Jani Jermans – Travel Diaries

June 30, 2022

Rameswaram – The Island of Temples

Filed under: Travel — jani @ 6:34 pm

About Rameswaram: This island is located in Ramanathapuram district, the town is a part of Pamban Island also known as Rameswaram. This is one of the four pilgrimage places for Hindus (Char Dham of India). This Island is being associated with the legendry temple Arulmigu Ramanathaswamy Temple, built in marvelous Dravidian style of architecture. Situated at the very tip of the Indian peninsula, the island is connected with Indian mainland by Pamban Bridge on Pamban Channel in Gulf of Mannar. Rameswaram is said to be the Varanasi of South. Rameswaram is believed to be the place from where Lord Rama started his journey to get his wife Sita back from Ravana and he was helped by ‘Vaanar-Sena’ army of legendary monkey-humans and served by Hanuman, Lord Ram’s paramount devotee.

Day 1: After a very stressful week, I needed a short break and the moment I told Sur, he was all ready to go on a break to help me destress. For some reason I was thinking the monsoon has started so the only place I felt comfortable to travel was Rameswaram. This has been in my bucket list for a very long time, however since Sur cannot handle the heat, this has been getting pushed further and further. This time as we ran out of options, Sur reluctantly agreed for Rameswaram.

We started our journey as usual by 6 AM sharp, however it had unusual traffic. After few hours, I was very hungry so we were looking for a place to stop for breakfast, finally found Adyar Ananda Bhavan, near Hosur Industrial Complex and I enjoyed the mini breakfast which had Idli, Dosa, Pongal, Kesari and soft fritter (medhu vada) and a nice filter coffee, while Sur enjoyed the masala ghee dosa. Once we loaded our energy we hit the road back and it was a pretty good drive. We just had to do a quick stop for fuel and then we headed back to the road again.

We were looking for a stop for lunch and we found Ammachi mess, near Kottangulam. It was ok for just a quick south Indian veg meals. Then we hit the road.

On the way we stopped for few minutes in Pamban bridge. This is a railway bridge which connects the town of Mandapam in mainland India with Pamban Island, and Rameswaram. Opened on 24 February 1914, it was India’s first sea bridge, and was the longest sea bridge in India until the opening of the Bandra-Worli Sea Link in 2010.

Then we reached the Daiwik Hotel. We checked in to the room and freshened ourselves. We were too tired to step out for dinner so just ordered some tea and chilli cheese toast, as I realized later this hotel was a pure Veg hotel so I didn’t have other options. Thankfully the chili cheese toast was good. I ordered a cup of tea but I got 4 cups of tea instead. I was trying to finish the whole tea as I didn’t want to waste it and Sur was laughing looking at my plight of tea overdose. Then we dozed off.

Day 2: Woke up to a beautiful day and went for the breakfast. The buffet spread was decent and then headed straight to our first stop Dhanushkodi, this town is believed to be the place where Lord Rama had ordered Lord Hanuman to build a bridge which could carry his army across to Sri Lanka, where Demon King Ravana had kept Sita captive. As ordered, Lord Hanuman had obliged and it was here that the Ram Setu was built by the Vanara Sena.

We went straight to Arichal Munai. It’s a Coastal lookout marking the end point of the Indian mainland, popular for viewing ocean sunsets. We enjoyed the beautiful view of the beach, there were quite a lot of crowd and then came to the Dhanushkodi town, which most of the people call it as a ghost town as this was completely destroyed in Cyclone in 22-23 Dec 1964. There is only a church entrance wall standing and a little bit of altar. Otherside the railway station is completely destroyed and you could see skeletons of post office, school and railway station. Even though the Pamban bridge was rebuilt but the town was never rebuilt as this town after cyclone was considered unfit for living. There are few shops and very few houses with a small hindu temple.

On the way back we visited Kothandaramar Temple. The temple is the only historical structure to survive the 1964 cyclone that washed away Dhanushkodi. The temple is estimated to have been constructed about 500-1000 years ago. Rama, the main idol, is depicted as having a bow (Kothandam), and hence this temple is called Kothandaramar temple. The temple has the deities of Rama, Lakshmana, Sita, Hanuman and Vibhishana. The temple is believed to be the place where Vibhishana, the younger brother of Ravana, asked Rama and his vanara (ape men) army for refuge. According to this tradition, after the abduction of Sita, Vibhishana advised Ravana to return her to Rama. However, Ravana did not listen to the advice, which led to Vibhishana fleeing from Lanka and joining Rama’s army. It is also said that after the slaying of Ravana, Rama performed the “Pattabhishekam” (ascension to king of Lanka) for Vibhishana at this place. The story is depicted in painting across the walls inside the shrine.

Then we headed to Jatayu Theertham which is closeby and this is also considered one of the important shrines in Rameshwaram. The road is pretty narrow with thorny trees on both sides of the road. This place is nice to stop for a group lunch/family outings etc. This temple is dedicated to Jatayu, considered to be the King of birds, who was an ardent and loyal devotee of Lord Rama. According to the religious beliefs, when demon Ravana had kidnapped Goddess Sita, Jatayu had helped Lord Rama by fighting the demon. During the fight, Jatayu’s wings were slashed because of which it fell down and died. Afterwards, Lord Rama had buried the Jatayu body at the place where a temple stands now and is dedicated to Jatayu. it is said that the entire place where it was buried, turned into vibhuti, which is the holy ash that is obtained after the yagnas by the saints. It is also believed that Jatayu also helped in getting herbs from mountains to save Lord Rama’s life. We said a prayer there and then headed to the famous temple of Rameshwaram which is Arulmigu Ramanthaswamy Temple.

This Arulmigu Ramanthaswamy Temple has the longest corridor among all Hindu temples in India. It was built by King Rebel Muthuramalinga Sethupathiy. The temple, located in Rameswaram, is considered a holy pilgrimage site for Shaivites, Vaishnavites and Smarthas. Mythological accounts depict the presiding deity, the Lingam of Ramanathaswamy (Shiva), as having been established and worshiped by Rama, before he crossed his bridge to the present-day island of Sri Lanka. Ramanathaswamy Temple Theertham (holy water bodies) is very special. There are 22 theerthams in the form of a pond and a well. These 22 theerthams represent the 22 arrows of Sri Rama. It is said that every devotee should bathe in these 22 theerthams before going to the sanctum sanctorum of the temple. You are supposed to stand in front of each theertham and the temple folks will take the water from the holy well through a bucket and pour the whole bucket of water on you. We were not at all prepared for this, so we asked the guide to pour the water in the hand so that we can splash a little water on the head instead of getting fully wet. We completed all 22 theerthams, the final one being called Ganga theertham and then we entered the temple to pray. The floors are completely wet and very crowded, so be prepared for that when you plan to visit.

Then we were looking for a place to have our lunch, unfortunately I didn’t realize until then that most of the restaurants are vegetarian as this being temple town. I came with the expectation to enjoy the seafood as it’s a coastal town, to my disappointment, there were mostly vegetarian restaurants.

The two seafood places we identified to try for lunch. First we went to Coral Casita, after spending almost 45 minutes of drive in a small lane, we realized the property didn’t exist. Then we thought we will give a try to Ocean Paradise Beach Resort & Sea Food Restaurant, after another hour drive and wading through the sand a bit we were informed its only for the house guests. So finally we had to return back and Sur now has given up helping me find my food as he was hungry. So I reluctantly agreed to go to a vegetarian restaurant.

The worst part was Sur wanted to try the lunch in JKR Resort & Spa. Imagine my plight, I would have been totally fine to go to restaurants like A2B and order a south Indian veg thali which I love, and I would have been totally ok with it. But going to a high end restaurant for a vegetarian buffet that I couldn’t handle. With all the complaints and grumpy face that I had till I came out of that place, Sur realized never take me out to a high end pure vegetarian restaurant especially while travelling. You don’t want to face me in that situation, I am sure Sur can vouch for that.

Talking about JKR Resort, this place ranked top while we were searching for a place to stay, however every review in the last few months had been negative. Even though the rooms and views are good, the service was pathetic, that’s what we read about the reviews online. That’s why we didn’t book this property. However Sur thought at least will try their food and see the experience by ourselves. The food at JKR for the veg buffet was decent and Sur enjoyed, while I loved the paneer and papads as I didn’t have an option. Then we decided to try some of their drink in the menu like buttermilk etc. The waiter said chef is not available as he stepped out for shopping so only drink available was butter milk, which also might get delayed. This was during peak lunch hours so we kind of understood the level of hospitality at this high-end premium resort.  We also had a family sitting next to us ordering A la carte, they didn’t get their food on time, finally when the food came, there were no plates, for few minutes waiter was not available as he was busy with other customers.The lady lost her patience and started lecturing the waiter.

I had no interest to be at this place any longer, so we quickly left from the place and went to House of Kalam. This is the childhood home of India’s beloved former president, late Dr APJ Abdul Kalam. Not many know that late Dr Kalam was born and raised till his teenage years in the temple town of Rameswaram. The House of Kalam was established as museum in 2011.

Then we headed to Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam National Memorial in Rameswaram. Here you cannot carry a mobile phone, hence ensure don’t carry any things when you go to visit. The one person I always admire is Dr. Kalam, he  is the epitome of simplicity, powerhouse of knowledge and an inspiration to every person specially the students. So I felt so good and was very glad that I visited this place. Looking at the statue of Dr. Kalam, I felt I was meeting him in person and my heart was filled with respect, love and admiration. We had to hurry as it was time for closure, so quickly went around the museum and then we headed back to the hotel. As usual we ordered for the tea and chill cheese toast and dozed off.

Day 3: We had a good rest, had our breakfast and left to see more of Rameswaram. We also had few places to visit which was few kms away from this town. So our first stop for the day was Hanuman Temple (Sri Panchmukhi Hanuman Mandir & Floating Stones) which is the five-faced Hanuman Temple. It is said that Lord had revealed his five faces here, The five faces of lord Hanuman are of Lord Varaha that faces the north, Lord Narasimha facing the south, Lord Garuda facing the west, Lord Hanuman facing the east along with face of Lord Hayagriva that faces the sky. In 1964, after the cyclone in Dhanuskhodi, the idols of Lord Rama and Goddess Sita was brought to this temple and placed here.

Another major attraction of this temple are the ‘floating stones’ that have been kept at the temple for the devotees to see. These floating stones were used for building the floating bridge named Sethu Bandhanam, from Rameshwaram to Lanka so that Lord Rama, Lord Lakshman along with others could go to Lanka to rescue Goddess Sita and put an end to the brutalities of demon Ravana.

Then we went to Ram temple and Ram Tirtham, we said a prayer and left.

Then we headed to Agni Theertham, this place holds a significant place among Hindu Devotees, who visit here to offer their prayers to atone their sins by bathing in its holy waters. It is also visited by devotees to pray for the peace and moksha of their ancestors and to perform rituals after the demise of their loved ones. We didn’t step in the water as it was crowded.

Then we headed to Ram Padam (Ramar Paadham – Ram’s Feet). It is situated in the sandy hillock named Gandha Madhana parvatham (The village where this temple is located). The word Parvatham Literally means Mountain. The feet of Lord Rama is engraved in a stone chakra in this place. The Ramar paadham is the highest point in the Rameswaram, one can see the full panoramic view of Rameswaram island by standing on the top of this Temple. It is said that one can view Sri Lanka by standing on the top of the temple. There is a stair on the side to go upstairs to have the view. It is said that Lord Ram Stood on this place and planned for the bridge, Before he built a bridge (Ram Sethu) across the sea.

Then we headed out of town to explore few places of interest which were close by. First it was Ramanad Palace. This palace is in the midst of the busy main road so we didn’t find the place to park the car. When we asked few people around,  they just said to park it outside and go. We were still worried of getting towed away as this was a busy road. Once we went inside the gate, we realized there was bigger space inside to park. The Gatekeeper then assured that car will not get towed away and it’s safe to keep it out, so we were relieved and went inside.

The entrance had a sign in Tamil (Ramalinga Vilasam). Ramanathapuram or Ramanad Palace is the home of the Sethupathy kings who ruled this region in the 17th century and were considered the guardians of the Sethusamudram near Rameshwaram. Pilgrims and travellers were protected by these rulers. The kings ruled parts of Southern Tamilnadu for more than 300 years and it is believed that some parts of the palace complex precedes even that era. This palace portrays the past glory of King Sethupathi. The mural paintings with natural dyes picturing the historical days of King Sethupathi are still intact. The palace also holds complex weapons which were used by King Sethupathi on various wars. The paintings were not just about the gods and goddess but also about the peace treaties with kings and queens from different countries. There is also idols of Ram, Sita, Hanuman & Lakshman. Then as we stepped out, we also saw few houses inside which we assumed they are the descendants of the royalty and we left for our next destination.

Our next stop was Navapashanam temple (Nine Planets Temple) is a Hindu temple dedicated to Navagrahas, the nine planetary deities, located in Devipattinam, which is 70 Kms from Rameswaram. The legend is that Ram before undertaking the journey to bring back Sita from Lanka, said to have performed prayers towards Navagraha (9 planets) in this place, installing all the deities by his own hands. Here the temple is located close to the sea and you have to walk through a bridge. Since you have to remove the footwear out, be prepared to walk on the bridge barefoot in the hot sun in order to see the nine deities. There were people taking holy bath where the deities were there as this is the only temple where people are allowed to touch the deities.

Next we went to Darbhashayanam Temple, in Tiruppullaani which is located near Ramanathapuram. It means the sacred forest abode of Pula Maharshi. Ram, took rest on the sacred grass during his penance, for three days and nights, in this particular place. There is a shrine of Lord Rama in the Darbasayana pose, signifying his resting here and invoking Varuna for help in crossing the ocean, enroute to Sri Lanka in search of Sita. Pullaranyam was a marshy land full of grass and Sri Rama chose a bed of Darbha grass, which is held very sacred by all the Hindus. The grass is used on all sacred occasions during the performance of propitiatory rituals in honour of Gods and one’s ancestors. Since it was lunch time, the temple was closed and I also had few work calls to take. So we went around and found few trees where we got a nice shade to park the car as the weather was hot and then attended my work calls. Then we headed to the temple however the sanctum was closed. So just stood out, said a prayer and we left.

Then we headed to Uthirakosamangai Temple (Mangalanatha Swamy Temple). The place got this name Uthirakosamangai from the fact that Lord Shiva taught Parvati the secrets of the Vedas. It is located in Ramanathapuram District in Tamil Nadu. It is one of the most ancient Shiva temples, Sethupathi Maharaja family is the hereditary trustee.The antiquity of the temple is also evident from the fact that the name of Mandodari, wife of Ravana (Emperor of Sri Lanka) is engraved on the wall of the temple. This temple is the place where the world’s first Natarajar appeared. The temple has the Emerald Nataraja Statue (Maragatha Natarajar). The famous Mughal King Alauddin Khilji, who ruled Delhi in the year 1300, found out that there was an emerald Natarajar statue in Uthirakosamangai and tried to loot it but he did not succeed in his attempt. It is also believed to be the first temple in the world.

When we reached the place, temple was still closed. Since I had few work calls to be done we parked in front of the temple and then by the time I finished the call, temple opened. So we were relieved and went inside the temple. First we went to visit the Natarajar temple on the right side which was outside of the main temple, prayed and then came to the main temple. Then on the left was  goddess Parvati temple. Since this is the auspicious place for weddings we did see few newly wedded couples who just finished their rituals in the temple. Then we headed out to our next stop.

We reached Erwadi Dargah which is in Erwadi village in Ramanathapuram District. It is the holiest place for Islam. Here they have the grave and the shrine of Qutbus Sulthan Syed Ibrahim Shaheed Badusha Radiyallh Ta’ala anhu, the then ruler of Madinah Al Munawwara. The four dargahs were built here to commemorate Seyyad Ali Sulthan Ibrahim Shahid, His mother Fathima, wife Seyyad Ali Fathima & son Abu Thahir who migrated from Saudi Arabia and were considered messengers of God. Seyyad Ali performed lot of miracles, hence the King Sethupati gifted this land (6000 acres) as a token of appreciation. After King Sethupathi, Vikrama Pandya ruled this place and he was not in favour of him as the Hindus were converting to Muslims, So war broke out and except son, all of them lost their lives during the war. Here people bring mentally ill patients as they believe, God can cure them as Seyyad Ali had perfomed lot of miracles here. This is also a place of religious harmony which King Sethupathi patranised and that bond between hindus and muslims still continues till date.

It’s near the main road and we went in the afternoon so this was also closed and we saw it from out and left. Then on our way near the junction where we needed to head to Rameswaram, there was a juice vendor, we enjoyed the local drinks like kulukki sharbath, sugar cane juice, kulukki soda etc and then returned to the hotel, had our usual tea and chilli cheese toast and hit our bed.

