Jani Jermans – Travel Diaries

June 2, 2024

Bhubaneswar – The Temple City

Filed under: India — jani @ 8:12 pm

About Odisha

Odisha (formerly Orissa) is an eastern Indian state on the Bay of Bengal, known for its rich tribal cultures and numerous ancient Hindu temples. The capital, Bhubaneswar, is famous for its many temples, including the intricately-carved Mukteshvara and the 11th-century Lingaraj Temple complex set around the sacred Bindusagar Lake.

Day 1: After an uneventful journey from Mumbai, I reached Bhubaneswar and checked into the Ginger Hotel, conveniently located near the event venue. I spent the rest of the day resting.

Day 2 to Day 4: The three-day summit organized by the AACCI Odisha Chapter happened in Mayfair hotel and the event was quite insightful. It featured enriching sessions from various industries, fashion shows, and cultural activities. I had the opportunity to network with industrialists, entrepreneurs, government officials, and international delegates. Meeting the AACCI global secretariat team was a highlight, resulting in friendships that will last a lifetime.

Day 5: After breakfast, I spent time with the AACCI team before they departed, understanding more about the chamber. I then caught up on work

Day 6: Post breakfast, Mr. Munna driver for the next three days from the Rego team picked me up for a day of sightseeing. Our first stop was the Jagannath Temple in Puri, a significant Hindu temple dedicated to Jagannath, a form of Vishnu. The temple was crowded, and after offering prayers, we sampled the famous Puri khaja, a dessert that was too sweet for my taste.

We drove through the Golden Beach but didn’t stop due to the heat. Our next destination was Chilika Lake, the largest brackish water lagoon in Asia. After a local meal at a Bengali Dhaba, we took a boat ride on the lake. Despite not spotting any dolphins, we enjoyed watching seagulls up close. We were shown red crabs in a basket, there were four crabs as I thought we will see them in the shore. Then they brought opals and pearls to sell, opal is from coral reef and I was seeing for the first time so it was exciting to see that, though I was unsure of their authenticity. We stopped at an island where the other side was beach. So we picked up Jhalmuri and then enjoyed the beach for some time, came back had nice tea and then headed back to the boat to return back to the main land.

Then it was time for Konark Sun Temple. The light show at the temple was captivating, highlighting the rich history of the site. We ended the day with a delicious fish thali at Sahoo Hotel before returning to the hotel.

Day 7: Post breakfast, we visited several temples in Bhubaneswar, starting with the Kedar Gowri Temple, followed by the Mukteshwara Siddheswara Temple, which dates back to 950-975 CE. We then visited the Lingaraj Temple, one of Bhubaneswar’s oldest and most prominent landmarks. Munna introduced me to Dahivada Dumaloo, a delicious local dish of urad dal fritters soaked in curd with potato curry.

Next, we explored Dhauli Giri Hills, known for the Peace Pagoda or Dhauli Shanti Stupa, the Ashoka Pillar, and the Edicts of Ashoka. The intricate Patachitra paintings were fascinating. We then visited the State Museum to learn more about Odisha’s history. After a lunch at Dalma restaurant, we headed to the ancient remains of Udaygiri and Khandagiri caves, which offered a glimpse into the region’s archaeological and historical significance. Despite the crowds due to a local festival, the experience was rewarding.

Our final stop was the Shree Ram Mandir, where we offered prayers. We visited Ekamra Haat for shopping but found few stalls, so we returned to the hotel for a well-deserved rest.

Day 8: It was time to say goodbye to Bhubaneswar. I returned to Bangalore, feeling blessed and proud to have explored another Indian city and its rich heritage.

June 1, 2024

Hong Kong and Macau

Filed under: International Travel — jani @ 7:10 pm

When Sur had a long weekend, we decided on an impromptu trip to Hong Kong and Macau, taking advantage of the visa-on-arrival policy for Indians. Both destinations were on my bucket list, and this spontaneous trip was the perfect opportunity to explore them.

About Hong Kong: Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, is renowned as one of the world’s most significant financial centers and commercial ports. It ranks as the fourth global financial center, ninth-largest exporter, and eighth-largest importer. The Hong Kong dollar is the ninth most traded currency globally.

Visa: Before we proceed, it’s important to note that Hong Kong offers visa on arrival for Indian nationals. However, you need to fill out the pre-arrival registration form, which can be found on the following link (https://www.immd.gov.hk/eng/services/visas/pre-arrival_registration_for_indian_nationals.html) Ensure you carry this form with you while traveling.

About Macau Macau, known as the “Las Vegas of Asia,” is famous for its casinos, luxury hotels, and Portuguese colonial architecture. The city has a unique blend of cultures and offers a vibrant atmosphere with plenty of entertainment options.

Day 1: Arrival and Initial Exploration in Hong Kong

We took a midnight flight with Cathay Pacific and, after 5.30 hours of travel, landed in Hong Kong. The flight experience was good. Once we landed in HK, we noticed the airport was bustling with activity, but we smoothly got through immigration. They handed over an entry stamp sticker along with the immigration form which needs to be kept safe until you exit the country. Upon stepping out, we caught an airport taxi to our hotel, Silka Seaview.

We arrived at the hotel in the morning, hoping for an early check-in. Thankfully, the staff accommodated us, possibly because we had booked a week-long stay. Our room, however, was a stark reminder of Hong Kong’s notorious space constraints—it was tiny, with barely any room for our luggage. The bathroom was even smaller, making it quite challenging to shower or move around. With no sitting area, the bed became our only spot for resting and working.

Hungry and eager to explore, we ventured out for lunch. We found LY Nathan Café in Nathan Street, which quickly became our go-to spot. Sur enjoyed the pineapple bun with fried egg and cheese, while I had the fried pork chop with macaroni soup. We also tried a local hot beverage, watercress honey drink, but found it too sweet for our taste.

After lunch, we headed to the nearby temple, but it was closed. So, we proceeded to the Ladies Market, where I met my friend Varun, who works in Hong Kong. It was wonderful catching up after so many years. Varun helped us get an Octopus card, which is incredibly useful for tourists. It can be used for metro rides and payments at various places, and the balance can be refunded upon departure.

Post getting the Octopus cards, we explored the bustling Ladies Market, enjoying the vibrant atmosphere and myriad stalls. For dinner, Varun took us to Yinlong Tea Restaurant in Mong Kok. I tried the highly recommended beef brisket with noodles, which was delicious. Sur enjoyed his French toast with snow sugar and stuffed peanut butter.

Next, we visited the Wine and Cigar Club to pick up some good cigars and have a couple of drinks. We then went to Wan Chai, where the street was already closed, but we admired the beautiful Chinese lights adorning the area. We took a leisurely walk around and then visited Lockhart Road, known for its nightlife. After soaking in the lively ambiance, we returned to our hotel for a good night’s sleep.

Day 2: Ngong Ping 360 and Lantau Cultural Heritage Tour

Taking Varun’s advice, we pre booked our sightseeing tickets through Klook for the Ngong Ping 360 + Lantau Cultural and Heritage Insight Tour. We reached Tung Chung in the morning and had breakfast at Hong Kong Day. I had beef satay with instant noodles, while Sur opted for turnip pudding with toast and omelette. Unfortunately, Sur didn’t enjoy the turnip pudding.

Next, we headed to the Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car station. We had booked the crystal cabin, which features an ultra-transparent glass floor, offering stunning views below. The 25-minute ride was breathtaking, providing panoramic views of the airport, mountains, and beaches.

Upon arriving at Ngong Ping Village, we took some photos and then boarded a bus to Tai O Fishing Village, the largest island in Lantau. We enjoyed a boat ride through the village, admiring the stilt houses made from imported Indonesian wood and capturing postcard-worthy shots of Sun Ki Bridge. I tried some dried squid from Cat Store (Tai O Dei Mao Li), a local snack that I enjoyed, though Sur stayed far away from it.

We then visited On the Edge Café to try Ottoman Coffee, baklava, and blueberry cheesecake, which Sur particularly enjoyed. We explored the nearby street market and tasted mango matcha donuts. Unfortunately, the mango matcha tasted like raw flour, so we couldn’t eat more than a bite. We also bought sorrel flowers and stems to make tea, which was quite interesting.

Afterward, we visited the Big Buddha Statue, the second-largest of its kind in the world, and the Po Lin Monastery. We spent some time praying and taking in the serene atmosphere before heading back to the cable car point.

We had a delicious meal at Burger Café near the cable car station before boarding the cable car for our return trip. The day was filled with amazing experiences, from the scenic cable car ride to the cultural insights and delicious food. We returned to our hotel with wonderful memories of our second day in Hong Kong.

Day 3: Temples, Museums, and a Light Show Cruise

We started the day by visiting the Yau Ma Tei Tin Hau Temple, conveniently located next to our hotel. The Tin Hau Temple Complex in Kowloon consists of five adjacent buildings: Tin Hau Temple, Shing Wong Temple, Kwun Yum Temple, Shea Tan, and Hsu Yuen. The nearby Temple Street is named after this complex. We explored the park where locals relax and play in the evenings. After offering a prayer in the temple, we headed to our frequent breakfast spot, Li Nathan Café.

Post breakfast, we visited the Hong Kong Museum of History. Although many buildings were closed for renovation, we managed to see the space exhibition, which was fascinating.

Next, we went to the Rooftop Garden at Kowloon Station, a nice place to relax and enjoy the cityscape.

We made a quick visit to the M+ Global Museum of Visual Culture, which features contemporary visual art. We didn’t spend too much time here but appreciated the diverse exhibits.

We took a stroll through the Art Park and stopped at Lucky Star mobile shops for a quick bite. Unfortunately, the hot dogs and waffles were disappointing. We then visited the Palace Museum which were quite interesting and offered rich cultural insights.

I decided to try a local delicacy, bird’s nest with dates and lotus seeds, at Xia Restaurant. It was very sweet, but since it was a new experience, I didn’t want to waste it

We walked along the waterfront, enjoying the beautiful sunset views. To pass the time before our evening cruise, we stopped at Ink Seafood Bar. We had delicious burgers while soaking in the ambiance.

In the evening, we boarded a cruise to watch the Symphony of Lights show. The light show was spectacular, and enjoying it with drinks on the cruise made it a memorable experience. After disembarking, we headed back to our hotel for a well-deserved rest.

Day 4: Ocean Park Adventure and Temple Street Night Market

We initially planned to visit Ocean Park, a popular zoological theme park known for its dry rides. However, we accidentally booked tickets for the Waterfront section instead. Realizing our mistake upon arrival, we purchased the correct tickets for Ocean Park. Fortunately, we could hand over the Waterfront tickets to Varun as they had a longer validity.

We started our day at Ocean Park with a scenic cable car ride. The views were stunning, and it set the tone for an exciting day. Our first stop was the Rainforest Walk, an engaging experience that showcased the Amazon ecosystem. It was fascinating to learn about the diverse flora and fauna.

Next, we visited the aquarium, where we saw seals, black ghost knife fish, and blind cave tetra—creatures we had never seen before. The penguins were a highlight, and we enjoyed watching them from the Tuxedo Restaurant while having lunch.

After lunch, we tried milk with lotus seeds and jellies, an interesting and refreshing treat. We then explored the rides before heading to Old Hong Kong Street. This section was a delightful journey back in time, offering a glimpse into the culture and lifestyle from the 1950s to the 1970s. We sampled some old street food, including dan dan noodles with minced pork and winter melon puff, which were delicious.

While Ocean Park was more kid-oriented and Sur had to take a few work calls, Varun and I decided to explore the Temple Street Night Market in the evening. The market was bustling with activity, and we discovered some Indian stalls. We tasted parotta and chicken curry, which was a pleasant surprise, and did some shopping.

After shopping, we sat nearby and enjoyed a beer, reflecting on the day’s adventures. We then headed back to the hotel to rest and recharge for the next day.

Day 5: Disneyland Hong Kong

was really looking forward to visiting Disneyland Hong Kong, my first Disneyland experience. Although rides usually trigger my headaches, I was eager to experience the magical atmosphere of the park. Despite booking for a weekday, it was still quite crowded. We decided to upgrade our tickets to expedite access to some of the rides, which was a wise decision given the crowd.

The park was a beautiful wonderland, and I was awestruck by the elaborate flower decorations and overall setup. We started our day with a quick bite at Main Street Bakery, enjoying a ham and tuna Danish and a pineapple bun.

Our first attraction was Tarzan’s Treehouse. The boat ride to the treehouse was lovely, and the setup was stunning. Next, we headed to the Grizzly Gulch for the Grizzly Bear ride. I knew I could handle only one crazy ride, and this one was enough for me.

We then visited Mystic Manor, an intriguing ride where you sit in an electric chair that takes you through different themed rooms. It was a unique experience. After that, we watched the PhilharMagic 3D movie, which was quite fascinating.

We took a lunch break, though I didn’t particularly enjoy the seafood soup. After lunch, we went on a Jungle Cruise, which I enjoyed, while Sur took on a few more thrilling rides that I couldn’t handle.

Our last ride was “It’s a Small World,” a gentle boat ride showcasing different cultures from around the world. I found it charming, though Sur seemed bored, giving me a few dirty stares.

Also we saw the parade in the evening which was beautiful

After returning to the hotel, I took Sur to Temple Street Night Market, hoping he could try some Indian dishes. While I relished the parotta, Sur didn’t enjoy his meal as much. We did some shopping and noticed some interesting sex toys being sold near the temple park, which was quite surprising. Most of the tourists were smiling and walking around, adding to the lively and somewhat quirky atmosphere of the market.

We returned to the hotel and crashed for the night, reflecting on the magical yet exhausting day at Disneyland.

Day 6: Madame Tussauds and Cheung Kong Park

We started our day with a trip to Victoria Peak via the tram. The weather was foggy, which limited our visibility at the peak, but we still enjoyed our visit to Madame Tussauds. We took lots of postcard-worthy pictures with the wax figures and Varun was most excited the most to take the pictures and we all had fun despite the foggy view.

After descending from Victoria Peak, we stopped at Pacific Coffee in St. John’s Building. We enjoyed some pastries and tried unique drinks like the rose dragon fruit latte and rose latte, which were delightful.

Next, we headed to Cheung Kong Park, a zoological and botanical garden. The garden was stunning with its variety of flowers, and we loved strolling through the serene environment.

Our walk then took us to Man Mo Temple, dedicated to the Civil or Literature God Man Tai / Man Cheong and the Martial God Mo Tai. The temple’s atmosphere was peaceful and reflective, providing a nice contrast to the bustling city.

For lunch, we went to Le Laksa on Queen’s Street, where we enjoyed delicious Singaporean dishes like chicken and prawn skewers. The food was fantastic and satisfied our cravings for something different.

After lunch, we headed to Golden Arcade for Sur to explore and shop for electronic items. We then visited the Sham Shui Po market, where we did some shopping and soaked in the vibrant market atmosphere.

We also took the time to book our tickets for Macau, ensuring our next adventure was all set.

After a fulfilling day of sightseeing, shopping, and delicious food, we headed back to the hotel to rest and recharge for the next day’s activities.

