Tuesday 24th Jan 2023 – It was like any other day, a usual beautiful morning in Goa, our home for our first few months as empty nesters. We headed to the neighbourhood beach for our customary walk with our adopted Indie baby Ruby looking forward to her leash-free run and beach exploration.
A few steps onto the sand past the beach shack, I heard Manish calling me to come and see something fascinating. Here is the sight that had caught his attention and my breath. Could this be true I wondered?
Seeing the Olive Ridley sea turtle was on my bucket list and we were hoping to do this in coastal Odisha, the largest mass nesting site of this vulnerable species. A trip yet to be planned, with the understanding that we could only see them from a distance as the nesting areas are cordoned off. And here I was looking at a nesting olive ridley at arm’s length!
My brain cells fired up and I realised that we needed to first get our curious Ruby away and then do something to safeguard the turtle and her nest. Noticing a jeep and some folks who seemed to be keeping a watch, I walked up to them and asked if they had informed any responsible authority. They were fisherfolk from a nearby village and wondered if I could figure out who to contact.
I searched on my phone for helpline numbers to report Goa turtle nesting, found a 24-hour turtle conservation center and called, only to be disappointed after explaining the situation. The person answering said the location was far for them to do anything! When pressed for alternatives, he suggested contacting the Goa Forest Department but refused to help in making that call, leaving me, a lay citizen, to figure that out for myself.
The Goa Forest Department only had landline numbers listed and no helpline for emergencies. As expected nobody answered the calls as they were all landline numbers and before 7:30 am was out-of-hours! Feeling stuck but unwilling to give up, I kept thinking and it struck me that I could check with my birding guide who was bound to be plugged into the local conservation ecosystem. Aware that he was leading a birding tour outside the state, I messaged hoping for a response. The single tick marks on my messages told me he was out of network coverage.
Thinking some more I recalled another birding guide who I had not yet contacted. Give it a shot I said, decided to call rather than message, and heaved a sigh of relief when Rahul Alvares answered! A herpetologist, conservationist, wildlife and birding guide, Rahul was excited by what I told him and immediately sent me mobile numbers of a couple of forest department officials who would be sure to help. I was in luck, and got a response on the first number I called. As directed I shared the location along with the above video clip, and was assured that help was on the way. I was guided to go back to the spot and standby until the arrival of the lifeguards who were due to start their duty at 8 am. I was informed that all the lifeguards on Goa beaches are trained to safeguard turtles and nests until the forest department comes in.
I had meanwhile come across a second turtle but this one was lifeless with head missing and reported it. Having sent the sad picture and its location to be used for reporting and investigation, I traced my way back to the first turtle and was greeted with a heartwarming scene of lifeguards having secured the nest and keeping morning walkers and onlookers at a distance to allow an unobstructed safe return to sea for the turtle.
The turtle was clearly exhausted and it was a slow journey back with the morning heat beginning to set in. These turtles usually come to shore to nest in the night as I understand; perhaps the timing of the tide was such that this event happened at dawn. And it was extremely unusual for turtles to come ashore in this stretch of the beach; they are known to do so further south in Talpona and Galgibaga beaches which are reserved and monitored by the forest department. What a stroke of luck then that we got to witness this miraculous happening! Infact we had visited Galgibaga a few earlier and seen olive ridley turtle eggs in protected enclosures.
Feeling blessed and grateful, we bid goodbye to our Olive Ridley as she disappeared into the Arabian Sea.
Her eggs were relocated for safekeeping and hatching to the Galgibaga turtle conservation zone, and hopefully some hatchlings made it safely to sea sometime in March.
We witnessed firsthand the critical role played by the local community in conservation efforts and a synergistic partnership at work.
It’s gut-wrenching to write this blog. In the past 10 months, we have been to 5 continents and countless countries but Cambodia evoked special emotions like no other. You gotta feel for a country whose mind, body and spirit was broken not once, but twice in quick succession in the space of just a decade. Getting caught in the crossfire of the Vietnam War in early 70s as collateral damage, Cambodia became one of the heaviest bombed countries in the world with America dropping 300,000 tons of bombs leading to 500,000 civilian casualties! As soon as the war was over, one of their own – the deranged communist Pol Pot and his ultra-Maoist party the Khmer Rogue with utopian visions of establishing an agrarian society – executed 2 million Cambodians (mostly city folks) and moved the country back to dark ages. Thank God they did not destroy the Angkor temples which perhaps stand tall as the fitting symbol of the resilience of the Khmer people.
As we left Thailand and landed in Siem Reap, we were already wondering how Cambodia had managed to rebound after such a brutal modern history. We got the answer within 15 minutes – its wonderful Khmer people. The sweet welcome at the airport by our ever-smiling tuk tuk driver Sukham (who would become the bedrock of our transport to Angkor temples over the next few days) followed by the helpful attitude of staff at the Villa Sok San hotel was enough to convince us that the Khmer people have come out of their tragic history and have moved on!
A quick primer: at its height, Angkor (here at Siem Reap) was the seat of the glorious Khmer kingdom between 9th and 15th centuries with a population of over 1 million. The Khmer kings (mostly Hindu, some Buddhist) built hundreds of temples dedicated to Gods Shiva & Vishnu – the most notable being Angkor Wat, Bayon (Buddhist), Ta Prohm , Banteay Srei, Banteay Samre and Preah Khan. It’s truly an embarrassment of riches. The Hindu influence came to Indochina from India via the trade route of Bay of Bengal. One needs 3-4 days to see the main temples at a relaxed pace as they are spread far apart.
After a quick nap, we headed off to Angkor Wat (AW) for the sunset, which frankly, was a little underwhelming!
The next morning, we woke up at 5 am to join literally thousands of people, for AW sunrise! Quite a shock specially when you want exclusive rewards for waking up so early. It was more fun watching the photographic circus than the sunrise itself, which by the way, was far superior to the sunset.
Based on the sun direction, we had optimized our temple-route to maximize our photographic opportunities. According to plan, after sunrise we immediately headed off to Angkor Thom and the Bayon temple. Angkor Thom is the name of the larger complex within which its main attraction Bayon temple is situated. The first glimpse of Angkor Thom south gate with 54 Devas and Asuras on each side representing the churning of ocean milk, is mesmerizing.
The towering statues of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara above the gate gives it an truly imposing feel.
Bayon, with its 54 towers depicting smiling statues of Avalokiteshvara (with a hint of Jayavarman VII’s face – the king who built it) is breathtaking. Whichever angle you look from, the statues exude the king’s power.
The bas-reliefs add a beautiful dimension to Bayon.
Mika produced a lovely sketch on the spot.
Next we headed off to the Baphuon temple followed by the Elephant Terrace – which was used as a huge platform for watching ceremonies.
The adjoining platform is called Terrace of the Leper King to support the legend which says at least two Angkor kings had leprosy.
By now it was insanely hot and we took a lunch break followed by a power nap. We then headed back to the big daddy AW for the third time, this time to explore it properly from the inside. In retrospect, it turned out that we loved Bayon and Banteay Srei more than AW – I guess its a matter of taste. Sometimes overcrowding influences your likes and dislikes – the crowds at AW are obviously not for the faint-hearted. Built by Suryavarman II, AW is dedicated to lord Vishnu. Its an impressive and massive complex surrounded by a moat on all sides. The stone blocks to build it were quarried from 50 Kms away! The bas reliefs are most impressive and if you know your Ramayana and Mahabharata, you would love it !
It’s the end of a long and tiring day and its time to head to Pub street which frankly is a tourist trap.
We managed to find some vegetarian food followed by fried ice cream rolls for Mika. She loved it!
It was a wild scene on the streets – have you ever seen cocktail bars on carts before?
Next morning we headed off on a long 90 minute tuk tuk journey to Banteay Srei – the hidden jewel of Angkor and the man of the match in our opinion. Interestingly it was not built by a king but by one of the officials. We were simply blown away by the intricate sand stone carvings.
Lovely folk music at the exit by some landmine victims:
We headed to the nearby Landmine museum founded by the Khmer man Aki Ra, who has dedicated it to thousands who were affected and continue to be affected by the dormant landmines laid out / air-dropped during Vietnam war. We were heartbroken to learn that USA dropped 300,000 tons of bombs secretly (without the senate approval!) on the Ho Chi Minh trail in Cambodia, killing half a million people (during the Vietnam War). Example of stupid things powerful nations can do to smaller ones. The museum gave as an insight into how children like Aki Ra were recruited by the Khmer Rouge in the days following the US bombings, how many of them fought on different sides with no understanding of what was happening around them. It all is very complex and we still could not fully comprehend how the Khmer Rouge came to power.
We were not expecting much from our next stop Banteay Samre but the isolated temple with its architecture, won us over.
The lovely Cambodian curries at at the pre-researched vegetarian restaurant Chamkar obviously resulted in a lot of brownie points for me.