Day 4: We woke up after a good sleep, had our breakfast and then it was time to check out. Had a lovely drive. We didn’t stop much as we wanted to reach Bangalore as quickly as possible. When we had to stop for lunch, we tried to look for a non-vegetarian place as I was complaining of eating veg food for the last 3 days, however we missed as usual. Then we gave up our search and settled for whatever was available. We found a new restaurant KMH Veg Restaurant near Velambadi. Sur loved the chilli mushroom manjurian and I ordered the south Indian veg thali. The place was very clean  and the food was good. Then we headed straight to Bangalore and reached home by evening.

For me the whole trip looked like a penance but it was worth visiting this place. For all the seafood lovers, Dhanushkodi has few seafood restaurants, since we went in the morning just after breakfast, we couldn’t enjoy it. Once you are in Rameswaram town mostly you have to be prepared for a vegetarian meal.

Until our next trip, please stay safe and wear the mask. Sending all the blessings for world peace and harmony…

 

 

 

 

 

 

June 10, 2022

Travelling to Antarctica?

Filed under: Travel — jani @ 11:30 pm

This is going to my first blog about my travel diaries, and it’s more exciting to start writing about Antarctica which remains a distant dream for many. I will try to cover as much details as possible to help the readers. Being an Immigration Expert, my target would be to guide more on the immigration/visa part as well for the international travel.

About Antarctica:

Antarctica, the southernmost continent and site of the South Pole, is a virtually uninhabited, ice-covered landmass. Most cruises to the continent visit the Antarctic Peninsula, which stretches toward South America. It’s known for the Lemaire Channel and Paradise Harbor, striking, iceberg-flanked passageways, and Port Lockroy, a former British research station turned museum. The peninsula’s isolated terrain also shelters rich wildlife, including many penguins.

Antarctica is not just one-time life experience and also this is the most expensive one. Hence it helps to plan well in advance. Ideal time for Antarctica is from November to March as that is the summer time there and it’s mostly undertaken by cruise, for which the embarkation point is Ushuaia, Argentina. There are other countries as well but we had settled with Ushuaia.

Cruise: Our cruise was from 9 nights and it was Antarctica – Discovery and Learning Voyage with M/V Hondius (Oceanic Expeditions) and our bookings started way back in March 2019. A friend of mine referred Mr. Prabhat from offbeat travel when we were telling her about our Antarctica plan. Since she referred personally, we went ahead and booked the trip through his company.  By the time we had finalized in April 2019, most of the lower categories of the cabin got sold out and we could get only the top 2nd and 3rd cabin which is Grand Suite with Private balcony and Junior Suite as 4 of us were travelling on a twin sharing basis.

Cruise Booking Contact: Mr. Prabhat Verma – prabhat@offbeat.travel – +91 9717704083

Visa: You don’t need a visa for Antarctica, however you need to apply for a tourist visa to Argentina as the cruise embarkation point is from Ushuaia. It’s a little nightmare to get the Argentina visa from India as you have to go through getting Spanish translations & notarizations etc. which came as a little surprise as even the Spain Embassy didn’t ask for it when I had applied for a visa last year in 2018.

ETA (Online): If the purpose is tourism then, you can apply for ETA – For the holders of Valid B2 US Visa (Valid for 6 months) OR For the holders of valid Category C Schengen Visa (Valid for 6 months)

Link: http://www.migraciones.gov.ar/ave/index.htm

Step 1: Pay the fees of USD 50 and there is receipt generated which carries the sticker number

Step 2: File ETA (login details will be your passport number and reference number which is the sticker number)

Note: When you upload the passport copies, do ensure to scan the entire pages of passport including the blank pages. In the same way if your valid US visa is in old passport then scan the entire old passport and submit. Please note, its recommended that the visa has to be valid for 6 months from the travel end date, otherwise there is a possibility of denial of ETA.

Processing Time: 20 working days

Validity: 3 months from Date of Issue with multiple entries

Contact: ave@migraciones.gov.ar

Tourist Visa at the Consulate: If you are applying in India, then you must apply at the New Delhi (If you are residing in states other than Maharashtra & Karnataka) or Mumbai (People residing in Maharashtra & Karnataka only)

Fee – Gratis for Indian Nationals

Documents Required:

  1. Passport: must be valid for a minimum of 6 months from the intended date of entry and have at least one completely free page left for the visa.
  2. A completed visa application form: (Refer the link below) Answer ALL questions BLOCK letters and fill with Blue Ink (Do enter the Aadhar details in the q.no 10 in application form (local id number details – Mandatory for Mumbai)           https://cnyor.cancilleria.gob.ar/userfiles/fsv_2019_ingles_editable.pdf
  3.  One recent passport style photograph (4X4 cm in white background)
  4. Confirmed Flight ticket (round trip)
  5. Confirmed Hotel reservation
  6. Personal bank statement of the last six months in original with seal and signature from the bank
  7. Cover Letter (English & Spanish): A letter explaining the purpose of your trip and the complete itinerary from the day you land to the day you depart. This letter must be notarized and duly translated into Spanish by a professional translator (the translation does not need to be notarized).
  8. HR letter from the employer (English & Spanish) A letter from your employer, authorizing the trip, confirming that you are currently employed by the company and for how long. This letter must be written on company letterhead, signed by the person in charge, notarized and duly translated into Spanish by a professional translator (the translation does not need to be notarized)
  • Contact for Translation – Ulka Ghorpade – ghorpade@anzsolutions.in – +91 9619622760
  • Notarization – Contact the local notary office, they would attest the English documents as Spanish is not required, if you wish you to do the Spanish, then the translation has to be signed by the translator with the seal and signature so that the notary people can sign as they wouldn’t know Spanish.
  1. Last month salary/pay-slip (Recommended last 3 months pay slips)
  2. Last 3 year’s Income Tax Return – ITR
  3. Company Id copy (Recommended)
  4. Insurance booking details for the entire trip (Neeru Dua – info@travelindiainc.com –9311530053) It’s mandatory for Antarctica, which has to be shared to the cruise while filling up the personal information form. Antarctica’s weather conditions can change in a minute, so its mandatory to get one, Mr. Prabhat from offbeat had recommended to book with Travel India Inc.

In our case there was a search and rescue operations that our vessel got involved while returning from Antarctica, as the Chilean aircraft C-130 Hercules crashed in drake passage enroute their Antarctica base. Our vessel was close by at that time hence Maritime board had asked to do the search and rescue until the Chilean Navy reaches which would take minimum 24 hours to reach the Drake Passage. So our vessel delayed to reach Ushuaia and many passengers had to reschedule their flights on their own as Vessel had issued the letter mentioning the reason for delay so that the insurance can refund the reschedule cost. Vessel had helped with the accommodation only.

  1. Aadhar card copy (Mandatory for Mumbai consulate)

Process:

  • Submit all the documents in person, it can be the applicant or anyone who is authorized to submit on your behalf. For Mumbai consulate, would recommend submitting in person as they can come up with varied requirements and even we were informed that the visa application form was incorrect when the same form was accepted by New Delhi. So it helps if the pax is present so that you can clarify if there are any concerns.
  • Submission Time:
    • 10-11 AM (New Delhi – Embassy of the Argentine Republic in New Delhi, F-3/3 Vasant Vihar, New Delhi 110057, India – +91 11 4078 1900)
    • 30-10.30 AM (Mumbai – General of the Argentine Republic in Mumbai (CHANDER MUKHI Building, 10TH Floor, NARIMAN POINT – MUMBAI, 400 021 Mumbai, India – +91 22 2287 1381/1383)
  • Status update within 72 hours on the below (For Mumbai consulate it would be updated in person) on any one of the points as mentioned below
    • If the application meets all the requirements then interview date is scheduled with the time, mostly it might be in person, sometimes it might be scheduled through whatsapp video call (Mumbai: the documents will be handed back to the person who went to ask for the status and it has to be re-submitted in the morning of the interview date by 10 AM)
    • If the application doesn’t meet the requirements, then it would be rejected and handed over the documents
    • If any additional documents are required then that would be communicated
  • Once the interview is done, they would update by when the passport would be ready for collection, usually it’s 5 working days from the interview date
  • Someone who is authorized can collect the passport with the authorization letter.

Note:

The authorization letter is required only while collecting the passport with visa, it’s not required for submission/status update

Applicant has to travel in person only if he/she is called for interview in person

Accommodation: It’s recommended that you reach in Ushuaia a day before the embarkation and also depart a day later to keep in mind for any exigencies. We had booked our stay in Mysten Kepen B&B in Ushuaia.

Airport Transfer: Mysten Kepen can arrange for the same for an additional cost, please note from our personal experience most of the taxi drivers in Ushuaia had charged as per meter which came much cheaper. Be prepared that in Argentina, very few spoke in English. Hence be prepared with google translator which would help with Spanish translation. However people are very friendly, helpful and they go out of their way to understand. In return it helps that we try to speak Spanish, that would be much appreciated as we can’t expect them to speak our language in their home country.

Flight: Most of the flights directly to Ushuaia are from New Delhi. We had booked the Ethiopia Airlines which was literally a marathon of almost 29 hours of flight to reach Ushuaia.

Ethiopia – Transit:

  • Transit visa is required only if the stopover is more than 12 hours or more
  • All the flights to Ushuaia goes to Buenos Aires (EZE – Ezeiza International Airport) which is the International Airport and then it goes from (AEP – Aeroparque Internacional Jorge Newbery) which is for Domestic flights to Ushuaia. Do note the airport is different for both locations, please keep at least 2-3 hours as you have to get out and travel for approximately for 45 minutes to 1 hour to go the AEP from EZE by car

Yellow Fever Vaccination: Vaccination is required if the stop over is more than 12 hours or more for Ethiopia

Packing for Antarctica:

  • Boots (Provided by the cruise), ensure it’s filled in the Personal Information Form (individually) once the payment is done, Jacket, Wind Sheeter, Thermal Inner, Sweater, Layer Jackets, Monkey Cap, Muffler, Ear muffs, Gloves, Socks, Pant (Water proof), Goggles, Binocular, Electric Jacket, Water bottle, Torch, Swim Suit, Sunglasses, Adapter, Sunscreen, Lip Balm, Body Lotion, Motion Sickness Tablet (carry as many as you can), Personal Medical Kit, Water proof cover for Mobile/Camera

While landing in various Islands in Antarctica, there might be wet landing hence it’s required that the outer layer is water resistant.

Some of the island, we may not be able to land, hence binocular is mandatory so that you don’t miss out the sightings

Cruise would provide the water proof boots hence you need not carry extra.

While standing in the dock for sightings, most of the time you might get wet hence it’s recommended to wear the water proof clothes on the top layer

Activities in Antarctica: Camping, Hiking, Polar dip & Kayaking

You can either choose hiking or Kayaking and we had finalized for hiking, camping is charged extra which need to be bought while booking the cruise.

Please note if you opt for Kayaking then you will only do kayaking for all the landings.

Cruise: Be prepared for almost 2.5 days on the Drake passage enroute Antarctica which is treacherous and do expect to have a very bad motion sickness. Once you reach Antarctica its normal for next 4 days before we return back through Drake passage. We had landed in Useful Islands, Orne Harbour (Continental Landing), Damoy Point, Port Charcot, Vernadsky Station (Ukrainian Research Station), The Yalour Islands, Deception Island & Whalers Bay. It all depends on the weather conditions and ice conditions. We couldn’t land in Yalour due to ice where zodiac couldn’t land, hence expedition team had compensated with another island which is Whalers Bay which got added later.

Also there are multiple lectures by the expedition team starting with bio security check, mandatory IAATO (International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators) briefing on safety and wildlife regulations in Antarctica, camping regulations, kayaking briefing, on sea birds, acoustics of wild life, seals, whales, penguins, polar bear, Sir Ernest Shackleton and his Imperial Transantarctic Expedition,  meaning of the sea in paintings, Introduction to photography and videography, impact due to global warming etc. through which you are kept busy. Would recommend to attend all the lectures which helps to know more about the wild life in Antarctica as many of us hardly read about it unless we are traveling there.

This was such an amazing and informative expeditions and due to delay we reached in the evening instead of morning. Since we had booked the flight next day we didn’t have any problems. We reached in Ushuaia and then took the flight next day. Aerolíneas Argentinas (Argentina Airlines) while boarding from Ushuaia had rerouted our flight to EZE airport so that we needn’t change our airport, that was very thoughtful of them.

Ethiopian Airlines: We had a little stressful experience with Ethiopian Airlines. The ground staff in Delhi could not assign the seat as the website for the second leg of journey was not open for some reason and they said we can get the seats allocated in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. When we reached the customer service as soon as we reached Addis Ababa, she had said to go to the gate and figure out as she said she couldn’t do anything. There were few more who had the same issue and then when those guys were insisting whether their seats would get confirmed she scared us by saying that the flights are running full and seats would be allocated on first come first serve basis and she was not sure that we our seats would be confirmed. So we got into panic mode as we couldn’t afford to miss the flight and we went to the gate and they said until boarding starts they cannot do anything. So literally we were sitting next to the gate to make sure we don’t miss any chance and every staff came there we were asking for an update. Finally once the boarding started, our seats were assigned to our relief. However since we didn’t go any rest room break/water for almost 3 hours we went to the rest room and it was not well maintained to our surprise. Then we came to the water dispenser which was empty, there was a house keeping lady who maintains the rest room was standing near and I asked her for water, she came and checked and she just ignored saying there is no water. We couldn’t go back to the main where all the shops were there as we had to board. I haven’t seen such heights of bad customer service.

However the airline staffs were good and didn’t have any concerns and when we returned our seats were allocated in Buenos Aires and we also were prepared to be at main gate so that we didn’t have issues and were prepared this time.

Finally we reached back after a marathon of flights.

If you get a chance, please do this expedition, it may be expensive but its worth.

Disclaimer: Please note, the immigration requirements change frequently so please ensure to check for the latest update before travel. Do let me know your feedback and I am reachable at jani.jermans@sjmobilita.com.

Why should you travel to Bhutan, the Happiest and Safest Country in the World?

Filed under: Travel — jani @ 11:29 pm

When the travel bug bit me, the first country that I visited for a vacation was Bhutan. I was in love with Bhutan from the time I read about it and later when I visited and experienced myself, the love was justified. The Royal family, their leaders and it’s people work together as one family to ensure that the country remains the happiest in the world. This is also the only Carbon Negative country in the world due to their various initiatives to save and retain their environment. My admiration grew multifold when I read about the current King (Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck) how he ensures to meet each person from the country during the tea break, to hear their concerns and find a solution to ensure every citizen in their country is taken care of. Bhutan people are lucky to have such a humble King, his family and his team whose only intention is to take care of his people. My love and prayers are with them.

Bhutan people are very warm and hospitable and I have never even heard anyone raising their voice or being hyper. I did have an experience where I was so annoyed when I got an used towel in a hotel but after looking at their smiling face with their apologies I just couldn’t say anything or stay angry with them. I just accepted the apology and returned. Till now I don’t know how did I act so cool at that situation as I knew how annoyed I was. That’s the impact of Bhutan and it just makes you one like them.

I get over paranoid while traveling cause I worry about women safety, this is the country which gave me 100% confidence that you have nothing to worry about. The people behave so responsibly and never take advantage of any situation. They try to help you out of their way. They are not just beautiful outside, they are amazing and beautiful inside too. That’s what sets them apart.

My apologies to the people of Bhutan, this is for the incident where Indian bikers had climbed on a memorial which was a worshipping place for Bhutanese. On behalf of India, my sincere apologies.

My request to every person who travels to this country – people in Bhutan are so warm, full of love and extremely hospitable. Don’t ever take advantage of them and try to hurt in anyway. Be respectful and if you are not sure just ask them, they would be happy to help. But please don’t hurt such beautiful people of Bhutan, instead learn from them to respect, love and welcome everyone with open arms and they ensure everyone has a safe, pleasant and memorable stay in Bhutan.

This would go on and on and I wouldn’t be able to stop writing about them…..So let me put a forceful full stop and discuss other things about Bhutan which I would like to write about.

About Bhutan:

Bhutan, officially known as the Kingdom of Bhutan is a landlocked country in South Asia. Thimphu is its capital and the largest city, while Phuntsholing is its financial center. It’s a land of snow capped mountains, deep, broad valleys with fertile rice paddies and orchards, tiny villages and bustling market towns. Yet the south is covered in jungle and more reminiscent of India than the Himalayas.

Bhutan is a thoroughly exotic country that stimulates all of the senses. Anyone who visits this Himalayan heaven marvels at its untouched natural beauty and unique culture. Bhutan is mainly Buddhist, as is evident from the many dzongs (monasteries), chortens (stupa’s) and prayer flags scattered all across the country. Bhutan opened to modern development only very recently and tourism is permitted only to the extent that it does not endanger the kingdom’s traditional culture and society. Therefore only a few thousand visitors visit the mountain kingdom every year. In Bhutan, “gross national happiness” takes precedence over economic considerations.