Day 7: Arrival in Macau

Breakfast at Red Tea After a good rest, we decided to try Red Tea, a restaurant we’d noticed always had a big queue. Despite our limited time, we managed to grab breakfast there. I enjoyed ham and egg noodle soup while Sur settled for his usual pineapple bun, which he appreciated for its generous use of butter.

To travel to Macau, we needed to clear immigration and received Macau entry stamp stickers, which we had to keep until our departure. We boarded the TurboJet and had booked premium Grand tickets, which gave us priority seating in the front. The VIP seating was mostly empty, and the hospitality was excellent, with refreshments served. The VIP tickets also included a drop-off at our hotel.

Upon reaching Macau, we headed to our hotel, the Greenery Inn. After spending a week in a cramped room in Hong Kong, the spacious room at Greenery Inn was a welcome relief. It even had a seating area near the window, which we appreciated.

We went to the nearby Victoria Harbour Restaurant for lunch and ordered soup. Here, we encountered a challenge: unlike in Hong Kong, English was not widely spoken in Macau. The signs were in Portuguese, and few people spoke English. We used a translator app to order our meal, which helped us navigate the language barrier.

Day 8: Sightseeing in Macau

Since we only had one day in Macau, we booked a sightseeing tour. However, getting to the pick-up point proved to be a challenge. Signboards were in Portuguese, and few people spoke English. Additionally, we needed exact change for the bus fare, and our Octopus card from Hong Kong didn’t work here. Thankfully, a helpful student guided us on where to get off the bus, and we managed to reach just in time to catch our tour bus, much to the surprise of our guide.

Once on the tour, our guide provided detailed explanations as we explored the city. We passed by landmarks such as the Grand Prix Macau, the statue of Kun Iam (goddess of mercy), and glimpsed the border with China on the other side.

Our first stop was A-Ma Temple, dedicated to the Holy Mother. Afterward, we visited Koi Kei Bakery, renowned for its delicious egg tarts, which we savored and also took some to go.

Next on the itinerary was the iconic Macau Tower, followed by a visit to the ruins of St. Paul’s, which had a fascinating history of burning down thrice during construction. It was surprising to learn about its mishap. The streets around it were paved with Goan cobblestones, adding to the charm.

We explored Senado Square, a bustling hub for shopping, before heading to the Venetian, the largest casino in Macau. Inside, it felt like a different world, but as it was my first time in a casino, I just took a quick glance before returning.

After a day filled with sightseeing and new experiences, we returned to the hotel for a much-needed rest. Despite the challenges with transportation and language barriers, we managed to make the most of our time in Macau, forming friendships within our tour group along the way.

Day 9: Return to Bangalore

We checked out of our hotel in Macau and boarded the TurboJet, which had arranged a pick-up for us. The journey back to Hong Kong was smooth and comfortable.

Upon arrival in Hong Kong, we made sure to surrender our Octopus card at the airport to get the remaining balance refunded. It was a straightforward process, and we appreciated the convenience of using the card throughout our trip.

After completing the formalities with the Octopus card, we proceeded to the airport for check-in. Thankfully, everything went smoothly, and we were soon ready to board our flight back home.

Our flight back to Bangalore was uneventful, and we landed safely at our destination. It marked the end of our memorable journey through Hong Kong and Macau, filled with adventures, cultural discoveries, and new experiences.

 

May 31, 2024

Cambodia: A Journey through Temples, Culture and Heart-wrenching past

Filed under: International Travel — jani @ 6:28 pm

About Cambodia: It’s a captivating nation in Southeast Asia, is renowned for its stunning array of temples that dot its landscape. These temples, both discovered and still undiscovered, stand as a testament to Cambodia’s rich history and cultural heritage. Among them, the iconic ruins of Angkor Wat reign supreme, capturing the imagination of travelers from around the world.

Cambodia boasts thousands of temples, each with its own unique charm and significance. Many of these temples date back centuries and showcase exquisite architectural styles influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism. While some temples have been meticulously restored and are popular tourist destinations, others remain hidden gems waiting to be explored.

Visa: Indian nationals traveling to Cambodia can conveniently apply for an e-visa through the official Cambodian e-visa website (https://www.evisa.gov.kh/). The e-visa application process is straightforward and typically results in the visa being issued within 2-3 days. This e-visa allows entry into Cambodia for tourism or business purposes and is essential for a hassle-free arrival.

This destination had been on my bucket list ever since I watched the movie Tomb Raider, which was filmed in Cambodia. Initially, I hadn’t planned to join the trip due to work commitments, but when my last-minute work trips were postponed, I seized the opportunity to join Santosh’s group from Exotic Expeditions.

Given that there are no direct flights from India to Cambodia, our itinerary included a stopover in Bangkok, Thailand on the way there, and a return journey through Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Despite the additional travel legs, I was excited for the adventure ahead and eager to explore the captivating landscapes and ancient wonders that Cambodia has to offer, inspired by the cinematic allure of Tomb Raider.

Navigating transit hurdles during international travel can be daunting, especially when faced with unexpected ticketing issues requiring immigration clearance during layovers. In this instance, Thai Air Asia’s ticketing error resulted in separate booking references (PNRs), necessitating immigration clearance and recheck-in during the Thailand layover. During the travel period, both Thailand and Malaysia offered visa waivers for transit passengers, alleviating the need for additional visas and filling out the arrival form for Malaysia ensured compliance with immigration protocols, facilitating a smoother entry process. These proactive measures helped mitigate transit challenges, allowing for a more seamless journey to Cambodia.

Day 1: Arrival in Phnom Penh and Exploring

Our journey began as Sur, Titli, and I boarded our flight from Bangalore, filled with anticipation for our adventure in Cambodia. Titli, arriving early at the airport, checked in ahead of us, while I had different PNR due to airline’s fault and ground staff couldn’t help either. Sur came to the rescue by suggesting we check in my luggage under his PNR, which was issued with a single PNR for both legs of the journey. This clever workaround saved me time during our layovers.

However, my arrival in Bangkok Phnom Penh encountered a hiccup as the transfer desk directed me to clear immigration, as I had different PNRs, even though it was a connecting ticket. Thai immigration was initially perplexed by this request, leading to a delay as Sur’s attempts to accompany me were refused. After some back-and-forth with immigration officers, I was eventually cleared and directed to the check-in counter. Thanks to not having checked baggage, I swiftly obtained my boarding pass with the assistance of airline staff, skipping the queue and reuniting with Sur and Titli in time for our onward flight.

Upon landing in Phnom Penh, we navigated immigration smoothly and made our way to the SIM Boutique Hotel. Despite arriving early for check-in, we patiently waited for our rooms to be allocated. Exhausted from the journey, we dozed off in the lobby until the receptionist kindly accommodated us with an early check-in.

Later in the day, our group expanded with the arrival of Divya, Sapna, Santosh, and newcomers Reema and Fatima who were coming joining us post their Vietnam trip. Eager to explore the local scene, Sur and I grabbed a quick lunch at a nearby spot, Wheat and Beans Café, before taking a leisurely stroll in the area.

As evening descended, we immersed ourselves in the vibrant night market, browsing through stalls filled with local crafts and souvenirs. Santosh and I ventured further to indulge in authentic Cambodian cuisine, tasting pork porridge, chicken soup, and the unique bird’s nest drink.

Meanwhile, some in our group opted for Indian fare at Indian Royal Food, only to be disappointed by the portion sizes, prices, and lacklustre hospitality.

After a full day of travel and exploration, we retreated to our accommodations for a well-deserved rest, eagerly anticipating the adventures that awaited us in the days ahead.

Day 2: Royal Palace Museum, Killing Fields, and Museum Visit

The second day of our Cambodia adventure was filled with profound experiences and historical insights.

We began the day with a quick breakfast before heading to the Royal Palace Museum in Phnom Penh. Upon arrival, we encountered a dress code requirement prohibiting sleeveless attire. Despite Divya’s resourcefulness in bringing a shawl to cover up, the staff insisted she purchase a loose t-shirt to comply with the dress code. Surprisingly, the t-shirt matched her outfit and became a humorous anecdote amidst our sightseeing.

Our guided tour of the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda was enlightening. The Royal Palace, serving as the official residence of the Cambodian monarchs since its construction in the 1860s, showcased distinctive Khmer architecture. Divided into four main compounds, the palace complex included the Silver Pagoda, Khemarin Palace, and Throne Hall, each with its own historical significance and architectural marvels.

The Silver Pagoda, situated within the palace complex, housed precious national treasures, including the “Emerald Buddha” and a Maitreya Buddha adorned with diamonds. Murals depicting local interpretations of the Ramayana adorned the walls, showcasing the blending of cultural influences.

Following the palace visit, we visited the chilling yet essential Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, also known as the Killing Fields. Here, we confronted the harrowing atrocities committed by Pol Pot during the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979, which claimed nearly three million lives. The audio tour provided haunting details of the brutal executions and forced labor inflicted upon victims who were educated specially the doctors, lawyers and teachers, He wanted only people who were uneducated and peasants who were working in the field inspite of him being educated in France. So he lied to the people in the city, saying due to war they are relocating them to the new place and they killed all them in secrecy. The minors were hired from peasant community, brainwashed to torture these people. There was a diplomat who was asked to come back to the country to help, only to be executed, another New Zealand citizen who was sailing and his bad luck he was in Cambodian waters and he also was executed. Wrong stories were written to say they were spies and the victims didn’t have an option as they know no matter what they are going to be tortured and killed. This site was earlier Chinese cemetery and its little outskirts, so while they were killing, they were hanging a loudspeaker with their local song so that no one could hear the victim’s cry. The women were stripped and children’s head was hit in the tree and killed. They used farming tools like pickaxe and palm leaves steam which is very sharp to hit and slit the throat as buying guns were expensive. There are more to be unearthed specially around the small water body as they wanted to leave these souls at rest. The field were found when a potato farmer while harvesting he ended up seeing the skulls and stains etc. Walking through the mass burial sites and reflecting on the profound loss, we were deeply moved by the memorial’s solemn reminder of Cambodia’s tragic past.

After this emotional visit, we gathered for lunch at Lotus Restaurant, opting for familiar Indian cuisine.

Our next stop was the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, formerly a school turned torture center under the Khmer Rouge. Sur and I listened to the audio guide as others found it too overwhelming to hear more of the gruesome details. The museum’s classrooms, once scenes of unimaginable horror, left an indelible impression on us all.

To conclude the day on a reflective note, we visited Wat Phnom, a historic Buddhist temple symbolizing Phnom Penh’s identity. Returning to our accommodations, some of us relaxed by the pool while others caught up on work. We opted for room service, enjoying duck breast and French fries before retiring for the night, contemplating the weight of the day’s experiences.

As we processed the complexities of Cambodia’s history, the resilience of its people, and the impact of the Khmer Rouge era, we carried with us a profound sense of reflection and reverence for the country’s journey of healing and remembrance.

Day 3: Journey to Siem Reap and Exploring the Local Culture

After a restful sleep, we began our day with a quick breakfast and set out for Siem Reap. The drive was almost eight hours long. Along the way, we made a stop to taste local fruits and observed roadside vendors selling fried insects as snacks, though none of us tried them. The variety of fruits we encountered was vast and surprisingly familiar, reminiscent of those found in India. We saw jackfruit, durian, tender coconut, mango, mangosteen, longan, rambutan, Indian date, star fruit, monkey pod, jicama, wood apple, June plum, rose apple, bilimbi, eggfruit, santol soaked in chili and salt, star gooseberry, jujube, and many others. This familiarity made us feel as if we were back in India.

Upon arriving at Siem Reap, we stopped for a meal at Vanakkam Restaurant, an Indian restaurant. The food was good, providing a comforting taste of home. Afterward, we proceeded to the Central Privilege Hotel. Initially, the hotel was a bit disappointing. It lacked an elevator, which posed a challenge for those with suitcases, though we managed with our backpacks. We were assigned a room on the fourth floor, providing a good workout but not much fun under the hot sun, especially when tired.

Our room was decent but had a quirky bathroom setup. The showerhead was positioned near the washbasin without a separate shower space, resulting in the entire floor getting wet. We also found a wooden ladder inside the room, which Divya pointed out was for drying towels. The shower water pressure was low, making it a lengthy process to shower. Even after informing the housekeeping staff, the issue remained unresolved. Despite these hiccups, the hotel’s sustainable model, using mostly wooden and locally sourced materials, was impressive. Their exceptional hospitality made up for the initial disappointments.

In the evening, we headed to the riverside night market for some street shopping and then visited Pub Street. The area had a lively atmosphere with good pubs and restaurants. We tried some ice cream rolls, which were okay, and then returned to the hotel for a well-deserved night’s rest.

Day 4: Exploring the Majestic Temples of Angkor

After breakfast, we set out for another exciting day, finally visiting Angkor Wat. First, we collected our tickets, which were issued with photos and necessary for entry to multiple sites. It’s crucial to keep the ticket safe until the end of your visit, as losing it can prevent entry to other sites.

Angkor Wat is a Hindu-Buddhist temple complex in Cambodia, located within the ancient Khmer capital city of Angkor. Spanning 162.6 hectares, it holds the title of the largest religious structure in the world according to Guinness World Records. Our knowledgeable guide provided detailed explanations, enhancing our understanding and appreciation of the site. Though much of the complex lies in ruins due to destruction during the Thai war, restoration efforts are evident, though the patchwork is visible.

One of the highlights was the stunning reflection of the temple in a nearby water body, creating an almost surreal image. Before entering the main complex, we visited the Vishnu temple, featuring intricate 12th-century carvings, including the largest depiction of the churning of the sea of milk.

We also ascended to the top of the temple, an area where hats and umbrellas are not allowed despite the scorching heat. This part of the temple is believed to be the stairway to heaven. Some of us made the climb while others waited below.

Next, a short drive brought us to Ta Prohm temple, famous for the massive trees growing out of its ruins. The temple, built without mortar, was abandoned and subsequently overtaken by the jungle. The intertwining roots and stones create a striking and picturesque scene, making it one of the most popular temples in the area. Ta Prohm has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1992 and is often referred to as the “Tomb Raider” temple due to its appearance in the 2000 Lara Croft movie.

Our journey continued with another drive to Bayon Temple. This richly decorated Khmer temple is related to Buddhism and was built in the late 12th or early 13th century as the state temple of King Jayavarman VII. Located at the center of Jayavarman’s capital, Angkor Thom, Bayon is known for its multitude of serene and smiling stone faces of Buddha, believed to be modeled on King Jayavarman VII. These faces adorn the many towers that jut out from the upper terrace and cluster around the central peak.

After a tiring day under the hot sun, we returned to the hotel. In the evening, we headed back to Pub Street and enjoyed a great meal at Café Latino. The food was excellent, providing a perfect end to our day before we returned to the hotel for a good night’s rest.

Day 5: Leisure and a Visit to Kampong Phluk

Due to the heatwave, we decided to take it easy in the morning. We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and relaxed for the first half of the day. In the afternoon, we headed to Kampong Phluk, a commune in the Prasat Bakong District of Siem Reap Province. The name Kampong Phluk means “Harbor of the Tusks.” This community primarily relies on fishing, especially shrimp, for survival during Cambodia’s wet season.