We kicked off our last day with the atmospheric Ta Prohm Buddhist temple set amidst a jungle with roots of ancient trees making their way through the temple structure in many places. It has been immortalized by the Angelia Jolie starrer Lara Croft: Tomb raider. Completely different from the more organized and structured Angkor Wat: Ta Prohm is wild, unstructured, uninhibited and we loved it. Of special proud mention is the ASI’s (Archaeological Socieny of India) involvement in the temple’s restoration.
Our last temple of the day was the beautiful Preah Khan. The lesser the crowd, the better the ruins !
Our last stop was the War Museum at Siem Reap which was made really interesting by the guide who was an actual war veteran. He showed us ball bearings still embedded in his body from the war and landmine days ! It was here in a clear chronology of events that we understood how the Khmer Rouge came to power in the years following the 1970 US-backed coup to overthrow prime minister Norodom Sihanouk, (the last in line of the Angkor kings, who had campaigned for freedom from French colonial rule and abdicated his throne after independence) with a stated neutral stance but a slightly left inclination.
Our Angkor adventure had come to an end it was time to move to the capital city Phnom Penh to better understand the horrors of Khmer Rogue. A very comfortable Giant Ibis us whisked us to PP in 6 hours. I made full use of my time and mobile data to finish the Thailand blog. Time management !
The stylish Blue Corner Boutique hotel turned out to be one of the best of the whole world trip.
After a satisfying dinner at the nearby Indian Veg restaurant run by a Mumbaikar, we got lost on the way back to the hotel but google maps once again came to the rescue. It is amazing how much of a leveler technology is – countless times on this trip we have corrected taxi drivers and given them directions on their home ground much to their annoyance !
On a day that the world was celebrating valentine’s day, we visited its anti-thesis in the form of Tuol Sleng Genocide museum and were moved to tears.
The Cambodian civil war in 1975 was won by the communist Khmer Rouge – an organization with the flawed and demented vision of turning Cambodia into a giant agrarian society in which there was no place for education, religion, sports, entertainment and intellectuals. They were led by Pol Pot – the deranged leader who was inspired by Maoist ideas during his education in Paris. The genocide that he inflicted on his own people (2 million out of 8 million total population were executed) in the name of social re-engineering is a chilling example of how countries can be doomed under mad, unbalanced, one-sided leadership. The recruits were poor 15 year olds from the countryside who had no idea what they were fighting for. The population was divided into “new folks” (city dwellers) – the bad guys and “old folks” (village dwellers) – the good guys. If you belonged to the former category, you were doomed. All cities including the capital Phnom Penh were evacuated within 3 days and everyone was forced to the countryside where they had to work in fields for 12-15 hours a day under inhuman conditions. Factories, schools, transport, religious structures, offices, stadiums – were considered “evil” and destroyed. Educated folks (doctors, engineers, musicians, lawyers.. you name it) were brought to torture centers like this, imprisoned, interrogated, forced into false admissions and then executed. If you wore glasses – a visible sign of “urban excess” – you were automatically doomed ! Crazy stuff. 20,000 prisoners died here alone at this school-turned-prison and when KR run out of graves , prisoners were sent to the killing fields. It all sounds too horrifying to describe and we were moved to tears constantly.
This is the main building where prisoners were kept.
A typical bed with shackles in an “interrogation” room:
Decomposed body of a prisoner:
Translated from Khmer, these chilling regulations need to explanation:
This is Pol Pot – the mad leader who ordered it all. After the fall of Khmer Rouge he fled to Thai border and died 20 years later. He was never captured or brought to trial :
These are class rooms hastily turned into prison cells:
Mika’s cute message on the message board:
Inside of a solitary cell:
Some of the inhuman torture methods:
Memorial with names of all who died here:
What left us stunned was the fact that a bunch of Swedes who were a part of neutral international assessment team, kept supporting Khmer Rouge; garnered international funds for them and ended up influencing the western voices who would not believe that the genocide had indeed been committed, after it was unearthed in 1979. Khmer kept its seat in UN for a full 10 years and the trial only started 20 full years after the atrocities were committed. Pol Pot was never put to trial. All the influential nations – US, France, UK etc were completely fooled and did nothing to bring justice to Cambodians. They chose to believe the stage-managed glimpses of the country organised by Pol Pot rather than the harrowing tales of refugees who had managed to escape. Crazy stuff that shook us to the core !!
We came away very disturbed and headed to Empire cinema/restaurant to watch the award-winning movie “Killing fields” to go in depth into the genocide. Another Indian dinner rounded up a highly emotional and disturbing day.
The next morning we visited the Choeung Ek killing fields – part 2 of the genocide, containing mass graves of Cambodians, about 17 kms south of the city. To take us there we had booked the services of Huot based on great reviews on TripAdvisor. Found him to be a genuinely warm and extremely sharp person with whom we could discuss a whole lot of things, the political situation, the state of education, mindsets of the people, etc. We learnt so much !
When Khmer Rouge ran out of burial spaces in the torture centers (like the one we visited yesterday) it devised an evil plan to kill people en-mass in these killing fields. Prisoners were brought here in the dark of the night by trucks, hacked to death and thrown in a mass graves. Bullets were expensive, so metal tools were used to kill. Babies were killed by smashing their heads against trees ! By morning, pits would be covered. All of this sounds too horrible to be true ! Remember there were 300 killing fields like this – we only visited the main one.
All the skulls that were discovered at this site are now kept together in a memorial:
The graves will shock you:
The memorial for the victims combines “Garudas” and “Nagas”, traditional enemies, to symbolise their coming together for peace:
What did we learn? It takes only one demented leader to screw a country for generations. If people are educated, their chances of being brain washed by extremist ideologies, can be reduced. Even that is easier said than done, as demonstrated in Germany. What of other countries who watch in silence ? They are equally responsible. If the world community stood up in these moments of horror and took prompt action, these genocides would never occur.
Since we were so happy to have chatted with Huot and found him a genuine Cambodian, we engaged his services again the next morning to drop us to the airport. On the drive we learnt this wonderful man who is very fortunate to have survived the Khmer Rouge years, (separated from his parents as a toddler and then fortunately reunited) manages an orphanage for children impacted by landmines.
In summary, we were amazed to note the resilience of the Khmer people. How they have rebounded from their trauma, buried their hatred for direct and indirect perpetrators and rebuilt the country from scratch in the last 30 years is an example for the world on how to overcome adversity and move on. Cambodia – you are our favorite destination of our entire trip and will remain etched in our hearts for ever. Love and good bye.
It’s January 2017 and as Meha, Mika & I look back, it’s been an incredible nine months since we embarked on our audacious goal of traveling the world for a full year as a family. Even we are (positively) shocked at the ground we have covered so far – Egypt, North America, South America, UK, Africa, Australia and parts of India. Reminds us of the old adage – there is nothing called perfect timing; do when you feel like it ! Anyway, we took a well deserved break at my parents’ place at Muzaffarpur for a couple of weeks after our marathon one-month Australian trip (November 2016) and then headed off to Imphal for my 30 year school(RKMV Deoghar) reunion. The demonetization bomb hit India while we were in Australia which in hindsight was a good thing – away from all the madness ! It is instructive to note that after landing in Bihar, almost everyone from the underprivileged class I spoke to were in favor of Modi’s bombshell initiative:”Happy the corrupt are getting caught with their stashed cash, we have nothing to hide anyway”!
The reunion brought out the child within all of us with the realization that there is no substitute to school and college friends. Since we stayed in hostel for 7 long years, our bonding was very strong with an endless array of stories to share! And it was fun playing football after 30 years ! In a nutshell, we had a blast.
After Imphal, we were supposed to head off to Kaziranga in search of the one-horned Rhino but an unforeseen development forced an unscheduled stop at Bangalore. Mika’s passport-sleeve tore in Australia and it needed urgent replacement necessitating a trip to the passport office. Given the renewed efficiency of Indian passport office (the best of all GOI systems), it turned out be anti-climax and we had the passport back within 5 days ! A great stay with old pals Tanu and Sam was wonderful but the real blessing in disguise was the advance search (we saw around 10 villas) and eventual finalization of our rented house when we get back in March. 173 Phase 2 Palm Meadows awaits us from 7th March 2017 – what a comforting feeling to have found a home to go back to from day One of return! Satisfied, we headed off to Chennai to spend time with Meha’s parents and for the first time since our wedding celebrated Pongal with them.
18th January arrived and we headed off to South East Asia with eager anticipation. I would lie if I said we were not thrilled to realize how close home coming was; so admittedly it was difficult to maintain a high level of travel intensity in the last leg. However, we were determined to make the most of last 2 months of travel. We landed in Bangkok in the wee hours of 19th January and managed to dodge the infamous Bangkok traffic. The home-like ambience of Admiral suites at Sukhumvit Soi 22 was truly comforting. Lounging around the whole day in the hotel, we headed off in the evening to MBK for shopping. The chinese new year at Emporium mall was in full swing.
