Sunday, June 23, 2013

Vietnam : an unlikely destination

Vietnam!! Saigon!! The names are associated with action heros like Jason Bourne (Delta), the tunnel rat Calvin Dexter (Avenger) and, of course, Stallone, in his ever popular avatar "Rambo". It also casts long and not-so-pleasant shadows of a war, in which, in the words of Martin Luther King, the greatest casualty was the society itself.  In course of my business travels, I had a chance to spend a couple of days at Ho Chi Minh City, the erstwhile Saigon.  

Prior to getting integrated with the communist North Vietnam (the "Vietcongs"), Saigon was a quaint little French colonial town and the capital of South Vietnam (it had a singsong, slightly ridiculous name "Cochinchina"). The traces of this are visible in the old buildings and structures in or around the city centre (Nyugen Hue Boulevard, close to the harbour). I had one free afternoon and could see a few of them.

1) People's Committee Building (Erstwhile Hotel De Ville) : The French architecture is clearly visible in this building which was built in 1909 and which is a major landmark of this area.

The place has some interesting carved statues and figurines in the arches

In the garden right in front of this building, predictably, is a huge statue of Ho Chi Minh ("Uncle Ho"), whose name today's Saigon bears.

 2) Opera house : At a distance of less than 100 metres lies another major example of the  French Colonial architecture. Intricate work all over, this also has a garden in front which has an "open" art gallery showcasing the Vietnam war.

On the same area, I saw an interesting looking fountain with a mother-and-child relief which created a lovely view with the back light of the reclining sun rays.

3) Old Saigon post office : Ho Chi Minh City also has an old post office which has now become a major tourist attraction. Constructed in 1892, this post office is still in operation  with some parts of it functioning as government tourist shops. In the inside wall, there is a map showing the route of first telegraph line which was laid between Vietnam and Cambodia.

This building, which has a huge dome with the modern "glass-and-steel" architecture of France, was designed by Gustave Eiffel (no prizes for guessing which is his most famous architectural structure!).  

The lovely telegraph offices with carved wood and glass doors have now become telephone booths

4) Notre-Dame Cathedral : Bang opposite the post office is the Notre-Dame cathedral. I was rather taken aback when I heard this but a quick check on the internet revealed that there are several Notre Dame Cathedrals around the world. This one is a small but worthy cousin of the more illustrated one in Paris.

5) Bitexco commercial centre : A major landmark but I wasn't particularly impressed by it. Seemed like another of those tall buildings which look nice when lit up in the night

6) Ben Thanh Market : A visit to a city is not complete unless you have been to their local market. Ben Thanh is a walking distance from the Nyugen Hue Boulevard. On the way, one can see several pavement shops selling nice paper curios like these

The market is a great place to pickup clothes, handbags and belts at decent prices. The pavement adjoining the market is also a great place to sample the local cuisine which is cooked in front of you. The seafood is particularly recommended, accompanied by the local Ba-Ba-Ba (3-3-3 in Vietnamese) beer. 

How to reach : Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) airport. For the travel from the airport to the city centre, it is recommended to get the car from the hotel as there is a distinct possibility of getting royally fleeced by the cab driver. 
Where to stay : City Centre - Nyugen Hue Boulevard. You can get every kind of hotels out here with plenty of eateries in and around this place. You can also cover most of the tourist spots on foot. 
Places to visit : Central Post Office, Notre Dame Cathedral, Ben Thanh Market, Opera House, Ho Chi Minh citry museum, Dong Khoi shopping street. One can also take a ride by boat and visit the Chu Chi tunnels (the intricate tunnels through which the Vietcongs used to attack Saigon). There is also a couple of other boat trips possible including a boat trip to Mekong delta / floating market etc. 
Night life : Vietnam has an active nightlife and clubs and restaurants remain open till late.  Prostitution is rampant and open - so don't get surprised if you are badgered with agents offering "very good girl sir, very low rate" or dubious looking drinks which are supposed to enhance ones sexual prowess many folds (one of these bottles had a scorpion inside!!). There are many incidents of tourists losing a fortune to nymphets with nimble fingers, so it is not recommended to carry too much cash or credit cards with you.
Ho Chi Minh City can be covered in 2 days quite easily and then it is time to move on and cover the other tourist spots. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Fatehpur and Sikri - the abandoned glory

Fatehpur-Sikri has been photographed to death by countless photographers and written about also by equal number of travelers. From this point of view, any further attempts to write about it will be, in the bard's language, "trying to gild the gold". Nevertheless, I still chose to write about it as it is one of my favourite historic places. In fact I prefer this ghost city to its more illustrious cousin city which houses the worlds most famous mausoleum. 