First, we visited the local market before heading to the village. Since it was summer, the water levels were low, allowing us to explore the stilted houses that are usually surrounded by water during the wet season. Interacting with the locals was a delightful experience. We tasted a delicious sweet potato cutlet and saw a lady making crispy thin pancakes. Another woman was eating these pancakes with an assortment of fresh leaves. Intrigued, Santosh and I tried it as well. The dish had a distinct shrimp flavor, which we mostly enjoyed.

We then took a boat ride, but the low water levels made navigation difficult. Our boat faced some technical issues, moving slowly until we eventually reached a floating restaurant. After having some drinks, we waited for sunset. The restaurant also had a few crocodiles, adding an element of excitement. We captured some beautiful sunset photos before heading back. Unfortunately, our boat encountered more trouble on the return trip, leaving us stuck until another boat came to our rescue and brought us back to the shore.

Upon returning to the hotel, we decided to unwind with some drinks. The hotel staff were kind enough to allow us to use their restaurant area, even letting us bring alcohol from outside, which is usually not permitted. Since we returned late, we had the place to ourselves, and we were grateful for their hospitality. We ordered food from outside, enjoyed a relaxing evening, and then went to rest, ending our day on a comfortable note.

Day 6: Departure from Siem Reap

Our day of departure arrived, marking the end of our brief but memorable trip. Santosh usually organizes nine-day trips, but this one was shortened as it was customized for another group who were combining their visit to Cambodia with a trip to Vietnam. Had I known this beforehand, I might have planned to join separately for a longer duration. Despite my disappointment over the shorter trip, it was time to head back home.

We made our way to Siem Reap Airport. Since Titli had excess luggage, we helped her out. The airport was quite empty with only a few flights operating. We took the opportunity to explore the duty-free shops, particularly those featuring Cambodian products, and picked up some local drinks as souvenirs.

Boarding the flight was smooth, but as usual, I had a different PNR from the group, so upon landing in Kuala Lumpur, I needed to check in separately. Fortunately, the transfer desk informed me that I did not need to clear immigration and could proceed directly to the gate, which was a relief. Unfortunately, we missed the duty-free shopping at Kuala Lumpur Airport, assuming there would be shops near the gate, but there were none.

Hungry, we found the only open restaurant and had chicken rice. Most vegetarian options were sold out, so the others had pastries. After our meal, we boarded our flight to Bangalore. Upon arrival, we picked up our luggage and returned Titli’s excess luggage that we had carried. Despite the trip being shorter than expected, it was filled with good memories and experiences.

 

December 31, 2023

Dubai Chronicles: A Journey of Unforgettable Experiences

Filed under: International Travel — jani @ 9:25 am

Embarking on my second journey to Dubai this year, the anticipation was heightened as I prepared to attend the HR Leaders conference. Dubai, with its opulence and endless possibilities, never ceases to charm me, making each visit a unique and unforgettable experience.

This time, opting for a single-entry visa for 30 days, I chose Emirates as my airline of choice. With a reputation for unparalleled hospitality, Emirates has consistently exceeded expectations, solidifying its place as my go-to airline for future travels. The additional cost incurred is justified by the exceptional experience they offer, making it a worthwhile investment.

Day 1: Arrival and Hotel Surprises

The anticipation reached its peak as I boarded the afternoon flight to Dubai from Delhi. The seamless four-hour journey concluded with a smooth landing in the vibrant city. It dawned on me that, unlike my previous visits through Etihad which lands in Abu Dhabi, I was now facing Dubai’s immigration process for the first time.

The Dubai immigration experience, in comparison to Abu Dhabi, proved to be a bit time-consuming, involving multiple gates and terminals. Navigating through this labyrinth, I finally cleared immigration, hopped on the metro, and joined the bustling crowd in retrieving my baggage.

Opting for an Uber, my destination was the Tamani Hotel Marina. Upon checking in, I found my initial excitement dampened as the room allocated seemed uncomfortably cramped. A quick call to a friend who recommended the place resulted in valuable advice – ask for a room change. Despite my initial reluctance, I approached the hotel staff, who promptly relocated me to a more spacious and comfortable room.

Grateful for the assistance, I sought dining recommendations from the predominantly Malayali hotel staffs. They enthusiastically pointed me to Marina Kitchen, a Kerala restaurant. I placed an order for soup and chicken shawarma, finding the fare decent. With an early start planned for the next day, I retired for the night, eager to explore more of Dubai’s diverse offerings.

Day 2: Conference Insights and Networking

The day unfolded with a rich tapestry of insights as I immersed myself in a conference hosted at Address Dubai Marina. This gathering proved to be a reunion of sorts, reacquainting me with speakers I had encountered at a Riyadh event a few months prior. The opportunity to reconnect and share perspectives added a layer of familiarity to the vibrant atmosphere.

While the networking experience was noteworthy, my mind drew comparisons to the enthusiastic crowd in Riyadh, finding the camaraderie there to be particularly memorable.

Address Dubai Marina, the chosen venue for the conference, left an indelible mark. The event was masterfully managed in a spacious ballroom, where counters laden with snacks and sandwiches were strategically placed at the rear. This considerate arrangement allowed attendees to partake in refreshments without missing out on the engaging talks.

The organizers displayed an impressive commitment to attendee satisfaction, regularly replenishing the snack counters with an array of tempting items. A substantial lunch further complemented the day’s proceedings.

Post-conference, I returned to the comforting confines of Tamani Hotel Marina, seamlessly transitioning from professional engagements to personal tasks. A productive work session ensued, culminating in a well-deserved night’s rest as I recharged for the adventures that lay ahead in the dynamic city of Dubai.

Day 3: Floral Paradise and Global Exploration

The day unfolded with a leisurely start, waking up late and succumbing to the demands of pending work. In the midst of a productive work session, I decided to indulge in a culinary delight, opting for Malabar dum biryani. While it proved to be a satisfactory choice, the day had more exciting prospects awaiting.

Following a friend’s timely advice, I set out for the renowned Dubai Miracle Garden around 3 PM. The guidance proved invaluable, ensuring a seamless transition to my next destination—the enchanting Miracle Garden.

Dubai Miracle Garden: A Symphony of Blooms

Dubai Miracle Garden, a horticultural masterpiece and the world’s largest natural flower garden, beckoned with its extravagant display. Adorned with over 50 million flowers and 250 million plants, the garden unfolded like a vibrant canvas. Petunias dominated the landscape, creating captivating designs and landscapes that left a lasting impression. As an enthusiast of flower gardens, this was indeed my version of heaven.

Navigating the garden solo allowed me to appreciate the breathtaking blooms at my own pace. The result was a collection of cherished photographs capturing the mesmerizing floral tapestry.

Global Village: A Cultural Extravaganza

Following the floral interlude, I made my way to Global Village, a cultural mosaic that brings together 90 countries under one roof. The attraction seamlessly blends shopping, dining, and entertainment, offering a comprehensive experience without the need to venture elsewhere.

Embarking on a journey through the cultures of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and beyond, I explored various countries, immersing myself in their unique offerings. The experience was a shopper’s paradise, with intriguing finds from Turkey, perfumes from Oman and Morocco, South Korean dresses, African body butter, and Turkish accessories—choices that left me spoiled for alternatives.

As the clock approached midnight, signaling the gradual closure of shops at Global Village, I decided to make a final culinary pit stop before calling it a night. Aiming to satiate my palate with delectable delights, I opted for a delightful duo—milk cake and Kunafa—from a local shop near the main entrance.

However, upon reaching the hotel and eagerly unwrapping my culinary treasures, a surprise awaited. The eagerly anticipated Kunafa was conspicuously absent, a minor hiccup in an otherwise delightful culinary exploration. Despite the oversight, the milk cake managed to steal the show with its deliciousness, offering a sweet note to conclude my day of floral wonders and cultural immersion.

With taste buds satisfied and a lingering sweetness in the air, I retired for the night, eagerly anticipating the adventures that awaited me in the vibrant city of Dubai.

With shopping bags and memories in tow, I retired for the night, ready to embrace whatever adventures the next day in Dubai had in store.

Day 4: Work and Friend’s Reunion

Embarking on another day in the bustling city of Dubai, I began with a breakfast order of Idly from Marina Kitchen, a culinary choice that, unfortunately, failed to meet expectations. Undeterred, I delved into a day filled with business engagements and personal connections.

Embarking on the morning with a business meeting at Damac Business Tower, I had the pleasure of meeting Ammar. Upon returning to the hotel, I ordered a rice and fish combo along with fish pollichadhu from Marina Kitchen, which, unfortunately, turned out to be quite disappointing. Undeterred, I delved back into work tasks. The day then transitioned from professional commitments to personal connections as I set out for Aquilla’s place.

Navigating through the city posed an unexpected challenge due to road closures for maintenance, turning what should have been a straightforward journey into a prolonged and unexpectedly expensive Uber ride. Despite the hurdles, reaching Aquilla’s residence brought a wave of warmth as I reunited with Aquilla, Jerry, their kids, and Jerry’s mother. Laughter, shared stories, and genuine connections made the visit memorable. However, the impending early-morning flight dictated a reluctant farewell. By the time I returned to the hotel, the clock had struck 1:30 AM, prompting a quick packing session before catching a few hours of sleep ahead of the next leg of the journey.

Day 5: A Day of Unfortunate Mishap and Resilience

The day dawned with the anticipation of travel to Jeddah, necessitated by a shift in plans and a series of important meetings. However, fate had a different agenda for the day.

In an unfortunate turn of events during the journey, a mishap occurred enroute to airport as a flask of scalding hot water spilled onto my lap. The searing pain of first-degree burns instantly engulfed me, rendering me in shock and discomfort. Upon reaching the airport, the severity of the burns became apparent as I inspected my peeling skin in the restroom. In a state of distress, I reached out to Sur, who recommended applying boroline from the medical kit.

The airport’s counter staff proved to be a source of relief, reassuring me about the availability of extra luggage space for my additional bag. Despite the physical and emotional toll, I managed to check in, finding solace in a comforting chicken puff and cappuccino at a café. The warmth of the food provided the strength needed to endure the pain.

Upon landing, my friend was ready with the necessary medicines. While initially prepared to rush me to the hospital, I assured of my improved condition, thanks to the burn cream and bandage that was already bought. Grateful for the care and support of good friends, I proceeded to rest and attend meetings over calls, forced into an unplanned period of recovery.

Days 6 & 7: Recovery and Local Delights in Jeddah

The next two days in Jeddah unfolded as a period of rest and recovery, prompting the cancellation of all in-person meetings and outdoor explorations. Instead, I found solace in exploring the culinary delights that Jeddah had to offer, turning the focus to food and relaxation.

During this time of recuperation, I ventured into the diverse world of Jeddah’s cuisine, sampling dishes that promised comfort and satisfaction. Some of the notable culinary experiences included savoring Kabuli Biryani, indulging in Bukhari Biryani, enjoying an Egyptian Breakfast, and relishing the sweet treat of Basbosa, a delightful dessert.

Among the delicacies ordered for takeaway was Kunafa, a popular Middle Eastern pastry known for its sweet, syrupy layers. This allowed me to enjoy the flavors of Jeddah from the comfort of my resting space, turning moments of recovery into a gastronomic journey.

These days, though marked by physical recovery, became a culinary exploration of the rich and diverse food culture that Jeddah had to offer, adding a delightful dimension to a period of much-needed rest.

Day 8: Healthy Breakfast and Departure

The concluding chapter of my journey unfolded as I prepared to return home from Dubai. Starting the day with a wholesome breakfast of overnight-soaked oats in almond milk, adorned with chia seeds, almonds, and pecan nuts, set a healthy tone for the day.

Flynas, the chosen airline from Jeddah to Dubai, unfortunately omits the terminal number on the ticket. An online check revealed the crucial detail, steering me toward the appropriate location.

Navigating through the intricacies of airline procedures, an unexpected scenario unfolded as I reached the airline counter. When questioned about my travel destination, I mentioned Bangalore. To my surprise, they offered to transfer my bag to Emirates in Dubai. However, crucial details about an additional cost were withheld, and my consent was assumed, leading to an unforeseen expense.

Undeterred by this surprise, I proceeded to the gate, only to find a dearth of duty-free shops, a consequence of alcohol restrictions. Despite the absence of anticipated items, I seized the opportunity to pick up a thoughtful gift—dates for Sur’s parents. With this unexpected turn of events, I boarded the flight bound for Dubai, marking the final segment of my eventful journey.

As I touched down in Dubai, the challenges persisted, with the bandage causing discomfort against the wound during the transit between airports. Each step required careful consideration, prompting frequent restroom stops for adjustments. Navigating through terminals and a change in transport mode, I encountered an unexpected hurdle at the counter—a hefty $90 charge to retrieve my suitcase from Flynas, a detail undisclosed earlier.

Undeterred, albeit with the bandage in tow, I took a moment to indulge in a quick bite at a café and explore duty-free offerings. Finally, as I landed in Bangalore, my first priority was to remove the bandage, allowing the healing process to commence.

This trip, marked by its share of unexpected twists, has concluded with the assurance that time will gradually fade the marks, leaving behind memories of another eventful adventure. Until the next journey unfolds, farewell!

 

December 30, 2023

Discovering Malaysia – Truly Asia

Filed under: International Travel — jani @ 5:07 pm

The decision to embark on a week-long escape with Sur was a spur-of-the-moment choice, driven by his limited leave days that couldn’t be carried forward into the new year. Originally eyeing South Korea, our enthusiasm was tempered by the lengthy visa processing time of 2-3 weeks. Undeterred, we swiftly redirected our attention to Malaysia, enticed by the recent announcement of a one-year free visa, effective December 1st, 2023. This impromptu change injected an element of excitement into our travel plans. The urgency of Sur’s leave left little room for meticulous trip planning. Malaysia, with its newfound visa leniency, emerged as the ideal alternative. Moreover, the alignment of my pending client meeting in Malaysia seamlessly fit into our spontaneous travel narrative.

About Malaysia: Nestled in Southeast Asia, Malaysia’s allure extends across the Malay Peninsula and the Borneo island. Renowned for its pristine beaches, verdant rain forests, and a rich tapestry of Malay, Chinese, Indian, and European influences, the country promises a vibrant and diverse experience. Kuala Lumpur, the bustling capital, boasts colonial charm, lively shopping districts like Bukit Bintang, and iconic skyscrapers, including the majestic Petronas Twin Towers.

MDAC (Malaysia Digital Arrival Card): Navigating the practicalities of travel, Malaysia recommends registering for the Malaysia Digital Arrival Card (MDAC) three days before departure. The process is streamlined through https://imigresen-online.imi.gov.my/mdac/main. A crucial tip is to ensure to carry a printout of the confirmation email received in your inbox; it’s a valuable document for a smooth entry upon arrival.