Going berserk at MBK, we must have bought the whole market and ended day 1 with a sense of satisfaction but not before trying the Thai Iced tea at the mall.
The next morning we headed off to Ayutthaya to explore the “finest city in the world in 1700’s” as proclaimed by European merchants. It was the second capital of Thailand after Sukhothai for over four centuries (1350-1767) with over 1 million inhabitants before being razed to the ground by the rampaging Burmese Army. Today it is a UNESCO World heritage site with some truly outstanding temples.
Hopes of making a 15-baht train journey from Bangkok’s Hua Lumpong station were immediately dashed as we had to cough 345-bahts per person for the first class journey as the train was a long-distance one 🙁
The clean Ayutthaya station immediately made us feel jealous.
The tuktuk-mafia at the Ayutthaya station had not bargained for a well-research tourist and we were on our way for a 3-hour package at a reasonable price.
First up was the highly photogenic Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon built in 1357 to house the monks returning from Sri Lanka.
Next up was Wat Phanan Choeng with a 19-m high Buddha created in 1324, surrounded by 84000 small buddha images.
It was really getting hot and we reached the big daddy- Wat Mahathat. It is here that Ayutthaya’s most enduring image is : the Buddha head entwined within the roots of a bodhi tree.
We learnt the shapes of various Chedis (stupas) & Prangs (towers) from different kingdoms and timelines. Chedi is a conical structure whereas prangs are corncob-like tower structures. Here is the Khmer-style prang, with visibly gradual tapering.
A great example of Khmer-style prang:
The holiest temple Wat Phra Si Sanphet has the Sinhalese-style Bell-shaped Chedis:
At our last stop Wat Chai Wattanaram, we can see that the Ayutthaya style prang has a sharply tapering corncob tower structure in contrast to the Khmer-style prang (gradual cone) in the background:
It was burning hot and we dashed back to Ayutthaya station to board the 3rd class 15-baht (yippee!) train back to Bangkok. Foot-massage at the Lek@22 (close to our hotel) was the best recipe to soothen our tired feet.
Now we are getting hypnotized by Bangkok’s cheap shopping and head the next morning to the famed Chatuchak market. A couple of hours of frenzied shopping followed, followed by REALLY-big Thai coconuts.
We woke up the next morning weary-eyed at 4:30 am for a 5:30 am taxi to the Hua Lumpong train station from where we plan to board the tourist-special Death Railway train to Kanchanaburi at 6:30 am. We had not bargained for the nasty surprise that awaited us at the station. “Train fully booked sir”, said the attendant at the counter of the highly-organized Bangkok station and our hearts sank; but not before we took the customary selfie. By now we have perfected the art of smiling to the camera in the toughest of situations !
Thankfully we were ready with our plan B having researched the night before and we took off by taxi to Thonburi station (alternative station in Bangkok) from where a 7:50 am local leaves for Kanchanaburi.
With nothing to do, we click some interesting shots of daily life surrounding the station.
We are not alone in the 1oo-baht 3rd class carriage. Giving company are all other tourists who missed the 6:30 am. By the way Thai class is very comfortable with cushioned seats !
Its a 3 hour loooong journey. We marvel at the cleanliness of some of the intermediate stops.
Finally Kanchanaburi arrives around 11 am and we happily alight. A quick primer on Thai-Burmese Death railway: During WWII, emperor of Japan had macabre ambitions to conquer all of Asia including West Asia & India. They needed a railway supply route from Thailand to Burma to support this misadventure. 180,000 Asian labourers (mostly Javanese, Malay Tamils, Chinese, Burmese, Thai etc) and 60,000 Allied Forces’ prisoners of war (British, Australians, Dutch & Americans) were used in this infamous construction under inhuman conditions. The incident has been immortalized in the 1957 David Lean movie “Bridge on the River Kwai”. A bit of trivia – the film that made this bridge world famous was actually shot in Sri Lanka.
As our train departs, we get the first glimpse of the picturesque River Kwai bridge.
We walk on the bridge and the peaceful atmosphere totally betrays the monstrous conditions that existed just a few decades back.
We walk to other end of the bridge where River Kwai station is situated from where we turn back.
We head off to a vegetarian restaurant followed by visit to a nicely-curated private museum which gave us a great historical perspective of the Death Railway.
We also visited the war graves of the Allied Forces PoW who had succumbed to the inhuman conditions and learnt that there were none for Americans since they had taken all their dead back home. We were disappointed to see that the loss of Asian labourers’ lives had very little mention though they were the major casualties accounting for 82.5% of all the lives lost. Lesson: you have to become a developed country otherwise no one cares for you. Good going Modi, hopefully the fickle-minded Indians will give you 20 years to transform our rickety, corrupt, poverty-stricken nation with apology of an infrastructure.
It’s time to take the 3 pm train back to Bangkok. It takes another 2 hours to get back from station to the hotel – the dreaded Bangkok traffic! We crash after a very long and tiring day. Every hotel we have come back to in this trip has reminded us of what the comfort of “home” really means.
Our last day in Bangkok is reserved for 2 iconic landmarks : Wat Pho and Wat Arun.
It’s time now to switch gears and head to one of Thailand’s famed national parks : Khao yai. We look forward to being amidst nature and wildlife – away from the urban madness of Bangkok. The homely atmosphere of Greenleaf Guethouse immediately puts us at ease. We have also signed up for a half-day tour of the park today followed tomorrow by the more intense full day one.
A tiring but satisfying one-and-a-half days yield sightings of bats streaming out of a cave by the thousands at sunset, wild elephants, three different types of hornbills, enormous spiders, banded kingfishers, a rat snake, colorful cicadas, centipedes and tiny bats in a cave, monkeys, huge rainforest trees and some amazing mushrooms.
Our next destination Sukhothai is in Central Thailand – a long 6 hour taxi ride. We marvel at the lovely roads and the comfortable journey while constantly debating when India will reach middle-income country status. Half my time I have been hallucinating on this trip about becoming India’s prime minister and transforming the nation. Sigh !
A quick primer on Sukhothai: founded by King Ramkhamhaeng, it was the capital of Thailand for around 120 years in the 13th century. Sukhothai literally means “Dawn of happiness” and as we check into our resort followed by visits to the ruins of two historic parks, we can see why. Blissfully peaceful, we immediately fall in love with the place and it becomes our favorite Thai destination of this trip !
We head off the next morning to the first set of ruins – Si Satchanalai Historic park. We loved the calm and rugged surroundings in which different monuments lie in their natural state.
But Sukhothai’s real jewel in the crown is the “Sukhothai Historical Park” which is best explored by cycle. We visited the north zone in the evening.
A delicious Thai meal rounded off the day’s proceedings nicely.
The best (central zone ruins) was reserved for the last morning – it was magically spiritual – cycling in the blissful and fresh atmosphere of early morning sun. We truly have fallen in love with Sukhothai and have decided we will come back and meditate here every few years.
Bursting with spiritual energy, we board our bus to Chiang Mai from New Sukhothai bus stand. It turns out that it was a big mistake taking the Esan tour bus in quest of 1st class seats and on-board toilet even though all search had pointed to Wintour bus being the best. In the end, the 1st class seats were ordinary, the toilet sucked and we were 2 hours late ! Anyway, GrabTaxi (like Uber) worked like a charm at the Chiang Mai bus terminal and when the Park Hotel upgraded us to corner suite including Godiva chocolates, our day was made !
It was laundry time the next morning. We have been really impressed by $1/kg (INR 68) laundries all over south-east asia. Really helps to keep your budget under control, not to speak of the royal feeling of someone else literally washing your dirty underwear !
Today was super sports sunday with 2 huge events – Australian Open Men’s final with our favorite Fed-Ex playing, followed by India-England T20 cricket. A quick google search led us to nearby Downunder sports pub run by a very affable Aussie. We joined the festivities and were elated with the Roger win in a cliffhanger. We made a deal with the owner to keep our seats reserved when we returned for the cricket game after a quick walk through Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. When we returned, we were the only ones in the pub and the owner obliged by tuning his TV to some pirated internet cricket site. The flickering non-HD pictures and lack of English fans to tease meant we lost interest and took the 50-baht GrabTaxi back to the hotel. End of a very satisfying day!
Next day was spent visiting the spectacular Wats of Chiang Mai – Wat Phra Singh, Phra Luang & the grand daddy Wat Doi Suthep.
We are here in Chiang Mai mainly for nostalgic reasons. During our last trip 10 years back, we took little Mika to the Elephant Nature Park – the rescue center for tortured elephants where humans can repent and interact with these wonderful creatures in their natural habitat. 31st January 2017 has been earmarked for our return visit so that teenage Mika can relive her precious childhood memories. Even though the camp has become something of a Disneyland swarming with tourists, their philosophy has remained intact so we had loads of fun.
A very early start the next morning takes us to Doi Inthanon National Park for some bird watching. Average day out with limited photographic closeups.
Last morning in Chiang Mai, Mika had a blast at the 3D Art Museum.