I had traveled to Bhutan few years back through Exotic Expeditions (EE). The entire credit goes to Santosh from EE for making this trip so beautiful and memorable. His contact details are as below..

Santosh Nair – +91 9986450370 – contact@exoticexpeditions.org

(www.exoticexpeditions.org)

Visa formalities:

Indian nationals intending to visit Bhutan are required to carry any of the two valid ‘Travel Documents’ (a) Valid Indian Passport having validity of minimum 6 months; and/or (b) Voter Identity Card, issued by the Election Commission of India. No Visa is required to visit Bhutan.

Indians coming to Bhutan by road are required to obtain an ‘Entry Permit’ on the basis of valid Travel Document from the Immigration Office of Royal Government of Bhutan at Phuentsholing, located on the Indo-Bhutan border opposite Jaigaon, West Bengal. Similarly, Indians coming by air must posses any one of the above mentioned Travel Document and get the Entry Permit at the Paro International Airport. The ‘entry permit’ allows an Indian tourist to visit Thimphu and Paro only.

However, any tourist going beyond Thimphu and Paro need to acquire a ‘special area permit’ from the RGoB Immigration Office at Thimphu on any working days (Monday to Friday).

Their application is one of the easiest visa application form and you can fill it up directly at the Immigration office (hardly you would take a minute) and wait for your biometrics taken and your approval permit is granted immediately. I don’t think any other country has such an easier and faster process.

Note: Immigration policies keeps getting changed, hence do check for the recent updates before you travel. For few nationalities it’s recommended to book through licensed operator in Bhutan only and they would take care of your permit as well. Always go through the right person, there is no short cuts for being compliant and ensuring you have a safe travel.

Travel Itinerary

Day 1 : We were a group of 13-15 for this trip. The group from Bangalore had booked an Air India flight before we booked, hence we had to book the same to make it easier for Santosh to pick us all together in Bagdogra. As usual after much delay from AI and we finally arrived in Bagdogra (West Bengal) in the afternoon. Santosh was waiting to receive us in 4 Innovas and we started our journey. From Bagdogra to Jaigaon (Indian side of the border), the roads were bumpy and in poor condition.

After a few hours of drive, we stopped for tea and snacks on the way before we hit the road again to reach Jaigoan. Finally late evening we reached Jaigoan and we could see Bhutan Gate lighted up so beautifully and it just felt like we were receiving a warm welcome. As we entered Phuntsholing, it was quieter and more orderly than Jaigaon which was bustling and loud. We reached the hotel at night and had a quick dinner and crashed for the night.

Day 2: After breakfast, we had to go to the immigration office in Phuntsholing as we needed the permit to go further which was walkable distance from the hotel. We reached, finished the process quickly. The staffs at the Immigration were so supportive and helpful that made the process even quicker. Then we left to explore the town as Santosh had to get permits for the drivers and vehicles which took a little longer.

So we returned and started walking around the street near the hotel. We entered the grocery shops and then we found the peach wine in Bhutan, we just couldn’t stop drinking as it was too good. We went around to visit Zangto Pelri Lhakhang, which is a Bhuddist temple in Phuntsholing. We had checked out of the hotel, loaded the luggage in the cars and started towards Thimphu (Capital of Bhutan) for the next 5 hours drive.

Since the weather was cold, we had to stop in multiple places for the Suja (butter tea) and then we also got to try Ema Datshi (Chilli & Cheese), Lom (turnip leaves), Momos, Chogo (dried yak cheese, more like rock which is an acquired taste) on our journey.

As we were reaching Thimbu, we wanted to stop for a tea break and it was so foggy and we couldn’t find many pitstops, there was just one house which had a light and when we entered there was a lady and her children. They got us some tea and we picked up some snacks from their little shop which was inside their house. I was shocked that the shop was part of their house, tea was made in their own kitchen, the little grocery shop was set up in their living room itself. I was surprised how could they allow strangers in their house late night  and the house was alone and only women. Also we found men who stopped there for a drink, they just had a shot and walked out so gracefully, also few stopped for tea and snacks.

This is what I love about them, the respect, love and how they take care of each other. Then I realized we were in Bhutan and I wouldn’t have experienced such a safe experience anywhere and I know now, and I convincingly can say Bhutan is the safest country in the world.

After such a wow experience we reached Thimbhu and then I find my suitcase was missing as somehow it got left behind in our previous hotel. So I had to rush to the shop to get the toiletries and other emergency items as it was too late, the shops just had 15 minutes to close and even though we couldn’t communicate due to language barrier, we still picked up and the staff were waiting for us to finish the shopping and they didn’t even show that they are in a hurry to shut the shop and they also helped us by getting us things not available in their shop from the neighboring shops and then had to borrow some clothes from Sur (Friend and now my partner). In the meantime Santosh was trying to figure out how did my suitcase went missing and he assured me nothing will go missing in Bhutan. As he said we later got to know that the suitcase was in the same hotel lobby, as all our luggage were together, this suitcase went behind a vase and got hidden, when we were all trying to load in the vehicles we just assumed all the luggage were taken and then later it got arranged to get back in Paro.

Then came to the room and we discover the dirty towel had been folded and kept and I was so annoyed, it happened for two of us and I had to give a piece of mind to the reception as it was late and only they were available and I had to confront them. I went and complained and there were only two teenagers who was there during the night shift. They started apologising with such a warm smile, I don’t remember how my annoyance disappeared and I accepted their apologies and got a fresh towel and returned to the room. So this is the impact that Bhutan has on you, as people in Bhutan are warm and patient and I have never heard anyone raising their voice and it makes you one like them.

Day 3 : After breakfast we explored the sights of Thimphu visiting the Buddha Dordenma – gigantic Buddha statue, which is world’s largest sitting Bhuddha, that overlooks the city. Then we visited Thimphu National Memorial Chorten, Clock tower square, and then headed to Motitang Takin Preserve to see the rare and unique national animal of Bhutan, the Takin. It’s a small place, so don’t except to see so many animals.

Just out of Thimphu, the road begins a steep, twisty climb to the Dochu La pass at 3,450 meters. We stopped on top of Dochu-La pass  for the breathtaking views of the eastern Himalayas, 108 memorial chortens or stupas known as “Druk Wangyal Chortens” which had been built by Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk, the eldest Queen Mother of the country. The top of the pass is visibly marked by a large Bhutanese chorten and prayer flags, an ideal place for photography and such a beautiful place. The road down from Dochu La into the Punakha Valley and on to Wangdi Phodrang goes on for some distance, descending 1,700 meters to the valley floor. We reached Punakha by late evening after 2.5 hrs drive and the hotel was such a beautiful place. Had a great dinner and got some rest.

Day 4 : After breakfast we visited Chimi Lhakhang, a fertility temple built in 1499 by lama Drukpa Kunley. A short but beautiful walk through the villages and fields takes you to Chimi Lakhang. This city will make you smile, because you would see everywhere the murals of phalluses and the facades are filled with the painting of gigantic phalluses with the spray of sperms which was interesting. You also have accessories with the same which you buy and even the restaurants had a wooden phallus at the entrance where we stopped for lunch, which was overlooking the field. Here again we had lost patience as the food was taking hours and hours to reach the table. Sometimes the main came and the side dish was missing. After 2-3 hours we had to rush out with whatever was given as we were getting late. So I had to go to the kitchen and tell them to hurry up. The only consolation here was beautiful overview of the field.

Later we visited Punakha Dzong, arguably the most beautiful Dzong in Bhutan located between two rivers and surrounded by jacaranda trees is a delight to watch. It just feels amazing to walk on that road and awesome place for picture perfect photographs as well.

Also we took a walk across the largest walking bridge in Bhutan. This suspension bridge is beautiful and set amidst the mountains and the flowing river beneath and we also had our snacks break on the other side of the bridge and returned back. After 4 hrs of drive we reached Paro by evening.

Day 5 : After breakfast we drove to the starting point and prepared for our hike to the legendary Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) – a magnificent monastery. You can hire a horse half way and then you can hike the remaining distance. Since we wanted to hike the whole way, we didn’t take the horse. Sur was hiking along with me and there was a horse which was coming down, I think it just felt of stretching the leg without any provocation and it kicked Sur on the thigh and by the time we realized what just happened horse went down as usual. Sur somehow managed to hike with his painful leg. It was a very relaxed trek and the monastery was so beautiful and had stunning views. Midway we stopped for lunch and we saw quite a few beautiful birds and then returned back by evening. Then headed to National Museum and went back to the hotel. There I got the good news that my suitcase had finally arrived intact.

Day 6 : After Breakfast we travelled for 3 hours to the beautiful Haa Valley . The drive to Haa valley crosses 3988m Chele-la pass, from where you have a superb views of Mount. Jhomolhari & Jichu Drakey. The quaint valley is enchanting with mountains and apple orchards. It’s like a small township, but a really charming place with traditional Bhutanese houses. We visited the 7th century Lhakhang Karpo (White temple) and Lhakhang Nagpo  (Black temple) at the foothills of a venerated three brotherly mountains known as Meri Puensum and then headed back to the homestay, which was a traditional Bhutanese house, it was run by an old couple and we had an amazing hospitality. We went around and everyone was inviting us to sit and spend time with them, was offered tea without even asking us. Mostly there were senior citizens. We just felt we were with the our own grandparents and felt home. After an delicious lunch, laughter, fun and talk we went to rest late night.

Day 7 : We woke up to the beautiful and stunning  apple orchards around. After breakfast we drove back to Siliguri (West Bengal) through the mountains of Bhutan and then got down to the plains of north Bengal. We just chilled and rested for the night.

Day 8 : After breakfast we were dropped at Bagdogra Airport to return home.

Our beautiful and memorable Bhutan trip ended, but every moment we spent there remains a life time experience. If you have already visited, you are lucky, if not make a plan as soon the Bhutan opens it’s borders after the Covid.

Praying for you and your family’s good health. This too shall pass and we will soon be back to traveling. Until then STAY SAFE…..

Have you been to the Tropical Paradise – Sri Lanka?

Filed under: Travel — jani @ 11:28 pm

My first flight was an international trip to Sri Lanka (SL) and it was a very nervous experience as I was flying for the first time. Even though I was accompanied by the UK diplomat it was a lonely experience as we didn’t know each other. I did visit SL 2-3 times on official trip, however since I travelled alone most of the time, I was too scared to step out, it was just the room service at Cinnamon Grand (CG) where we were staying and my office.

Luckily during one of the trips my team lead had accompanied me, it was such a relief as we explored the seafood restaurant (The Lagoon). Being a seafood lover, I had the best sea food and had an excellent service, other than the cutlerys’ being too heavy.
If you are in CG do go to the Sri Lanka cuisine restaurant (Nuga Gama) in CG. The set up is so beautiful. You don’t feel you are in CG, the set up is done like a typical SL village and the locals were serving the authentic cuisine, it’s an amazing experience.

Since I never got to explore it properly even after 3 visits earlier, a year ago we planned a vacation to SL with two of my friends.

The beauty of SL is that you don’t feel you are entering another country as it’s too close to India and it’s very much similar. There are times immigration officers tell me that I look like a Sri Lankan and then when I hand over the Indian Passport they look surprised. The people are extremely friendly and here again I had to take the help of Santosh to help us arrange and now I trust him blindly after such an amazing Bhutan trip. Since we were just three, he arranged someone locally (Mr. Gayan) to take care of everything. We were lucky to have him and as usual I would credit, such a beautiful experience and memories to Santosh from Exotic Expeditions (EE) for making this trip so beautiful and memorable. His contact details are as below

Santosh Nair – +91 9986450370 – contact@exoticexpeditions.org – www.exoticexpeditions.org

Special thanks to Gayan, our local guide in making sure everything was taken care of and ensuring we had an memorable experience.

About Sri Lanka:

Sri Lanka, officially the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, is an island country in South Asia, located in the Indian Ocean southwest of the Bay of Bengal and southeast of the Arabian Sea. It is geographically separated from the Indian subcontinent by the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Strait. Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte is its legislative capital, and Colombo is its largest city and centre of commerce.

Visa:

Apply ETA (Electronic Travel Authorization) through the following website –

http://www.eta.gov.lk/slvisa/

Travel Itinerary:

Day 1: We arrived in Bandaranaike International Airport, Colombo and Gayan was already waiting for us. After a few hours of drive, we headed to Golden Rock Cave temple, in Dambulla which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Recognized as a sacred pilgrimage site for 22 centuries, this cave monastery, a vast isolated rock mass with its five caverns is the largest best-preserved cave-temple complex in Sri Lanka. The Buddhist mural paintings (covering an area of 2,100 sq. meters) are of particular importance as are the 157 statues including a 47-foot long statue of the recumbent Buddha. Be prepared for steps which are thin, steep and might be slippery especially when you come down, you need to be extremely careful. Then we headed for a lunch buffet closeby and even though I am not a big fan of vegetarian food, I have to still credit for the fresh vegetables and spinach that were served. It was so fresh and delicious. I just loved the vegetarian fare buffet there which was served in a clay pot, which enhanced the flavor more.

Then we headed to our beautiful home stay, where I felt like I was in Kerala, as it was an independent house with lots of greenery around and had a beautiful garden as well. The homestay, we felt at home and the staff was extremely friendly and hospitable. After dumping the luggage in the room we headed for Minneriya National Park. It was an awesome jeep ride and this place you can spent hours and hours as you would see lot of elephants, elephants and elephants. Also you have a view point with a lake nearby and you won’t know how the time flies. When we returned we stopped at a local dessert shop to pick up some local snack items and then headed back to the homestay, had dinner and rested.

Day 2: After breakfast we headed to Sigriya, a 5th Century “Fortress in the Sky”. Built by King Kassapa the fortress was a Royal Citadel for more than 18 years be prepared for a nice hike and lots of lots of stairs, monkeys etc. Don’t be disappointed if you had to climb all the way and find just a painting of a woman topless. We did hear a foreigner saying, did I come here all the way to see boobies and even that doesn’t look good. Remember this is an old historic painting. Let’s respect that as painting fades as time flies. Then after a short break in between, we had a further climb, which is called Lion’s Paw. The majestic Lion’s Paw picturesquely guards the stairway of the palace on the summit. My friends ditched me here, as they were too tired, hence I had to climb alone and the stairs are well done, and the summit point had a beautiful view.

Enroute we visited the Spice Garden in Matale, we spent few hours learning the benefits of various herbs, did a shopping of herbal products. By then we were too hungry and found some place on the way as spice garden luncheon was shut as it was late and we had to grab a quick leftovers from lunch buffet closeby as they were about to shut as well.

We reached the hotel, had a tea break and then headed to a nearby Buddha temple in the night. It looked so beautiful as the Buddha statue was white in color and with the moon light, we could see even from far. It’s a little on a slope. So we spent an hour there, observing the monks, spent some time in the temple campus and we left.

Day 3: After breakfast we left for Kandy, enroute, we headed to The Kandy Lake built in 1807 and the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, which are some of the key jewels of the town that elevate its magnificence. It’s a huge place and worth visiting. After a good lunch close to the botanical garden, we went to visit the famous Temple of the Tooth which houses the most sacred religious relic, the tooth of the Buddha. This is the place never to be missed and the serenity of the place and all around people praying, is a site you just feel one with God, no matter which ever religion/god that you follow/worship.

Day 4: After breakfast we went for a shopping to pick up Sri Lankan saree and after a quick lunch, we went to to catch the train to Nuwara Eliya, however since it was too crowded we couldn’t succeed in getting in. This was recommended by Santosh as train ride to this place would be the best experience. My suggestion, do pre book the tickets, otherwise it’s tough to get in, it was a situation similar to Mumbai local trains. Then we visted Hanuman temple on the way and Sumathi was trying to get an gift accessory of Ravan, but she couldn’t as she was surprised how the country of Ravan didn’t have one. Then we drove to Nuwara Eliya, we reached late night to a beautiful hill station. It was cold comparing to other places. We stepped out for lunch, however many were shut due to the holiday season, grabbed a quick meal from a shady place and we headed to the hotel.

Day 5: After breakfast, we headed to Mirissa, enroute we had stopped at Sita Temple, passed through beautiful hill town of Ella and Bandarawale. We did stop to buy good tea around. Late evening we reached Mirissa. This was beautiful and got an amazing room with a huge balcony. We had a quick dinner and rested.

Day 6: After breakfast, we went for a whale watching boat trip and it was worth doing that, we did see 2-3 whales and enjoyed the beach a little, then had a little break, found an amazing seafood restaurant and finally I was glad that I found the right place where the tables were placed near the beach and enjoyed a delicious sea food platter. I expected every where there would be sea food then I realized, the sea food is more in Mirissa and other places mostly its fresh vegetables.