Day 1: Arrival in Kuala Lumpur – An Eventful Start

Our journey kicked off with a morning flight on Malaysian Airlines, a welcome change for me as I had spent most of the year traveling solo. This time, Sur’s company added a pleasant touch to the experience. The flight offered decent hospitality, though a bit more legroom would have been appreciated. The aircraft’s seats, adorned with newly installed leather, looked sleek. The in-flight meal, though decent, kept us satiated during the four-hour journey.

Landing in KL, we encountered the standard immigration procedures. The officer requested our return ticket, took our fingerprints, and granted us a 30-day entry stamp. Thanks to meticulous preparation, including copies of essential documents like flight tickets, MDAC confirmation, hotel reservations, and insurance, the process was smooth.

A minor hiccup occurred when a fellow passenger ahead of us faced delays due to a missing boarding pass. This emphasized the importance of keeping all documents readily accessible, sparing unnecessary inconveniences for fellow travelers.

Exiting the airport, we hopped into an airport taxi bound for Sunway Putra Hotel, KL, a 45-minute drive away. Upon our late-night arrival at the hotel past 9:30 PM, our hopes for a leisurely dinner were met with a surprise. Although the in-room dining option was available, the hotel’s restaurant had already closed, seemingly prematurely at 10 PM. With a nearby mall attached to the property, we decided to venture to Me’nate Steak Hub.

Dinner at Me’nate Steak Hub presented a mixed experience. While I relished their steak, the boiled egg proved excessively salty. Sur, opting for spaghetti, encountered a mix-up in the order. Despite requesting a vegetarian dish, the initial serving included small slices of beef. A subsequent clarification and another pasta order finally secured a vegetarian meal. This episode highlighted the scarcity of vegetarian options on Malaysian menus, prompting a note for future travelers to explicitly specify dietary preferences and mention no meat when you place an order. With dinner complexities behind us, we retreated to our room and welcomed the embrace of sleep, eagerly anticipating the adventures that awaited in Kuala Lumpur.

Day 2: Heading to Langkawi

After a much-needed rest, we found ourselves in a state of blissful lethargy, opting to sleep in rather than venture out. By the time we stirred from our slumber in the afternoon, the day had slipped away. Deciding to make the most of the remaining hours, we checked out of our hotel, stowed our luggage, and ventured to the adjacent mall for a delightful pastry interlude.

Our choice of Bread Story rewarded us with an assortment of delectable treats – chicken puffs, mocha bun, and croissants. Armed with these delights, we settled into HWC (Coffee House Café) for a rejuvenating session of cappuccinos and refreshing fruit juices.

With our energies somewhat restored, we bid adieu to our temporary abode and headed to the airport to catch our evening flight to Langkawi. There are two terminals in KL, Terminal 2 mostly has Air Asia flights and others are in Terminal 1. Do verify the ticket before going to the airport for hassle-free travel A quick one-hour flight from KL brought us to our island destination.

As we landed in Langkawi, our choice of accommodation, Wings by Croske, turned out to be conveniently close to the airport. Amused by the short distance, our Uber driver shared a laugh as we opted for a brief ride rather than a mere five-minute walk. Arriving at Wings by Croske, we were greeted by the allure of a beautiful hotel, and without further ado, we checked in.

Given our limited time in Langkawi, we sought the assistance of the hotel’s recommended travel agency, Andaman Secrets, to make the most of our stay. Despite the late hour, they efficiently confirmed our bookings for the next day’s exploration. A quick dinner followed, with me indulging in a sumptuous seafood platter while Sur settled for the more familiar comfort of French fries and a cocktail. The fatigue from the day’s travel caught up with us, leading us to crash for the night, eagerly anticipating the adventures that awaited us in Langkawi.

Day 3: Island Exploration and Enchanting Landscapes in Langkawi

The day commenced with an early start, accompanied by a quick breakfast that introduced us to the flavors of Nasi Lemak. This fragrant rice dish, infused with coconut milk, was adorned with fried anchovies, sambal (spicy shrimp paste), a choice of boiled or fried egg, cucumber, and peanuts. While the anchovies were a personal favorite, their dry preparation in Malaysia offered a unique twist to the dish. Opting for another local delicacy, I indulged in Sarawak Laksa – rice vermicelli, shredded omelette, cooked prawns, and chicken strips in an aromatic broth, accompanied by sambal and lime on the side.

Our adventure for the day began with an island-hopping tour facilitated by a local agency. Awaiting the tour’s commencement, we embarked on a delightful boat ride, reaching our first destination – Pulau Dayang Bunting. This island featured Langkawi’s largest freshwater lake, Tasik Dayang Bunting, often referred to as the “Lake of the Pregnant Maiden.” A brief mini-hike added an adventurous touch to our visit.

The journey continued with eagle feeding at a location teeming with these majestic birds. Observing the eagles gracefully swooping down to snatch food from the water proved to be a captivating spectacle. Our exploration extended to a nearby island, offering water activities and a serene beach where we relaxed before returning to the boat.

Next on our itinerary was the breathtaking Kilim Geoforest Park. Enroute, we picked up Shankar. The journey, mostly by a private boat, afforded us glimpses of fish farming. A seafood feast during lunch, with Shankar and I savoring various ocean delights while Sur opted for an omelette, added culinary delight to our day. The limestone formations and mangrove forests further enchanted us as we navigated through the park.

Our adventure took an unexpected turn at the bat cave (Gua Kelawar), where, unfortunately, the bats remained elusive. Undeterred, we returned to the jetty and proceeded to the Cable Car. Ascending to the sky deck, we were treated to a breathtaking view of Langkawi, accompanied by cool, refreshing air. The journey continued to the 3D museum, offering a playful exploration of optical illusions. A visit to Mamachinchang Café for a late lunch, featuring a limited menu with options like chicken nuggets and veg samosas, concluded our eventful day.

With memories captured in photographs and the day’s experiences etched in our minds, we retreated to our room, thoroughly exhausted, and surrendered to a well-deserved night’s rest.

Day 4: Farewell to Langkawi and a Coastal Welcome in Penang

Awakening refreshed from a good night’s rest, we completed our checkout and welcomed Shankar to our trio. Eager to savor the remaining hours in Langkawi, we relaxed near the hotel’s swimming pool, basking in the warmth of the tropical sun. As our flights were scheduled for the evening, we opted for a leisurely stroll, contemplating the memories created during our stay.

Considering our luggage, the thoughtful hotel staff offered to drop us off, a gesture we appreciated. Following a sweet poolside interlude, we headed to the airport for our respective departures. Shankar, with an earlier flight to Kuala Lumpur, bid us farewell after ensuring I indulged in a quick foot massage at the airport’s massage chairs. A brief, rejuvenating 10-minute session was a welcome respite.

With Shankar off to his next destination KL, Sur and I eagerly awaited our flight to Penang. Boarding our flight, we touched down in Penang after a short hour. Opting for an airport taxi, we embarked on a 45-minute journey to our new abode, Hompton by the Beach. Nestled close to the shoreline, the hotel offered a picturesque location with a charming Elementos restaurant overlooking the beach. The hotel staff, friendly and accommodating, assisted us in planning our sightseeing for the next day.

With the day’s adventures behind us, we dined at the hotel’s restaurant Elementos which is Tapas & Lounge bar next to the beach, immersing ourselves in Penang’s culinary offerings. We had the best food here during the trip. The promise of new experiences lingered in the air as we retired for the night, anticipating the exploration that awaited us on the vibrant streets of Penang.

Day 5: Cultural Marvels and Culinary Delights in Penang

A rejuvenating night’s sleep set the stage for another day of exploration in vibrant Penang. Rising early, we indulged in a quick breakfast, opting for soup and salads to ease into the day. Eager to delve into Penang’s cultural tapestry, we embarked on a sightseeing adventure.

Our first stop, the Butterfly Farm, unfolded a mesmerizing display of vibrant winged wonders, a visual feast for nature enthusiasts. Moving forward, we visited a craft batik workshop, immersing ourselves in the intricate process of wax-resist dyeing. The artisans demonstrated the meticulous artistry behind batik, showcasing the creation of patterns through a spouted tool called a canting or a copper stamp known as a cap.

Venturing deeper into Penang’s cultural heritage, we explored the Burmese Buddhist Temple and its Thai counterpart, Wat Chayamangkalaram. After offering our prayers, we indulged in a delightful treat from Papa’s Ice Cream within the temple campus. The coconut ice cream, adorned with surprising elements like corn and Attap seeds, offered a delightful twist reminiscent of ice apple.

Our cultural odyssey continued with a visit to the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, a captivating museum dedicated to Penang’s Peranakan heritage. Housed in a distinctive green-hued mansion that once served as the residence and office of a 19th-century Chinese tycoon, Chung Keng Quee, the museum showcased a remarkable collection.

Adding a touch of whimsy to our day, we explored the Upside Down Museum, a unique and entertaining space for capturing gravity-defying photos. Our journey through George Town led us to vibrant street art, another facet of Penang’s artistic expression. Along the way, we discovered a Chinese temple and indulged in some street shopping.

Our sensory adventure continued at Coffee Tree Trading, where we savored various coffees, teas, chocolates, honey, and perfumes. Laden with newfound treasures, we proceeded to Penang Hill, ascending to its summit for breathtaking views and a tranquil tea break at David Brown’s Hilltop Garden Restaurant.

Before concluding our day, we visited the Murugan Temple, adding a spiritual touch to our cultural exploration. Returning to our hotel, we capped off the day with a delectable dinner. I relished the flavors of Char Koay Teow (Stir fry noodles) and Tom Yum Soup, while Sur enjoyed a well-prepared vegetarian pasta. Satisfied and content, we retired for the night, cherishing the rich cultural experiences and culinary delights that Penang had generously offered us.

Day 6: Kuala Lumpur – Towers, Temples, and Tantalizing Delights

Embarking on the penultimate day of our journey, we kicked off the morning with a swift breakfast before making our way to the airport for our return to Kuala Lumpur. Upon our arrival in KL, we checked into Sunway Putra Hotel, where rooms were available only by 3 PM. Eager to make the most of our time, we dropped off our luggage and set out for a day of sightseeing.

Our first stop was the iconic KL Tower, where we ascended to the Sky Deck. Although there was a queue for photos, we decided to forego the wait and proceeded to indulge in a culinary delight – the thinnest shawarma roll we had ever encountered. We made our way to the renowned Petronas Twin Towers. Unfortunately, luck was not on our side as tickets were sold out due to the limited number of visitors allowed, coupled with the drizzling weather. Unperturbed, we improvised our plans, heading to a nearby mall and then to the captivating Thean Hou Temple, a beautiful Chinese temple adorned with intricate sculptures and surrounded by serene parks.

As dusk settled in, we returned to the hotel to freshen up before an evening of business engagements. I had arranged a meeting with Chitti and his friend, and together, we dined at the Rabbit Hole restaurant. Our orders of chicken pizza and chicken nuggets were met with culinary excellence, setting the stage for a delightful evening. Chitti and his friend graciously dropped me off at the hotel before venturing to catch a movie. Meanwhile, Sur indulged in a relaxing massage, bringing a perfect end to a day filled with exploration, gastronomic delights, and fruitful business discussions. We retired for the night, cherishing the diverse experiences Kuala Lumpur had offered us.

Day 7: A Day of Cultural Immersion and Natural Wonders

With a quick breakfast fueling our energy, we set our sights on Genting Island, ready for a day of adventure. However, the weather had a different plan for us. The island greeted us with an unexpected chill and dense fog. Since we were early, most of the rides were closed as well. Undeterred, we decided to return, leaving behind the mystical atmosphere of Genting.

En route, we had hoped to explore a strawberry farm, but the rain played spoilsport, prompting us to skip the visit. Our next destination was the renowned Batu Caves. Climbing a few hundred steps, we encountered mischievous monkeys attempting to snatch the food. Undeterred, we proceeded to the caves, where we offered our prayers before making our descent.

Our journey continued to St. Mary’s Cathedral, one of the oldest cathedrals, exuding an aura of serenity. The nearby Independence Square, also known as Selangor Club Padang, provided a picturesque setting.

Next on our itinerary was Tugu Negara, the War Memorial, a poignant reminder of historical sacrifices where ongoing renovations did little to dampen the significance of the site. Our exploration took a sweet turn with a taste of ice cream, expertly scooped into a single cone with two delightful flavors. A visit to KL Bird Park awaited us, offering a unique experience as birds freely roamed the vicinity, allowing us to capture unforgettable moments with pelicans and dancing peacocks.

As the day unfolded, we stopped at the restaurant at park for a well-deserved lunch, savoring both the culinary delights and the beauty of the surroundings. Then we headed to Istana Negara,  the official residence of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, the monarch of Malaysia. We can only stand outside the gate for pictures. Then we returned to our accommodations, surrendering to a well-deserved rest after a day filled with cultural immersion and encounters with Malaysia’s natural wonders.

Day 8: Journey Home

As the sun dawned on our final day, we embarked on an early morning flight, bidding adieu to the captivating landscapes of Malaysia. Arriving at the airport with time to spare, we indulged in a leisurely coffee break and explored the duty-free shopping options, savoring the last moments of our Malaysian escapade.

Malaysian Airlines lived up to its reputation for hospitality, offering a comfortable journey. However, a curious encounter with Malay rice, anchovies, and peanuts left us pondering the authenticity of the provided sachet. The distinct taste, or lack thereof, prompted me to forgo the anchovies, opting instead to relish the flavorful rice and succulent prawns.

As the wheels touched down in Bangalore, our hearts were filled with the memories of a journey that unfolded like a tapestry of diverse experiences. Each day brought new adventures, cultural discoveries, and moments that will linger in our minds. The vibrant hues of Malaysia, from its bustling city scapes to the tranquil beaches, had left an indelible mark on our travel story.

With gratitude for the hospitality received and a suitcase full of memories, we concluded this chapter of exploration, knowing that new adventures awaited on the horizon. Until the next journey unfolds, the echoes of Malaysia’s beauty will resonate in our hearts.

See you in the next adventure…

 

December 6, 2023

Phuket (Thailand), the Pearl of the Andaman

Filed under: International Travel — jani @ 10:52 pm

Buckle up for a detailed recount of my recent odyssey to the mesmerizing destination of Phuket, Thailand—dubbed the “Pearl of the Andaman.” This travelogue aims to unravel the intricacies of my experiences, from the intricacies of Visa procedures to the pulsating adventures and cultural immersions that defined each day.

Unveiling Phuket’s Charms: Phuket, nestled in the Andaman Sea, is a kaleidoscope of vibrant landscapes, cultural wonders, and breathtaking seascapes. From the bustling hub of Phuket City to the serene shores, the island is a treasure trove waiting to be explored.

Navigating Visa Realities: Navigating the intricacies of visa acquisition is a pivotal aspect of international travel, and my recent journey to Phuket presented an interesting decision point in this regard. Normally inclined towards securing my visa well in advance, the constraints of a 2-3 week time frame prompted me to opt for the more convenient Visa On Arrival (VOA) option rather than applying at the Thailand embassy in India. Departing from my usual meticulous planning, the process unfolded smoothly, requiring the standard set of documents and a nominal fee in Thai Baht.