We signed off Chiang Mai with another great vegetarian lunch in an alley next to the museum.
Now we need a break from our hectic travel and what better way than fly to Krabi, one of Thailand’s famed beaches. We spent some time in Ao Nang beach at the great-value Real Relax resort, and did day trips to Railay/Phrang Nang cave beaches & Phi Phi Island. Phrang Nang was simply paradise. Our 20th anniversary nicely fitted in between and we changed resorts to relax a bit more. The special day was spent doing nothing, lounging around, eating strepsils (for my cold) and in general wondering where did those 20 years go !
Thanks for reading this monstrous blog. If you made it this far, you truly love us ! It’s time to fly to Cambodia tomorrow to explore its ancient ruins as well the cruelty inflicted by Khmer Rogue. Keep reading www.manysharpbends.com and see you in Cambodia.
It being a UNESCO-heritage site and one of Australia’s most iconic landmarks, a visit to Uluru (and Kata Tjuta) is nothing short of pilgrimage. In our earlier posts, we had mentioned how the “soul” of Australia (the real aboriginal history & its associated culture, national parks, the rugged outback, wild life and bird watching ) resided in the least-visited state of Northern Territory. And so it was time to fly from Sydney to the tiny airport of Ayers Rock on our least favorite but highly punctual airline Jetstar. The crazy accommodation prices reflect the remoteness of the place so we chose the cheapest private room at Outback Pioneer Lodge, which still set us back by $150 a night. All facilities and hotels are situated at a tiny town called Yulara, 20 kms from Uluru rock.
We wanted to spend all afternoon at Uluru, watching its colors change till sunset. At 3 pm, the sunset viewing car park was deserted (and at 6 pm jampacked), allowing us to choose a vantage point to enjoy the rock.
It looks dark brown in early afternoon hours.
Mika spent a couple of hours sketching the rock and you can tell it’s a cute effort.
A close up of the rock reveals a very rugged surface.
The customary silly pictures were taken with no one around.
By now the color has changed to light brown.
At around 5 pm, Uluru looks golden orange. A quick primer on Uluru: The monolithic sandstone rock is an astonishing 3.6 km long, 1.9 km wide, 348 high with a circumference of 9.6 kms. It was created 600 million years ago and the Aborigines have inhabited the region for over 10,000 years. To these indigenous “Anangu”people, the “rock” is of great spiritual significance as this is where their ancestors had interacted with the landscape. In their culture, these ancestral beings had created their culture at the beginning of time. Climbing the rock is prohibited by the indigenous folks even though a large number of visitors do it. Two-thirds of the rock is still underground.
And as the sun goes down, the color changes to Ochre.
The last shot of the day before we left around 7 pm. First project executed successfully.
At 6 am the next morning, we set out for Kata Tjuta (also knows as “The Olgas”), which is as pretty as Uluru. It is a series of 36 rock domes dating back 500 million years. The sunrise view point beautifully revealed the morning colors of the rocks.
The 7.4 km Valley of the Winds walk at Kata Tjuta has been rated by seasoned travelers as the best of the region. After the sunrise, we gobbled our packed breakfast and headed off for the spectacular walk. Full of gorges and lovely rugged scenery, it took us around 3 hours to finish including water breaks and photo stops. Very cool.
The indigenous cultural show back at the resort, frankly, was a little lame mainly due to extremely bored-looking dancers.
Kings Canyon, part of Wattarka National Park in NT, is 4 hours away from Uluru and its famed 6 km “King’s Canyon “Rim Walk” has been rated by some travelers as bettering even Uluru & Kata Tjuta. We were on a mission, so brushing the distance aside we started at 3:30 am and drove non-stop for 4 hours. At 5 am, we got super excited looking at some wild dogs which ended up being cattle! Due to excessive heat, the walk is usually closed by the rangers by 9 am to protect the hikers, oops.. sorry, “Bushwalkers”! We managed to start much before that.
The EXTREMELY steep 100-150 step vertical climb at the start has been named as “the heartbreak hill” ( or “heart attack hill” by some morbid souls) by the locals. But once you are past it, the enchanting views of the gorge and the valley below makes the whole effort worth it.
This is my favorite shot. We were constantly (with oodles of nostalgia) reminded of the rim walk at Grand Canyon Arizona. Of course the distance between the two rims at GC was vast but there are no clear winners !
Sometimes it is good to pause and introspect on the purpose of life which these two seem to be doing remarkably well !
A morning well spent and we were done by 11 am. After a four hour drive back, we had no energy left but we still enjoyed the live one-man blues band at the lodge over dinner.
Our last morning was spent again at the Uluru rock enjoying the mesmerizing morning colors of rock, from the sunrise viewing point called Talinguru Nyakunytjaku. In retrospect, I feel funny having spent countless hours googling for the best sunset and sunrise viewpoints, in the end choosing the obvious and official ones. But that is the human spirit – it does not stop till it has satisfactorily found an answer howsoever lame it may be. This is how the morning colors changed from dark to light:
We then quickly drove around the circumference of the rock to get a wider perspective in addition to bush walking the short Kuniya and Mala walks.
Feeling the spiritual energy up close.
The closest shot of the rock reveals a rugged surface with loads of moon-like craters. It’s like life – a situation or a person that looks picture perfect from a distance, reveals its true colors or imperfections at worst, when you come too close !
The pilgrimage had come to an end. As we boarded our Melbourne flight, Mika managed to click these lovely pictures of Uluru from the plane – putting its vastness into perspective. Thanks for reading and see you in Melbourne & Great Ocean Road !
The 4 hour long Virgin Australia flight from Darwin to Sydney reminded us how HUGE the Australian continent was. We laughed at the irony that at twice the India’s size, Australia has only 24 million denizens compared to India’s 1250 million !! Meha, Mika and I had pledged to focus more on wildlife, nature and culture (the real things of life) in this world trip than big cities, which are all the same more or less. The Sydney planning dilemma was elegantly solved by dividing equal time between urban and rural Sydney. What better choice for first stop, than Blue Mountains National park – only 2 hours from Sydney. As the sun was going down, Mika managed this fantastic aerial shot of the iconic Sydney landmarks from the plane.
Europcar rental sorted out, we headed straight to our lovely AirBnB cottage at Mt. Victoria in Blue Mountains, making a quick stop at Coles at Katoomba, for our groceries.
Easily the finest AirBnB we have stayed so far, the tastefully done bed 2 bedroom cottage in a peaceful setting immediately reminded us of the lovely English towns. This is how it looked like in the morning. Very relaxing.
Tired from our marathon trip of Northern Territory, we chose to enjoy a relaxed morning sipping English breakfast tea. The sole itinerary for the day was to visit Jenolan Caves. Part of the Oberon mountains in New South Wales, these lime stone caves are truly spectacular. You have to pre-book from a bunch of them and we did not regret our choice of Lucas caves. A very engaging commentary by our gregarious guide made it all the more interesting.
We had fallen in love with our pretty cottage so we came back and watched “The Mummy” which somehow felt so much more nicer in the relaxed setting. What rubbish – was my first reaction when I had seen it first a few years ago. It reminded us of how big role the state of mind plays in evaluating the SAME circumstance !
The next morning, we headed to Echo Point in Katoomba which has the best view of the Blue mountains. Delighted at finding free parking and a near-empty view point, we stayed for 30 minutes and enjoyed the peaceful setting before it would be run over by day trippers from Sydney.
One of the key views from Echo point is of “The 3 sisters”. Legend is that a sorcerer turned three sisters into stone to protect them from roving eyes of three lustful young men, but died before turning them back into humans. Given the majestic setting, I’m sure the 3 sisters have enjoyed the solitude for centuries and probably would not want to come back as humans to this very touristy town !
Our next stop was Sublime Point, which true to its name, provided even more serene views than its more famous sister, Echo Point.
A quick visit to Blue Mountains lake was next with Mika truly fascinated by the frolicking of this cute one.
Wentworth Falls look out point had some outstanding views of the Blue Mountains:
Our last stop for the day was Govett’s Leap Lookout at Blackheath, thankfully only a couple of miles from our cottage.
While researching Australia, the top question on our minds was “Where to see Kangaroos in the wild?”. A TripAdvisor (thanks to this site and its members for answering millions of such questions for the whole year) article from 2012 had pointed to a place called Euroka Clearing – between Blue Mountains and Sydney. As we check out of our cottage and headed to Sydney via Euroka clearing, our thoughts were filled with positive anticipation. With not a soul in site at Euroka, we thought that was a great thing as we could have the Kangaroos all for ourselves. The initial bird sightings were wonderful.
We searched all over for 2 hours for Kangaroos and almost gave up (also since a trekker mentioned they would congregate here mostly in the afternoons and it was still 11 am), when THIS happened:
There are days in life when you TOTALLY luck out, and today was our day. We had these Kangaroos for ourselves out in the wild for a full 2 hours before one van arrived. We devoured the magical experience with glee, triumphantly patting ourselves in the back . The pictures below speak for themselves.