Day 7: After breakfast, we went to Weligama Fort and then in the afternoon went for a river safari, we stopped to see how cinnamon barks are prepared for commercial purpose, got some cinnamon oils (apparently it has lot of health benefits) and stopped for a fish spa. That was a funny experience and more embarrassing for me as my friends started to giggle and laugh loudly with funny sounds as it was tigglish. I was trying not look at the guide’s face as they were laughing looking at these two’s expression. After that wonderful experience, we headed back to the room and rested.

Day 8: After breakfast we left for Colombo, enroute stopped at Bentota beach, which is the famous beach and more commercial one, we did visit few churches as it was a Good Friday and then reached the hotel. Once we checked in, we went to Galle beach, enjoyed the night food market (lots and lots of snacks made of sea food etc) near the beach. We had fun and then went back to the hotel and rested.

Day 9: After breakfast we checked out, went to Independence square and then went to the mall close by to do a quick shopping and grabbed our lunch. Judy was insisting to visit a church as it was Holy Saturday, so we stopped a church nearby, said our prayers and left from there. It started raining badly, so we had to rush to the airport to avoid any delay. Finally we reached the airport in the evening amidst a heavy rain. We boarded the flight late night and reached Bangalore early morning of Easter Sunday since Judy wanted to spend the Easter with her parents. So Sur also ensured to reach by Sunday early morning from Paris as he had been there for an official visit. By the time we hit the bed it was 4 AM.

My phone started ringing so early on a Sunday and I was surprised to see my ex colleagues calling me continuously which was unusual, finally I had to take the calls as it was ringing non-stop from friends asking me where I am and whether we were ok. When I informed them we were back from SL early morning they were relieved as they conveyed the message of bomb blast in SL on Easter Sunday. It just broke my heart, thinking how could someone think of destroying the peace of such a peace loving country and took the lives of innocent ones, leaving many of them in sorrow on a Easter Sunday. I was angry at the people who had done this evil act. However my heart went out for those who lost their loved ones and I had to console myself and say a prayer for all the people who lost their loved ones and pray for the departed souls to rest in peace. I just prayed for the country and it’s people to come out of this tragedy and be back to the peace loving people and country as they always have been.

Sri Lanka is home away from home. The people are peace loving and so warm. Even though the trip to SL will feel like you have not stepped out of India, this tropical paradise is quite different in their culture, values and people are warm and peace loving. If you have not visited, do that as soon as the borders are open after the Covid. You will be taken to another paradise. Don’t miss this tropical paradise ever.

Until then Stay Safe…………..

China, should you or should you not travel?

Filed under: Travel — jani @ 11:27 pm

When you think of China, keeping in mind the current political tension and the little news that we hear are mostly being negative as these are just restricted to political news, I was not sure about China and I was completely ignorant about the country and didn’t have any encouraging news either with the limited news that media reports.

When my extended family decided to visit China for their annual international trip, only one question came to my mind, why China? But I didn’t have any say in the choice of the country, so I tagged along reluctantly.

But I was in for a surprise and my admiration and love for the country grew when I visited. I had read about stories of business men/women who, when became successful in their venture, started giving back to the society where they came from, they never forgot their roots even though they shifted to the cities for their business. They helped their own town/village with better housing, employment etc to help their old neighbours to make a better living. The lovely rose garden on the side and middle of the roads, skyscrapers beating one from another with their architecture, amazing hospitality, just made us feel awe of the country. The rich history, beautiful temples are mesmerizing. I also heard every new building that gets built cannot be the same from the exisiting one and it has to beat the current ones in every possible way. Hence people are pushed to their limits to bring the best in their field. I wished we could have spent more time as it was never enough to explore the places and hear more about inspiring stories around and how the country had built by themselves. My respect for the people of China and am glad I visited in person so now I can proudly say, please visit whenever things become better after the Covid. Leave the politics aside for politicians and let us become ambassadors of peace and spread the love and happiness wherever we travel.

About China:

China officially the People’s Republic of China, is a country in East Asia. It is the world’s most populous country, with a population of around 1.4 billion in 2019. Covering approximately 9.6 million square kilometres, it is the world’s third or fourth-largest country by area.

Visa:

In India, you can apply from Mumbai or New Delhi, however it depends on the consular jurisdiction as well. So do follow the jurisdiction.

Mumbai – West & South Region

New Delhi – North & East Region

Below link will help you to download the visa application form (same form applies for both Mumbai and New Delhi consulate), also help you with the fees and checklist

http://in.china-embassy.org/eng/lsfw/qz/

Checklist:

Document checklist are mostly the same for both Delhi and Mumbai except the bank statement requirement. Do find below the documents for reference, however before applying do verify the exact requirements as per the consulate requirement as it varies time to time.

Passport (minimum 6 months validity) and at least 2-3 blank pages for the visa stamp,

Filled application form,

2 colour photograph with white background,

Self-attested letter detailing the purpose of visit, itinerary etc (complete travel details),

NOC letter from employer,

confirmed air ticket,

hotel confirmation,

original bank statement with minimum balance of Rs. 160,000 (per person) in the bank account (not required for New Delhi)

Travel Itinerary:

Beijing:

We were glad that we chose Cathay Pacific Airlines and I was impressed with the service and the quality of food since this was my first experience with Cathay.

After a stopover in Hong Kong, we landed in Beijing and headed to the hotel which is in close proximity to Tian’anmen Square. I also had an amazing small bar cum restaurant close by, which helped me to sneak out in the evening to explore the Non-veg food since my extended family is strictly Hindu vegetarians. They had one of the best pork dishes and I didn’t get tired of eating it every day for dinner while in Beijing. Beijing is best known for roasted duck which I missed as this restaurant didn’t have it and were available at other restaurants during lunch time when we were exploring the city and I couldn’t try with the family due to their food restrictions. Finally I was in for a surprise when the return flight had the same menu and I was relieved that I got to taste and just loved it. So airline made up for me which I missed in Beijing. Thank you Cathay Pacific.

If you are in Beijing, do not miss out the below sightseeings: –

Great Wall of China:

The Great Wall of China is an ancient wall in China. The wall is made of cement, rocks, bricks, and powdered dirt. It was finished in 1878 and it was meant to protect the north of the empire of China from enemy attacks. It is the longest structure humans have ever built.

It’s a good walk in morning and walking through one of the historical place is mind blowing. There are lot of viewpoints and you can just sit and chill out and be proud to have visited this place and admire the manmade wonder. This is pretty long and you can return whenever you feel tired as the stretch is never ending.

When you visit Great Wall of China, do head to the Great Wall section of Mutianyu. Here, you can take a cable car to the top, and hop on a Toboggan (luge) ride to get back down to the bottom. We loved it so much and some of my family members went for a second ride as well. This remained one of the memorable experiences.

Forbidden City:

The Forbidden City  is a palace complex in central Beijing, China. It houses the Palace Museum, and was the former Chinese imperial palace and state residence of the Emperor of China from the Ming dynasty (since the Yongle Emperor) to the end of the Qing dynasty, between 1420 and 1924.

These are architectural wonders and there are no words to explain as you have to be there in person. It’a a huge palace and you can spend almost half a day there going around admiring the beauty and the great work.

Temple of heaven:

The Temple of Heaven is an imperial complex of religious buildings situated in the south eastern part of central Beijing. The complex was visited by the Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties for annual ceremonies of prayer to Heaven for a good harvest.

So this is one of the must visit place to come and pray for any wish that you might have to seek God for. Do not forget to enjoy the local ice creams from the vendors. I think we spent more time in trying out various ice candies and ice cream than praying here.

Tian’anmen Square

Tiananmen Square or Tian’anmen Square is a city square in the centre of Beijing, China, named after the Tiananmen (‘Gate of Heavenly Peace’) located to its north, separating it from the Forbidden City. The square contains the Monument to the People’s Heroes, the Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China, and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. Tiananmen Square is within the top ten largest city squares in the world. It has great cultural significance as it was the site of several important events in Chinese history. Outside China, the square is best known for the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests that ended with a military crackdown, which is also known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre or June Fourth Massacre.

This is a historical place and we ended up being there during one of the anniversaries, so there were lot of security beefed up to ensure there are no protests or anything. We just sat there, remembering People’s heroes, enjoying the views, garden etc. Ideal to visit in the evening as it would be very warm in the afternoon under open sun.

Summer Palace

The Summer Palace is a vast ensemble of lakes, gardens and palaces in Beijing. It was an imperial garden in the Qing dynasty. Mainly dominated by Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake, it covers an expanse of 2.9 square kilometres, three-quarters of which is water.

It was a place to enjoy the scenery and lake. We were blessed with a nice shower while we were strolling near the lake so had to rush out quickly without getting drenched. 

Beijing Zoo

The Beijing Zoo is a zoological park in Beijing, the capital of the China. Founded in 1906 during the late Qing dynasty, it is the oldest zoo in China and oldest public park in northern China. The zoo is also a center of zoological research that studies and breeds rare animals from various continents.

The popular animal here is giant pandas and that is the crowd puller as well. This is must especially for kids, they would just love it.

Qinglianggu Valley Glass bridge:

This is for adrenaline junkies and it’s fun to walk on the glass bridge along the valley and it’s an another memorable experiences. It does scare you if you look down and you will also have a laughing riot when you watch others getting scared and you are trying to be brave to ensure others don’t laugh at you with all the screams and noises. You can trek both ways but also cable car is available to go on top and to come down. The day we reached return cable was not working so we only used cable one way to go up and had to trek to come down. Even if you are taking the cable both ways, you have a little climb to do, hence be prepared with a good footwear for a walk which is little steep. Since it’s a valley with lots and lots of trees, it’s fun to trek and enroute we had picked up ice creams from the small stalls to give us company. There was a temple once we reached the ground, visited, said a prayer and headed back to the hotel as it was getting dark.

Lama Temple:

The Yonghe Temple also known as the Yonghe Lamasery, or popularly as the Lama Temple, is a temple and monastery of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism located in Dongcheng District, Beijing, China. The building and artwork of the temple is a combination of Han Chinese and Tibetan styles.

This is the place must visit for students as it has an academic significance as there is a statue of the Geluk school founder is there.

Pearl Market (Hongqiao Market)

This is one of the largest shopping complex and each floor has different items for sale, from pearls, accessories, luggage, clothes, tea and many of the things that you might want to buy for. This is the best place to try out your bargaining skills as most of them have to be bargained for a better deal.

You can spend almost a day if you love shopping and most of the things that got picked up were in good quality. Also the sales people (most of them were young and beautiful girls) very friendly and warm and they were very happy to help since we didn’t know Mandarin. Bargaining with them was fun and it was more of a friendly banter and yes, it worked as well.

I had noticed in China, there were hot water dispensers everywhere and hardly I found lukewarm water dispensers. Then I realized most of the locals were flowering tea lovers as every one walked with transparent flask and we could see flower inside, they were filling up with hot water and were sipping constantly. Except in star bucks, hardly saw anyone drinking coffee. No wonder most of them looked healthier and hardly found any obese people. This is a big takeaway for a healthy living and yes, I did go and pick up few flowering teas to try out and it was great.

Flowering tea or blooming tea  consists of a bundle of dried tea leaves wrapped around one or more dried flowers. These are made by binding tea leaves and flowers together into a bulb, then setting them to dry. When steeped, the bundle expands and unfurls in a process that emulates a blooming flower, and the flowers inside emerge as the centerpiece. Typically they are sourced from the Yunnan province of China. Flowers commonly used in flowering teas include globe amaranth, chrysanthemum, jasmine, lily, hibiscus, and osmanthus. Flowering tea may be either a modern creation or a much older Chinese invention. Flowering tea is generally served in containers made of glass or similar transparent materials so that the flowering effect can be seen. The bundles can usually be reused two or three times without the tea becoming bitter.

If you are a coffee lover, do carry your own coffes sachets unless you are ok with star bucks as very few shops sell coffee or coffee sachets, thankfully we found one small grocery store and we picked up the entire coffee sachet carton as most of us were coffee lovers, that helped for the entire stay in China.

Do sample the local delicacies and also if you are a vegetarian, don’t worry, every meal has enough fresh vegetables served along with the main. For an Indian palate, Beijing doesn’t disappoint as their food has little spiciness and that is a comfort. Try out evening stalls which has lots of local delicacies from seafood, to meat and other stuffs. Since I was the only non-vegetarian in the group, when I tried the seafood especially octopus, every one ran away from me as they felt creepy and I had a laugh and enjoyed my food and then I had to give away ordering non-veg food while eating with them so that they don’t feel uncomfortable.

Xi’an:

If Beijing is actual capital for China, Xi’an is a historical capital. We travelled from Beijing to Xian by train. This itself was a different experience, if you get a chance do take the train. We felt we were in the flight as the cleanliness and hygiene was at par. We did have a stewardess who was making sure we had help in case we needed any. As usual you needn’t carry a hot water in case you need it, as hot water dispenser are available everywhere including in the train and there were snacks available on sale. We were so impressed with the hospitality and cleanliness. We just spent a day and that was a biggest mistake, since this place had lot to explore with rich history. don’t ever make a mistake that we did, do spend few days otherwise you won’t do justice to Xi’an.

We had booked a guide in Xian, as that would help us to explore as much as possible since we just had a day and then had to head back to Shanghai in the evening

Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang

The Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor is located in Lintong District, Xi’an, Shaanxi province of China. This mausoleum was constructed over 38 years, from 246 to 208 BC, and is situated underneath a 76-meter-tall tomb mound shaped like a truncated pyramid.

During excavation, they found various pits with the status of hundreds and hundreds of terracotta warriors, the work is still in progress and it’s amazing to hear the story, why there were these statues were created in the pit. This is a must visit and it’s historical findings. The place has lot of greenery around and we enjoyed the shower as it as raining the whole day.

Giant Wild Goose Pagoda

Giant Wild Goose Pagoda or Big Wild Goose Pagoda, is a Buddhist pagoda located in southern Xi’an, Shaanxi, China. It was built in 652 during the Tang dynasty and originally had five stories. The structure was rebuilt in 704 during the reign of Empress Wu Zetian and its exterior brick facade was renovated during the Ming dynasty. One of the pagoda’s many functions was to hold sutras and figurines of Gautama Buddha that were brought to China from India by the seventh-century Buddhist monk, scholar, traveller, and translator Xuanzang. Today, the interior walls of the pagoda feature engraved statues of Buddha by the renowned artist Yan Liben

This is another architecture marvel and a place of worship and do say a prayer here.

Then we headed for lunch and we asked the guide to take us to local good Chinese restaurant, she was surprised as we were the only Indians who said we were ok with local cuisine and not insisting for Indian restaurant. So we had to tell her, we came all the way to China to try their cuisine as we have enough time to try our dishes in India. My request to all of the tourists, do try out the local cuisine, I understand some of you would have food restrictions like being vegetarians etc. which gives you limited options and let me reassure you with my personal experience that you will find your kind of food and you might end up finding another delicious dish which you may not get in your country.

Shanghai:

It’a financial capital of China and you would see lots and lots of high-rise building, beating one after another with their design, architecture and innovation.

The Bund:

We stayed close to the bund hence it was nice evening walk to go around the bund. This is the place near Huangpu River, to view the skyscrapers and the best is in the evening with the lightings it looks spectacular. Do try out lots and lots of food stalls near the bund specially momos, local delicacies and it does have other options like star bucks, sub way etc. Later for other attractions we had used hop in hop on buses which takes you almost very major attractions.

Oriental Pearl TV Tower

This is the highest observatory level for the skyline view, we were too lazy to go up and hence just lazed around viewing from the ground before we headed to the next place.

Shanghai tower:

This is the highest building in China and second tallest building and it also has fastest elevator in the world which takes to 119 floor, this is a must visit and inspite of going to such elevation, there is no jerk movement or anything in the lift. It was one smooth ride and before we realize, we reached the 119 floor.

Yu Garden:

Yu Garden or Yuyuan Garden is an extensive Chinese garden located beside the City God Temple in the northeast of the Old City of Shanghai at Huangpu Qu, Shanghai Shi. It abuts the Yuyuan Tourist Mart, the Huxinting Teahouse and the Yu Garden Bazaar.

This is one of the beautiful gardens with lots of lots of flowers, trees, lake, fishes etc. It felt like some movie shoot locations which was done so beautifully and every place was picture perfect.

Nanjing Road:

This is the main shopping street of Shanghai and you can get almost anything. Also there is few old malls which has mostly wholesale items and you couldn’t bargain and not very friendly comparing to Beijing, so we didn’t spend much time.

Also this has lot of other options including items with fixed price which was reasonable and you could spend the entire day to shop until you feel satisfied. There were few friendly independent stalls where we ended up chatting, bargaining and shopped until the family was satisfied.

Shanghai food was a little let down for us as we love spicy food, but other members of the family enjoyed as they have zero tolerance towards spice. It was less spicy among other 2 cities and it was almost bland however had good options like momos and other local delicacies.

