Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Solo Experience With Thiruvanthapuram, Kerala

Thiruvanthapuram, fondly known as Trivandrum ran a mixed set of emotions the moment I realised I had to visit. Obviously, Kerala is beautiful, God's Own Country, but visiting it alone kind of left me in silence. But, if I chose it as my second blog then, it needs to be special. So, let me introduce you to Trivandrum through the eyes of a female solo traveller.

Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala is situated on the Western Coast of India towards the southern most part of Mainland India and is connected by Air, Rail and Road to the rest of India. Wiki page defines quite a lot about this beautiful place, linked here, however I will take you in a personal journey in the coming lines.

I started my journey from Bangalore via Indigo Airlines(all leading airlines are available) and it took around an hour and 10 mins to land and I might add that the flight journey indeed was beautiful as we could see the shores approaching and wow, it looks absolutely beautiful. Local Cab services are available in the pick up centre and if you would prefer, then OLA cabs (app available here) are also there. And for all my solo counterparts, there is a cab service offered only for female travellers, I didn't try it but had heard good reviews (click here to book it). Okay! so a lot of serious talks on all the cab details, now let me tell you that the moment I got out of the airport, I saw a beach ! Yeah, you read it right, a beach right outside the Airport. The driver told me its the famous Shankumugham Beach, alas! I couldn't visit it but the absolute beauty with which the waves splashed against the shore sent a shiver through my spine. The waves was white as milk and the sound of it soothed the tired me.

The weather was hot and humid, so with gleaming eyes towards the shore I carried onwards towards the hotel. Trivandrum is quite a tourist destination and there are umpteen number of hotels ranging from 5-Stars to budget. I had stayed in Residency Towers as it gave me the added advantage of location, very close to MG Road and hey, I have reviewed this which you can find by clicking here.
The next most important thing is food and behold! that posed some challenge to me surely, vegetarian options are quite less with a few small outlets serving South Indian (Dosa, Idli, Appam etc.) and finding a Jain restaurant is almost impossible. However, for Non-Vegetarians there are many restaurants if you are comfortable with Beef being cooked in the same Kitchen. Well, by saying this there is nothing against any sort of food, however, I know many who are very specific of not visiting restaurants serving all kinds of meat, so this is just for info and not meant to hurt any sentiments. Almost all the people understand basic English so exploring the streets wasn't much of a problem. :)

Now, people who visit Trivandrum surely visits Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple and interestingly, I found our Prime Minister, Modi Ji's photo visiting this shrine in the Wiki Page, you too can see it here. This is one of the most beautiful temples I have seen and is quite well maintained. As this is a protected site hence, photography is not allowed anywhere near the entrance. I was of the notion that photography is only banned inside the temple and hence I tried to click the entrance from the stairs, however, the security personnel chased me away. LOL! I could just click the entrance from some distance.

As per records, this temple is the richest in the world and hence there is a lot of security and a dress code has to be followed in which for men Dhoti is mandatory and women can enter in Sarees or Half Sarees. (Dhoti is also available for Rs. 40/- just outside the temple premises.)The detailed conditions to enter can be found here. But, I must tell that visiting this temple is worth, the Dravidian style in which it was built is really beautiful. The principal deity Vishnu, is enshrined in the "Anantha Shayanam" posture, the eternal yogic sleep on the serpent Adisheshan. The temple has long passages with long pillars intricate with beautiful architecture. Once in six years Lakshadeepam festival is held here(Alas! I didn't get to experience it) but, I have heard rave reviews about it. This event of decorating the temple with lights is held once in six years as the culminating ritual of Murajapam, a 56 day- long chanting of sacred verses. On this day, the images of Lord Padmanabha, Lord Narasimha and Lord Krishna are taken out on Garudavahana (the mythological eagle which is the vehicle of Lord Vishnu) in a grand procession.

There is a local market place near the palace known by the name of the area - Fort and yes, I did enjoy shopping there. It consist of small street vendors to large shops hosting dresses, jewellery and many other goods. I did venture out  and bought quite a few Sarees, they were very aptly priced and I did not have to bargain much. The jewellery options available was also quite good with beautiful bangles, Jhumkas and lots of earrings. It was such a satisfactory feeling going through the narrow lanes with hordes of public buying, choosing and what not! I moved from shop to shop and it was a perfect retail therapy. For all the shopaholics, this place is a must and also, you would find almost all the big brands on MG road for that last moment shopping. I did also see a lot of antique shops with beautiful collections and yes, handicraft is exceptionally beautiful and a must try. All these shops were within walking distance from my hotel , so you see, the location is really important.