By 1 pm, we were Kangaroo-ed out and headed to Sydney to the next AirBnB which disappointingly was not as great as the earlier one. This is the thing with AirBnB – with no standardization, some days will certainly not be yours. Any way, Aus-SA cricket was on and with home made Khichdi as companion, what else do you need ! We returned the car and crashed.
The next morning was reserved for city sight seeing – mainly the Harbour bridge, Opera House and the Botanical gardens. By the way, did you know Sydney was only formed in 1790 when the English (who else !) invaded and drove out the Aboriginal people from Sydney area (what’s new ?). This Limo in central Sydney kicked off proceedings for the day.
The outstanding view of the Sydney Opera House from the Harbour bridge, truly takes your breath away. Having taken a metro, we walked the whole bridge North to South, ending up in Circular Quay.
At circular quay, it was time to take the customary public ferry to Manly Island and back, little realizing how ferocious the waves were – completely drenching us – making an ass of us in front of thousands of tourists ! Mika always has a ball seeing daddy’s misery in these funny circumstances!!
We walked up the Opera house steps but frankly it looks better from a distance. Our last stop for the day was adjoining botanical gardens.
New Year planning celebrations were on in full swing:
At the mid point in the gardens, you get this great view of both the iconic landmarks together.
Next we walked all the way up to Mrs. Macquarie’s point and did not understand what was all the fuss about as the views had been better from earlier points. Exhausted, we headed back home for a much deserved nap.
Evening has been reserved for the Coogee beach to Bondi Beach walk. We screwed up our bus timings, resulting in a minor family altercation, and missed the walk. Blessing in disguise as the LONG walk was over 6 kms, so we sat and enjoyed the Bondi Beach views.
Next morning we headed to the Sydney Cricket Ground guided tour. With so many child hood memories including walking up at 5:30 am in India for the test match radio commentary, an upswell of emotions was natural. We started with the adjoining Allianz stadium, used mainly for Australian football, of which most Indians like us have no clue.
The SCG tour began with this classic analog turnstile. Vintage stuff.
Feverishly clicking pictures in the main stadium as if there was no tomorrow, I finally calmed down.
The classic pavilion and member’s stand view:
Mika was disappointed at the “ordinariness” of the dressing rooms, expecting them to be much more posh!
Mika’s day was made by touching Smith and Warner’s water bottles !
The museum had some great memories from the past but we were being rushed by the guide – I would have liked to spent at least an hour here.
How can I forget this series! After being 0-2 down, we came back strongly to win the next 2 tests before narrowly losing the series 2-3.
The guy I absolutely worshiped as a kid :
We had a quick coffee in the SCG member’s area before heading off to Darling Harbour.
Evening was reserved for Bondi Beach:
Very interesting culture of having “swimming pools” next to beaches. It was too cold to swim though.
Another of Mika’s master creations:
And that concluded our Sydney trip. Tomorrow we fly to Ayers Rock for Part 2 of our Northern Territory exploration. Will Uluru and Kata Tjuta rocks live up to the hype? We shall see. Thanks for reading our blog at www.manysharpbends.com and see you at Uluru.
After an exhilarating 10 days in Queensland, it was time to explore the Australian “Outback” (Aussie for wilderness) at Northern Territory – the remotest and least known of all Australian states, but the most beautiful and “real” Australia in our opinion. Most tourists confine themselves to the standard “Melbourne-Sydney-Gold Coast” circuit – that’s a real shame in our opinion, as the true riches lie in NT. The famed Uluru & Kata Tjuta rocks also belong to NT but that is for another blog. Darwin as the base to explore the upper part of Northern Territory reminded us of North East India – so far from main action that it seems another world. It is closer to Timor Sea and Papua New Guinea than main parts of Australia ! After being penalized 50 AUD by Jetstar for excess baggage in the previous leg, the Air North flight from Cairns to Darwin via Gove, was a real charm with free food and baggage allowance.
We landed in the tropical heat of Darwin and were immediately upgraded by the Punjabi dude at Hertz counter from sedan to SUV. You can take an Indian out of India but you can’t take India out of him/her! Darwin is primarily a launch pad to explore the national parks of NT – notably Kakadu, Litchfield & Katherine. We hung around for a day exploring the botanical garden, NT museum and the waterfront. Darwin was at the center of action during WW II and also was devastated by Cyclone Tracy in 1974 in which 65 people perished.
Having made full use of the Ramada infinity pool, our real outback journey began the next morning as we headed off through Stuart highway to Litchfield National Park – famous for its lovely swimming rock pools and termite mounds.
We stopped briefly at the small town of Batchelor to capture some interesting bird life, including our first glimpse of the lovely sulphur-crested cockatoo.
Soon after the magnetic termite mounds appeared – looking like tombstones. Built by termites they are amazing architectural wonders containing arches, tunnels, chimneys etc, and are aligned north-south to minimize exposure to sun. You also get to see the giant Cathedral Termite mounds.
It was time to swim in the lovely rock pool of Buley Rock Hole, where the water cascades through a series of rock pools.
Next up was Florence falls with a steep descent to a deep pool surrounded by lush greenery. We were brave enough only to venture in the shallow part. Some intrepid souls were doing cliff jumping – too adventurous for us.
Litchfield done, a four hour drive brought us to Katherine which is famous for its gorges. A quick visit to the culture center was a flop as there was nothing to see but Mika posed for the customary photos nevertheless.
Beagle Motor Inn was bit of a disaster with tiny rooms and antique microwave which meant it took more than hour to heat our pasta. Oh well, it cannot beat El Mirador in Cusco – our worst accomodation of the trip.
Next morning we headed off to the famed 2-gorge tour of Katherine gorge, but not before meeting some exciting wild life at the boat landing.
The Nitmiluk gorge tour (Nitmiluk is the original Aboriginal name of Katherine) reminded us of the Colorado river and Grand Canyon. A series of 13 deep sandstone gorges have been cut by nature through Katherine river between Arnhem land and Timor sea.
Jawoyn people are the traditional Aboriginal owners of this land who manage the park in partnership with the Australian government.
Another four hour drive through Arnhem Highway brings us to Cooinda, our first stop in Kakadu National Park. Not before bit off a scary adventure when I momentarily dozed off behind the wheels almost causing an accident! And boy we loved those cargo trucks which are amusingly called as “Road Trains” !
Kakadu National Park, 20000 sq kms in area, is famous for Aboriginal culture, Rock art, billabongs (water ways) and some lovely wildlife and birds. We checked into Cooinda lodge and headed straight to the Warradjan Aboriginal culture center, which depicts the aboriginal culture.
Armed with the initial orientation, we headed off to Nourlangie – which has an imposing escarpment of red stand stone and famed rock art. The rock art which is between 20,000 to 10 years old, depicts “dreaming” stories and its an important cultural link between Aboriginal people and their ancestoral teachings. Some paintings are believed to have been made by mimi spirits (the “creation” ancestors) – a fact difficult to dispute , given the amazing height of some of these paintings which are impossible for humans to climb ! The 2 km walking loop took us first to Anbangbang Shelter which was used for refuge, and then to Anbangbang Gallery – the famed rock art. One of the main paintings features Nabulwinjbulwinj, the mean spirit who ate females !
On the way in, we had been rewarded with a chance encounter with a Wallaroo.
A spectacular sunset was just the right way to wind down today’s proceedings.
As an aside, the Nourlangie traditional owners rejected millions of dollars in revenues from French nuclear giant Areva for uranium mining, choosing to integrate that land with the national park – an amazingly positive example of environment conservation.
The next morning we were treated to the exquisite bird life of Kakadu in the yellow water cruise. Highlights include magpie goose, green pygmy goose, pelicans, Jabiru stork, herons, egrets, cormorants, eagles, kites, kingfishers, crocodiles and much more. The creeks that cut through the park result in mighty waterfalls in the rainy season. Then they flood the plains to the West Alligator, South Alligator and East alligator rivers – no alligators are found in Kakadu, only crocodiles !! Those are the amusing side effects of colonization – some clueless idiot names stuff wrongly and it stays!
After the yellow water cruise, we headed off to Jabiru and enroute did the 2 km Bardeddjildji Sandstone walk. You are rewarded with some wonderful eroded sandstone formations.
Next up was Manngarre Monsoon forest walk where we encountered thousands of bats – never seen anything like this before !
Close to Jabiru, Ubirr is the second mecca of Aboriginal rock art, apart from Nourlangie. Images include kangaroos, tortoises and x-ray fish – this was the main style 8000 years ago.
We spent an hour at the Nardab Lookout, which provided lovely views of Jabiru from the escarpment.
This painting at Ubirr is of Rainbow Serpent – a deity specially revered by the Aboriginal people.
At Jabiru, we checked into the Mercure Crocodile hotel, which is shaped as a crocodile !