The Shanghai Maglev

China has the world’s fastest commercial maglev service. The Shanghai Maglev, with a top operational speed of 431 km/h, has been carrying passengers on a 30 km stretch between Shanghai’s Pudong airport and the city centre since 2003.

The best experience in Shanghai is getting onto this train to reach the airport, you never feel like you are in the fastest train except the speed reading that gets displayed in the screen. It’s a smooth ride and one of the best experiences. We wanted to do more rides but we had to rush for our flights.

The awesome China trip came to an end and we as a family inspite of our differences, had a blast and this trip made the family bond stronger.

Do appreciate the local culture, food, people and do not afraid to give a try on their local cuisine. You will thank me later.

Stay Safe, Stay happy.

 

 

Thailand, Does it need an Introduction?

Filed under: Travel — jani @ 11:27 pm

About Thailand:

Thailand, officially the Kingdom of Thailand and formerly known as Siam, is a country in Southeast Asia. It’s known for Tropical beaches, Royal palaces, Ancient ruins and Buddha temples.

Visa:

Indian passport holders who are visiting Thailand for Tourism and plan to stay no more than 15 days in the country can avail the Visa on Arrival service from the 32 designated channels of Immigration checkpoints including Phuket International Airport.

Tourist visa can also be applied through the consulates in India (New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai & Kolkata). My personal recommendation is to always apply for the visa before travel and it saves the waiting time at the immigration in Thailand and it’s more hassle free and convenient. Do refer the below link for more details.

https://www.vfs-thailand.co.in/

Travel Itinerary:

Thailand is the go to country for most Indian men, the moment you say Thailand, people only think of sex tourism and when you decide to go, the first question is why are YOU going to Thailand? and they expect only men to travel there. My partner was questioned about this as well when we told that he was accompanying me to Thailand, with folks saying, why are you carrying a home cooked food, when you are going out to eat.

Since I had an opportunity to attend the CTW conference as a Speaker, I had asked Sur to join me so that we can explore Thailand post conference. We were also invited for a Pre-CTW Asia Pacific Luxury Experience for the Speakers along with Partners and were hosted by Bangkok Marriott Marquis Queen’s Park for 3 days. So we were looking forward to enjoy the Marriott hospitality.

Day 1:

We were booked in Thai Airways and it was my first experience with the airlines and it didn’t disappoint. We had a relaxing flight and landed in Bangkok. We had the VIP experience from the moment we landed. There was a conference representative who came to receive us at the airport and she picked us right inside the airport as we stepped out of the plane. She guided us through the immigration and escorted us to the car that took us to the Marriott where we were getting hosted pre conference.

We were welcomed in the hotel, had a smooth check-in and were allocated the best of rooms. We were a group of 10+ people who were hosted by Marriott. Marriott ensured we had the best experience throughout the stay. The same evening had an introductory cocktail party and got introduced to all the speakers and their partners who had come from across the globe. In the evening, as we were served the cocktail snacks, I informed the F&B team that Sur was a vegetarian and they immediately ensured they prepared something for him as there was hardly anything for a pure vegetarian and he was the only one vegetarian in the entire group.

Day 2: After the awesome breakfast at Goji kitchen + Bar in Marriott, I had few sessions to attend with the CTW organizing committee while Sur was chilling out in the room. Then we along with our partners had a cooking session with one of the local chefs who specializes in Som Tum (spicy green papaya salad with dry shrimp and peanuts) and it was so delicious and fresh. We were asked to prepare a salad by ourselves along with the chef’s guidance and we had made the vegetarian version for Sur without adding the shrimp. If you are in Thailand, ensure not to miss on this one.

Then we were taken for an amazing lunch and I had a laugh at the table as staff had kept a whole fried fish on the table and it’s mouth was open and it was looking at Sur. He was scared to look at it while eating and he whispered to me to move the plate towards me so that fish doesn’t look at him. I had to control myself from laughing out loud, until I reached the room. The lunch spread was delicious and after having a great lunch we headed out for a massage in Quan Spa in Marriott itself, since we both love massages. In the evening we also walked around the hotel, in a public park close by. It literally felt like an open gym where everyone was seriously working out and it was nice to see that people were conscious of their health.


Whole fried fish
I have also heard of Thailand Red bull, which is much better compared to the normal red bull that we get in India and it makes you very hyper. So Sur wanted to try that since he is a red bull fan and we picked up Theoplex-I (Thai Red bull) close to the park and he enjoyed it. We also explored Sukhumvit Street Market which was recommended by friends. If you love budget shopping, then this is a good place to go. Since we are not much into shopping, just spent a little time around and returned.


Thai Red Bull
Then Sur said he wanted to watch Kingsman: The Golden Circle which got released recently, so we thought why not watch it in Thailand as he was saying, by the time we reach India, probably it might be out of the theatre and he didn’t want to miss out. So we headed to Terminal 21, one of the largest shopping malls in Sukhumvit, Bangkok. This mall has almost 600 shops and it has 5 floors, which includes most of the brands, food court and cineplex. We had our dinner at the food court itself and went to the watch the movie and enjoyed the Gold class experience. It got over late night and since the hotel was close by, we just walked back and rested for the night.

Day 3: After another sumptuous breakfast, productive sessions with the organizing committee, we had a seven course lunch arranged in Pagoda Chinese Restaurant and I was amazed that Sur had a separate menu card printed and his veg options were served exclusively to him, they only knew a night before about his food preference. I don’t think I needed another proof to show how the staffs at Marriott ensured that everyone had the best of experience. Hats off to the team of Marriott, Bangkok and I don’t think I have enough words to thank them for going extra mile to ensure everyone was treated with the best of hospitality, specially taking care of Sur.

Then we had to check out from Marriott to go to Centara Grand where the conference was happening. Since we didn’t have much activity planned we checked in, got a room which had an amazing skyline view from the window and that was Sur’s working space for the next 3 days since I was busy with the conference for those days.


Sur’s Office in Thailand
Day 4: After another delicious breakfast I headed for the conference. We also had pre show tour to Sampran Riverside at Nakorn Patham for a local Thai experience. Here we got to interact with locals to know about their organic farming, tried local Thai teas like butterfly blue pea flower and other herbal teas which I heard is super good for health. Tasted local tender coconut, it’s very different from Indian coconuts as it taste like toddy and its an acquired taste. We also got to see the local Thai art and crafts like bamboo dancing, garland making and fruit and vegetable carving. Then we had an amazing local Thai lunch. After a great experience we returned to the hotel.

Once we both finished our official work, we decided to go to Uno Mas, which is a unique Rooftop Restaurant in Centara Grand which serves the finest Spanish & Mediterranean cuisine in the most spectacular Al fresco panoramic city view. Spent a little time, enjoyed their food and then called for the night.

Day 5: Next day after a quick breakfast headed for the full day conference and after a hectic  back to back meetings with the travel suppliers and then came back to the room. Sur and myself went to the Red Sky bar which was on the 27th floor of the Centara Grand hotel. Since we both were cheese lovers we had a cheese platter and cocktails. The presentation was noteworthy as it was very creative. Every drink was presented in a  different way. One cocktail was kept it in a cage and another was served a in wooden art container so we kept ordering different cocktails and, along with it we had an amazing skyline view. It would burn a hole in the wallet but if you can, don’t miss out such unique experiences. I also had a first experience of the blue cheese which was the favourite of Sur and my expression said everything to Sur as I found that it was an acquired taste as well.


Drinks at Red Sky
Day 6: It was a little hectic day as I had breakfast with my team of panelists so that we could discuss and be prepared before we go on stage and then headed to conference. The conference went very well. Being first time on a panel stage gave me confidence and I was glad that it went well. Then as I was meeting the suppliers, I was referred by a relative to Mr. Sunny for organizing some sightseeing which we wanted to do it post conference. Mr. Sunny (+66 817826131) owns Sunny Online Travel and we booked for the sightseeing tours for the next four days.


Panel Discussion
Day 7: Mr. Sunny had sent someone to pick us from the hotel and he took us around in Bangkok in the morning and went to flower market. Which was pretty much empty as Bangkok mostly sleeps during the day so we didn’t stop anywhere and went to the Golden Buddha Temple, it’s officially titled Phra Phuttha Maha Suwanna Patimakon, commonly known in Thai as Phra Sukhothai Traimit, is a gold Maravijaya Attitude seated Buddharupa statue, with a weight of 5.5 tonnes. It is located in the temple of Wat Traimit, Bangkok. The temple is so beautiful and also there are certain dos and dont’s in terms of not having any buddha tattoos on your body and not going there with short dresses. Do read the local guidelines before you visit. This is a place of worship and it needs to be respected. We said a prayer and started our journey to Pattaya. Once we reached Pattya, we met Sunny and he had given us the itinerary for the next few days and we were dropped at the hotel. We checked in and chilled at the hotel for some time before we began our sightseeing in the evening.

Mr. Sunny came to pick us up in the evening and took us to the streets to show where we can hang around before he dropped us for Alcazar Show which is done by the lady boys. It was so graceful and amazing. Kudos to the lady boys, we had a blast. This is a must visit and my thanks and respect for the ladyboys who put us the spectacular show.

Sur really liked one particular lady boy who was so beautiful, even I agreed with him on this and wanted to take a picture. He was too shy to ask, so I went and paid for the photo to be taken with her and gave an extra tips as we were so impressed with her during the show as well. She was very kind. We clicked a picture and thanked her. Sunny picked us up and dropped us to the walking street and he instructed how to walk back to the hotel and he left.


Beautiful Lady from Alcazar Show
I had no clue about the walking street and I did kind of guess by seeing the way ladies were dressed. We had a drink in one of the bars which was an open place and then we walked back. While walking back, these girls were trying to show the card, for me it looked like a food menu card, I didn’t realize the menu card was for sex and I took the card, looked at it and I was in a shock, since the pictures were explicit and it had rates as well. So I started walking back and then the girls were trying to woo Sur to go to their bars and I got paranoid as the street was crowded and I was worried  I might get lost in the crowd and I had no clue how to get back to the hotel alone if I didn’t find Sur. Since I was in a panic mode, we decided to leave and then it started raining, so we had to hurry back quickly. We did get lost on the way since it was too dark and hardly anyone was on the road outside the walking street. Finally we found a small shop which was open, found someone who guided us by sign language since we couldn’t understand/speak Thai. Finally we reached the hotel and this adventure was more than enough for the day and crashed for the night.

Day 8: We started early, had a quick breakfast and headed to the floating market in Pattaya, where the stalls were just getting set up, and it had less crowd since we reached early. So we could go around quickly and were impressed with an elephant painting in neon colors in one of the stalls. It looked so beautiful, however the size that we needed was incomplete and we couldn’t buy immediately. That was a bit let down. The canoe ride was beautiful, attended monkey show in the market which was fun, had a photoshoot with a local costume and tried more local thai teas as well. There was also a zipline which was for a very short distance and I had fun.


All dressed up in Local Ethnic wear
Then for lunch we headed to Nong Nooch garden, which was good and then went around to enjoy the botanical garden spread across 500 acre of land which has Thai Cultural and elephant shows and it’s a beautiful themed garden with thousands and plants and trees.  Then we headed to Underwater world, Pattaya. This is beautifully done with the glass dome for an amazing view. Enjoyed the sharks, sting rays, sea horse and many more. I was bugging Sur, telling him which are the fishes that I ate, and finally he told me to tell only which I had not eaten, as per him, that list might be shorter.

Next we headed to Ripley’s believe it or not and it had packages to choose from, we did the Vault Laser Maze, Moving Theater 12DX, Infinity Maze, Louis Tussad and Haunted Adventure. I am not a big fan of haunted or any of these experiences but Sur had fun so I tagged along reluctantly. Finally when we had to do haunted, I was adamant that I won’t go as I don’t like the haunted house experience. Since Sur didn’t want to go without me, I had to tag along as I didn’t want him to miss out his adventure. So as soon as we entered, I held his hand and closed my eyes and I told Sur, I am not going to open until the end, which I knew,  it was the saw (Movie – Saw) experience where they scare you with the chainsaw. I saw it while standing in the queue as that was the last experience of the haunted house and it was on the first floor balcony and people were coming out screming and running, so I knew what to expect at the end. Sur couldn’t control himself as everyone was trying to scare me, they were surprised why I was not reacting at all, only after few minutes they realized that my eyes were closed. Even I was climbing down the stairs in the haunted house, Sur had to insist me to open my eyes as I might fall. So I opened for a minute and before I stepped into the last step, I closed again as I guessed there might be someone to scare at the end of the stairs. Finally with my closed eyes I reached the balcony for the last chainsaw scary experience and I could hear the loud noise of it. I just stood there with my eyes closed till the guy got tired of scaring me as he knew I am not going to open my eyes until he finishes. So he gave in and went back, then I reconfirmed with Sur and only then opened my eyes and came out of the haunted house. I don’t think anyone went to haunted house with the eyes closed. I am sure, the staffs would have had the last laugh on account of me.

Day 9: We had an early start since we were going for a diving/snorkelling with Jomtien Dive Center. Since Sur had a PADI certificate, he was allowed to go for diving and I had to settle for snorkelling since I didn’t have one. We went to the centre for paperwork and then we were taken to the beach. On the way to the Beach I realized that I forgot my swimsuit and Sur was making fun of me saying, how could I forget the swimsuit which is needed to get into the water and since I didn’t have time to go pick it up anywhere, I was lucky to find a girl selling swimsuits near the boat. I had no other option than to pick one quickly as we had to get into the boat. It was almost an hour drive and enjoyed the ride and then time came to get down for our adventure. Diving groups had been allocated along with the instructor and the owner lady was helping everyone to ensure they get in the water and some of the folks were scared and one of them returned back out of fear, but all others went for a dive. I was given snorkelling kit, was expecting someone to guide like how they did it for diving, since this was my first time. Unfortunately there was none for snorkelling in our group and no one bothered to tell me what to do while I was waiting someone to instruct. Finally I had to ask the lady what should I do and she says just jump and be close to the boat. I was a bit disappointed that I was completely ignored.


Sur Diving
Then I jumped for the snorkelling and ensured I held on to the rope, as I didn’t want to get drifted. This was one of the best experiences watching the various varieties of fish. The water was not that clear, but still it didn’t disappoint and I had a blast. After almost 45 minutes of snorkelling, I went back and Sur returned back from diving as well. We freshened up and sat for a delicious lunch and returned back and I didn’t forget to complain to Sur that I got ignored so I should get my PADI certificate so that I can join him next him and I wouldn’t be left alone.

In the evening we thought will step out for dinner and there was a restaurant adjacent to the hotel, so we thought will try that. The cocktails were good and the best part of it was the glasses were huge with long straws, am sure it contained more than half litre of cocktail. We ordered 2 cocktails without realizing the quantity and we found it difficult to finish. Then we grabbed our dinner there and called it a day.


The large cocktail
Day 10: It was time to return back to Bangkok to catch our flight in the evening. We checked out the hotel in the morning, enroute  we stopped at the Safari world, Bangkok. The entrance was not maintained well as the water had a foul smell, but once we went in, it was great. Went to Safari park for the exotic birds, had our lunch and then watched the Spy war and Hollywood cowboy stunt show which was really cool. There was Orangutan show, which was quite entertaining and the sea lion show which was really fun to watch and the bird show which was amazing. Overall it was a very good experience and while took a turn to leave, there were zebras. With such an breathtaking sight, we had to leave for the airport. Do spent a day here, its worth your time.

We boarded Thai Airways and enjoyed their hospitality while returning and landed with a memorable experience of Thailand. We felt incomplete, as we couldn’t do other beautiful places like Phuket, Krabi etc.

As we came back with the happy experience, I was appalled to hear an experience from another friend of mine who went to Thailand for her first International trip to celebrate her 40th birthday along with her bestie. One of the evenings in Bangkok, she returned to the hotel late night after celebrating her birthday and found a girl, in the hotel lift, bleeding, with fingernail marks all over her body and she was crying. She was telling my friend, she will never go with Indian men. I just couldn’t sleep for that day when I heard about this. The country that you are visiting for pleasure, don’t you think you should be grateful and respect the people who are helping you to attain your pleasure. Is this how we treat another human? Paying for the service doesn’t mean, you own any. No one has any right to hurt someone. Is it that Indian men don’t know how to enjoy sex without hurting the other person? Sorry folks, you need to educate yourself before you go to such places and don’t embarrass the other gentle men of our country.

My apologies on behalf of the Indian men who hurt the Thai women and any other person irrespective of gender, am sorry once again, they didn’t deserve you.

I am looking forward to explore more of Thailand and let’s all pray that we defeat this Covid soon, so that we can start our travel again. Until then, stay safe.