Day 1: Anticipation and Coordination: The adventure kicked off with a surge of excitement as I assumed the role of a Tour Director, along with Andrew, Ramesh, Suman, Arun, Prakhar, Vijaytha, Suresh and his team, for a corporate annual sales conference. The responsibility of orchestrating logistics and assisting 200 attendees with their Visa On Arrival added an extra layer of anticipation for our team. The day unfolded with a lively rendezvous at the airport, followed by a seamless Air Asia flight. However, the in-flight meal, featuring vegetarian Hyderabad Biryani, posed a culinary conundrum. Personally, I’ve always found the combination of corporate e-booking and the ubiquitous mango juice to be a bit overwhelming—like consuming a kilogram of sugar. Both items were swiftly relegated to the ‘no-no’ list. Fortunately, the airport lounge at Terminal 2 came to the rescue. Despite being under construction and offering limited options, the lounge provided a welcome reprieve, allowing me to sidestep the Air Asia in-flight fare.

Day 2: Airport Intrigues and Coral Island Escapade: The early morning arrival in Bangkok marked the commencement of an exhilarating adventure, complete with a series of unexpected surprises at the airport. The stringent security regulations caught us off guard, disallowing even a single drop in our water bottles. Adding to the unexpected revelations, the absence of a smoking zone inside the security area left many in the group agitated.

As Ramesh joined the group from Chennai and the Cochin contingent made their entrance, we navigated through the Visa on Arrival process, followed by biometrics and security checks—a series of formalities that took nearly an hour to complete. The decision to skip the inflight meal left me, and others, with a noticeable pang of hunger. Fortunately, our quest for sustenance led us to a delightful pastry shop, where we found solace in comforting coffee and indulged in some delectable pastries.

Post this impromptu refreshment, we proceeded to the gate for our flight to Phuket, embarking on a journey that spanned an hour and a half. Upon touching down in Phuket, our focus shifted to the exquisite Le Meridien Phuket Beach Resort. There, we assisted the group with check-in procedures before embarking on an invigorating speedboat ride to Coral Island Koh Hey.

Despite contending with weather challenges that disrupted our planned water activities, the day unfolded as a thrilling adventure, offering breathtaking panoramic views. The process of landing on the island itself was an adventure, with the temporary road to shore feeling rather precarious. The assistance of the local team proved invaluable in navigating the shaky path. Since the weather didn’t cooperate for our initially planned activities, we decided to unwind with some beer and soft drinks, basking in the serene surroundings, before making our way back to the resort.

Gastronomic Delights and Gala Extravaganza: As the evening unfolded and twilight cast its gentle hues, the entire group assembled for a lavish gala dinner at Le Meridien Resort. However, Vijaytha and I found ourselves excused from the festivities a bit earlier. Seizing the opportunity, we decided to explore the local culinary scene at The Place Bar & Restaurant. Our culinary adventure at The Place was a delight, with standout dishes like chicken and prawn fried rice, seafood soup with tangy flavour stealing the limelight with their exquisite flavors. We complemented with the local beer which was very light. The only hiccup was the squid we ordered, which didn’t quite meet our taste buds’ expectations due to a sweet sauce. Nevertheless, for seafood enthusiasts, The Place Bar & Restaurant proved to be a haven, and I relished every minute of the dining experience. Then headed back to DoubleTree by Hilton Phuket Banthai Resort for a much needed rest.

Day 3: Conference Dynamics and Awards Night: The conference kicked into full gear, resonating with energy and purpose. The climax of the event was the awards night, a heartwarming celebration of the sales team’s dedication. A standout feature was the motivational video, a piece of visual storytelling that left a lasting impact. Ramesh and myself were relieved early, so we had an early dinner at Le Méridien Phuket Beach Resort and then headed back to Hilton to rest.

Day 4: James Bond Island Odyssey: The day kicked off with an early start, guiding us into the enchanting realms of Khao Phing Kan, affectionately known as James Bond Island. Our exploration took an adventurous turn with sea cave canoeing in the picturesque Phang Nga Bay. Despite the ticking clock and time constraints, we successfully witnessed the breathtaking beauty of James Bond Island before bidding a fond farewell to the rest of the group.

Following our return, we indulged in a leisurely dinner at a charming restaurant conveniently located next to DoubleTree by Hilton. The cozy ambiance and the array of delectable seafood offerings provided the ideal setting for a relaxed and enjoyable evening.

Subsequently, we ventured to the nearby walking street, immersing ourselves in the vibrant atmosphere, cultural nuances, and the lively nightlife that surrounded us. The experience was enhanced by the beauty of the surroundings. Later, Andrew took us inside Thai Benjarong, a place known for its porcelain souvenirs crafted in China, aiming to procure a memento for all of us. We strolled a bit more, absorbing the surroundings, before finally settling in for a well-deserved night’s rest.

Day 5: Sunrise Serenity, Big Buddha, and Unexpected Encounters: The day began with the gentle hues of a serene sunrise at Promthap Cape, creating a tranquil atmosphere that set the tone for a day filled with exploration. Our journey continued with a visit to the impressive Big Phuket Buddha, situated atop Nakkerd Hill, providing a cultural immersion experience.

As the group’s activities diverged, I opted for a Thai massage at Carpe Diem, seeking relaxation and rejuvenation. Meanwhile, some members chose the exhilarating adventure of parasailing.

Adding an unexpected twist to our exploration, we encountered legal cannabis shops, introducing an intriguing element to the vibrant street scene. The day unfolded as a unique blend of cultural immersion, relaxation, and unexpected discoveries, making it a memorable chapter of our Phuket adventure.

Day 6: Bittersweet Farewell and Reflections: As the final chapter of this captivating travel saga unfolded, I bid a fond adieu to the enchanting vistas of Phuket. As my time in Phuket came to an end, I found myself unable to bid a proper farewell to anyone, including my room mate who was peacefully sleeping, and I didn’t want to disturb her. The hotel arranged a cab to drop me off at the airport. To my surprise, I had to pay for excess luggage, and my return journey was booked on Indigo with a layover in Mumbai. The airline only accepted cash in Thai Bahts, so I had to step outside the check-in counter, exchange currency, and then return.

Upon landing in Mumbai, I boarded the flight to Bangalore in the evening, reaching my destination late at night in one piece.

My heart is filled with gratitude towards our team, especially Andrew and Ramesh, for providing such an incredible opportunity of learning. A big thanks to Arun, Suman, Prakhar, Vijaytha, Suresh, and his team for their unwavering support. Throughout this journey, our team has evolved into a close-knit group of friends. These moments will linger as a testament to the multifaceted beauty and delightful surprises that Thailand, particularly Phuket, has to offer. The memories created will forever hold a special place, reminding us of the unique experiences and camaraderie shared during our time in this captivating destination.

Stay tuned for more immersive travel tales and explorations, as the journey continues to unfold.

 

November 14, 2023

Saudi Arabia – A Journey Through the Land of the Holy Mosques

Filed under: International Travel — jani @ 8:06 am

About Saudi Arabia: Saudi Arabia, officially known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), is a nation situated in West Asia. It stands as the largest country in the Middle East and boasts coastlines along the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Its landscape is predominantly composed of arid deserts, lowlands, steppes, and mountainous regions. Riyadh serves as both the capital and the largest city in the country. Notably, Saudi Arabia is home to two of Islam’s holiest cities: Mecca and Medina.

Visa Process: Applying for a visa to Saudi Arabia has become more convenient, particularly for those with a valid US visa and previous visits to the United States. The option of obtaining an E-visa through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) website involves a streamlined online payment process and includes the acquisition of mandatory travel insurance, making the overall experience prompt and efficient.

Day 1: Setting Out on the Journey

My journey to Saudi Arabia commenced with a flight from Bangalore, India. There were no direct flights to Riyadh, so I opted for a connecting flight via Mumbai. This journey also marked my first experience flying with Air India following the Tata Group’s takeover of the airline.

To my surprise, the flight with Air India left much to be desired in terms of service quality, giving the impression of a low-cost carrier (LCC). While the food provided was decent, the packaging resembled what you might expect from street vendors. Despite the international nature of the flight, there was a noticeable absence of in-flight entertainment, making the 4.30-hour flight in economy class less enjoyable.

Unfortunately, it became apparent that Air India would not be my preferred airline for future travel. However, during the flight from Mumbai to Riyadh, I had the opportunity to engage in a conversation with two fellow Indian passengers who were working in Saudi Arabia. This brief chat served as a welcome distraction from the airline’s shortcomings and was a reminder of how travel often brings unexpected interactions and connections with fellow travelers.

Arrival in Riyadh: Upon landing in Riyadh, I encountered a relatively smooth immigration and security process. Stepping out of the airport, I found a line of taxis waiting to take passengers to their respective destinations. The Middle East has always felt safe to me, and I had no reservations about taking a cab. The fare was reasonable, and I was soon on my way to Haven Plaza on Al Olaya Street.

My arrival in Riyadh occurred during the evening, and it quickly became apparent that men rarely initiate conversations with women in this country. The atmosphere was reserved and modest, underlining the differences in social interactions compared to what I was accustomed to.

Upon arriving at my accommodation, I promptly checked in and decided to order a sandwich to satisfy my hunger. Unfortunately, the sandwich I received turned out to be rather dry and disappointing in terms of flavor and quality, contrasting with the vibrant and diverse flavors I had hoped to experience during my stay.

With the day’s travels and experiences behind me, I decided to retire for the night. This marked the end of my first day in Riyadh, and I looked forward to what the following days in Saudi Arabia had in store.

Day 2: The HR Leaders Conference

The second day of my journey in Riyadh began with a quick breakfast, which was satisfactory. However, it was during this meal that I started to notice and experience the unique cultural dynamics in Riyadh.

As I made my way to the hotel’s breakfast area, I observed a distinct pattern, there were no women dining alone. Instead, they were typically accompanied by their spouses. This observation immediately conveyed the cultural norms and expectations that governed interactions between men and women in Riyadh.

The atmosphere at breakfast was somewhat unusual for me. It was as if there were unspoken rules about not acknowledging or interacting with the opposite gender in public spaces. Men, in particular, appeared hesitant to look at or engage with women who were not their relatives.

The ambiance in Riyadh was notably quiet, with minimal interactions. As a traveler, I felt somewhat restrained, unsure about how to navigate these cultural nuances. Given the local culture and societal norms, I found myself hesitating to smile or greet others, even with simple gestures.

It was a fascinating and eye-opening experience to witness and be a part of a culture that values modesty and discretion in public spaces. Riyadh’s breakfast scene introduced me to the reserved and distinct social dynamics that shape interactions between men and women in Saudi Arabia. This insight continued to influence my interactions and experiences throughout my stay in the country.

Subsequently, I attended an HR Leaders conference held at the Hyatt Regency. My initial impressions were marked by a degree of awkwardness, as women, clad in abayas, appeared preoccupied with their mobile devices. This initial impression gradually gave way to a sense of relief as more attendees arrived. To my delight, the participants turned out to be warm and hospitable.

The conference I attended in Riyadh proved to be highly productive and enriching. It provided a valuable platform for gaining insights into various aspects of Saudi Arabia’s business landscape and its unique context.

During the lunch break, I had the opportunity to savor a variety of local dishes, and I was delighted to find that they were not only delicious but also a delightful introduction to the local cuisine. Sampling these flavors was a culinary adventure and added a layer of cultural understanding to my journey.

The conference sessions were a significant highlight, offering valuable insights into the Saudi context. Topics ranged from discussions on localization to the intricacies of local laws. The knowledge and information shared during these sessions provided a deeper understanding of the business environment in Saudi Arabia.

Overall, the conference proved to be enlightening and enriching. It not only broadened my perspective but also deepened my appreciation for the intricacies of doing business in Saudi Arabia. It was a valuable opportunity to connect with professionals, learn from experts, and immerse myself in the dynamic business landscape of the country. This experience would undoubtedly shape my perceptions and approach as I continued my journey in Saudi Arabia.

With an additional day to explore Riyadh, I inquired at the hotel reception about possible tours. However, language barriers posed a challenge, as the staff’s limited English proficiency hindered effective communication. Consequently, I decided to explore alternative options for sightseeing on TripAdvisor. I stumbled upon an enticing “Edge of the World” package and promptly booked it, setting the stage for an adventure the following day.

Day 3: Exploring the Edge of the World

The day of the excursion arrived, and I embarked on my journey to the “Edge of the World.” This involved a picturesque drive lasting approximately 1-2 hours, with stunning palm groves along the way, where dates were nearly ripe for harvesting. The scenery was breathtaking, and the drive was punctuated by the presence of camels roaming freely. At one point, the driver kindly stopped to allow me to capture some memorable photos.

Reaching the “Edge of the World,” a cliff with an elevation of 1,131 meters, was a spectacular experience. Situated roughly 100 kilometers from Riyadh at the terminus of the Tuwaik Mountain range, this location is a favored destination for mountain climbers and hiking enthusiasts. The view from this vantage point was nothing short of mesmerizing, offering a stunning panorama of the landscape. To reach the cliff’s edge, a short hike through the desert was required. Arriving just in time for the enchanting sunset, I was fortunate to capture some breathtaking photographs.

The guide led us through the area, providing insights and ensuring a safe and memorable experience. The excursion was an exploration of off-cliff spectacular views and a celebration of the region’s natural beauty.

After this awe-inspiring journey, we returned to our starting point, where refreshments were provided. Subsequently, we were taken to the Swalief Aldira Restaurant in King Salman Road for a traditional Saudi dinner. The meal included rice, chicken fry, and salads. Although the food was somewhat bland and dry, it offered a taste of authentic Saudi cuisine. Following dinner, I returned to my hotel to rest after a day filled with remarkable experiences.

Day 4: Departure from Riyadh to Jeddah

As I bid farewell to Riyadh, my next destination awaited me in Jeddah. However, a minor hiccup at the airport introduced a brief challenge. Confusion regarding the terminal arose, as my departure required reaching Terminal 3 for domestic flights. The flight number on my confirmation didn’t align with the domestic terminal, leading to some uncertainty. Fortunately, the helpful airport staff at the information desk redirected me to the correct terminal and advised taking the coach. Though this added some extra time, my practice of allowing a two-hour buffer before domestic flights proved beneficial. After an hour and a half, I finally reached Jeddah, welcomed by a friend—an immense relief to see a familiar face. Business discussions ensued, and soon after, I retired for the night.

Day 5: Weekend in Jeddah

The day began with a delightful taste of Egyptian breakfast, followed by a blend of work and business discussions. Opportunities to sample various local foods arose, although I found them somewhat bland for my taste. A hectic day unfolded with meetings, eventually concluding with me crashing for the night.

Day 6: Exploring Jeddah

Following a restful break, we reengaged in work and meetings. With some spare time on our hands, we chose to explore the city before my scheduled departure the next day. Our first stop was the Holidays Restaurant in Al Balad Street, renowned for its seafood and Kerala cuisine specialties. After a satisfying meal, we ventured into the nearby souk, although many shops were closed due to the afternoon lull. The city’s landscape was dominated by extensive construction work in progress.