The deal with Mika the next morning was that mummy & daddy would sneak out at 6 am to Mamakula wetlands while she slept. Mamakula,20 km east of South Alligator river, has some wonderful bird watching opportunities and we were additionally rewarded with a kangaroo encounter in the classic “jumping” pose.
It was time to sleep rest of the day and commence our 4 hour journey the next morning to Darwin airport via Arnhem Highway. All of Meha’s wildlife wishes had been fulfilled except the sighting of the Blue-winged Kookaburra. God obliged again with “Tathastu” (So be it) and we had the sighting within 15 minutes !!
And we had our last meeting with the Cockatoos !
We made a brief stop at Window on the wetlands and Fogg Dam – two very educational resources on the birds and wildlife of the region.
And the last Kangaroo sighting !
As we turned from Arnhem highway to Stuart Highway for Darwin airport, the first part of our Northern Territory adventure came to an and. We now head to Sydney before flying to Ayers Rock for NT part 2 (Uluru & Kata Tjuta rocks). See you in Sydney + Blue Mountains and keep reading our blog at www.manysharpbends.com
2nd Nov 2016 – We began the third phase of our world trip, a month of travel Down Under to parts of the island nation of Australia. Just over 24 hours (not accounting for hours gained in timezone crossover to the east) of leaving the shores of India at Chennai, we landed in the Coolangatta airport of Gold Coast. The sixth largest city of the sixth largest country, Gold Coast is a major tourist destination that got its name in the 1950s from the inflated prices of its real estate, goods and services. Its long stretches of sandy beaches and surf along with theme and amusement parks are the key attraction for most visitors. Lesser known is the biodiversity that this region has to offer in the patches of ancient sub-tropical rainforest and mangroves that have managed to survive the onslaught of urbanisation and new-age thrills and are now fortunately protected.
Having arrived a little before 7 am and about 4 hours before we could check-in, Manish decided the best use of our time would be a visit to the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary (which incidently also has the country’s biggest rainforest aviary) situated quite close to our AirBnB acco at Burleigh Waters. So we got our rental car and headed out with fingers crossed to get there in time for the morning Lorikeet feeding, a major attraction for all visitors. Which we did and then realised we were missing our beloved little Canon G7X camera! We had just spent a fortune on getting it repaired in Chennai after a fall it had suffered in the desert sand near Jaisalmer. A frantic hunt through all possible places yielded nothing. Bravely pushing aside the sinking feeling that it may have been left at the Kuala Lumpur airport near a security checkpoint, we decided to stay in the moment and marched forth. The mesmerising sight of hundreds of brightly coloured Rainbow Lorikeets flying in lifted our spirits. We were ever more grateful for our mobile phone cameras to be able to capture the beautiful moments!
Next attractions quite predictably were the koalas and kangaroos, the two iconic Australian marsupials. Looking at the layout map, we saw “tree kangaroos” listed and were eager to find out about them. We had never heard of them before. First up were the koala enclosures. We learnt that koalas sleep most of the day because their diet (leaves of specific types of eucalyptus) is low in energy. Like sloths (those adorable intoxicated looking arboreals we saw in the Amazon rainforest), they spend about 20 hours in a day asleep on trees 🙂
Later that morning we got to witness the care-taking of a couple of wild koalas that were under treatment in the sanctuary’s hospital before they could be released back into their natural habitat. Recent conservation efforts have helped improve the situation for koalas that were driven to the brink of extinction due to extensive hunting by European settlers in the early 20th century. Currently classified as “Vulnerable” by the IUCN, the gentle koalas face ongoing threats of habitat destruction and attacks by feral dogs.
And then came the legendary, curiosity invoking kangaroos. We learnt of the two main types of land kangaroos, red and grey, from the volunteers at the sanctuary. We were delighted to be offered an opportunity to feed some of the grey kangaroos.
And then the fascinating tree kangaroos, a complete novelty for us. We got to see a couple of Goodfellow’s tree kangaroos, an endangered species. A most exotic looking animal, it is quite different from its land dwelling cousins.
Next door was the “croc” enclosure where we learnt the difference between the much feared Aussie “saltie“, the powerful estuarine crocodile and the shy freshwater crocodile. And then the Australian Parrots and Cockatoo enclosure with its mind boggling variety of birds in so many different colours! It was an enriching morning, not just on account of being able to see and learn about the unique fauna of this island nation, but also conversations with the volunteers on their work and an enthusiastic discussion on cricket that Manish had with a staff member.
It was time to check-in and recheck all our bags for our camera, the former was the silver lining and the latter unfortunately the cloud :(. Groceries, SIM and lunch done, we tried to catch some shut eye and figure out our under-water camera strategy for the Great Barrier Reef, before heading out to the beach for an evening stroll. The views stretching from Surfers Paradise with its skyline in the north to the hills of the Burleigh Heads National Park in the south were pretty, though the summer evening proved a little too cold for our comfort.
Warmly clothed in our fleece jackets, we admired the esplanade with its wide walkways and public exercise machines overlooking the beach and its being put to good use by the locals who were out walking, jogging and running in summery outfits.
After twilight we drove down to buy a new Cannon G7X, armed with the underwater casing that we had bought a couple of months earlier. Much to the surprise of the salesman and our disappointment, the camera didn’t fit into the casing by just a couple of mm!! It was the newer Mark II version while our brand new $200 casing was for the Mark I model that (we had lost) had now been discontinued. So we decided to sleep over it.
The next day was an action oriented one starting with the Skypoint Climb, one of the highlights of Gold Coast. You are zipped to the top of Q1, one of world’s tallest buildings and from there it’s is a 40-meter manual climb up the stairs with safety harness attached to everyone. Exciting yet scary stuff, specially with blustery winds threatening to push you down !
The afternoon was spent at the Movie world park which frankly was an utter waste of time and money, with hardly any teenage attractions. We could not visit Dream World park as it was closed due to a fatal accident the week before.
We left Movie World within an hour and were back to our favorite Skypoint observation deck admiring the lovely views of Surfers Paradise coastline over a coffee/beer.
We saved the best for last – a visit to the lush “Hinterlands”, the ancient rainforests whose origin is traced back to Gondwana, the part of the supercontinent. Springbrook national park is 40 minutes from Burleigh Heads and comprises mainly of temperate, subtropical eucalyptus forest. With huge canyons, gorges, cliffs, scenic look outs such as Best of All lookout point, falls such as Purling Brook falls – it is a world apart from the hedonistic scene of Surfer’s paradise.
We also found time to chill and run at the beautiful Burleigh Heads national park – the vibes here are so much more relaxed than the hyped up Surfers paradise.
That concluded our whirlwind 3 day tour of the Gold Coast.
The AUD 50 excess baggage charge by Jetstar at 5 am the next morning jolted us out of our slumber and we landed in Cannes cursing the airline under our breath. We played along with the Punjabi taxi driver who sang praises of Kejriwal for the freebies and attacked Modi for being “anti-people”. Hmmm…
We are here in Cannes mainly to fulfill the life time dream of experiencing the Great Barrier Reef corals, apart from visiting the Daintree Rainforest and other natural attractions of Queensland. Both GBR and Daintree are World Heritage sites. A nice 2 bedroom AirBnB owned by a highly affable Aussie was a great start to the week. After a home made lunch and a much needed nap, we picked our rental car and headed straight to Palm Cove – supposedly the best of beaches around. After arriving, we wondered what the fuss was all about. With Goa in our backyard, we really don’t need to run around the world for beaches- was the lesson. Anyway, Mika made a nice sand castle and that concluded our first evening nicely.
It was an early start the next morning to Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation – where the “Rainforest meets the Reef” as the locals say. The whole region is a combination of forest, rivers, reef and also the home of Kuku Yalanji aboriginal people. It’s at the lowland between DainTree and Bloomfield rivers where the rainforest meets the reef. Crossing the Daintree ferry, we pressed on to Cape Tribulation which is famous for its beaches, mountains and “reef meets forest” view. Apart from lovely views along the way, we were also lucky to meet the elusive Cassowaries. The day was nicely signed off at the famous Daintree Icecream company which grows exotic fruits in their orchard and produces natural and yummy icecream.
The next morning we headed to Atherton Tablelands – full of greenery, giant fig trees, lakes, waterfalls and mountains. The Milla Milla waterfall circuit is the most popular with a bunch of lovely waterfalls
The day ended with platypus viewing at one of the privately owned farms in the Tablelands. Platypus is a duck-billed semi-aquatic mammal endemic to Eastern Australia. Very cool when they come up the water ! It is an exercise in patience as you are not supposed to make any noise and also they are extremely small in size.
The next morning the big day arrived and we boarded Compass Cruises for their full day tour of the Great Barrier Reef. You need to carefully choose an operator who takes you to pristine outer reefs. The pictures speak for themselves.
We had tasted blood and were determined to go to the outer reef again, another day.
Before returning the car the next morning, we headed off to Flecker botanical gardens, Kuranda rainforest & Barron’s gorge.