Singapore, The Best Country in South East Asia

Filed under: Travel — jani @ 11:26 pm

When you think of Singapore, the only expression comes to my mind is WoW. The country is an inspiration to other developing countries in South East Asia. Its growth from the bottom to the top is phenomenal and holding on to the top position for being the best country in South East Asia in terms of social, economic and financial is a credit to it’s Govt and their people. Their hard work, discipline and excellence keeps them at the top position.

They have the best airport in the world and their national airlines is one of the best in the world as well. Their achievements and accolades speak volumes of the country’s commitment to strive for the best. Another interesting thing is to note is that they are also one of the least corrupt countries in the world. Singapore is Par Excellence in every way and my prayers and wishes to the people of Singapore to continue to grow and be the best in everything. Let them be an inspiration to other countries to grow and become like them. My respect and love to the country and it’s people.

When ITB Asia was hosting a conference and I got accepted to attend, I was over the moon.  So I asked Sur to join me for the trip, unfortunately he was short of leaves from his work so he could stay only for the part of the trip leading up to the conference.

Visa: The visa process is pretty simple; all you need is to apply for a tourist visa and you will be issued with an E-visa.

If you are in India, you can apply from any of the three consulates, do refer the below details for the jurisdiction. Do go through the link, check for visa information for visa application details. The application has to be submitted to the authorized agents as per the list provided in the consular websites. It gets updated time to time, so ensure to check before filing.

New Delhi – North & East Region – https://www.mfa.gov.sg/New-Delhi
Mumbai – West Region – https://www.mfa.gov.sg/mumbai
Chennai – South Region – https://www.mfa.gov.sg/chennai

About Singapore: Singapore, officially the Republic of Singapore, is a sovereign island city-state in maritime Southeast Asia.

Day 1:

We had booked the Tiger Airways, and that was the worst decision I have ever made. I now know that LCC’s (low cost carrier) are not the right one for international trips. I didn’t have any issues with the airline as there was no service during the flight being a LCC. I wished that I booked another airline which was non LCC. The flight was non-eventful and we landed in Singapore in the morning, booked a cab to the hotel and reached Holiday Inn Express @ Clarke Quay. This is a budget hotel and was decent for its price. The hotel didn’t have much options for food, so we had to step put to get lunch.

We found a F.R.I.E.N.D.S themed coffee shop named Central Perk near the hotel. Even though both of us are not a fans of the series, the shop looked interesting so we stepped in and were welcomed with a pretty lady waitress and they were extremely hospitable and friendly. We asked her for some recommendations for food and drink and we ordered the same. The food was really good, but the quantity was huge. So be sure to order less so that you don’t waste the food. The waiter also invited us to visit the café in the evening for drinks. We smiled and said we would join if we were close by and thanked her for such a warm hospitality, before stepping out.


Central Perk
Post lunch we walked over to the China Town, where I got a Chinese dress which looked really nice. We also found a travel agents and bought sightseeing passes for the next 3 days.

After which we walked back to the hotel and dozed off since it had been a long day. By the time we woke up it was late night, and all the shops around us were closed by then. Since we didn’t have any other option, we had to come back to the hotel bar to get some snacks. Keeping in mind that this was a budget hotel which meant that they had really limited options for food available. Since I don’t have food restrictions, I had options like burger etc and Sur being a pure vegetarian left with only one option in the menu which was a spaghetti. So we ordered that and I don’t think we have ever eaten a worst spaghetti. It was just plain spaghetti dunked in Olive oil, Yes dunked in Olive oil and one big clove of garlic which had been boiled till it was tasteless was kept in the middle. He just couldn’t eat the dish even though he tried forcing himself and I also tried to help because I didn’t want to waste the food. But it was one of the worst food experience we had in the Singapore.

Day 2: After a wonderful breakfast at the hotel, we took a metro and then a cable car to Sentosa Islands. Sentosa is a sunny island in Singapore, home to exciting events, themed attractions, award-winning spas, lush rainforests, golden sandy beaches and resort-style hotels. This has lot of attractions and we started with Butterfly Park with lots and lots of trees, flowers and exotic birds. There was also a Fossil museum which was great. We also saw Merlion (lion’s head and a fish’s body) which is the tallest merlion in Singapore. We headed for the Mega zipline and jump, me being not the adventure type, I was a bit sceptical. Sur insisted that I do it and am glad that I agreed to do it. It was my most memorable experience. The zip line went from a mini forest to the road and then landed in the beach. That was one awesome ride. Then we went to one of the beach restaurants, had a delicious food and drink. We headed back to Sentosa Park, it had lot of great decorations and interesting statues. We waited then for Laser light show at Wings of Time, which is in the evening. The show was spectacular and then headed to meet Sur’s friends for dinner. we returned to the hotel and called it a day.


Butterfly Park
Day 3: After the breakfast at the hotel, we took a metro and then a cable car to Sentosa Islands back as we were going for Universal Studios. I get headache for such roller coaster rides and I was as usual reluctant. Sur gave me a motion sickness tablet and told me to accompany him as he didn’t want to go alone. So the first ride which was the famous rides Human Vs Cylon, we took Human, it’s the tallest duelling roller coaster. As usual I just closed my eyes and finished the ride. The other Cylon is also similar to Human and since we had more rides to go, we went to others. We took few more rides like revenge of the mummy, treasure hunters (realized later its more for kids, as it was a very slow ride which would be boring for adults), Canopy Flyer and Puss in Boots’ giant journey. We wanted to do more rides but being a weekend and lot of crowd, we couldn’t do much.


Universal Studios
There were quite a lot of restaurants for lunch in the park and we grabbed a quick bite in one of them. We had to do a force stop as the studio was closing it for the day and then headed to the Night Safari after a little break at the hotel. This is in a little outskirt of the city, after a long ride we reached to the park, it’s a open air zoo and was an amazing experience. Watching the animals at night is a completely different experience. After the tour we had our dinner and headed back to the hotel and crashed for the night.


Marina Bay Sands
Day 4: After breakfast we had to check out from Holiday Inn Express which was a good experience overall, as I had to check in at Marina Bay Sands where we were hosted for the ITB Asia conference. Once my check-in formalities were done we went around Marina bay Sands to have a quick look as Sur was leaving the same evening. We had our lunch at Marina Bay Sands and headed to Gardens by the Bay which was at a walkable distance from Marina Bay Sands. This was heaven for me as I love flowers. We enjoyed the flower dome and cloud forest. This was the best experience and it has thousands of trees, plants and flowers from across the globe. It is a paradise for photography and nature lovers. Then we had to head back to the hotel for Sur to bid adieu as he had to catch his flight late in the evening. He complained that he missed out staying in Marina Bay Sands due to his unavailability of leave, I agree with him it was sheer bad luck. Since I cannot explore alone anywhere, ordered the room service for dinner and crashed for the night.


Gardens by the Bay
Day 5: We were served our breakfast at the Sands Expo Convention centre and then headed to back to back meetings with travel suppliers and various talks. Evening we were invited for the Opening Night Function in Marina Bay Sands and after a great evening, we crashed for the night.

Day 6: After breakfast at the Convention centre, back again for the same meetings and talk. Singapore Tourism Board hosted the dinner that day and after another memorable evening, crashed for the night.

Day 7: After such a lovely stay in Marina Bay Sands, I had to check out in the morning since we couldn’t leave the conference midway to come in the afternoon for check out, gave the luggage to the bell boys and headed to the convention centre. After a great breakfast, we were back again to the supplier meetings and talk. Then I had to rush in the evening for the flight to catch which was a late night. The airport was beautiful and I couldn’t explore much as I needed company. So I read a book, waited for the flight to start boarding. Boarded the Tiger airways for return to India and reached bangalore the next day early morning with a WOW experience of Singapore.

Singapore remains an inspiration to all other developing countries across the globe. My respect, love and Kudos to the Singapore Govt and it’s people.

Stay Safe.

Vietnam – The Hidden Treasure

Filed under: Travel — jani @ 11:26 pm

Vietnam was a surprise, as I never thought I would be visiting Vietnam so early, as I hardly hear about this country. When ATF hosted the conference in Vietnam, I thought why not? So once I got accepted, I asked Sur to join me as well, so that we could do a bit of sightseeing before the conference starts.

Visa:

Vietnam tourist visa is pretty simple, you have to apply for e-visa through the portal wherein you would be issued 30 days single entry visa. Do refer the below link for the details.

https://evisa.xuatnhapcanh.gov.vn/trang-chu-ttdt

About Vietnam:

Vietnam is a Southeast Asian country known for its beaches, rivers, Buddhist pagodas and bustling cities. Hanoi, the capital, pays homage to the nation’s iconic Communist-era leader, Ho Chi Minh, via a huge marble mausoleum. The credit goes to him mostly for making the Vietnam that is today. My respect and love for their leader.

Travel Itinerary:

Day 1: We had boarded the Singapore Airlines late night; this was part of my wish list to fly with this Airlines and was glad it came true and I enjoyed their hospitality.

Day 2: We landed in Singapore in the morning and were in transit for few hours. Sur and myself explored the airport and went to Sun flower Garden and then Orchid Garden. It was beautiful and the airport is well maintained as well. No wonder this is the best airport in the world.

Then went for a quick bite in one of the food courts, it had lot of options and were great. Then we boarded the flight to Hanoi.

We landed in Hanoi in the afternoon and had to go to Ha Long Bay where my conference was held.  We booked a taxi and it was almost 3-4 hours of drive. The driver stopped midway for a small break for some snacks and we reached the Ha Long Plaza late evening. We decided to stay in the same hotel even for preconference days as the location was more convenient. We had a shock when we had to pay to the driver, as he was charging in millions and then we realized the Vietnamese dong value is much much lower and the payments are in lakhs. Even the currency notes were all in lakhs and we realized minimum currency values were in Thousands. First time in Vietnam, we felt we were crorepatis, because we just needed 32,000 INR to have 1 crore of Vietnamese Dong. Do remember to ignore the last 3 zeroes because of the lower value of the currency. Don’t worry about burning the wallet as well. You will feel like a millionaire or may be a billionaire as well.

For budget travellers in India, you should travel to Vietnam.

Finally after the currency fiasco, we checked into Ha Long Plaza. We rested a while and booked for a massage in the same hotel. That was disappointing, it was not as we expected and was nothing encouraging.

Then we walked around the hotel, we found a travel agency board in a grocery shop next to the hotel, so we enquired and booked for the next 3 days for a sightseeing tour. They were insisting for cash payment.

Thankfully Citi ATM was close by, but withdrawing almost a crore of Vietnamese dong for the 3 day trip was exhausting. Then we headed a little further, found a good restaurant, had our dinner and then returned and crashed for the night.

Day 3: The best thing that I started enjoying during breakfast was the Noodle soup and it was the best soup that I ever had. The extra meat balls, chicken pieces and other non veg item that gets added later in the soup is an acquired taste as it has a very strong flavour. After tasting few times, even I preferred without that. The soup anyway had a chicken broth by default and most of the sauces also were non-veg, which enhanced the flavour, so we didn’t miss out any. I heard from the guide later there is no veg broth made in Vietnam. It’s by default made with meat only. The soup was my favourite so I ended up having for breakfast, lunch and dinner and never got tired of it. We also enjoyed other local delicacies from the breakfast buffet, even they had a Chinese pork dish which was a stable menu for the breakfast, which was similar to the one I had tasted in Beijing.

After a hearty breakfast, we were picked up by the guide to go for the one day Ha Long Bay cruise. We were dropped in the Marine Plaza and we had to walk from there to go to the local boat. The plaza itself is a big shopping place where you can purchase lot of things like exotic dry meats like Scorpion etc, local handicrafts and lot of other items. Since we had to rush, we thought we will check out the plaza later in the evening when we return and headed to our Ha Bing Cruise boat.

We had lot of fresh cut fruits on sale in the boat and beverages. The boat ride was awesome. We could go on the deck on the top of the boat which had a seating arrangement as well and could enjoy the cold breeze as we went in the month of January. If you are travelling at this time, do carry warm clothes. On the way to islands, we were shown multiple rock formation in the shape of 2 cocks fighting and elephant. Sitting in a boat in an open sky, watching the rock formations in different shapes is breath taking. The first pit stop was to Sung Sot (Surprise) cave which has lime stone formation across 10,000 sq feet and its spectacular and it’s a place for photography lovers. Be prepared to climb lots of stairs, but its worth it. You will also find very few local handicrafts being sold as well. Please do not miss out this place.

After a tiring climb to the cave, when we returned to the boat, we were treated for a sumptuous local lunch. The food was served on the table, so the vegetarians had to sit in a separate table to make it easier to keep the veg food together, so Sur has to sit separately and I was left with another large family whose language I didn’t understand and I sat alone with them. The food was kept in each table and we had to serve from there. It was a little awkward for me to ask to pass onto things, because, sometimes by the time I asked to pass on the dishes, those were almost empty and I was too hesitant to ask them to refill.  It was a very awkward situation sitting alone. I also noticed that the elders in the group were very sensitive and they were trying to pass me the dishes before the younger ones finish the plate of food so that I don’t miss out, they kind of realized later.  It was a lesson for me to learn from those elders about being sensitive and inclusive which I didn’t find it with the youngsters of the group. After such an awkward experience, all that I wanted was to leave the table, so I just had a quick lunch and then joined back to Sur. However, the lunch was delicious, they had served noodle soup (it’s a staple food everywhere), fish, meat and fresh vegetables.

After a hearty lunch we headed to the Pearl Museum. Here you can see the pearl cultivation and the entire process of harvesting the pearl. It was a different experience against actual pearling in the sea which I have heard of which is very difficult. This is less tedious way of getting the pearl and also they cultivate as per the desired requirement which is a very good business. There is also a shop to buy the exotic pearls, but I felt it was overpriced.

Then we headed to TiTop Island. Here you have a great view point for which you have to climb quite a lot of stairs and then once you are done, you can come back and enjoy the beach. It was crowded but was good. We spent more time to chill here as this was the last stop before we head back. We enjoyed the local tender coconuts and fresh fruits. The fresh fruits in Vietnam are more tempting than any other food, as they look very colorful, fresh and huge. So we had finished the quota of having fresh fruits in our diet. Then we headed back to the boat, enjoyed the nice boat ride back. I did doze off and by the time we woke up, we reached the port.

We did a little shopping for the local handicrafts in the Marine Plaza and headed back to the hotel. We had our dinner, Sur for a change tried the pizza at the hotel and he couldn’t eat that. The base was so thick, had 4 slices of tomatoes on the top with some cheese slices. That was a disaster. I had to tell Sur to stick with his omelette as he didn’t have much options as he was a vegetarian. I am glad he could eat eggs, that saved him in Vietnam. We then called it a day and crashed for the night.

Day 4: We had our quick breakfast and headed to the capital Hanoi. We reached this time within an hour or two as I understand there was a shortcut which has a toll, which reduces almost 50% of the time taken from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay but has expensive toll charges. Many of the cab drivers, do not take this route as they don’t want to pay this extra toll charges, which is way too expensive for the locals. We asked the guide to take us to the short route as we agreed to pay him the extra toll charges.

Finally we were in Hanoi, we were glad we had a guide with us who knew Vietnamese. Here people hardly spoke English but the youngsters did speak but we found very few in the shop, am sure they were at college.  The people were good, its just that since we didn’t know the local language, most of the communication was done through the guide. My guide had studied in Hanoi, so he was taking us through his memory lane.

We started with a temple visit to Hoen Kiem Lake, here you cannot go to the temple which was in the middle of the lake, but can be viewed from far. After a prayer for the people of Vietnam, we headed to the old quarters. This is the happening place similar to chickpet in Bangalore. You can get almost everything and including wholesale. First I tasted the egg coffee (normal coffee with egg broth), which was recommended by the guide and was good and then walked around the streets. We did a bit of shopping as I heard, most of the high end products are manufactured here and prices are low compared to India.

They had good jackets in Vietnam and Sur was insisting me to buy one, so we went to the shop and asked the girls. They started laughing, saying they don’t have clothes for my size. First time I felt in Vietnam I was obese. This is according to Vietnamese standards as the girls are petite. We laughed and then guide insisted that we try more shops, saying I might be lucky to get one or two. Then we found a wholesale store, where we did the final try and for our luck, they had 2 jackets. The girl spoke English and she said that’s all they have and it’s very difficult to find my size in Vietnam. Then we  shopped for jeans in the same store as they had good collection. The girls at the shop were extremely friendly and they were happily helping Sur to shop his jeans and he got quite a few as the quality was superb and it came 1/3rd of the price of Levi’s that we would have spent. If you are a jeans lover, this is the country to shop for men. Indian Ladies, sorry, unless you are extremely slim, then you might. I wouldn’t mind going again just to buy jeans for Sur. They are really good and on that excuse, we can also explore more of Vietnam, as I realized we didn’t explore much as we came for a very short period.