During our walk, we had a fascinating encounter with an Iranian vendor selling local perfumes. Despite the language barrier, the interaction turned into a unique cultural exchange. We wandered through adjacent streets lined with shops selling clothes, immersing ourselves in the local ambiance.

Our next destination was the renowned Jeddah Corniche along the Red Sea. As we admired the coastal road, pavilions, and the majestic King Fahd’s Fountain, the tallest fountain globally, the setting sun cast a captivating glow over the surroundings.

The day ended on a laid-back note with a visit to the Triple Shot Café for some local sheesha, everyone vouches for double apple fakher sheesha and it was the best. Then it was followed by a tranquil night’s rest, preparing for the adventures that awaited on the next leg of the journey.

Day 7: Farewell to KSA

The time had come to bid farewell to Saudi Arabia. I booked an Uber for the international airport, only to realize that my terminal was different—Terminal N, where flights to certain Asian countries depart. With a language barrier preventing communication with the Arabic-speaking driver, I found myself in a moment of confusion. Fortunately, the assistance of airport staff outside proved invaluable as they redirected me to the correct terminal. Despite the additional 45 minutes, my three-hour buffer ensured a smooth departure. Boarding my flight to Hyderabad, India, went without any hitches.

However, upon landing in Hyderabad, a disheartening sight greeted me—waste strewn across the cabin. It was disappointing to witness a lack of civic responsibility, especially when passengers could have easily handed their trash to the cabin crew. Nevertheless, I boarded my final flight to Bengaluru, India, successfully concluding my journey.

Additional Notes:

  • Visa Regulations: Saudi Arabia has introduced new visa regulations, including biometrics for tourist visas. The appointment process for visas may be impacted by these changes, with delays in getting appointments and longer processing times.
  • Alcohol Restrictions: It is essential to be aware that alcohol is strictly prohibited in Saudi Arabia.
  • Dress Code: While it is not mandatory for women to wear abayas (traditional loose-fitting robes) in Saudi Arabia, it is advisable to dress modestly and consider covering one’s head, especially when visiting public areas where local customs are observed.
  • Visiting Mecca and Medina: Non-Muslims are not permitted to visit Mecca, and while non-Muslims can explore Medina for sightseeing, they are restricted from entering the holy mosques.

Conclusion: My visit to Saudi Arabia was a transformative experience, dispelling many misconceptions about travel to this part of the world. It emphasized the importance of respecting local laws and customs, which ultimately enabled a smooth and enjoyable journey. As I bid farewell to this fascinating country, I departed with a sense of gratitude and an eagerness to return for further exploration.

Shukran, Saudi Arabia – See you soon.

 

August 28, 2023

Lap of Luxury at Trivik, Chikkamagaluru

Filed under: India — jani @ 11:23 am

About: Chikmagalur, also known as Chikkamagaluru, is a picturesque hill station situated in the state of Karnataka, India. Positioned to the north is Baba Budangiri, a mountain range within the Western Ghats, characterized by three significant caves that hold religious significance. These caves are revered by locals and visitors alike. The region offers trails that wind through lush forests and grasslands, leading to the pinnacle of Mullayanagiri Peak, the highest point in Karnataka.

The landscape also features the enchanting Hebbe Falls, set amidst coffee plantations that add to the natural beauty of the area. Notably, Chikmagalur is historically linked to the cultivation of coffee, marking the spot where coffee was first grown in India. The hills of Chikmagalur form a part of the Western Ghats, serving as the origin for the Tunga and Bhadra rivers.

One of the prominent attractions in the region is Mullayanagiri, a towering peak that offers stunning panoramic views of the surroundings. Moreover, Chikmagalur is also renowned for the Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary, a forested area in the northwest, which provides a habitat for diverse wildlife including elephants, tigers, and leopards.

An essential cultural and spiritual landmark in the area is the Sringeri Mutt, a revered monastery that houses the Dakshina Peeta, a seat of spiritual authority established by the great philosopher and theologian Adi Shankaracharya.

Chikmagalur’s serene landscapes, spiritual significance, and natural wonders make it a sought-after destination for those seeking tranquility, adventure, and a connection with nature.

Day 1: Having nurtured a longstanding desire to explore the charms of Chikkamagaluru, the opportunity to bask in the lap of luxury at Trivik was a dream come true. The invitation from our friends to join them on this venture was met with immense enthusiasm. Sur needed to stop his whining about not being able to join me for trips due to recent work commitments, eagerly embraced the idea, as it allowed him to temporarily escape his busy routine and join me on this adventure.

As our journey began in the morning, there was a noticeable departure from the norm—our friends wanted to take the wheel, so Sur has to sit in the backseat which was a bit odd for him. Our friends arrived to pick us up, and with excitement in the air, we embarked on our much-anticipated journey. A pit stop for a local breakfast and a satisfying cup of filter coffee provided the perfect fuel for our travels.

Fortune smiled upon us with clear skies, sparing us from any rain that might have made the journey more challenging due to muddy roads. During the ascent, we couldn’t resist pausing at a breathtaking vantage point, capturing the stunning scenery in photographs. Our destination, Trivik, greeted us with warm hospitality, adorning us with garlands of fragrant mogra flowers. A rejuvenating herbal concoction, sweetened with local honey, awaited us—a gesture that immediately made us feel at home.

With appetites ready to be sated, we decided to indulge in a sumptuous lunch. Our taste buds were treated to a delightful culinary experience before we retreated to our rooms, each of us seeking some well-deserved rest after navigating the roads for the better part of seven to eight hours.

The luxurious accommodations provided a tranquil haven for us to rest and recuperate. As I delved back into my work, the call of the infinity view beckoned me. Although the vista was truly breathtaking, the chilly weather prompted a return indoors after a brief moment of admiration. Our rooms soon became the sanctuary where we ordered tea and snacks, taking solace in the comfort they offered as we slowly surrendered to much-needed slumber.

Day 2: Following a leisurely breakfast, we set out for a coffee plantation walk, excited to explore the lush surroundings. However, our plans took a slight detour as we learned that the previous night’s rain had prompted the emergence of leeches within the plantation. Undeterred, we decided to stick to the safe pathway, which still offered plenty of beauty to behold. A return to the infinity view allowed us to relish the flavors of a rich coffee as we absorbed the stunning vistas before heading back.

Lunch proved to be another gastronomic delight, treating our taste buds to a delectable spread. The afternoon beckoned us to embark on a nature walk, and we seized the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the natural wonders of the area. The weather held up, granting us respite from the rain that had earlier dampened our plans. Our journey took us through the serene forest, where a treasure trove of sights awaited us.

As we strolled along the path, we marveled at the diversity of life around us. The forest floor was adorned with mushrooms of various shapes and sizes, while rare orchids and vibrant butterflies painted a picture of enchantment. Mischievous monkeys swung through the trees, adding a touch of liveliness to the scene. Our eyes remained fixed on the canopy above, occasionally catching glimpses of colorful birds flitting among the branches.

In light of the recent rain, we were cautioned about leeches and advised to avoid damp areas near the edge. Despite these challenges, the beauty of the forest captivated us. During our walk, we encountered a young boy from the group, who eagerly joined us, exuding curiosity and enthusiasm. His presence added an extra layer of joy to the experience as we navigated the natural wonderland together.

Our interactions with the young companion extended beyond sharing the trail. As we encountered different plant species, we took the opportunity to teach him about the flora and fauna that surrounded us. The moment he discovered a touch-me-not plant, his excitement was palpable. We watched as he carefully touched the leaves, giggling as they folded in response to his touch.

With a heartwarming camaraderie, we continued our walk, capturing memories through photographs and relishing every moment of this shared adventure. Eventually, we made our way back to our accommodations, where we ordered a satisfying meal to enjoy in the comfort of our rooms. The day had been a perfect blend of exploration, learning, and connection with nature, leading us to retire for the night with a sense of contentment and gratitude.

Day 3: Another delightful morning greeted us, accompanied by a sumptuous breakfast that energized us for yet another nature walk. This time, we were joined by the father of the young boy who had shared our adventure the previous day. The weather had shifted slightly, rendering the surroundings a touch drier. As a result, we were able to explore additional viewpoints, albeit at the cost of encountering a few more leeches. While some of us fell victim to these persistent creatures, quick action ensured that no one suffered any serious harm. A trusty alcohol spray came to the rescue, earning me the endearing nickname of “Leech Killing Aunty” from the young boy. His playful humor added a lighthearted touch to our interactions, creating a wonderful bond that extended to his family.

Our group dynamics continued to expand as one of our friends, who happened to be petite, connected particularly well with the young boy. Mistaking her for someone his age, they formed a charming duo that brightened our journey. In the process, we also had the privilege of interacting with his parents and grandparents, forging new friendships along the way.

Lunchtime rolled around, and we were treated to a picturesque view that accompanied our meal. A leisurely stroll around the swimming pool and garden allowed us to relish the tranquil ambiance. Our plans for relaxation continued with a spa session, a rejuvenating experience that left us feeling refreshed and invigorated.

As the day unfolded, we found ourselves gravitating towards the coffee shop near the infinity view. There, we were welcomed by a game of tambola, adding an element of entertainment to our evening. The atmosphere was made even more festive by a pair of jubilant kids who were treated to delectable cakes. We too indulged in the sweet offerings of the café, savoring the flavors as we engaged in lively conversation and laughter.

With the day winding down, we retreated to our accommodations, basking in the contentment that comes from a day well spent. The memories we had forged, the connections we had made, and the moments of pure enjoyment were all cherished as we settled in for a restful night.

Day 4: The last day brought a mix of responsibilities and farewells. I had an early online class scheduled by IIM, which was unmissable. To accommodate this, Sur and I opted for a quick breakfast, missing the chance to share our final morning meal together before parting ways. The young boy’s family, whom we had become quite close to, insisted on joining us for breakfast, so our other friends kept them company while Sur and I hurried through our meal. Once breakfast was over, and a short rest for Sur, I settled down for my online class.

As the class concluded, I packed my bags and also took the opportunity to purchase a few locally made items from the village, supporting the skilled work of the local women. With everything in order, we embarked on our journey back. The weather was drizzly, and we hoped the rain wouldn’t intensify until we reached flat terrain. Gradually, the rain began to pick up its pace. At a junction, we encountered police officers who provided us with the correct directions, aiding us as our GPS had stopped working. Our luck seemed to turn when we stumbled upon fresh local corn being roasted over a stove. We relished this treat as we continued on our way, also picking up some Pomelo (bablimas) fruits, reminiscent of grapefruit.

With spirits lifted, we started our drive back. The journey was pleasant, and as night began to fall, we reached our home. Our hearts were brimming with beautiful memories, a testament to the wonderful time we had spent together.

I want to extend a heartfelt thank you to the Trivik team for their exceptional hospitality and for creating such a remarkable and memorable experience.

August 26, 2023

Nepal – The Natural Wonder

Filed under: International Travel — jani @ 10:37 pm

About Nepal: Nepal, officially known as the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal, is a landlocked nation located in South Asia. While its main region lies in the Himalayas, it also encompasses parts of the Indo-Gangetic Plain.

For Indian nationals, traveling to Nepal doesn’t require a visa; carrying a government ID card suffices. However, if you’re flying, it’s advisable to carry your passport.

Initially, I had some reservations about traveling to Nepal due to the frequent news about air crashes. However, my actual travel experience turned out to be quite different. In fact, Nepal provided me with one of the best air travel experiences I’ve had.

Day 1: Embarked on my journey to Nepal, I was heading to attend a PATA event. The flight was scheduled for the evening, and I had a simple wish – to arrive before nightfall, given my concerns about air crashes in a country encompassed by towering mountains. This trip marked a personal adventure for me since I typically didn’t feel at ease traveling alone.

Despite a one-hour delay in the flight’s departure, the overall experience was quite smooth once we touched down. This time, I was on a Nepal Airlines flight, and surprisingly, it turned out to be a positive experience. Upon landing in the evening, I swiftly completed the immigration formalities and was warmly greeted by PATA representatives. They escorted me to my accommodation for the trip, the Manaslu Deluxe Heritage & Boutique Hotel. The hotel was a true embodiment of heritage and provided a unique ambiance. After checking into my room, I promptly succumbed to fatigue and dozed off.

Day 2: I had to wake up promptly and hurry to catch the flight bound for Pokhara, where the PATA event was scheduled to take place. After a quick bite to eat, I set off. Upon reaching the airport, the check-in process took only about 10-15 minutes, and soon I found myself waiting to board the flight. All my previous apprehensions about flying in Nepal dissipated as the airport experiences were surprisingly smooth.

The flight to Pokhara was brief, and upon landing, the PATA team was there to pick us up. They transported us to Hotel Pokhara Grande, the venue of the event. During this time, I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Sophy, a Luxury Travel Consultant based in New York, who was also attending the conference. We connected instantly and struck up a conversation. Although the event had already begun by the time we arrived in the afternoon, we patiently waited for our rooms to be allocated. As we got to know each other better, I gained a new friend for life. Eventually, our rooms were assigned in a separate block, conveniently located next to each other. Later she had to change the room and she got allocated in the main building itself.

After freshening up, we joined the conference. The sessions were incredibly productive, focusing on the revival of the travel industry post-Covid. The discussions also delved into sustainable travel, further enriching our insights. I also had the opportunity to interact with students aspiring to enter the travel profession. Following a lunch break, we engaged in one-on-one meetings with various travel partners.  During these interactions, I also met Mr. Boris, an expert in Croatia Travel based in New York, and Ms. Pragya Ghimire from the Nepal Tourism Board.

Later, I had a tea meeting with Mr. TP Bhusal from the Nepal Tourism Board’s Media team before diving into some work. As the evening approached, we decided to dine at Moondance Restaurant & Bar, a recommendation from Boris. The restaurant had a fantastic ambiance, and while the food was delightful, the cocktails left a bit to be desired. We had a wonderful time, and one amusing incident involved Pragya making creative use of the mint growing near the bar entrance, which resulted in shared laughter among us. Eventually, we retreated to our respective rooms and called it a night.

Day 3: Mr. Narayan and his team at Fishtail Tours & Travels organized a sunrise tour that required us to rise at 4 AM – the most challenging part of the excursion. As we awoke, we were all picked up from our respective hotels and proceeded to the Sarangot Top Station for a cable car ride that would take us to the Sarangot View Point. The cable car journey offered stunning views while crossing the Fewa Lake, leading us to a tower with an incredible vantage point to witness the sunrise against the backdrop of the Annapurna Mountain range. The experience of observing the sunrise was simply awe-inspiring.

After returning to the hotel, we enjoyed our breakfast and embarked on a sightseeing itinerary arranged by the Nepal Tourism Board. Our first destination was the Shiva Temple at Pumdikot, a hill station near Pokhara. This locale features a viewpoint perched at an altitude of 1,500 meters above sea level and boasts the second tallest statue of Shiva in Nepal. We traversed through corn fields and tackled uphill slopes, making the journey quite memorable.