After a couple of days rest, the special day arrived – baby Mihika’s 13th birthday. Where have all those years flown?? To celebrate her grand transition to teenage, we had booked another Outer Reef tour with a new boat called Seastar. With corals and snorkeling at 2 locations – Michaelman’s cay & Hasting’s reef, Mika truly had an unforgettable birthday. A specially hired underwater camera was used for capturing the underwater proceesdings. Mika managed to take some “Nemo” shots too ! For dinner was her favorite pesto pasta in a pre-planned Italian joint followed by cake cutting at home. Daddy had to spend all afternoon the previous day, desperately running around in baking sun to arrange for the cake as every thing was closed, it being sunday; with good old Coles finally coming to rescue ! Well worth the effort for the ultra special day !!
We spent the last day lounging around the esplanade and its 4800 sq m artificial swimming lagoon – a great respite after the hectic trips to the reef.
Our Queensland odyssey thus came to an end and we were now ready to fly to Darwin (Northen Territory) to experience the Australian outback. Thanks for reading our blog and see you soon in NT.
The Vivanta Taj President upgraded suite was just the right recipe to calm our battered bodies after a hectic but fulfilling Kenyan trip. The quest for authentic Maharashtrian snacks was quickly dashed, however, as we learnt that South Mumbai is “too posh” to cater for such native desires. Zomato came to rescue and we headed off to the unassuming Cafe Bharat with chaddi buddy Motu as company. After sharing silly college stories over beer (in the hotel), specially the one where I stole a whole block of Amul butter from the college mess, we were ready to hit the sack and bid good bye to Aravind.
Next day we headed off to dear friends Mangal & Rita (and their lovely daughter Charisma) in Andheri and were presented with a mouth watering lunch which will be difficult to forget.
The Mumbai-Udaipur flight was on time and soon after landing, we headed off to the local dhobi to handle last 10 days’ laundry. The imposing and enigmatically beautiful Ramada was just what we needed for a 3 day break.
The land of Mewar Rajputs, Udaipur has been hailed as most romantic city in India. I could not conjure up such feelings though as city center resembled a typical Indian provincial town. However the morning trip to Lake Pichola and the City Palace helped in reversing my feelings. City palace museum has some lovely stuff from era gone by.
The next morning was yours truly’s birthday and the best way to celebrate was to gulp a few beers. Its funny how no one questions for your sins on your birthday, so why not make the most of it.
I was jolted on my special day with the thought that 50 was close by so we headed off to the best parlor in town to get my hair colored ! And the Pichola lake boating that followed, with the setting sun and the various iconic landmarks in the background, made my day truly memorable. Thanks darlings Meha and Mika!
It was time to head to the famed evening folk performance at Bagore-Ki-Haveli. Packed to the last seat, it was a memorable performance of Rajasthani dance, music and puppet show. The best we saw on the whole trip.
After witnessing next morning’s beautiful sunrise, we were on our way to Jodhpur, via Kumbalgarh and Ranakpur.
Kumbalgarh, the first stop, has a fantastic Mewar fort second only to Chittorgarh. It had taken combined armies of Marwar, Amber & Akbar to conquer it, that too for only two days. With a smattering of temples, the fort has a surreal setting.
It was now mid day and time to visit one of India’s most beautiful Jain temple complexes at Ranakpur. Built of milk-white marble in 15th century, the main temple dedicated to Adinath (first Jain tirthankar), is an architectural wonder.
Enough sight seeing for the day. We drove on and checked into our lovely heritage B&B at Jodhpur, overlooking the imposing Mehrangarh fort, one of the most magnificent in India. The dinner on the terrace with the lit up fort in the background was amazing.
Next morning we woke up to a sea of blue-cubed homes around us – they signify Brahmin homes even though later the non-Brahmins too got in the act – perhaps symbolic of the transition India is making from a caste-based system to a more egalitarian one. The blue tint is also supposed to drive away the insects.
Jodhpur was the seat of the Rathore Rajputs, who had been driven away by Mohammed of Ghori from Kannauj. They settled in Pali near Jodhpur, eventually choosing the rocky ridge of Mehrangarh as their base under the leadership of Rao Jodha. The area was eventually known as Marwar (place of death) due to harsh conditions in the region.
Everything revolves around the fort and the magnificent museum – it took a good part of our first morning to soak both in.
Jodhpur Riff, a high-class annual cultural festival was on, and we grabbed the visual treat with both hands.
The icing on the cake for the day was zip-lining (courtesy flying fox company) at sunset over the mighty fort – an unforgettable experience indeed !
We visited the beautiful Jaswant Thada (memorial to Maharaj Jaswant Singh II) at 6 am the next morning where Jasleen Kaur regaled us with the soulful renditions as part of Jodhpur Riff concerts.
Remember the (in)famous Salman Khan Black buck/Chinkara hunting incident from 1998? Next we visited a Bishnoi Village, an hour from Jodhpur and learn how this sect, formed in 15th century, was way ahead of times in their belief of protecting the environment with a staunch belief of not harming wildlife and trees. As is typical in India, might is right – inspite of strong evidence Salman was sadly acquitted of hunting black bucks and chinkaras (Indian Gazelle) during shooting of Hum Saath Saath Hain. We were welcomed by a Bishnoi family with an Opium (!) ceremony, dressed up in their attire, interacted with them as well as saw a number of Black Bucks, Chinkara, Nilgai (largest Asian antelope) & migrating damoiselle cranes from Siberia. Great stuff .
Next we headed off to the final frontier Jaisalmer with the famed sunset of Sam dunes as our first stop. Even though crowded and highly touristy, the experience of the dunes on a camel, with the setting sun as the backdrop is truly unforgettable, specially if you move away to a peaceful corner away from the hawkers. Spending a night in the desert camp, regaled by a lovely Rajasthani cultural show is the icing on the cake.
Next morning we checked into Mystic Jaisalmer, a lovely family run hotel with lovely views of the Jaisalmer fort – one of the few in the world wherein more than 3000 people live within it’s ramparts !
First stop was, you guessed it – the fort ! Founded in the 12th century by Rajput Raja Jaisal, the fort has seen many battles between Rajputs and the Delhi Mughals. Early part of our morning was spent in the fort and the fort palace – the former rulers’ seven-story residence.
At the exit, we were rewarded with a chance meeting with dear friend Nitya and her family from Bangalore. We again met for dinner for a lovely conversation, and ohh, we ate too !!
Having been “Jain-templed” at Ranakpur, we only gave a cursory look at the temples near the fort.
Next up was Patwa-ki-haveli, a lovely haveli from the 19th century, situated in a narrow by lane near the fort. It was built by five jain brothers, who were merchants in brocade and jewellery. Fine stonework.
After a much desired lunch and nap, it was time to visit Gadi Sagar lake and desert culture museum. It is the result of the single handed effort of the owner Mr N K Sharma who has commendably spent a life time in setting up this lovely museum which has some lovely exhibits on princely states and Rajasthani culture. While introducing the puppet show, he came across as a highly committed and knowledgeable man.
Our last morning in Jaisalmer was spent at the poignant war museum which tells the story of valour and bravery of Indian soldiers in various wars. It is very unique as it is difficult to find war museums in other places in India. Specially this letter from a soldier to his family certainly moved us to tears.
We bade good bye to Jaisalmer and boarded the rickety and depressingly dirty 14060 Jaisalmer-Delhi express for Bharatpur. Most of my time was spent in photographing the dirty state of train and its toilets and lecturing fellow passengers and the TT about keeping the public property clean. Everyone had amusing looks on their faces. Free and genuine entertainment is hard to come by now a days. I sent the pictures to Railway minister Suresh Prabhu, still awaiting a reply.
Anyway, next morning we got off at Dausa, a small town in Eastern Rajasthan, from where a taxi whisked us to Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary, counted among one of the finest bird reserves in the world. The standard model here is to visit the park on a rickshaw. Meha being the smartest of the lot chose the default option. Mika and I chose a cycle. Bad decision. I spent the next 3 hours trying to balance my bum on a tiny seat on a truly rickety cycle – almost a relic from the past. Oh, and the birds were great as you can see from the pictures.
It was time for some much deserved Kingfisher beer and rest. A 5 am start the next morning ensured we did not miss the eternal monument of love, only an hour from Bharatpur.
Taj Mahal well documented, we rushed to Delhi for a quick flight to Chandigarh to give the Indian cricket team a well deserved kick in the right place, resulting in a handsome win against New Zealand in the ODI. And boy, you don’t see a stellar partnership between Kohli and Dhoni every day, do you ! What to do, some guys have all the luck.
Early next morning bouyed by last night’s win, we attacked Amritsari Kulcha and Chole at a roadside joint before heading off to the famed Rock Garden sculptures. Truly outstanding and single handed effort of one individual – Nek Chand. Respect.