The guide recommended a place for lunch, it was a very small local shop which had just 4-5 benches and tables for lunch. Even though Sur doesn’t like soups, (he is scared of hot beverages as he is afraid to get his tongue burnt) we didn’t have much option as there was only soup available. So Sur decided to have a soup, then guide informed me that the broth is actually a chicken broth, so I had to cancel the order for Sur and then informed the guide to get just the noodles as he is a vegetarian. They were very kind and customized the noodle just for him, with their own sauces. The noodle served to Sur was the best. Even though my soup was equally good, his noodles scored an extra brownie point for their love and warmth hospitality.

After thanking them for accommodating our request we headed to Temple of Literature. This site is the national symbol of Vietnamese education. The temple has, records of Vietnamese scholars, and statues of turtles which are said to bring students good luck in their exams. So every student is asked to visit this place especially before their exams to bring good marks.

Then we headed to Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, which houses the embalmed body of Vietnam’s greatest political leader, Hồ Chí Minh. We were not allowed to go inside, we strolled around the building, it has a huge open area.

Then we headed to Hoa Lo Prison Relic. This prison was used by the French colonists in French Indochina for political prisoners, and later by North Vietnam for U.S. prisoners of war during the Vietnam War.  This is the saddest, most gruesome treatment to Vietnamese people and they are not happy to show this to the visitors. My guide stayed away and we just went silently, said a prayer for the people of Vietnam and stepped out and started back to Ha long Bay.

Day 4: After our breakfast, we headed to visit temples close to ha long area. We rode to Cai Bau Pagoda, which is situated on the mountains overlooking Bai Tu Long Bay. This is also known as Truc Lam Giac Tam Monastery and it has the stunning landscapes and maintained well. My favourite was the bonsai plants all around. They looked spectacular and if you are into photography this is the must place. This took almost half the day and the drive was amazing as we drove though the local villages, fields etc. We had our lunch on the way and then headed to Quang Ninh Exhibition of Planning and Expo Centre to collect my entry passes for the conference next day. We came to the hotel and then after some time walked around opposite to the hotel, which was overlooking the waterbody. We found another good restaurant at a walkable distance, had our dinner and crashed for the night.

Day 5-7: Next 3 days was busy with conference and meeting travel suppliers. FLC luxury resort hosted the dinner and that hotel had the best of hospitality. The opening and closing ceremonies were awesome and spoke volumes of the local culture and enjoyed their warm hospitality. I also enjoyed the frog meat. I was surprised, it was served in a five star hotel restaurant for a dinner buffet and was great. The conference ended with memorable experiences and was in awe knowing the local culture, traditions and people more. As I was busy with conference, Sur enjoyed the hospitality of Ha Long Plaza.

Day 8: We had to check out early as we have to reach Hanoi to catch our flights, so had to bid adieu to Ha long Bay after enjoying the hospitality of Ha Long Plaza. Reached Hanoi after a long drive and then boarded the Singapore Airlines for Hanoi. Had a few hours of transit in Singapore. Sur bought his speakers and then it was time to board our flight to Bangalore.

Vietnam surprised me and I think it was my ignorance that I didn’t read about the country, so I didn’t know much about them. I wished we had spent more time as there was lot to explore and am looking forward to visit again. The people are so warm and simple. I just loved enjoying their warm hospitality. My love to Vietnam and their people.

See you Soon, until then Stay Safe, we will defeat this Covid Soon.

UAE – The Royal Experience

Filed under: Travel — jani @ 11:25 pm

About UAE:

The Arabic name for UAE is al-ʾImārāt al-ʿArabīyah al-Muttaḥidah which is referred as United Arab Emirates in English. The sovereign absolute monarchy is a federation of seven emirates consisting of Abu Dhabi (which serves as the capital), Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain.

I was always been apprehensive to travel to Middle Eastern Countries due to their stricter laws and other restrictions in the country. I also have realized that it’s due to limited news that media shares which is not encouraging either. But on a positive note, I have a lot of respect for these countries, because they have stricter laws which in turn has lesser crimes, which we miss in our country. We are improving now but we still have a long way to go… Many times, when I read the crimes committed in our country, there is one thing always comes to mind, I wish we had their laws so that lot of innocent lives would have been saved. I can only pray we have more stricter laws and lesser crimes in our country.

Just to make me more confident before I decided to travel, I also spoke to few friends who live in UAE and they had only positive news to share about the country and I also read about certain dos and dont’s of the country before I leave. I understand that we need to respect the locals laws, traditions and cultures and there is no two way about it. So when IBTM accepted my application to attend the conference in Abu Dhabi, I thought this is the best opportunity to explore the place as well post conference. As usual, I asked Sur if he can accompany me but I was refused point blank by him. He had few reasons:-

Reason No 1: We were not married at that time, he thought he will get arrested being with me.

Reason No 2: He has the habit of holding my hands while walking and he said he will get arrested for the same while sightseeing in UAE.

To add to my woes, there was two news that we read at that time:

News No 1: There was an expat who went for a medical check-up and found out she was pregnant at the hospital and she was unmarried. She got arrested as it’s against the local law. Her partner was also an expat living in UAE. Her mother was all over the news, begging to release her daughter and she wanted her daughter and unborn grandkid to be safe in her own country. She was pleading that daughter will get out of UAE immediately if she is released from jail but no one could reach out to her. I hear once you are in their jail, you disappear and no one could reach you.

News No 2: There was a couple who checked into a particular hotel and when the hotel staff suspected something fishy, they barged into their room and found out they were having sex and they were unmarried. So they were sent straight to Jail.

These 2 news clippings were reason No . 3 for Sur, to reject my request, to accompany me to UAE  and he was trying to convince me how bad it is. So I couldn’t push him as I completely understood, so I had to do my SOLO travel which is something I don’t prefer as I can never travel alone.

Visa:

You can apply through the below website for getting a visit visa. However, you can get a visa on arrival (VOA) for a maximum stay of 14 days provided you have any USA visas that’s valid and your passport is valid for at six months from the date of arrival into the UAE.

https://www.dubaivisa.net/india/

Since I already had a valid USA visa, I could go for VOA. Then I wanted to be sure that I could travel as my visa was on the old passport since I couldn’t take any risk with UAE. So I reached out to the consulate directly over email. After few mail exchanges, they confirmed I could travel as long as I carried both passports, which anyway I would because I need to show them the visa. I was grateful to the embassy staff for being so prompt and helpful as you do not get such speedy response from many of the consulates.

Travel Itinerary:

Day 1: We were booked in Etihad Airways and of course, this is also one of the best airlines in the world. After flying various airlines, I have realized the Middle Eastern carriers, stand tall in their hospitality. That’s why I end up blindly booking these airlines, because I know their hospitality would be excellent. After enjoying it’s in-flight hospitality, I landed in Abu Dhabi. I found the immigration officers being so young and they were pretty quick with the process. I took less than 5 to 10 minutes to finish the formalities and got my VOA stamped. I got picked up by the conference organizing committee team and were welcomed in another iconic hotel Jumeirah at Etihad Towers. That’s the  luxury hotel and I already felt like a royal in Abu Dhabi when I entered. We had such a smooth check in and got into the room. It was a beautiful room, with a huge bathroom, where there was a bathtub overlooking the glass windows with amazing beach and skyline view and I immediately had to share the photos to Sur and make him jealous for missing out such a wow experience. Then I wanted a coffee but the machine looked so sophisticated that I didn’t know how to operate it. This had a sealed coffee sachet and I did try one and I failed and by then I was missing my coffee quota for the day as well. After much hesitation I did take courage to ask the housekeeping staff for help, unfortunately she didn’t know either  as she was very new. I felt pretty embarrassed, thinking I was the only one who didn’t know how to operate this one. After my failure in getting my coffee, I had to take the mixed nuts from the mini bar and have to be content with that. Even though I didn’t enjoy those nuts but that kind of distracted me from the coffee craving. Being the luxury property, those nuts were too expensive, anyway that was not a surprise as I was expecting that. By the way, Later I learnt to operate this machine in Spain, which had a similar one and of course Sur was there to figure it out. I always felt handicapped without him during my travel. God I love him that he fits right into my incomplete puzzle. I always thank God for him every day.

Since I had a little time to catch up with my bestie, who was working in Abu Dhabi, I called him to come over to the hotel. He reached and we went to the Pool bar. It was fun catching up with him. We also enjoyed  the bar food and drinks. By evening, he had to leave as he had work next day and I went straight to the room and crashed for the night.

Day 2: After a great breakfast buffet spread, I headed for the conference which was at the same hotel. UAE surprised me and even the IBTM, about how they managed the entire pre and post conference in details. The first thing, that surprised me was the registration fee, which was the cheapest among all the international conference fees that I attended. Comparing to others, it was almost nil. Then our mandatory supplier’s meeting which is usually 30 meetings for 3 days, which is in between various talks, and used to be a little hectic. Here they had only half of the mandatory requirement and half part of it was discovery day to explore the city. So this conference was more relaxing, had lot of time to network, do a bit of sightseeing and time to enjoy the delicious spreads which was very encouraging. Hats off to the organizing committee of IBTM Arabia.

The First day, we just had only the meetings for the first half, along with it, had a destination presentation of Ras Al Khaimah which was very interesting as they had recently opened a longest zip liner in the world beating Puerto Rico. Immediately the next question to the Tourism team was can we get the tickets, since I only loved the zip liner out of all the adventure ones. But unfortunately it was completely booked for the next 3-6 months. So we were a bit disappointed that we couldn’t experience the thrill of it. Then there was a royal buffet which got served in the Mezzoon Ballroom and after such a heavy and great lunch it was difficult to sit for few more meetings.

Then, it was a discovery day to visit Yas Marina circuit situated in Yas Island, enroute we enjoyed the nice drive with the panoramic view of Abu Dhabi. This is the venue for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and it is the second Formula one Track in the Middle East after Bahrain. We had a venue tour, where they had taken us to the race control room, the pit, the media center, VIP area, pit support garages and the Podium. For our live experience there were few drivers practising at that time as well. So we spent some time admiring them. Then we went to the podium, posed for few photos and felt like champions. I don’t think I would have visited this place if not for IBTM. Also we could partake in go karting, drag racing, pit stop challenge. I just admired everything as an audience and I was enjoying looking at others enjoying the moments.

Then we headed to Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, which is a mostly indoors amusement park on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi. It is the first Ferrari-branded theme park and has the record for the largest space frame structure ever built. Formula Rossa, the world’s fastest roller coaster, is also located here. Being VIPs there, we were offered one free ride of Formula Rossa, but I declined as I am not big fan of rides as I get headaches. Many of them were scolding me, that how did I refuse such a golden opportunity but I had to just smile and say Sorry. It has more than 10 rides and unfortunately I refused to get into any. I found few companions like me in the group who also didn’t do much rides, so joined with them, had some snacks, admired the souvenir shops and we left.

We were then dropped back to Yas Vicerory – Skylite for a welcome reception. After another royal experience we were dropped back to the hotel and I crashed for the night.

Day 3: After another great breakfast spread, headed to travel supplier’s meetings, amazing lunch and then meetings and then it was time for another discovery in the capital. We headed to Louvre Abu Dhabi. It is an art and civilization museum and located on the Saadiyat Island Cultural District. It is approximately 24,000 square metres in size, with 8,000 square metres of galleries, making it the largest art museum in the Arabian peninsula. After interesting experience at the museum, we headed to the Gala Evening, white themed party at Beach Rotana. It was in the open garden and it was quite an entertainment with music, food, networking and memorable experiences. Then we were dropped back to the hotel and crashed for the night.

Day 4: After a great breakfast, meetings, lunch and back to meetings. After that we had a Sunset Farewell Cocktails by the Pool at the hotel. Had a great fun and then crashed for the night.

Day 5:  After breakfast, had to pack and check out. I waited for my friend who was working in Dubai to pick me up as he was kind enough to take me out for a sightseeing in Dubai. So I had to stay near Dubai. He had booked me in Crystal Plaza Hotel in Sharjah which would be convenient to go around for the next few days. We had an amazing drive from Abu Dhabi and then late evening headed to the hotel. It was a hotel mostly run by the Malayalis, so I felt I was in India rather than in UAE. When I checked the menu, you would be surprised what I found out, it was rice and Kerala Fish Curry and I felt at home immediately. I ordered the same thing every time I ordered the room service during my stay. Another surprise was I just had a 500 ml drinking water bottle in the room and everything else was over charged and I was like, that wouldn’t be enough for me. So I had to ask them if there was any shop close by since I needed more water, the hotel staffs were helpful in guiding me a grocery shop close by, owned by another Indian who spoke Hindi. I immediately went and got a 5 litre can. That saved my stay for the next few days and I knew where to get it if I was short of water. The grocery owner was very sweet and helpful and after a quick chat, I headed back to the room with much relief. Ordered my usual staple order through room service, enjoyed the Kerala homely meal and crashed for the night.

Day 6: I had a lovely Kerala breakfast and as I was waiting for my friend to pick me up to start my sightseeing. Then I heard a knock and he was at my door. I got panicked and I am like, who allowed you to come to the room. He laughed and asked me to just relax. Since he wanted to have a tea before we head out, I ordered the same. After few minutes, we got our tea and as we were trying to finish and leave the room, we heard there was another knock. It was a housekeeping staff, checking on us. Since he saw us standing and found us walking near the door, he left without saying. So my worst fear came true. So I told my friend, I don’t want any trouble in the country, so next day I told him to stay down when he comes to pick me up and promised him to get his tea and the smoke outside the hotel. He did laugh but understood me after seeing how uncomfortable I was after the knock on my door.

After that weird experience, we headed for a sightseeing to Ras Al Khaimah. He asked me, why Sur didn’t accompany me, I was narrating him all the reasons that Sur had told me along with the news that we read. He just laughed and he said Dubai is a city with lot of expats, yes, there are local laws which needs to be respected, otherwise he agreed that there is no issue and it’s a good place. I also clarified with him on the news that we read about, first being lady found pregnant without marriage, he did say, it might be true as it’s against the law. 2nd news about a the couple having caught in sex, he said he was not sure, as he read a different news where, they arrested that couple because they were found to be carrying drugs. So the news that we hear mostly, are completely not true.

I was waiting to inform Sur about the same in the evening when I trouble him for the daily late-night call, as I was missing him. First you cannot use WhatsApp since there is restrictions in UAE for that, so we had to make the international calls, even that roaming didn’t have a good network. So Sur had to call the hotel room landline. It was very frustrating with calls getting disconnected time to time, and finally Sur surrendered saying, next time he is accompanying me as that was easier than making these phone calls every day which was more frustrating. Not allowing WhatsApp calls was a let-down in UAE.

It was a long drive to Ras al Khaimah. It was a dry place but was a hilly terrain and was a beautiful drive so we just enjoyed the drive, that also took us to the residential area as well and it was very different from the high rise buildings in Dubai. We went around, the zipline which is called Jebel Jais Flight which allows thrill-seekers to soar from the country’s largest mountain peak for nearly three minutes, suspended while gliding through rocky terrain. Measuring 1.76 miles long, this zipline stretches longer than 28 football fields, and crushes the former record holder in Puerto Rico by almost 2,000 feet. We were just enjoying the view of the people going in the zipline, it looked scary though. Then we found a shop near the parking and we found a tea shop, the owner was from Pakistan. He guessed we were from India, we got the tea, started chatting with him for some time and then left from there after such a hearty conversation. At the end of the day people are good, no matter which country they are from. I wished we had better relations with Pakistan provided they didn’t support the people who intend to harm the country and people. I heard the country is so beautiful but losing out on all the tourism and revenue for the country because of evil activities by few, affecting majority of the innocent people and am sure the innocent and good hearted people of Pakistan, might also be wishing the same for their country. My prayers for the country, that they work on improving relationship with India by eradicating the evil people/group, who destroy the peace of the country and the innocent people. Then we headed back to Dubai and I had to visit my friend’s family and kids. Spent some time with them, then I got dropped back to the hotel, had my homely food at the hotel and crashed for the night.

Day 7: After the breakfast, I headed down to the lobby waiting for my friend. Had his usual tea and then we headed for a sightseeing in Dubai. We went to the Dubai Mall, went around looking at various high end shops. It also has Aquarium & Underwater Zoo in the mall itself, so as you walk through the mall, you can see the sharks through the glass and it was amazing. So we didn’t go inside and then headed to the food court for lunch. The food options were great and one of my best dessert that I tasted here was Kunafa at my friend’s insistence. Kanafeh (Kunafa) is a traditional Middle Eastern dessert made with shredded filo pastry, or alternatively fine semolina dough, soaked in sweet, sugar-based syrup, and typically layered with cheese, or with other ingredients such as clotted cream or nuts, depending on the region. He said I should try that. I still salivate at the thought of it even today and I haven’t found yet here in Bangalore. Even though once for a dinner at Hyatt, MG Road, Bangalore, there was kunafah, am sorry it was nowhere close to that. I am still waiting if I can get the same here in Bangalore. I haven’t succeeded yet. Once I did try to ask my friends to get it when they visited Dubai, unfortunately they got something else. I wanna go to Dubai, at least to taste that Kunafa again. After such an unforgettable dessert experience, we drove again. We passed through Burj Al Khalifa, Dubai Frame etc.  Since we were short of time, we didn’t get down to go into those places. My friend being a perfect guide was pointing me every iconic buildings in the city and explaining about it as he drove me along.