Subsequently, we proceeded to the World Peace Pagoda (Shanti Stupa). This pagoda serves as a symbol of peace and holds significance for its location at a height of 1,100 meters on the Anadu Hill. Constructed on September 12, 1973. The Shanti Stupa houses relics of Buddha and is one of the two peace pagodas in Nepal – the other being in Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha. The view from Shanti Stupa encompassed the stunning Annapurna range, the city of Pokhara, and the serene Fewa Lake.

Our journey continued to Gupteshwor Mahadev Cave, a cave temple situated in Pokhara. The cave’s environment can be slightly overwhelming due to the reduced oxygen levels inside. Subsequently, we visited Devi’s Fall, where the cascading water forms a tunnel upon reaching the base. This tunnel stretches approximately 500 feet in length and is situated 100 feet below ground level. Notably, the water from Devi’s Fall flows through the cave of Gupteshwor Mahadev.

I had initially intended to partake in the Annapurna helicopter ride, but unfortunately, we didn’t gather enough participants to make it feasible. As a result, I had to cancel my plans for that particular activity.

Following our sightseeing adventures, we enjoyed lunch at the restaurant close to the Fewa Lake and later indulged in a boat ride across the serene waters. A few of us took turns pedaling the boat, which turned out to be quite a tiring task. Upon returning to the hotel, we retired for the night. As I had covered most of the sightseeing activities in Pokhara, I spontaneously decided to follow Mr. Narayan’s recommendation and booked a trip to Chitwan for the next day. I rearranged my plans accordingly, including cancelling an extra night’s stay in Pokhara, before finally settling in for the night.

Day 4: After a relaxing breakfast, my driver cum guide arrived to pick me up. I completed the check-out process at the hotel and headed towards the Tibetan Settlement near Hemja. As we journeyed, we crossed the Dhoodh Ganga River, witnessing its pristine white waters. Arriving at the Tibetan Monastery, I offered a prayer and then decided to experience some Tibetan flavors at Kelsang restaurant, where I enjoyed a cup of tea.

Subsequently, my driver dropped me off at the airport, and I boarded a flight to Chitwan. Upon landing at Bharatpur Airport, I was warmly received by the hotel staff, and we embarked on a half-hour drive to reach the Landmark Forest Park. This charming hotel is nestled within the Chitwan National Park, surrounded by lush greenery, abundant birdlife, and a serene garden that created a refreshing atmosphere. This marked the first time I truly relished being alone, immersing myself in the tranquility and fresh air of nature.

Following lunch, I embarked on a village walk. Accompanied by a forest guide, I had the option to choose from activities such as an elephant ride, a boat ride on the Budi Bubhati river, or a village walk. Opting for the latter, I thoroughly enjoyed the stroll through the village. We ventured near the river, where the lively symphony of bird calls greeted us. Among the bird species we encountered were the plover which was making quite a lot of noise, hornbill, drongo, egret, green bee-eater, Bulbul, Stork, Myna, and Peafowl. While the guide suggested waiting for the sunset, I chose to spend some peaceful moments by the river before making my way back.

In the evening, visited Sauraha Tharo village, a museum that beautifully showcases the unique lifestyle of the Tharo people. The Tharo community has inhabited the forests of the Chitwan district for generations, maintaining deep economic, spiritual, and cultural connections with the forest ecosystem. During our visit, we were treated to a captivating cultural program that included performances such as the mesmerizing fire dance, the spirited warrior dance, the graceful Sakhiya dance, the energetic Lathi Nach (Stick Dance), and even a traditional funeral dance.

Amidst the vibrant performances, we had the opportunity to savor one of their delicacies – Ghongi, which is nothing but snail. Ghongi is known for its high protein content and is believed to contribute to the faster healing of wounds and fractures. I thoroughly enjoyed this unique culinary experience and was captivated by the authenticity and charm of the cultural program. After the eventful evening, we returned to the hotel, where I retired to my room, carrying with me a sense of contentment and fond memories of the day’s enriching experiences.

Day 5: The next day began early as I had an exciting morning safari planned at Chitwan National Park. To access the park, we had to cross the Rapti River by canoe, a thrilling experience given the river’s population of crocodiles. The Jungle Safari Lodge team organized the safari, and while waiting to cross the river, we caught glimpses of elephants from a distance. Once we safely crossed the river, we embarked on our safari within Chitwan National Park.

Although our animal sightings during the safari were limited to a bear, hippopotamus, and some monkeys, the incredible variety of bird species we encountered more than compensated for the lack of larger animals. We had the pleasure of observing a variety of birds such as the Common Iora, Drongo, Magpie, chestnut headed bee-eater, Myna, Egret, Woodpecker, Kingfisher, Koel, Stonechat bird, Parakeet, Plover, Stork, and Goose, among many others. The highlight of the safari was undoubtedly the visit to the Gharial Breeding Centre. Gharials are rare and endangered fish-eating crocodiles, and the center plays a crucial role in their conservation. In the wild, the survival rate of Gharial eggs is less than two percent due to predators and human interference. However, at the center, they collect and hatch the eggs in captivity, contributing significantly to their protection.

After an enriching safari experience, we took a brief break at the Gharial Breeding Centre to enjoy our packed breakfast and a cup of coffee from a small stall. With the safari completed, it was time for me to bid farewell to Chitwan and head back to the airport. One thing I began to appreciate about Nepal was the efficiency of its airports. Unlike spending hours waiting at airports, in Nepal, it’s sufficient to arrive just 5-10 minutes before departure due to the convenience of domestic air travel. The hilly terrain limits land transport options, making air travel the preferred mode of transportation within the country.

Upon reaching Kathmandu, I was promptly picked up and taken to the Malla Hotel, where I checked in and settled in for a restful night’s sleep.

Day 6: I had an early start for the Everest Express flight, a mountain flight experience offered by Yeti Airlines. As I entered the airport, I unexpectedly ran into Sophy, which was a pleasant surprise. We had a quick catch-up and then proceeded to experience the same mountain flight but through different airlines. The flight provided a breathtaking view of the Himalayan range, taking us past the Langtang Range, Eastern Himalayas, Gauri Shankar, Chhoba Bhamare Range, Melungste, and Mount Everest, among other ranges.

After returning from the flight, I had a quick breakfast and then embarked on a day of sightseeing. Our first stop was Bouddha Stupa, also known as Boudhanath, a remarkable stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal. Its enormous mandala structure makes it one of the largest spherical stupas globally. Our guide explained the significance of the prayers, the history, and the symbolism of the prayer flags adorning the stupa. Boudha Stupa has been a place of prayer and rest for Tibetan merchants for centuries. Following the Tibetan uprising in 1959, numerous Tibetan refugees resettled around Boudhanath, resulting in the construction of over 50 gompas (Buddhist monasteries) in the vicinity.

We then visited a Thangka painting workshop, where I learned about and admired the intricate Tibetan Buddhist paintings created on cotton or silk appliqué. Moving on, we reached Dattatreya Square in Bhaktapur, one of the most enchanting squares with its temples, ponds, and museums. It is renowned for its historical and cultural significance, hosting temples like Dattatreya, Bhimsen, and Laxmi Narayan, as well as the wood carving museum and the peacock window.

We had lunch at a local shop recommended by our driver, and then visited a rice paper-making shop where paper is crafted from Lokta bark pulp found only in the Himalayan region. I picked up a diary as a souvenir before heading to Changu Narayan temple. This ancient Hindu temple is situated atop a hill and is dedicated to Lord Vishnu. It is considered one of the oldest temples in Nepal. Nearby, the Changunarayan Change Museum provided insights into the lives of the people of the region in the past.

Later, I caught up with Sophy for dinner at the hotel she was staying which was 15-30 minutes away from Malla. It was good to catch up with her and other few friends joined as well. Then I walked back to the hotel around 11:45 PM. The empty streets were a bit unsettling for me, as I’m not used to being out alone at such hours. Despite the unease, I returned to my room and settled in for the night.

Day 7: After a hearty breakfast, I embarked on a day of exploration. My first destination was Swoyambhu Mahachaitya, an ancient religious complex perched atop a hill in the Kathmandu Valley. The Tibetan name for this site translates to ‘Sublime Trees’, which aptly describes the diverse variety of trees that adorn the hill. From there, I proceeded to Bhaktapur Durbar Square, a former royal palace complex that once housed the Malla kings of Nepal and later the kings of the Kingdom of Bhaktapur.

For lunch, I had the pleasure of enjoying a local thali, a traditional Nepali meal known for its variety of flavors and dishes. Following the satisfying meal, I continued my journey to The Narayanhiti Palace Museum, a public museum that was established in 2008 within the former Narayanhiti Palace, following Nepal’s revolutionary events in 2006.

Next on my itinerary was a visit to Kathmandu Durbar Square, an esteemed UNESCO World Heritage Site and a site of immense historical and cultural significance in Kathmandu. Within this square stands the Kumari Ghar, the residence of the Kumari Devi, believed to be the living incarnation of the Hindu warrior goddess Taleju or the tantric goddess Vajradevi. The selection process for the Kumari is steeped in unique rituals and tests.

After this, I made my way to the revered Pashupatinath Temple, dedicated to Lord Pashupati and located near the Bagmati River. This temple is not only one of the oldest but also one of the largest in the world. Its cultural and spiritual importance led to its classification as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. Adjacent to the temple is an open cremation area.

Continuing my exploration, I ventured to Kirtipur, an ancient city in the Kathmandu Valley. The local Newar population contributes to the vibrant heritage of this place. I had the delightful opportunity to savor a Khaaja set meal at Newa Lahan, a local eatery, while rain added to the ambiance. The meal consisted of beaten rice, soya beans, and leafy vegetables, and it was a truly authentic and memorable experience.

Later, I visited Chandragiri hills, a journey that required a cable car ride. The ascent provided breathtaking views of hills and dense forests, although the altitude did leave me a bit dizzy. I took my time to navigate the climb to the hill and enjoyed the breathtaking view. Afterward, I made my way back to the hotel and spent some time in Thamel for a little shopping before retiring for the night before making sure to arrange the sightseeing for Lumbini as that got added at the last minute.

Day 8: I dedicated a day to explore Lumbini, a destination that was added to my itinerary at the last minute. Being the birthplace of Buddha, I couldn’t leave Nepal without visiting this significant pilgrimage site. Despite reaching the airport only 15 minutes before the flight departure, I managed to reach Lumbini smoothly.

Lumbini holds immense importance in Buddhist tradition, as it is believed to be the place where Queen Maya gave birth to Siddhartha Gautama around 566 BCE. The tranquil surroundings of Lumbini are adorned with numerous peace pagodas built by different countries. We visited the World Peace Pagoda, where we also had the chance to witness saras cranes near the river. These majestic cranes were a rare sight due to the summer season, and although their numbers were limited, it was a unique experience.

Exploring further, we arrived at Lumbini Garden, where we encountered the Eternal Flame. This flame was established in 1986 to commemorate the International Year of Peace and was brought from the United States of America to symbolize global harmony. As we approached the Maya Devi Temple, we encountered a charming statue of Buddha as a young boy, a depiction I had never seen before and found utterly endearing. Our journey led us to the birth site of Buddha, and we subsequently made our way back. We paused for a local thali meal before I was dropped off at the airport.

Despite arriving at the airport (Bhairahawa) early, the Buddha Air staff kindly accommodated my situation and allowed me to board the earliest available flight back to Kathmandu. Once back in the city, I arranged a meeting with one of the travel partners, enjoyed a quick dinner, and then retired for the night.

Day 9: After a leisurely breakfast, I packed my bags, a task that took a bit of time, and made my way to the airport. The journey was smooth, and I boarded the flight back to Bangalore. This trip marked my first solo adventure where I had the opportunity to explore various places on my own, aided by the guidance of the driver and guide, and to make some incredible new friends along the way.

I want to extend a special note of gratitude to Buddha Air, whose last-minute bookings allowed me to maximize my exploration despite the constraints of time. I was pleasantly surprised by the efficiency of the domestic airports, where I could save a significant amount of time by not having to wait around unnecessarily. Air travel, being the safest option in this region with its towering mountain ranges, is the primary means of transportation.

In Nepal’s domestic airports, there’s no need to arrive hours in advance. Just being there 10-15 minutes before departure is sufficient. This flexibility turned out to be quite helpful, such as when I was able to catch an earlier flight in Lumbini without any hassle.

As my beautiful and personally liberating journey came to an end, I return home with newfound confidence and cherished memories. While this adventure concludes, I eagerly look forward to the next one in a different country. Until then, take care and farewell…

 

August 16, 2023

UAE – Shukran Dubai

Filed under: International Travel — jani @ 8:59 pm

About UAE: The United Arab Emirates or simply the Emirates, is a country in Western Asia (the Middle East). It is located at the eastern end of the Arabian Peninsula and shares borders with Oman and Saudi Arabia, while having maritime borders in the Persian Gulf with Qatar and Iran. Abu Dhabi is the nation’s capital, while Dubai, the most populated city, is an international hub. The United Arab Emirates is an elective monarchy formed from a federation of seven emirates, consisting of Abu Dhabi (the capital), Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain.

It was my 2nd time in UAE and was looking forward to explore the city post attending the Arabian Travel Market conference.

Visa: It’s an e-visa for Indians and all that you have to do is to provide the scan copy of color passport photo copy, passport bio and address page. We had our e-visa in a week’s time as our local partner had helped with that. The visa duration is available 30 days single entry/ multiple entry and 60 days single/multiple entry as well.

If you have a valid US visa, you don’t need a visa as you can get it on arrival. Since we had to apply for Judy, we went ahead and applied for both to save some time on arrival.

Day 1: I didn’t want to travel alone and I am glad in this trip Judy accompanied me and we were excited from day 1 of our planning. Couple of my friends had come from USA and it was not a good day to leave them as I had a flight to catch. It was an early morning flight so had to reach the airport midnight as well. My friends were literally telling me that my flight will get cancelled and I will come back from airport as they were unhappy that I was leaving them and they know when I am back, they would have left the country. How can I forget the whining of Sur, my usual travel partner who missed this time too as he had just joined JP Morgan and didn’t want to take off. Remember he is in his probation period…

After all the drama, I reach the airport so early as there was hardly any traffic. So waited for Judy to come and she had her whole family at the airport came to send her off and it was so beautiful. We spent little time with her family, grabbed a nice tea, chatted for a while and then we had to get in to the airport.

We checked in, cleared our immigration, security and went to the lounge. Since I had some urgent work to complete, I couldn’t enjoy anything at the lounge. Judy had a bite and then it was time for me to leave for boarding. We boarded the flight and I got a window seat and Judy sat next to me.

Usually Etihad is one of the best airlines but those four hours of travel was the most uncomfortable travel that we had as we felt our legs were cramped due to very little space. We felt like our legs were tied, the food was just ok and both of us killed our time watching some new movies and we badly wanted to get out of the seats. Last time I did fly Etihad and I never felt this and I was thinking is it because post covid, travel frequency had been reduced so might I be feeling a little out of practice but even Judy had the same complaint. So I am not sure if it was the old aircraft, whatever that was, it was one of the most uncomfortable flights.