The usual practice of people is to club Fatehpur-Sikri along with Agra Fort & Taj Mahal & It-Mat-Ud-Daulah on the same day. This, in my opinion, only serves the purpose of putting a tick against it's name on the travel itenary and not really achieve anything. It takes about half a day to one day to do justice to this place. Fatehpur-Sikri, in fact, has a nice UP tourism department guest house (where we had our lunch) with a sprawling lawn in front. The place evoked a rather agreeable image of sitting in the lawn with a glass of chilled beer after spending the day at the ruins

Some of the images that were captured by me at Fatehpur Sikri 

1) The entry : We enter into Sikri through an unimpressive gate and then a set of long and interesting looking corridors

2) Hiran Minar : This is supposed to be a monument dedicated to Akbar's favourite elephant (name unknown; some say it was called "Hiran" while the rest insist that it was called "Gajamukta") who died in the famous battle of Haldighati (where Akbar defeated Rana Pratap). The reason for this rather unusual structure is also unknown but those multiple projections coming out of the central column seem to symbolize the arrows stuck on an elephants trunk or leg.

3) Diwan-i-Khas

The "Diwan-i-khas" of Fatehpur Sikri is famous for the central pillar where the emperor ,  supposedly used to sit on a revolving chair and listen to two debating sides. Sadly I didn't really get a good shot of this pillar but the outside structure of Diwan-i-khas is also fascinating

4) Anup Talao and Panch Mahal (in the background)

This has been immortalized by the story of the legendary singer Tansen and how he had lighted fire with his redemption of the Deepak Raga. Legend has it that the song set fire on Tansen and then his talented daughter Saraswati sang the Megh Mallar raag to cause rain and thereby saved Tansen's life. 

The Panch Mahal (or Badgir) was the windy palace of entertainment of the emperor. 

5) Buland Darwaza

A shot of Buland Darwaza taken from the inner courtyard. This was the main entry to Fatehpur which was constructed to celebrate Akbar's victory over Gujrat.  

6) I read somewhere that during Akbar's era, they did not have "doors". This is incorrect or was this a later day addition?

7) The walkway beside the Buland Darwaza

8) A "typical tourist" shot of the Dargah of Salim Chistie - the saint who's is supposed to be responsible for Akbar having his heir - Salim (Jehangir). Unless you are strongly religious or is compelled to be thorough and see every place "completely", you can safely avoid going inside the dargah and thereby save yourself the torture of haggling with local vendors.

A few do's and don't for the first time travellers to Fatehpur-Sikri

a) The car can come till the parking lot near the UPTDC tourist centre. From this point, you need to walk for about 500 metre to come to the bus departure point. Regular buses ply fro here to Fatehpur Sikri (takes about 5 minutes to go). 

b) The walk from the parking lot till the bus departure point passes through a kind of shopping mart where all local curio items are kept. One should spend some time to look at these stuffs but carefully restrain oneself from actually buying anything :)

c) DO NOT hire any guides from the parking lot. There is a full fledged "private guide centre" at the parking lot with published rates. This entire thing is a hoax. These guides have no authorization whatsoever (though they carry an impressive but fake guide pass) and charge about 4 times the actual rate. The ASI (Archeological Survey of India) guides are available at the ticket counter at Fatehpur Sikri. 

 d) Tripods are not allowed inside either of the place.

Dear traveller - it is now your turn to wander into the city of Lal Patthar. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

In company of some featured friends

Bharatpur, of late, has become a regular fixture in the tour programs of people who are going to Agra and thereby has made a surreptitious entry into the so called "Golden Triangle" (Delhi-Agra-Jaipur). No more is it a quiet hamlet frequented only by strange creatures, who, even in the chilling winter, leaves the warmth of a hot blanket and decides to park themselves behind trees with extremely long telephoto lenses or binoculars for several hours. On the contrary, now it has it's fair share of "Uncle-chips"-munching tourists who usually touch this point en route Agra-Fatehpur Sikri.

The usual way to go to Bharatpur from Delhi is by road via Faridabad which goes via Ballabhgarh-Palwal-Hodal-Kosi Kanal-Dig (part of which is NH2). There is an alternate road via the Sohna which also joins this road at Palwal. There are plenty of dhabas on the way; but be warned - this is the so called "Mathura Circuit" which means it is completely vegetarian. People who cannot imagine starting the day without a masala omlette would be in for a rude shock.

There is no earthly need for any prior hotel bookings at Bharatpur as long as you are not very finicky. There are probably as many hotels as the number of birds in the Keonadeo National Park (which is the official name of the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary). Unless you know any of the hotels from first hand experience, it is not recommended to book a hotel based on internet ratings (we tried the first time and landed up at a hotel which probably has not seen the face of any guests for at least 3 months). 