Then we headed to the souk, for perfumes as he was raving about the oil-based perfume. He insisted I should visit them. So we headed off to the souk. Here they have the oil-based perfumes of David Off and many other known perfumes. The advantage with the oil based was, it stays longer in your body against the water based ones, which is usually we get to buy in the perfume stores. Once you select the perfumes that you want to pick up, they have 15 to 30 ml small bottles where they pour and give you. I could just stay there forever, inhaling those amazing scents. That is the only thing I was ok to shop, since I just love those amazing scents. So we picked up quite a lot of bottles with different brands and then headed to find a t-shirt for Sur. We picked up more perfumes from another shop and then headed back. There were gold, dry fruits, nuts and many beautiful things. Then we headed to a famous dry fruits store, picked up some dates, dry fruits and fruit candies. If you love shopping, this is the perfect place.

I also heard that you need to be careful here. There are people inviting you on the street to buy their stuffs and they take you to a shady place/hidden place, in that case please don’t go as it might be fake products. However, if you are going directly to an open shop, then you are good to go. I was reminded of Sex and the city 2 and the tips when they travelled to Abu Dhabi. Do respect the local customs in terms of dressing, that would always make your stay pleasant. But you have nothing to worry about safety as hardly anyone dares to do any crimes as the laws are pretty stringent.

After such an amazing experience, I had a quick dinner at the hotel and crashed for the night.

Day 8: Had another Indian breakfast and then packed my luggage and was time to head out to the airport. My friend already had instructed me that there was a pickup point in Dubai for Etihad Airlines, so I needn’t go all the way to Abu Dhabi. So hotel had helped me with a cab, reached the airport lounge in Dubai and checked in there itself. It was such a smooth experience and then I was waiting for the bus. Then we boarded the bus, reached the airport and bid adieu to UAE. The warm hospitality of Etihad Airlines, came to an end as I landed in Bangalore. My appreciation and love to the airlines.

So my fearful UAE trip came to an end, but I came with an enriching experience and lots of respect for the country. Yes, you need to respect the local culture, there is no two way about it. But they have the best legal system, because no one messes with it, since they know they can’t escape from the law. The stringent law keeps the country clean, crime rates low and everyone does their job ethically and at their best. I just wish, we have the same legal system to ensure the guilty is punished and doesn’t go scot free just because they are from a powerful/influential family and also the judicial process is faster and not goes on and on and on and never ending……..

UAE, am coming again with Sur, so that I can explore more, this time he is not scared because we are married now. I can still make fun of him on this………Let’s defeat this Covid soon, so that we can travel again and in the meantime start appreciating the little things in life, be thankful to all the best friends who shaped your life  and be grateful for all the opportunities that we are blessed with every day….Until then Stay Safe…..

An Awesome Spain

Filed under: Travel — jani @ 11:25 pm

About Spain: It’s a country on Europe’s Iberian Peninsula with diverse geography and cultures. Catalonia’s capital, Barcelona, is defined by Antoni Gaudí’s whimsical modernist landmarks like the Sagrada Família church. It is the cosmopolitan capital of Spain’s Catalonia region, which is also known for its art and architecture. The fantastical Sagrada Família church and other modernist landmarks designed by Antoni Gaudí dot the city.

When IBTM had a conference in Barcelona, I thought I should go as Europe was always in my bucket list of travel. Then I realized that we had initially planned to go to Lakshadweep as Sur wanted me to do the PADI course which I had wanted to do after my Thailand snorkelling trip where I felt I needed to do diving course so that I could join Sur. So, I asked Sur to choose between these two places, as Barcelona conference was scheduled at the same time that we planned Lakshadweep. As expected, Sur chose Barcelona as he said Lakshadweep we can do it later. So I registered and got accepted and we planned our trip to Spain.

Visa:

There are two consulates in India, namely New Delhi and Mumbai and it comes with Jurisdiction.

Mumbai: All four South Indian States, Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Chhattisgarh, Goa, Gujarat, Daman and Diu, Maharashtra, Pondicherry, and Gujarat.

New Delhi: Remaining states and Union territories fall under this jurisdiction.

BLS International accepts the applications on behalf of the embassy and they are present in most of the cities. Do check the close by office in your own state and then you can submit the application to them.

Document Checklist:

Do check the BLS link (https://india.blsspainvisa.com/) for more details and check for latest updates before filing the application. Sample checklist is mentioned below

  Visa Application Form: Form to be filled in blue pen and with the original signature from the applicant

Photographs: 2 recent photographs as per the specific requirement attached (do refer the link mentioned above)

Cover Letter from the Applicant: Attach the letter with the purpose of travel, dates of travel and with complete itinerary

HR letter from the company:

Company Letter: Letter should Confirm your approved leaves and employment details.

Company Id proof: Recommended.

Invitation Letter: If you are invited by the local entity, do get the letter in Spanish and English

   Hotel Booking: Do attach the hotel confirmation with complete payment done prior for the entire stay.

Flight Details: Confirmed flight booking to be attached.

Tour Itinerary: Give the day wise itinerary.

    Travel Insurance: It has to be issued by the approved Insurance companies, the link mentioned above will give you all the details and as per EU guidelines, minimum coverage of 100,000 USD to be there for at least 30 days .

Sworn Declaration for travel insurance signed by applicant: Attached

Salary Slip: Last 6 months of salary slips to be attached

Bank Statement: Last one-year bank statement in original (with bank seal and signature) to be attached

Income Tax Returns: Last 3-year IT returns to be attached

Pan Card Copy: To be attached

BLS Authorization Form: To be signed and attached

Passport Details: Passport copies of all pages including the old ones to be attached

Marriage Certificate: In case, spouse is accompanying

  Birth certificate: In case child is accompanying

Note: All the documents must be in English like marriage or birth certificate, in case it’s not in English do get the certificate issued in English before filing. In case your trip expenses are split by your spouse, then you need to ensure to share all the documents mentioned above for your spouse as well.

Travel itinerary:

Day 1: We had our early morning flight with Air France and after just over an hour layover in Paris, we landed in Barcelona in the afternoon.

The hospitality of Air France was good. Once we landed we hired a cab to go to IBIS Styles Barcelona City Bogatell, this is a budget hotel and weather was little cold as we visited in the month of November. We had a smooth check in and went to the room. Once we freshened up, we came down for lunch, they didn’t have much option, but we ordered some omelette and enjoyed the coffee and went around in the evening for a walk close by. We went to Ciutadella Park which was close by. The 70-acre grounds has the Parliament of Catalonia, lot of official buildings, beautiful garden, fountain, statues, trees with lots and lots of oranges. I was so tempted to pluck the oranges, which is always a fun activity in India specially with the tamarind trees on the roadside but I had to control myself as we were in a different country. We found lot of birds specially parrots and people were feeding and they were quite used with the people as they were not scared and stayed for their food until they were full.

Then we headed to my favourite place in the city which is the Museu de la Xocolata (Chocolate Museum) where it was all about chocolates. We picked up few chocolates and few which had 90% cocoa for Sur’s dad as he wanted to get the maximum cocoa one, later when he tasted he realized he should stick to 50 or 60% as it was too bitter. The best one here is the hot chocolate, I could drink every time and not get tired of that as it was not very sweet which I liked about. Every time I passed this place I was nagging Sur for a hot chocolate. If you love chocolates, this is a place which you shouldn’t miss. After enjoying my best find in Barcelona, we stopped at a nearby restaurant for dinner, enjoyed some great food along with wine. We found that none of the wine in Barcelona was bad. In fact each one was better than the last and we ended up finishing a bottle for almost every meal. Then walked back to the hotel and crashed for the night.

Day 2: After a great breakfast of breads, pastries, cheese, eggs and juice, we headed to We Barcelona office for the Barcelona Walking Tour with Eco Boat & Helicopter Ride. The best thing that we found for sightseeing is this company called We Barcelona, after the first trip which we found through Trip Advisor, we didn’t look for other tour operators and we booked all the sightseeing tours for the remaining days with them. They were the best and all that you need to do was to go to the pickup point wherever they ask you depending on the trip that you book. Since I had Sur with me, we had taken metros for most of the places as for me it would have been difficult without him. The hotel also had the metro station close by so that helped with all our logistics.

This is to experience Barcelona by land, sea and sir. So we first started exploring by land and did a walking tour by visiting the Gothic Quarter and were listening to the Catalonia stories and their history.

The charming Gothic Quarter, or Barri Gòtic, has narrow medieval streets filled with trendy bars, clubs and Catalonian restaurants. There is also the Cathedral of Barcelona and street arts. After that we walked to the Church of Sant Felip Neri in the Gothic Quarter (The romantic, slightly faded church is an unmissable corner of the Gothic Quarter and in the evening you can see people gathered with friends and family for a evening get together for fun, laughter and music ). We then proceeded to Plaça de Sant Jaume (square at the center of the Old City of Barcelona and the administrative heart of both the city and surrounding Catalonia) and went and saw the Town Hall and Palace of the Generalitat of Catalonia (Government of Catalonia, is the institutional system by which Catalonia politically organizes its self-government). We explored the Jewish quarter and passed by the Santa Maria del Pi (it is a 15th-century Gothic church).

After visiting Spain I realized that walking is the best way of seeing Europe, as it’s so beautiful that you need to explore it by foot wherever possible.

Then we went for a boat ride at Port Vell and enjoyed the cold breeze of the Mediterranean Sea, it was so beautiful.  We visited The Columbus Monument, which is a 60 m tall monument to Christopher Columbus at the lower end of La Rambla, Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. It was constructed for the Exposición Universal de Barcelona in honor of Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas and then went to the heliport where our sky adventure began. That was one beautiful short ride over Port Vell and the beautiful beaches and view from above was spectacular. The trip ended there but we had a quick bite near the port and then went near the pier.

It was all sea gulls which were huge and then headed to Aquarium Barcelona, which had a collection of 11,000 animals representing 450 species.

After the Aquarium visit we headed in the evening for Barcelona old town walking tour with Flamenco Show and Tapas Tour through We Barcelona. We had a guide who was Catalonian so, as we were walking to the place, she took us through the gothic quarters and old town and explained more in detail which was an eye opener. So we kind of repeated the morning walk tour once again in the evening but didn’t complain as the guide was so passionate about her culture and history, we were glued to her listening to every detail of it. After the walking tour we headed for a flamenco show which was spectacular. After a bit of snacks and drinks, we went to an outside restaurant to try the authentic Tapas in a near by pub. Tapas are bite sized snacks and it was quite interesting in a crowded pub. After enjoying those we walked back to the hotel and crashed for the night. Even though we were walking late in the night, never felt scared as we felt very safe in the city.

Day 3: After a great breakfast, we left for Montserrat Monastery visit and Natural Park Hiking with Railway from Barcelona through We Barcelona. It was a little longer ride from the city and then we reached Montserrat. It is a mountain rising over 4000 ft. into the air from Barcelona. We went to the church and then we rode the funicular railway to a scenic viewpoint, and took a nature walk in Montserrat Park while returning. It was a mini hike and enjoyed very bit of it and found lot of thyme and Rose Mary plants on the way. It was very exciting and beautiful and then returned back to the monastery. Since it was a Sunday we had the weekend market as well with varieties of home made cheese and everything tasted delicious. So we picked up lots of cheese and a dessert wine from the monastery and left. Enjoyed every minute of the drive and we returned back to the hotel. In the evening, we went around closeby, had our dinner and crashed for the night.

Day 4: We had to check out of this hotel and had to check in at Ohla Eixample which was booked by the conference organizing team. It was one of the best hotels and had an amazing hospitality. We just dozed off and woke up in the evening and was hungry. Sur decided to step out for lunch and I didn’t have a patience to walk to much, so we found a Michelin star restaurant diagonally opposite to the hotel where we were staying and Sur said the review was good. So we went inside. I had never been to a Michelin Star and this was my first time. Once we entered, we realized we were not dressed appropriately as everyone at the restaurant was in formals and I was wearing a track pants and T-shirt and Sur was in jeans and T-shirt. I was the most under dressed and I was embarrassed. Since I was hungry, we quickly found a corner, had a quick meal and left. The food was great but the quantity was less and I  didn’t have the patience to order more as I was already embarrassed with my dress code.

Sur found it difficult to get his veg food as we tried to customize a non veg food and that was a disaster, since he didn’t like the veg options from the menu. I learnt few lessons on that day. 1. Never enter a Michelin star restaurant in casuals. 2. If you are really hungry and need more quantity of food and then this is not the place. 3. Don’t try to customize the food, it has to be original. After the embarrassing situation at the Michelin star restaurant, we went back to the room, ordered some more snacks as I was still hungry and crashed for the night.

Day 5: The day was busy with back to back meetings and appointments at Fira Gran Via Barcelona which was the convention centre. We were picked up by bus as it was far from the hotel where we stayed. While I was at the conference, Sur was enjoying the hospitality at the hotel. Once I was done with the conference, we both went to the seafood restaurant at the hotel for dinner. As usual I enjoyed but Sur didn’t have much option being a vegetarian and the customized one was not very great. Then we returned to the room and crashed for the night.

Day 6: Another busy day with meetings and appointments and then evening we had a IBTM world club night Opium Barcelona which was fun after a tiring day. I headed back to the hotel and crashed for the night.

Day 7: While I headed for the final day of conference, Sur checked out and checked back in to IBIS styles where we stayed earlier pre conference days. So he was busy with that and then came to the venue to pick me up in the evening as I didn’t know the way to reach back. We went around nearby and found a grocery store, picked up more cheese, wine (even the local wines were great) for our consumption as we became addicted to the good wines of Barcelona. Then we grabbed the dinner at a close by restaurant along with more good wine and then crashed for the night.

Day 8: After a good breakfast we headed for the winery and cava (sparkling wine) tour of Pere Ventura. Here we found combination of modernity and tradition in which the company takes pride and first time I enjoyed the sparkling wine (Cava). The winery is located on the outskirts of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, in a lovely home reminiscent of an old farmhouse. The underground cellars with vaulted galleries looked breath-taking. We also got to enjoy wine tasting and every single wine was great. Then we were dropped back to the pick up point where we went around to see Gaudi architecture. Antoni Gaudí i Cornet was a Catalan architect known as the greatest exponent of Catalan Modernism. Gaudí’s works have a highly individualized, sui generis style. I have never seen such a fantastic creative work till today, I was in awe of the buildings. After admiring the greatest architecture and creative work, we went around for a night walk for some time, had our dinner and crashed for the night.

Day 9: Had another delicious breakfast and headed for Girona and Costa Brava tour with Explore Catalunya. After a long drive, we reached Girona. Girona is a city in Spain’s north-eastern Catalonia region, beside the River Onyar. We had a time for ourselves to explore on our own and enjoyed the medieval architecture, walled Old Quarter (Barri Vell) and the Roman remains of the Força Vella fortress. Landscaped gardens line the Passeig Arqueològic, a walkway following the Old Quarter’s medieval walls, which include watchtowers with sweeping views, I felt I was in Great wall of China. Few scenes from Game of Thrones were also shot in Girona. After enjoying the cathedral and architecture, we went to the shopping place to pick up some souvenirs. Then we headed to Costa Brava. This is a coastal region of Catalonia in north-eastern Spain and the town was almost empty as it was off season. Sur was complaining that next time I need to take him during summer and not winter. We enjoyed the beach to ourselves as hardly any shops/restaurants were open due to off season.

We had lunch at Tony’s restaurant and our guide suggested that I try the Paella which I have been wanting to try but was not sure where. Paella is a Spanish rice and is one of the best-known dishes in Spanish cuisine. Since this is not a veg dish, Sur settled for some salads as he had very limited option. After enjoying the places and food we headed to the hotel. We crashed after dinner as we had an early morning flight to catch the next day.

Day 10: We had to wake up early and head to the airport and the hotel helped us to book the cab. We reached the Barcelona Airport but no shops were open as it was too early for the day. Then we boarded Air France, had a stop over in Paris. We did a bit of shopping and then boarded for Bangalore. Landed in Bangalore after a good hospitality from Air France. The awesome Spain visit came to end but this was never enough as we could visit only Barcelona and not the other cities. It’s so beautiful that you need more time to enjoy the beauty, architecture of the country and even then, it would be never enough.

Here is to more visits to Spain and Europe, until then Stay Safe……….

 

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