In this same location there is Palace known as Horse Palace which has been turned into a museum now.

The museum hosts a lot of reminiscences from the bygone era when India had monarchy and is completely made of wood. The entry is Rs. 20/- for Indian Nationals and we should wait for our turn where the guide comes and takes you in a group of around 10 people. We were asked to keep our slippers outside, the guide came and took us in, he also gave us an option of selecting the language to communicate - English or Hindi. As we had few foreign tourists we agreed upon English. Inside photography wasn't allowed but I still have the beautiful images saved in my memory. Beautiful paintings, large wooden carving of legendary Kathakali characters, pottery made of China Clay, Italian Chandeliers, various portraits of the Royal family are quite a few to be mentioned among the thousands of beautiful artefacts preserved there. All these made me understand that the Royal Family is really progressive and had always worked towards the betterment of the people. This palace is a two storey with extensive wooden carvings on the ceilings. A speciality as told by the guide was that each room has a different carving in the ceiling which left us spell bound. At the centre is the library from which like sun's rays, all the rooms venture out. Currently, all the rooms are not open to public and renovation is going on for quite a few. However, what we saw delved us into a different era, it completely took us to a land which was so progressive even at that time. There were a few rooms dedicated to Dance, Scholarly discussions and also holds a secret passage to Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, which opens once in six years during Lakshadeepam Festival when the Royal family goes to the temple via the passage. Let me show you one of the wood carvings from the ceiling in the waiting Verandah which captivated me, which will give you an idea on the brilliance of their carving.

Also, all the windows are aligned in such a way that they fall in the same line for all the rooms and the outside lining has wooden carvings in the shape of horses, hence the name as Horse Palace. Although this wasn't one of those grand palaces I had visited, however, it has a very unique charm of its own and I must say that its worth a visit.

Now, for my favourite part, the beach and yeah Kovalam is undoubtedly one of the best beaches, turquoise water splashing the Golden Sand, coconut trees over the land. I went to the part known as Hawa Beach and oh! its pure beauty, but I really suggest to visit on a weekday when there are few people on the beach and you can have almost the entire beach to yourself. Isn't that straight out of a Bollywood movie? Perfect water, Golden Sand and Coconut trees swaying and not much of people around to bother. I just loved it!

Kovalam beach can be easily reached from the city by cab(which I did) or by bus. Regular buses ply from the heart of the city (Fort Bus stop) and is quite a good ride as I had taken that earlier. If you plan on booking a cab, you need to bargain and always book it for to and fro which will give a better deal. It was total around 40 Kms from my hotel(two-way) and the cab charged Rs. 1500 for 6 hour package. Initially he had said 1900 so it was a good bargain!

There are many restaurants in the area serving fresh fish which is a must try, food is good in this area with variety of exotic fishes, crabs, prawns so its basically heaven for sea food lovers. I had taken a veg dish and yeah it was delicious, so vegetarians needn't worry. :)

One more must try is the boat ride in which they take you on a speed boat which is really bumpy as its light and splashes against the wave with a mighty thrust. So, if you have a waist ache or are a little faint hearted then I would suggest not to try, but then it has its own advantage of showing you a few more beaches along the coastline. The day I visited had high tide and yeah this ride made me scream the entire time. And yes, please bargain a little here,  they did come down from Rs. 450 to Rs. 300 to show me both the sides of the beach and take my word, its worth a try. After that day I now believe that I can bargain quite a lot. :)

This coastline has really good hotels, get the list by clicking here. Personally, I can suggest Vivanta by Taj as I have heard rave reviews about it from few of my friends, however, nearly all the properties have good reviews from travellers, so explore. I took a ride till the end of the coastline crossing the harbour and the view was exceptionally beautiful as shared here. The wind was strong and the splashes on the rocks stronger but that is the beauty of our Indian coastline, isn't it? 

With time ticking towards the end of my quest with the beach, I returned to the hotel after a surreal feel with the sea.

Few tips on a Trivandrum visit is:

  • Autos are easily available to move around, however, just hop into it, say the location you want to go and tell him to put the meter, else he will ask any price as per his mood which is really high once he realises you are new. I did the same and always kept my GPS on to follow on the roads being taken. Buses also ply, however, I always chose auto for shorter distance and OLA cabs for longer ones. 
  • People are friendly and tend to smile at you which is fine, so just smile and move ahead.
  • Do not pick up any fight with any local until and unless you know the language else no will listen or understand even if you are correct.
  • Solo girls might want to return back soon to their hotels as night life doesn't exist much and even the main roads are deserted post 8 o'clock in the evening.
Saying this, Trivandrum trip was beautiful with few hiccups, but isn't that the beauty of a journey? Highs and Lows will surely make travel a pleasure and if you plan to visit this land, then just enjoy and flow with the tide. :)

Thanks for reading and sharing the joy I felt in my trip. To explore a new location, never make it a destination but rather a journey to experience each aspect and fall in love with the place.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Shillong - Gateway to the Living Root Bridges

Well so here I start with my first Blog! The start can be nothing else, but a travelogue on Shillong, one of the most majestic hill stations of India and the capital city of Meghalaya. Information about this picturesque hill station can be availed from Wikitravel by clicking here. But let me give you a little personal touch to what I experienced in this land of clouds.

