

However, Mardi Gras took on a totally different definition in Sydney. Around the end of February and beginning of March the Mardi Gras fever had spread all over the city and every magazine was writing about the popular Mardi Gras parade, a parade symbolic of the gay and lesbian community. I am told that Sydney boasts of the largest percentage of gays and lesbians in Australia and they are welcomed with open arms. The parade is a celebration of sorts of this spirit… of this freedom of choice… Needless to say my curiosity was piqued and this was one event that was on top of my must see and do list while I was visiting Sydney.

The parade was scheduled to begin at 7:45pm and I was puzzled to see people milling towards Hyde Park (starting point of the parade) at 5:30pm itself. When I reached Hyde Park at 7:30pm I realized why! When I reached the spot, to my amazement the entire walkway was lined by Sydneysiders cheering, hooting, showering confetti and flying balloons. People were shouting out from apartment and hotel balconies and everyone was gay (pun intended). Drag queens strutted about and I must say I had to hold myself from staring. Since I could see nothing but bobbing heads of the million people ahead of me (now I know why people were eager to be there before 7:30pm) I turned towards the screen put up for people like me, so that we don’t miss the action.  

The Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, a strong supporter of the event was also there to participate in the festivities. It began with bikers, lesbian and gay couples on numerous Harley Davidsons of all ages and shapes – some even topless, waving out and cheering at the crowd gathered. The parade consisted of various floats and each group/float had specific theme, Asian, military, funny, environmental friendly groups. You name it and they were there, all being cheered on by the onlookers. 

After an hour or so I started making my way out of there. I was yet again taken aback by what I saw. Teenagers dressed in the shortest, tightest of clothes, fluorescent jewellery at strategic places, some talking loudly, some others screaming, still others boozing, beer bottles strewn about and young couples making out. All of a sudden my conservative Asian background popped up, with my raised eyebrows at these sights and sounds. But Mardi Gras was a nice experience. No great shakes considering all the hoo haa and hoopla but it was a different experience and I guess I now have one more experience to relate to Mardi Gras other than a pancake carnival and the IIT cultural fest!

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