We had been to Bharatpur twice and on both the occasions, we stayed at a hotel called "The Birdie Inn". The location of the hotel is superb (5 minutes from the park) and the quality of their food, especially their continental fares, are certainly worth mentioning. The rooms are nice and comfortable though not exactly build for the convenience of the "modern" tourists (not enough plug points, viewing angle of the TV from the sofa is not optimal etc). The service cannot be described as "prompt" or "efficient", but the bungling waiters seem to have a kind of wodehouse-ish simplicity which, somehow is rather endearing. 

There is nothing much to do at Bharatpur in the evening (the TV channels available are restricted and you might be forced to watch a power-packed saas-bahu K-brand serial. To save you from this fate worse than death state, the hotel staffs light up some form of "bon-fire" to keep the people entertained. This soon transcends into a kind of community drinking session with everybody sipping rum with coca cola and lamenting about how they could not capture the supremely exotic bird that they had seen. As the hotel architecture has a certain archaic look, it works quite well.

The breakfast starts at 6:30 am and it is a good idea to have an early breakfast and reach the park by 07:00 am. A guide is a must and certified quides are available at the park gate as well as at the hotel. We took the guide who is "loosely" attached to Birdies Inn and we were quite satisfied with him.  

By paying some extra charges, you can take the car upto a certain point inside the park and there onward,  the options are to walk or take a rickshaw or a bicycle. My recommendation would be to take a rickshaw to dump the handbags / camera bags / spare lenses / cranky kids etc and walk. You would be greeted with lovely views like this :

You would also get to see quite a number of birds, depending on what time you go.  Sadly, I didn't get any memorable shots of the feathery friends due to the usual set of excuses (my telephoto is not long enough, the lens is too slow, the other tourists were making too much noise etc). Nevertheless, these were a few which were not completely of trash-bin quality.

1) Cormorant :
2) Kingfisher 
3) Bee-eater
4) Neelkanth

If someone wants to do a real justice to this place, he should probably make 2-3 trips to the park - one near the swamps, one to the temple and one general. For most of the usual tourists, one trip or maximum two should suffice. Each trip takes about 3 hrs on foot - hence one needs to carry adequate water and some small food with himself. There is also a boating facility inside the part (was not functioning when we were there) and a tourist centre just outside the park where one could go and buy the usual T-Shirts/ Caps / mugs etc with animals & birds pictures / motifs on them. 

Another attraction at Bharatpur is the fort at Bharatpur (called Lohagarh Fort) which was built by Raja Suraj Mal. Whether you will enjoy this place depends on whether you are travelling to Agra from Bharatpur or vice versa. If you have already seen Agra or Jaipur, I dare say you might find it a bit of an anti-climax. Nevertheless, it has a small museum inside and people interested in history would certainly love it. The fort has the usual wide staircase and large arches and also has a rather well maintained canon. 

On the whole, a nice place for a couple of days stay and a good run-up for the Fatehpur Sikri !!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Naukuchiya Taal

Naukuchiya Taal is a place meant for people who have severe aversions to shopping, getting  incessantly jostled on crowded roads, being forced by insistent local guides into visiting some 5 or 7 or 9 "must see view points",  - in fact, an aversion towards all traditional "typical tourist" stuffs. Naukuchiya Tal is a quiet place close to Nainital (in fact, it is a fixture on the "five-point-lake-tour" that people usually take from Nainital) which has a large lake which supposedly have with 9 corners (hence the name "Nau -kuchiya"). I must admit  that I could not exactly identify these 9 corners; The first time I counted was in the evening, after a couple of beers, and I got 5;   the second time was when I was fiercely paddling a paddle-boat in the lake and the result came to 13 corners. Leaving apart this slight mathematical paradox, Naukuchiya Tal is, beyond doubt, a very nice place. 

How to reach there :
There are two practical ways of reaching there - by train or by bus. By train, one needs to get off at a small tourist hamlet called "Kathgodam" and then take a car from Kathgodam to Naukuchiya Tal. If someone wants to take this route, then the train bookings must be done well in advance as there are not so many train going to Kathgodam. 
The distance between Kathgodam to Naukuchiya Tal is about 47-50 km but it takes nearly 1.5-2 hrs o cover this stretch due to the extremely winding roads. In fact, for people who are susceptible to motion sickness, it is recommended to eat less and keep some plastic bags handy.
The other way is from Delhi/Gurgaon to by car. The distance is about 325 km though it can vary a bit because of the Pant Nagar bypass and Moradabad bypass. And contrary to what is usually mentioned on travel guide books, it takes about 8 - 8.5 hrs. The reasons are as follows:
a) Gurgaon to Delhi Anandnagar ISBT  crossing takes about 45min. 
b) There is usually a long queue at the road tax booth over there which will probably take 30 min.
c) The usual breakfast stop is at Gajrala. This place has several delicious eateries like Bikaner Bhujiawala, McDonalds, KFC (on the opposite side of the road) and a hotel called Meridion (on opposite side of the road). As all these places offer sumptuous food, clean toilets and places which keep the children entertained, the brunch usually gets extended to nearly an hour.
d) The road near Rudrapur (about 30 kms of it) is designed to give you a feeling of riding a horse on difficult hill terrains while being hounded by blood-thirsty cannibals. In fact, I am planning to give a suggestion to UP tourism department to convert this into a kind of adventure sport. Perhaps Salman Khan or Akshay Kumar could be coerced into using this as a set for their adventure game shows. 