Lets start with on how to reach this place. So, this place is located in East Khasi Hills District, just 100 km from the beautiful city of Guwahati and can be reached within 3 hrs including small breaks.Starting early in the morning is generally good to avail a free and smooth journey.The road from Guwahti goes via GS Road(acronym for Guwahti-Shillong) and is a straight drive till Khanapara at the border between Assam and Meghalaya. What is interesting in this part is while going uphill you will find Assam on your left and Meghalaya on the right. This always riddles me to question on the borders drawn by humans but let us leave that topic and just concentrate on the journey to this land. This journey is more of the experience rather than only the destination and this I say, as the roads will leave you mesmerised. It smoothly turns and sways its path between the mountains dotted with small waterfalls the entire journey. En route you may want to have a hot Samosa(Fried Potato Stuffed Snack) and Chai (Tea) in any of the restaurants at Nongpoh at Ri-Bhoi District in Meghalaya. I would strongly recommend to enjoy the entire journey as every turn will spun a new story.

So once you are in Shillong which is clearly identifiable by approaching Pine Trees and a cooler atmosphere, you will find a city which is so similar to other cities of India, however, it has a unique and serene feel which you can experience by the very environment filled with Pine Trees, even in the hustle bustle. A small advice would be to collect a few Pine tree seeds from the road as they can be painted into lovely decorative items.

If you are travelling by your own cab then moving around is quite simple and convenient, else, you may want to take one of the many Taxis available which is coloured in Black and Yellow. Taxis are available for complete booking as well as sharing. Sharing can sometimes be a little tricky as the number of passengers may well cross the limit of seats designed. Although, the drivers are very experienced and I had not faced any trouble during my stay there, but sharing surely is not your thing if you look into luxury. Also, almost all the drivers speak either English or Hindi and hence, conversing with them was pretty nice and interesting.

Next, lets move to the accommodation, Shillong has a lovely number of hotels with most of them located at Police Bazaar which is a bustling place to do lots of shopping. Budget to mid-range hotels are abundant and I have stayed at Hotel Alpine which is pretty decent with spacious rooms. I have heard good reviews about Hotel Polo Towers also, which is 4-Star property. Police Bazaar also has many eateries along the lane serving Indian, Chinese and Tibetan food. My favourite is Baba Hotel(A restaurant) which specialises in Bengali Food, especially the Fish preparations. Let me leave the food options for you to explore, however, let me tell that if you are really keen on cleanliness and great service then perhaps you might want to stick to the higher end restaurants. However, I love the small eateries there and their food is mouth watering right from Momos to Kababs to Rolls. God! by writing this only my mouth is watering.

Now, you may want to have a little sightseeing for which I would suggest to speak to any of the local Taxis and book the cab. Although the entire city is a must to be experienced, but, if you are tight on schedule, I would recommend you to visit Wards Lake, Elephant Falls, Sweet Falls, Cathedral, Shillong Peak and shopping which will test your Bargaining skills. Shillong Peak also has an outlet where you can try on the traditional dress of the Khasi people and click pictures for a nominal fee. I loved this experience as I love to dress up and the dress is very beautiful, known as Jainsem. More information about their culture can be found here.

Let me take you to a little different world which I did visit and which left me spell bound. Maybe, you have guessed rightly, its the famous Living Root bridges in Meghalaya. This world seems completely different and inspiring, where the natives have engineered the pliable tree roots to grow betel tree trunks and these roots travel from one bank of the river to the other forming a bridge. These roots regenerate itself and is believed to survive a hundred years! The sight, I still remember left us astonished and our Guide even told how the ancestral people of the Land knew and understood nature, prayed and protected it. Maybe this is the respect for Nature which has led the people, to keep the entire region clean and tidy. Mawlynnong  has been awarded the cleanest village in Asia and without doubt, I have found most of Meghalaya and residential areas in Shillong to be squeaky clean. Now, speaking about the onwards journey to see the Root Bridge, well the road is a drivers' delight and not for the faint hearted. In fact at one moment I was drowsy and thought of taking a quick nap. Behold! the moment I just opened my eyes I could see nothing, but clouds. That was a moment, which has been permanently etched to my memory, it was scary, but beautiful. The roads were narrow, it was raining and all I could see was Clouds.