Finally we landed and went to the immigration counter at Abu Dhabi. This was one of the first finest experiences that we started with. There was no officers, since I had already come earlier, Iris scan and face scan was done and I was out of immigration counter without any human interaction. Judy had to go back to the counter since she was coming for the first time, so she did take some time. By then I was collecting the baggage and the process was pretty smooth and we felt like we had a domestic flight and neither we had any physical stamps for entry.

Then we got out but had to wait for more than an hour for the Etihad coach to take us to Dubai. There were very few chairs in the waiting area so initially we had to stand which was not very comfortable, then last 15-20 minutes some of the chairs got empty and we got to sit. Then the coach arrived and we were on our way to Dubai. Since I hardly had any sleep the previous night I just dozed off for the entire two hours of drive.

I woke up once we reached Dubai drop point, our car was waiting for us from Royal Gulf Tourism whom we had booked for the land package in UAE and we got dropped to Majestic City Retreat Hotel. There is a tourism fee, which is a very small amount which had to be paid directly at the hotel.

Every car that came to pick us and drop from point to point was mostly premium and high end cars. I have no clue about them but Judy was so excited and it made her day as every time it was a different high end cars and she was totally into it.

Our hotel was less than half an hour drive, we checked in and freshened up and we thought we will step out for some snacks as we did see some Malayali store next door named Master Café, we had mix club sandwich which had ham and chicken and chicken parotta, chukku (dry ginger) coffee and chicken samosa. Except the sandwich others were just average, then we stepped into the supermarket close by, as Judy picked up some juices, I had to pick up the adapter and we came back to the hotel and crashed. Later in the evening we met our respective friends. While my friend and myself ordered Non veg platter and it came with lot of kebabs. The quantity was so much and we couldn’t finish, but tasted good, finally ended the dinner with curd rice and fish curry, remembering our Chennai Days. it was great and then I bid good bye to my friend and came to the room and crashed for the night and Judy enjoyed an awesome night ride in the city with her friend.

Day 2: After a good rest, it was time for breakfast. The spread was decent and quite a lot of Indian dishes were there, mostly North Indian breakfast items. It was so beautiful to watch mourning dove coming around the guests as we sat outside in the open area. Then it was time to check out and go to Voco.

Our car pick up arrived and it was very close by and then we checked in to Voco. We were a little early however the receptionist found a room for us and we were lucky to check in early. So we checked in and since we had enough time in the hand, we went to Dubai Mall. First we needed to have lunch as I was searching for the Kunafa in Dubai Mall where my friend had introduced last time which was the best. Unfortunately shops had been changed so we got into Bosnian House in the food court for lunch. Had their specialty which was Bosnian Kebabs with fresh Somun (Bosnian Bread). It was good and then went around the mall, picked up few accessories and then we headed to Paul Café for a nice coffee. They had Mile Fuele, which is a type of French pastry made from layers of thin puff pastry that is alternated with a cream filling and topped with a ganache. I ended with a nice cappuccino and Judy had her Latte. Then we headed back to the room to freshen up to go for the Dhow Cruise at Dubai Marina.

We had our pick up Mr. Aarif who also later became our guide for our shopping . He dropped us at the Marina. There was a long queue and we had to wait. We were informed seating at the top was the best when you go for the cruise for the view, since we were early we did get the seat at the top and we settled on our seats. The buffet dinner was arranged in the cruise as it went for a ride around Marina. Dinner was average but it had an amazing view of the city around Marina. There was Tanoura dance, Tanoura means skirt in English and Tanoura dance is a kind of folkloric dance that is very common in Islamic countries Especially Egypt and Turkey. it is usually performed by Sufi men for the Sufi music, who spin continuously and in the night, their skirts are lit with lights and it was great to watch. Once we were done our guide picked us up and dropped to the hotel and we crashed for the night.

Day 3: I woke up late and I had to rush for the Arabian Travel Market (ATM). It was my first time and made it on time for the pick up and reached the Dubai Trade Centre where the event was happening. Started with a networking session and crazy schedule of one on one, meet with suppliers globally. Since it was in multiple halls most of the time was getting wasted in moving from one hall to another trying to be on time for the meeting. It was one crazy schedule and enjoyed every minute of it. Once we were dropped back to the hotel, I realized I hadn’t had anything from morning so was very hungry. Thankfully I met Ms. Basma from Saudi Arabia who was attending ATM and staying in Voco, she also was hungry and wanted to eat at KFC which was next door. I joined her even though KFC is not my comfort food. We ordered our food and then we also found a lady who came inside and was selling key chains, she was dumb and couldn’t speak and she had a card which said all the key chains are made by people of different physical disabilities and if we buy, it will benefit them. Even though I don’t use key chains, I picked up few just to support them and I told her to keep the change but she gave back some small memento for the balance amount which was due. I then handed over to Basma those key chains to give to her younger sister as she loves those and returned to our respective rooms.

Then Judy and I decided to head to Meena Bazaar as recommended by Mr. Aarif and picked up few stuffs and stopped at Madhura Sweets where we enjoyed the Dosa, Idly and filter coffee. It was weird to try Indian food in Dubai however we wanted something light so that worked. It was very late and we booked an Uber, reached the hotel and crashed for the night.

Day 4: Another crazy day as I was late again to wake up and rushed to the ATM, after all the meetings, we had a dinner hosted in IHG, Dubai Marina and it was a beautiful sight to behold. Even though it was good networking but my feet ended up hurting badly due to shoe bite and I had to retire very early and I came back to the hotel and crashed, while Judy went to meet her friends for dinner.

Day 5: Had a good rest and I was late again. So grabbed a quick breakfast and rushed to ATM. Post all the meetings we went for a night show at La Perle, Dubai. La Perle is the region’s first permanent show and it features breathtaking fusion of immersive artistic performances, imagery and technology. It is influenced by Dubai’s rich culture, vibrant present and aspirational future, which is brought to life by awe-inspiring stunts and special effects that left us speechless in the aqua theatre. It was amazing to witness the stage flood with water and drain in a matter of seconds as the artists perform mind-blowing aqua and aerial feats, such as diving from 25 meters high. It was a mesmerizing experience and I would highly recommend and thank the ATM for providing the tickets for us. Don’t miss out as it was a beautiful experience.

Then Basma suggested to step out for dinner and we had asked her to take us to an authentic local experience, so we went to Tashrifat Restaurant which was an Iranian cuisine and we had an amazing kebabs, Saffron rice and Tea. We did order Kunafa which was a little dry but the food was one of the best ones.

Then Basma said we should try the shisha (hookah) so we went to Ayoush restaurant for the same. While Basma ordered green apple with mint, Judy reluctantly ordered watermelon flavour and I went in for mix cocktails. These Shisha’s are a way to unwind after a tiring day and spend time with friends. Basma and Judy were so sleepy so we only could spent a little time and then went back to the room and crashed for the night.

Day 6: Woke up with little sleep and rushed for the final day of conference, quickly finished all the appointments and then headed back to the hotel. Ordered some club sandwich and got back to work. Asked Judy to go early as I didn’t want to waste her time waiting for me, so we had the cab pick up and Judy went to the Dubai Mall.

I joined late just enough time to see the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo. It has as the name suggests it has lot of Marine animals and underwater tunnel with a huge tank with sharks, rays & crocodile. That was a biggest attraction and it was so beautiful with lot of indoor garden and it was an amazing evening.

Then we headed out of the mail to see the fountains. The fountain show was another attraction and it was beautiful. Then we went to try the Turkish Ice Cream, thankfully he didn’t play any tricks so we got it quickly and enjoyed. it was more chewy compared to the normal ice cream which we are used to and then we headed back to the hotel and crashed.

Day 7: Woke up after good rest, had a quick breakfast and our guide Mr. Aarif took us around the city. We first headed to Deira and went for perfume shopping. If you are coming to Dubai, perfumes are the ones not to be missed, since most of them are oil based which makes it stay longer in your body. Then headed to Jumeirah Mosque, it had nice lawn and after taking couple of pictures for the memories we headed to Islamic Art Gallery for another shopping which our guide recommended. There were beautiful wall hangings done by the local artisans with stones and golden threads. It was one of the most expensive places as well. We did pick up few perfumes and got dropped in Dubai Frame.

It’s a huge garden and as we walked and got it into elevator to go up, it has a breath taking view and since we didn’t have time for lunch we just quickly grabbed a cappuccino and croissant. Then we headed back to the hotel as we were heading out for desert safari.

Mr. Shamsingh came to pick us up and it was a beautiful drive. They stopped in a shop so we ended up buying a Shemagh (Arab headscarf) which helps to protect the head, face and neck from sun, sand and wind before we headed for the sand dunes. It looked beautiful on both of us as the shop folks helped us to tie that scarf and then there was dune bashing which we enjoyed the most. We also stopped on the way to take some amazing pictures amid sand dunes and it was awesome.

Then we headed to the place and they had quad biking. Judy wanted to pick up one and I sat with her and we both enjoyed the drive. Then there was a very short camel ride, even though personally I don’t like to do these animal rides, they insisted. It was pretty short ride and then we headed back for the show. Since we were a little early we had enough time to go around with the small souvenir shops and also they recommended to do the VIP seating, so we chose our seats and I enjoyed the Shisha & Judy enjoyed the fresh juice. The belly dance show, fire show and Tanura show was so good and we also were served dinner. The food was just ok. I felt bad as the amount of food getting wasted there. The quantity was more and it was all packed and given, so most of the foods were getting wasted if you didn’t want to eat those. Then we enjoyed the remainder of the show. After such an amazing time we got dropped back and we crashed for the night

Day 8: Woke up to another beautiful day and Judy wanted to do a bit of shopping, so we headed to Lulu mall but we didn’t find anything interesting. So we headed back to Mall of Emirates. While Judy went to Carefour to do her shopping, I found a pharmacy opposite and picked up few things and then went to Carefour. They did have good options but I didn’t have so much patience to go over, so I just picked up a duffle bag (which was such a bad quality and tore post one use as soon as we landed) while Judy enjoyed her shopping.

Then we headed to CajunGrill at the food court, it was a decent food and we got dropped in Museum of future. This is an exhibition space for innovative and futuristic ideologies, services, and products and it was pretty creative and once we saw everything we came down and there was perfumery where we had to answer questions online and the system decides the perfume for us. It’s a set of 3 bottles. Depending on the answers and our choices, the different cocktails of these oils get added and we could see the mixture being added to the customized perfume, where we don’t choose manually. It was pretty interesting. Then we thought we will grab a quick bite in a nice pastry shop but we ended up going to Jones the Grocer, and we didn’t realize it was in the Dubal Mall again. We had an amazing dinner, enjoyed the view of fountain and Burj al Khalifa, came to the hotel and crashed for the night. .

Day 9: It was another beautiful day and we headed to Veggie Restaurant, it was a south Indian restaurant and we had a good breakfast and then headed to Atlantis. One way we had taken mono rail which dropped us to Atlantis. As we entered we first a saw a huge tank of marine animals and there were divers inside and some of them were snorkeling there as well. It was beautiful to watch from outside through that glass panels and the sheer variety of multi color marine animals was awesome.

Then we headed to the water park, took super pass as we were late to reach and it helped to avoid longer queues which gave us enough time to use as many rides as possible. They also provided the free aqua socks which we needed to collect and then we ventured to the water activities. The only downside was we couldn’t carry anything while doing the activity. It was sunny, our bags were there in one entrance, we were thirsty, not a single water dispenser was available anywhere except to purchase but going to back another entrance to pick up the wallet was a night mare.

After few rides, I had a bad headache due to dehydration and so we headed back to eat and drink something before headache ruins my day. There was McDonalds and soft drinks. We had burger and coke and sat outside on the chairs and took a break to recover from the headache.

On the way Mr. Aarif showed us the 7 star hotel Burj Al Arab, Jumeirah Dar Al Masyaf hotel which had golden horses in the front. We were informed that when you check in at this golden horse hotel, you are taken by boat and the beautiful landscapes and river were beyond words. Then we also saw the palace of the king and also enjoyed the Dubai night life view.

We then went to Saravana Bhavan for an idly and filter coffee and it was delicious. Then came down to buy the spice and chocolates which was close to Tanishq showroom. Then we headed to Tanishq, as Judy wanted to check some designs. We then came back to the hotel and crashed for the night.

Day 10: Had a good sleep and woke up to another exciting day. Had a quick breakfast and started packing. We ordered a chicken club sandwich at the hotel. It was good then we went to try the best kebab place which was recommended by Mr. Shamsingh. We went and had their kebabs with saffron rice, the waiter recommended us to try the mutton curry and we obliged. This place had lot of significance as it was one of the oldest places and lot of prominent personalities had been there. Then Judy headed for gold shopping, while I had to get back to work. Towards evening we wanted to go to the Deira City Centre however we got late and went straight to the Mexico Seafood Restaurant. This was one of the best experiences and came back to the hotel and ordered few croissants for the next day as we had to leave early and crashed for the night.

Day 11: we woke up early as we had to bid good bye to Dubai, had a quick coffee and croissant and we checked out the hotel. The check out process was super smooth. We got dropped near Etihad Airlines office in Dubai. We were disappointed as Etihad office in Dubai didn’t have check in counter post Covid. Since we were early, we were just sitting and killing our time. I wish the check-in counter comes to Dubai to make things easier.

Then the coach arrived and we headed to Abu Dhabi Airport. once we reached the airport Judy went somewhere else so had to wait till she got back to the right check-in counter, we lost there at least half an hour there and then almost an hour at the check-in counter as they had some technical issues retrieving our booking which was booked directly from airline website.

Once that was done, we had to get the tax-free confirmation at the counter and we were directed at a wrong counter and so we lost another 10 minutes and then we came back to the right counter which was just near the duty free where it all began. By the time tax refund process was initiated, it was time for boarding and we had to rush. We ran for the boarding so that we don’t miss our flights. Thankfully we were there to board just on time.

Return flight was smooth, leg space was ok and food was good as well. Finally we landed in Bangalore and we needed to browse through duty free shops but due to election next day, it was dry day so alcohol shops were closed. We stepped out and waited for Judy’s gang to arrive to welcome her. However, they were getting delayed so we bid good bye to each other and came back making such fantastic and memorable experience to cherish………….

Few pointers to note in Dubai:

  1. You need not book private cabs in advance, Uber is super fast and cost saving as well
  2. If you are ok to splurge in five star hotels, this is the city you should because first, you are treated like royalty in every sense of the way and second the cost comparing to India is much cheaper. So please go ahead and enjoy those luxury experiences without any guilt as you have earned it.
  3. The safest city in the world and I mean every single word of it. People who know me, are aware how I am when it comes to safety and I am someone who will not step out during travel if I am not comfortable in terms of my safety. This is the first city in 2023 that I can vouch for being safe. I was so comfortable that I traveled alone, no matter whether it was day or night because I was 100% sure I was safe in the city, that mattered to me the most and Dubai, thank you for this and  looking forward to visit when ever I can.

I have no words to express enough how much I love this city and I don’t mind going back again and again to enjoy these experiences. Yes, it can burn your wallet but every penny is worth spent in this city.

Until we meet again on my next travel Shukran Dubai and Stay safe……………

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