Anyway, we reached Naukuchiya Taal just beyond the lunchtime. There are several places to stay at Naukuchiya Taal. From a location point of view, KMVN and Lake Resort beats the others by a long margin. Both are located right beside the lake; the Lake Resort seemed more upmarket while the KMVN has a typical old fashioned moth-ridden governmental air about it.  Nevertheless, the KMVN has all the basic facilities and a stupendous view of the lake.

Food at KMVN is nice though the choice can hardly be described as "wide". The breakfast consists of cornflakes / aloo paratha / puri bhaji / omlette-toast and the lunch/dinner is limited to chicken curry / butter chicken / chilly chicken / mixed veg / kadai paneer with rice/ roti/ chowmein. Despite the restrictive choice, the quality of the food is really good, long as you don't stretch their culinary capabilities by asking for things outside their menu. It is better to order in advance as they take a bit of time to prepare it. 

There is no possibility of getting alcohol at the resort but if ordered well enough in advance, they can fetch it from Bhimtal. In our case, they were obliging enough to even keep the dining room open till 11:30 or 12:00 in the night (we were sitting in the dining room balcony) and an elderly waiter, in a heavily inebriated condition, kept on barging in, trying to "service" us!!

There are enough activities to do in Naukuchiya Taal to keep you entertained for a couple of days. There are horse rides available which take you around the lake as well as into the forest. The horse ride around the lake is a bit of disappointment at the horse can only travel 1/4 th of the distance and then comes back. A far better way is to take a walk around the lake which would take about 2 hrs. The walk is lovely - partly along the road and then soon becomes a thin road through the forest offering spectacular view and atmosphere. 

Towards the end of the walk, we came across the Kotak Mahindra Resort of Naukuchiya Taal, which, for some strange reason, is called the "Dancing Waters" (wouldn't it be more appropriate for a resort located by the sea instead of a lake ?). We stopped there for a drink and a look at their facilities. The resort is lovely with a lot of facilities (typical Club Mahindra standard) and I can certify that they serve superbly chilled beers, refreshing cocktails and  addictive masala-coated peanuts.

The other activity that is a must in boating. In this, there are three choices - the shikara (where you sit daintily and another gentleman does all the rowing), the paddle boats (2 seaters and 4 seaters; nice option provided you don't have a leadership crisis about who is steering the boat) and two-seater canoes. The Canoes seem to be most fun as long as you don't mind getting wet - either from sweating or overturning the canoe and falling into the lake. There is also a possibility of doing paragliding but this depends on weather conditions. You should do this the moment the weather allows this instead of postponing this for the next day. We postponed it  and ended up sitting in the balcony for the entire evening as there were rains and thunderstorms outside.

Evenings in Naukuchiya Taal, especially at KMVN, tends to become a bore. The power situation is bad, which means television - the greatest baby sitter of the 21st century, is no more functional. I strongly advise carrying playing cards, chess and few more board games along with several packets of munching stuffs. Please remember that there is no internet in KMVN and in fact, in entire Naukuchiya Taal, there is only one cybercafe (which consists of a single virus-laden laptop precariously balanced on a lopsided table and connected to the cyberspace through an exceedingly slow dongle). I believe Kotak Mahindra has an internet connection in their resort lobby which will be a boon for their guests. 

There is absolutely no shopping options (except a near-extinction Kashmiri emoporium) or restaurants in Naukuchiya. One has to drive down to Bhim Tal (about 6 km) for shopping or even a slightly off-beat dinner (off-beat meaning courses beyond Chicken Butter Masala / Kadai Paneer / Malai Kofta or the "chinis food"). 

On the whole - as a getaway destination for a lazy, idyllic holiday for 2-3 days, Naukuchiya Taal is a great option. 

Info : 
Trains to Kathgodam from Delhi 

  • Ranikhet Express (overnight fro Delhi; reaches Kathgodam at 5:00 a in the morning)
  • Uttar Sampark Kranti Express (reaches at 22:40)
Places to stay
  • KMVN - approx 2,000/-
  • Lake Resort - approx 4,000.-
Car rates 
  • Innova : Rs 12/ km; minimum 250 km per day; Rs 200/- per night driver's allowance. Consider about 3000/- on top for various toll tax, state entry tax et al.