After taking a diversion before entering Cherrapunjee, the roads were towards gravity and with small curves, filled with beautiful trees on both sides.

En route we found some small shops with the best tea and lots of Lays. I must tell you that it was a saviour as the journey of 4 hours through hills is not very easy if your body is habituated to sit in front of the laptop always. Well, jokes apart we did reach Mawlynnong village where we had our Lunch, the small restaurant was crowded and we had to wait in queue to occupy a seat. Food consisted of steamed rice, Dal, Okra(As I preferably call them Lady's Finger) and Pickle, it was simple however, quite filling with the option of Egg and Chicken also. The village is exceptionally clean and serene, we, however, started our journey to see the Living root bridges. Glimpse of the village is here and you can see how neat and tidy it is.

Moving, ahead I still remember how our driver cum guide played the latest Bollywood songs so that the journey is a rocking one. After covering some distance we had landed on our sought after destination and yes, we were told we can see Indo-Bangla border from there. After parking the vehicles we started with our walk downwards towards the river. The path had a few outlets selling Soft drinks, Maize and few snacks, but what I loved about them was, all of them were run by ladies; few with small kids tied to their back. The kids were quite habituated to tourists visiting them and carried on with their daily games and plays uninterrupted, however, they posed like bosses when we clicked them. Yay! thats my Mom at one of the outlets, and yes one should address them as 'Kongs' which my Mom did and unfortunately, I didn't ask what is the meaning of that, but it surely brought a smile to the little girl's face. Obviously, how can i remember to ask, when I was completely lost and mesmerised with all the beauty around.

 After walking for about a kilometre there I could see a stream but what amazed me was the scenery above the river.

The Living Bridges blew our mind and with astonished eyes like a small girl I kept seeing them, touching them to feel the power of nature and the beauty created by the bond of humans with nature. Soaked in its beauty I sat beside the stream and the water was chilled with soft sunlight playing hide and seek with the clouds.

There is a bamboo tower from which we can see the International Border, the mighty hills belonging to India and the vast beautiful plains to Bangladesh.

The climb to this tower was a little shaky and had limit on how many people can board the view point, however, the view was worth the climb.The plains you can see here is actually Bangladesh.

Our driver cum guide came with a sudden suggestion to go further towards the border and actually stand in No Man's land. This was a sure matter of Joy for me who always wanted to stand in a land which belonged to no country. We took our journey forwards to the location named as Dawki. Beautiful roads in good condition, crossing lovely waterfalls where we did stop to have a few clicks; this indeed was the highlight of the trip. We could only see young local boys playing near the waterfalls and the entire area was guarded by BSF (Border Security Forces) personnel.

The cool air along with water from the falls sprinkled our faces and provided the much needed relief as it was hotter compared to the hills we had crossed and more humid too. After a small drive through narrow hilly roads, we had reached the village of Dawki. We had crossed a bridge(here a concrete Man made one) which had a little bit of history in itself. This bridge was built by the British during their rule over India and the Bridge still stands strong reminding us of the colonial past.

We walk towards the border and came across a small temple dedicated to Goddess Kali, we offered our prayers there and walked towards the Border. In the India post we had our Jawans and it was such an incredible feeling to see them in real, people who have been safeguarding our nation so that we, civilians, can sleep peacefully. I'd rather not edit this pic, as it has me after a long journey which is reflecting on my face. To be precise I have motion sickness and so wasn't in my best health at that moment. But, nothing can ever deteriorate me from my quest of exploring new places! 

Seeing the Indian Flag, it obviously felt very emotional and I went and stepped in No Man's Land which seemed so peaceful, a breath of fresh air touched my face and I went back to my memory of why are borders being created. Walking in my thoughts I went very near to the Bangladesh Check point and for a moment I thought I might be captured and put in Prison, but very cordially was told by our neighbouring friends that without a valid Visa I wouldn't be allowed to crossed the Post. I just smiled and purchased some Berries from Bangladesh and returned back to the car. And see who got captured in the pic, yes that is my Papa who hardly poses for any photos. I realise that I have not added any pic of my sister but, she is the one who has clicked quite a few of these.

The entire journey changed something in me, maybe with each travel we discover something new in us. I returned back to Shillong and then to Guwahati as a new person with my quest with Nature, with culture and the Border. As I always say everyone, travel to understand who you really are I am ending this post. Explore the world, love thy nature and you will triumph!