As we boarded the Delhi flight, we thought that was the end of Phase 3 of our world trip. Fate had a better ending in store. As we landed, I hear a huge commotion in business class with people rushing ahead. “Sunny Gavaskar”- some one shouted ! My heart almost skipped a beat – close friends would know that I was (and am) a die hard fan of him. One incident comes to mind – in 1983 when West Indies toured India, I stood in the puja room and beseeched God for a huge innings from Sunny. The Lord gifted us with 236 not out ! But I digress. Leaving all courtesies and decency aside, I rush to business class disgustingly in the most obnoxious fashion. Sunny has left the plane. Lord comes to rescue again as Mika and I meet him in the airport bus. Shamelessly I launch into selfies & autographs and popped him the million dollar question “Did you nick it?” in that 1983 Chennai match (there was a controversial appeal that was turned town and Sunny went on to score 236 not out). Sunny explained how the ball had hit the pad (hence he was not out) and patted me for remembering the 33 year old incident. As he walked out of the bus, I was floating in air.
Wait, wait Phase 3 is not over yet. We headed off to Muzaffarpur , Bihar (my home town) to join dad’s festive 75th birthday celebrations. With full family in attendance, papa must be feeling blessed !! Great note to conclude this leg of world trip. See you in Australia and thanks for reading.
7th Oct 2016 heralded a pleasant Friday morning in Nairobi. We were eager to get to the third and last of the parks on our Kenyan itinerary – the Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya. But first agenda for the day was a brief visit to the Nairobi National Museum where we got a basic understanding and perspective on Kenya’s history. At 53 years, Kenya is a young nation that has gone through its struggles to see itself as one nation instead of the distinct regional tribes it had been for centuries before its colonisation.
After a (not so) brief stop at the Big Time Safaris office in the CBD, we left Nairobi heading out on Mombasa Road. It was a busy but comfortable highway.
It was a four-hour journey with the last stretch seeming like an eternity of rattling bones!! And the landscape had changed completely to a dry scrubby one, it was perceptibly hotter and we could see little sand/dust “tornadoes” blowing every now & then (looking it up later, came to know they are termed “dust devils“). The name Amboseli originates from the word “Empusel” in the Maa language (of the Maasai) meaning “salty, dusty place”. One could only wonder how this environment could be the habitat of Africa’s big 5. All doubts were put to rest and the bone-rattling made worthwhile by some fascinating sights and all these still over 20 km outside the park. The first was a gerenuk, also known as giraffe gazelle, a species categorised as NT (near threatened) by IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). Not having seen any of these beautiful creatures in Maasai Mara, we were delighted to see one from so close!
We reached the Amboseli Sopa Lodge just after 3 pm and gratefully rested our spines on the restaurant chairs while being lavished with attention over our lunch, it was signature Sopa hospitality. We were delighted with our room, constructed with locally sourced material and in traditional style, it was spacious and pleasant. No question of an air-conditioner, no fans either, but it was perfectly comfortable indoors. We deposited our luggage in the room and headed out for a short evening safari.
As we left the lodge, our guide Richard pointed in the westerly direction and said that is where Mt. Kilimanjaro is and if we are lucky we could see it one of the days! All we could see then was a haze and clouds with the outline of a hill extending ahead. A 40-minute ride, all dusty and most of it bone-rattling, took us to the Kimana Gate of the park. The Kenya Wildlife Service has branded Amboseli National Park as “Kilimanjaro’s Royal Court”. The highest peak of Africa is more than a backdrop to the entire park, it is the secret behind the vibrant natural life in this semi-arid region that only receives an annual rainfall of 350 mm. Water from the Kilimanjaro that seeps down through porous volcanic rocks springs up in Amboseli and feeds the swamps that sustain the entire ecosystem here.
The sun was near setting as we drove in. We spotted a few elephants in the distance, herds of grazing zebra and quite a few vultures on tree tops. And then as we neared another vehicle that had stopped ahead, Richard said we should be able to see cheetahs lying on the ground to the left. And yes, there they were, three of them with just their heads visible. Looked like they were done for the day, but luckily for us they started up and strolled on for a bit giving us a great view of their athletic forms!
We decided to head back and leave the viewing of big elephant herds for the next morning when we would all be a lot more energetic.
The next morning dawned with a clear view of Mt. Kilimanjaro, lady luck was smiling on us! We were not the only ones to be thrilled, all the staff in the lodge were too. They have had guests who have left without ever getting a view of the mighty peak.
Attributing our luck to Richard, we set out for the day in search of the herds of gentle giants that are synonymous with Amboseli. We saw so much more! Including lilac-breasted rollers and saddle-billed storks that we had expected to see but had been unable to spot in our visit to the Lake Nakuru National Park.
Richard informed us that we were making our way towards the marsh / swamp around which all the animals gather in the morning. Soon enough the scenery changed and it was like a school with multiple playgrounds and all students out on them! Elephants, buffaloes, hippos, wildebeest, zebras, gazelles, warthogs and a stunning array of birds to feast our eyes upon. A lesser known fact about Amboseli is that it plays host to around 400 species of birds.
As we watched the flamingos which were at some distance, there was a sudden restlessness amongst the birds nearer to us with a whole lot of egrets and ibises taking flight. The cause – an African Fish Eagle that was flying. The beautiful bird of prey perched upon a rock on the roadside presenting the perfect photo opportunity! And then it took flight again causing a flutter all around before settling on the next rock. This little “show” continued a couple of times giving us plenty of good views.
We drove on enjoying the visual bounties the swamp had to offer, just as the residents here were doing with its edible bounties 🙂
We watched this baby elephant that stayed on the side and the rest of its herd which were quite close to our only stop during the safari, at the base of Observation Hill. It is the only place in the park where people are permitted to step out of their safari vehicles and walk to the lookout point at the top. On the way up we saw plenty of superb starlings and weaver birds. The lookout point gave us panoramic views of the swamps and animal herds all across.
Back from Observation Hill, we continued around the swamp heading back to the Kimana gate to get back for lunch.
After lunch and siesta we met up with Sammy, the resident Maasai at our lodge and learnt some interesting facts. The Maasai of the Amboseli region are way more traditional than the folks in the Mara region Sammy informed us. That was also evident to us on observing the attire and jewellery of the people we had seen in and around the area. Sammy told us about the transformation of his clan from being lion hunters to wildlife guardians, thanks to the efforts of Kenya Wildlife Service and the tourism industry. He showed us the spear he had used as a youth, now on display at the lodge and seen on the pillar behind us in the below photograph. He told us lion hunting was done both as a rite of passage into adulthood and for protection of livestock, the source of living for the Maasai people. No more killing now, he said decisively. He is happy that he now has a job and his kids go to school as do other kids in the nearby villages. They dream of becoming engineers, doctors, pilots and maybe even President!
Sammy was curious to know about mountains, forests and animals in India. He told us that the Indians in Kenya are very good business folks and that the lodge we were in and most of the leading ones in the area were owned by Indians. For someone who hadn’t been to school, Sammy knew and spoke English quite clearly. We were completely in awe of his appearance and it was sealed with firm handshakes!
That night’s dinner was arranged outdoors by the staff with live folk entertainment by a group of Maasai women. It was a wonderful atmosphere with their rhythmic, lyrical renderings bringing the night alive under the stars. We could only wonder at the inborn musical talent in these folks whose only training was by the ear from generation to generation. What a rich heritage! Reminded us of the tribal and folk music and dances from back home that we have had the good fortune of experiencing, but sadly most of our kids growing up in cities have no connection with.
Refreshed and rejuvenated after a sound sleep, we woke up to a clear view of the Kilimanjaro again! Everybody agreed that we were indeed very fortunate. After breakfast set off bag and baggage for our last safari with the plan to head directly to Nairobi, making our exit out of the park through Meshanani gate. This served the double purpose of covering a different part of the park and getting us faster to Nairobi. We had great sightings of elephant herds, flamingos flying in formations and quite unbelievably a lion sitting in the open grass near a carcass. The lion sighting was indeed special because they are very few in Amboseli, the number stated at Observation Hill being a meagre 35, their population having been decimated by years of human-animal conflict in this tough terrain.
It was when we stopped to watch, wondering at this rather small family of 3 elephants that we spotted the only lion we saw in the park. In the distance a herd of elephants was emerging. So we waited and much to our delight the threesome were heading towards this large herd. Soon after we saw the leader of the herd next to the adult and they seemed to be having a little chat! The other two meanwhile mingled with the rest of the herd. So we thought it was a little family tiff, now all sorted out! This was a big herd, we counted 26 members.
Ahead we had a great aerial display awaiting us – as we watched a large group of flamingos (called flamboyance!) in a stretch of pink, they suddenly took flight. There were hundreds in the air who started flying in various formations for a long time. We identified the shape of a whale repeatedly, it was mesmerising!
Thrilled and most satisfied, we bid goodbye to Amboseli and firmed up our intention to visit this part of the world again to appreciate the beauty and diversity, possibly next time across the border in Tanzania.
Next destination for us is Rajasthan with a brief stopover at the bustling Mumbai. Thanks for reading and see you in Rangeelo Rajasthan!